Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Speculative Sense of Wonder

by Miriah Hetherington

Writing speculative fiction has influenced the way I read stories and changed the way I look at the world. In the same way I suppose a software designer can’t play a video game without appreciating the effort that went into developing it, or a chef can’t eat a meal without noticing the ingredients and considering what makes the recipe delicious.

I’ve learned that creating a story is different from consuming a story. Kind of like the difference between the compulsion to open every wardrobe door you see, and the drive to figure out exactly how to build a wardrobe from the wood of a magic apple tree.

Recently, I decided it was time to box up my children’s collection of picture books. My twins are entering middle school and a rapidly growing collection of chapter books and YA novels are stacked precariously next to, instead of inside, their full bookshelves like misshapen Lego bricks. Not that piles of books are an unusual sight around my house.

The initial organizational plan was to sort through them, keep my favorites, keep my children’s favorites, and donate the rest. Yeah, right. This task is so much more difficult than tossing out and donating the clothes my children have outgrown. Our so-called children’s books still fit.

Have you ever noticed how many picture books contain strong elements of speculative fiction? What would you draw with a magic purple crayon? How cool would it be to travel in a giant peach with insect friends as big as you? When the Cat in the Hat shows up, crazy wild terrifying and wonderful things will start to happen. He reminds me of Doctor Who.

I love short fiction that makes me think, that opens my mind and twists my understanding. I think the best speculative fiction also appeals to the child in us. We want to suspend our disbelief and remember that sense of wonder. We want to experience alternate realities. We want the thrill of being frightened by a scary story, because you’re never too old to sleep with the lights on.

The seed of my Dream Catcher story germinated in my head one night when I was putting my twins to bed. I foolishly caved to their desire to watch something scary on TV, and my penance included a good half-hour spent positioning and repositioning a dreamcatcher to my daughter’s satisfaction, directly over her pillow. She also asked me to repeat the familiar dreamcatcher legend several times. I complied with as much conviction as I could muster, hoping the power of suggestion would be enough to help her succumb to sleep. As I waited for her to slip into that angelic state, I thought about her questions. If the dreamcatcher worked, then what really happened to the bad dreams? Surely nightmares hold too much power and energy to simply melt away in the light of day. In fairy tales, dreams hold revelation, and no blessing comes without a price.

Reading and writing speculative fiction challenges me to move my point of view around until I see beyond what is in front of me. Can you see them? The fey folk that linger in your peripheral vision, but on direct inspection look like teenagers skateboarding in the park. You know as well as I do the bicycle-mounted police officer is wearing shiny plate armor and riding a white horse in an alternate reality.

So move your point of view around until you can see the speculative possibilities. Then write about them so other people can open the wardrobe door and see them, too.

Miriah Hetherington is a middle-aged stay-home mom residing in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her husband and three daughters. Though she’s been reading speculative fiction stories for years, it wasn’t until relatively recently that she started to write them herself. Miriah is delighted that her very first published story, Dream Catcher, will appear in Penumbra’s September 2012 Native American issue.

Learn more about Miriah Hetherington on her website. Stay connected on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Difference Between Words and Worlds is a Letter

Metaphor and the Literal in Speculative Fiction
by Richard Baldwin

I started as a poet and - though I had always wanted to be a fantasy writer - for the life of me I couldn't find a way to write even a half-decent short story. I tried everything I could think of. I would free write for hours to try to get a story out. I would brainstorm like crazy. I would outline meticulously. Nothing worked.

The problem was two-fold: Everything I wrote wanted to be shorter and more dense than any stories I'd ever read (I'd never heard of flash fiction), and all the weight of whatever I'd write ended up being wrapped up in the metaphors.

Today much of what I write is still shorter, denser, and more wrapped in metaphor than a fair few authors, but when I set words to page now I can get a story out of them these days.

What changed? Eventually I decided that if I couldn't write short stories I could at least write longer poems. The longer the poems ran, the less they relied on one single image or metaphor to coalesce their meaning - they'd rely on two metaphors instead, say, or maybe three, and eventually they ran long enough that they didn't rely on metaphor and related language to keep up momentum, they instead relied on their plot.

I never stopped loving metaphor, though. Plot gets the story from its beginning to its end, but without some resonance a story is just literally a means to an end without any real meaning.

Now, I understand some speculative fiction audiences aren't big fans of metaphor. Metaphor is a complex subject in speculative fiction because our form of fiction is often written to be taken literally, and when audiences read it they expect the words to mean (until demonstrated otherwise) exactly what they say.

There's not a lot of space for figurative language when you must speak literally, so a lot of the oldest science fiction eschewed metaphor entirely. Since the New Wave it's been much easier to tell a story with figurative elements, but still the first thing we writers generally have to do is find a way to convey literally the context of the story, only after which it becomes clear to an sf/f audience what is metaphor and what is a literal explanation of some new phenomena the characters (and, through them, the audience members) are only just discovering.

Is there a way to go further, though? To use metaphor in a way that takes advantage of the nature of speculative fiction itself, to write in metaphors endowed with meanings that could never show up in any other form of fiction.

I believe so, yes. The trick is to find a way to convince audiences to read a statement two ways at once.

A literary or mainstream fiction audience reads metaphors as figurative: The trees move as if dancing when the author says, "the trees dance". A speculative audience, on the other hand, reads metaphors as literal unless demonstrated otherwise and in advance: The trees are literally dancing unless it's obvious from provided context that the trees couldn't do that.

On rare occasions, once the audience is set up for it, however, it is possible to use a metaphor that is both figurative *and* literal. In just the right story, the trees might literally dance while they also appear figuratively to be dancing (with all the resonance that the idea of dancing within the given context might suggest).

This is a difficult maneuver to manage, and it can distance the audience from the story; metaphor requires a form of associative thought that naturally disjoints one from the moment of the tale into a comparison to something, usually something outside the action. But, if it's perfectly handled, the apt literal image that also serves as a metaphor can resonate in ways that few moments in stories otherwise might ever manage. Moments like that, I would argue, are about as close as fiction can ever get to being poetry.

A more common form of metaphor in speculative fiction, however, involves subtext. An example: "The door dilated." While this isn't metaphorical in the sense that it gives us a figurative understanding of something that leads to a deeper understanding, it nonetheless contains its own resonating levels - just more literal ones than are available in other forms of fiction. We know the society that makes a dilating door must be one in which a door can dilate, and also one that has or had some use for a door to dilate. This suggests space age technology and a need to keep doors sealed, which suggests the story is in space (though of course we'd need a bit more context to be absolutely sure about any of this). As readers we can learn a great deal about a culture from a well chosen moment that carries within its subtext cultural implications that the statement pertains to. What is such a resonant statement, besides a metaphor?

Though I no longer focus on poetry, I don't just like metaphor, I don't just love it, but instead I feel it is absolutely crucial to good fiction. I don't feel this way, however, merely because finding depth and resonance in language is one of the great pleasures of fiction. No - metaphor matters to me by the very fact that we can discern great depth from simple words. Metaphors in all of their forms demonstrate, more fully than in any other literary technique that I've ever seen, the wonder inherent in the human ability to communicate with each other - to communicate at all. Is there anything more incredible than the ability for us to connect and share feelings through systems of shaped marks and noises?

One of the great things about speculative fiction is that it has so many different options for conveying metaphor that just aren't possible in any other medium. Nowhere else can we see, demonstrated over and over again, such a concentrated display of how us humans can convey not only our feelings and emotions but entire worlds of experience to each other. That's bigger than poetry, there aren't words for how big that is.

Fortunately, it seems, the spaces between and behind the words can handle that job just fine on their own.

Richard Baldwin writes from a raw strange shore along the archipelago of fantasy, but he currently resides in Toronto. A graduate of Odyssey and Taos Toolbox, more of Richard’s fiction can be found in AE and the Cucurbital 2 anthology from Paper Golem Press. He is also a professional audiobook narrator - view his demos HERE

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Things That Make Us Write—Muse or Music?

by Celina Summers

Usually, when I write something for Musa or Penumbra, I'm writing with my editor's hat on. Today is a little different; I have my writer's hat on. My agent and I joke about that in our emails—some are sent to Celina the Editor and others to Celina the Writer, and it's Celina the Writer who's here today.

I have a confession to make. I'm one of those writers who's inspired to write because of songs, plays, movies, and books. I don't need those stories; I need the way those stories and songs make me feel.

The first novel I ever wrote, a really horrid epic fantasy very much in the style (okay, fan fiction) of David Eddings, I wrote to the soundtrack of Return of the Jedi. One of the projects my agent is shopping now was written to Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera—but only a specific version of POTO, with a specific cast, and a specific and set lineup of songs that doesn't mirror the order in the show. Another of my current projects I am writing to Sheherazade by the nineteenth century Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov. But then, for fight scenes (I like to kill stuff), I always use the same playlist and the same songs, highlighted by "Battle of the Heroes", composed by John Williams for Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith.

So, yeah. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I have theme music for my books.

I'm not the only author to do this. In fact, I know quite a few authors who have theme songs or playlists they write to. I tend to prefer orchestral music without vocalists for most of my writing music. Phantom is the big exception to that, but after years of musical theater, I learned to block vocals from my mind. It's a defense mechanism if you get cast in three successive productions of The Sound of Music, believe me. But The Phantom of the Opera sparked an idea for me—not a riff of Phantom, mind you. But the play and its music inspired me to set my magical realism series in the world of professional American theater—a world I know very well. And why not? Phantom has plays within the play, and all the action of the plot takes place backstage. I've seen multiple productions of POTO, on Broadway with three different casts, the movie version with the best-looking deformed man in history (Gerard Butler—I would totally have picked your Phantom over Raoul! Totally.), and now the 25th anniversary London production DVD. Every time I have seen Phantom—and particularly as a member of the audience—I have left the theater in an uplifted kind of reluctance. I wanted the play to keep going. I wanted to know what happened next. I pictured my coloratura self in the lyric soprano lead and created new adventures in my head. The show, and particularly the music, made me want to create. On top of that, however, the music from Phantom ties me to a tragedy from my youth. A school friend of mine from the sixth grade on was killed in an accident, and at his viewing, the POTO songs Music of the Night and Journey to the Cemetery were played over and over.

So the music has a specific meaning to me, both with my history in the theatrical world and also with an event that even now, I look back upon in sorrow. Those emotions, those personal claims upon my history and psychology, are evoked by the music—and I use that to fuel my writing for certain projects or for certain types of scenes.

It's not just music, though. Occasionally, other things will strike a spark in my imagination. A passage from a letter written in the 1800s gave birth to an alternate history set in the Tudor era. A lighting direction from a new play festival a decade ago stuck in my head and birthed the Darkshifters of my dark fantasy series. If it weren't for a recurring nightmare, I'd never have been able to conceptualize a story based upon an evil Harlequin.

And Obi Wan Kenobi stating emphatically, "Only the Sith deal in absolutes" set off an entire satire based on a writer's lack of comprehension of absolutism that will probably never see the light of day.

What? A girl's got to make a living somehow. Sorry, Mr. Lucas—but the line was funny.

So why does inspiration work this way? Maybe some writers can sit down and say to themselves, "Today, I'm going to write a space opera about cats that fly space shuttles and shoot mouse-shaped asteroids out of the belt between Mars and Jupiter." I'm not one of them…although that sounds like a good idea for a YA. After a lifetime spent in the arts, I find my inspiration in the moods that art or literature or music create in me. I can put in my Les Miserables CD in and let the music from that show serve as an accompaniment to the story I "see" in my head—the story that unfolds like a movie in my mind's eye and graciously permits me to relate the characters and the plot in a Word document file that someday, after much revision, editing, and beta reading, might just become a book.

There's a reason why the Muses are the patronesses of the arts in Greek mythology. Their responsibilities encompass the arts as known to the Greeks, and whenever a writer puts pen to paper, we pay homage to the idea of the Muses—we credit them with inspiring our work. Our word 'music' is derived from the Muses—so for me, at least, it's an easy leap that wonderful music can motivate an author to create an equally wonderful story.

But then there's the down side. How many times have I heard a writer, frustrated and nearly desperate, waiting fruitlessly for the Muse to appear? How many times has a writer blamed the absence of the Muse for the silence of their pen, the stalling of their stories?

You can't wait for a mythical Greek goddess to show up in your office and open up the cupboard in your mind where your story is kept. Got some bad news for you—mythical means "doesn't exist", and the fact of the matter is that inspiration, regardless of how it's sparked, is internal. Music from Phantom doesn't make me write. The response that music evokes in me—that's what makes me write. The magic onstage during a production of the show make me leave the theater feeling like I, too, am magical—and that magic is released in the form of a story.

So the next time you're sitting at your computer, playing never-ending, mindless games of Spider Solitaire while you wait for the Muse to descend in a cloud of glitter and magic and lead you past the plot snag that's got you stymied, perhaps the answer isn't floating on Mt. Olympus. Perhaps the answer is in a song, a book, a film that makes you feel like a magical moment was created. Perhaps the answer is in the scene where Severus Snape finally reveals his heart and story to Harry Potter in a tear. Maybe, that last beat where Rhett Butler says, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" will evoke that creative response in you. Give yourself and your imagination time to relax in someone else's world—or words—creations that have always spurred that artistic synchronicity in your soul Because in the end, while the spark may be external, the fire that blazes in every writer is decidedly internal.

In other words, don't be afraid to search for it in places other than the wall over your desk.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

From the Editor's Desk

Comparison and Contrast
by Celina Summers

Over the last week, I've been glued to the television watching swimming. Once, every four years, Americans have enough interest in swimming to actually televise it. It's funny—so many people speak so knowledgeably about the sport when you know full and darn well they don't have a clue about what it takes to be an Olympic medal swimmer. I was a mediocre swimmer at best, and I spent 3-4 hours a day every day working out in the pool, running, or lifting weights. So I find it a little funny to hear people say, "Well, Michael Phelps looked really tight in the semi of the 100 fly last night."

Looked really tight? The man is six foot four inches, one hundred and ninety-four pounds, and has an arm span of over six and a half feet with abs you could slice ham on and legs taller than anyone who competed in gymnastics. I think it's anatomically impossible for a guy who put the lank in lanky to ever look tight.

That being said—

Right now, across the world tens of thousands of people like myself who swam competitively in their youth but gave it up are shaking their heads. Michael Phelps has been to—and won gold at—three Olympics. That's twelve years of international caliber swimming. It doesn't even count the years before that and how hard he worked to even get to that level. Hours upon hours of work seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, since the twentieth century. He didn't just wake up one day as the greatest swimmer who's ever lived. Nope, he worked for years to gain that status and earned every ounce of the eighteen gold and four silver Olympic medals that now hang around his neck.

So I always find it baffling that people think writing is easy.

You don't just wake up one day and write a bestseller. Writers spend a lot of long, lonely hours—sitting at their desks getting words down on paper, editing and revising, cutting and rewriting. We have to. I wish that the very first time I sat down and started to lay a story out on paper that it had been a perfect manuscript, that I landed the first agent I sent it to, sold it to the first publisher she sent it to, and sold out of the first printing before the book was released.

But that's not quite the way it worked out—for any writer that I'm aware of.

Just as an Olympic champion swimmer spends years upon years of his life in the water, swimming lap after lap, working on his stroke and kick, stretching his endurance to the longest possible moment, and gaining his top speed one thousandth of a second at a time—the writer must also work out intellectually, spending years upon years within their stories, consigning those stories to paper and reworking them until they are the best possible representation of their writing. You can't expect someone to jump into the pool for the first time at twenty-four and swim a world record time. Why, then, would you expect someone to write the next great American novel right out of the gate? Heck, for that matter, why would you expect your first draft to be the final draft?

Why expect gold right off the bat?

Writers' expectations should be more realistic. And just like a top athlete, achievement comes after you've established the daily repetition of exercise—word counts or scene goals, a set amount of work completed day in and day out with gradually increasing goal expectations. Sometimes, life conspires so you can just jump right in. In my writing life, for example, I started off as a full time writer because of an accident that kept me from working. Those long days after that accident, I sat alone in our apartment for eighteen hours a day while my husband worked two jobs to keep our heads above water—no internet, no cable television, not even a telephone to break up the monotony. Every morning, I woke and climbed into my recliner, powered up the computer, and wrote. I rarely went out, even more rarely found some other way to engage my mind. All I had was my story, and I steeped myself in that world. I cranked out six 150,000 word first drafts in three months.

And I look back at those first drafts and cringe.

Writing is a tough business. Whether you write epic or flash, you must be trained for success by constantly working to refine and improve your craft. And just like Michael Phelps has his coach, Bob Bowman, the author has her coach—her editor. Bob Bowman helped Phelps to trim seconds off his time; an editor helps a writer to trim the unnecessary and tighten up her manuscript. You may hate working with your editor at the time—God knows I've yelled at the computer screen a lot during edits—but the end result of that work makes you glad you did it.

See, the whole purpose of training, whether you're an athlete or a writer, is to make the very difficult look very easy. As writers, we're surrounded by tons of people in real life who confide, "I plan to write a book some day"—like it's an easy thing to do…like just anyone can do it. (Unfortunately, we editors rarely escape that person at the party, who then proceeds to pitch their story to us and talk confidently about how much money they intend to make. It's a conversation that never ends well.) But writing isn't easy. Writing is hard. Writing takes training and patience, meticulous attention to detail and the dedication to sit down at the computer every single day. Athletes like Michael Phelps have a big advantage, too. Phelps started swimming competitively at age seven. Writers, on the other hand, write competitively much later in life. Sure—I have trunk novels from when I was in my late teens, but I'll burn them before I let someone read them now.

So while we all sit back in admiration as the greatest Olympian and swimmer of all time finally hangs up his goggles, stop and think for a minute of writing as a sport. Sit down and set your goals, then determine the training you'll need to meet those goals. Take the guidance of your coach/editor, and use that knowledge to improve your work. And while you'll never get that national anthem moment on the podium, with the dedication and drive every successful writer needs you might get that quiet moment in the middle of the night when a new review comes out of one of your stories and you feel the triumph of a job well done.

And until Bravo comes up with a writing reality show (and I would so audition for it, by the way), that's the medal ceremony for people like us. Unless, of course, you play the Star Spangled banner every time you finish a story.

Kind of cheesy, but hey—if it works, it works. I'm not going to judge you for it.