This is, essentially, a post about where I get my ideas.
In the months when I was gearing up to attend Clarion West in 1995, I spent most of my writing time on short mysteries, because I was hoarding my SF ideas. As a result, I got to Seattle with a healthy little clutch of index cards jammed with scribblings. One had notes on an image I’d had, of teenaged human girls caught in the midst of a fashion fad: they were wearing the four-armed coats made for members of a race of aliens, half a million of whom had come to live on Earth as refugees. I imagined one of those aliens, also female, watching them through a window, and trying to make sense of the behavior.
I wrote the story at Clarion. In various incarnations it was called “Voice of Reason,” and “Sotto Voce.” It was long and imperfect and dear to my heart; I think it was the first time it really occurred to me that even a nice fictional character might lie, might promise to do one thing and then go in an entirely different direction. It also had some thorny, autobiographical stuff. I’d never attempted that before either.
I never got “Sotto Voce” into anything approaching submission readiness–having gone to Clarion to experiment, I came home with a number of unviable mutants–but a passing reference in that story to a second alien race, the Nandieve, spawned “The Dark Hour.” Its main character is a young human pilot, Oriole. Like those girls with their four-armed winter coats, he’s embraced otherness; he sees the Nandi as a wiser, more sophisticated and more powerful culture than the one he was born into. When his ship gets hijacked, he ends up on the Nandi homeworld, which affords him a closer look at their best and worst qualities. Basically a rose-colored glasses go smush type of thing.
The story was initially published in Tesseracts 8, which was edited by John Clute and Candas Jane Dorsey. It came out in 2006 and I’d have sworn it was the first of the stories set in this universe to see print. (The Internet Speculative Fiction DB says otherwise.) It was definitely one of the earliest of the batch in terms of when I actually wrote them. Here’s a snip:
Days after she rescued Brother, a black ball of feathers flailing in wet leaves, Momma was killed by a white riot cop. Her son divorced his species, changing his name to Oriole and taking the crow as his only family. An orphanage run by Momma’s church took them in, and he lived there in silence for two years. He didn’t say a word to another human, black or white, until Contact, the day that emissaries of seven alien races came to Earth, transmitting messages of friendship from their fragile, exquisite spaceships.
The nuns found him outside that night, face tilted to the stars, mumbling alien words. His voice was hoarse from lack of use–like Brother, he croaked.
“Yah Kurar. Sky’s calling,” he said, as Sister Beverly carried him to bed.
I took to calling this series “The Slow Invasion” because in this universe, Earth’s economy gets bound up, to humankind’s detriment, in the trade of bigger and more advanced cultures. Eventually, we’re no longer self-sufficient. There were four of them published, and a few false starts–“Sotto Voce,” of course, and at least one fragment I workshopped at Turkey City but never finished. Each was written as a stand-alone, and they aren’t as tightly interlaced as the squid stories. They’re unified by that idea of a well-established intergalactic community, with its treaties and alliances and a well-established economy, and how Earth might fare if we enter it as a latecomer.
“Ruby, in the Storm,” started with an image not unlike the one that led to “Sotto Voce.” This time, it was a human watching an alien, again through a window. The frame this time was a recurring visual from my childhood: a heavy, windless Alberta snowfall, a blizzard of irregular, pea-sized clusters of snowflakes, falling in impenetrable curtains. In these storms, the flakes stream down so slowly it seems possible they might hover, or even reverse direction. Air just below freezing, sound deadened by the sheer density of the gently falling precipitation… the world is hidden in a glow of amber from the street lights as the snow piles and piles and piles.
The inspiration for “A Slow Day at the Gallery,” meanwhile, came from a CBC Radio story I heard, about a B.C. First Nations tribe that was having to jump through hoops to get a museum in Europe to repatriate a stolen totem pole.
I wrote “The Spear Carrier” just after I’d joined a choir. I was in the process of learning the names of all sorts of exciting new people who’d just come into my life. Something about that experience got me to thinking about coming-of-age rites and naming and reinvention and, well, nametags. I’d discovered that I remember names better if I see them written down or, better yet, if I write them down myself. That led to my creating another offworld race, one with peculiar dueling laws and a complex naming ritual that ends with the celebrant getting a piece of ornate name-related jewelry that is their legal ID and their badge of adulthood.
I’ve been mostly wrapped up with novels in recent years, and a good deal of my short fiction energy lately has elsewhere. The squid stories fed off the Slow Invasion energy: I couldn’t quite imagine the Nandi and the Yeti and the rest getting involved in that particular civil war. (I sometimes think of the squid stories as the Fast invasion.) But I like these stories, and I’ve always had the idea that I’ll return to this universe again.
I just finished Darrin Hagin’s tenth anniversary edition of The Edmonton Queen: The Final Voyage, a slice of queer Canadian history that just barely intersects with my life: I was living in Edmonton at the time Hagin writes about, and Kelly went to high school with one of its queens, Cleo; we saw hir in a Fringe show last year.
I never went to the legendary Flashback club. I am so not a club person. In my entire life I haven’t once partied until I dropped. By the time the queens in this book were getting up for the day, I tend to be ready for my nap. A single glass of cheap wine will give me a next-day headache. The world of The Edmonton Queen was as much an alien landscape as any I’ve created in my fiction, or I’ve read about. And yet I shared weather, and terrain with these exotic beings. I could have visited, had I been inclined. Say that for Planet Vuvula!
I picked it off our bookshelf partly out of interest (of course!), in part because of that little intersection with our past, and because I am contemplating whether the next mystery novel, The Rain Garden, might include someone from that scene. Or, rather, it does–I just haven’t decided how she fits into the picture.
Hagin’s style flows nicely, I found myself comparing him favorably with John Barrowman’s autobiography, whose prose and content weren’t nearly as colorful. There’s delicious humor and wit. This hit my funnybone especially hard:
12:45 a.m. Meet in the ladies’ can at the pre-arranged time, in the handicapped cubicle. Squeeze everyone in. Sit on the floor, screaming with laughter at absolutely anything. Drop the acid. Pass around the hairspray. Stay until some dyke kicks you all out for reinforcing negative stereotypes of women. Leave in a huff.
What resonated most with me, not surprisingly, was the stuff about growing up queer in smalltown Alberta. As with these queens, that experience created in me a great need to get away, to reinvent, to find and nurture a truer self. The construction of alternate family, its evolution into something as complex and sometimes dysfunctional as any biopham, was familiar, too. As for the slow terrible parade of death that struck Hagin’s Family… well, I have been to a fair number of funerals these past few years.
One of the most interesting things about this anniversary edition, though, is that it has a long and fascinating coda. Hagin chased down the survivors of the Flashback days, and gave them a chance to offer their perspectives on his version of their shared history. He talks about what it was like to have published and then revisited a story that so many people had such a deep emotional stake in. In the process, he reveals the writer-as-Spiderman once again; his afterword is a textbook illustration of that Spidey saying, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
He told the stories, and he got some things wrong. He saw other things very differently from people who were present beside him in the very same moment. Watching him wrestle with that, and with balancing good storytelling against fairness, provides a deeply interesting behind-the-scenes look at what writing is and how it interacts with the real.
It is also genuinely affecting. You will laugh and cry. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
As a few of you may have seen, I occasionally Tweet at the end of my work day about whatever dinner I’m putting together. A few weeks ago, this behavior triggered an @reply from a buddy who lives in Burnaby: “Do you live so well because of where you live? Sometimes the suburbs are a pain.”
I’ve been stirring through possible responses ever since. I wondered how gourmet those posts of mine sound, when much of what they boil down to is stew, salad, bread and leaves out of a box. I pondered what my lifestyle looks like through that little Twitter window. Is it fabulous and opulent, in a Martha vein? No idea.
In some ways, the answer to the question is yes, absolutely. You should all move to my wonderful urban neighborhood! That particular day, I had deli cheese from La Grotta del Formaggio, and bread from Fratelli‘s. The two are next door to Cafe Calabria, where I write so much of my fiction. More days than not I’ll pack up the writing, hit the Cave o’ Cheese and/or the bakery, run from there to the supermarket, and be at Chez Dua fifteen minutes later with dinner in my backpack.
If it were the case that I had no dinner plan at, say, three in the afternoon, I could run out the front door, hit the same places, and still have meal components in time to cook. That’s a definite neighborhood perk–especially since I don’t drive. But as it happens, that kind of scrambling rarely forms part of the equation. It’s timewaste-y, and like most of us I consider my minutes precious.
I don’t often notice it, but a lot of thought and energy go into my approach to fud*. In writing this, I’ve realized I go at food in much the same way I tackle writing. I leave the house every morning knowing what fiction I’m going to work on, and I often leave knowing what I’m eating from dawn to dusk. In my wallet is the list of whatever the grocery gods need to provide to make that happen.
It’s important to me that Kelly and I aren’t screaming around at six, hungry, exhausted, trying to figure out supper and eventually settling on whatever’s fastest or closest to hand, even if it’s overly pricey, or not all that good for us. K is working the full-time job that makes it possible to do this with relative ease, to provide food that’s healthful, tasty and affordable. My doing so ensures that we aren’t eating take-out five nights a week or getting home at six, cooking until seven, and eating and cleaning up until eight. But–as every parent and homemaker knows–getting quality food on the boards, day after day, is no wee task. It is, in fact, something you can easily burn out on.
Doing it, keeping it going, and not getting bored or burned out, takes time and focus and… really, all the same things that writing discipline requires.
So, yes, my neighborhood’s location is choice. But I can’t ever imagine letting the food slip too far down the priority stack. Even when K and I both nine to fiving it, we managed to cook most nights. We gave up that couple of hours I mention above; we were also younger, and considerably more peppy. Still, I can imagine Alternate Us as a car-driving Dua, living in the wilds of the Lower Mainland, hitting the grocery hard every couple of weeks with a meal plan and a long list. It wouldn’t be market shopping, but even the Hinton IGA has boutique breads, olives and cheeses these days. It would be a pain to run out of things suddenly–to not have the 24-hour grocery two blocks from home, so close I call it “my pantry”–but I suspect we’d learn how to avoid such emergencies.
As for boredom… I don’t make a big cooking effort every single day. I have become a fan of the pre-washed boite of salad leaves. In wintertime, I make big batches of our favorite soups and freeze them in easily reheated portions. I read a McLeans article once that claimed the average Canadian family only had five stand-by recipes to draw from in a cooking pinch. I can beat that easy, I thought. Now I make a conscious effort to increase my repertoire of basic meals, the things I can make in under an hour, by three or so recipes a year. Since not all recipes are made of win, this generally means trying out something new every four to eight weeks. Not too onerous.
But challenges crop up. Routines get busted. (See, it is just like writing!) This year, spring sold out and extended its run for bleeping ever. It was cold and dark and rainy out, and I didn’t switch to our summer fare as early. All my new recipes, meanwhile, were winter things. I sensed a rut coming on…
… so I splashed out on a countertop grill and started experimenting with meat cuts and even stir fries:
Now I’m playing with grilling veggies and pre-skewered kabobs. Kelly made an amazing grilled cheese sandwich on sourdough bread (quite a light one, incidentally) with a filling of caramelized apples and onions.
My neighborhood is foodie paradise, no doubt about it. You really can amble down the Drive and grab dinner fixings in twenty minutes. But it’s just as easy to go a block, feeling all hungry and too tired to cook, and know that your evening won’t start until 7:30 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. if you do, and then end up in a one-slice pizza place. I try to regard that as a last resort. I’ve bent around the Drive’s abundance and convenience in a way that works for me… and I hope that if we end up in Bugeye, Saskatchewan one day, it won’t change what I eat.
Do you live so well because… is a huge question. It made me appreciate my neighborhood and my lifestyle anew. It made me think about how finely tuned some aspects of my schedule are. It made me worry that if I posted this I’d sound terribly pompous. (Why yes, I do live well, thank you so much for noticing!)
Mostly, it made me realize that the thing I really associate with living well on the Drive isn’t about groceries but about people. Ten friends within easy walking distance. Roots in the neighborhood that mean I get to say hello to some acquaintance on practically every walk to the Skytrain. The Parade of Lost Souls and the recent spate of soccer parties and the hairdresser with her growing kid and all the people who’ve been selling me cheese and bread and cat fud for nigh on twenty years. Marco, at Fratelli’s, made the cake for our legal wedding. The patriarch of the cafe, who gives me unsolicited fatherly lectures on… actually, on living a good life.
As for Wednesday night’s dinner? Grilled buffalo steak… imported from a grocery in Yaletown.
*If you’re thinking Fud is a typo, look here.
Jessica Reisman posted recently about how there’s any amount of advice out here on teh Intrawebs for beginning writers, but not so much of it for those who have been publishing for awhile. I’ve been thinking about this, and about the fact that when I do interviews, one of the questions that tends to come up most frequently is “What’s the best piece of advice you can give a beginning writer?”
This phenomenon seems to me to be one of those things that occurs naturally. If you’ve got to the point where your fiction is selling, you probably have a good grip on what you needed to learn to get to that point. You’re equipped, in other word, to tell someone less experienced a thing or two: how to write in scenes, maybe, or build up conflict, or push through a first draft of a novel.
Writing about what you’re grappling with in the present is more problematic. As we move into the later phases of artistic development–next level skills, they’re sometimes called–we run the risk of either writing about something we haven’t really figured out yet or perhaps just being opaque, inaccessible.
On the commercial side, once we’ve stopped talking about breaking into short fiction markets or chasing agents, what are we going to talk about? Contracts, maybe? But the problems start getting specific. Issues with this agent, clauses in that publisher’s boilerplate… stuff that affects your bank balance and business relationships, not necessarily the things you’re going to want to post at loquacious length about.
So there’s general talk about pushing through difficult stretches and life crises, a little discussion about busting writer’s block, and… what else? I recall an Elizabeth Bear post I really liked, about how she was moving on to learning progressively tougher (for her) stuff. Was that last year? Anyone remember? The Jay Lake link I posted yesterday, about how he’s reining in his draft speed, felt like it was about a next-level issue. Is there a difference in the “just be persistent” encouragement we give to a newcomer and the “soldier on, soldier on” speech we dispense to a writer who’s sold three books but who can’t interest anyone in their fourth? Is there something about character or plotting that’s general enough to make a good post but so advanced it’ll spark growth in someone really seasoned… a Cory Doctorow, say? A Connie Willis?
None of us would probably admit to thinking we have it all down, and I know I have a ton to learn about how to write more gooder. If you’ve seen any useful process or craft posts out there that seem like they’d really hit home for established writers, I’d be interested to hear about them.
In the meantime, and apropos of nothing, here’s a White Crowned Sparrow.
Public Service Announcement I:: The writing workshop known as Reconstruction still has spaces available. Oz Drummond has a blog post with all the info here. The short version: Your stuff could get critiqued by Jack McDevitt, Mark Van Name, Steve Miller, Mary Robinette Kowal, Lawrence Schoen, Matthew Rotundo, Tom Doyle or Carl Frederick.
PSA II: Buy art to help Terri Windling: Terri Windling has reduced prices on her art so she can raise money to help with a family member’s medical expenses. Here’s info on the Big Painting Sale, and here’s her Etsy store. Buy now, buy hard, buy often.
Gone to the Dogs: I mentioned the pit bull who lives across the road in a passing way some time ago, generating much chatter. He tends to get tied up out on the porch of his home, and sings his woe for hours, usually in the midafternoon. Anyway, I caught him in mid-song a few weeks ago.
It took me a few days to identify the source of his peculiar strangled yowling, and I confess my initial reaction was relief that it a) wasn’t a baby and b) he didn’t live in the apartment directly below me. So–a few of you suggested I call someone, but I’m letting it sit. In the past I’ve called the SPCA about dogs who were in similar-but-vastly-worse conditions, only to end up sucked into a bureaucratic tangle that got the dog (or in one case the captured baby crow and its aggressive, freaked out parents) a frustrating-for-me pile of less than nothing. One of my cafe buds is their next door neighbor; I’ll ask him if he knows Pitty’s peeps.
In the meantime, he’s out there with a comfy blanket to sit on and a decent amount of slack in his leash, he’s not frying in inescapable direct sunlight, and he has water. There’s only been one occasion where he’s been out there longer than a couple hours in the afternoon. They didn’t have him out there this weekend, when it was ninety degrees out.
Jay Lake on the virtue of slowness in writing: Fast writing is not bad writing. But it’s not the best writing.
TOR.com’s Urban Fantasy Spotlight continues: “Olga,” by C.T. Adams is a crackin’ good ecofantasy, and there’s still time to win a bunch of very cool books if you comment within the contest thread by noon today!