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.
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.
I have written about The Hobbit’s worldbuilding before. If you’d like to read about that, click here.
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. I keep discovering more and more fantasy books I’d like to try, so perhaps we’ll stick with fantasy? Or perhaps not! I’m enjoying the promise of possibility far too much. x
Welcome back, my fellow creatives! As my children’s school year comes to an end–and my students bombard me with finals to grade–the online celebration of fantasy fiction continues with Wyrd and Wonder.
This month’s interview is unique. Rather than interviewing an indie author, I have interviewed an indie publisher. My friends, welcome to the world of Wyldblood Press!
Let’s start with the niceties. Introduce yourself, please!
I’m Mark Bilsborough, publisher and main editor at Wyldblood Press. We publish short and long fiction on our website, in our bi-monthly speculative fiction magazine and novels. We publish digitally and in print.
Before we dive into the Wyldblood, let’s first here about your journey as a reader. What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
Tough question. I can think of a few I liked when I was younger but dislike now – Tolkein, for instance (and I know this might sound sacrilegious). I loved Lord of the Rings when I was twelve but when I tried to reread it a few years ago I found myself bogged by the meandering narrative, irritated by the burst into song and puzzled by the lack of female characters. Plus I hold him responsible for the glut of high fantasy names and by-the-numbers epic fantasy plotlines that make many doorstop-sized fantasy books so inaccessible. But without Tolkein would we have had Game of Thrones? So I’m still in awe of his influence and legacy even though I won’t be digging into The Silmarillion any time soon.
Tolkein aside, I’ve grown into fantasy more generally and I can appreciate the flexibility of the form more now. And I like poetry now. I’d always hated it (thanks, education, for making me read it), but Simon Armitage, Carol Anne Duffy, Seamus Heaney, Percy Shelley and John Keats (and a whole bunch of others) are definitely on my reading list now.
I took a while to come around to Becky Chambers and Emily St John Mandell but I’m glad I did.
What inspired you to found Wyldblood Press? Did you see something unethical in the publishing industry that you felt could be righted with Wyldblood?
I launched Wyldblood Press deep in lockdown last year. I’d just self-published a collection of my own short stories through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service and I thought “well, that was easy!” I then thought, “wouldn’t it be better to publish through an imprint?” So I set up Wyldblood and invited submissions.
But then I thought (and this is where the ethics come in) that it would be wrong to publish my own stories if I’m publishing other people – why should I get a free pass to publication when other people have to go through a rigorous and competitive selection process? So I send my own stories to other places and keep my fingers crossed.
I’m not new to editing though: I used to run a sword and sorcery fanzine called ‘Crom’ and for many years I’ve been producing journals for British Mensa – first on creative writing and latterly on speculative fiction.
Sounds like experience abounds in your writing life! Does writing energize or exhaust you?
TRUTH. I love to write, but finding time to do so is an eternal battle. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Planting my behind on the seat. I’m easily distracted – I guess most writers are – so firm discipline is important. And it would help if Twitter could close down for a few house every day too.
In writing short fiction, you have to hook readers to care about characters, ground them in your story’s setting, and leave them pondering about your story’s end all within a few hundred to a thousand words. Can you walk us through the process of crafting your fiction’s pacing and language to accomplish so much so quickly?
I’ve got a big whiteboard and a multicolored clutch of marker pens. I then plan it out in big, sweeping curves making sure the story beats are all there and in the right place. Seeing the whole thing visually makes it easier to see whether the story is paced well – this works better for novels, because there’s more to think about – but it works for short fiction too.
Language is important. With flash fiction there’s no meat on the bones and every word must count. So draft revise, draft, revise, draft, revise is my advice, always asking ‘does the story need me to say that, in that way?
Many writers, and not just beginning writers, fall in love with their own words (I know I do) and sometimes it’s hard to cut out those perfect metaphors – but it’s not about the author – it’s about the story.
Oh, I fall in love with my own words far, far too often, lol. What would you say are common traps for aspiring writers?
Thinking they know how to write when they don’t. Thinking it’s easy to get published. Thinking their great original idea hasn’t been seen before, many times. Thinking they don’t need to get critiqued and seek out the opinions of others. Feeling down when they get rejected (we all get rejected – dust off and resubmit!).
How did publishing your first story change your process of writing?
My first published story was a competition win in a UK print magazine: Writing Magazine. They paid me a nice professional fee and all my friends and family could pick it up in their local supermarket. I thought “hey, this is easy.” How wrong I was! I think I learned more from the subsequent rejections, kind editor comments and networking.. The competition win gave me confidence and probably an impetus to push my writing – but the process? Trial and error, and a willingness to take and work on feedback.
How long on average does it take you to write a short story? I’d love to hear more about your process, as I’m always working on that balance of writing, teaching, and parenting.
I’m pretty quick and I tend to write my first drafts in long sprints. I learned that on Odyssey, where we had to produce a new short story every week. We had a 6,000 word upper limit and I always like to get my money’s worth. I’m also a deadline-chaser – if you give me months to do something I’ll start writing a day before it’s due and deliver it at five to midnight. So I had to write fast.
I write best late at night after everyone’s gone to bed. But that’s just me.
Redrafting (and you have to redraft) takes longer and I set time aside for that. I’ll usually show the first draft around other writers for feedback then, if I agree, I might make some changes. Then I do a proofing edit. Sometimes that’s enough, but more often than not it’s rinse and repeat.
Marketing is often the bane of many indie authors. Do you have any tips on marketing and/or platform building that you’ve found effective with your own writing or publications?
Get social. Twitter etc don’t come naturally to me but they’re really important. Network. Go to places (real or virtual). Be seen. Be noisy (put pleasant). Build a website, a brand, a reputation. Sell to places. Network. And advertise there’s a way to do this profitably – but it takes patience, perseverance and a steep learning curve).
The most important thing, though is clarity. Knowing what the objective is (sales? Profit? Exposure?) then being clear about the methods and the message.
The werewolf anthology was pretty much unplanned. We emphasised wolves in our early marketing and branding because Wyldblood seemed to suggest wolves. And so, without specifically asking, people were sending a lot of werewolf stories our way. So many, that we had enough good ones for an anthology. So we did one.
It’s obvious in hindsight that calling our press Wyldblood and using a wolf head as a logo would have that effect. But at the time all I thought was that my grandfather’s middle name – Wydblood – would make a great name for a publisher.
Your announcement for your werewolf anthology Call of the Wyld got me thinking of those iconic pieces of folklore that haunt us through the centuries. One of my favorite fantasy authors, Diana Wynne Jones, had this to say about writing:
If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you can imagine.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this quote.
Great quote. Most folklore is metaphor and speaks to our hopes and (usually) our fears. Werewolves – loss of control, release into savagery. Vampires – identity crisis (coming of age, embracing sexuality, the lure of danger). Fairy tales are usually about innocence lost (Hansel and Gretel. The Pied Piper. Pinocchio). Myths and legends are about making sense of a confusing world (thunder and lightning? Must be the gods fighting). The myths shift and adapt because we shift and adapt – we don’t (I hope) believe in the thunder god now but we’re happy to buy into the Marvel reimaging of, say, Thor. The image still speaks of power, and of beings more might than us, of hard choices and titanic struggles.
And Vampires have come a long way since Bram Stoker (and before – vampire folklore stretches back through time). Today’s vampires have their affliction under control and are presented as attractive love interests (Twilight, The Vampire Diaries), or are footsolders in the war against the Lycan (Twilight). Or are substitute zombies, laying waste to humanity (The Passage). But in all iterations they represent a dark and sensuous alternative to the mundanity of our own lives. They’re attractive immortal, seductive – our forbidden fruit. Just one sip…
Are there particular authors you friends with, or authors that have inspired you to become a better writer?
I’m in a writer’s group with Jaine Fenn, who’s been published many times by Gollancz and Angry Robot, and I hang out from time to time with Tiffani Angus (who’s just been shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Award for best novel – Threading the Labyrinth) and Jacey Bedford, who’s probably lost count of the number of her books DAW has published. Vaughan Stanger’s a good friend (and one of our first readers) and dozens of his short stories have appeared seemingly everywhere, often multiple times.
I’m part of the Milford Writer’s network – a loose collection of writers who have attended the annual Milford writing workshop in Wales. That’s a networking and critiquing group – that keeps me sane and grounded. They push me, gently point out my writing’s flaws and praise its good points.
I came across a lot of famous ‘name’ writers both on my Creative Writing Master’s course and Jeanne Cavelos’ excellent Odyssey writing workshop. I tried to learn from them all. My biggest early influence, though, was Hugo-winner Kij Johnson. I went on one of her novel writing workshops at the University of Kansas and she was inspiring, guiding with enthusiasm, openness and insight. She’s also one of the best writers I’ve ever come across.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Yes – usually when I have to read something. As an English major at University endless great works were required reading – in my defence I read some of them, but I kept being distracted by all the great science fiction books in the library.
I also get intimidated by our massive submissions pile. I love seeing great stories, but sometimes I don’t have the head space (or time) to work through them. Thank God for first readers (I’d be lost without them).
I review books for an SF newssite ( www.concatenation.org ) and I get real reader’s block if I come across something I can’t get into. The normal way round that would be to read something else but if I’m reviewing I feel obliged to finish – and that can block me for weeks.
I get writer’s block too – I have it now. I’m putting off edits for some short fiction because I hate the redrafting process. The first draft is a massive creativity burst but after that the process becomes more mundane and I worry that it sucks the joy out. But I have a deadline and deadlines are a great motivator.
A massive submissions pile sounds like writers love submitting for Wyldblood! You published the first edition of Wyldblood Magazine this past January—congratulations! Are you currently accepting submissions? What does it take for a piece of writing to be featured in your magazine?
We’re usually open in some submission category or other so it’s always worth checking out the website. At the moment (mid April) we’re open for flash fiction (we publish a story once a week on the website and we’re always hungry for material), open for novel pitches (synopsis and first 10,000 words) and open for steampunk stories (up to 10,000 words for an upcoming anthology: Runs like Clockwork. We’ll reopen for short stories on July 14th.
To get published means beating off some very fine competition. The stories we take have strong, clear narratives, are cleverly written and have engaging characters. It goes without saying they need to have got the basics right – structure, theme, conflict, resolution – and give us confidence in the author’s writing ability (there are only so many comma splices I can overlook).
Thank you so much for your time and tips, Mark! I look forward to seeing the new worlds gathered for Runs like Clockwork. Folks, I hope you check out Wyldblood Press soon…and perhaps my new podcast when you have a few quiet minutes, hint hint. 🙂
I think we’re about ready to talk about names…or the power of familial storytelling. One of these University projects will come up, to be sure, lol. I’ll continue reading fantasy fiction for my podcast, and Blondie is working on ANOTHER story to share with you! Be still, my writing heart! xxxxxxx
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. Let’s all enjoy different genres and styles of storytelling throughout the year, shall we? xxxxxx
Happy Wednesday, one and all! I’ve officially got the first episode of my podcast done and done. To help celebrate Wyrd and Wonder–and because it’s just been recommended so gosh darn much–I chose to start with Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko. What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out together.
I hope you enjoy this sip from the story with me. Any feedback on the podcast itself will also be greatly appreciated, as I hope to make this a weekly thing. x
Welcome back, fellow creatives! I hope spring brings you days of renewal and hope. I’m in a daze with all the conference work for university, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel! With the right music and support, I can pace myself to reach that light.
We all learned when we were wee that music carries a special storytelling power. Maybe there was that one movie soundtrack you listened to over and over again to relive your favorite scenes. Maybe there was a favorite musical where the songs of characters help tell the story, or an opera where the emotions of instruments and characters alike blended into one voice. I was very much a soundtrack child, but my father’s love of New Age music had its influences on me, too, and one album in particular got a play on our stereos: David Arkenstone‘s Quest of the Dream Warrior.
Now you may be wondering why I titled this blog post Two Steps from Hell and here I’m sharing New Age from the 90s. Hold yer hightops, I’m getting there.
In a highly, highly visually-charged culture like the U.S. of A., engaging in music that told a story–no stage, no movie, no book, just music–felt very unique to me as kid. Music like this feels more…more open to the possibility of telling multiple stories. Yes, Arkenstone had one story in mind when he composed the music, but because the visuals of the story were left to the audience, I felt like I could take those sounds and make a story of my own. (I did, too. It involved a band of bandits helping a kid thwart an evil sorcerer. At one point he became a giant eagle for coolness. Wonder where that story is…Anyway.)
This is where Thomas Bergersen comes in. Another kid from a small town, though his is in Norway. Just another soul who loved music. But while I enjoyed taking my lessons and then moving to words, Bergersen taught himself composition and orchestration. In the mid-2000s He partnered with Nick Phoenix, a composer based in the States, and together they created Two Steps from Hell. Their music has appeared in loads of movie trailers like Batman v. Superman, but I’d rather focus on their albums here, for what is this month of May but a time to celebrate the fantasy storytelling we love?
Yes, my friends, Wyrd and Wonder is back! Let us see how story-music of others may inspire your own storytelling.
Perhaps your characters are on a journey through a land of light and mystery. Perhaps danger runs as freely as the river alongside their road. Can’t you feel it in the strings, in the herald of the brass singing in the air?
Oh, don’t let the synth take you out of this moment. One of my favorite elements of Two Steps from Hell is their ability to bring voice and synth together with the orchestra. There is a timelessness here, a genre-bending that allows the music to reach those in the future, the past, or an Elsewhere altogether.
Like the sea. Perhaps your characters are not upon the land at all, but upon the water, their ship leaping with the crest of every tumultuous wave as they close in upon the enemy before it can attack the innocents ashore.
Fear is cast overboard as your characters take to the cannons, take to the ropes, take to the enemy’s hull and climb, swords divine with sunlight as they battle the enemy from hull to stern.
Two Steps from Hell have several albums available, and I wish dearly I could review them all here. While all albums are epic, each also carries its own identity. Dragon brings such an air to it through the strings without synth, for instance, while Skyworld embraces that synth to add the presence of technology to the setting. Dragon‘s trilling strings show us the dragon wings beating in large, sweeping motions. It cuts the clouds as the warring windjammers upon the water. When the violins run their scales downwards, you know the dragon is diving…to aid? To conquer? It is up to you, storytellers.
For that is the joy of music such as this. It is up to us to create the story, to share what we see when the story is told. Whether the story takes us on a journey of swashbuckling under the sun or through the shadowed realm of our own grief, music guides us into the unknown on wings of hope.
These are the days where we celebrate Impossiblity’s rightful place in our imaginations. All is never truly lost if we take heart. Even the courage of one soul can be enough to vanquish the darkness and rise a legend.
I’m really excited to share my pilot podcast episode next week! We’ll study the story-starts of some fantasy books throughout May–for of course we must–and hopefully by the end of May we’ll know if this hair-brained scheme of mine is, um, you know, going to work, and what have you.
I’ve got a publisher interview coming up as well as some ponderings about names and the importance of oral storytelling in the home. Blondie is also finishing up the illustrations for her story to share here about The Four Realms, which makes my heart smile.
A good morrow to you, my fellow creatives! The cold clouds of April blanket my Wisconsin skies these days. The world is a palette of tans and browns, the wee specks of new green, new life, just barely peeking.
There is, however, always new life to be found in our words. I’m excited to share an indie author who has planted a number of stories across multiple publications. My friends, please welcome Rob D. Scott!
Let’s work through the niceties first. Tell us a bit about yourself, please!
I live in Edinburgh and work in a community college. I only started creative writing three years ago, which is crazy. I should have started years ago. That’s life.
It was winter and a period of really awful weather. I started writing a novel for something to do and out of curiosity. I enjoyed it, so kept going. I read books about writing, did a short on-line course, and started submitting short stories to on-line magazines and competitions while I worked on my first novel (which is now hiding in a cupboard). I’ve started a second one, which will hopefully turn out much better.
I find a lot of writing inspiration in the rural landscape of my state, Wisconsin. How would you say the urban setting of Edinburgh—or the countryside of Scotland—inspire your storytelling?
Edinburgh is a beautiful, amazing city and so many writers have used it. I haven’t that much yet. The countryside is more likely to find their way into my stories.
I usually start a new piece of writing using a memory (recent or distant) of a place or moment; that might be in the city or countryside. I write it almost as a factual description and the story develops from there. Stephen King in his book ‘On Writing’ talks about fossils that writers dig up and that’s what I feel I do. Once I find the right fossil, it soon turns into fiction; (to mix my metaphors) it’s like a paper ship floating down a stream. I just go with it and see where it goes. I might have an idea where it’ll end up, but not always.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
When I was twenty-one, I went for a job interview in a town at the other end of the country just so I could visit the Thomas Hardy museum there. That’s not very ethical – especially as they paid for my travel and a hotel! I was first in the museum in my horrible new interview suit and I lingered there too long and was late for the interview. I didn’t get the job, but the museum was great and the countryside from the train ride was amazing. I had forgotten all about that. I should write that up as a story!
Someday, I’ll visit the USA and go to lots of writers’ houses and museums. Carson McCullers is a big favourite, so I would maybe head down there first.
As you should! 🙂 Nothing saps my creativity like a telephone call from my children’s school principal. What is your writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
I really have no excuses not to produce thousands of words every day. I work but I have free time; especially in lockdown. I am amazed how people with busy lives and family responsibilities (like yourself) manage to write.
Although I don’t think I could live without it now, writing is not the top of my priorities. Work, other people, a day in the countryside, a trip to the cinema, etc make me put down my pen. Life comes first, writing second.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I just absolutely love this Ray Bradbury quote:
“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”
As an amateur/beginner writer, this makes a lot of sense, and is great advice – I guess for successful authors as well. We’re all different – so just do your thing. Give it your best shot. Try to find something that’s meaningful to you in some way to keep yourself going through the trickier times.
Your encouragement here reminds me of the theme of hope I see in your flash fiction “Goodbye, Frenetikov.” The beautiful level of detail in the beginning uniquely balances with the uncertainty felt in the end. Do you find yourself drawn to themes uplifting to readers, or do you take readers into the darker feeling as well?
Thank you for your comments. I wrote a few very sad stories during lockdown. I think I’m out of that, now. In fact, I’ve just started writing a longer piece, and before I started, I decided that it should be something with a very positive theme. If I am going to spend the next few months on it, given what’s happening in the world right now, I feel that’s where I would like to spend my writing time.
In writing short fiction, you have to hook readers to care about characters, ground them in your story’s setting, and leave them pondering about your story’s end all within a few hundred to a thousand words. (“You Die If You Worry” comes to mind.) Can you walk us through the process of crafting your fiction’s pacing and language to accomplish so much so quickly?
I am very much learning the craft and that there are many different ways to produce a successful short story. The word-length requirements (e.g. 300, 500, 750, 1000, 1500, 2000) can influence the plan. I usually write the story to its best, natural length and worry about where to submit to later.
If I pick up a collection of published short stories, what strikes me is the quality of each line, the language. So that is the number one goal for me; the quality of each sentence, the appeal and magic of the jumble of words. For the structure, I really only think in terms of a beginning, middle and ending. You get in the car, start it up, go for a drive and stop somewhere. Apart from that, there is so much variety in short fiction – anything goes. For example, you might have no dialogue or almost all dialogue in a story.
With very short fiction it can be frustrating not being able to fully flesh out character, setting etc, in the way a novel allows you to, but equally that provides much of the fun and challenge of the form – perhaps like poetry – to find evocative/resonant ways to hint at what’s missing, the spaces in between.
You are published in a wide variety of literary magazines and anthologies. Do you have any favorites you’d like to recommend?
The ones that accepted me are the best, of course!
HA! Sorry, go on. 🙂
There really is something for every taste out there. Much of my experience of the writing for the literary world has been for on-line magazines. The creativity and quality right across the board is very impressive.
I have to say Popshotmagazine is just a beautiful object, as well as the great writing. It’s a lovely paper magazine with poetry, fiction and illustrations. I was lucky to get in there once. They commissioned an illustrator to produce something to accompany my short story, which was just amazing – that someone would do that.
Thank you for the recommendation! I’ll have to check them out. What would you consider to be common traps for aspiring writers? I imagine there are a few when it comes to short fic submissions.
I had to learn a lot about the technical side of things – voice, point of view, plot and so on. I think it’s good to remember there is a lot to learn (I notice in your other interviews, writers say this, too).
In terms of submitting to litmags, not understanding at first why you get so many rejections can prove very disheartening. And it would be a great shame if beginner writers gave up because of that.
You learn that you have to know your audience and the market to give yourself a chance, so submitting to the right sort of magazines is important. That means reading the stories in the magazines to guess if yours might work for them, which is both enjoyable and a great way to learn from other writers’ work.
I must mention editors here because they really are the superheroes, along with their ‘readers’. They often do the job for love not money and are the people who choose your story. So be nice to them! And when you submit, follow all of their guidelines very carefully about format, word length and so on.
If you’re lucky they will help and even give a little advice. For some reason, I’ve found sci-fi editors to be especially supportive – or perhaps they’re just super-skilled at letting people down gently! I’ve been trying to ‘find a home’ for a couple of sci-fi stories since I started writing, with no luck. When I started, I kept a folder of ‘nice rejections’ to cheer myself up when the piles of rejections got too much.
I think one useful tip is that if there is a ‘themed call’ for an issue, you might have a better chance with that if you have a story to fit the theme.
As an indie author who is also having a go at lit mag submissions, I’d love to ask about your process in searching magazines and sending multiple pieces. Do you find yourself writing your stories first and then finding magazines that fit the story, or do you scope out the magazine themes first and then craft stories to fit them? I noticed you recently published in a “lockdown” themed anthology, for example.
Good luck with your submissions.
I usually write my story then look for a place to submit. The word length is a big decider on where to submit to, along with the house-style of the magazine.
Calls for submissions for a themed issue – with prompts such as ‘Road trip’, ‘First love’ or ‘Winter’ – can be a great way to get going on a story that you can end up submitting to more than one place or developing into something longer. The theme of the ‘Lockdown’ anthology I was published in fitted with something I was writing at the time and I spotted their call.
The submission pages are crucial. They describe the type of story they are looking for and often say ‘read some of our stories to get a feel of what we’re looking for’. That’s a must, but it’s also great to read the stories. You mentioned, Jean, that you’re inspired by the countryside – there are litmags that have a specific focus on that.
After three years of submitting, I have a much better idea of who might consider or accept a particular type of story.
Having said all of that, it is an amazing, random-feeling process, of being in the right place, at the right time, with a story that appeals to a particular editor, in terms of what they are looking for right then. Getting published anywhere – no matter how big or small – is an enormous thrill, but of course you set targets and have favourites you aim to get into.
Receiving acceptances are tremendously encouraging and validating. There really is nothing else like it. There’s more than a little ego and pride involved there, of course. But, it’s also reward for hard work and effort. And for not giving up.
Let’s wrap up with a little inspiration. Writing and reading can, to me, be a transformative experience. Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
Yes, in a way. It is certainly a deeply personal process, and also both reflective and instinctive. I often find it quite meditative, even therapeutic. It can be fulfilling and quite emotional at times – as you go through your imagined characters’ experiences. Although it’s a solitary activity you are very engaged with memories and thoughts of other people and the world.
Maybe it sounds corny, but I think words and the way they can be strung together really are magical. It expresses who we are.
Making the connection with a reader is very special too – even if you never meet them beyond a ‘like’ on Twitter or Facebook, or a purchased magazine. The thought that people read your work and find something interesting, rewarding, enjoyable makes the whole process more of a communal, shared activity. It must be great to have people buy your book because they know your work and love your characters. That’s something to aim for in future, for me.
A beautiful encouragement we all should aspire to, Rob. Thank you so much for sharing your time and thoughts here!
I’m super stoked to share an interview from a new SFF publisher as well some amazing music to inspire the epic adventurer within you. There’s also a side project of mine in the works that is so close to “publication”…
Every semester I encourage my newest group of students to read for fun to improve their writing skills, but then here I am, not getting much reading in. Oh, I’d just tell myself the excuse that if I commit to a book, I want to get something out of it as a reader and a writer, and how am I to know what book will give me that? I’ll just watch what my favorite book bloggers recommend and just go from there.
But that doesn’t force me to commit to reading, and that’s just not cool. Sure, time has always been that elusive treasure in this life as a mother, teacher, and writer. That’s not an excuse, though. Besides, there are plenty of other writers with jobs who don’t have much time to read and–
And so, I decided to start a podcast.
Please watch for updates in May while I get this wee podcast off the ground. x
Hello hello, one and all, aaaaaaand April Fools to you!
Nope, I don’t have my article on the importance of names done yet. I’m still waiting on some research to come from the library. While waiting, I perused a Diana Wynne Jones story that had gotten a lot of mixed press in the States:
And by “little,” I mean little. The entire story is 117 pages with large-print font and illustrations. Like Wild Robert, the chapters jump into hijinks and misadventure quickly and wrap up just as quickly. Books like this are excellent for kids transitioning from readers to chapter books, as it has a balanced mix of simple and complex sentences as well as connecting events between chapters.
However, there are “drawbacks” to such storytelling, if you wish to call them that, for those drawbacks come to a head when a shorter story is made into a feature film. Yes, there have been some amazing films made from short stories (Shawshank Redemption, anyone?) so I’m not saying shorter stories could never be adapted. But that is the key, isn’t it?
Things have to change in a story when it changes mediums, and from what I’m hearing about the film, Studio Ghibli (who has a good history with Jones’ work) stay fairly true to the story which, if you listen to the reviewer here, is extremely detrimental to the film. Why should the audience care about a kid whose entire goal is to make grownups do what she wants? Where did this kid come from? What was up with the witch leaving this baby behind? Why is the whole story just in this witch’s house? This is a movie where almost nothing happens, etc etc etc.
After reading the book, I recalled having similar reactions to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. What IS the Beldam? How does the cat move between worlds? What’s up with those creepy rats? How on earth didn’t previous tenants wonder about that freaky-ass door that’s actually a mouth or throat that’s actually OLDER than the Beldam?
I also realized for Gaiman’s intended audience, these questions are not important to the central story: Coraline growing through her experience with the Beldam and being thankful for the parents and life she already has. That’s why the story doesn’t have Coraline discovering ancient texts about the Beldam, or meeting the Smithy who crafted the one key, or any of those things.
They. Didn’t. Matter.
Even the film adaptation of Coraline didn’t try to answer all those questions. Sure, it added some color and creepy songs to the Other Mother’s world, but the film left those loose ends, well, loose.
Something else that seems to be lost in the mix is that these stories–Coraline and Earwig and the Witch–are both Middle Grade novels. That means they are SHORT and must STAY short for its audience. Yes, yes, there are longer MG novels out there now, but if you go back a decade or two, you’ll see these length requirements were adhered to pretty closely. Anyone who’s submitted short fiction to a journal or magazine knows the importance of that length requirement: if your story is too long, it won’t even be considered.
So, after all this rambling because I don’t have to worry about word counts on a blog (though I should, according to some readers), let’s see if Earwig and the Witch really is a story where “nothing happens.”
The opening sequence that movie reviewer Stuckman praised is not actually in the book; rather, the one snippet we get of young Earwig’s backstory comes in exposition during the first scene. A “very strange couple” have come during the orphanage’s visitation day. Foster parents can come and select a child to take with them, and this “very strange couple” are the first to pay Earwig any attention.
“Erica has been with us since she was a baby,” Mrs. Briggs said brightly, seeing the way [the couple was] looking. She did not say, because she always thought it was so peculiar, that Earwig had been left on the doorstep of St. Morwald’s early one morning with a note pinned to her shawl. The note said: Got the other twelve witches all chasing me. I’ll be back for her when I’ve shook them off. It may take years. Her name is Earwig. The Matron and the Assistant Matron scratched their heads over this. The Assistant Matron said, “If this mother’s one of thirteen, she must be a witch who has annoyed the rest of her coven.” “Nonsense!” said the Matron. “But,” said the Assistant Matron, “this means that the baby could be a witch as well.” Matron said “Nonsense!” again. “There are no such things as witches.” Mrs. Briggs had never told Earwig about the note, nor that her name really was Earwig.
I must say that I can’t blame Ghibli for imagining what that chase would have looked like and putting that scene in their film. There’s just one problem.
Earwig’s mother never appears in this story. Nor do the other witches.
Oh, Ghibli tries to tie the loose end up in their own way for the film, and from my understanding the ending feels…like a chapter break instead of an actual conclusion. So I’m not sure where Ghibli thought it could take this tale.
Honestly, I think the biggest problem people have with Earwig and the Witch is the fact the story is NOT about a girl reuniting with her mother or some other epic quest. Not all stories are grand in scale.
For some young readers, watching a child learn how to get adults to do what she wants is plenty grand already.
Because this is not a story about redemption, either; that is, the bratty Earwig does not mend her ways to become a nice, sweet girl who shares all sorts of lovey feelings for her new family. Nope. She’s still happy to have others do what she wants.
The character growth comes when Earwig wants to keep getting her way. At the orphanage, we understand that Earwig never had to do anything to get her way.
[Earwig] was perfectly happy at St. Morwald’s. She liked the clean smell of polish everywhere and the bright, sunny rooms. She liked the people there. This was because everyone, from Mrs. Briggs the Matron to the newest and smallest children, did exactly what Earwig wanted.
After the “strange couple” take Earwig to their home, she quickly learns their intentions:
“Now let’s get a few things straight. My name is Bella Yaga and I am a witch. I’ve brought you here because I need another pair of hands. If you work hard and do what you’re told like a good girl, I shan’t do anything to hurt you.”
Earwig has never had to work like this before, and of course she hates it. In dealing with a witch, though, she can’t do her typical schpiel of talking people into doing what she wants. There’s magic in the mix now, and so she’s going to have to learn magic to fight magic.
THAT is what this story is about. The title isn’t Earwig and the Lost Coven or The Intentional Orphan or Escape from Bella Yaga or Whatever Happened to Mummy Witch?
Jones wrote this story with the conflict between child and adult at the center. Plenty of kids struggle with authority as it is, even moreso when the authority is not a parent. What kid wouldn’t want their most hated teacher to look ridiculous, if only for a moment?
Jones’ Earwig and the Witch revolves around the conflict between Earwig and Bella Yaga. Anyone else, anything else, is periphery. That’s why the outside world plays little part in Earwig’s life once she’s in Yaga’s home. Even the Mandrake, the “man”–or demon, or whatever he is–of the “strange couple” does not interact with Earwig much. He is the only thing in that house more powerful than Bella Yaga, Earwig thinks…until she finally puts herself to work to learn magic with the help of Thomas, Bella Yaga’s cat.
It’s not easy to get a kid to want to work at something. Believe me, I know. 🙂 Perhaps a typical audience may not see this as growth in Earwig as a character, but for a child and one who’s worked with children, this is HUGE. Earwig has never had to work at anything before. Sure, Bella Yaga’s got her doing plenty of awful chores, be it slicing snake skins or gathering nettles from the garden, but those awful chores only motivate Earwig to learn magic quickly so she can put a spell on Bella Yaga and give her that “extra pair of hands” she wanted so badly. (You can see the earlier illustration for the result of Earwig’s work.)
When Bella Yaga rages over the new “extra hands” and sends a torrent of magic worms at Earwig, Earwig guides the worms into what she thinks is the bathroom next to her. Being a magic house, though, the walls don’t always work like normal walls, so Earwig ends up sending all the worms into the Mandrake’s room instead. Being one who can control demons and spirits and such, the Mandrake isn’t exactly one to surprise with magic worms. After lots of fire and shrieking, the Mandrake calls Earwig to come from her hiding place. Earwig readily admits that hiding the worms was a mistake, but the Mandrake knows Earwig did not make the worms and declared Bella Yaga would be training Earwig properly from now on. Earwig does not hoot or holler her victory, but instead approaches Bella Yaga with care.
She carried Thomas across the hall into the workroom. Bella Yaga, looking red and harried, was picking up broken glass and bits of mixing bowls. She turned her blue eye nastily in Earwig’s direction. Earwig said quickly, before Bella Yaga could speak, “Please, I’ve come for my first magic lesson.” Bella Yaga sighed angrily. “All right,” she said. “You win–for now. But I wish I knew how you did it!”
When the conflict ends, so does the story, and Jones knows it. Apart from a couple pages of wrap-up, Earwig and the Witch is over. Are we all curious about what kind of witch Earwig could grow up to be? Sure. I’m guessing Studio Ghibli was too, and that’s why they teased more to come at the end of their film.
But questions are not loose ends. Sure, I’d love to learn more about the history of the village in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” What really went down between two friends to motivate one to bury the other alive in “The Cask of Amontillado”? Whatever happened to The Misfit after he killed the family in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”?
A story has to end, and that end comes when the conflict ends. Even the big ol’ multi-book series will start and end their installments over the rise and fall of a specific conflict.
So storytellers, please do not feel like you have to answer all the questions and explore all the lands and dive into all the characters. Look at the conflict that drives your story forward, and ask yourself: Does ____ matter relate at all to this conflict? If you can’t find a good answer, then chances are, you know the answer is no. And this goes for novel writing as well as short fiction. Sure, novels do not demand thrift in words like short stories do, but if readers feel like you’re taking them on a detour from the main conflict, they’re going to start asking questions, and lots of them.
And those are questions you as a writer will have to answer.
Honestly, the research and discussion on naming characters is coming, as is a post about the wondrous music of Two Steps from Hell. More author and publisher interviews are on their way as well, and I’m also *this close* to getting Blondie to share her dragon story here.