Monday, 28 December 2009
The purpose of the comparison is, as with any of my reviews, to look at the elements of writing and how they were handled differently in each case. It is not to make a value judgement about the content. Disclaimer over, let's do it.
It's interesting to compare a single short novel with a TV series of 12 episodes. There is a lot more space for character development of minor characters and world building. Plus, the first tv series benefitted from several of the books in the series already being written. If anyone has read the later books, perhaps they can comment on whether developments in the novels were taken advantage of?
POV. Dead until Dark is written in first person, from the point of view of Sookie Stackhouse. True Blood has other povs. In this case I think it is good to have some insight into Bill's story - what's happening to him away from Sookie. This wasn't covered in the novel and while that didn't detract from the novel, it definitely added to the series. However, it appears that Bill didn't become a vampire official (I want to say sheriff, but I'm not sure that's right) in True Blood.
The additional pov characters also helped deliver deeper, more solid characters for True Blood. This is particularly true for Jason Stackhouse who is really quite flimsy in the book. His relationship to his sister seems to be kept the same but because we can see what's going on in his life that Sookie is not party to, he becomes a more sympathetic character.
There are several additional and enhanced characters in the TV series. Tara, who is my favourite, is completely absent from the book. (I don't know whether she appears in later books??) Lafayette, who I also like very much, is barely mentioned in the book and gets a fully developed role in the series. This is very much an improvement and gives the series a vehicle to explore social themes notably absent from the novel. Note to self: this highlights the limitations of first person pov in certain types of story. Also, I really hope that's not Lafayette's body in the back of Andy Bellefleur's car at the end of True Blood.
Sadly, my hopes that the reveal of the killer would be more effectively foreshadowed in True Blood have been dashed. Episode 11 has a couple of clues and there was one clue a little earlier on, so it's not come totally out of the blue as it did in the book. What I want from a whodunnit is to not be able to guess who the villain is, but to know that I could have worked it out when I'm given the answer. That really didn't happen in Dead until Dark; Sookie was being chased through the woods and I was all 'Rene? Really?' However, the lead up to Rene's attempt on Sookie's life was much better handled in the TV series.
I loved that Sookie got the kill. This happened in both the book and the tv series. Throughout both, Sookie is presented as a strong woman who can look after herself. In the last episode of True Blood both Sam and Bill try to come to her rescue and fail epically. Brilliant. Sookie Stackhouse, most unlikely feminist icon.
What the novel did better than the series though, was to put Bill, Jason and Sam much more convincingly in the frame for the murders. There was a point about three-quarters of the way through the book where I was thinking it really could turn out to be Sam. Bill and Jason were both serious contenders up until half way through. In True Blood, there was never any real suggestion that either Bill or Sam could have been the culprit. Andy Bellefleur's character/role was the only one that was downgraded for the series and I think that was a shame. His probing at Sam in particular never seemed very convincing.
Jason was clearly implicated at the beginning of the series but it never really came to anything. I do think that this was because he got to be a pov character and the trade off for his character development meant that he couldn't be convincingly implicated. I think it was worth it. Jason is far more entertaining in True Blood.
I feel I should say that I couldn't put Dead until Dark down. Whatever its many limitations, it was a compelling plot. And a worthwhile read; throughout I found myself thinking about how I would rewrite scenes to release their potential. Good for my development as a writer but there was always a sense of unrealised potential. I'm delighted that it was brought out so well in the tv series.
So, I can't wait for True Blood Season 2 in 2010 and in the meantime I'll slake my thirst with a couple more of the books.
Sunday, 27 December 2009
When I started my intentions were several.
1. To have a regular writing practice which would provide some much needed discipline and get me in a writing mood.
2. To create an online presence so that when I finished and sold my novel I would have a platform to start from.
3. To talk about writing. To discuss both the technicalities and the experience of writing and thus stimulate and record my learning.
So, how did it work out?
1. Well, I didn't make a daily practice out this blog and there have been a few occasions this year when even a weekly post seemed like a stretch goal. It hasn't really provided me with the discipline that I thought it would and has often been a displacement activity when I could have been writing stories. It has been a nagging reminder that I want to write, that I need to write, and that when life gets in the way there's always time to spend ten minutes writing.
2. This went a little better. It was a toe dipped in the waters of social media and now I find myself hooked. It's helped me be a little more open about who I am rather than hiding behind a professional persona and it's helped me connect all the different parts of me. Now, I have an online presence. It's smaller than perhaps I originally envisaged but I'm comfortable with it. And, of course, I haven't actually finished my novel, much less sold it, so there's still plenty of time.
3. I think this is where writing this blog has really helped. Over the year I've used it to record places and things of use to writers, to review the stories I've read and talk about the experiences I've had related to writing. My posts have been getting longer and more personal and I think that's because after all this practice I'm finding it easier. It's given me an opportunity to organise my thoughts about writing, to really explore them, and I feel that I've learnt a lot this year.
So, onwards to 2010. My writing goals for this year are to finish my novel, Sacrifice, and to keep posting about my experiences. What about you? What are you working on for 2010?
Saturday, 26 December 2009
OK, no, I know. I'm only asking because I want to talk about a novel that isn't SF, fantasy or horror. The book in question is Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue. It was inspired by a true story about a teenaged servant who murdered her mistress.
First of all, I loved the title. A slammerkin was a type of loose gown popular in the mid to late seventeenth century and also a euphemism for a whore. It's a fabulous word.
The first part of the book, written in third person and entirely based in the main character's pov, was gorgeous. It was visceral and colourful and drew me right into a very physical world. The use of language and metaphor was striking. For this alone, this book is worth reading.
Part two felt slightly different. It was less colourful, less passionate. Partly this reflects the changed life circumstances of the protagonist and was well done, if disappointing. I enjoyed the earthiness of part one very much and was sad to return to a greyer world. We are introduced to other povs in part two and while this is necessary for the reader's understanding of the story, inevitably there's not enough time to really get inside the character's heads.
The ending was telegraphed but not obvious. I know this is something I complain about a lot and it was nice to be surprised. Slammerkin starts with a prologue of the protagonist in gaol and then shows the reader how she got there. Somehow I got it into my head that this was a rags to riches tale and the prologue represented a middle low point rather than the end and it was well into the book that I realised this was not to be. Despite that misunderstanding, however, the ending managed to be engaging and shocking without coming as a complete surprise.
Of course, it's not perfect. Sometimes the pov gets a little confused, swapping between characters mid-scene or even flipping back and forth in the same scene. When the narrator is a character other than the protagonist, the characterisation is a little flimsy. This is compensated for by the characterisation that's done while we're in the head of the protagonist, so that in total the characters are quite solid. It's just that the reader knows them more through the protagonist than through themselves.
This book came to me serendipitously. My neighbour gave it to me and I'm really glad she did. I'll be reading some more of Emma Donaghue's novels.
Tuesday, 22 December 2009
Both women's reactions really showed me something. Both were equally compassionate. Both felt terrible for the little squirrel. Ellen (who is one of the sweetest, most empathetic people you'd ever want to meet) was devastated and could hardly move. Deb (who is one of the most capable and pragmatic people you'd ever want to meet) was prepared to do what had to be done.
Two people demonstrate the same feeling in different ways that tell you something about their character.
I struggle sometimes with 'show, don't tell'. I get the what and why. I can see how a story can suffer from too much telling. What I don't always get is the how and I think this post has really helped.
Sunday, 20 December 2009
Viking: King's Man is the final part of a trilogy. Books 1 and 2 are Odinn's Child and Sworn Brother, both of which I read some time ago. First of all it should be noted that anything that has vikings in it is automatically good. Can't get enough vikings. (Hmm, things that begin with V?)
The Viking trilogy is presented as a memoir written by Thorgils Leifsson at the end of a long and eventful life. It is in the first person and there's no other pov that is really appropriate for a memoir. This format also allows the author to comment on the events that he's relating. Severin's scholarship is evident throughout and at times it reads more like a history text than a novel. If I wasn't already interested in the subject matter this might have felt quite intrusive.
There's not much more to say: overall it was an entertaining read, competently written, but didn't stand out from the crowd.
In other news, I've added a link to my Bookwormr profile so you can have a look at my reading list. It's on the right, just below the fold.
Tuesday, 15 December 2009
The discussion was sparked by Lionel Shriver's May 2009 article Dashed Bad Form in Standpoint.
I love a semi colon, even if they are unfashionable. I admit I do frequently use an em-dash in emails but if I'm being honest with myself, it's because I'm being lazy.
Friday, 11 December 2009
This morning, I finished Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhelm. This was an interesting read from a style perspective. It was published in 1974 and feels even more dated than that. Partly it's because the book looks at cloning technology and its physical and psychological effects and much of the thinking has moved on a lot since. That aside, I think the main thing creating the archaic feel was the use of omniscient point of view.
I can't remember the last time I read something where the narrative was so far removed from an individual character's POV. The advantage to this is that it keeps a story that unfolds over several generations to a manageable length. The book is relatively short at approx. 75,000 words. It also keeps the focus on the intellectual ideas behind the book - what happens when people only reproduce by cloning - and allows the author to present several sides of the debates.
The downside is that characterisation suffers. The reader never really gets in the head of the characters. On the one hand, the clones are presented to the reader as not quite human and distant POV gets in the way of identifying with them. There are two cloned characters, Molly and Mark, that we do get a bit closer to in the second half of the book and they are presented as being more human. I wonder if this was deliberate in order to emphasise that the clones are not like us. Which might have worked if the fully human characters in the first part of the book were more fully drawn. In the end I think that Molly and Mark are the most developed because they get the most POV time.
In this book I really noticed that the dialogue was used to explore the intellectual concepts of the book rather than as a characterisation tool.
It's been a long time since I read a sci-fi novel in which the story was so clearly subordinate to the idea. I enjoyed it, but this one's for the purists.
The second book was Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine and it was awesome.
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
Tomorrow I start my new job with all that entails and I'm looking forward to getting back into a routine. As I'll be commuting, I plan to read lots, which means lots of posts on what I've been reading. I hesitate to call them reviews because they are more like musings. Anyway, to get in to the mood, lately I've finished:
The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan. I picked this up because I'd heard it compared to Joe Abercrombie's work (I'm such a fangirl; it's embarrassing). This I found to be both true and not true. And I found that there were things I liked and things I didn't.
It was a stand-alone novel in a sea of trilogies and series.
I liked that the protagonist was a marginalised minority in his world and that his experiences reflected the shocking, traumatic reality of someone in that position. I liked that the three main characters were all, in some way, outsiders and that it was done without romanticising their positions. These aren't glorious, loner heroes nobly serving the community. They are damaged people making limited choices. Just like us.
The book is quite bleak and driven by bitterness and anger. I thought that the characters' awareness of the consequences of their experiences was realistic. Sometimes they faced what had happened to them in the past and was happening to them now and acknowledged how it shaped them, and sometimes they didn't. Sometimes they saw themselves clearly and at others they were self-deluding.
I also liked the sex scenes. A couple of days ago, I was sent a news story about the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards and it reminded me that it is apparently difficult to write sex well. Richard Morgan writes sex very well. He whips up an emotional response without losing touch with the earthiness of the act. Brilliant.
As an aside, I wonder if the reason so many great literary names find themselves on the Bad Sex in Fiction Award shortlist is because they're not that good at writing and sex scenes show up the weaknesses in convoluted, pseudo-intellectual prose. Or perhaps I'm just being snarky. What do you think?
What I didn't enjoy so much was the rushed ending. At the start of the book we follow three characters who have a shared history and whose lives are being disrupted by similar events. The convention of fantasy fiction is that at some point these three paths will merge. Morgan draws this point out right until the very end. Then, when the three characters come together, the final scenes happen in what seems like a small number of pages. As I was nearing the end of the book and the three hadn't met I found myself wondering if this was a trilogy after all. While I appreciate that life is often a slow build up to a brief climax leaving you vaguely disappointed, this was perhaps a touch too much realism for the novel.
I felt the exposition was handled in a slightly clumsy way and there were several points where the reader was taken out of the action into interior monologue. This was particularly true at the beginning of the book.
And all the swearing! Don't get me wrong, I don't actually mind swearing. I enjoy the full use of a wide vocabulary. It felt a little heavy handed though. Too much spice for the stew.
All in all, I enjoyed it and I'd recommend it. Unless you don't like brutal, gritty, realistic depictions of life.
Wednesday, 11 November 2009
My favourite thing in the world is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that doesn't automatically translate to a vampire fetish. Not on it's own. I like Ann Rice and Dracula but I can do without cheesy vampire b movies.
Then along comes True Blood and I think I might be developing a little obsession. Three episodes in and I can't wait for the next one. The anticipation is too much to handle so I order book 1 of the Charlaine Harris novels the series is based on.
Which leads me down an analytical path because the series is so much better than the book. There's a lot of learning there which I'm working into a forthcoming post. And while I'm in a reflective, analytical mood it occurs to me that I might have a vampire fetish. More to ponder...
Wednesday, 4 November 2009
It's amazing how much time looking for a job takes. I don't think I'm cut out for short term contract work. I'm looking forward for a couple of years of stability in a permanent job with regular hours. Yay. Plus, I'll have an hour's commute each way so I'm really looking forward to cracking through the two bookcases of un-read books in my study. Then there's the piles of short stories. Can't wait!
Monday, 26 October 2009
What I was really after was a three column template because I have lots of widgets on the side and some of them are below the fold. According to the webbie guys at work, this is BAD. But there is no three column template. Hopefully this one is easier on the eyes.
Sunday, 25 October 2009
I didn't. Life has been very much on hold this year. A very large part of the last ten months has been taken up with the need to secure permanent employment. That is still the case and will be for the foreseeable future. I've been lucky to get a temporary contract and be earning enough to pay the mortgage, eat and buy a few nice things. It still means that every spare moment is eaten up by job hunting and it still feels very insecure.
Yesterday I had some good news. Pantechnicon will be putting out two final issues alongside Theaker's Quarterly Fiction. My story had got lost between editors; now it's been found again, they'd like to publish it in the final issue of Pantechnicon, which will come out in April 2010.
Saturday, 17 October 2009
Self-editing for Fiction Writers, Rennie Browne and Dave King. This was a really useful book and the sections on inner monologue, sophistication and voice were illuminating. I think in an effort to avoid expository lumps and explaining dialogue or narrative I've also stripped out all the inner monologue. Suddenly breaking the 50,000 word barrier doesn't seem like such an impossible task.
On Writing, Stephen King. This is part biography and part a discussion on writing. There's little practical advice (don't believe the quotes on the back) but what is there is useful. What there is a lot of is inspiration. It's like a letter of faith to all aspiring writers and should be referred to whenever you're feeling insecure.
The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler. I picked this up as it was recommended to me. While there's a lot of good stuff in here it does tend to the formulaic. There is lip service to stories other than the ones where the protagonist is a farm boy who becomes a king (metaphorically speaking) and the good guys always win, but that is really the focus of the book. If you like structure and formula, then it's a winner. Not for me though.
Saturday, 10 October 2009
Bookwormr is social media for people who like to read. You create lists of books that you have read, are reading, or want to read. For those you've read you can rate them and write synopses or reviews. As it's social media you can link to all your friends. My user name is BoudicaM and it currently says 'BoudicaM has no friends'. Tragic, yet hilarious.
Apparently it can be linked to one's Facebook profile, but I haven't managed to figure that out yet.
Sunday, 4 October 2009
Do characters need to change for the better? I forget where I heard it, but it has been said that that's what a story is - a series of events that act upon a character and force them to grow. I've heard it said that if your main character isn't different at the end then it isn't a story. And it is true that in many cases a character is redeemed or potentiated by their journey. But not always.
Vogler's The Writer's Journey has been hugely influential and has been recommended to me by a wide variety of writing and non-writing acquaintances. I have struggled with applying it to Sacrifice (the work-in-progress), partly because Sacrifice is non-linear and partly because my protagonist is a bastard whose idea of being a better man is to be a richer, more powerful man. The Writer's Journey is based around the concept that all story-telling is myth and this is where the requirement for positive change and happy endings comes from.
Myths aren't just for entertainment. They are for teaching. Myths tell us how to be, what behaviours are acceptable and how we will be punished if we don't conform. Myths are all about social control and maintaining the status quo. The protagonist's change is usually in the form of growing up - accepting the responsibilities and duties of adulthood, accepting the rewards for conformity and giving up childish things. Other myths dwell on the punishments for wanting things that you shouldn't want or doing things that you are told not to do. I simplify a bit.
Jungian psychology has raised mythic archetypes from widespread patterns of social organisation to truths about the human condition. But these are patterns derived from the stories and new stories will give rise to new archetypes.
As fantasy is the genre most closely aligned with myth there is perhaps a greater desire to see fantasy conform more closely to mythic structure. Ursula Le Guin, in her somewhat elitist essay 'From Elfland to Poughkeepsie' describes fantasy as a journey into the subconscious and says that like psychoanalysis it will change you. (Ah, but change you into what exactly? Change can be good or bad.)
But that's myth, where the farm hand grows inexorably into a just and righteous king, where a young girl opens a door she's been told not to and sees that others who've trod that path have died horribly, where the young girl who is obedient and gentle and kind and passive gets rewarded with the big house and handsome husband. Myth tells us how the world works and it lies.
In real life, people try to change and they fail. Sometimes they try again and sometimes they don't. Sometimes people spend a lifetime trying to change and their success is small or non-existent. Often people spend time trying to change the people around them imagining that it will make their experience better. Of course time and experience change people but not always for the better and not always with their awareness.
I think that learning does not always come best from a model of what to do. Sometimes an example of what not to do is more instructive. There are myths and stories that do this, that show what is lost from not taking the opportunity to change.
So does this mean that characters must change? No. I think that there must be the possibility for change and the story is in how the character responds to the possibility. The change can be good or bad and the response can be to change or not. I think that people are becoming more sophisticated (if only slowly) and more literate in the mechanics of story telling and myth making. (As a aside, I wonder if advertising is not the true descendent of mythology?)
Personally, I find fantasies of the 'farm hand grows inexorably into a just and righteous king' type superficial and immature. Which doesn't mean they aren't fun or well written, just that they are empty mental calories - candyfloss for the brain. I like a meaty exploration of the dynamics of change. It's hard to become a different person and the people around you are often unsettled by it. It can seem as if the world conspires against any attempt to become a better person. A story that tells how a character reacts to these trials can be much more emotionally fulfilling.
On to happy endings. I resist the choice of happy or sad endings. Moral certainty is much less monolithic than it might have been in the past and our stories will reflect that. Right and wrong, good and bad, are not so easy to define in complex, intertwined relationships. The 'good' guy's happy ending is the 'bad' guy's unhappy ending. A story with several characters reacting to the possibility of change in a variety of ways will have an ambiguous ending. It will be shades of grey for most of the characters with some happiness and some loss.
I feel strongly that an ending must fit the story being told and sometimes we choose to tell stories that don't end up in a happy place. It's not so much about predictability as about internal logic. An ending can surprise the reader without losing a sense of rightness.
For the record, I think Best Served Cold presented it's characters with possibilities for change and they each responded in their own way.
Monday, 28 September 2009
Sunday, 27 September 2009
Pantechnicon was a labour of love run by volunteers who dedicated a lot of time and energy to providing a forum to support up-and-coming authors and provide good short stories, news and reviews to the speculative fiction community. It is terrible that this has happened and my heart goes out to the editors and webmasters who worked so hard on it.
Wednesday, 16 September 2009
Like most (if not all) writers, I've read a goodly pile of books on how to write. Some of them were more helpful than others and I've put a list of the ones I use as reference in the right-hand column.
Monday, 14 September 2009
In the meantime, I've read a few pop science books lately that I've thoroughly enjoyed.
Risk, The Science of Politics and Fear, by Dan Gardner is a guide through understanding statistics and probability. It does this through examining health scare, terrorism, and child abuse stories rampant in the media. It can have a flavour of biological reductionism, especially at the beginning, but it is worth perservering with.
Blink, The Power of Thinking without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell is really interesting. It looks at intuition and what happens when it's right and why it can go wrong. What was mainly interesting is the idea that you can develop better intuitive thinking through applying lengthy analysis to your experience. Gladwell has a very light writing style and covers some complex ideas in a manner that requires little effort on the part of the reader.
Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre. This mainly focusses on medical science. Goldacre has a pop at homeopaths, nutritionists, big pharma and science journalism. The section on how the placebo and nocebo effects work are very engaging.
Sunday, 23 August 2009
1. I'm a thinker. I like to analyse and I like to understand at a really deep level. I think about things in their own right and how they connect to other things.
2. My imagination. I can be anywhere I want to be at any time; I can see the world how I choose to see it. I love making up stories.
3. My hair. It's long and thick and grows quickly.
4. My sense of humour. I've been accused of not having one because I don't like Peter Kay or Little Britain, but I think I have a highly developed sense of the ridiculous and I spend a lot of time laughing. I also think I'm funny.
5. I have a moral code that I've given some thought to and includes fairness, tolerance, inclusivity and compassion. It's still in development, but I've given some thought to the concept of right and wrong and come up with my own sense of morality. I like the fact that I didn't get it out of a book or just accept what I was taught when I was growing up even if that makes me different to the people around me.
So there we go. It's an interesting exercise. I found I was tempted to say I was kind or tolerant or a good friend but it's not about what other people have said they like about me, it's about what I like. And now it's about what you like about you. Pass it on.
Sunday, 16 August 2009
As I've been editing my novel, I've been losing the sense of impact. There are some shocking moments and some violence which as I go over it and over it seems less and less dramatic. The same goes for the emotional tension. When I write the raw material it's very affecting: I make myself cry, laugh and occasionally feel very disturbed (hee).
The problem comes when I start editing and I'm in my rational, focussed headspace. At this point, I'm looking at sentence structure, word choice and punctuation and while I'm thinking about whether I need more detail or more sensation I'm doing it in an intellectual way. After a while I'm so familiar with the material I don't feel it any more.
So, what about everyone else? How do you maintain that sense of excitement and drama with your longer works?
Wednesday, 12 August 2009
It has me wondering about privacy. I've had a LinkedIn account for ages and I love it for work. It is a reasonably full profile but it's all about the role I do for my employer. I have no qualms about people knowing that persona. Which is the point, I guess, because it is a persona. My job involves a lot of networking and having this profile helps me do my job.
And of course, I have this blog on which I occasionally bare my soul. It is anonymous though to people I don't know in the real world and it does only display part of me (even if it is a big, important part of me).
Writing stuff down always helps me think things through and it occurs to me that my wariness of facebook has to do with my dislike of being approached with enthusiasm, or as I like to think of it, over-familiarity.
If I think seriously about privacy I recognise that I enjoy being able to google people and a lot of my information is out there already. Hmm, lots to ponder. I guess I'll have got over it when you see a facebook widget appear in the right hand menu.
On a writing related note, I got some positive feedback on my first critique for critters and I've written a second. I've done a bit more work on the novel - I have some issues with my characters having similar names!
Monday, 10 August 2009
Consequently I'm behind in my reviewing, but that doesn't mean I haven't been doing other writing related activities. I've joined Critters Writers' Workshop and I've done one critique and uploaded no stories. I've been working on my novel. I have a technique of writing random scenes and then trying to fit them together like a giant jigsaw puzzle where you have to work out what the piece should be and then create it. Yesterday I spent several hours updating my scenes spreadsheet and trying to put all the pieces in order. The novel has grown by a significant number of scenes since I last did this. Still, I feel like I'm more in control now and that always helps me get over the procrastination thing.
I have now got a Twitter account and just as soon as I think of anything to say that might be remotely interesting, I'll add the link to this blog. Using social media is a big thing at work. I use LinkedIn professionally and part of the motivation for getting a twitter account is to have a play so that I can see how to use it on behalf of my employer. But it's all led me down a rather disturbing path where I might sign up to Facebook. I said I never would, but I didn't anticipate my need for virtual connectedness.
Monday, 27 July 2009
They didn’t though. She learned to crawl and then to walk. She learned to smile and then to talk. And always her grave black eyes taunted and tempted. By the time she was two, Josephine had become obscene. I had no idea how beautiful she would be. No-one will know how lovely she may have become.
All mothers think their children are beautiful and I had thought so of my three others. I still do; they are charming, engaging children that I love purely. Andrew shone with energy and intelligence; he was our first and so special. Emma was a golden angel, ethereally pretty, and Robert was breathtaking in his grace. They were all in school when Josephine was born. She was a surprise, in so many ways. Her beauty was different. She had the beauty of a vamp; she was earthy, animal promise. This was no abstract, innocent prettiness, but voluptuous sensuality. She was blonde and pale, like her sister, and looked like Emma had at that age. Looking at Josephine was seeing Emma in a mirror of corruption. Emma’s shining hazel eyes made grave and dark; Emma’s sweet mouth twisted with depravity. A fallen angel.
Women would stare at her when we went to toddler groups. I tried not to go to the same one two weeks running. There were about half a dozen that I would go between. With the other children, I had enjoyed the company of the mothers but with Josephine I couldn’t bear the looks. In their eyes there was a mixture of desire and disgust that I felt myself and I hated to have it reflected back to me. I would tell myself that I loved her, cleanly, purely, as a mother, as I loved my older children. But in the secret stolen moments that I could call my own, and for the first time was glad were so infrequent, I would look at my beautiful daughter with her hint of corruption and desire her and be disgusted.
I disliked her because I saw in her the seed of corruption. I looked at her knowing eyes and rolled her name around my tongue. Josephine. I had given my child a whore’s name. She had only been alive four months by the time we were exclusively calling her Josie. It was possible that the name was innocent and it only became ruined when it was attached to her. She had that effect on things, and people. By the time I realised that I already blamed her name.
Josephine clung to her. She preferred it. When people first heard it they would sigh it out with dread comprehension. Their breath would settle around her, laden with desire. She would smile her coy, lewd half-smile and look up, seductive, knowing. As if she already knew what you wanted to do. The first swell of lust is quickly followed by revulsion and fear. I met no-one who was not deeply disturbed by my toddler’s carnal beauty and I met no-one who did not hate her for it.
How can the features and manner of one tiny child evoke such a response? It is taboo, utterly wrong and it sickens me. I have other children and never felt this way. I have suckled them, cleaned them, clothed them, bathed them with pure maternal love. I had nothing but bewildered contempt for anyone who might find these little beings sexual. Even when they became aware of themselves, even when they played with themselves, it left me cold. They still do. As they should.
And then there was Josephine. I’m not sure when it first happened. Perhaps it grew gradually over time. It was maybe a year before her beauty became astonishing. And maybe another before I realised how fleshly she had become. I would look at pictures of her and wonder if this temptress was truly my daughter.
My husband, Greg, didn’t help me with Josephine. With Andrew, Emma and Robert he had been very involved. He bathed them, fed them, played with them, read to them. He is a model father to all but his youngest child. I noticed early on that he didn’t like to look at her and I thought I knew why. We’ve never talked about it and I didn’t insist. It seemed better that I should be the only one to do these things. When she climbed on his knee for a cuddle I saw how ill at ease he was, how he was uncomfortable putting his hands on her body, how he moved her away as soon as he could.
We called her Josie exclusively after only four months. Perhaps I knew then. Perhaps it took me that long to acknowledge what I felt. Perhaps it took that long to name what I felt.
It was torment to bathe her, to clothe her, to touch her and pretend it was innocent. To believe she was innocent. But I couldn’t let anyone else do it. I was too afraid of others’ lack of control. If I, her mother, who had never harmed one of her children, had never conceived the possibility of abuse, of even a physical nature much less sexual, could barely restrain myself around her fleshly, earthy presence, what chance did anyone else have?
I dreaded gifts of clothes. A vest and shorts, androgynous and plain on other children, became slutty on her. It is fashionable to dress children as miniature adults. The adult she became in embroidered jeans and a fur-trimmed jacket was stickily ripe. This future woman had tasted everything and smeared the juices over her body. She had joyfully slipped into depravity. She was lewd and lascivious and rejoiced in every moment. I hated her for the experiences I had never had and never known I wanted until I saw my three year old in a metallic blue, sequined Stetson.
I took my desire and my disgust and put it away in a box. I never discussed it. I wonder if things would have turned out differently if I’d talked to someone then, a professional, about what I felt. Now I have no choice. At the time, I was too ashamed. What would I have said? Would I have told someone that relations between Greg and I had changed since Josephine had come along. We had never been particularly adventurous sexually and that suited us both. We were tender and loving and gentle. Josephine changed that. We started to experiment and as she grew older our games grew darker.
Maybe I thought she would grow less beautiful, maybe I thought her beauty would become cleaner. Nobody said anything to me about it.
With my older children I worried that they would be snatched. Of course I had. They are adorable. Who wouldn’t want them? But I worried in an abstract way.
It was only with Josephine that I began to imagine what might be done to her. I told myself it was normal to picture this child naked and tormented, subject to depredations I would never consent to myself. And always with her grave black eyes and half-smile. This over-ripe plum could not be corrupted. She was born corrupt. Josephine. I cursed you with a whore’s name; a name that becomes a groan, an expulsion of pent up air, a release of tension I didn’t know I was holding. Her name was a moment of ecstasy that should be tender, intimate but became dirty, obscene.
When she was four we went on holiday. I didn’t want to go to Spain. Greg insisted. We hadn’t had a holiday since Josephine had been born. I was agitated by the thought of her carnality in a swimsuit, but we needed a break. Perhaps I thought after all, that two weeks away in the sun would be a tonic. The resort was child-friendly and our friends were all going. Maybe I thought that seeing her amongst other children would reduce my fears. Maybe I had simply seen something once and been unable to see anything else. Perhaps my fevered imagination had made more of my daughter’s corruption than was really there.
I was so wrong. To see my beautiful plum running and playing on the beach with her siblings, with the other children, was torture. My body hummed in response to her. I felt it in my breasts and groin and it sickened me. I saw other parent’s notice her, be absorbed by her and forget their own. I saw Spanish women make the sign of the cross, as if her carnality could only have come from the devil. She was like a child. She was innocent and carefree and playful. Until she turned her grave eyes upon you and then she and you were lost.
Through all this, I cannot say that my daughter behaved with awareness, that she did anything wrong, that she in any way acted differently than any other child. What people see, what I see, is read by us and not written by her. We see sensuality, corruption and carnality and who is to say it is there? The only thing that kept me from believing it was only my fault, my twisted sickness, was that I saw it in everyone around me. In the possessive, obsessive eyes of other mothers, in the open-mouthed shock of adolescent boys we passed in the street, in the towels dragged across the laps of the fathers on the beach, I knew my rotten, depraved daughter aroused others as she aroused me.
She wore a pink sun hat with yellow flowers. I saw the same hat on a few other little girls while we were on the beach. They looked adorable. They looked cute and protected from the sun. I watched them play and laughed with joy. On Josephine’s harlot head the hat said, ‘strip me, fuck me’. It topped her tiny body, pale skin slick with sun cream, mimicking more natural fluids, sticky and suckable like an over-ripe plum, and an innocent sunhat was perverted because she wore it.
For a time I had put her to bed in long, white, Victorian style nightdresses. They buttoned at the neck and covered her to her wrists and ankles. It was supposed to be demure. I thought chaste nightwear might make her look more innocent. Emma had worn them and looked a picture of angelic grace. Then I saw Josephine stand on the bottom stair, her tiny white hand caressing the shiny wooden finial at the end of the banister, looking at me with her grave dark eyes, half-smiling as if she knew what I had tried to do and knowingly thwarted me. Her dirty beauty sullied the nightdress. Her voluptuousness made it seem a sordid dressing up game. A debauchee dressed up as an ingénue, licking her lips at the thought of the unspeakable acts she might force you to force upon her. We went back to Bratz pyjamas. Their superficial sexuality was the most innocent game on my bruised plum.
Greg was wrong: the holiday was not what we needed. It was the worst thing we could have done. We watched our friends with their children, playing with our children. I saw how the games that involved Josephine seemed furtive as if they were doing things they didn’t want the grownups to know about. I spent less time with her. Not all of our friends had children so there were more adults than children and everyone pitched in to help. A little distance changed how I felt. Freed from the cloying, decaying presence of my youngest daughter, the balance between desire and disgust shifted.
I became angry. This one person had affected everything in my life. I hadn’t gone back to work because I dare not leave her with anyone. Greg hadn’t said anything; he just did more overtime. Our relationship with each other changed. Physically, we couldn’t get enough of each other; the needy, desperate, dirty sex was compulsive. Shame drove a wedge between us. He was tired from working and I was tired from childcare. We fucked without eye contact and barely spoke.
We both tried so hard with the other children, Andrew and Emma were on the cusp of adolescence when we went to Spain and they needed us. I would look at them and marvel that they were so grownup in some ways, yet neither of them had lost any innocence or become less pure. It gave me hope that there were some things that Josephine couldn’t corrupt. I insisted that Josephine had a room of her own. It meant we had to have a bigger house, and to afford that, we had to live in a poorer area. The schools weren’t as good as they would have been if Emma could have shared a room with Josephine. I couldn’t bear the thought that Josephine might make her sister as rotten as her. So we all sacrificed.
In the resort villa, Emma and Josephine had to share a room. They were excited, Greg was nervous and I was frantic. The only other option was to have her in the same room as us but we both knew that wasn’t possible. There was no way we could go two weeks without sex, not since Josephine had been born, and neither of us wanted the chance that she would see what we did. I listened to my friends complain that they haven’t the time or energy for sex. When you hit your forties it seems as if everyone runs out of steam whether they have children or not. But Greg and I found time, in the depths of the night when the children were asleep and the door was locked.
We left the children at night for dinner. They weren’t far away and we all took turns to check them. We weren’t the only ones to do so. The first night we’d left them I was fraught. My stomach was so tight I could barely eat. There was nothing I could say to explain without touching on what I was really worried about. After all, Andrew and Emma were twelve and eleven. They knew not to be caught out of bed and they knew how to get us if anything were wrong. I dreaded going back to the villa, frightened of what I might find, the things I thought Josephine would do the others. But nothing happened. They slept. They were exhausted from swimming and running on the beach and they fell asleep straight away.
After that night, my friend Claire offered me sedatives. She suffered with her nerves and thought they might help me. She always had many more than she needed, just in case.
“You need a blow out.” She said. “You’re so tense. These will help.”
Now I think about it, she probably meant that I should take them. I gave them to Josephine. If I could be sure that she was asleep I could relax a little. Part of me felt that just proximity to Josephine could corrupt. So far my angels had been immune but now Emma was sharing a room with her. I’ve no idea what I thought she would do and no evidence on the part of Josephine that she would do anything except be a normal child, but I feared for my daughter.
My husband went to check the next time. He returned concerned. Andrew, the eldest, he was sure had been in the girls’ room. He said Josie, stumbled over the impulse to sigh Josephine. I saw desire and disgust mashed in his eyes. He was sure it was innocent and Andrew had scrambled back to his room as his father had come into the villa. I wanted to check again but feared what I might find. The minutes dragged painfully, pulled like a rope through my hands.
I walked the few steps to our cabin heavily. Oh how I hated what she had made. I had withdrawn from my three pure, innocent babies, frightened by her sensuality. I hated the images that flickered through my mind, those grave eyes, the smile that half-licked the lips, the sticky rotting flesh of my over-ripe plum smeared on the virginal flesh of her brother. I hated the thought that she might cause me to see my other precious babies in the way I saw her.
The villa was quiet and dark when I pushed open the door. The soft snuffling indicated sleep. I checked the boys’ room first. Andrew and Robert were sleeping open mouthed and twisted up in the sheets. They looked like snoozing angels. I pulled the sheets from Andrew’s legs and smoothed it over him, then did the same for Robert. Neither woke, but Robert clutched his toy rabbit closer to his chest. I closed the door behind me, gently, and rested my forehead on the cool wood veneer. I squeezed my eyes shut against the tears of relief and swallowed down the sick fear for my girl, Emma, alone in a room with Josephine.
The door to the girls’ room was a couple of steps down the corridor. I had taken my shoes off when I came into the villa so as not to clatter my heels on the marble floor. It was cold under my bare feet. Swallowing the hard, jagged lump in my throat I pushed the handle down and opened the door. Cool, peaceful darkness greeted me. The light rhythmic breathing of sleeping children was audible over the noise of diners at the poolside restaurant. Relief can be an unpleasant feeling. It choked me, stabbing at my throat and burning my eyes with unshed tears.
After a moment, I crossed to Emma’s bed. A shaft of light fell across her pillow where the curtain didn’t quite cover the edge of the window. Her pale blond hair splashed across the white linen and her arms were thrown wide. I knelt by the bed and gently kissed her forehead. A noise like a sob drew my attention to the other bed. Josephine. Now she’s gone, she’ll always be Josephine. She was never Josie; that was only the desperate hope I harboured that this could have turned out well, that things could have been different if she hadn’t had that name. I hoped I might never have to tell this story.
I looked from my perfect angel to my other daughter. She lay on her side facing me, the thin sheet pulled up around her shoulders, tiny hands clutching it up to her face. Her eyes were half closed with sleepiness.
“Mummy?”Still on my knees I crossed to her bed and with one finger, brushed her fringe from her eyes. “Go to sleep.” I whispered. With her eyelids heavy from the sedative I felt almost tender towards her.
“Can I have a drink?” she said.
I looked at the empty glass on the nightstand between the two beds. I smiled and picked it up.
Sitting here, in this featureless room with plastic tables and chairs eerily like the ones in the villa’s kitchen diner, I don’t remember what was on my mind as I walked out of the room. It was a terrible blankness as if my conscious mind wanted nothing to do with what was going to happen. Yet, I can’t say I had no control, that I couldn’t have stopped myself, that it wasn’t deliberate. I took the little baggie of sedative from the high cupboard in the kitchen. There was enough for the rest of the week. I tipped all the pills into the mortar and ground them to dust. Normally I give the children water in the night, but I chose to give Josephine juice. She liked apple. I stirred and stirred until the grainy white powder dissolved and carried the glass back to Josephine.
She had drifted back into sleep. I had to wake her up. It is this one thing that means I can’t pretend I did this by mistake or I didn’t know what I was doing. I stacked the pillows against the headboard and lifted her under her arms so that she was sat up against them. She obediently took the glass and drank. She must have been thirsty because even though she pulled a face at the taste she drank most of the glass straight down. I might have left it at that, but when she handed the glass back to me, she opened her eyes and looked directly at me. I saw my guilt reflected back at me and told her to finish the drink. She did. I suppose I should have felt bad.
Returning to my husband and friends, I felt tired, but light. As I sat down, I caught Greg’s gaze across the table. I smiled and for the first time in four years I loved him. The wine tasted sweeter in my mouth and people seemed brighter, their laughter like crystals chiming in a soft breeze. The next forty five minutes flashed by and soon it was time to go check on the children again. This time the knot in my stomach was excitement.
She wasn’t breathing. She looked like she had been strangled and if you put your fingers to her throat there was no pulse. I checked the others briefly. They were fine; nothing could hurt them now. I knew I had to put on a show and act the distressed mother. I stood there for a few moments savouring my freedom and then I imagined it had been Emma lying still and cold in the bed. I fuelled my sadness with the pent up anger and fear that Josephine had given me and rushed outside. I screamed and screamed, releasing all the horror I had kept inside since she had been born. I screamed until I had no breath left and then I screamed in silence.
Eventually I was exhausted and sought refuge in my bewildered husband’s arms. I saw in his eyes that he knew what had happened and I saw his relief. For four years he was as shut down as I was. If he hadn’t picked up the baggie from the kitchen and put it in his pocket, if he hadn’t washed up the mortar and pestle, perhaps our other children would have their father at least. That’s what I feel bad about. I should have cleaned up after myself. Then it would only be me locked up and my precious angels would be safe with their father. Even in death, she makes what should have been good into something very wrong.
Originally published in Pantechnicon, 2008. Pantechnicon had to close due to malicious attacks on the website.
Friday, 17 July 2009
The comment is always erudite and helpful and I shall be digging out a first page as soon as I get home.
Monday, 13 July 2009
On Thursday last week, I was having trouble getting the Hub website to load, so I followed a link to their old wordpress website. The penultimate post, from 2007, was a lengthy discussion of the declining readership of speculative fiction magazines and it touched briefly on the model of giving work away. Which got me thinking.
My goal is to eventually publish novels. I write short stories for fun and as vehicles for working on writing technique. Most short story markets don't pay in actual cash and those that do, don't pay much. Even the highest paying markets don't pay at rates that really reflect the hours that go into writing a short story. Black Static, for example, I believe pays £20 per thousand words (although there's nothing on their website about paying at all; I will check) and is one of the highest paying markets. Is £100 fair remuneration for the amount of time a 5000 word story will take?
Ok, maybe I'm a slow writer and maybe each story needs a lot of work. And I should say my basis for comparison is what I earn in my day job - £15 an hour. At that rate, in order to make a living I need to be writing and editing 750 words per hour, thirty five hours a week. Probably more, because I won't be getting holiday or sick pay. Maybe some people can do it, but to me that feels like an exhausting and unrealistic pace.
So, if I'm not making money with my short stories, what is the purpose of trying to get them published? Partly, it's about getting feedback and partly it's about raising my profile.
I want some feedback on my writing and I want it from people who know what they're talking about. That can come from a writers' group or you can pay for it, but there's nothing that says 'yes, you're good enough' like getting accepted for publication. But what if that says more about my beliefs about validation than it does about the standard of my work? Many editors acknowledge that they reject plenty of stuff that is 'good enough' but not right for another reason. These days I feel that my critical faculties are better - I can objectively judge my own work and rely less on the opinions of others.
Profile raising is really the key reason I want to publish short stories. It's all about getting my novel off the slush pile and read. It's about having a readership. Several authors have shown that there are other ways to do that, such as putting stories online and giving them away for free. So, there you go - Hell is a free to read story. And I'd love to know what you think.
I'm not eschewing traditional publication totally - it's still a great feeling when someone likes your work enough to publish it - just expanding my options.
Friday, 10 July 2009
“So, what’s the plan for tonight?” I said as I eased into the chair wedged between the table and the wall.
“Troy and Daniel are coming at about eight, although knowing them they’ll be late. I have a couple of decorations still to put up.”
She paused to take a big bite of her sandwich, chewing thoroughly. I pushed around some limp lettuce and fished out a tiny piece of chicken.
“Then we have a traditional Halloween activity.”
“Like bobbing for apples?”
“A bit like that.” Tanya smiled mysteriously and changed the subject.
We finished work at five thirty. Tanya was ready to go at twenty five past and came to hover by my desk. I felt a wave of irritation start to surge and ruthlessly repressed it. This job was new and although everyone was welcoming, Tanya was the only one who’d been friendly. I wasn't sure I liked her but it’s not like I have so many friends that I can afford to be picky.
Her car was a flash little two-seater in British Racing Green, low and uncomfortable in the rush hour traffic. Still, it was better this way. I could get settled in and have a glass of wine before her friends arrived. Not for the first time that day I wished I’d said no and was going home to my comfortable Friday night routine of pizza and movies.
Tanya's house was bigger than I expected and full of little Gothic touches, a bat mirror in the hallway, a skull candleholder in the downstairs loo. You’d never tell from the way she dressed at work.
“What do we need to do in the way of decorating?” I said.
“It’s mostly done really. I want to change out of my work clothes. What about you?”
“I brought a change of clothes.”
“Great. Come upstairs and I’ll show you the spare room.”
Tanya pointed me into a box room with a single bed and then disappeared into the bathroom. It was dingy. A dark purple shade prevented the lightbulb from doing its job. I put my overnight bag on the bed and sat down beside it. This room was obviously for junk. The rest of the house felt cared for.
I really wished I’d stayed home. I drank half a glass of wine without tasting it. When I put the glass down my hand shook and nearly knocked it off the bedside table. I stripped down to my underwear and got clean clothes out of my bag. As I was freshening up with a cleansing wipe, I felt a chill. The hairs on the back of my neck, my shoulders and arms stood up and I couldn’t control a convulsive shudder. Quick, shallow breaths of cold air rasped in my ears and I knew there was someone standing behind me. I tensed in anticipation of his touch.
When it didn’t come, I picked up my top and pulled it over my head. I couldn’t bring myself to turn around although I knew I would have to, eventually. I wriggled into my jeans. Material between my skin and questing fingers made me feel safe enough to half turn and reach for the wine. Once the glass was empty I turned again, warmed from the inside.
BANG, BANG, BANG. The door shook and I yelped and jumped as the knock was followed immediately by the door opening.
“Did I scare you?” Tanya laughed. “I was coming to see if you needed a top up. Looks like you do.”
“I got really creeped out a minute ago.” I held my wine glass out.
“Mmmm, this room has a draught and I can’t figure out where it’s coming from.”
She left again and I brushed out my hair and made up my face. Then I went downstairs with my wine. Despite having been in a bathrobe when she’d come into my room Tanya was already in the hall, hanging plastic bats from the ceiling.
“You didn’t say we were dressing up.” Looking at Tanya’s black lace gown I felt underdressed.
“Would you light the candles in the pumpkins please? There should be a lighter on the windowsill.”
There was a pumpkin on the kitchen windowsill where anyone coming to the front door would see it. Another, more grotesquely carved, was in the living room. There was a stick of incense in holder on the mantle so I lit that too. A jumble of crystals and halloween knick-knacks were littered amongst the candles on the black marble hearth. Then the overhead light went out. I jumped and dropped the lighter. There was a throaty laugh from the doorway.
Tanya was silhouetted in the light from the hallway. “Wow, you’re really jumpy. I thought it would be more atmospheric in here with just the candles.”
“It’s certainly that. I didn’t hear you moving.” I started to rearrange the folds on my top. I loved it. The red was the perfect shade for me and it had a low scooped neckline with loose drapy folds of material. The long, bell sleeves hung loosely from my shoulders. It looked amazing until I moved and then everything needed adjusting.
Tanya disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a bowl of funsize chocolate bars which she placed on a small table by the door.
“The guys will be here any minute,” she said.
She bought the bottle of wine through and filled our glasses again. It was working its magic and I was more relaxed. I wondered if I should slow down. There wasn't much in my stomach and I didn't want to be drunk too early, but then the doorbell rang and my nerves took over. Tanya shoved a CD into my hand as she went to answer the door. I put it in her player; the doomy notes of Paradise Lost were at odds with the noisy, excited greetings in the hallway.
Daniel and Troy were nice. For a while I forgot why social situations fill me with dread. Daniel was in love with Tanya, hanging on her every word, gazing longingly at her with big, brown eyes. He sat cross-legged on the sofa watching her. I'd expected that someone called Troy would be rather fey. He wasn’t. He was blond and tall, understatedly pretty.
“Ok, let’s do this,” said Tanya.
“Do what?” I said.
She just smiled at me. “You’ll see.”
Troy moved furniture, taking little tables to the side of the room and pushing the sofa and chairs back to make a big clearing in front of the fireplace. Daniel gathered up all the dead beer bottles and nibbles. I grabbed my wine bottle before he could remove that as well. Tanya killed the music. The sudden emptiness of the air was strange and threatening. She turned into the room and stood by the fireplace.
“Amy," she looked at me. "As it’s Samhain we’re going to contact the dead.”
Daniel and Troy sat on the floor to either side of her. In her black lace gown she looked like a priestess with her neophytes. I didn’t want to do it but I didn't believe in ghosts. The spirits of the dead don't talk.
I joined them on the carpet. Tanya asked us to close our eyes. The sweet, cloying incense tickled my nose. I had a sense that I was the only one who didn’t know what we were doing.
“Breathe deeply in through your nose. Hold it for a count of three. Now breathe out through your mouths. Hold for three.”
Tanya's voice was warmer and deeper than usual. We breathed like that for a while. I began to feel spaced out and I had a weird sense of stillness. The first stirrings of a screaming panic rose in the back of my brain followed by an angry, judgemental voice that told me to get it together, reminded me not to embarrass myself.
“Now, there is a ball of white light in the centre of your body. Feel it there, get an idea of its size and weight, see how it glows, this pure light energy.”
I struggled to hold the image in my mind. My ball of light wanted to change shape and colour. It was flickering and disappearing, red one second, blue the next.
“The ball of light grows bigger.”
When I had wanted it to stay one size it had been happy to grow and shrink. Now I needed to enlarge it, my multicoloured ball of light stayed resolutely the same size.
“It’s surrounding your whole body.”
My ball was nowhere near that big. I opened one eye. The three of them sat still, eyes closed. I tried again. This time I started with the light surrounding my whole body. I still couldn’t get the colour right.
“Your ball of light grows bigger and merges with the people either side of you.”
I fastforwarded my light expansion. Once again I wondered whether I really liked Tanya. But if I was arrogant enough to reject her friendship I’d never have any friends and the thought of the rest of my weekends alone was too much. I hadn't been paying attention. Our collective ball of light was supposed to be encompassing the whole house.
“When you’re ready, come back to the room and open your eyes.”
I wasn’t the only who was spaced out. The room felt warm and there was a tingle in the air. Tanya hadn't said who we were trying to contact. Even if I'd believed in ghosts I wasn't so close to my family that I wanted to talk to the dead ones. At the thought of my family I felt a surge of anger and disappointment. I reached for my glass to quell it then panicked that I was getting too drunk to control my emotions. The others shuffled round so we were now in a half circle and the hearth was visible.
“This is Samhain, the night when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. The night that we can converse with those that have moved on,” said Tanya.
“I call on Anubis, Lord of the Dead, to open the gates of the underworld.” Troy reached to the side of the fireplace for a small statuette of a dogheaded man and placed it on the hearth.
What I had thought was a random collection of vaguely Halloween related objects amongst the candles on the hearth was actually an altar. This had been planned in detail and Tanya hadn’t told me anything.
“Hecate, Crone Goddess, give us your blessing tonight. Allow those who wish to speak to the living to pass.”
They began to chant. Daniel and Troy set up a deep, droning wordless sound. Tanya began to weave a haunting dirge over the top. I thought I should try to join in but I’m no singer. My wine glass was empty so I reached for the bottle beside the sofa and filled it up.
I shuffled backward to lean on the sofa watching them chant. Tanya smiled at me and I began to suspect a cruel trick. That somehow the whole evening had been orchestrated to achieve my humiliation. I felt sick and tearful. My heart pounded in time with the chant, speeding up as they got faster. Soon my heart was racing so fast I thought I would collapse.
And then they stopped, clean, like they’d rehearsed. My heart banged in my chest and I was breathing as hard as if I’d been running for my life. It wasn’t warm anymore. The room was cold, a taste of ice on the air. I looked up. Our little circle was surrounded by fog, glowing whitely around the candles.
"I think someone's here," whispered Troy.
We all looked around. I couldn't see anything or make out how the fog and the cold had been achieved. Tanya's face was flushed and she smiled widely.
“Someone is with us,” intoned Tanya. “Step forth and speak with the living if that is your will.”
Daniel’s eyes went wide. Whatever he was seeing now was a surprise. I turned my head to look.
I didn’t know that he was dead. No-one told me. A cocktail of hurt and disappointment and shame filled me. I should know better after all this time, but every time they let me down it hurts more than I can bear. And like salt on the rim of a marguerita glass is the loneliness of knowing there’s no-one in the world that’s on your side. They should have told me that he’d died.
Through the white fog drifted the translucent figure of my father’s brother. He was dressed as he used to when he babysat me, in a black silk kimono, loosely fastened so he flashed his skinny thighs as he walked.
“Step forward, spirit,” said Tanya. “Tell us what your message for the living is.”
I was six years old again, watching my parents leave. I couldn’t understand then that they didn’t know how scared I was. Later, when I discovered that they’d known all along and hadn’t done anything, I didn’t understand what was so wrong with me that it didn’t matter.
“Tanya, please,” I croak, but it’s not enough.
She waved her hand to shut me up. There was a slight smile on her face and she leant forward toward the spectre. The words stuck in my throat and all I could say was “Make it stop.” She didn’t see my distress. I knew the only way to make her hear me was to scream and shout, but I had no voice. It was taken years ago and so I suffered quietly.
He smiled and it frightened me just as much as it always used to.
“I’ve missed our special times, Jenny.”
Tanya looked at me, her brow screwed up. Amy is my middle name. I can’t stand to hear anyone say Jennifer or Jenny. I wanted to ask her to stop but my vocal cords failed. There was a part of me that believed I’d been betrayed and it wouldn’t let me beg. I bowed my head to hide my eyes.
An icy draught on my cheek made me look up again, eyes tearing. The spectre was crouched in front of me. I tried not to look at the open front of his kimono but I didn’t want to look at his face either.
“I’ll be waiting,” he said. “Just like this. When you die, it’ll be just like it used to be.”
Monday, 6 July 2009
The first story is amazing. The Near-Sighted Sentinel by Adam King is the tale of a superhero dealing with ageing and failure. The Sentinel has to face loss of status and recognition and then finally to face up to not having made a difference. It is incredibly well written and structured. I was totally absorbed and might even read it again.
Time Out by David Siegel Bernstein deals with a complex future society and packs in a lot of worldbuilding. I think the story, one of the disillusionment of the main character, suffers a little for it. Most of the dialogue is exposition and little time is given over to characterisation. I like the idea and the worldbuilding is fascinating. Given the space of a novel, with time to explore the technology and economics and develop convincing characters, this could be really good.
I wasn't as keen on the third story, Murder at the Tipsy Minotaur by Marie Robertson. The magical fantasy community created feels more like a checklist than sense of place and the characters come across as quite flat. The reveal at the end is done Poirot-style and that's handled quite well. I liked the title.
Dead Men Don't Drive by Timothy Friend is a zombie story. I'm not a fan of zombies, especially the shuffling, groaning variety, but this was quite good. The narrator is a not-so innocent bystander to a bigger crime - the details of which are left in shadows. I like that the author resisted the temptation to explain what was going on. It's worth a read.
It takes a while for Dead Hands by Jason Rolfe to get going. The plot is quite tense with the main character in a lot of danger for most of the story, but somehow the emotional tension doesn't come across. I never get the sense that she's really scared. I liked the ending though. It had a nice twist and maintained the pace of the story.
The last story, The Eyes that Catch by Bruce Bretthauer, wasn't as enjoyable as some of the others. The writing side of things is mostly good, except for a tendency to infodump. It was more the characterisation and stereotypical gender representation that put me off. The characters weren't very well differentiated or particularly developed. The narrator felt more like a man with female parts than a female character.
So, this issue has been a bit up and down, but there's a couple of real gems.
Wednesday, 1 July 2009
Tuesday, 30 June 2009
I very much enjoyed The First Law trilogy. It wouldn't be going too far to say that it restored my faith in fantasy (along with Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora). But there's always the worry that the next book won't be as good. It's happened before.
Happily, Best Served Cold was as good and I spent yesterday evening curled up on the sofa reading. If you don't want to take my word for it, here's an extract. I didn't dare bring it to work to read at lunchtime.
Thursday, 25 June 2009
Issue 89 provides Storm CHASER by Craig Pirrall. I liked this. Love the idea of a storm in a bottle and I'd have coughed up the forty bucks. The characters are very vivid for such a short piece. Again, I was disappointed that it ended so quickly.
Wednesday, 24 June 2009
It did cross my mind that the hard drive was completely dead but time and money (thanks to very generous parents) have brought my stuff back. I now have two external hard drives and proper back ups.
I couldn't even begin to count the number of times I've read writers exhorting other writers to back everything up, usually because they've lost years worth of work themselves. I know, as a reasonably technology-literate, fully paid up member of the 21st century, that copies are vital. I've even watched the Blackadder 3 episode, Ink and Incapability, with horror, imagining what it would be like to write without a PC. Just imagine, if you had to start from scratch if your dictionary got burnt. The horror; the despair; the finger cramp.
And yet.... It remained an item on a to-do list. And if the hard drive hadn't died, it probably would still be an item on a to-do list.
I'm not pondering this because I want to celebrate the return of my stories or punish myself for procrastination. I'm doing it because it reveals to me something about how caution, or the lack of it, informs our behaviour and therefore that of our characters. In most cases our charaters will know what they should do but that doesn't mean they will do it.
Tuesday, 23 June 2009
The story in Issue 88 is Red Rover, Red Rover by Janet Loftis. This is fantastic. Children, horror and excellent writing. It is really quite creepy and that sandwich is not settling well. My only complaint was that it ended. I'd love to read what happened next.
Tuesday, 16 June 2009
What I have been doing is posting blogs and I've noticed that the time pressure is not good for my writing. Reviewing Electric Spec last week felt rushed and as if I hadn't given enough thought to what I was saying. As it was, it took me several days to read the whole magazine.
That led me to thoughts about commas. Most of the stories I read seemed to have an overabundance of commas and there was only really one in which it contributed to building the atmosphere. So, what's the problem with commas? I think it stems from the gap between written and spoken english.
When people speak they rarely form good sentences; they hesitate, they use fillers, they repeat themselves and they go off on tangents. Accurately transcribed speech might appear to require the use of a lot of commas because of all the pauses. It's a common myth that the comma is used to show where a person should breathe if they were reading out loud.
There are three separate issues here. One, how accurately should prose in fiction recreate the spoken word? Two, what are commas for? And three, what effect does overusing commas have on prose?
Personally, I think prose in fiction should not attempt to recreate how people speak. Even in dialogue you're really aiming for an idealisation of speech. Written english benefits from being much more thought through than everyday speech. We can be more eloquent and more effective. I have found that working on my skills in terms of using punctuation and grammar has increased my power and control over my writing. I am better able to say exactly what I mean to say and better able to identify what feels instinctively wrong.
Commas have four purposes; listing, joining, gapping and bracketing. One of the most useful online resources I've found for punctuation is Larry Trask's Guide. I don't think I can say anything about the uses of commas more clearly than this.
Which brings me to my third point, what does the overuse of commas do to prose? There are two types of overuse: liberally sprinkled commas where the writer would pause if speaking and correctly used bracketing commas in sentences overloaded with weak interruptions or parenthetical clauses. Both have the same effect. The prose is choppy, especially if the clauses are short, and has a feeling of breathlessness. This can be used to great effect where the writer wants to create an atmosphere of tension. The sense of breathlessness is reminiscent of the fight/flight response and the accompanying hyper-alertness. Coupled with a first person POV, it it is a useful technique for establishing empathy with a character. Or it can convey dislocation and disorientation if the commas are used to create convoluted, disjointed sentences. The reader shares the overload of input without the reassurance of structure.
The comma is not an everyday, throwaway piece of punctuation. Using it with care and thought has dramatically improved my writing.
Wednesday, 10 June 2009
I haven't reviewed Electric Spec before. I first heard of them via the first page contest they were holding on their blog. The editors' comments on the work submitted to them were very thoughtful and interesting. They publish quarterly and are a paying market.
The first issue of this year came out on February 28. It contains six stories, the first of which is A Crowd of Possibilities by Eric Del Carlo. It starts slowly but it's worth persevering with. At the beginning I found the staccato style of writing irritating. This was the point I think, as the author gradually builds a sense of dislocation. At the end it all makes sense and works up into a good story.
The Boogie-Woogie, Time-Traveling, Cyborg Blues by Barton Paul Levenson is really good. The tension of the story is set up very quickly and maintained all the way through. Backstory is nicely handled through dialogue, raising some interesting questions about the possible future. I liked this.
RepFix by K.P. Graham is also very good. It's really well written and presents a plausible world without stopping to explain the details. It shows confidence. What I didn't like about this is that it was a little coy with the details. We are told characters swear and use bad language, we are told that the main character is a depraved criminal. I find it irritating to have these things hidden behind a veil. If they are important enough to mention at all, then they are important enough to show.
Story number four is Kitsune-tsuki by Justin A. Williams. I love the way this starts by dropping you right into the action. The later action scene is also good; it's exciting, well paced and dramatic. The bits inbetween are a bit slow and saggy. I struggled to keep reading. The ending was a bit cliched for my taste as well.
The next story, Hair and Hearts by Alison J. Littlewood, was wonderful. As it went along it really drew me in. It made me laugh although it's not humourous story. If I'm being pedantic, I might say it suffers from an over-use of commas. That seems to have been a theme in this collection of stories. The effect is to make the narrative feel breathless and jumpy. Sometimes this is appropriate and sometimes it works against a story.
The last tale in this issue, The Girl Door by Jennifer Linnaea, doesn't suffer from an over-use of commas. This is the best of the issue. The writing is excellent and the fantasy is multi-layered and symbolic. Linnaea is saying an awful lot beyond the simple story of a father protecting his child.
Saturday, 6 June 2009
The comedy was funny - I laughed out loud - and the drama was tense. I can't wait for episode 2.
Friday, 5 June 2009
Issue 87's story in Nightlife by Dean Grondo. Wow, that's disturbing. I think I'm actually horrified. This is a snippet of an insight into the mind of a serial killer. There's no attempt to construct a narrative or give any backstory and I think that shows just how competent and assured the writing is. All throughout the story I was thinking in a slightly hysterical way 'but why? Why?' and no why was given. It would have been a much weaker piece if the author had attempted to answer the questions. I'm not sure I actually liked it but it's the first time in ages I've been really disturbed by a horror story - and isn't that exactly what the genre is supposed to do? I'll be looking out for more of Grondo's work.
Thursday, 4 June 2009
The first is Archimedes Nesselrode by Justine Graykin. The start of this put me off. I think perhaps this information could have been worked into the story as part of the narrative, rather than as an introductory scene. The setting is lovely but I think Graykin has missed a trick. Her writing is competent but her style is quite matter of fact and works against the picture she's trying to convey. The characters didn't really come across well and it didn't make me laugh.
A Simple Matter by Linda Linsey did make me laugh. I loved the updated take on fairy godmother stories. More could have been made of the ending, which struck me as a little hurried, and the 'twist' was telegraphed early on. Although I was amused by it.
I really liked the concept of Condiment Wars by Jill Afzelius. It's inventive and entertaining. The pacing is good and the author draws the ending out nicely. There were a few moments that made me smile and I'd be interested in reading the further adventures of ketchup and mustard. I found the writing style laboured though. It seemed a little unsophisticated and often the dialogue was stilted. As it's a dialogue-heavy story (in principle, a good thing) this is quite important. This is a great idea that would have benefitted from a serious re-write.
Story number 4 is A Smoking Idol by Max Orkis. Well, it's not so much a story as an anecdote. This is some good writing; I'm just not sure this piece showcases it that well.
The final piece is A Tale of Two Bureaucracies by Jeremy Zimmerman. Hee. This is genuinely amusing - or at least, genuinely appeals to my sense of humour. It's also well written and an intelligent take on bureaucracy. Zimmerman had a story in Issue three that I really liked. And just checking back I realise I haven't reviewed Issue 4. Ooops. Anyway, this tickled me. Definitely the best of the bunch.
Three out of five of the writers in this issue are women. I've no idea whether this was done consciously or not, but I would like to commend Crossed Genres for equal gender representation in this issue.
Tuesday, 2 June 2009
Currently I'm reviewing Crossed Genres, Issue 5. In the meantime, I thought I'd post just to have something fresh up here and to let you know that the deadline for Crossed Genres, Issue 9, is 30th June. They are looking for sci-fi/fantasy stories with an alternative history theme.
Monday, 25 May 2009
The plan was that I would write a novel and get it published and that nearly two years would be more than enough time to do that. I still haven't finished the novel. I've abandoned two and am now working on the third. I have high hopes for this one.
It has been an amazing time. I am so much a better writer for it. When I left my day job I had a first draft of a novel I'd written during NaNoWriMo. I thought I would rewrite it and turn into something good. I spent weeks reading through it, marking it with a red pen, until I realised two things:
1. I didn't know what the hell I was doing when it came to rewriting.
2. There was something fundamentally wrong with the story but I didn't know what that was.
I decided to focus for a while on short stories to learn about rewriting in small chunks. That went well. I had a story in my head that needed to be told and Pantechnicon liked it enough to publish it - Innocent. I had a go at writing articles and found I didn't like it so much and for a couple of months got paid for blogging.
Then I started on a second novel, working from an idea I'd had years ago. This time I had piles of character sheets, timelines, outlines, research and even a map. It was loosely based on a real period of European history and so I was able to get lost in the research. The writing wasn't coming easily at all. And in the back of my head I wondered if there was the same fundamental flaw in this story as there had been in the previous one.
Last summer I took a part time job and switched to working on another short story. The second novel wasn't going anywhere and I'd reached the point where I needed some success. I returned to the strategy that had worked before. This story never seemed to be done; it just grew and grew. The part time job ended in September and for three months I worked flat out on what was now my third attempt at a novel.
Then something unexpected happened. I stumbled across a feminist critique of one of my favourite TV shows and it shook the way I'd been thinking about things. After a few weeks of re-educating myself on matters of prejudice and privilege I realised what had been wrong with my previous two novels. They portrayed relationships and characters that entirely reinforced the status quo and I had been under such a false consciousness that I'd failed to see it. It was also true of the third novel but in this case was fixable. This novel will get finished and I will be happy with the result, but I may sweat blood doing it.
Of course, I have also read and critiqued and studied writing. I've learnt what my process is and I've learned to view my own work more objectively. The last few months have been mostly dedicated to job hunting and now I'm returning to work. I'm happy about that - I like to pay the mortgage and have nice things - and I'm looking forward to it. But I would absolutely quit my day job all over again. Just as soon as I find a big pile of money.
Thursday, 21 May 2009
There are two stories this week. Wink by Lucy Kemnitzer is a surprisingly affecting story. She packs a lot into few words. It starts out with the idea that puberty can be controlled, thus it need only be started when required and packed into a couple of months. This is well told through a character embarking on puberty in response to meeting another character. Then the story abruptly twists into an exploration of gendered communication, misunderstood expectations and ultimately rejection and disappointment. It's really good.
Tastes of the Dark is by Malin Larsson. Something about this didn't work for me. It has the well used twist of leading the reader to believe that the POV character is the prey when they are actually the predator. Generally I don't object to using a structure or idea that has been done before because a good story is a good story. I guess what I'm learning from reviewing other people's work is that the telling matters more than the tale. And in this case the telling lacked tension.