Shimmer is the sequel to Albatross, and should be out through WordFirePress sometime in winter. It follows the same characters into their future, again riding the edge between Science Fiction and Fantasy. In the end, however, it is more of a fairy-tale sort of book, because such stories ought to give hope to the readers, and right now, we all need a good dose of hope!
(Or, how the goonybird ever got off the ground.)
I remember that I was thinking of quantum mechanics, and had just read a book on quantum field theory, which is a different modeling of the same mathematics. I have no illusions that I, myself, am a physicist, but being a physicist and creating one in one’s mind are two different things.
My writing computer is in a room that also contains a world globe, and with the idea of settling my physicist character somewhere, I took a push pin in one hand and spun the globe with the other. I closed my eyes and stuck the pin down. I thought, once I’d opened my eyes, that I’d set my character somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, and would have to try again, but then I noticed a tiny bit of island under the pin. I needed a magnifying glass to look up what the island was called.
It turned out to be a place called South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, which lie to the west of Scotland. I Googled the place thoroughly – rocks, seabirds, a few communities of people who live by tourism. And it turned out to have a very interesting history. It was the most unlikely place to set a physicist who is about to make a breakthrough in his field.
Unlikely is good in a book.
It had to be set in the future, or it wouldn’t be Science Fiction, but just the story of a scientist. Too far into the future and the book would require real world-building, which would have been difficult when I was trying for a character study more than an epic. I settled on the very near future.
(In retrospect, thinking about the delays in publishing and world politics, maybe I shouldn’t have spun the globe at all.)
Next I needed a name for my character. I typed in some gibberish that sounded vaguely Scottish and Word responded by asking me ‘Do you mean MacAulay?’ It really did. The word processor decided the name of the man.
I was floundering around a lot with the plot, since the near-future is a deadly place in which to be writing: always changing under one’s feet, as it were. I was corresponding with Nancy Palmer about the whole thing and she came on board with many ideas for the character and for the events that should surround him and make him real. We created a second protagonist. The book slid very early into a collaboration. Nancy has a wild imagination and a different sense of plot development, so Albatross isn’t what I thought it would be in the beginning.
But then, books rarely are what a writer expects.
I’m writing this in the middle of April and the Wordfire Press edition won’t come out until June, but that’s not so long a time. And it’s already got a great cover, although they have misspelled my name.
Ps: We ought to mention, for anyone who reads the book, that it was not really talking about Britain. That island was a METAPHOR. We were talking about a place closer to home. And we started before Brexit was even a word.
Pps: The publication date has been set back until September. To anyone who reads this, I’m sorry. (You can’t have any idea HOW sorry.)
For a long time now I have been considering how storytellers try to show the nature of reality. It seems to me that there are two branches of thought we use.
(I’ll be over-simplifying terribly. Be ready for that.)
One branch of world-building involves treating events and the beings caught in those events as though they were happening in a human family. And families lead to clans. To nations. Empires. Such stories build their empires, or their pantheons, generation by generation, and keep the hierarchies always firmly structured. By doing so they create a lot of interest – and tension – in the different goals and motivations of the parties involved.
It seems so natural and so very, very human to structure a reality like that. And, being human, these stories always involve hierarchy. Without hierarchy, it’s hard to build tension, in world-building.
World-building leads, of course, to plot-building. Oodles of lovely plots.
But there’s another branch on the story-tree. It involves starting out with things or events just sitting there, like fields of grass or stones. Found objects. Then it requires observing them: how they change through time into other things. This seems a colder and drier way to write – at first glance – and less interesting.
But only at first glance.
I have just this morning seen the name Manannan Mac Lir, who is a character in a story I am reading, and I had a moment of dual vision about him. On the first branch of ‘story’, he is the son of Lir and has all the baggage of family that comes attached to that. In stories written about families of gods, with their whole pantheons, that can be an overwhelming amount of luggage. Strife, loyalties, betrayals, loves. All good stuff for story-making.
But if I think of the same character-name in the other way – on what I called the other branch of story-telling – Manannan Mac Lir is the son on Lir, or Ocean, and has been linguistically defined as a part of Ocean. He is exactly that part of Ocean that involves man and the rest of the mammals, birds, and the other kinds of sea-life. Lir, who is simply Ocean, is a huge and simple fellow. Manannan is the region where the sea meets the shore and where most things happen. (Manannan became the name of the Isle of Mann. He’s still with us, even without the stories.) Thinking about this character in a not-particularly human way is not as sterile as it might seem. It leaves us openings for interesting creatures from coral reefs and stories about them, to tales about voyages by ship.
I picked Manannan Mac Lir simply because I was reading one random book before I sat down to write this. I could have used Athena, or Odin, if I had to start with a god as a character. I didn’t particularly want to start with a god. Just happened.
At the moment I seem to be talking about stories of fantasy or old history, but that’s just because of the book I was reading when I started thinking. Empires or hectic family reunions can be written in technological language, too. A wyrm or a worm-hole may be used to the same purpose in a story, and can be used in either branch of the story-tree.
What I’m trying say is that one way of looking at things is more human-based and the other is more animist. Animism is a word I picked up through anthropology studies. It refers to old religions that believe there is life in everything, whether it is animal, vegetable or mineral. Animism is considered by scholars to be primitive. It was what came before people structured their ideas into charts and categories, and their beliefs turned into pantheons.
Instead of calling it primitive, I like to call animism intimate. It underlies every interaction of the eye and of the mind as they meet outside reality. A person may pick up a pebble or a leaf from the ground and say, casually, “This thing speaks to me, somehow.” And then he or she might put that bit of stuff into a pocket and think about it later. Maybe draw a picture of it, or write a story sparked by it. And, of course, I can’t limit the idea to things like pebbles; they can be CGI, color-altered photos of the event horizon of a black hole. Harder to stuff into your pocket, but not into your mind.
The meaningful bit to me is that the thing ‘speaks’ to us. This is a very different sort of interaction than re-creating one more version of the Greek pantheon. Or Galactic Empire.
(I told you I’d be over-simplifying. I hope you took me seriously.)
Every story worth its salt, (and does sodium chloride ‘speak’ to you?) has both sorts of interaction happening: both the human, hierarchical, and very complex patterns, and the very intimate and primitive reaction of a story-teller’s words describing a field of grass. To be fair, there are not two separate branches of thought in story-making. They come together again and again, like a weave. Like mycelium growing in the ground. Like neurons.
But story-tellers wind up showing their preferences – or at least their ease with the different strands – in every word they write. And it has only occurred to me in the last few years that I am, by nature, an animist. I’ve written three books which are best described as fairy tales, and neither of them have the fairies being a part of any known pantheon or fairy court. They came out of the ground, like leaves or pebbles, and simply ‘spoke’ to me. I think I lack the necessary part of the brain to keep all that huge cast of characters going. I’m not an epic-scale writer and don’t aspire to be one.
The writer who comes to my mind as having mixed the two branches of story-telling most successfully is T.H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King. That huge tome is by no means a perfect book, unless you are describing the first part: The Sword in the Stone. The Once and Future King is the rambling narrative of an opinionated and troubled man. And White didn’t care to hide his feelings from the reader. I like that sort of boldness, when the writing is good.
I remember that when I first read that huge book I wondered what White had against the people of the Island of Orkney. His anger against them seemed so outsized. So much bigger than the island itself. But the entire thing was so perfectly intimate that I couldn’t put it down.
White had the entire Arthurian mythos – the Matter of Britain – to anchor his story. He is still the only one I have read who has made the character of Arthur meaningful to me. When you come down to it, King Arthur is a very dull character. It has always been the accessory characters who made that story.
I think White was more of an animist. Perhaps that is why I respond to him. Why he ‘speaks’ to me.
Like a pebble in my pocket.
Just this morning I realized how very grateful I am to have what I had thought to be a minor character in a novel blossoming into something unexpected.
One works so very hard at making the lead characters smooth and consistent, (and it is an effort, especially in rewrite, to make sure their various histories, yearnings and foibles remain ‘in character’, even as the characters are changing, as they must change).
But the minor characters come in drawn with a few strokes. Overdrawn is even better, so that they will stand out. And the incredible wealth of back-story that the lead or leads have, can’t be done for each minor character. This gives them a great deal of freedom. This is possibly why – in my writing, anyway – they tend to take over the book.
It’s rather as if one had opened the door to let someone in, thinking they are delivering a package or fixing a pipe, only to find, later, that the figure in the doorway has redone one’s whole house. Always making it better.
There are times when I wish I could take the entire electronic media of world in my hands, as if it were some small, irritating, buzzing thing, and tamp in down. Quiet. Even if I had such godlike power I wouldn’t do it, because the suffering and deaths of millions would ensue. I would have to be a more intelligent, selective sort of god to do what I would like to do.
I’m trying to find the proper words to say what it is I would like to do. I would like to return the minds of humans back to being their own property. Even when groups of people were and still are enslaved, and their days don’t belong to themselves, their words, in private, still do. Perhaps spoken in the dark, before sleep, their words and feelings are their own.
I’m not saying that these feeling were in the past and are now particularly informed or right – whatever ‘right’ means. I am just saying that these thoughts weren’t bought, pressured, analyzed or categorized by that great presence called The Media.
In recent years I can’t open a screen, or pick up a piece of paper without hearing what percentage of people in what particular survey agree with any opinion. There is rarely any source back to who took these surveys that create the great All-Knowing and momentarily changing News. So that a human being who happens to look like, or sound like, or be in the same age, sex or money group as the ones stated, is informed daily what he or she is expected to believe. And the things about which we must have opinions are also analyzed, categorized, and, thereby – limited. So if I happen to have a strong opinion that the sky in the northwest the evening before was an unusual color, or a creek-bed doesn’t seem to be in the same place it was stated to be on Google Earth, that opinion is dissolved. It doesn’t fit in the categories.
If I sound like I am feeling crotchety, let me state my own view of myself. I am frightened.
Sometimes I go out into the shrubbery, and then the next-door forest, just to meet the eyes of a hare, or those of a deer for a moment. Hell, if I don’t run into a pair of eyes I will settle for an alder sapling. I like to know that in that moment, an individual who is be-ing is encountering another who is be-ing. And we are all engaged in being, at least for the moment. The fact that we can’t exchange a single word is all to the better, as it means we can’t misunderstand one another. I don’t believe I’ve ever been misunderstood by an alder sapling.
In one of my best day-dreams, I walk up to a little house where the door happens to be open and call in “Hello. May I talk to you. Have you time for me to tell you a little story? We may both enjoy it.”
I expect it is much the same for a sidewalk artist, or anyone who draws a picture or scratches it into an unimportant rock, hoping that someone, later, might see it and respond to it. And there will be no analyzing, no categorization. – Now that I think on it, I am reminded of Newgrange, over 4,000 years ago. I don’t think anyone has been able to analyze the spirals on the rocks of Newgrange. But people still look at them.
But for an artist in today’s world, a person has to break through so many layers of training and conditioning just to come out with a simple shape worked into a rock and call it good. Or to walk into someone’s house – even if they know them already – and tell a little story.
I live in hope.
When I received my glorious and wildly unexpected National Merit Scholarship and got a chance to attend Universities, I had a little bit of common sense. Or I thought I did.
Of the three Universities that sought me out – for I was far too naïve to have done the searching myself – I chose the newly married ‘Case Institute of Technology’ & ‘Western Reserve University’ simply because they were in the city where I grew up, and no one had told me that a scholarship might include room and board. No one had told me anything.
Once on board, I gravitated to the ‘Case Institute’ party of the marriage. I was not accepted as a student of Case Institute, because they had a limit of 3% on their female students. Whatever I was, I was not amongst the top 3% of STEM students. (We hadn’t that acronym STEM in 1967, but the idea was the same.) So I was officially a student of Flora Stone Mather college, while taking a lot of Case classes. And all my friends seemed to be Case students. Which meant all my friends were male, except for one extremely brilliant woman. She was so brilliant I never could focus my eyes to see her name, but I remember her brilliance.
I suppose this was all natural progress to a person who read as heavily as I had read, and who had read a preponderance of Science Fiction. Not all of what I had read was SF, I’m glad to say, but enough of it was that I easily fit with the propeller-beanie crowd.
What my common sense was telling me was that I mustn’t waste my precious time having fun, which is to say, taking literature classes. I knew I could read on my own. So I did everything but study English.
In one sense, I created of myself a very stupid writer. Everything I know about writing I have learned from tolerant editors. I didn’t appreciate them at the time, gods know, but I do appreciate them now. Now that tolerant editors don’t seem to exist for young writers, I bless them. Not all of the editors I worked with fitted that description, but enough of them did.
But in a sense, by my continued ignorance, I saved myself as a writer. The truth is simply that it takes only a few months of studying writing to learn how abysmally bad one is as a writer. And once that is understood, the paralyzing shame destroys almost everyone who wants to write.
There are paths to avoid this, now. There is Clarion. There are other workshops. There is such a thing as a mentor, for the one-in-a-thousand students who might find a mentor. The old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” must be true only in a world-view that includes many re-incarnations. A person like myself was in no danger of finding a mentor. Nor did I have the money or family resources for a star-gift like Clarion. So, what I did was avoid classes containing anything like literature, because such classes would be fun, and I wasn’t at school for fun, but to save my life. (When I attended CWRU, post K-12 schooling was an unusual thing, unlike today.)
As it turns out, nothing I did at school got me work anyway, because I graduated in the same year Nixon beheaded the fellowship system in the U.S. Nineteen-seventy-one. I became an artist’s model, and froze standing still for hours at a time. I became a bartender, and got paid fairly well, although I learned that I was being paid by folks for helping them ruin their lives. And I slowly learned to type, so that I might get a more reliable job.
In the end I learned to type amazingly well, and did get work that could keep me alive. And it enabled me to write.
Oh, how I wrote. Reams and reams of paper went through my IBM Selectric. And oh, how badly I wrote! I had good ideas, and have re-used them all in subsequent years, but still I wrote so much lovely stinking trash. I continued writing because I didn’t know it was trash. I bless the fact that I learned to write without knowing it was trash. There are writers with egos so strong they can learn they are writing garbage and keep writing, while learning to write something better than garbage. I would not have been one of them.
It was ten years or more of typing novel length things of one sort or another, and sending out the homing pigeons in manila envelopes, before I found the one person who told me exactly what sort of garbage it was that I was writing. That was the important part. A writer can’t simply be told she is writing garbage. She must be told what sort of garbage it is. Knowing that, a writer can change.
For me, it took eight hours. Eight hours of sitting at someone’s dining table and being made to read my work aloud, while she sat there and said nothing. Eight hours and then a year of redrafts. I remember there were seven of them.
I’ve said this in print before and I’ll likely say it again. I don’t recommend my own history as a program for aspiring writers. It was just the way it worked out for me. I would so like to help other writers avoid the ten years of trash. Unless, of course, their goal is to become a very good typist.
My only real advice for a person without the resources for mentorship, or the money for the few blessed workshops where writers can help each other (without falling into the common trap of trying to destroy each other,) is to find a person who will be willing to tell the young writer not that they are writing garbage – because that is a given – but exactly what sort of garbage it is.
The reason I keep repeating this advice is simply that it is the only advice I have to give.
I have always been very fond of introducing white space in my writings, and not because I want to pad my work and make it seem longer.
I think a long, unbroken paragraph gives this reader the opportunity to find herself being lulled along by the rhythm of the words, until she finds she’s forgotten what was meant. For me, it’s a trap, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.
I’ve just been reading Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, in which the writing is very complex and interesting, but the paragraphs so dense I often had to stop near the end of a paragraph half the length of a page and make myself start over again to remember what she started out to say. It is work, and gives me an opportunity to put the book down and say to myself I’ll get back to this later. Maybe I will.
That’s a great danger for any writer. When the reader puts the book down, there’s a good chance they won’t pick it up again. I think those moments are to be avoided by a writer. There are already enough distractions in life that force the reader to put a book down.
With Funke, part of the issue is that she was writing in German, a language just perfect for long sentences. And I’m sure that German readers are used to this. Perhaps they are trained to be more attentive to dense prose.
The people I write for, for the most part, are not. I myself prefer to read with breaks in the prose, letting me know the subject, or the voice is changing.
So therefore, the white space. See it in the previous paragraphs?
I don’t think that, prior to the wide use of the printing press, there was any distinction between poetry and song. It was only when a person could buy an edition of someone’s poems, and read them – not knowing at all how the writer had meant them to sound aloud – that a branch of poetry that consisted of interesting mind pictures could exist.
And that explains my preference over the poetry of Yeats to that of Eliot. (I’m using old poets because it’s more likely people will understand my references.) When Yeats went to excess, and he did frequently, he sounded, well, ridiculous. Silly. When Eliot went to excess, he became didactic. Preachy.
I’ll take ridiculous over preachy ten times out of ten.
That may also explain the difference between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson, although I criticize neither. Whitman was very out-going, and if his poetry was a barbaric yawp, at least it yawped in tune. Dickenson had no one to sing for, as she lived in a strange solitude, so her poetry was the perfect succession of imagery, broken by lots of long dashes.
Now, of course, we have poetry which is not either song nor pictures. It is conceptual, and goes on and on. I guess I am showing a prejudice, here. But as I’m not a critic by occupation, and in fact I avoid the role whenever I can, I can admit to my prejudices. I like my poetry to sing.
I can’t dance with elegance, but in my head I do. And I like to have words to dance to.
Chip Delany described it best, years ago, in an essay titled About 5750 words.
When we think up a story, it seems to be of a certain shape, and we assume that will be the final shape. But then we sit down to the keyboard and write the first word down. *Splat*. There it is. And that first word has now limited our possibilities for the next word. Simply said, if we start by writing ‘The’, then we can’t very well go on with ‘I’ve been dwelling . . . ‘. Our choices are limited. Of course we can erase ‘The’, but then we are back with a blank screen. Or piece of paper. Whatever. Somewhere along the line, we must write the first word.
And the next word has to fit in with the first word, or we’re not communicating. So it begins. The story-shape in the head often winds up bearing little resemblance to the words on the final document.
But there has been a change since that great essay of Delany’s appeared. I discovered it myself the last time I read a piece of a novel for a convention audience. Spiffy new processors, such as Word 2016, which is what I’m using to write this, make it possible to dart blithely into our story, inserting foreshadowing as needed, or making global changes. And the piece of story I read aloud in practice, to my embarrassment, didn’t flow as well as I thought it did. So on the floor I found myself winging it. Not keeping to the document’s phrasing at all.
Because one word did NOT imply the next. Not always.
I think that is becoming more and more common with writers of fiction today. I have tried to read aloud what I find on the page of many new books in my own library, and it doesn’t sound like anything anyone might have said, or written, a generation ago. Possibly this is not important for expository prose, (although I’ve read some journalism in the past few years that is almost gibberish. And from sources that used to be proud of the quality of their journalism.) But it is everything for a writer of stories.
So I’ve taken to the idea of reading, or at least subvocalizing, anything I send out. Whether to a collaborator, an editor or even a friend. And I find myself making changes. Lots of changes. So that one word implies the next and the story keeps working as a story. When read aloud.
And even when the reader is in private, reading words on a page or on a glowing screen, I think that reader, somewhere in the mind, will be able to tell the difference.
Thank you, Samuel R. Delany.
I have been collaborating with Nancy Palmer. It started about five months ago and has resulted, between us, in one published novel, two shorts and ideas for two more novels now rising in the oven. It’s remarkable, considering it involves one person who lives on the West Coast Canadian border and another who lives near the Florida Everglades. It’s remarkable for other reasons, also, but I really can’t describe them in a paragraph. Do visit her site. It’s better done and much more amusing than this one.