Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: June, 2014

On Writing and the Wall of Magic

This is pretty much a brief, random post just to let anyone who is only following this blog that I’m still here. (If you follow me via Twitter, you know I’m always here.) I’m still writing, of course, but at the moment I’m not really ready to post any of it. (I’ve been doing a lot of handwriting lately and I’m too lazy to type everything up right away.)

I’m also in one of those weird, periodic self-loathing phases where I think all the ideas that I come up with are crap, so don’t expect me to talk too much about the writing process at the moment. Metaphorical head banging and hair pulling aren’t very interesting.

* * *

I found myself watching a couple of those Mental Floss list videos on YouTube. I’m probably the only person in this universe who thinks John Green is annoying, but there was one thing I found really mesmerizing about those videos–the Wall of Magic. Sure, it’s a giant shelf filled with geektastic stuff, but what it reminded me of was a cabinet of curiosities. I think it’s the sense of wonder and randomness and the fact that you’ll always discover something new in the collection that fascinates me.

I want a wall of magic and/or cabinet of curiosities of my own (combined with my library of books), but I suspect I’ll have to wait until I get a bigger place before I start thinking about something like this.

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Storm Chasers – Entry #4

He’s a thunderbird with an attitude problem. She’s a soul eater with a sweet tooth. They fight supernatural crime!

(I’ve decided to do a series of short urban fantasy vignettes set in an alternate universe Vancouver to keep myself regularly writing and posting in this blog. This entry is based on this picture prompt at WriteWorld.)

* * *

As Taj reluctantly contemplated the shedu’s essence, now compressed into a small metal bead between her thumb and index finger, the background music to “My Heart Will Go On” blasted through a pair of crackling speakers. She and Ru had decided to retire to a sushi dive on the east side of Powell Street in order to regroup and plan for the next demon take down. Ru had said something about dinner. Which was easy for him to say. She had to eat a demon.

“Aren’t you going to eat that?” Ru ate a piece of tuna roll as a trio of drunk businessmen at the other end of the dive warbled about their hearts on static-y microphones.

“I don’t normally eat demons. But if this doesn’t give me indigestion, they certainly will,” she replied as one of the businessmen hit a high note. At least they were sitting in a back corner booth so the noise wasn’t so loud. Her ears were still recovering from the encounter with the shedu. She grimaced and then tossed the bead into her mouth. Swallowed. She reached for the sake a second later. The alcohol warmed her throat, but it did nothing to alleviate the heaviness in her stomach. It wouldn’t take long for the demon’s powers to augment her own. “I should have said no.”

“Said no? Said no to what?”

“To your suggestion for coming here,” she said, waving a hand to indicate the sushi joint. “If you really wanted sushi, we could have gone to that new restaurant down on Robson.”

“Too fancy,” he countered. “And too many normal people there. Besides, it would be impossible for us to talk about this.” He took out his phone and started playing the recording of the shedu hissing and roaring. Most of it was drowned out by the bad karaoke, but Taj reached over anyway to stop the playback.

“Don’t be so reckless. It’s a wonder you haven’t landed on the local tabloid before now with the humans writing stories about you having alien babies or something.” She poured herself another cup of sake before finally partaking some real food. She crunched on some shrimp tempura as she took in their surroundings. Dim yellow light lit the dive which consisted of a couple worn tables and booths populated mostly by casually dressed regulars. The only concession to décor was a couple of fake bonsai trees near the entrance. “Besides, I don’t see much difference. There are normal people here, too.”

“Sure, but nobody here will bother eavesdropping on us.”

“Uh huh. Well, what about her?”

Ru turned his head in the direction that Taj had wiggled her chopsticks. A short line of patrons stood against the wall, waiting for their turn at karaoke. One of the people in line was a slim, dark haired woman in a jean jacket and extremely short shorts. At that moment, she was staring in their direction with black eyes. Her skin was pale but with a greenish tinge that marked her as one of the sea people.

He scowled. “What is she doing here?” The light rain outside suddenly became a downpour.

“You know her? Who is she?”

Instead of answering Taj, he turned back to the table and muttered, “We need more sake.”

“No, we don’t. Who is she? Is she an ex-girlfriend?”

At her words, his lips curved into a snarl. “You’re fortunate you had some justification for that incident, even if it was a stupid reason,” he said, referring to the last time they met, before Vivian Long put them on the current case. “She almost killed my brother.”

“Your brother? I didn’t know you had a brother.”

“He’s in a coma thanks to her,” he spat. He gulped down some sake. Thunder rumbled outside and the lights briefly flickered, but none of the humans noticed. “I should have struck her down on the spot when I first found out.”

“Why aren’t you striking her now?”

“Contrary to what you think, I’m not an idiot. She’s a princess. If I struck her down, I’d have the sea gods breathing down my neck for the rest of my life.”

“A princess, huh? Strange that she’s slumming it down here today.” Taj pretended to concentrate on her food, but she was aware that the woman had peeled away from the karaoke line and was heading their way. When she got to their table, she struck a pose with a hand on her hip.

“Well isn’t it a sweet coincidence?” the woman said, her smoky voice forcing them to acknowledge her presence. Her voice had a compulsion to it, similar to the Dragon Queen’s, but it was weaker. Despite the fact that the woman was a siren, Taj found it easy not to fall into her thrall. “Fancy seeing you here, Birdie.” The siren glanced at Taj and then continued with a sniff, “She doesn’t seem like your type. She seems a bit…unconventional.”

Taj merely smiled at the barb and ate another tempura shrimp.

A muscle ticked in his jaw, but his words were cool and controlled. “I’m a regular here. You, however, don’t make it a habit to visit dives. I thought you had more…refined tastes. Did your latest rich boyfriend get tired of you?”

The siren gave a brittle laugh. “Oh, you know Dave. He’s pretty busy. I’m just amusing myself here.” She took a step back and wiggled her fingers in a mock wave. In the dim light, a ring with a large blue stone flashed. Taj found herself staring at the ring. Her fingers itched. “It was so good to see you. By the way, have you found your brother’s soul yet?”

Ru’s eyes glinted. A faint, almost imperceptible sliver of smoke rose from where he clutched his chopsticks. “No.”

“Too bad. It’s such a shame.” She turned and sauntered back to her place in the karaoke line.

“Bitch,” Ru growled.

The trio of businessmen began the final stanza of their song, their voices rising in a crescendo as the background music crackled and swelled from the speakers.

The itch in Taj’s fingers intensified. Instinct had her splaying her fingers. The effects of her demon meal finally revealed themselves. Her normally keen senses jacked up and she briefly lost control of her power which called out to any lost souls in the vicinity. She forced her hands to close back into fists and shoved a lid back on her abilities. But it was too late. Several things shattered inside the dive. A woman screamed. It was the siren, clutching a broken ring.

The humans in the sushi dive went silent for a moment before erupting into cheers. They thought the glass broke because of the power of their operatic voices.

Taj stared down at her hands. Faint bluish wisps gathered into her palm and reformed into a glittering, blue gemstone. “I think I just found your brother’s soul,” she said. She hated the fact that her hands were shaking. The power that she had absorbed from the shedu was far greater than she had expected. She shoved the stone into a pocket before anyone else in the dive could see.

Ru slapped some bills onto the table and scooted out of the booth. “Come on. Let’s go before she realizes the humans didn’t actually do anything.”

Storm Chasers – Entry #3

He’s a thunderbird with an attitude problem. She’s a soul eater with a sweet tooth. They fight supernatural crime!

(I’ve decided to do a series of short urban fantasy vignettes set in an alternate universe Vancouver to keep myself regularly writing and posting in this blog. This entry is based on this picture prompt at WriteWorld.)

* * *

When they finally arrived at the squat brick house in Renfrew, the latest victim was already dead. The only remains they could see was an arm frozen in desperation as it stuck out of the front door mail slot. Blood pooled on the concrete step below. The trail of the shedu that Ru had been tracking splattered against the front door in a sickly iridescent sheen only visible to those who had the power to see beyond the normal.

“This way,” said Ru. “The window’s open.”

Extreme caution had Taj glancing around the empty neighborhood. No humans strolled on the sidewalks, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t any glancing out behind curtains. Even so, they would only see slim shadows on the lawn at best. A trick of the light. When those of Taj and Ru’s ilk didn’t want to be seen by humans, they weren’t.

Taj followed Ru to the far right of the house to stand in front of a sliding window painted in white trim. Ru wedged his fingers into the crack at the bottom and pushed the pane up with little trouble. In seconds, they both slipped inside. The bedroom they entered was unremarkable. A bed, a desk, two chairs, photographs, and posters on the wall.

She reached out with her senses for a moment and then nodded for Ru to continue. “I can’t sense anything in this house except for the dead human.”

The bedroom door led out into a short hallway that met with the foyer at the entrance. They both stood shoulder to shoulder at the end of the hallway looking out onto the scene. The shedu had made short work of its victim in an extremely messy fashion. The carpet, whatever its original color, was now stained a permanent dark red. Taj had no desire to step into the foyer so she summoned the victim’s soul to come to her. The tattered, silver wisps rose from the remains and migrated to her fingers easily. So did the victim’s last memories. Her fingers spasmed, abruptly releasing the poor soul. If her stomach wasn’t so strong, her cousin’s baklava would have joined the blood on the carpet.

“It was bad,” she finally said. She cracked her eyes open. Ru looked at her with a narrowed, intense gaze. In the distance, she thought she heard rumbling. Perhaps it was a passing train. “The man had no idea. It suddenly appeared in the kitchen. He tried to run.”

“And didn’t make it.” Ru pulled something out of his back pocket. A phone. He took some pictures of the scene and then carefully skirted around the worst of the area to head deeper into the house.

Taj followed him to the kitchen, which would have looked as ordinary as the bedroom except for the scattered splinters of what remained of a wooden table. Black scorch marks streaked across the linoleum in strange patterns. Ru took several pictures of the patterns before they both squatted down to examine them more closely.

“If I’m not mistaken,” said Ru, “I’d say that these sigils had been etched beneath these floor tiles. The victim probably didn’t know they were there when he bought the house.”

Taj shook her head as she tried to recall the soul’s older memories that had also downloaded themselves into her head. “Your hunch is right. He bought the house last year. The kitchen had been renovated before it was put on the market. How did you guess there was something underneath?”

“I know all about fire’s effect on…” A sudden crash broke into his words as the kitchen window exploded into dark shards.

The shedu stood shrouded in a cloud of thick, black smoke. Even from their crouch on the kitchen floor, they saw only a glimpse of a hoof and a pair of glowing red eyes.

For some reason, Ru simply raised his phone and began recording. Taj wanted to yell at him, to drag him away from the kitchen. To run. But her feet stayed firmly rooted to the spot as the shedu emitted a series of grunts and hisses that made her ears hurt. Something trickled down her neck. It was only when the pattern of smoke slightly shifted that she managed to jump up from her position and fling out her arms.

The demon roared. It had wanted to crush Ru like it did its last victim, but the shield that Taj flung out at the last minute stopped it in mid-strike, its hooves swimming futilely in the air. She breathed hard. The shedu was strong. She couldn’t hold the shield forever. And she was about to tell Ru just so when she saw his mouth curve ever so slightly as he raised his middle finger.

Lightning struck the kitchen, blinding, hot. A terrible wind flung Taj against the wall. She lost her grip on the shield when her head hit something. Unfortunately, it didn’t hit hard enough to knock her unconscious. Instead, her head rung and her eyes saw nothing as she slid to the floor. She breathed hard and blinked several times. After several moments, white nothingness turned into ghostly afterimages and then after another second, flickered back into normal vision.

The kitchen was a complete, smoking ruin. Ru stood near the worst of it, apparently unscathed. Taj wobbled to her feet.

“You idiot. You destroyed all the sigils. It was our only hint on how to lure out those demons.”

He canted his head towards her voice and gave her a familiar smirk as he held out his undamaged phone. “Don’t worry. I’ve got all the pictures. But I believe it’s your job to dispose of that.” He pointed to a small, glowing red sphere where the shedu had once stood.

“I really don’t want to eat that,” she replied as thunder faintly rumbled overhead. She briefly looked up and was not surprised to see that his powers had scorched away the roof. When she looked back at him, he was staring at her.

“You’re bleeding.”

She raised a hand to her ear. “It’s nothing. I heal fast. You’re raining, though. Water is going to make this an even bigger mess.”

At her words, the water droplets came down from the sky. Some of them hit the red sphere, vaporizing into streaks of pale steam.

Storm Chasers – Entry #2

He’s a thunderbird with an attitude problem. She’s a soul eater with a sweet tooth. They fight supernatural crime!

(I’ve decided to do a series of short urban fantasy vignettes set in an alternate universe Vancouver to keep myself regularly writing and posting in this blog. This entry is based on this picture prompt at WriteWorld.)

* * *

The trail went cold at a bus stop near Granville Island. The shedu Taj had been tracking had either managed to disguise itself and get on one of the buses or it had found a host. Both possibilities made her job much harder.

She shook her head in frustration and decided to head to the Granville market to grab something to eat before figuring out what to do next. Back at the museum, she and Ru had discovered that the statue had held seven demons and not just one. And all seven of them were loose somewhere in the city. With just the two of them, they decided to split up to find two of them at a time.

Locals and tourists crowded the market, mostly humans unaware of the other beings watching and possibly preying on them. Taj had little interest in them as she made her way through the throng and toward the pier. Only the dead and dying had anything to fear from her. Once at the pier, it only took her a moment to spot the small stand at the edge of the food court. Jess, one of Taj’s numerous cousins, owned “Three Point Sweets” along with her business partners Ed and Amy.

Today, all three of them were dressed like time travelers from the 1950s. Taj spotted Ed at the back of the stand stirring a large bowl of dough for the next batch of pastries. His homage to the Fonz was spoiled by the fact that he had on an orange apron over his costume. Amy, busy restocking the display case, wore a bright blue poodle skirt. Jess manned the cash register wearing a delightfully retro black and white strappy dress. Her cousin’s caramel curls were pulled back into a ponytail which bounced every time she gave a customer a red-lipped smile. Taj could tell that her cousin was working her mojo to lure the customers in—Jess fairly glowed like dark fire in the afternoon light.

As she neared the stand, she heard the latest customer in line—a young human male with baggy jeans and a baseball cap facing the wrong way—brashly ask Jess for her phone number. Jess simply grinned and chirped “Of course!” before reeling off a string of numbers which he dutifully punched into his mobile. Taj’s lips involuntarily twitched. She recognized the phone number. It was for the local feminist intervention hotline.

A moment later, Jess looked up and waved her over. “Taj! Just the person I wanted to see! Hey Amy, could you take over for a sec?”

“Sure thing,” replied her business partner.

Taj met Jess on the other side of the counter where her cousin promptly shoved a paper plate containing four triangles of baklava layered meticulously with filo, nuts, and honey into her hands. “Eat,” Jess commanded.

“Is that all?” she replied, amused. She popped one piece of baklava into her mouth and slowly chewed. Jess and her partners viewed Taj as the perfect guinea pig due to her cast iron stomach. Nothing fazed her, not even evil souls. Taj, on the other hand, was perfectly fine with bumming off free delicious food from her relatives and friends. “Pistachio,” she finally said after swallowing. “And something flowery. It’s good.”

“Ed added in some rosewater,” Jess explained. “People will think it’s extra fancy so we can do a markup.”

“Mercenary.”

“Exactly. We were also planning to make some for Auntie Bastet’s birthday party this Saturday.” But then Jess leaned closer as she ate another pastry. “So, what brings you here before lunch time? You almost never visit us before noon.”

“A case.” Taj glanced around to see if any of the humans were paying attention to them. They weren’t, but she didn’t take any chances. She lowered her voice to frequencies below human hearing and briefly summarized the situation with the shedu. “I lost the trail near here. I suspect it probably hopped on a bus to hide its tracks, but there’s a possibility it’s here in the market, too. If you see or sense anything weird, call me.”

Jess nodded. “I’ll call if there’s anything weird at the market. But if worse comes to worse, Ed, Amy, and I can take down a tank if we need to.”

“Jess, I’m not kidding. These are demons, not tanks. You’ll be foolish to think that…” Taj’s phone buzzed, interrupting her. She glanced down at the screen and involuntarily let out a sigh.

“Who is it?” her cousin asked. “Is it your boss, Mrs. Long? Does she have more information about the case?”

“No. It’s…my partner. Apparently he has more luck than I do. I need to go meet him to check out the latest lead.”

“Partner?” said Jess, confused. “I thought you worked alone.”

“I did. Mrs. Long put us both on the case.” She shoved her phone back into her jacket pocket. “Look, I’ve got to go. Your new baklava recipe has my approval. And before you ask, yes, I’ll be at Auntie Bastet’s birthday party if the city isn’t being wrecked by a bunch of homicidal demons in the meantime. I hope you don’t have any more questions.”

“Nope,” Jess smiled. “Just have fun and kick some demon butt!”

Taj only gave her cousin a tight smile in return. Judging from the text message that Ru sent her, fun was going to be the last thing she would be having.

Storm Chasers – Entry #1

He’s a thunderbird with an attitude problem. She’s a soul eater with a sweet tooth. They fight supernatural crime!

(I’ve decided to do a series of short urban fantasy vignettes set in an alternate universe Vancouver to keep myself regularly writing and posting in this blog. This entry is based on this picture prompt at WriteWorld.)

* * *

Oh no.

The tips of Taj Ammit’s fingers itched, claws threatening to pop out as the sound of a motorcycle grew closer. She clenched her fists to hide her fingers in case her control snapped. It would not do to frighten Mr. Fitzwilliam, the human director of the Historical Art Museum. The white bearded suit was already nervously wiping his spectacles with a handkerchief as his gaze alternately darted between her and her boss, the coolly coiffed Dragon Queen, Vivian Long.

After another second, Fitzwilliam finally decided to keep his eyes on Vivian who appeared to be the least threatening. Vivian was very good with camouflage. Upon casual observation, the Dragon Queen was the stylish matriarch of one of the oldest and most influential families in the city in her navy pantsuit and gray-streaked hair pinned back in a bun. She had a sympathetic expression as Fitzwilliam continued babbling about the problem.

Taj, on the other hand, had a long rangy build. Pairing that with a leather jacket and boots made for stomping made her intimidating. Her refusal to wear contact lenses to disguise her not-quite-ordinary eyes didn’t help her image any. It wasn’t surprising that Fitzwilliam preferred to pretend that she wasn’t there.

“Why aren’t we going inside to look at the problem?” Taj asked, even as a sinking feeling told her the answer.

Vivian smiled serenely. “I thought having another pair of eyes would be helpful in this case.”

At her words, the motorcycle finally turned around the corner of the museum, revealing itself and its rider. The rider parked the motorcycle near the end of the loading dock and dismounted. The rider had not bothered with a protective jacket. He was a tall man in distressed jeans and worn boots. He wore a white t-shirt printed with the name of a local band. Curling abstract tattoos covered his tanned arms. And when he took off his helmet, Taj’s suspicions were confirmed as he shook out his shaggy dark hair. Damn thunderbird. Vivian knew that if Taj never saw him again, it would be too soon.

It was Vivian who introduced him as Rupert Thunder to the director who, despite a dubious look at their newest addition, quickly ushered them toward the back door of the museum that led to one of the storage rooms. It was a cool, climate controlled concrete space stacked with wooden crates of all sizes. Fitzwilliam and Vivian led the way, forcing her to walk beside him.

“I thought that last incident sent you back to Cairo,” he said lowly. “I guess you’re harder to kill than I thought.”

She glanced at him and found his lips curling into a smirk. Silently, she counted to three before saying, “Evil just makes me stronger.”

“Stronger? I thought eating all those evil souls was fattening.”

She felt the prick of claws against her skin. “It’s a pity that fire didn’t scar that pretty face. Girls prefer men with character.”

The curl of his mouth widened into a sharp-toothed grin. “Too bad for you, I’m immune to fire.”

They finally reached the end of the room. Fitzwilliam was babbling even worse than usual. It wasn’t hard to see why. At the foot of an ancient Mesopotamian statue of a bull with a man’s face was a body with its head smashed into a pulp. There was a bloody hoof trail leading away before vanishing into the nearest wall.

Vivian looked at the scene with a frown before turning back to Fitzwilliam to tell him to call the police. The Dragon Queen’s voice was quiet but infused with great power, making the hairs on the back of Taj’s neck stand up even though it wasn’t directed at her. The director’s babbling stopped and he nodded vigorously before scurrying away.

“What do you see?” Vivian asked when she turned to look at them.

Taj walked over to the body, careful not to step in any of the blood, and crouched. She reached out and saw the victim’s soul, a shivery golden wisp, gravitate toward her fingers. She snagged it and the traumatized soul, as light as a feather, pulsed against her skin. The soul transmitted a stream of images into her mind. She let out a shaky breath as she saw the victim’s last moments.

Shedu,” Ru said, breaking the silence. He wasn’t looking at her. Instead, he touched the statue and squinted at some faded cuneiform etched into the stone. “Storm demons. Several of them were released from their prison, this statue. I would guess the victim probably had the idiotic idea to break their bindings.”

She straightened from her crouch and released the soul to float out to the Great Beyond. “No. That’s not it. It’s not the victim’s fault. He was just an intern. He noticed some noises in this room and came in at the wrong time. Someone else broke the bindings before he was killed.”

Vivian narrowed her eyes as the voices and footsteps of the arriving cops interrupted their quiet contemplation. “We’ll find the individual who broke the bindings eventually. But right now, the shedu is the greatest threat to the city. Eliminating them will be the top priority, for both of you.”

Taj dared to glance at Ru. He gave her another smirk. Oh great. If she was unlucky, she’d manage to kill him before getting rid of any pesky demons.

Art and Artist

After reading about the latest uproar in science fiction and fantasy fandom, I’ve been thinking about the notion that one should separate the art from the artist. Can someone who is utterly heinous in their personal lives create fantastic art? I would say yes. The quality of art is not related to the morality of the artist.

But can one completely separate art from the artist? Art is not like math. It cannot be created in a vacuum. In the case of books, even if the writer writes about a totally alien setting and plot and characters, there is still style. A writer’s word choice and choice of literary themes may not necessarily show a writer’s ethics or philosophy, but they do reveal how the writer thinks.

I am not in favor of banning anything, even if the artwork was created by an artist who is so horrible, they aren’t even fit to be called a human being. But whether or not I choose to expose myself to that artwork is my choice. And just as I don’t think other people should force me to see or not see a piece of art, it is not my place to dictate how others should see art. After all, it’s their choice, too.

The line for what art I will or will not see is a fuzzy one. It can also depend on an artist’s intention. Is the piece of art created completely separately from the artist’s life? Is that piece of art used to generate income that the artist can use to further his or her bad behavior? Is the artwork itself a means for the artist to commit crimes? I can think of at least one reason why I would want to read a book by an author I think is a bad person–to see how the other side thinks. But I would borrow the book from the library instead of buying it–because I don’t believe in giving my money to someone who will use it to do further horrible things.

Sometimes, the notion that “art is separate from the artist” is used as an excuse for bad behavior. Just because the art is great doesn’t mean that the art automatically confers its greatness to the artist. Many fans don’t seem to critically think this through. An artist is a human, not a god. Even if an artist (or anyone in general) does something good in the world, it does not mean that piece of good erases the bad they’ve done. And if you know the artist in person, this does not mean that because they’ve treated you nicely that they will treat everyone nicely. Some people can be Jekyll or Hyde depending on the situation and who they’re around.

So I guess it goes both ways, really. If you’re going to uphold the philosophy that art has nothing to do with the artist, then if the artist can’t influence how one perceives the art, the art also can’t influence how one perceives the artist. If the artist is a monster and the art is great, a fan can’t just dismiss the fact that the artist is a monster. If the fan does, the fan is just as guilty of not separating the art from the artist as someone who refuses to look at the art because it was created by a monster.

Definitely Rough Magic

After musing on Twitter about how Mary Stewart’s Merlin series contributed to my burn out on pretty much any fiction dealing with the Arthurian legend, Dustbury suggested trying This Rough Magic which had references to The Tempest, one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I’m always game for book recommendations, so I put in a request in the local library and eventually obtained an old, tattered copy via the interlibrary loan system.

Before reading this, I was quite aware that Mary Stewart was known as one of the originators of the romantic suspense genre, beloved by many older romance fans. And I have to be honest here. I don’t particularly like the books that older romance fans consider classics of the genre. Most of the time, I just want to drop kick those characters into the nearest black hole. There’s just a certain sensibility in such books written before the mid-1990s that rub me the wrong way. I’m no fan of the romantic suspense genre either. I think it’s the whole falling-in-love-when-you-should-be-worried-about-staying-alive thing that makes me shake my head in disbelief.

Anyways, just because a book is in a particularly unlikeable genre does not make it bad. It’s impossible to judge anything unless you’ve actually read it.

I’m not going to rehash what it’s about. A good summary of This Rough Magic is here. I really enjoyed the allusions to The Tempest (I think naming Max’s boat Ariel was a nice touch.) And Stewart’s descriptive prose is beautiful. It’s extremely vivid and it makes me, the reader, feel like I’m in Corfu with the rest of the characters. I was disappointed to realize that she did not write any travelogues because if she had, I would have read the heck out of those.

But despite Stewart’s obvious facility with language, the rest of the book fell flat for me. At the core of it is the main character, Lucy Waring, the young actress ingénue narrating the story. I never did warm up to her, probably because she really is the stereotypical ingénue. She fancies herself smart by being able to read other people’s characters. And she’s rather stupidly brave when she goes haring off to save the day. She saves animals like a Disney heroine. And every time she flashed around her sister’s ring, I wanted to shout, “Don’t do that! You’re giving possible thieves ideas!”

Some readers think that taking two-thirds of a book to develop a romantic relationship between two characters is still too short. Well, if they read this book, they’d be blowing their tops like a supernova because Lucy and Max fall in love almost instantaneously. After they rescue the beached dolphin, they kiss and that’s that. Lucy’s heart is pretty much won. (They don’t even have the paranormal romance trope of “fated mates” as an excuse.) If there were any hints prior to that scene that the two of them were falling in love, those hints were too subtle for me. As a result, I don’t think I’d call this a romance. Suspense, yes. Romance, no. Insta-love is not romantic to me.

I found the plot weak. The villain was obvious right at his introduction. The villain’s motivation for his actions–simply doing it because he was bored and wanted to cause trouble–paints him as one-dimensional. A number of coincidences happen to Lucy which I found highly improbable. The one that took the cake was when the ocean current carried her back to shore after she went overboard the villain’s boat. I understood that this miraculous save was supposed to tie back to the island’s patron saint as well as serve as an allusion to the shipwreck in The Tempest, but the execution–for me–turned out poorly. It felt more like a deus ex machina than an intended allusion.

Because This Rough Magic was written in the 1960s, a number of things bothered me less than it would have if written now. After all, books–no matter where or when they’re set–reflect the time they’re written in. There were, of course, the references to the cold war and communism, the British colonialist/paternalistic attitudes towards anyone not British, the innocent and naive portrayals of any character who wasn’t British, and everyone smoking. But despite that, my favorite character was Lucy’s sister, Phyllida–the spoiled rich housewife, bored out of her mind, drinking while pregnant, more scared of her in-laws than having her husband beat her. I had the impression that she could have been really kickass, but Stewart had shoved her off to visit with friends while all the real action was taking place.

In short, I find Mary Stewart’s writing style in This Rough Magic lovely. But I really hesitate at trying any of her other books if the plot and characterization are as weak as this one. After all, a novel isn’t just about style. It’s also about story.

MisCon 28: Transitioning Through Time – Scene vs Summary

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Transitioning Through Time – Scene vs Summary
Panel members: Diana Pharaoh Francis, J.A. Pitts
Panel description: How does a writer move the reader through time?
Whether you’re writing a sweeping generational saga, or a short story that takes place over the course of a day, how do you move your characters through time, transitioning them from one moment to the next without relying on worn-out cliches? Join us as we talk about transitions, time stamps, and other tricks of the trade for moving your story forward.

JAP: I used to think that I had to put in every single minute in my stories.

DPF: I used to think I had to show the characters going to each destination.

JAP: If I have to get to A to B, just show B. Driving is boring. Same with porn. It’s engineering when dealing with story. Don’t be afraid to say “the next day.” The reader will go with you.

DPF: Films cut from one scene to the next. We have been well trained by films to make those jumps so take advantage of that. Use signposts to situate your reader. You don’t have to tell how you got there.

JAP: You don’t have to say “ten minutes later.” Use the setting. Don’t show all the minutiae.

DPF: For instance, if you’re writing about a guy in a bar, use the crowd as an indicator.

JAP: Is indicating the time critical? In 24, it is critical. In Lord of the Rings, it’s not critical to know the time they took to get to a place. I learned that it is rare to have more than one full moon in a month.

DPF: Pay attention to things that happen through time, like the change in seasons.

JAP: There are exceptions. Nightfall had no nights. Game of Thrones had no winter.

DPF: You want to know what the groups of characters are doing in relation to each other, so you need to keep track of time.

JAP: In science fiction, you have to consider time dilation on a generational ship in contrast to time on Earth. If you have someone driving from Missoula to Seattle, you can’t have them talk on a phone ten minutes later.

DPF: Show the important stuff. Take a short exposition to tell time as a brief rest for the reader but quickly move past that. Do a summary to facilitate jumps in time. Don’t devote too much time on the journey.

JAP: If you’re retelling, don’t drag the reader through it again. Don’t bog down the reader in the transition. Many editors don’t like flashbacks.

DPF: Flashbacks can kill your pacing. Make a conscious choice for why it works.

JAP: It’s like any other tool. Use it wisely, not excessively. With a shorter work, use different tools.

Q: Is there an alternative way to use flashbacks?

DPF: Yes. Do a summary.

JAP: But not as a “as you know Bob.” Learn the rules first before you break them. What will work with your piece? Robert Jordan took 500 pages to tell about three days.

DPF: The journey matters. Readers should be engaged with the story line. The flashbacks disrupt it and may anger them. So you have to decide. “I told you that story to tell you this one” – but only if done well.

JAP: As a storyteller, your job is to make them turn the page.

Q: I have a character who gets distracted by his past. Is a flashback reasonable?

JAP: Constant tension will burn out the reader. You need some down time. In Die Hard, there are funny quips to lessen the tension. If it’s only used to be distracted, just skip it.

DPF: It depends on how important it is to the plot and character.

JAP: It has to move it forward.

DPF: If they have to stop and think in a battle…

JAP: That’s three minutes before they die.

DPF: Flashbacks shouldn’t be in the middle of an action scene. Continue until they’re safe. But there’s opportunity to include it while they’re going to battle.

Q: Is it reasonable to put the time as chapter headings?

JAP: It can be done well.

DPF: If it works for your story, use it.

Q: If you’re translating a martial arts film to the page, how do you transition without losing the audience?

JAP: Is it critical to see every single move? No. Just include enough detail for the reader to understand. You can tell how long it takes but don’t show every single step. Trust the reader to fill it in.

DPF: I had a food scene in a story, but my editor wanted it cut. I ended up cutting it out because it didn’t fit in the story. Step back and see if it works. Also ask for feedback.

Q: But I’m confused why we do see all the martial arts in films.

DPF: But that’s the point of the film.

JAP: You have to look at your genre and the type of story. Some are more heavy with setting or character. Find the balance.

DPF: Change it up and bring them back.

JAP: You can make it as drawn out as you want, but read other writers doing similar things and learn from them. As an exercise, I typed out Stephen King’s dialogue to learn.

Q: What about movie descriptions?

DPF: Pick the details that matter that push forward the plot.

JAP: There’s the problem of the white room setting and not knowing where the characters are. If there are no transitions, then the reader will assume that it’s in the same scene. You need to put in signposts. Page breaks, section breaks, chapter breaks.

DPF: When you have a time jump, you can do a hard break. A character could be hurt and then jump straight to the hospital. “Book saidisms” is using anything except “said.” Or using too many adverbs. “Said” becomes invisible. Others are too visible. In the early Harry Potter books, everyone talked mysteriously. There were too many adverbs. Don’t call attention to it.

JAP: Read aloud when you can. Many bestsellers don’t use said. But you fail if the reader actually notices. The number one mistake is that you don’t write. The number two mistake is that you don’t finish what you write.

DPF: The flipside is that you revise one thing over and over again and never move on to the next thing.

JAP: Rewriting is dangerous. The more you do, you suck the voice out of the story. Read. Refill the well. Learn. Practice. You need to practice your craft by continuing to write. Most new writers don’t understand because they don’t have patience.

DPF: The creative mind and the editor mind are not the same mind. Stay in the creative mind to finish then go fix later.

Q: How do you shut off the editor mind?

JAP: Ken Scholes has a mental exercise for that. Rope up the editor and put it in a box. I train myself with music. If it plays, it’s creative time.

DPF: Another author has specific music he listens to. Use Write or Die. Write every day. Get into the habit and it will flow better every day. If I miss a day, I have to concentrate more. It’s like swimming in a river.

JAP: I’m a binge writer because of my day job. I get in the mood to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. I have friends who have different places for editing and writing. They write on the computer and then edit on paper.

DPF: Some people have separate hats.

JAP: It’s psychology. “Shut the fuck up and write.” It should be cross-stitched on the wall. Use any trick you can come up with. A rookie mistake is to spend all your time researching rather than writing.

DPF: Don’t polish every word.

JAP: Be bold.

DPF: Be willing to hear critiques.

JAP: No editor will come to your house to see if your story is on the computer.

DPF: No one will call you to check.

JAP: So you have to finish your work. If you’re writing about real people, change them into elves or just don’t tell them.

DPF: My parents read my books. They have sex scenes, but we don’t talk about it.

JAP: People will miss things. Kids won’t understand everything. In the beginning, what you’re writing is all about your life and you’re not good at masking it.

DPF: Graham Green said that every writer has a “sliver of ice in your heart.” Writers still take notes during an accident. Your writing situation will never be perfect.

JAP: Just write. Online, they say there are only twelve stories or whatever. Who cares. You will approach writing in a unique way.

Q: What about TV Tropes? Does it help or hinder?

JAP: There’s not just one answer. Research where you find fulfillment.

DPF: Writing is the best job in the world. Have fun!

MisCon 28: Art of the Short Story

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Art of the Short Story
Panel members: S. A. Bolich, M. H. Bonham, Ken Scholes, Mark Teppo
Panel description: The ubiquitous short story panel. Join our talented short story writers as they discuss the ins and outs of short stories, and whether it is still (or ever was) the path to having longer fiction published.

MT: Besides monetary reasons for writing short stories, what do you gain creatively?

KS: More self awareness. I love the beauty of it, the challenge. I could challenge myself by asking what’s the quirkiest, fucked up way I can tell it? A short story is like a fling in Mexico. A novel is like a marriage.

SAB: I like short stories because they let you experiment with things you can’t do in a novel. Different point of view, subjects, presentations.

MHB: I’ve never considered myself a short story writer, but it lets me experiment. It’s a very different type of writing than novel writing. It hones a different writing skill set and the writing brain. It’s more concise and precise. Short stories have a word count limit. It forces you to write more concisely. The focus is more on what you’re writing.

MT: I’ve heard of many approaches to short stories. One is that there should be as many scenes in the story as there are characters. Do you have rules?

MHB: When I’m doing a short story for an anthology they have guidelines for writing a story about “this.” A lot of it ends up humorous. I can play with humor more. In terms of focusing, I have a situation that the main character needs to solve and I have them make it worse. At the end, they finally solve it and have an epiphany or surprise that they and the audience doesn’t expect. A wrap up. The main thing with the climax is what the audience gets out of it.

SAB: I’m a pantser. I get a first sentence and go from there. I get one third of the way through before knowing where to go. It’s important where you know where to go. Short stories need discipline because of the word count. There has to be action. You have to have a point to the story. The story must tell you why it exists.

KS: Sometimes guidelines are given by a themed anthology, but it comes down to the person the readers care about. Have the character face problems that the readers can identify with and in a place they find believable. This becomes support for a suspension of disbelief. See Writing to the Point by Algis Budrys. Even though what he says is formulaic, it works. In a story, the character fails and complicates the problem again and again until he solves it and changes.

MHB: You can only do that three times or it feels contrived.

KS: Or if you do it more times, it’s a novel rather than a short story.

MT: What’s the difference between an epiphany and a resolution in a short story?

MHB: In a short story, there can be a resolution, but it’s more likely to end up with an “oh, that’s why it happened.” That satisfies the reader even though the problem isn’t solved. In These Cold Equations by Tom Godwin, the story doesn’t resolve the way we want it, but it gives the reader an epiphany–that we can’t consider things without the human factor. It’s not a resolution, but it exists.

SAB: Choices reveal the character. The villain isn’t born evil. He made choices that led him there.

KS: In my work, the epiphany leads to failure or success. There are two layers. The external conflict leads to change internally. In War of the Worlds (Tom Cruise version), the main character was a bad dad. The Mars invasion forces him to become a better dad. Use problems that people relate to. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

MHB: There are more than equations in humanity. If it’s only physics, we take out the humanity.

Q: How important is it to read short stories in order to write them?

KS: I’ve read many. It’s important. See what the magazines you’re submitting to are doing. Read representative short stories from top writers. Flannery O’Connor. Hemingway.

MT: You can’t expand your ability as a writer without seeing what’s out there. But be careful not to parody. I don’t read in the same genre.

MHB: If you’re primarily a novel reader, the novel form will be ingrained in you. So it’s important to read many short stories to get a feel for pacing, the number of characters, and plots. There aren’t many plot lines in short stories. Once you read and understand, it’s easier to write. It’s the same the other way around, if you only read short stories, don’t write a novel unless you’ve read them.

SAB: You need to pick out a point of motivation and focus on that because there’s a limited word count. Get to the point and develop it quickly with a satisfactory ending. If it’s a flat, illogical ending, you failed the story. Markets evolve. Find out if they want more action or more internal conflict. Editors and readers look for different things.

MT: What happens if you have a short story and realize that it’s a novel idea?

KS: That was an accident for me when I wrote the Psalms of Isaak. It came from a dare. I wrote the short story. The market I sent it to closed. Later it sold to Realms of Fantasy. When I saw the artwork for the story, I realized that the story was bigger. I thought I could write four short stories. My second story got rejected, but the editor told me to write it as a novel instead. Then I was later dared to write the novel. So I kicked out the ends of the short story and expanded it.

MT: My experience was different. I took five to six years to develop a world. Each world works differently in each story so I still need to figure out the grounding.

SAB: I have no problem with vomiting out the words. If I’m stuck, I pretend there’s a word count limit. I get the discipline from figuring out what’s important in the short story. Then the excess crap goes away. If by 5,000 words you’re still setting up the world, the story needs to be a novel.

MHB: I’ve only had that happen with one short story. I was experimenting with writing in a Japanese world and had a surprise ending. I thought it was a fun story and thought that there was more I could do with it because the characters were interesting. It’s worth trying to do. If you’re enjoying the characters and playing with the world, then try a novel.

Q: Is it possible to sell a collection of short stories set in the same world? Does that work in publishing?

MT: They call those mosaics, like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

KS: Most big publishers don’t like collections because there’s not much money in them. The Martian Chronicles sold piece by piece first. Then they made the stories into a collection and sold it twice.

MT: Rachel Pollack managed to put a cover on a collection of several stories.

SAB: Zenna Henderson brought short stories together by writing bridges between them in The Book of the People.

MHB: Sky Warrior Books rarely does collections, but usually it’s only from authors we’ve known for a while. The short stories have already been published in zines. The author has a name. If you don’t have a name, they don’t have a reason to buy the collection. In a collection, there are known short stories but there’s also new short stories there.

Q: Is it okay to switch point of view multiple times in a short story?

KS: Not for a short story because there’s not enough time to get into the characters. But anything can be done if it’s done well.

MT: After the first sentence, what’s the importance of the second sentence?

KS: It carries out the promise of the first sentence. There’s no time to meander.

SAB: The last sentence is also as important as the first. There needs to be memory.

MHB: Build on the tension and characterization. Pull the reader into the short story as quickly as possible and set the pace.

MT: Always leave them wanting more.

MisCon 28: World Deconstruction 101

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: World Deconstruction 101
Panel members: Steven Erikson, Rhiannon Held, Ken Scholes
Panel description: You’ve learned all about world building, but what can archaeology and anthropology teach us about deconstructing your world? Should yours be an epic apocalypse or a slow, painful descent into the history books?

RH: Have you ever destroyed worlds in your writing?

SE: In the classics, it takes a long time for things to happen. But civilizations rise and fall. I’m not a fan of civilizations being frozen in development. My stories are about falling civilizations. They always leave scarring on the landscape. Landscapes are malleable. There’s a lot under the feet of the character.

KS: My whole series is post-apocalyptic. Three major cataclysms happen and there are few places that are liveable. My short fiction also has a lot of it. In one story, I wondered what Santa would deliver in a post-apocalyptic world. Bureaucracy may still try to hold on. What if in a magical apocalypse, there was a god that worked like the Old Testament? Or maybe it’s us destroying the world.

RH: I enjoy using far past cultures as a foundation. The imperfect knowledge of the past is intriguing. What is passed down may be from songs, stories and fables. I did that with my werewolf species. What they knew about their origins came from their oral tradition. I’m intrigued about it because I deal with it every day. So what do you think about world deconstruction gone wrong? It bothers me that when a population falls, no one considers that there will actually be more resources available. After the Black Death, the quality of life was actually better. In fiction today, we see people scrabbling for resources even though the resources of seven billion people are still lying around. There’s also the problem of dating a site. A dish might have a pattern dating back to 1915, but it’s still modern if people are still using it. Plastic lasts for thousands of years. It can still be reused. In a post-apocalyptic world, goods can still be reused and repurposed.

SE: I sense that a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction is wish fulfillment. You get to shoot everyone and wipe out everything like the Old Testament. Environmentalists wish to return to a hunter-gatherer society. But how can you imagine eight billion people as hunter-gatherers? It’s not sustainable. You have to bring the number of people down with disease or something else. If the infrastructure and technology collapsed, you’ll have starving people. Then they’ll eat everything. In the jungles of Congo, society collapsed and everything was eaten. I don’t think most people think things all the way through.

RH: People don’t consider the knowledge left behind. Everything is written and digitized, but if we lose electricity and the older people die, we lose the knowledge. In one book I read, the characters think, “Oh, we’ll just grow this mold to cure the disease!” You can’t just do that. Where did they get the knowledge? Who survived and what knowledge was passed down?

KS: What’s your preparation for the post-apocalypse?

RH: My family has various skills and we own land on an island.

SE: Uh oh. We live on an island. It’s overdue to fall in the ocean.

RH: But it’s a good barrier to disease. In that situation, you should gain allies as soon as possible to bring skills together.

SE: I think it’s a crapshoot. I’ll think about it when it happens. Maybe it’s cultural. Americans thought this all up.

KS: My military friend has land that’s high ground and defensible. I have a friend who’s an OB-GYN. I have other friends who are nurses, hunters, etc. We’ve got a team. And with my skills, I’m going to raid a music store and become a bard. We’re going to stockpile.

SE: But once you do that, you’ve painted a large target on your back.

KS: Then we’ll get a militia.

Q: My brother would start a cult. He wants to be the head of it. Is hierarchy easier to maintain?

KS: I used to be a preacher, but there is also precedent of a science fiction author creating a religion.

RH: It depends on how many people are with you. With fewer people, it’s more flexible but you run into trouble if you need manpower to build something. With more people, you need infrastructure.

SE: There’s a survival threshold. If there are fewer people to start with, it’s important if someone dies.

Q: In fiction, they think that the military will suddenly disappear. But in real life, there’s a lot of people with military training.

KS: I have a friend who knows many military contacts.

Q: I know a mortician. Morticians have a contingency plan for getting rid of bodies if something catastrophic happens. You can see manuals for this online.

KS: You can also find documents online on what the military will do in case of an apocalypse.

RH: Homo sapiens as a species will survive an apocalypse, but it will only be a fraction of the population. But in fiction, it’s about the relationships.

SE: We wouldn’t be able to survive because we don’t have the knowledge base. But indigenous people will be able to survive.

RH: Ways of getting food will depend on the number of people. If someone has knowledge of farming, it can bring the population up. But if those people die, the lower population will be hunter-gatherers.

SE: A pristine environment depends on location. Prehistoric groups are small. There’s not much up in northern Canada.

Q: There are things that might get misunderstood in the future. Maybe in a thousand years, they might think hoodies were for building tents. How do you interpret the past?

RH: What would archaeologists see from our burial practices? It’s nice because we put dates on our tombstones. But what about the bones? Things rust and rot. Is plastic still there? What would that say about the person?

Q: There would still be pacemakers and cell phones.

RH: They’ll have a sense of our medical technology because they’ll see regrown bones, pins, and fillings. But why would there be drilled teeth?

KS: Obviously, it’s the tooth fairy cult.

Q: In Celtic mythology, there are fairies but there’s also mythologies about war.

SE: You can blend mythologies.

RH: If we have any written materials left, it would be on paper. But that decomposes. They won’t know English. What’s left is what’s carved on monuments like statues.

Q: What about people who are medication dependent, on birth control, etc.?

RH: That’s underrepresented on post-apocalyptic fiction especially since it’s wish fulfillment. The ancient Egyptians used a plant for birth control but they used it too much that it became extinct.

KS: There’s also expiration dates. There will be raids for materials. People will be too busy trying to stay alive to worry about other things.

Q: I heard that if everyone’s still alive after an apocalypse, the canned food would only last for two weeks.

RH: It’s resource stress. There’s not enough for everyone. Then there will be resource wars where they will kill others to take it. In a dystopia with wars, this makes sense. Killing and taking is easier than hunting.

Q: Is that why Central America declined?

SE: It was a fairly rapid fall, but there were ups and downs.

Q: Do you believe in stockpiling? My grandparents are still using stuff they stockpiled for Y2K.

KS: I like to play in the imagination. It’s wish fulfillment, a place to play. It hones down people. There’s a potential for rebirth or to go gently into the night. I write with underpants on my head. I dig into the wasteland of my childhood. In telling these stories, I process the things that happened to me in childhood.

Q: What about repeating history?

SE: It’s our nature. We have short term memories.

RH: When you’re dying, you don’t think ten years ahead.

Q: A lot of apocalyptic fiction seems to be from America. And it has lots of guns. Is it an American fantasy?

KS: I would want every possible tool to stay alive, not just certain tools. Think broadly.

SE: This country has sustained the myth of the frontier. Maybe it’s a return to the frontier. And it ties into notions of liberty.