Happy Wednesday, one and all! With Juneteenth Day just around the corner, I would like to take a moment to step back from fantasy this Pride Month and focus on the power of a different kind of story: Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison.
This will not be a typical tasting of the story. A sip of the introduction, a sip of the first chapter. And so very much to savor.
A lovely day to you all, my fellow creatives! I’m really excited to have caught SFF author Adrian Tchaikovsky for another chat as he and readers celebrate the release of his latest, Shards of Earth. If you’d like to read our first interview, please click here.
Welcome back to Jean Lee’s World, Sir! Thank you so much for stopping by to share your work, your thoughts, your bugs, and all the jazz. In our last chat together, we discovered a mutual admiration for the Queen of the Fantastic, Diana Wynne Jones. One of these days I would love to visit England and see where she spent time as a child and student. Have you ever gone on a literary pilgrimage? If so, where? If not, where do you hope to go and why?
This isn’t anything I’ve done, to be honest. (Shakespeare, maybe, but that’s more just standard tourist stuff. And when I went to Oxford a friend took me to Tolkien’s old drinking den, but that was also just ‘a thing you do’). I have an odd relationship with places. People always seem to expect writers to be vastly plugged in to landscapes and the place they grew up and exotic locales they’ve visited. I’m someone who exists very much inside his own head. I draw from a melange of images that filter into my head but my connections to place are generally internal and imaginary. Which on the one hand is probably entirely unhealthy, but on the other hand is probably why I’ve been able to soldier on with things despite adverse external conditions.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
You mention Diane Wynne Jones and there’s a lot of that in her work, with the way she can use carefully chosen language to manage a reader’s expectations and perspective. Another enormously formative book I read was Pratchett’s Strata – one of his very early pre-Discworld (or proto-Discworld in a way) books. It remains the book with the biggest twist I’ve ever read. It turns the whole universe on its head, basically. But what it also does is suddenly make sense of a whole series of weird little inconsistencies that almost look like errors the editor missed when you first (as a 12 year old) romp through it. Except it’s all intentional and it’s all part of a carefully constructed trap.
Here in the States, summer break means long, agenda-less days for kids. Thankfully, all three of my children are avid readers, which promises a smidge of peace in the house. So now comes that precarious balance of celebrating my children’s reading while also challenging them with trying new authors/stories. I recently dared to let my eldest, Blondie, read my WIP Middler’s Pride, and I cannot tell you the wave of relief I felt when she said she liked it. What sort of stories does your son enjoy and recommend? Has he read any of your own stories yet?
So my son doesn’t read much. It doesn’t come naturally or easily to him, which obviously cuts a bit. I do read to him, though, and there’s a small list of books he’s completely fallen in love with. He loves Wynne Jones’ Homeward Bounders, Sophia MacDougall’s Mars Evacuees and its sequel, Space Hostages. He really liked Frances Hardinge’s Fly-By-Night and John Robertson’s Little Town of Marrowville. And I have read him a few of mine, and he really took to The Expert System’s Brother, which was nice.
Looking at your site, I see you recently compiled a list of your short story publications. YOWZA, you published a lot of short pieces in the midst of crafting novels. I confess that I get a bit muddled over submitting short pieces. Some recommend scouting journals first to see what their contests call for and write for the contests, but then others say to write first and then see what journals take the sort of things you wrote. Which process did you use—or did you use a different process altogether?
I wrote some stories on spec and then was able to find a home for them later, but there’s a network of small press contacts that’s fairly easy to get on the radar of, and there are always anthologies being put together with various themes and criteria, so I just wrote and submitted for whatever turned up and for which the ideas came. Writing to a prompt like that is a great exercise for the imagination.
So the art I share on Twitter is very much not connected to any of my books, It’s a relaxation thing, because there’s definitely a part of my mind that needs to do something that’s not writing, but still ends up with a finished product that I can feel proud of (I also paint Warhammer figures!). However, as these things go, I now have quite a collection of art and that professional part of my mind is telling me that I should be doing something with it, so… perhaps the connection will go the other way.
I’d like to touch back on your skill in crafting fantastically beautiful and complex fictionalseries. Instead of looking at the worldbuilding as we did before, let’s consider your prewriting process for the plot. See, I’m something of a pantser. I love getting into a world with the characters and just seeing where they take me and work out the plot accordingly. In creating series the likes of Shadows of the Apt, however, I can’t imagine “pantsing” to be a productive method in building a solid plot arc for a series. In our last chat you mentioned learning how to write from reading a lot, so would you say your planning process for your own novels was inspired by something you read, or perhaps from the trial and error of early writing? Or perhaps even both?
Well Shadows of the Aptwas unusual in that the world was already thoroughly explored in a role-playing game I ran years earlier at university. In general, though, I’m a heavy planner but I start with the world. Worlds are what interest me, as reader and writer, and I feel they’re what the SFF genres can do in a way no others can. I’m always interested in bringing a new world to readers, and the plots and characters arise organically out of the details of the world that I’ve already set out.
Speaking of craftingnew worlds,do you use any special author-friendly software to keep your writing organized? A friend of mine highly recommends Scrivener and Wonderdraft, but I’m a curmudgeon when it comes to learning new software.
I basically just use Word to write notes and lists and things like that, and sometimes I use pencil sketches or a drawing tablet to create visual records of what things look like. I know a lot of authors who do use dedicated writing software, and it’s like everything else, if it helps you, then it’s good.
The protagonists you write are not limited to one gender. Considering the care writers must take in writing outside of their physical experience, what tips could you share for those writers who want to write a for gender, race, or creed that is not their own?
I mean, the protagonists I write aren’t limited to one species! I’ve always pushed myself beyond the natural knee-jerk of characters who are basically of my own demographic, because it’s a very easy trap to fall into. I believe in positively expanding character diversity, especially in a fantasy world where the only limits are those you’ve set for yourself. There’s no reason to have everything follow some stale old stock pattern where it’s always men (white, straight, etc) who Do The Things, and everyone else is a supporting character. And the payoff is, books with a variety of characters are basically more interesting, imho.
Congratulations on your latest publication, Shards of Earth! Its premise promises grand adventure, to be sure, but I cannot help but contemplate your word choice in the title: “Shards of Earth”. I immediately think of something small, broken, but also sharp and able to pierce something strong. (I also think of Dark Crystal, but that’s not really relevant here.) Come to think, loads of your titles have a certain flare with word choice that hooks readers. A few examples:
Cage of Souls
Salute the Dark
“Souls” are so ethereal, substance-less, yet we can cage them? Spiders are of the dark, skittering and silent, but they hold light? The word choices are just too enticing to not contemplate them. I don’t know if this is peculiar or not, but usually, my titles are in my head before I’ve even written a word. The title appears with a visual of a scene, and I have to grab it and copy it before it flies off on me into the unmapped region of the story’s fog. Do your titles arrive early in your process, or do they come later, perhaps with feedback, as you edit?
So the shameful truth here is that the majority of my working titles don’t survive contact with the editor. Either they get trimmed or changed a little, or changed completely. Doors of Eden was originally “The Brain Garden”! I’ve come to accept that what sounds good to me during the writing process doesn’t always hit the ears of others very sweetly. 🙂 We often have a huge faff and rush over the actual title post-submission, after my original gets voted down.
Speaking of those moments of inspiration, I’m also intrigued by Shards of Earth’s conflict with these architect aliens vs. man pushing its own evolution forward. Your antagonists are as intriguing as your protagonists in every novel, so I cannot help but wonder which came first in Shards of Earth (and/or in any other novel of your choosing): the villains, or the heroes?
So in Shards, the Architects came first. I remember talking the series concept over with my agent long ago, where we hammered out various elements (including stuff that will only be made explicit in book 3!) of the setting. The idea of the enormous world-reshaping monsters is definitely the heart of the series.
You can’t go wrong with world-reshaping monsters!
Let’s wrap up with another creature question.As a writer, what would youchoose as your spirit animal?
Well I write a lot of animals so I’ve got a fair few to choose from. I tend to write about the animals that really appeal to me, too, so they’re right there on the page. So maybe octopus, or praying mantis, or salticid spider… Or perhaps some unholy combination of all three.
Thank you so much for sharing your time in the midst of a crazy release schedule! I hope you and your son continue to discover new stories to enjoy together, and that the worlds of your imagination never lose their wonder.
My podcast series continues with a detour to Juneteenth before returning to fantasy in celebration of Pride Month. We’ll also consider the timeless, transcending character that is the Outsider-turned-Hero. Character names, everyday absurdities, and more author interviews are on their way!
I hope you enjoy this sip from Beyond the Black Door with me! If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories.
Hello, my fellow creatives! Summer has returned to the Midwest at last. While my kids eagerly toss their backpacks into the air crying Hallelujah, I am wrapping up finals while also preparing for the next term. It’s a little scary, changing over terms, but, you know…we manage somehow. 🙂
But all this monsterly ruckus does not mean we cannot think of writerly things. In fact, I was fortunate enough to host a virtual Creative Salon for some fellow teachers about the importance of oral storytelling for its cultural, creative, and classroom significance. Let me take you through a few bits of research, perhaps a pondering or two, so that we may all remember just what is treasured–preserved–known through the tradition of oral storytelling.
The oral traditions and expressions include of many spoken such us riddles, proverbs, folklore, tales, legends story, myths, epic songs and poems, charms, prayers, chants, songs, dramatic performances and more. Oral traditions and expressions are used to give information about the knowledge, social and culture values as well as the collective memory.
Cultural Preservation: Rediscovering the Endangered Oral Tradition of Maluku
Think back to your days listening to a story a loved one tells you, or that you told yourself. “Once upon a time”… and off you go into someplace Other and New. Such a common little phrase, isn’t it? We hear it over and over in familiar fairy tells and legends. You can even trim that phrase down further to simply “Once.” Countless stories start at this very moment. These stories come from across land and time to reach us, here and now, and pull us into their “once”: stories of battles waged, quests completed, families reunited.
Or perhaps those stories come from an Elsewhere altogether different: lands of myth and magic, where the Impossible is just as real as you, or you…ooooryou!
Campfires call upon that Impossible Magic, don’t they? When the words of a spoken story combine with the sparks and stars, we cannot help but fall under the story’s spell. Such was the way we and others wove with words: summer camp’s ghost stories, Dad’s evening devotions, or the bizarre fairy tales we’d tell ourselves while poking the embers with our sticks still sticky from the last of the marshmallows.
In the time of Dickens, reading aloud at home was very much a common household entertainment. The practice had become broadly accessible in Britain a hundred years earlier, with the spread of literacy and the increased availability of books and periodicals…they saw reading as a pick-me-up and a dangerous influence, a source of improvement, a way to stave off boredom, and even as a health-giving substitute…
The Enchanted Hour
But let us not be so foolish as to suppose the stories told could only be for fun. Telling tales aloud could be extremely instructive, too, for any class. From oral historians describing battles to Caesar as he dined, to the man reading newspapers to Cuban cigar-rollers as they worked, we have depended on the oral storyteller to take us outside of ourselves and witness that which we cannot experience otherwise. It is through the telling of lives that we have learned what it is like to emigrate to a foreign land, to live in a centuries-old slum, to hide in the trenches as bombs decimate the land. Countless cultures have depended upon oral storytelling to preserve their histories and customs, and it is through such practice that modern generations have been able to preserve the ways of their ancestors.
The art of storytelling was practiced by both men and women in Lakota culture and society, where a form of high culture existed prior to the reservation period. Those individuals born in the early part of the twentieth century retained memories of narratives told by grandparents who lived during this “high culture” period, which extended from the time before contact with Europeans to approximately 1850.
George Sword’s Warrior Narratives
Nowadays, Kapata is performed (sung) widely [in Indonesia]. In its development, Kapata helps to carry out the function as the medium to enrich language and literature…Another function of Kapata is a social control function. It can be found in the texts of Kapata such as in Kapata Nasihat in Central Maluku from parents to children or from kings to his people. Kapata [maintains] the sanctity of customs regulations and upholding custom laws in a particular community; and to preserve and maintain custom relations that have been established in a community for years.
Rediscovering the Endangered Oral Tradition of Maluku
Māori who participate in ceremonies and meetings there, descendants of those who composed and passed on the ancient records, know the lineage of their forebears because of often quoted genealogies, which were also preserved in the oral tradition. The words handed down from the ancestors are cherished and kept current in various ways and through new media….The literature that bears the closest relationship to the oral tradition in its original form are the texts that Māori first wrote down from memory or that were written for them as they dictated…
Maori Oral Tradition
The West had shaped the knowledge and discourse about Africa for hundreds of years and it was important to shift that power relationship. Obviously, decades of European colonial incursion and rule needed to be sorted out as it pertained to earlier scholarship….Certainly, African societies have preserved their histories, cultures, and ideas in nonverbal forms in the plastic, musical, dancing, and ritual arts, and these need to be taken into account when seeking a thorough historical picture. This also allows us to understand how earlier events have been reconsidered or even reshaped over time for contemporary purposes.
On the Status of African Oral Tradition Since 1970s: An Interview with Robert Cancel
Reading becomes a priority again. One of my university colleagues broke down the current literacy plight as an inevitable consequence of the “multimodality” of our entertainment. Once radio and film came to Main Street, people no longer needed newspapers and books like they used to. A representative of Wisconsin Literacy concurred, noting that a child is not raised in a home where reading matters, that mindset is carried into adulthood and passed on to the next generation. This mindset propels that vicious cycle of low-literacy onward: no motivation to read = inability to decipher and synthesize text both simple and complex. Forget research–low-literacy means being unable to properly fill out a job application or understand a medical prescription. Studies shared in The Enchanted Hour show that the majority of a child’s neurological development occurs in the first five years, and when a child watches a video instead of listening to a book being read, that development suffers greatly.
Listening to a picture book being read, however, helps children connect the pictures and words they see with the words they hear. They hear how the words sound, how the sentences sound, and are therefore able to use those words and sentences themselves with confidence. And this isn’t just for kids, by the way. I have recommended my adult learners reading fun stuff for years, and the response is overwhelmingly positive. Reading for fun makes reading for school a smidge easier. Reading for school makes writing for school a smidge easier. Writing for school makes writing for work a smidge easier. Put all those smidges together, and you’ve got yourselves a broken vicious cycle.
If a child sees something in a parent that that child aspires to, he or she will copy that parent and be content.
The Reading Promise
This is another reason why I started my podcast last month: in all my encouragement to students, I was neglecting myself. Story Cuppings became a way for me to not only sample and study stories through reading their first chapters, but to read aloud and experience new language again and again. If you’ve a book–be it one you love, wrote, or both–you’d like me to share on Story Cuppings, just let me know!
Passion swells to share one’s life experience, the struggles here and now. “Once upon a time” is not limited to Past Days or Elsewheres. “Once” means “now” as much as it means “then.” “Once” there is a group of people who struggle, not struggled, against adversity. That “once” takes us to the accounts of individuals in Hong Kong, in the United States, in Myanmar, in Poland, in Mexico. It is through the words of an individual—what they see and hear, what they experience at the hands of others—that we learn of the epic quests and battles of today.
And do not assume “epic” must mean “global stakes.” On the contrary, the most epic victories can be one family, one person, living life one season to the next. Such are the stories we hear at family gatherings, be they around a campfire, kitchen table, or fence post. As fellow Wisconsinite storyteller and documentarian Jeremy Apps explains:
My father and my uncles were storytellers, and so were several of the neighbors in the farming community where I grew up in central Wisconsin. Family members told stories when we gathered for celebrations, birthday parties, anniversaries, and at Christmas and Thanksgiving family affairs. Our farm neighbors told stories during threshing and wood sawing bees, while they waited at the grist mill for their cow feed to be ground, and when they came to town on Saturday nights and waited for their wives to grocery shop. These stories were always entertaining, as many of them had a humorous bent to them, but they were also filled with information—how the cattle were surviving during the summer drought, what price Sam got for his potato crop and how he managed to get that price. How the weather this year was not nearly as bad as the weather twenty years ago. Many of the stories were also sad, such as how Frank was making it on his poor farm since his wife died and left him with three kids to fee and care for.
Telling Your Own Story
When I read App’s words and see his work like A Farm Winter, I see the shine of the pivotal truth he wrote in Telling Your Own Story….
Your stories are snippets of history.
Never, EVER, sell your own story short. Whether you weave your experiences with imagined elements or you stitch the raw details together for all to know, YOUR story matters.
Now, tell it aloud.
Hear the sounds of the words you choose, the rhythm they create like the genealogies repeated by the Maori over and over as the story is told by the teller. Listen to the nuances of your characters’ voices–what words embody the tones you use when your voice dresses up as each character? What words bring sensory feeling to the settings you describe?
There is beauty in your story’s language, my fellow writers. Share it with the sparks and stars, and see its magic pass from one generation to the next.~
Would you believe I’m actually working on a humor writing workshop for my university this summer? I’m still working out how I got roped into that, too. Plus we need to FINALLY talk about the process of choosing character names. Let’s not forget studying those character archetypes that cross time and culture! There’s lots of literary fun to share over the coming months, not to mention some more kickin’ author interviews.