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>Fear

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This is one of those things I don’t know how other writers do, or what they feel about it. One of those scary things at the intersection of mind and story, where I have nothing at all to go on except my own experience.
Years ago, when I was a very beginning writer I took a workshop with the Oregon Writers Network. One of the things the teachers told me then was that sometimes you’d be writing and suddenly find yourself in the kitchen, polishing your silverware or doing something equally unneeded.
At the time they told me this wasn’t necessarily the block, and not necessarily a sign that I should change something about the way I worked. I understood that. But I didn’t understand what the symptom would be in me.
Oh, I have my days of being in the kitchen, polishing silverware. And I’ve talked about how I go through entire weeks when my toilets and catboxes are sparkling clean, because even those tasks are infinitely preferable to facing the empty computer screen and coaxing the words onto the page, one by one, by one.
But that in me is block – block of one sort or another. Block in me usually manifests in the form of second guessing every word I write and rarely, very rarely, in the form of not being able to write at all.
What my teachers then were talking about wasn’t block. And I didn’t realize what it was, nor how I behave when confronted with it until this week.
What they were talking about – I think, if I understood them correctly – were those moments where stories form in the mind and flow onto the page, so clear, so pure so… loud that it’s as if they existed all along, somewhere else. As if they’ve waited for years – centuries – for someone to be their voice and have now found you.
In our universe of rationality and in my mind – a mind of which I like to be in control, thank you very much – this is a scary feeling. It is, in fact, a terrifying one. And though I know the stuff that flows like that is coming from me – I presume from my subconscious – and that it is often, if not always, very good, it scares me out of my wits.
And then suddenly I find the need to write another story, to start another novel. Anything, anything, to avoid facing that story, flowing clear and pure through my mind.
In the new year, I have only one resolution – to face the story unabashed and ride it where it takes me, even if it terrifies me.
Does this mean I won’t write other stories? That there will be only one?
No, only that there will be only on at a time, and that I’ll do my best to face it without blinking. And if I fail sometimes, to get back to it. To try again.
That is also my wish for all my readers – that you may face your dreams unabashed, and pursue them unflinchingly in the new year.

>Unforgettable

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What makes a movie/book/painting/song unforgettable?

Is it the brilliant ideas?

Is it the acting/writing/brush-work/musical technique?

You need technique, but only to make the artifice of construction invisible.

Looking back there are movies that have stayed with me for thirty years, paintings that have haunted me, books that I have finished and then wondered about the characters’ fate, as if they were friends, and music that moves me no matter how many times I hear it. And it is not the technique that makes it memorable.

I believe it is the emotion. The four creative mediums are very different. Music seems to bypass logical thought and play straight to the emotions. Some paintings have left me with images that seeped into my subconscious so that they become part of the way I filter the world. Some movies combined images, music and dialogue to create characters and capture their dilemmas in such a way that I was captured. Some books have done this with nothing but words.

If, several days later, I am still in that book’s head space, still engaging with the characters, then they have become real to me.

What makes a creative work unforgettable? I think it’s the ability to bypass thought and engage us on an emotional level, to make us think and to make us wonder.

It’s been a long day. I’ve spent the last week trying to do a final read-through on my Shallow Sea book. I don’t know if it is working. I’ve had so many interruptions (kids and school holidays), and I’ve read it so many times that I’m blind to it now. All I can see are construction tools of my writing craft.

That’s why I need to finish the book and put it in front of my writing group, ROR. They’ll come to it fresh. They’ll tell me what works and what doesn’t. And because they are fellow writers, they’ll make suggestions to help me use the tools of our craft to improve it.

One day I’d like to write something unforgettable. Until then, I’ll keep trying.

Cheers, Rowena.

>Sex, altruism and the working writer

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The subject of sex ratios of college entrants came up on a list I participate in. (For anyone who didn’t know: sex ratios entering college having historically been skewed toward males, have from IIRC 1991 (US) and 1992 (UK) gradually become more female than male. There was quite a good UK government research paper showing this is directly related to school results). Now obviously (you’d think) reading and tertiary education — or at least the potential to take part in it — are strongly correlated. And of course reading and education have so many added benefits beyond the obvious, that for any society both are a huge benefit. The various sides of the discussion ranged from those who were proposing ways to alter the situation (both male and female) to a couple of women who where finding every possible rationalisation why the status quo was just fine (or possibly despite the figures, the situation didn’t exist). The discussion moved on to why there were so many male participants in Physics and Computer Science, and the deliberate exclusion of women. Once again the discussion’s sides ranged from those who looked for ways to increase participation (both male and female) to one male who defended the status quo.

Now I was lucky enough back at University to have a very Germanic Professor of Ichthyology. Tom believed all nice boys should be ichthyologists. He believed all nice girls should be ichthyologists. Actually he believed that the not nice ones too could instantly become nice if they wanted to study fish. If you could show him that you loved fish he would move heaven and earth and indeed even the apartheid government for you. Yet he was not capable — outside of insisting you loved fish — of showing any favoritism. The subject was what mattered not your skin color or sex. It was all about FISH. He taught us a lot outside of fish, all the same. (The other valuable life lesson was to take your trousers right off if you go into the bushes in wild country to relieve yourself. When pursued by a hippo or black mamba who happens to be in the same bushes, running with them around your ankles is a serious impediment. Better trouserless than dead)

Back in the bad old days of apartheid you could tell very precisely what a white south African’s level of education (and hence job security) by what their attitude to maintaining white privilege was. Professionals wanted it to go. The ‘got the job because I’m white’ foreman would find you a hundred examples of why black people were inferior and maintaining the status quo was all that stood between civilization and barbarism. Seventeen years on you see the same with affirmative action. Of course, both now and then, some people rise above this, look at the bigger picture, or… are just good people. You can guarantee the ones fighting for the status quo to be maintained are the those who feel threatened (or their ideals or friends threatened, knowing they stand on fragile ground). The rest, well, they’re willing to accept or even foster a challenge to that status quo. (BTW this most certainly not a Liberal/Conservative in the political sense split. You will find altruists who are conservative politically and plenty of protectionist status quo-ers who come from political left. And vice versa of course. It’s about self-confidence and, indeed, selfishness, rather than ideology.)

I have found this applies very strongly to writing. I’ve met a few of the kind who are self-centred and insecure and try to put you down or discourage you. And then there are the others. People who put the love of what they do first. I was lucky enough to have my first ventures into the US (via the Internet) met by the latter (after my brush – by post – with the former in the UK (yes, UK publishing is still on my shit-list)) to run into Eric Flint. At that stage Eric was not a long way above me on the writing tree (he was poised for a big leap) but he was anything but protectionist and worried about his status quo. He gave hugely of his time and attention to get me going. I’ve tried to do the same with a bunch of others (you simply can’t do for everyone – but you can be supportive). The story repeats itself through many different authors. And occasionally of course you meet the other kind. Don’t be put off by them. Writing is hard. Getting published harder. But… if someone like me can do it, you can too. And if you need a motivation when your turn comes around to pay forward: besides the satisfaction of pushing forward the writing which you love, you’re showing you’re not a loser.

Oh, and always remember to take your trousers right off, if you might have to run for it.

>Sunday Snippet!

>”The Prostitute’s Escape”

by Jennifer Stevenson

On his first visit, the merchant was a model client. He set a box of precious stones on the prostitute’s lap. “The manners of your city, wherever that good place may be, are fair. Or are they your own?” said Monatin. Cash down payment she usually got, coldly offered. “And you don’t know yet who you want?” He would want her. No sense handing this over to one of the girls.

Sunlight fell on her through the ceiling lattice, so that her reed-green dress phosphoresced in patches and her hair burned a richer mahogany. Monatin ran her fingers through the gems. “You are generous.” She played with a ruby, letting its bloody light spill over her fingertips. “How may I please you?” The ruby ran into her palm like a drop of crimson mercury, quivering, seeking a low place in her flesh. She smiled down at it with lowered lashes.

“I can’t resist you in that color. You must always wear green!” he said huskily, drawing her to him.

Her mouth worked over him inch by inch. “For you,” she murmured, “I will always wear green.”

He stayed a day and a night, as he had paid for.

oOo

“Not that dress–the other. The one you wore when we met.” He found it not always easy to talk to her. She could hear anything, he felt, and forgive. Some nights, his whole life seemed to stream out of his mouth on stinking air and, where it hung about their bodies, was made sweet. What stuck in his throat was that he had come that first day to buy someone, anyone, and had changed his mind. It made him ashamed. Secret treasure had entered his heart in that most artificial of transactions. He could not afford to lose sight of it. To praise her was to purify that first shameful motive. To pay was the other half of honor, for he was first and last a merchant. Yet paying reminded him of his sin. His heart was renewed every night on a thorn.

Monatin knew all there was to know about love. Since her initiation, men had poured out all the pretty speeches there are. The merchant’s was no mystery. She was a mirror to his soul. She showed him what was sacred and beautiful in the world through a veil made of her body. She smiled on him and the sun becurdled his unquiet mind until he basked like a lizard, empty and worshipful, in the place at the center of all things. If he had written her passionate poetry she could not have known more–it took some that way, though not him. Her merchant expressed himself in cash, fine horses and slaves, unset gems, and gifts of an intimate ornamental nature. Monatin found him oddly sweet. His directness touched her where no poem would.

She knew what men wanted most from her, each one with his private hunger, and as a matter of business she gave it.

What he wanted from her was growing inconveniently big. With the gifts now came worship, his imagination making of her personal self both the temple and the goddess.

oOo

“I have built something for you,” he cried. “You must come, you must see it, and I you, in the most perfect setting for your perfection.”

She bit her lip. Leave town? With his command came a bottle of perfume so expensive that the bottle itself would pay her taxes for the year. So she scented herself with the perfume, put on the reed-green dress, and took a chair to his house in the country.

The chair passed under humid cathedral arches festooned with trailing moss, through rings of white villas like wedding cakes for grander and grander weddings. Turbaned men moved their goats from the road to let her pass. Red women, leathered and beaded to the eyebrows, stared her out of countenance. The afternoon rain came down like a kiss on golden fields of enormous aromatic leaves, burnishing the shoulders of her chair-bearers and wetting the hem of the reed-green dress when she leaned out to smell the air.

The merchant met her at a gate of black iron contorted like grapevine. “You are on my property from here on,” he said, and she thought she heard him correctly, to her indignation. Though she smiled, her eyes narrowed. “Come, I’ll show you!” he cried.

On his property a wood, and in the wood a clearing, and in the clearing a garden, and in the garden a pool of ornamental water, and in the pool a shrine of white marble like a tomb or temple. Together they crossed the tiled causeway into the temple. Sunshine poured out of a lattice in the ceiling upon a chair placed just so.

“You are the sun and moon, Monatin! You give meaning to all of life! I will inebriate myself on your wit, I will prostrate myself in your wisdom! When I die, I will come to inhabit the great house of your soul, room upon room of goodness and mercy, the beginning of truth and the end of justice! I will contemplate you and be purified!”

You will pay through the nose for this, my friend, she thought, how did I let him get me out here in the middle of a holiday weekend? The girls at the putatorium would be raising the devil without her supervision.

Paid he had however so she sat, with the faithfulness of her trade, just as he desired, and let the sun cascade over her red-brown hair and the jewels pour into her lap. She did all his favorite things on the very hard marble couch in the shrine. Afterward, in the pool, he lay his head on her belly and told her all about his sin, and she forgave him with a wry smile he could not see. It was stale news to her that a man might pay happily, or love happily, but never both.

When she got back to the city that night, there was a party smashing furniture in the side parlor, the cook had quit, and a girl huddled in tears on the mezzanine, having accepted offers of marriage from two separate drunken young noblemen who had then refused to pay her until their duel for her hand had been settled.

“This cannot go on,” Monatin said.

She was not a stupid woman, nor was this merchant the first troublesome admirer in her career. Over the next months she let him make her further into the woman he loved, and of course also the woman to whom he would give the most–business was business. By this means she contrived her escape. When he covered her with trinkets, she incorporated them into the straps and fringes of her dress. When he put precious combs in her hair, wound priceless silken scarves around her zone and gold chains around her ankles and wrists, she made sure to wear them all, every one, whenever they were together. His cash gifts increased. Monatin measured them carefully against the losses inevitable in the cost of doing business, which she more and more clearly foresaw.

His obsession increased in power. He now knew her for Keeble, for Duve, for Ocean. Every gesture was a divine message to him, so that merely by walking across the room to pour wine for him she tangled him in a welter of sweet inarguable commandments, which he must needs explain to her at length. He bought huge blocks of her time, so that she had to put off several of her regular customers. He was difficult and superior with her political patrons. She had a hovering dread of his confronting the tax collector in her defense.

Still she did her work well. She wore the reed-green dress at all times, scented with his gift of perfume. She was careful always to dress her hair alike to the way she wore it on that first, most wonderful day of his life. She made sure to sing the same songs, perform her professional duties similarly, finally to say only certain words to him, like a priestess handing down a liturgy to her parishioner, faithfully every time they met.

“Never leave me, Monatin! You are my life, you are all that is real!”

oOo

One day, a year from the day of their first meeting, he entered her private room to find a strange woman in the bonnet of a servant standing before a screen with folded arms.

“Where is Monatin?” he demanded. “Why is her chair concealed?”

The woman, plain and middle-aged, hoary-headed and thick about the waist in her housekeeping robe, said sternly, “She is gone.”

“Gone!” he cried, the long-anticipated grief sinking into his breast like a grateful spear.

“She left this for you, and you alone,” said the woman. Setting the screen aside with soft white hands, she left the room.

It was the reed-green dress. It lay over her chair with the sun sparkling on its many trinkets, all known to him, and the costly scarves wound about its zone, smelling of his gift of perfume. The so-familiar anklets and bracelets were there, and most wonderful and terrible of all, the combs he had presented to her, binding a great coiled lock of mahogany-colored hair, still smelling unbearably of her skin, his private doorway to heaven.

The merchant never visited the putatorium again. Possessed by a contented melancholy, he took away the reed-green dress and all its many parts, and put it in its temple on his country estate, draped across the marble chair just so. And when he died perhaps that is indeed the heaven into which he entered.

The prostitute sold the bottle with the remains of the perfume still in it, along with the unset gems, the horses and slaves, and the gold casket he had given her to keep his gifts in. Not counting cash payments that went for overhead, and after taxes, it put his account just over the line into the black. There is such a thing as doing the job far better than the market requires, indeed, too well. Sometimes, however, it is unavoidable.

>Lucy’s Blade

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My very first novel in mass market paperback format, Lucy’s Blade”, has been published this Xmas by Baen. It is a strange sensation. I first wanted to be a novelist back in my early teens. I devoured Saint stories, James Bond, Len Deighton, Modesty Blaise and a wonderful sixties spy series called the Bang Bang Birds – or something similar. In a long and varied career, I have had published more than seventy five scientific research papers, three popular history books, a couple of radio plays, half a dozen computer games and many, many articles aboutgame playing – but never a novel.

So here we are, forty years on from when I lay in the sun in my family’s back garden in Newquay reading a purloined thriller from my mum’s collection and I have a paperback under my own name.

You know, the most important quality for success in life is persistence.

I have just finished my sixth short story for a Baen anthology. It’s called “Beauty is a Witch” and features an anti-hero, the crooked, devious wicca, Rosalynne.

You can find a free extract of “Lucy’s Blade” here:

http://www.baen.com/

If you want to be a writer, write!

John Lambshead

>Boxing Day

>Lots of traditions are associated with Boxing Day. The one I remember is that of the nobility boxing up the leftovers from the Christmas feast to give to the poor or to their servants, depending on who’s telling the story.

These aren’t exactly leftovers, but they’re fond memories of the holiday season. They’re also grist for the writer’s mill.

Earlier this month my husband and I took a quick trip to Carlsbad, New Mexico, with a couple of friends to view the Christmas on the Pecos light show. This is a one hour boat cruise along a stretch of water that’s not actually part of the Pecos River. It’s surrounded by beautiful homes, most of them with beautiful light displays.

I found out just how hard it is to take photos at night from a moving boat. The full moon floated overhead, as if to say that no matter how much effort man puts into light displays, Mother Nature can’t be beat.

Before heading home the next morning, we drove down to Carlsbad Carverns to take the Left Hand Tunnel tour. This is a guided walking tour by lantern light. On the way in, the only light we were permitted was that of the candle lanterns issued to each of us. This is the way the cave’s first explorer, Jim White, saw it, except that he was alone and instead of a candle lantern, he had a coffee pot full of oil with a rope for a wick.

Our guide, Ranger Rick (I kid you not), was terrific and reassuring from the start. Before the tour began, the lights in the cave went out a few times due to high winds up top. I was glad we were going to have our own lanterns. Glad to be in the calm, pleasantly cool cavern, too, instead of being buffeted by 60 mph winds.

The footing in the tunnel was rough and we had to help each other avoid obstacles. Ranger Rick told great stories about the filming of a bad TV movie (Gargoyles) in the tunnel in the 70s, and a hostage situation that also took place in Left Hand Tunnel that I’d never heard of.

On the way out we could take flash pictures, including these of drapery and a stalagmite. It was fun, if a little scary at times. I would do it again in a hot second.

Pati Nagle

(PS—I still have 2009 year-at-a-glance calendars. Send me your mailing address and I’ll send you one for free.)

>But the dog DID eat my homework

>This is not exactly a post to say there is no post. Not exactly, because of course I am posting. It is however very close to that.

I have been battling a horrible cold and the final phase of a novel at the same time — children don’t try this at home — it is neither a pleasant experience nor a particularly fruitful one. I’m averaging nailing down about twenty pages of “final” text (pre-last pass, of course) before I have to nap. Throw Holiday shopping trips on top of this, and you have a very exhausted writer who feels like she’s using her last ounce of strength and really doesn’t have much more to give.

I hope as a compensation it is all right if I post the opening of this novel I’m working on finishing beneath. It’s called DarkShip Thieves and it is — sigh — currently overdue at Baen. I have hopes of having it sent in next week, at least if I can get over the very stupid cold in the next couple of days.

One

I never wanted to go to space. Never wanted see the eerie glow of the Powerpods. Never wanted to visit Circum Terra. Never had any interest in finding out the truth about the DarkShips. You always get what you don’t ask for.

Which was why I woke up in the dark of shipnight, within the greater night of space in my father’s space cruiser.

Before full consciousness, I knew there was an intruder in my cabin. Not rationally. There was no rationality to it. The air smelled as it always did on shipboard, as it had for the week I’d spent here – stale, with the odd tang given by the recycling.

The engines, below me, hummed steadily. We were departing Circum Terra – a maneuver that involved some effort, to avoid accidentally ramming the station or the ship. Shortly we’d be Earth bound, though slowing down and reentry let alone landing, for a ship this size, would take close to a week.

My head felt a little light, my stomach a little queasy, from the artificial grav. Yes, I know. Scientists say that’s impossible. They say artificial gravity is just like true gravity to the senses. You don’t feel a thing. They are wrong. Artificial grav always made me feel a little out of balance, like a couple of shots of whiskey on an empty stomach.

Even before waking fully, I’d tallied all this. There was nothing out of the ordinary. And yet there was a stranger in my cabin.

It never occurred to me to doubt it. Years in reformatories, boarding schools and mental hospitals, had taught me that the feeling I woke up with was often the right one. I assumed I’d heard something while asleep – a door closing, a step on the polished floor.

It didn’t matter. There was someone in my cabin. Now, why? Knowing the why determined how I dealt with it.

There were three reasons that came to mind immediately. Theft, rape, murder. But all of them were impossible. The space cruiser belonged to Daddy dearest and there was no one aboard save Daddy dearest, my charming self – his only daughter – and his handpicked crew of about twenty, half of whom were his bodyguard goons and half maintenance-crew of one description or another. Far more than I thought it would take to run a ship this size, but then what did I know about ships?

Now, whatever I thought of my father, the Honorable Patrician Alexander Milton Sinistra of the ruling council of Earth, I neither thought him stupid nor stupidly inclined to think the best of people. His goons were the scum of the Earth – only because there were no real populations on any other planet – but they were picked, trained, conditioned and, for all I knew, mind-controlled for loyalty. Hulking giants, they would, each one of them, have laid down his life for my father. Not the least because without Father they’d only be wanted men with no place to hide. And Father took good care of the families of those who bought it in the line of duty.
As for his other servants and employees, they were the best Father could command, in any specialty he needed.

None of them, nor anyone who had ever seen Father in a white hot rage would ever do anything against Father or his family. Well… except me. I defied Father all the time. But I was the sole exception.

There were no crimes at our home in Syracuse Seacity. There weren’t even any misdemeanors. No servant had ever been caught stealing so much as a rag from the house stores. Hell, no servant even broke a plate without apologizing immediately and profusely.

So the three reasons I could come up with for an intruder in my room made no sense. No one would dare steal from me, rape me or murder me under Father’s roof. And no one – no one – who had ever dealt with me or heard rumors about me would do it even away from Father.
And yet, I was as sure that there was a stranger in my cabin as I was of being female, or nineteen or named Athena Hera Sinistra.

Without opening my eyes I looked through my eyelashes – an art I’d learned at several sojourns at various institutions – and turned in bed. No more than the aimless flailing of a sleeper seeking a better position. The cabin was dark. For a moment I could see nothing. I could turn the lights on by calling out, or by reaching. But either of those would give away that I wasn’t asleep.
And then, my eyes adjusting, I saw him standing out of the deeper darkness,. It was a him. It had to be a him. Broad shoulders and tall though not as tall as most of Father’s bodyguards. Nor as broad. He stood by my bed, very still.

My heart sped up. I tensed. I didn’t know who he was, nor what he was about to do, but it couldn’t be good. No one with good intentions would come in like that, while I was asleep and then stand there, quietly waiting.

Then I thought it might not be one of Father’s people at all. Look, our security was good. Really good. But we’d just been on a four-day-long state-visit to Circum Terra, where the population was the top scientists in their field. Smart people. Smart people who were halfway through duty rotations a couple of years long. Smart people who had stared and sighed when I walked around and attended parties and been my most flirty self in the clothes that were one of the few perks of being Father’s daughter.

If one of those people had sneaked abroad…

Moving slowly, in the same seemingly aimless movements, I clenched my hands on the blanket about an arm’s length apart, and made fists, grabbing handfuls of the stuff. I’d have preferred to twist it around my wrists, so it wouldn’t come loose, but that would be way too obvious.
The man in the dark took a step towards me. He was good. If he was a scientist, he must have been a cat burglar in a previous life. He moved silently. If I hadn’t been awake, he surely wouldn’t have awakened me now.

I sprang. I hopped up to the edge of the bed. The ceramite bed-side gave a better surface for bouncing. I bounced, on my tiptoes and flew up, blanket stretched between my hands.