I’ve been playing a game of “dueling temperatures” with an old friend via email. I moved to New York State from Mississippi. My former home does not handle winter well. That is, when actual winter conditions occur, which is rare. But a lot of the south, from Texas to Georgia has seen significant snowfall, whereas here the temperatures have varied from -17F to +43F. So snow one week and rain the next. Then everything freezes. The difference is, an inch or three of snow down there is a “We’re all gonna die!” situation. They’re not equipped for it because it happens rarely and you don’t spend your budget on snowplows that are (almost) never going to be needed. So how difficult things are is mostly a matter of perspective.

Which applies to almost everything.

Whenever I’m feeling down about how little I’ve accomplished, it’s good to stop and remember that there was a time, writing wise, when I had accomplished exactly nothing, except to write a bunch of beginner stories that no one other than I and much put-upon First Reader were ever going to see. When I had written novels but never sold any, but then graduated to an entire four book series. Now when I’m holding fire on three novel projects, I can remind myself that I can do this, I’ve done it before, and there was a time when none of that was true.

It’s too easy to forget that, no matter what stage you’re at. If you’ve written stories but not sold any (if that’s your goal), at least you’ve written. Same for writing a novel. Maybe you’ll publish, maybe you won’t, but most people who start a novel never finish it, and maybe you did. That’s something, and it’s a whole lot more than nothing.



Declaring My Ignorance in the New Year

“You know, you talk a lot about writing for someone who doesn’t know much about it.”

That thought comes to me at least once a year; sometimes more, and here in the New Year the thought came early, and why not?  It’s always true. Yes, I talk about it a lot. No, I don’t know much about it. You’d think perhaps I would by now, but no. I don’t know if it’s simple Zen as in “It’s always the first time” or an even more simple inability to learn. Maybe some of both. But then, I wasn’t the first to notice that “No one knows how to write a novel. They only know how to write the last one.” Well, maybe Stephen King.  Isaac Asimov probably did, and Andre Norton is likely. There have to be exceptions. I’m definitely not one of them. In general, you learn to write the one you’re doing—if you’re lucky—and hope for the same on the next one.

There. Everything I know about writing a novel. Not much, is it? Short stories are about the same, just shorter and there are usually more of them. Which explains why I have so many false starts and almosts and not quites littering my hard disk. Some stories I haven’t yet learned how to write. Some I likely won’t live long enough to finish, and that’s just the way it is.

Sorry about the introspection; I get that way sometimes, and in the turning of the year doubly so. I think this was triggered by an incident at the last Flash Writer’s meeting, where someone, feeling a little less than confident, referred to a few of us present as “natural writers.”  I have to beg to differ. For a start, I’m not a “natural” anything. I’ve only been writing thirty years in order to pass for one, and a polished story says nothing about how it got there, or that in order to complete a 500 word assignment I had to write 750 words and then cut out the ones that didn’t fit. Sort of like growing the birch tree before you attempt a canoe.

On that “natural” thing, I will admit to one exception: I can recognize a plot when I see one. Not as in “The Gunpowder” plot, but a narrative plot. At about age ten or so I had my grandmother convinced that I was psychic, all because I could watch a television show I’d never seen before and tell her what was going to happen before it did. It wasn’t paranormal, I just recognized the story plot, and most of the ones used on TV at the time weren’t that complicated. I was surprised that everyone couldn’t do it. Which does not mean I can necessarily plot well or easily, only that, after the fact, I’m reasonably sure that a piece has one.

So, on the first day of 2018, here’s me explaining, mostly to myself, what little I understand of the process. Clearly, I have a lot to learn. I hope to learn some of it in this New Year. I hope your New Year’s wishes fare better than mine are likely to do.

Story Time: The White Bone Fan

Today’s Story Time is “The White Bone Fan,” Originally published in Japanese Dreams: Fantasies, Fictions,& Fairytales, Lethe Press, 2009. The story is a stand-alone excerpt from what eventually became the novel  All the Gates of Hell published in 2013. This is the kind of thing I was working on when I was also working on the Yamada series. One sort of fed into the other, and vice versa.

As always, “The White Bone Fan” will remain online only until Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018. Next year.

In Praise of: Katherine Briggs

Yes, I’m late. Between a doctor’s appointment and errands on Monday, I didn’t get started on a blog post until late yesterday…where I promptly fell asleep at the keyboard. If I was putting myself to sleep I can only imagine what I would be doing to anyone else. So today is a fresh day, fresh start, and I am here, not to do a book review as such, but rather  to sing the praises of  Katherine Briggs, D. Litt from Oxford.  Specifically, her work An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. (the first edition title was a little easier to handle: A Dictionary of Fairies) I have the later 1978 edition, long out of print but still available here and there. Probably $35+ minimum, and well worth it to the right people to track down.

The reason in my case is pretty simple. One of my favorite things to write has always been new riffs on old folklore, taking a basic theme or seed, if you will, from older stories and running with it. Doing the old “what if” and Asking the Next Question, as Theodore Sturgeon used to say. Or Looking at it “slantwise,” to paraphrase Mark Twain. Regardless, they were both talking about process, but everything has to start somewhere. An image, a character, a situation, whatever triggers the process, and that varies from day to day and story to story. Everyone uses references of one sort or another because everything you know, love, or follow is a reference, and which ones are going to vary depending on the person’s own interests and resonating themes. I’ve spoken about the references I used for the Yamada series here before, and more than once. This time I’m concentrating on what led to some of my favorite short stories, and this book by a past president of the British Folklore Society has to be near the top of the list. It’s not alone, surely, and there are others: A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits by Carol K. Mack and Dinah Mack is a jewel, as is A Field Guide to the Little People by Nancy Arrowsmith and George Moorse. Or In Search of the Supernatural by Kenneth DeWoskin and J.I. Crump, Jr. (translation of the Sou-Shen Chi, also known as The Account of Seeking Spirits, 4th C CE by Kan Pao). Yet it is the Briggs I keep coming back to time and again.

For instance, as appropriate to something that started life as a dictionary of sorts, all entries are in alphabetical order. One day I was browsing and came across the entry for Fairy Funerals, an event said to be witnessed by mortals on more than one occasion. Which had me thinking. “Given that fairies are immortal, why would they need funerals?” One theory was that they were doing it to imitate or mock mortal customs, but that didn’t  satisfy me. So what could the real reason be? Out of that came “The Beauty of Things Unseen,” first published in Quantum SF and later collected in The Ogre’s Wife: Fairy Tales for Grownups .

Then there was “My Lord Teaser,” triggered by an article on teaser stallions plus accounts of the Wild Hunt found in Briggs. The two notions combined to make another favorite. Or “Death, the Devil, and the Lady in White” (White Ladies and no, not that kind) or “Conversation in the Tomb of an Unknown King” (Tomb Wights).

Then there was…well, you get the idea. The book has paid for itself many times over, and is currently helping me on a new novel project. Every time I’ve moved house, this book has come with me. When I’m gone, it’ll likely still be here. Maybe someone with sense will be at the estate sale to grab it.

It’s Always the First Time

It’s windy and blustery, raining off and on and looks a lot like November came just a tad early. Probably perfect for the horror movie crew doing location shots downtown for the next couple of days. It’s good writing weather, even if there are outside tasks waiting. In these conditions? They can keep waiting. Possibly until spring.

So what has a weather report to do with anything? Well, as I said, it’s good writing weather, so when I get done with this blog I get back on the third story in the adventures of Jing, Pan Bao, and Mei Li. Sometimes writing is easy, like pulling the bung on a full barrel and the words just gush out. Other times it’s more like trying to squeeze the last few drops from a sponge. Usually you can’t tell which is which when it comes time for the end result to be examined. Unless we haven’t done our job well, and then you can. Our bad, not yours.

Writing, it seems, can be “like” one thing or another, but what it cannot be is any particular thing more than once. Or, to fall back on the old Zen adage, “It’s always the first time.”

One wouldn’t think so. After all, I’ve written two other stories about these characters. Surely I have a handle on their world and these specific characters by now? Doesn’t feel that way, and that’s a fact. I’m still discovering facets of Mei Li’s doubts and insecurities even as they do not turn her from her ultimate goal of becoming human just so she can die as one and move on to the next karmic step. I’m only beginning to understand how the loss of her mother forced Jing into adulthood before she was ready. Even Pan Bao, that grumpy, mercenary yet pious Daoist priest, has facets to his character only now starting to be revealed. In short, I know how to write the last two stories because I’ve already done them. That doesn’t tell me how to write this one, only getting it done, working it out, will do that. And leave me totally unprepared for the next one, whatever that turns out to be.

I’ve heard variations on the novelist’s complaint before: “I don’t know how to write the next novel. I only know how to write the last one.” As someone who does both novels and shorter fiction, I can personally attest that this applies equally to both. Or as a predecessor once phrased it: “Writing is one of the few avocations which, if diligently practiced, becomes harder the more you do it.”

Doesn’t matter how many books/stories you’ve written. It’s always the first time.