Pushing boundaries

Recently, a friend and I were discussing trends in storytelling. We were talking about how, for a while, zombies were the “it” thing to write or make shows and movies about. She argued that now, the “it” thing was exemplified by shows like Westworld. I’ll admit that I haven’t watched Westworld yet, but I’ll take her word for it that the core question of this show is about what it means to be human. She argued that that was the new hot thing to question and interrogate in story, especially in stories in science fiction/fantasy or SFF.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I write SFF in the past few days, and about what makes a good story in this grab-bag of a genre. I think that my friend has hit on something here. To me, a good SFF story does one thing especially: it pushes boundaries. It stretches our understanding of the world. One could argue that this is what makes a good story in general, actually, but as I am a reader and writer predominantly of speculative fiction in all of its stripes, this is where I feel safest offering an opinion.

Arguably, this pushing boundaries is easiest in SFF, or at least in the science fiction half of the equation, because the genre requires you to think inventively. Take, for example, the prospect of life on new worlds – an eternal question among those who look to the stars. People will be looking for life in the cosmos until they find it or they cease to exist. You can argue we have been looking forever – angels and demons are certainly otherworldly beings, and some creatures from the heavens appear in most major mythologies across the globe in some fashion or another. Yet, the questions that arise when life is found are the most interesting, and can only be asked through speculative fiction. What will it look like? How will we respond to that life? Will we be kind?

The answers to these questions are not just important because they satisfy our curiosity. They tell us something deeply important about ourselves as human beings. The answers to these questions reveal the heart of our nature.

They are most certainly answers that we are already being provided, every day, through our interactions with other beings on our earth, including with one another. And yet, they are not always satisfying either in story or in life. Perhaps this is the other half of what draws me to SFF, that it may be possible to imagine a world that is brighter than ours on the days when it feels dark. If senselessness might make sense, if we could rise beyond ourselves and the bounds of random chance – that world is the world of story, and sometimes the world of life. Those are the stories I most like to read.

You see this clarity, this neatness to life reflected most often in the fantasy side of the SFF genre. There are dangers in the ease of those narratives, but at the same time there are comforts. These narratives offer an answer to our questions of our own nature and worth in a way that is positive, and I think that positive answer can be very important as a way to move forward as individuals and as a society.

The reason I write speculative fiction in all of its stripes is to explore human nature, the essence of what it is to be human in all of its forms. It is my greatest joy to do so. I hope that you, reader, enjoy it, too.

Some exciting news coming next week! Raffle opportunities, general good things…Tune in to check it out.

Inspiration for THE CREATION SAGA: Books

So the draft of Daughter of Madness is done, and the edits continue. While we wait, here is the second piece of the cover reveal, and a list of some of the books that inspired The Creation Saga or which The Creation Saga might inspire you to read. You can find the first piece of the cover in this post about music.

Shadowmarch by Tad Williams

This book contains a lovely re-imagining of the immortal fairy. You will see some familiar elements that I didn’t intentionally mimic, I swear, but which creep in regardless: the twins as main characters and royal heirs, the king imprisoned, dark magics which undermine the self. It’s a lovely series from a writer who is praised as one of the foundational scribes of modern fantasy. You may be most familiar with Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, which I read as a wee lass of thirteen or somewhere around then.

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Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

This book started a revolution in the fantasy genre, so it’s no surprise that it would inspire me and many other writers. One of the things I like the most about Martin’s writing is that his women are complex and just as terrible (sometimes more terrible) as the men they interact with. Melisandre comes to mind as a fiery lady you do not want to mess with, and Arya as a relatively sweet child who is twisted into a murderer. Cersei, who you can’t help but admire in a crazy, screwed up way, and Sansa, who you go from pitying to possibly fearing – these are the kinds of women that interest me the most. These evolutions definitely inspired some of the character arcs in The Creation Saga.

The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lyn Flewelling

Compared to the previous two series, this is a lesser known book. That said, it is probably the one that had the most overt influence over my writing. This book is messed up at best. It’s about a princess and prince who are born together –
problem being that the princess is set to inherit and will be murdered by her uncle if she survives. So her caretakers murder her brother and essentially pass her off as him. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but this book is definitely worth reading if you liked Mother of Creation.

 

The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

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Who, looking at the cover of this book, would not want to read it? I’ll confess that I read this book after I had written Mother of Creation, and while I was deep in the Daughter of Madness draft. It was so…echoing, to read this. Nostalgia, perhaps? I’m not sure, but the themes in this book are very much themes that come up in the Creation Saga, perhaps more than in the other books on this list in some ways. So if you are enjoying that, I recommend. Plus, there’s a dragon.

Okay, now the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Check out those eyes.

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Inspiration for THE CREATION SAGA: Music

Every writer has a playlist. Or twelve. I wrote Mother of Creation ages ago, so I can’t really tell you what I was listening to at the time. Probably a lot of Motion City Soundtrack, knowing me, but who knows. I did something a little different for Daughter of Madness and actually made a (couple) of playlists that were just for this book. So I thought I would post some of the songs that inspired me the most while writing the current draft, which is only some hard rewrites and two more chapters away from being done. This post will be part of a series on inspiration for The Creation Saga. It’s not going to be a consecutive series, per se, but you’ll be able to find the posts through The Creation Saga category, under Book Releases. They’ll also be tagged. Some other posts you’ll likely see will include discussion of books, movies or anime, history or mythology, and Pinterest boards (yes, I have those).

Oh, and stay tuned to the end of this blogpost for a quick summary of Daughter of Madness, as it will appear on the back cover of the book!

So without further ado, what music reminds me of The Creation Saga?

I have to start out by saying that 9 out of 10 songs are going to be centered around Liana. Most people who read the books find that their favorite character is the seer, Nicola. I love Nicola desperately, but Nicola is not the character I connect with the most. She is a witness to much of what is happening around her, and it changes her. But the stakes are not as high for her, in many ways. Witnessing – that’s something powerful. We’ll talk about that a bit more in a later post, but suffice to say the role of the witness is one that speaks to me.

The catalyst, the main protagonist, is Liana. She moves the story forward. The main plot is about a princess who is overthrown, and the vacuum of her absence. She is the fulcrum upon which the world turns, unfortunately for her. So the musical choices below largely reflect her perspective as the source of my inspiration. Here are five (because I had to stop somewhere) amazing songs that make me want to write my socks off.

I. “Which Witch,” Florence and the Machine

Just so you know, Florence is pretty much on every playlist I have, along with Grimes. Those two don’t sound like they go together, I know. Anyway, this song of all her songs is the most like Liana in Daughter of Madness. “Been in the dark since the day we met/Fire, help me to forget.” If you need proof that this is a Liana song, well, just consider the demo cover.

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II. “Yellow Flicker Beat,” Lorde

Yes, this song is already part of a soundtrack. It’s specifically from the soundtrack for on of the Hunger Games movies (I’m not sure which one, though it sounds like it should be from Catching Fire.) This to me speaks pretty strongly of the princess as rebel, the princess as exile. “They used to shout my name, now they whisper it.” The beat helps. Basically most of my writing music when I’m really trying to make wordcount is going to have a beat.

III. “Oblivion,” Bre-l and Grimes

This version of this song is not the most popular. It’s a pop-punk reimagining of Grimes’ trademark style. The pop-punk is like coming home for me honestly. That was about all I listened to for a long time. But I am a huge fan of this song in its original context as well. Grimes is currently one of my favorite artists. Sometime I’m actually going to make it to one of her shows.

IV. “Operator,” Vanessa Carlton

This song has a softer tension, and it honestly reminds me the most of Jessa. Jessa is actually one of my favorite characters who are non-viewpoint. She goes through an important transformation in Daughter of Madness. Because it reminds me of Jessa, it also reminds me a bit of Nicola as well. There are actually lines in this song that remind me of all of my characters in this book at points, which makes it a very good song to include on this short playlist.

V. “Blood on Me,” Sampha

There’s a lot of fear in this song. The atmospheric vocalizations, the sense of pursuit, the pattering of the drum like a panicked heart. There’s a lot of fear in Daughter of Madness, too, the kind that comes after terrible crimes have been done to you. Fear gives rise to courage, but it also gives rise to monstrousness.

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So that’s the end of my short list here. I hope you enjoy all the music and continue to look forward to Daughter of Madness, which will be out sometime this year, preferably before June because really. I’ll post a date on the website as soon as I have one! We’ll also have a cover reveal coming in the next blogpost!

Feel free to chime in with your favorite writing tunes, or the songs that remind you of your favorite characters! And now, without further ado:

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Text for non-sighted persons:

Liana has lost much to Herka’s manipulations, though nothing so precious as her sanity. Emerging from her madness, she finds the world changed – her body wasted, her son gone, and her kingdom still beyond her reach. Only the fires of vengeance remain, and she will build the flames high.

Daughter of Madness tells the story of a princess and her twin, a soldier and his king, and an oracle who is more than she seems.

I am SO EXCITED.

The fierce optimism of anime 

Recently, I’ve been getting back into anime, and it’s been remarkably nostalgic. My tastes in anime are eclectic, ranging from shoujo romances to action packed horror stories. I’ve been watching anime off and on for a long time, starting as many in my generation did with an early induction via Adult Swim. Anime such as Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, Wolf’s Rain, and InuYasha were early influences, though, being a child in the early 90s, I also caught the dubbed Sailor Moon when I was only five or six. So me and anime have a long history.

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Recent anime that I have watched and loved include Princess JellyfishSeirei no Moribitoand Your Lie in April, among many others. I’m also watching Bloodivores, which is honestly a terrible title but so far a really interesting premise. There’s a surprisingly aware critique of predatory institutional systems within the world-building of this anime, even if the primary emphasis is the action. I’ve also been following Watashi ga Motete Dousunda, which, while engaging in a fair bit of bodyshaming, also manages to embrace some pretty intense nerd-culture. You take the good with the bad with anime, unfortunately, but not without being mindful of what is good and bad. There are anime I will recommend with little reservation, and then there are anime I will watch, love, and critique thoroughly if you ask me. Though to be fair I probably grant more leeway with anime than with any other medium, because it holds such a special place in my heart.

Despite the fact that some of these anime were and are incredibly problematic in their representations of race, gender, and sexuality, their fierce optimism never fails to lift me up. There is a clarity and beauty to their portrayal of the world, even if it is only the beauty of a first kiss. It seems innocent. It’s not – anime often deals with profoundly deep and dark concepts, underneath the glitter and sparkle. Take Ouran High School Host Club for example. I usually watch this one every spring, when the cherry blossoms are blooming. It just seems an appropriate time to watch an anime whose core themes are about young love and becoming the adult you will be. But Ouran also delves into dark things beautifully – bullying, classism, sexism to some extent, and, most importantly, the darknesses we each carry in all of us. That is, perhaps, the greatest lesson to take from the stories told in shoujo. Our darknesses define us, but we need not become them. We can own them, but not be lost to them.

Some of my favorite anime of all time include this theme. Movies from Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon remind me of the beauty and absurdity of life respectively. One of my favorite animes of all time, Akatsuki no Yona, walks this line like a tightrope. The main character, Yona, is a spoiled princess at first, who quickly falls into a nightmare when she sees her father murdered by the man she planned to marry. Saved from the same fate, she escapes with her childhood friend and protector and finds herself caught up in a dramatic quest to save her country and fulfill an age-old prophecy. Yona loses everything, and she is very conscious of that loss. She never lets go of it or seeks to erase or forget it. It doesn’t hold her down, either. She is strong enough to carry it with her and allow herself to be forged into something new by its weight. Still, the creators of the manga and associated anime adaptation never forget humor – amidst all the darkness, there are numerous cheeky interactions between Yona and her traveling companions which warm the heart. Those moments of levity make the tragedies all the more poignant, for me.

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Anime contains stories of improbable redemption, of clear sight, and of moving forward. We are taught to advance, to not stop laughing, to admire the fleeting beauty of life. To understand that the darkness and flaws of living make it more admirable, not less so. Sometimes I just need those stories to remind me of what matters. They give me the strength to get up and go when my spirit is flagging. I am incredibly hopeful that I might create something, someday, that has the same effect on a reader. I want to speak to someone so deeply that it helps them keep going when they are perhaps not sure why they are trying.

So, do you watch anime? What kinds of anime are your favorites? I’m always looking for recommendations!

 

Creating as a woman

The other day, a friend and I were discussing the movie The Fifth Element. My S.O. loves that movie. It is ironically one of the only science fiction movies that he enjoys. I chalk this up to nostalgia – not that I don’t enjoy the movie, the opposite, but it’s not really his kind of science fiction. His speed is more Interstellar or something else vastly cerebral.

Anyway, so my friend and I were discussing this and she mentioned that The Fifth Element would have been vastly better with some gender-flipping. The trope of the woman as sacred object, the naive woman who needed a man to save her and help her navigate the world, was tiring for her. Make Bruce Willis be Leeloo, and have Milla Jovovich be the tough cab driver with a mysterious past. I suggested going one further – keep Jovovich as the mystical Leeloo, and cast some hard-bitten older woman in Bruce Willis’ role. Her name could be Kora, or Ervin. You already have several speaking male side characters, including the very prominent role of the antagonist. Why not?

In a separate conversation on one of the social media sites I subscribe to, I found this post which talked about the role of female heroes in writing. I want to talk about how it made me feel in light of the above and in light of my identity as a writer. I swear it connects to the above.

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Writing as a woman is hard, because you’re covered in sticky cobwebs of male gaze and you don’t even know it. The post above mentions male writers, but male writers, as male directors, are only part of the problem. They are a huge part of the problem, sure. But the other part of the problem is that we as female creators often perpetuate their tropes.

Unfortunately, even once you awaken to the tropes in question, it can be hard to shake them, mostly because there aren’t any mainstream models of the kind of story you do want to tell. You end up making it up as you go along. I was lucky. I found authors like Martha Wells and Laurie J. Marks early. I knew I loved what they were writing, but I didn’t really understand why. It took me years, four of them spent at an all women’s undergraduate college, to really recognize what it was that was so fulfilling about these stories for me. It was because those stories were written for me. They weren’t written for the male gaze, but for mine. The characters in them, both male and female, were not indefinably crippled by the assumptions that so often come up in our stories: the woman must be saved, the woman must be beautiful, the woman must be perfect, the woman must have volition, but not too much. She must not overshadow the male protagonist. She must be good.

Nowadays I have added a plethora of authors to my list who are writing the kinds of stories I want to write, and to read. Seanan McGuire, Catherynne Valente, Kameron Hurley, N.K. Jemisin – they are all doing amazing things, testing the boundaries of their genres, and generally rocking out. They are telling the kinds of stories that I want to tell

But it is still hard, despite that, to shake the tropes that have so often reoccurred in mainstream fiction and genre fiction. I still read through a story or a paragraph and realize, oh, I have done the thing that I did not want to do. I have reduced my character to her attractiveness, to her goodness, and not let any of the dark survive to give her flavor. Writing as a woman is a balancing act between being true to your heart and being pulled in by the assumptions you never realized that you were taught to make. You can guarantee that if you are true to your heart, someone will accuse you of being an SJW, of distracting from the story, of advancing an agenda. And if you get pulled the other way, if you give up – well, you have even more left to lose. It is hard.

But the best things in life are rarely easy. So chin up, buttercup. Write your heart.

(P.S. if someone wants to write that Fifth Element AU I will totally read it. Totally.)

New York, Lorca, and Movies

There are whole essays written on Federico Garcia Lorca, whose work has appeared on this blog before and who continues to be an important part of my literary education, mostly because all of my literary education of note has occurred in Spanish and El Ogro, soul of my soul, professor of the highest order, may he rest in peace, taught me most of it. I doubt this will be the last time I talk about Lorca. He influenced  Neruda, and was influenced in turn by Whitman, two of my favorite poets. He was a powerhouse, and he died far too young, victim of a fascist regime that targeted him for his words and his sexuality.

One of his most studied collections is Poeta en Nueva York, or Poet in New York, which chronicles the poetry that he wrote in and about New York City in 1929 and 1930. New York is an old city, and profoundly important historically. Yet I rarely feel the depth and vivacity of it in film. This was no less true on Thanksgiving when I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I have critiqued thoroughly here, and critique of which brought me to reread some of Lorca to find his depictions of New York.

Lorca visited New York in 1929, as the United States was falling into the Great Depression. It was the end of the Jazz Age, which is relevant to the aforementioned Fantastic Beasts in that this movie was based in the Jazz Age. Other writers will better speak of the history and context of the body of work that he produced there, including the loss of the original manuscript in which it was compiled. I’m not your girl for that, and that’s probably not what you’re here for. I’m a science fiction and fantasy buff who also really happens to like Spanish, seeing as I got a degree in it, and reads a deal of poetry from time to time. And I’m also a person that, as mentioned, was really unsettled to see the total lack of believable, historically accurate setting in a movie meant to appeal to a wide audience of predominately young people and young adults who might not know better than to take at face value that New York was a bastion of whiteness.

There is a poem in Poeta en Nueva York called “El rey de Harlem,” “The King of Harlem.” It is not about whiteness. It is about los negros, the black people to whom Lorca writes one of the longest and most vivid odes within this work. There is, indeed, a whole section of this collection entitled “Los negros,” dedicated to the black people who lived in New York City. It is telling that a Spanish poet who visited during this time found that black life and existence within New York was so impressing, so large a portion of the fabric of American life, that he dedicated three poems specifically to them. The refrain of “The King of Harlem,”or my rough translation of it, is particularly poignant in this context, as black Americans were ubiquitous as service members in many parts of the city.

“Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem!

There is no anguish which compares to your oppressed eyes

To your blood strewn within this dark eclipse

To your pomegranate violence, deaf and dumb in the shadows,

To your great king, prisoner, within the jacket of a doorman.”

Lorca’s depictions of black residents of New York were certainly not without their problems. But he did depict them, he did not shy away from the diversity of the city – perhaps because he himself often ventured into Harlem for the more selfish reason of trysting with lovers and other such activities. This was the time of Prohibition, after all, when much happened behind closed doors. It was a messy, chaotic time that birthed “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot, The Great Gatsby, and other such classics. It was also the time of the Harlem Renaissance, a fact conveniently glossed over in many depictions of 1920s New York, including that of Fantastic Beasts.

I am not a scholar of this time. There is no way in this brief blogpost that I can effectively encompass and illustrate all of the complexity of New York in the 1920s, and I know that I have missed things a more thorough student of such things would know. But I can leave you with the words of Langston Hughes, whose New York should have shaped the setting and plot of this movie, and hope that Hollywood might remember them the next time it seeks to whitewash the seat of black urban culture. And if you’re fed up with this lazy storytelling, I recommend “The Ballad of Black Tom” or watching some Luke Cage to get the taste out of your mouth. Let’s all hope for more depictions of our history that seek to include instead of erase.

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Impostor syndrome

Recently I listened to an episode of Writing Excuses entitled Impostor Syndrome, with Alyssa Wong. I love Writing Excuses, and I listened to this particular episode at a time in my life when I was feeling that impostor syndrome very strongly. We all have days like that, when we come face to face with our inadequacies and can’t see anything else, when we make those flaws larger than life. I was incredibly grateful to this podcast, and I encourage you to listen to it. But there was definitely something missing for me.

Writing Excuses is made up of a bunch of excellent and famous writers. There’s Brandon Sanderson, perhaps best known for finishing The Wheel of Time series. Mary Robinette Kowal is a phenomenal writer who has won multiple awards and been published in many collections. I strongly recommend her short stories especially, but she is also an excellent novelist. I may have mentioned Ghost Talkers a few posts back. That was her. Howard Tayler has been on the Hugo ballot, and Dan Wells has a multi-book series in the John Cleaver books. They are all well beyond where I am as a writer. This podcast was in fact about that. They were discussing having “made it” but never quite feeling that you have any legitimacy.

I have not made it. This is not an example of impostor syndrome, actually. This is a bare fact. I am making it. I am in the process of climbing. That is something I can be comfortable with. There are no awards that recognize me, there are no even mediocre book deals. There has been no moment of relief on this mountain, and so there can be no sense that I do not deserve that relief. That is what the podcast was referring to: the sense that you do not deserve the relief of recognition of your effort. That you do not deserve the praise, the acclaim. This requires having praise and acclaim.

However, the feeling comes from the same place. The feeling of being an impostor flares up when I think that I will never make it. That my work will never find its audience and that this hard grind, this endless, impossible climb, will never have a moment of relief. It is the same feeling, but different.

My S.O. told me recently that it was utterly irrational to feel bad about not being successful in a field which requires so much input from other people. You cannot control readers. You cannot control agents or editors or advertisers or the people they advertise to. Each little thing you throw out is lost in a sea of media. We are inundated every day with such a massive amount of information. When you become a creator of content, you add to that sea. The additions never cease, and each year they pile on one another. All of which is to say that your voice will be lost. It takes years and years for an author to break through to the top of that pile, and many of them sink down again. You should not be embarrassed or think yourself less than for not welling immediately to the top. That is just silly.

That is what I wanted to hear from the podcast, and happily I had him to tell me that instead. Sounds grim? It is. But for me, it is a comforting bit of grim.

One of the important points that was made in the podcast was the importance of knowing why you continue to create. If you create for acclaim, you will fail. That is something that I have been wrestling with and something that I have had stated to me multiple times recently. If your focus is on selling books, you are doomed to failure. You will never sell enough books to assuage that hunger. But if your focus is on telling a story, and telling a good one – telling a story for a story’s sake – that will never leave you.

So, in light of that, I leave you with this inspiring video. I can only find the link on Facebook, so you’ll have to click through. Enjoy.