Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lessons Learned from John Steinbeck

I recently finished reading Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck. I had no idea this book existed until a few weeks ago when I read a friend's review of it on Goodreads. When Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, he did so long hand. His editor gave him a notebook, and Steinbeck used the left hand pages to write daily letters to his editor, and he used the right hand pages to write the first draft of the novel. He referred to his letters as a warm up to help ease him into his fiction writing for the day. Interestingly, a similar method is referred to in The Artist's Way, in which Julia Cameron recommends writing out 'morning pages' before starting on the day's work.

I found it exceedingly refreshing that Steinbeck appeared to suffer the same roller coaster of emotions while writing his novel that I feel when writing any new piece. He loved it... then he hated it. Some days he went to work gladly on it, and the words flowed, and other days he struggled to get the words down. And yet, when I read the novel, I couldn't say, "Oh, this passage is where he struggled, and this one is where the words flowed." In Steinbeck's own words: "And you know of course that many times before I finish this book I shall hate it with a deadly hatred. I shall detest the day when I started it. It will seem the poorest piece of crap that was ever set down." That's a harsh self-judgment, and one that pretty much all writers make about their own work at some point.

I just passed the "I hate it" point of the novella I'm working on for NaNoWriMo. It felt like I was walking through sludge to get the words on paper. But now I'm heading into the homestretch. I'm getting ready to write the climax, which is the scene that inspired this entire novella in the first place. Perhaps that's why I felt like the previous scene was so torturous; all I could think of was this one. In my mind, it's beautiful, and I want to convey that same beauty to the people who read it. As Steinbeck also said, "Writing is a very silly business at best." Here I have this great story in my head, and I have to translate it to words, put them down on paper, and then hope that the people reading it pick up on the image I had in mind when I wrote it.

As I prepare to wrap up the rough draft of this novella, I'm keeping in mind another of Steinbeck's observations as he finished his rough draft: "So, we go into the last week and I may say I am very much frightened. I guess it would be hard to be otherwise--all of these months and years aimed in one direction and suddenly it is over and it seems that the thunder has produced a mouse."

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Stories Behind the Stories

I recently had two short stories come out in the same week, both around Halloween, and both are horror.

"Shadow Man" came out first, in a collection called Soon. Abby Goldsmith put this together and did an illustration for each of the four stories included. Her illustrations are always amazing, so I'm pretty excited to have one to go with this story. I wrote "Shadow Man" because, quite frankly, I'm still afraid of things that go bump in the night, and that dark space beneath the bed, and creatures that could be hiding in the closet.

"Shadow Man" was the first short story I completed after I finished the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2007. I wrote it slowly, trying to incorporate everything I learned at the workshop. I sweated over this story. A lot. While writing it, I also learned about a cool therapeutic intervention in psychology called 'sand play.'

"Gris-Gris for a Mal Pris" was the second story that came out. Featured in Stupefying Stories: TWO, it's my second published story with them. This one was written for a Halloween contest for one of the writing groups I belong to. I was given a prompt that included a multitude of creepy toys. I kept focusing on those dolls that go in the corner and look like little kids who are being punished. I found it strange that, of all the possible poses a person could enjoy in a doll, some people preferred that of discipline.

At the time that I wrote the story, my son was under a year old. Being a new parent, I was scared of a lot of things, but mostly that I'd fail my child in some huge fashion. So I started thinking of all the things that could lead a parent to fail in a big way. I ended up with a story about one small family fighting their demons, both physical and metaphorical.

If you enjoy horror, try out either collection, or both! Just make sure you leave a light on while you read.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Special Guest Post with Author J. Kathleen Cheney

I recently had the pleasure of reading J. Kathleen Cheney's debut novel, The Golden City, which comes out tomorrow! Not only is the cover gorgeous, but so is the story. I had a hard time putting this book down. Please read on to find out more about Cheney and her lovely novel. 

I love your book's setting. Portugal in 1902 is definitely unique! What led you to choose this time and place? Did you come up with the setting first and other details next, or did you come up with a story or characters first, followed by the setting?

The story came first, then the setting.  I actually started out putting this story in Venice, but as I went along, I decided I wanted something different.  After studying the coastlines of Europe, I decided that Portugal's best suited my story's needs…so my place setting changed there. 

As for the time setting, I was looking for a time period that would have submersibles, yet not so advanced as to have 'modern' police procedures.  So that gave me a rough idea, and I finally settled on 1902 because…well, nothing big happened that year to interfere with my story. 

Do you speak any Portuguese, and if so, how fluent are you, and when and where did you learn?

Once I started researching Portugal, I quickly discovered that a lot of the resources I needed had never been translated into English, so I started learning Portuguese.  I needed to study European Portuguese, not Brazilian, which had fewer resources, but I finally found a Pimsleur audio course and an Oxford audio course.  Unfortunately, you don't learn spelling or declension from audio courses, so my Portuguese is pretty rough.  (I still get mais and mas mixed up, for example.)

As far as reading Portuguese goes, I do pretty well.  I'm aided in this by the fact that I'm from the border (El Paso) and have spoken Spanish most of my life and there are a lot of cognates between the two languages.

Speaking Portuguese is a totally different matter.  My background with Spanish actually makes this harder for me because many Portuguese words look like Spanish words and my brain automatically opts for the Spanish pronunciation.  So I lack confidence when speaking Portuguese because I don't want to butcher the language (whereas with Spanish, I'm very comfortable screwing it up.)  All in all, I did fairly well when I was in Portugal last year, but only because the Portuguese are rather tolerant.

The most alarming aspect of this whole process was discovering that I wasn't pronouncing some of my character's names correctly (because I err toward Spanish).  For example, that o on the end of Duilio's name is pronounced oo, as in zoo.  And Oriana's surname?  One of the vowels is subvocalized, so it's more like Par-AYDSH than Par-AY-desh.  (I don't know why, but I only found that out when I visited Portugal and heard that name pronounced there.)  Things like that have continually surprised me.

I like how you combined alternate history, romance, fantasy, and a murder mystery into one novel. How did you come to combine all of these elements into one novel?

I read pretty broadly, and am just as likely to pick up a Mystery or Romance as I am a Fantasy novel.  So I think for me the elements just come together organically--a little bit of this, a little bit of that.  I don't know that I ever intended to write Alternate History, but when I think back, I've actually done quite a bit of Historical Fantasy.  The moment you add magic to a historical setting, it forces a deviation from History and becomes Alternate History.

Oriana is a mermaid unlike any I've encountered before. Where did you draw your inspiration for her and her people?

When I considered my mermaids--particularly when there's the possibility of one having a relationship with a human--I decided to think of them as having been the same species at one time.  Either the humans started off like the mermaids and lost their gills and webbing, or the mermaids started off human and somehow gained the gills.  Either way, I decided to think of the sereia in terms of evolution.  To live in the sea and land they would need both gills and lungs.  Their webbing could serve the same purpose as a seal's vibrissae.  Air bladders would keep them oriented in the water.  Their hands and feet would be large and flat to improve their swimming (think Michael Phelps and his size 14 feet.)

But the scales never worked for me.  The skin is one organ, so I decided that they would have skin, it would simply look like scales.  And rather than green, I thought their coloring should be protective.  The ocean is full of predators--mainly sharks--so you'd want to be able to pass as a big predatory fish, like a tuna.  (Yes, you could look like a dolphin or a sea snake, but since I'd started off with fish characteristics, I stuck with fish.)

Male merfolk have never figured much in traditional stories.  I figured that they had to be there, just not a common as the females, so in my world, the male sereia are sheltered.  As the females are dominant in their world, they'd have a culture quite different than the human nations that surround them.  (This will come into play more in Book 3, but it's part of Oriana's character, so it's important for me to think about it now.)


J. Kathleen Cheney is nothing if not versatile in her story telling, but weaving through her work is a common thread, that of the improbable heroine. From worlds set in humanity’s distant post-apocalyptic future to alternate worlds of today or of the near past, Kathleen’s heroines include a siren who with help from a gentleman of the city must stop a regicidal plot, the neglected daughter of an absent king coming to terms with her shapeshifting ancestors, a blind teenager who dreams of others’ deaths and who uses her gift of touch to find their killers, and the widow of a trainer who with a most unusual horse must save her farm and way of life. All use their unusual gifts and talents to overcome obstacles and find their place in the world.

In 2005 Kathleen decided to pursue writing as a full-time endeavor and has since enjoyed seeing her stories published in Shimmer, The Sword Review, and Baen’s Universe. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2011 Nebula nominee. Kathleen twice attended the summer Writer’s Workshop at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction under the tutelage of James Gunn. She lists C. J. Cherryh, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Georgette Heyer among the writers who influenced her most–as well as Ansen Dibell, whose ghostly fingerprints can be seen all over her work.

Born and raised in El Paso, Texas, Kathleen’s parents actually were rocket scientists (they worked at White Sands Missile Range), which made for interesting dinner-time conversations. After graduating with degrees in English and Marketing she worked as a menswear buyer for retail department store chains before changing careers to become a teacher, where she taught mathematics ranging from 7th Grade Arithmetic up to Calculus. Kathleen also served a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. She coached the Academic Team and the Robotics Team and was the Chess Club sponsor.
When not writing, Kathleen likes to don a mask and get sweaty fencing, both foil and saber. Quieter hobbies include putting on her Wellingtons and getting her hands dirty in the garden. She also enjoys traveling and taking care of her dogs. Two large, hairy, dogs.