The short story (Pt 1)
Today I thought I would like to talk about short stories and just to tantalize you (or madden you), this blog has a sequel, and not only that, I will start this series of blog posts before I post pt 2 of The Journey series I started before! And, I won’t tell you how many sequels there will be because I am not sure ... But to mollify those of you now rolling your eyes and saying Of COURSE SHE HAS A SEQUEL, and OF COURSE SHE IS NOT GOING TO GIVE THEM TO US ONE AT A TIME IN ORDER and OF COURSE SHE DOES NOT KNOW HOW MANY THERE WILL BE!! I should say that each of these Short Story posts will contain a taster of an about to be published story with, in some cases, a sneak peak of the cover! Which is a roundabout way of saying I know I don’t do it as you would wish, but I hope you like the result enough to bear with me- as a writer and a blogger...
Otherwise, you could wait till the month is over and read all of the blogs at once, because the beauty of this site is that all of the residents have left their blogs behind when they leave, so you can revisit them- even I can revisit them if I miss the me that came to be in the insideadog blog. In fact I am reading backwards right now through all of the previous residents’ blogs, bit by bit, admiring and feeling somewhat intimidated by the wit and verve and cutting edginess of my predecessors… I am also beginning to have the feeling that I will miss being inside a dog!
(Might miss it so much that I am thinking seriously of starting my own blog… but the name… because without the right name, I can’t start…)
Before I get into the body of the blog, I wanted to say that one of the things I have loved most about doing this residency is being able to post photos. Since today I am focusing very much on writing, I chose photos that remind me that I may create worlds, but I am not a god; because writers so have to be this prickly ambiguous combination of maniacally impossibly confident and humble.
So in deference to humility, the pictorial theme of this blog arises from Joyce Kilmer’s poem about creativity and humility, Trees. Here it is.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Other than the self portraits directly above, the pictures in this blog were taken by Jan Stolba. You can see more of his photographs here: http://stredohori.klanweb.cz/lovos The site is in Czech so a bit offputting, but if you go to the menu each word leads you to a group of photos themed to a trip or to some other idea.
Now onto the body of the blog inside the dog.
First up, I want to say that while I love writing books, the short story is my favorite form because it demands the most of me as a writer- (maybe as a reader too, come to think of it) it makes me a better writer. I grow by the stories I write. I am generally thinking about, working on, getting ready to write at least one short story, but they take me quite a while to produce, so they almost always come out one at a time in collections before I put them between the covers them under my own name. In fact, my only two collections, Metro Winds and Green Monkey Dreams, were literally decades in the making.
But a year ago for the first time, I did what I have often wanted to do, and wrote a story set in a world I created for other characters.
That came about in the way things often come about in writers’ lives- borne on the winds of serendipity. I had this idea that it would be great to write a book set in the world of Obernewtyn but not about any of the main characters, and suddenly Jack Dann, writer, expat American and brilliant anthology editor, contacted me and asked if I would write a story for his new anthology which was going to be - you guessed it - by writers who had series, and the stories were going to be set in those worlds!
So I wrote The Dark Road, which is the story of Hannah in the Obernewtyn Chronicles, (though maybe not the Hannah that first comes to mind, for readers of that series). I always say yes when Jack wants a story because I know I am going to be in fabulous company. In fact I say yes only to anthologies with great editors. My problem is I can’t write to order- or better to say won’t, but that is probably a thing I can say only because so far I have not had to.) So their collection has to let me write pretty much what I want or be a concept so interesting that it kindles my imagination or on some occasions, someone writes to ask for something that synchronizes with an idea that has been worming its way to the surface of my mind.
I have never had a book turned down, but I have had stories turned down. Once I had to turn one of my own stories down in my own collection! They were too long or did not fit the age group the editor perceived as their market – of course I know what their ‘market’ is because they always tell you. I just don’t think about writing in those terms. Or they did not fit well enough with the emerging shape of the collection. Once I sent a story to Lucy Sussex for a collection after having written to her that I thought maybe the story I had written was too weird and she wrote back and said she liked weird. That made her a great editor, in my book. Once I wrote to Jack Dann part way through a story and said I don’t think you are going to want this, it is more of a novella than a story. And he wrote back that he would make it work.
That is a great editor, too.
(By the way, I used the word kindle deliberately back a little way because it seems sad to me that such a lovely word might come only to be thought of as the name of an E book reader by kids in the future. But one can kindle a fire, or be kindled by an idea or love or excitement can be kindled in someone’s heart. Let’s strive to keep the diversity of out language and not give way to the clever even brilliant co opting of words by marketing juggernauts. Let’s use archaic words and keep them alive. Let’s use brand words in their truest sense and take them back! Take a look at China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and weep in wonder at what a vocabulary that matches a stupendous intellect, can do. Take a look at Sheri S Tepper to see how brilliantly language can be shaken up and loosened out of the rigidities with which we infect it. Have a look at Russel Hoban's Ridley Walker to see how language can even be created.
(Sorry about that diversion/rant) - it touched on a subject dear to my heart. But back to the main thrust of this blog, I invite you to try it writing a new story set in a world you have made.
If you have written a book set there, or if you have started to do so and maybe even got bogged down and set it aside, even if it is a world you just imagined as a child, try to write the story. Not the story of you or the main character but the story of a smaller character watching the action. One that already exists maybe or one you just now make up. I love this approach. It is also a terrific way to get unbogged and to see a scene from another perspective. Sometimes the most freeing thing you can do is step aside from what you plan to write, and just try it from another direction entirely- even switch and write from the point of view of the bad guy instead of the good guy, the murderer instead of the murderee, or his cat. I also love historical novels where the main character is just an onlooker onto some really huge historical event- like the death of Marie Antoinette, where your main character can’t quite see over the head of the person in front of him and has to rely on hearsay, or he is going to see that execution and then gets waylaid by some drama of his own which blots out entirely the historical drama. Or try the point of view of an unimportant character - what my brother once called third spear chucker from the left, by which he meant the person standing next to the Prince or the Emperor, who is going to die in the first three minutes of the movie.
You will be amazed how freeing it is and how much fun you have. And if you are one of those fabulous genre world builders, it might also be the way to make sure you don’t just end up with wooden prefab characters walking jerkily through your elaborate town or world or city. Sometimes it simply frees you to be playful and that lightness of approach can be fantastic for creating characters that really leap off the page.
Incidentally, what I was doing with The Dark Road was to try to reveal something that is all but invisible in the Obernewtyn Chronicles- by this I mean that for most of the Obernewtyn Chronicles, Elspeth believes one thing about someone in the past, whose life is connected to hers, and she is wrong only she never learns it (I think).
Because that is how I think history works. We think we know lots of things about historical figures and what they did and who they did it with, but just like we have secrets in our own lives, so did they. Deals were made between them that no one ever saw, alliances and affairs were formed that were invisible but which caused things to happen and linked events in astonishing ways, truths were lost or turned on their heads in a welter of misunderstanding and misinformation - so, I like to have the characters in my stories sometimes working on information or beliefs that are wrong, without ever correcting them. Or sometimes they wonder about things that they will never know the truth about, because that is actually how the world works, and the more an imagined world mirrors the flaws and glitches of the real world, the more real it will be to the readers.)
The mistake that Elspeth makes in the Obernewtyn Chronicles is revealed in The Dark Road, but through another character. I wrote ‘I think’ after saying I would not have her realize it in the Obernewtyn Chronicles because I have not finished editing The Red Queen yet, and maybe the perfect moment to reveal that bit of knowledge will suddenly arise.
I will also do a lot of revealing of things that I never explained in the Obernewtyn Chronicles when I write The Beforetime Chronicles, because of course Cassandra will dream of Elspeth, for whom she is to prepare the way… This will also let me revisit moments in Elspeth’s life which we don’t see in the Obernewtyn Chronicles, as well as some of those moments we did see, though maybe from a slightly different angle, since we will be watching it from outside Elspeth- this is one of the things I am most looking forward to in writing that prequel series.
One of the things I loved most about writing The Dark Road was that not only did it allow me to work out something that had a bearing on what had to happen in The Sending, was being able to see that world through the eyes of a character that was not Elspeth. In truth, the lovely surprise of writing it was how much I loved the character of Hannah. Her gentleness, especially, because she is much softer and in some ways, more fragile than Elspeth, and maybe that is why, when Ford Street asked me for a story for an anthology, I found another one was fermenting furiously away at the back of my mind. This is through another ‘smaller’ character mentioned in the Obernewtyn chronicles, and it ended up being called The journey.
A decade down the track, I have no doubt I will bring out a collection of Obernewtyn stories, written over time, about that created world. I hope, like the wonderful and beautiful Tales from Earthsea, which Ursula Le Guin wrote, that they will be as good and satisfying in their own right as the four Earthsea books. I can even see a theme arising, since the two I have written are stories of journeys. I could easily imagine delving into other journeys to answer questions I could only touch upon in the Obernewtyn Chronicles, since that is primarily Elspeth’s story (as the Beforetime Chronicles will be Cassandra’s story).
For instance, I’d love to write from Matthew’s point of view, about his journey to the Red Land as a slave on a Herder ship, with the vicious Ariel aboard. I’d also like to write about Dragon’s time in the ruins on the West Coast. I’d like to write about Rushton’s arrival at Obernewtyn and his meeting with Louis Larkin. I’d like to write about what happened in the Druid’s camp, before it was destroyed, from Gilaine’s point of view and I have a yen to visit Rolf and see what happens between him and Iriny. I’d also like to have a look at the world of Obernewtyn some years after Elspeth has left, from the point of view of one of the other characters- not sure which …
Now here, I would like to offer you a little sneak peak of the Beforetime in The Journey, Courtesy of Ford Street publishing.
She recognized him from the holovids and nuscan bites as soon as she was ushered into his office. Tall and handsome, electric blue eyes, a great eccentric mane of white-blond hair and a smile that seemed just a little too bright and wide in real life. William Reichler was fleshier than in the vids, but the visual slimdown might not be vanity. Cam crews always shaved off podge claiming it was aesthetically unappealing and therefore bad for ratings. When he rose and held out his hand to her, she noted his pupils were dilated. She told herself hers were probably dilated, too, after the stimutabs and coffee, and so what if he had slipped a couple of uppers. Everyone used them in corporate cities. Her parents disapproved of using drugs to pep up or calm down, yet current thinking said it was savvy to make your mind and body serve your will and needs. Her parents were old-fashioned in their attitude to chems, but she suspected she had absorbed their bias, because she always found herself making excuses to rationalise why she would not take a pill or a hotshot.
You can take the girl out of a Tipodan freetown, but you could not take the freetown out of the girl, she thought wryly. That was what her friend and co-worker, Eva, had warned on the way to the airport.
Eva had also told her she was a fool to give up her apartment, sell off her furniture and books and shift halfway round the world to Uropa to take part in research so new it was on the crackpot edge of science, all on the say-so of someone she had never met. But William Reichler had not been a stranger. Discovering his book had changed her life. Before reading it, she had thought of herself as a lone freak. For all their liberal inclinations, her parents’ minds had been full of blind spots and guilt because she had been a very late child conceived by in-vitro fertilisation. They never openly acknowledged what she was, and for a long time she had tried desperately to change herself, to be normal. Then a day came when she had accepted she could not stop being what she was. So she had made an art of hiding it.
Then William Reichler’s book made her see she might not be an aberration, but the next tentative step in human evolution. Her first e-send to him had been a girlish outpouring of admiration and excitement, and she had received a polite note from his personal assistant acknowledging it. Soon after she stumbled onto an article whose author observed that humans co-evolved with their technology, and this had given her the focus for her own work. Years later when she had sent articles about her work, published in Tipoda Tomorrow, to William Reichler, he responded personally with interest and encouragement. After that they had corresponded intermittently until his offer of an internship at the Reichler Clinic.
His letter did not say there would be a job at the end of the unpaid internship, but it was implied. And Hannah was good at what she did. Better than good, according to her workmates and supervisors, though their opinions mattered less to her than her own feelings. You had to have a realistic idea of what you were worth or else you would be forever at the mercy of other people’s opinions, which most often would depend on their level of liking for you. You had to know yourself and, above all, you had to be honest with yourself.
‘Ms Seraphim, it is a real pleasure to meet you in person, at last,’ William Reichler said, his big pink manicured hand encompassing hers in a warm, slightly clammy grip. ‘Your last paper on the way some humans adapt to the speed of technological development was very fresh. Young woman, you have a brilliant mind, though I must say it is a shock to see how very young you are.’ He gave an avuncular chuckle.
‘My age . . .’ Hannah stammered, overwhelmed by the way he had leaned towards her, still holding her hand.
‘Is no problem,’ he concluded firmly. He sat on a soft fat sofa, drawing her down with him, and shifted smoothly to talking about the work of the Reichler Clinic with an easy familiarity that made him sound glib. It was a natural consequence of him having to say the same thing over and over she supposed, and she told herself it would be no surprise if his brain just wandered off in another direction completely, leaving his mouth to run on auto-pilot.
It was a mistake to think about his thoughts, she realised a split second too late as her mind peeled open…
(End of sneak preview)
As you see the tone or voice in the story is very different to that of the Obernewtyn Chronicles because it is set in the Beforetime, which in our future, and because the person telling it has a completely different mindset than Elspeth. This story is set several decades before the end of the Beforetime, and it gave me a vivid little glimpse of what it will be like to write the first book in The Beforetime Chronicles (though in fact ONLY the first book will be set in the Beforetime…)
Oh, before I forget, The Journey will come out in Trust Me Too, Ford Street’s genre taster anthology (companion to its older sister Trust me, which came out a year ago). Pub date is June, and it contains all original material from a virtual who’s who of Australian genre fiction. Everyone from James Roy and Gary Crew to Marc McBride and Shaun Tan are represented, to name only a few of the all star line up.
Here is the cover.
keep an eye out for it.