Art Against Fear

It takes a lot of courage to write. I’m not big-upping myself, I know that if you are reading this, you probably write.

(All my friends are artists, even the ones who don’t acknowledge that part of themselves. You are courageous, and I love you.)

It takes even more courage to present that work to scrutiny, to ask someone who owes you nothing, if they would please like to buy your work and promote it with their name attached. My courage usually fails here. Query letters are a social game, with indiscernible rules, where a win grants you a few more seconds to pitch your work, and a fail is mark on your name. “This one does not belong with us.”

Or, that’s how it seems, when you are all alone, reading every book in your writing-instruction library and wondering how anyone has ever liked their own work enough to write “Dear Editor…”

I am becoming more courageous. That has not come from the years writing alone. (That had its own uses, which may be a post for another day.) It’s because I’ve met people in the industry. I’ve seen so much kindness from fellow authors, and editors, and agents. And I know that every one of those people are in the industry because they love stories and they want to make stories happen.

I sent out a couple really big stories recently, and I am not worried about them. If they sell, I will be thrilled. If they don’t, I will send them on to someone else. I won’t have offended anyone for sending a story they don’t want. I won’t have made some great social blunder that will keep me out of print forever.

Nobody seeks failure in their inbox. And if you’ve found an editor who does, you didn’t want to work with that person, anyway.

 

Also, if you know some magic, use it! Fear tells stories. Its favorite story is the one about all the possible disastrous futures that could result from your actions. But stories are my magic, and I’m really good at upsetting the narrative. I once put on skull face paint to set up a poetry reading over the phone. Fear didn’t know what to do with the shear absurdity of my actions, and the phone call went exceptionally well. Not every magic needs skullface, but allow yourself the tools you need to overcome fear. Sometimes just a favorite pair of sunglasses will alter your perspective enough to send that query letter.

 

In other news, I’ve been reading some brilliant stories while not updating this blog. Here’s a few recent favorites:

Robo-Liopleurodon! by Darcie Little Badger is about the futility of being a scientist when the world has stopped listening to scientists, and the piratic ways to fight back!  (And just keep reading through the rest of Robot Dinosaur Fiction after you are done because it’s seriously great.)

After Midnight at the ZapStop by Matthew Claxton is absolutely delightful, and I love how dang mundane this incredible science fiction world is to the poor guy working the counter at the only 24 hour 3D bio-printer shop in town.  The way all the pieces come together in the end is super satisfying, too.

The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections by Tina Connolly is a total magic trick.  A despot slowly savors another delicious meal while the protagonist relives the years in which he rose to power, and the ways she failed to resist.  Also, there are magic pastries that allow you to relive specific memories, and I want to eat (almost) every single one of them.

Capture No Lightning

Some stories flash onto the screen through my fingers as though I am a conduit for their lightning.  These are not reliable stories.  It can be years in between lightning.  But I want to tell stories more than once every three years.  I get fidgety if I don’t.

Recently I took part in a competition (gentlemen’s agreement style, no prize but the works produced) to churn out fully written stories in the span of two days.  One came easy, like lightning.  Two were like dredging mud from the back of my brain.  And two were like constructing lightning from the inside of a bottle.

Those last two worked.  They had the spark of a lightning story, they read easy, but in the throws of writing I was a bit of a mess.  Each story was written to a prompt (both to aid in story writing, and to show that each story was written whole cloth over the two days), and in my notes I had dashed off so many false starts that I can’t even decipher what I was thinking two weeks later.

But as I scribbled all my false starts, I tapped into old memories.  When I was very small, the neighbor girl was the coolest person in the whole wide world, and she liked to play with Barbies.  I did not, because I didn’t understand the rules to playing Barbies, but I wanted to play with her, so I ended up playing Ken most the time.  Later on, I had a craft kit, and I made my own doll because I really wanted a figure from a Nintendo64 flight simulator that nobody else cared about, and there is no holding back a nine year old with a glue gun.

These memories collapsed into each other, and where I had nothing, memories bubbled into story.

It helped that I had been exercising the parts of my brain wired for story.  The lightning I had constructed found a natural path toward character.  Writing is one of those practices that from the outside looks the same at step one and at step 100, but oh man does that practice pay off.

And all this might seem common sense to anyone on step 101 of the never ending staircase to authorial perfection, but I am putting this here to remind myself that it is possible to conjure a story when it feels like there is nothing.  Find your blank page and a pen, and fill it with nonsense.  Somewhere, eventually, something will spark.

 

Where I’ve been.

Hello! I’ve been working on a novel. And I’ve finished! Drafts are endless, but I’ve polished it enough that I’d like to share. Rules for sharing novels tend to argue toward an excerpt near the very beginning of the story, but this is my blog and I make the rules, so this is a passage from very near the climax.

Some background: Esther is blind, and sees through a magical connection to two spiders she calls left eye and right eye. Zinnia is her pirate obsessed girlfriend. They live in a socialist utopia that is slowly collapsing around them, because the spells that keep their empire safe are falling apart. Here’s this bit about a bicycle ride!

She ran down into the pitch black basement, rummaged for a moment, then came back up hefting a contraption of polished metal pipes and gears. I knew the idea of a bicycle, like Farmland people know that glass needs heat, but I’d never seen one up close. Hawkline Island was too small and rocky to make use of the thing and the ones I’d seen zipping up the hills on South Ballast were too fast for me to fully comprehend.

“You know how to ride, right?”

“Absolutely not.” But I was itching to play with the chain and gears. I might not know it in practice, but the bicycle’s function was palpable.

Zinnia’s teeth flashed in the low light as she patted the long flat cargo carrier bolted over its back tire. “Good thing it’s a courier bike.”

How fast are courier bicycles ridden by two people down a long narrow road to the wall that keeps our city safe from lace? I think, if I were to make a casual guess, I’d say fairly close to the speed of sound. My eyes were inside my sweater, clinging to the knit over my heart. My body was curled against Zinnia’s back, fingers laced around her belly, head buried in her shoulder blades and she was yelling something, “hole ahead!” but I didn’t catch the meaning until the wheels jarred underneath us and she nearly lost the bike.

“You gotta be loose, Esther!” The bike wobbled under us and she wriggled away from my fingers.

“Icantbeloose I’llfall” I shouted into her spine.

“The harder you fight physics the more likely we are to crash!” Her hand found mine at her stomach and she forced her fingers underneath to pry up my hands from where I was crushing her. “Keep them here. Can you feel the muscles keeping us balanced?” I shook my head, but I could feel her solid on the bike even as the wind whipped past us. “I need you to match me.”

The bike hiccupped underneath us and I cinched my fingers tight. She yelped, I had hurt her, and I drew my hands away. But I didn’t fall. I was still steady behind her, and my hands settled back in place.

“Better?” she asked. I could feel her shift under my fingers, the balance of the bike shifted and I flowed into it with her.

“This is really scary!” I shouted over the wind, ready to acknowledge my fear now that it wasn’t about to kill me.

“Scarier than discovering your whole life has been a lie?” she shouted back.

I tried to laugh at that, but the bike was slowing, and my eyes were finally ready to peek outside of my collar. We were at the foot of the wall. Fifty feet high, sheer glass, buttressed with pillars thick as houses. Deep inside the glass was a putrid ocean, a green black swirl of long dead sludge. I stepped unsteadily down from the wooden courier box and Zinnia held my hand to keep me upright. It was worse than I had expected; dead for all my lifetime but kept bright through mass hallucination. I couldn’t decide if I was queasier from the wall or from our bike ride.

Left eye stood up on my brow and I gave Zinnia a rakish grin to cover up my shaky confidence. “This isn’t scary. This is just one more thing to fix.”

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Bicycle comes back after the climax. Esther lied: All of this is scary.

 

Eating at the End

hawkline

The home/glass blowing studio for Esther Glass. I need visuals to remember my settings.

I love the foody bits in stories, when characters take a breather from the crisis building and remember to keep their blood sugar up. While some might poke fun at three pages devoted to a feast, I always loved the descriptions Brian Jacques gave to all his mouse-sized recipes. And if you can track down a copy of the Redwall cookbook, do.

Cooking can also open a window into the world of your story, but I didn’t realize it’s full importance until I started thinking about what my characters might eat after an apocalypse limited them to the Kitsap Peninsula, and the islands contained within the Puget Sound.

What kind of jam will end up on Esther’s toast, and how likely is it that she’ll have flour? Could her pirate girlfriend smuggle gin, or will some other alcohol have to be stowed away in her skiff? These questions expanded further to the clothes they wore, the colors used, and the distribution of rare good among the islands. And because all of this minutia is background to the story, its importance is only seen in the absence of foods that did not survive the end of this particular world. So, rather than shove in a block of needless text about fish migration into a fairy tale, I’m going to post some of my favorite bits of food research here.

Kippered herring is split up the spine, then gutted, salted, and smoked, and they are common to the area, which makes it a pretty decent choice for a winter breakfast. So long as you aren’t like my husband, who finds the smell of herring completely abhorrent.

Gin can be made with most anything, so long as you’ve also got juniper berries to flavor the drink upon its second distillation. The strain of juniper that grows native is still about 80 miles from the Puget Sound. An insurmountable distance for the people in my story, but as luck would have it, juniper is also a common landscaping plant, and it is not impossible that some enterprising distillers might start gathering juniper berries from the well landscaped plots that overlook the sound. It would taste a little different, but it’d definitely be gin.

Some teas can be grown as far north as latitude 50, which makes my home at latitude 47 capable of hosting home grown tea parties! Coffee was an unavailable source for caffeine. 😦

Dogfish can be flavored with chives, thanks to the unkillable chive plant that lives in my driveway. While all other plants have died through negligence, flash freezing, and the occasional misplaced wrench, the chives have survived, and I trust them to live at the foot of Esther’s cabin. The for-mentioned pirate girlfriend is the one who harvests them for the fish, because Esther considers cooking to be a strange science far more complicated than engineering a bottle to hold twice the volume of its outside dimensions. Magic is easy, cooking is weird.

Another fun fact, not having to do with food: Indigo dye can be produced from the woad plant, which is currently a noxious weed in Washington.  I needed to put one character in a blue linen skirt (his uniform in an ongoing battle against mermaids), and I was very happy that a natural blue dye would not be difficult to produce after the end of the world as we know it.

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The cast relaxes after a setting appropriate dinner of fried perch. 

 

Personal Cannon: The Ten Megan Classics

Once upon a 1909, Dr. Charles Eliot put together a compilation of literature in trustworthy forest green boards with serious gold type and called them The Harvard Classics. These were meant to provide any person who read them with the elements of a liberal education, but reading them still won’t qualify you for a supervising position at Target.

Of course, now it’s 2016 and the very idea of cannonical literature holds as much water as a sieve: Whose cannon? Why is this book important? What do you mean English 101 kids are reading Gardner’s The Art of Fiction but not Barry’s What It Is? (Both are brilliant books on writing, but I prefer Lynda Barry’s because it’s got all sorts of pictures and is less interested in academia than the occasionally heavy handed Gardner.) There are so many ways of learning, so many important books, that it is impossible to read them all. But I do like the idea that a set group of books can provide a single person with the elements of an education for… whatever, so I’ve drummed up a personal cannon that when read will give you the elements of a Megan education.

Rather than the 51 classic books provided by Dr. Eliot, I have limited this list to a ten book summer course. If undertaken, these ten books will provide you with an introduction to Megan, and you will be well on your way to all of the neurosis, excess coffee, and indecipherable reminders written at 3am that she enjoys on a daily basis. Alas, you will still be unqualified for a supervising position at Target.

Half Magic by Edward Eager: Thinking deeply about the proper way to word a wish will extrapolate itself to thinking deeply about every word said, until you’re not sure you should ever say anything! And Katherine fights Sir Lancelot, that’s fun.

Matilda by Roald Dahl: This will provide a counterpoint to Eager, when the Trunchbull gets away with her atrocities by never committing any act by half. All in, until no one will believe you, Miss Honey.

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress: My first introduction to Hugo winning SciFi by a lady type. The sheer idea that it could be done was well formative. Likely, you will bond with your future husband over all the hobbies you’d both aquire if you never had to sleep.

Making Comics by Scott McCloud: you have already read a few comics as a prerequisite for this course, and now you will understand their language.

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera: Story as music, explained by the son of a student of Antonin Dvorak. (Not that Kundera’s life as an expat Bohemian living in France is any less interesting than his connection to Dvorak.) All art is intersectional, all story has the capacity to be Art. Which is the excuse you’ll give when caught humming O Mangum Mysterium while you read.

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal): Art as a novel.

Cruddy by Lynda Barry: Visceral and ugly, looked at so hard that it becomes beautiful. You’ll still need to take a shower after this. You’ve been warned.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin: I loved this book so much that I made a shirt with her map of Annares on it. I. Made. A. Shirt. I expect you to make a shirt after reading this.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor: Science fiction is fantasy, fantasy is real, genre is whatever you want to make it. This book is scary and amazing, and Onyesonwu is going to rewrite your world. Extra credit: follow Okorafor on Twitter for delightful animal pictures!

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett: Read this at any age, the wee men talk funny but it’s Tiffany and her grandmother’s understanding of the world that is Real. If you want to be a witch, read the Tiffany Aching books. (Obvs you want to be a witch. Who doesn’t?)

List is reflective of the order in which these books were read.  Extra credit: read Half Magic out loud while following your dad through the garage, and then read the chapter What Happened to Katherine another twelve times.

 

So what is your cannon? What ten books would make a you?