Where I’ve been.

Hello! I’ve been working on a novel. And I’ve finished! Drafts are endless, but I’ve polished it enough that I’d like to share. Rules for sharing novels tend to argue toward an excerpt near the very beginning of the story, but this is my blog and I make the rules, so this is a passage from very near the climax.

Some background: Esther is blind, and sees through a magical connection to two spiders she calls left eye and right eye. Zinnia is her pirate obsessed girlfriend. They live in a socialist utopia that is slowly collapsing around them, because the spells that keep their empire safe are falling apart. Here’s this bit about a bicycle ride!

She ran down into the pitch black basement, rummaged for a moment, then came back up hefting a contraption of polished metal pipes and gears. I knew the idea of a bicycle, like Farmland people know that glass needs heat, but I’d never seen one up close. Hawkline Island was too small and rocky to make use of the thing and the ones I’d seen zipping up the hills on South Ballast were too fast for me to fully comprehend.

“You know how to ride, right?”

“Absolutely not.” But I was itching to play with the chain and gears. I might not know it in practice, but the bicycle’s function was palpable.

Zinnia’s teeth flashed in the low light as she patted the long flat cargo carrier bolted over its back tire. “Good thing it’s a courier bike.”

How fast are courier bicycles ridden by two people down a long narrow road to the wall that keeps our city safe from lace? I think, if I were to make a casual guess, I’d say fairly close to the speed of sound. My eyes were inside my sweater, clinging to the knit over my heart. My body was curled against Zinnia’s back, fingers laced around her belly, head buried in her shoulder blades and she was yelling something, “hole ahead!” but I didn’t catch the meaning until the wheels jarred underneath us and she nearly lost the bike.

“You gotta be loose, Esther!” The bike wobbled under us and she wriggled away from my fingers.

“Icantbeloose I’llfall” I shouted into her spine.

“The harder you fight physics the more likely we are to crash!” Her hand found mine at her stomach and she forced her fingers underneath to pry up my hands from where I was crushing her. “Keep them here. Can you feel the muscles keeping us balanced?” I shook my head, but I could feel her solid on the bike even as the wind whipped past us. “I need you to match me.”

The bike hiccupped underneath us and I cinched my fingers tight. She yelped, I had hurt her, and I drew my hands away. But I didn’t fall. I was still steady behind her, and my hands settled back in place.

“Better?” she asked. I could feel her shift under my fingers, the balance of the bike shifted and I flowed into it with her.

“This is really scary!” I shouted over the wind, ready to acknowledge my fear now that it wasn’t about to kill me.

“Scarier than discovering your whole life has been a lie?” she shouted back.

I tried to laugh at that, but the bike was slowing, and my eyes were finally ready to peek outside of my collar. We were at the foot of the wall. Fifty feet high, sheer glass, buttressed with pillars thick as houses. Deep inside the glass was a putrid ocean, a green black swirl of long dead sludge. I stepped unsteadily down from the wooden courier box and Zinnia held my hand to keep me upright. It was worse than I had expected; dead for all my lifetime but kept bright through mass hallucination. I couldn’t decide if I was queasier from the wall or from our bike ride.

Left eye stood up on my brow and I gave Zinnia a rakish grin to cover up my shaky confidence. “This isn’t scary. This is just one more thing to fix.”

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Bicycle comes back after the climax. Esther lied: All of this is scary.

 

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Eating at the End

hawkline

The home/glass blowing studio for Esther Glass. I need visuals to remember my settings.

I love the foody bits in stories, when characters take a breather from the crisis building and remember to keep their blood sugar up. While some might poke fun at three pages devoted to a feast, I always loved the descriptions Brian Jacques gave to all his mouse-sized recipes. And if you can track down a copy of the Redwall cookbook, do.

Cooking can also open a window into the world of your story, but I didn’t realize it’s full importance until I started thinking about what my characters might eat after an apocalypse limited them to the Kitsap Peninsula, and the islands contained within the Puget Sound.

What kind of jam will end up on Esther’s toast, and how likely is it that she’ll have flour? Could her pirate girlfriend smuggle gin, or will some other alcohol have to be stowed away in her skiff? These questions expanded further to the clothes they wore, the colors used, and the distribution of rare good among the islands. And because all of this minutia is background to the story, its importance is only seen in the absence of foods that did not survive the end of this particular world. So, rather than shove in a block of needless text about fish migration into a fairy tale, I’m going to post some of my favorite bits of food research here.

Kippered herring is split up the spine, then gutted, salted, and smoked, and they are common to the area, which makes it a pretty decent choice for a winter breakfast. So long as you aren’t like my husband, who finds the smell of herring completely abhorrent.

Gin can be made with most anything, so long as you’ve also got juniper berries to flavor the drink upon its second distillation. The strain of juniper that grows native is still about 80 miles from the Puget Sound. An insurmountable distance for the people in my story, but as luck would have it, juniper is also a common landscaping plant, and it is not impossible that some enterprising distillers might start gathering juniper berries from the well landscaped plots that overlook the sound. It would taste a little different, but it’d definitely be gin.

Some teas can be grown as far north as latitude 50, which makes my home at latitude 47 capable of hosting home grown tea parties! Coffee was an unavailable source for caffeine. 😦

Dogfish can be flavored with chives, thanks to the unkillable chive plant that lives in my driveway. While all other plants have died through negligence, flash freezing, and the occasional misplaced wrench, the chives have survived, and I trust them to live at the foot of Esther’s cabin. The for-mentioned pirate girlfriend is the one who harvests them for the fish, because Esther considers cooking to be a strange science far more complicated than engineering a bottle to hold twice the volume of its outside dimensions. Magic is easy, cooking is weird.

Another fun fact, not having to do with food: Indigo dye can be produced from the woad plant, which is currently a noxious weed in Washington.  I needed to put one character in a blue linen skirt (his uniform in an ongoing battle against mermaids), and I was very happy that a natural blue dye would not be difficult to produce after the end of the world as we know it.

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The cast relaxes after a setting appropriate dinner of fried perch. 

 

Personal Cannon: The Ten Megan Classics

Once upon a 1909, Dr. Charles Eliot put together a compilation of literature in trustworthy forest green boards with serious gold type and called them The Harvard Classics. These were meant to provide any person who read them with the elements of a liberal education, but reading them still won’t qualify you for a supervising position at Target.

Of course, now it’s 2016 and the very idea of cannonical literature holds as much water as a sieve: Whose cannon? Why is this book important? What do you mean English 101 kids are reading Gardner’s The Art of Fiction but not Barry’s What It Is? (Both are brilliant books on writing, but I prefer Lynda Barry’s because it’s got all sorts of pictures and is less interested in academia than the occasionally heavy handed Gardner.) There are so many ways of learning, so many important books, that it is impossible to read them all. But I do like the idea that a set group of books can provide a single person with the elements of an education for… whatever, so I’ve drummed up a personal cannon that when read will give you the elements of a Megan education.

Rather than the 51 classic books provided by Dr. Eliot, I have limited this list to a ten book summer course. If undertaken, these ten books will provide you with an introduction to Megan, and you will be well on your way to all of the neurosis, excess coffee, and indecipherable reminders written at 3am that she enjoys on a daily basis. Alas, you will still be unqualified for a supervising position at Target.

Half Magic by Edward Eager: Thinking deeply about the proper way to word a wish will extrapolate itself to thinking deeply about every word said, until you’re not sure you should ever say anything! And Katherine fights Sir Lancelot, that’s fun.

Matilda by Roald Dahl: This will provide a counterpoint to Eager, when the Trunchbull gets away with her atrocities by never committing any act by half. All in, until no one will believe you, Miss Honey.

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress: My first introduction to Hugo winning SciFi by a lady type. The sheer idea that it could be done was well formative. Likely, you will bond with your future husband over all the hobbies you’d both aquire if you never had to sleep.

Making Comics by Scott McCloud: you have already read a few comics as a prerequisite for this course, and now you will understand their language.

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera: Story as music, explained by the son of a student of Antonin Dvorak. (Not that Kundera’s life as an expat Bohemian living in France is any less interesting than his connection to Dvorak.) All art is intersectional, all story has the capacity to be Art. Which is the excuse you’ll give when caught humming O Mangum Mysterium while you read.

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal): Art as a novel.

Cruddy by Lynda Barry: Visceral and ugly, looked at so hard that it becomes beautiful. You’ll still need to take a shower after this. You’ve been warned.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin: I loved this book so much that I made a shirt with her map of Annares on it. I. Made. A. Shirt. I expect you to make a shirt after reading this.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor: Science fiction is fantasy, fantasy is real, genre is whatever you want to make it. This book is scary and amazing, and Onyesonwu is going to rewrite your world. Extra credit: follow Okorafor on Twitter for delightful animal pictures!

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett: Read this at any age, the wee men talk funny but it’s Tiffany and her grandmother’s understanding of the world that is Real. If you want to be a witch, read the Tiffany Aching books. (Obvs you want to be a witch. Who doesn’t?)

List is reflective of the order in which these books were read.  Extra credit: read Half Magic out loud while following your dad through the garage, and then read the chapter What Happened to Katherine another twelve times.

 

So what is your cannon? What ten books would make a you?

Dissecting the Frog

I recently read The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker, which I recommend for any sensible person who loves the English language. It debunks so many of the crumbling rules for writing that drag down our prose, and leaves intact the scaffolding that any writer needs to make herself clear. But the best and most useful things were his examples of beautiful prose, and the scalpel he took to them. Some very pretty passages were dissected to show off their moving parts; something my husband has suggested I do to our library on a few occasions.

With my husband’s encouragement, and Steven Pinker as guide, I’ll try breaking down a few of my favorites. With any luck, the process will train my subconscious to an inert sense of style, and limit my need for eighth, ninth, eleventeenth drafts. More likely, I’ll be just as fussy as I’ve ever been with any draft after the first, but perhaps I’ll know better what to do with it.

This is my favorite book. Ever.

I loved The True Deceiver. It was the winter book to contrast with Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, and while Summer is kindness between a grandmother and little girl, Deciever is a frigged story about two women from the opposite sides of everything finding a mutually beneficial relationship that utterly ruins them come spring. Their polar personalities can’t survive a shift in either direction, and the end leaves them both lost in themselves. It is a very quiet book, hung expertly together in a tiny snow-locked town, and the language is so tight that any excerpt will be wanting the rest of this book. (It was translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal, so I’m super impressed with him as well. This book has no seams, no out of sort passages that might remind the reader that English was not its first language.) That being said, I’ve chosen this one near the beginning of the book as it illustrates the town and Katri Kling’s place in it.

“Inside the snow banks were deep, narrow tunnels where the children had dug hideouts for themselves during thaws. And outside stood their snowmen, snowhorses, formless shapes with teeth and eyes of bits of tin and coal. When the next hard freeze came, they poured water over these sculptures so they’d harden to ice.

One day Katri paused before one of these images and saw that it was a likeness of herself. They had found shards of yellowish glass for eyes and given her an old fur cap, and they’d captured her narrow mouth and her stiff, straight bearing. Attached to this woman of snow was a large snow dog. It wasn’t well done, but she could see that they meant it to be a dog, and a threatening dog at that. And crouched at the hem of her skirt, very small, was a dwarfish figure with a red potholder on its head. Mats usually wore a red wool cap in winter.”*

It may seem counter-intuitive to begin this experiment with a translation that I’ve already declared needs the rest of its parts to be truly beautiful, but I love the simplicity of this. It is very tempting to cloud every part of the story with as much poetry as possible. That can be done well, that can be very pretty, but in this the beauty comes from the story itself, not the lens through which we see it. Katri is a cold woman, this is a cold book; everything is ice. The only spot of true color is in the red cap worn by her brother’s tiny effigy; and in Katri’s frozen heart he is the only person who can not be reduced to numbers and yet he is a very small part of this story. (The yellow eyes do not count. Yellow is the color of sun through ice, and the “-ish” lessens its impact. Yellow in this passage is not a color.)

Dwelling on this small scene so early in the book is more than a bit of passive interest in the scenery. It sets Katri’s place in the story as an icy witch feared by children, and when the thaw comes with spring at the end of the book, we see her whole world crash through the ice.

*Jansson, Tove. The True Deciever (New York Review Books, New York)

Body in the Subconscious Mind

I wrote a fantasy story recently about a woman who wards mermaids off from ships but it was really about women’s bodies. That surprised me, because my subtext is usually about the formation of stories and I was pleased that another facet of my interests had subconsciously taken hold. I’ve been stuck on mermaids for at least three short stories now (and countless abandoned paragraphs in WordPad; I use it because it doesn’t distract me with my own atrocious spelling errors), to the point where I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t be able to write anything but mermaid stories, but I see now that they were a distraction to ween me away from my compulsion to flay open whatever story I worked on to see all its still moving parts. Thanks, subconscious!

I am almost Thirty. I apologize to the people I’ve casually lied to, claiming the age Thirty since I was twenty-eight: I had no real reason to do so, other than it offered fewer syllables and seemed to carry more weight. I am still twenty nine, but close enough to thirty that my doctor used it as explanation for why my back was suddenly misaligned (she also kindly assured me, without judgment, that random joint pain is very rarely cancer). I have considered thirty as a marker since deciding in high school that I want to write, to be published, and to be read, preferably on a mass-market scale, well before I turned Thirty, because of some magazine article I’m probably misremembering that claimed most professional authors did not publish before they were thirty. It was an arbitrary number then; something to beat. As it’s closing in, nothing about it really feels arbitrary.

I went through some major revisions from first draft to second with this fantasy story. The protagonist in my story is in her forties. (Apologies in advance to the people I will inevitably lie to, claiming Forty at the tender age of thirty-seven.) She is very tall, her features are very broad. She has albinism, and trouble with her eyesight, but she is comfortable in her body, well settled in, and that confidence spreads into every part of her life. I liked this character, and I tried to draw her several times to get a better handle on her personality for the second draft, but nothing looked right until I started to think about my own body, its softness that I hated through my twenties for subverting the quills I try to wear in public, my ankles that are still mismatched in strength even though the sprain was months ago. My cheekbones that only now are starting to look a little like my great grandmother’s when I smile. (Noice.) And I realized as I was going through the stretches that keep my back aligned and the pushups that just get me amped for writing that I was okay with my shape. Well, it was more the pushups and Abby Hoffman’s awesome comic about being fat at a doctor’s office that inspired this acceptance.* My body’s weird, yeah, but it’s livable and sturdy (except for that ankle.) And it struck me as a thought my protagonist might have, so I returned to my character sketches.

I actually got it right this time.

tuulikki-and-vic

I did not draw myself. I am a convoluted mess that could never survive a short story full of murderous mermaids. But I was more honest with her look and she took on a real shape that was closer to true than most of my character sketches have come before. And as I sketched her counterpart, a twenty year old with an indefinite prettyness about her that she did not work for or care much about, I realized that the underlying conflict, beyond “how do I keep these mermaids from eating my crew?” was between these two women, and ultimately my life between these two perspectives. Thankfully all of that is running background to the story. Inner cogs are spread here on the blog for examination, and are carefully tucked away inside the narrative to hum along and keep momentum. Wouldn’t want anyone reading a high seas adventure and have to think about the author huffing and puffing on a yoga mat.

The second draft replaced almost every one of the four thousand words in the document, which may not seem like much, but when you have a completed story it’s pretty hard to reject all of it in favor of the unknown. That’s what first drafts are; the unknown. But the first draft of this story was obsessed with this character’s body, how it fit on the ship, how it loomed on small islands, all without reason. Second draft, after I balanced her with the counterpart to my own inner conflict, the story took a real shape.

It is not finished. It requires some real editing to make it presentable. But then, that’s often how I feel about myself.

I am still a long ways off from this idealized forty… I can hardly imagine what I’ve managed to get wrong!

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*my excellent doctor has never suggested I eat more vegetables as a solution for my ankle turning black for all the bruising around a sprain. She’s the best. Also, read Abby Hoffman’s Last Halloween because it is also the best.