Giving Back

Before I finished my first novel, I would have been intimidated by something like Calgary’s colossal When Words Collide. I started by attending a tiny local event: Word on the Water was a Kenora literary festival that ran for two or three years, and it put me in touch with editors and published authors for the first time. I got my first blue-pencil there, and took one of my first workshops. I met Robert Sawyer there, and a host of Winnipeg and Thunder Bay authors, and Samantha Beiko, who became my freelance editor.

So I have a soft spot for little conventions that make an effort to reach out to writers on their home turf.

Winter Wheat is a new literary festival being held in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba on Saturday, December 10th at the public library. I’ll be joining a number of friends there, and we’ll have panels on Story Genesis, Editing and Graphic Novels, and we’ll do some readings, too.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d be joining friends; I just received the draft version of the schedule, and I know almost all of the presenters. Leia Getty is the home-town organizer; we first met at the C4 LitFest, an intimate Winnipeg event that spun off from Central Canada Comic-Con. Same goes for her old friend R.J. Hore. I have books by both of them on my shelf. I think I first met Holly Geely at KeyCon, a larger Winnipeg convention where we sat in the same audiences a lot. Lindsay Kitson is a fellow aviator and SF author- I’m in her critique group now. Scott B. Henderson goes all the way back to Word on the Water, where I bought a copy of 7 Generations.

I get to sit on the Editing panel because I’ve worked with Freelance, Small Press and Magazine editors. Just to be on the safe side, I dug out my notes from the Working With an Editor workshop that Dr. Robert Runté gave at When Words Collide this summer. He’s Senior Editor at Five Rivers Publishing, and my editor for Avians. My entire notes on the two-hour talk consist of one notebook page of scrawled keywords. I’m more of a listener than a note-taker. So: winging it.

I’m also on the Story Genesis panel. Basically, this will be about developing ideas into stories, I think. I plan to talk about harnessing your imagination and combining ideas, mumble about building the right point of view character and world for the story, and then stare at the ceiling and make stuff up.

I’ll be doing a reading from Avians. Which will feel weird, because I’m hard at work on the sequel Bandits now.

I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be fun. Me dispensing wisdom… who’da thunk?




World-building: Showing What Isn’t There.

I went to panels on world-building at conventions. I asked, “How do you show what isn’t there?” This caught panellists off guard, and the answers weren’t very satisfactory.

I wanted a world where girls flew gliders. Along the way, I had to create a planet and a society that made that plausible. Raisa’s world is low on metal. I know the reason, but Raisa doesn’t. I never explain, and I can’t have Raisa wandering around saying, “This would be so much easier if we had metal.” She’s never seen a steam engine, or electric wiring, or even a decent mirror.

I turned to books. An old favourite, Courtship Rite, by Donald Kingsbury, is revelatory. Warning: this book will strain your brain, but it’s worth it. By reverse engineering, and much gnashing of my mental teeth, I deduced that there are different ways to show what isn’t there.

  1. Show what is there.
  2. Create conspicuous work-arounds.
  3. Use scarce examples.
  4. Illustrate with myth.
  5. Avoid inappropriate metaphor.
  6. Substitute metaphor that fits.
  7. Write for the senses.

Kingsbury’s festival of the horse is a fabulous example of myth. The children make horse costumes that are not merely whimsical, they are so far-fetched that you know they’ve never seen the animal.

Here are some ways I applied these techniques:

  1. In early scenes, we have a horse drawn cart and urgent messages relayed by semaphore towers. There are stone and ceramic knives for sale in the marketplace.
  2. Raisa eats with chopsticks and an earthenware spoon, not a knife and fork. Her sewing needles are bone, and coins are glass.
  3. Raisa’s mother, Maria, has a metal ring. Not a gold ring, not a silver ring; a metal ring. It’s grey, and so precious it’s worn only for special occasions.
  4. Later, it is revealed that Maria’s ring is a platinum wedding band, brought by her ancestress at the time of the First Landing and handed down for generations.
  5. There are no steely gazes, leaden skies, or iron fists on Celadon. It would make no sense for the locals to have those words in their daily vocabulary.
  6. A flinty stare, or eyes that glitter like obsidian, can help immerse the reader in Raisa’s point of view. The expression  glass in pocket replaces brass in pocket.
  7. When Raisa visits the Converts, who do have metal, she is startled by the cold feel of a metal door, and the clanging of her feet on metal stairs.

These methods work well for other aspects of Raisa’s life. Chickens and ducks are real, but the bird names the girls take when they become Avians are more mythical. At quiet times, background sounds include distant farm noises, but never birdsong. A discussion of birds in the old Earth ecology touches on how some of them ate insects, and the young instructor can’t help but mention how dangerous to essential silkworms and bees this would be. Okay, that’s exposition, and I deliberately left it off my list because it’s not immersive.

Sometimes exposition provides necessary clarity, but I do it as artfully as I can. I try to make it fit in, not stick out. Editors and critique pals were adamant that I must spell out that the rings in the sky are planetary rings, not smoke rings or something. So the first time I mention them, I had to find an excuse for Raisa to think about them. Thereafter, they’re just the rings, and everybody takes them for granted. I was careful to make sure they never disappear, though. They’re always there, and people notice them when they’re thinking about what time of day it is.

Did I miss any? I’m not claiming to be an expert, I’m just gabbing about what I’ve learned so far. Do you have a technique or trick  that you’d like to share with writers who need to show what isn’t there?  Or do you have a book that you revere for its world-building prowess? Comments are welcome.



Avians Update

The book marches on. Editing is complete. The senior editor has passed the manuscript on to the publisher. I feel a massive sense of relief. I no longer have to fear that I will be asked to make unbearable changes. The story really is good enough, and it will be told. One aspect took a day to sink in. My editor isn’t mine any more. He’s on to other things now. Other stories, other authors. I feel a strange sense of loss, as if summer camp is over and I must get ready for school.

Sure enough, the next email I got was from the publisher. They like a photograph I sent them. They’d like to use it for my author profile, maybe even the back jacket of the book. I am left shaking my head in wonder. Sure, I’ve pictured my book as a physical thing, with a cover and a title. It just never occurred to me that my photograph might be on it. Let alone squinting, with my eyes nearly shut. I sent that photo in a sense of amusement. It shows me writing in the back of one of the planes I fly. Before you ask, the plane is on the ground, parked. It was taken by one of our other pilots as we sat around and I typed. My tablet and keyboard are propped up on the table that unfolds for the passengers to use. I know this is not how most writers work. I thought it was funny. But the folks at Five Rivers seem to think it illuminates me; shows everyone what and who I am.

I hastily sent a better picture, in which my eyes are actually open. This time, the cockpit is in the background. Casual observers will see the overexposed sky, and might conclude that I have vacated the cockpit while the aircraft is in flight. Pilots will note that some of the instruments are displaying gyro flags, indicating that the plane is shut down. So please take my word for it: the picture was taken on the ground, while we waited for our passengers to do their thing and return. It shows me getting set up to work on the final edits on Avians, though, so that’s pretty appropriate.

The publisher likes this one, too. While I’m at it, she adds, could we have you write a blurb for the back cover? Make it sing, she says, we’d like something scintillating. Oh boy. I’m okay at telling a story, I think. I can keep the action moving and I can evoke a mood now and then. But write a compelling tease in just a couple of hundred words, that introduces a character, a situation and a conflict? Umm. Better give me a couple of days. On my computer, I have a disjointed document that is the digital equivalent of a waste-paper basket full of crumpled sheets. It goes back months, nay, years. I tried different angles. A version that plays up the conflict between Raisa and Mel as they struggle to relate as equals instead of master and servant. A version that focuses on Raisa’s jeopardy and desperation. And a longer version that tries to do both.

Right now, I’m leaning toward a blurb that starts with some very short sentences. It doesn’t sing, it shouts. It doesn’t scintillate, it takes a swing at your face. If I can complete it, and flesh it out with the character/situation/conflict thing without losing momentum, it’ll be good. Or perhaps I’ll have to go back to the drawing board.

One other thing. Antipodean SF has accepted another bit of my flash fiction. So I get something published this year after all, despite being preoccupied with the big novel project most of the time. “Zeta Series” will appear in October. I hope you like rats.