Archive for May, 2017

Pretty Nonsense

May 31, 2017

Recently, I mentioned to a friend that, as an interruption in a busy weekend that was too full of Things To Do and too little with fun, Jim and I had dropped into an antiques and collectibles mall.  My friend asked, “Out of curiosity, what interests you most?  Furniture?  Jewelry….?”


My answer probably didn’t surprise her.  “Neither.  Weird stuff.  Oddities.  Sometimes flat-out junk.  Occasionally, I’ll buy one of those jars full of odds and ends of costume jewelry or buttons.  My short story ‘The Button Witch’ came directly from making such a purchase.”

It did, too

Often I don’t buy anything at all.  I just wander around, soaking in all the things that people have decided are important enough to keep, that other people have decided are important enough to buy.  I’m not looking for inspiration as such but, without such fueling stops, after a while the only things I would end up writing about would be cats, gardens, and guinea pigs.

Sometimes, though, we do buy something.  Old books, especially ones long out of print, are favorites.  No surprise there.

Last year Jim bought me a magnificent Chinese brocade shawl lined in velvet.  When I protested I had nowhere to wear such an elaborate thing, he said, “You can wear it to the Bubonicon Afternoon Tea.”  So I did.

Another time I bought a battered wooden lap desk.   I took it home, sanded it (with a little help from Jim) and then sealed it with “pecan” Minwax.  It still looks a bit battered, but shiny.  I’m considering covering the lid with a collage of cancelled postage stamps, and then using it to keep my stationery.  However, I need a lot more stamps before I can do that…

Such trips, where what we’ll see is completely unpredictable, are like mini-holiday for the brain.  I’m curious.  What do you do when you’re feeling a need for stimulation?


FF: Immersed

May 26, 2017

I’m still immersed in my non-fiction reads, but even more immersed in writing and researching, so I’m not reading as much as I’d like.  Maybe over the forthcoming long weekend I’ll manage a couple of good hours.

A Garden in New Spain

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

In Progress:

Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser.  Audiobook.   A look at the campaign in Burma during WWII, from the infantry, non-officer level – very intimate.    I think it could be subtitled: George MacDonald Fraser is not Flashman and wants you to know it.

Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America by William W. Dunmire.  Jim gave me this for a gift.  Just started.


Finished my proofing of When the Gods Are Silent, and am moving on to other, mysterious projects!

TT: Downtrodden, Not Uplifted

May 25, 2017

JANE: So, last time we decided we were going to talk about Cordwainer Smith’s underpeople.  Why don’t you explain what these are?

Underpeople Tales

Alan: Ah! The underpeople! They are hugely important in Smith’s stories. As the name implies, they are second class citizens, not quite people. They are descended (or perhaps “manufactured” would be a better word) in some mysterious, and never explained, way from animal precursors.

JANE: “Manufactured” is definitely the correct term.  Precisely how the underpeople are created is one of the many ways that Cordwainer Smith breaks the rules.  Most SF writers would at least make hand-waving motions indicating science-in-action when talking about how these animal-human creatures were created.  Terms like “gene-splicing” or “activation of dormant genetic potentials” would be used, and we would meet scientists who create underpeople.

Instead, Smith just gives them to us, and isn’t even consistent in how they are described.  Some are more like animals, some nearly indistinguishable from humans.  What is important is that something in their animal nature makes them ideal for certain tasks.

ALAN: Quite so.  A very good example of this is B’dikkat, the underperson who is so important to the prisoners on the planet named Shayol.

Just as an aside, the names of the underpeople are all prefixed with a single letter that indicates their ancestry. The B’ in B’dikkat tells us that he is descended from bovine stock.

JANE: B’dikkat’s bovine qualities make him perfect for his rather horrible job.  I can’t say what that job is without providing too much of a spoiler for the story, but B’dikkat’s bovine instinct for the preservation of the herd plays a large role, as does his lack of an inclination to kill.  One of the major elements of the story’s climax could not occur if B’dikkat was not a cattle-derived underperson.  That Cordwainer Smith can make the reader believe in B’dikkat’s nature is part of his genius.

ALAN: The underpeople always maintain many of their animal characteristics, and it’s those attributes that make them so useful to the Lords of the Instrumentality in maintaining a society in which the majority of humans do very little useful.

Perhaps the most important underperson is the cat person C’mell.  She appears in several stories. C’mell is named after Linebarger’s favourite cat, Melanie. Like you and me, Cordwainer Smith was a cat person.

JANE: Indeed he was, “real” cats are crucial in an earlier story in his future history’s timeline: “The Game of Rat and Dragon.”

As to C’mell, “important” is a deceptive word.  She is definitely a key figure in several stories, including “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” “The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” and the novel Norstilia, but she would not consider herself important.  Importance belongs to D’Joan, whose tragic story is told in “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” and to the mysterious and powerful E’telekeli, one of the central figures in Norstrilia.

ALAN: Nevertheless, C’mell has a pivotal role to play. She is a “girlygirl” at Earthport where she takes care of off-world visitors. I remember her as a high class call girl, but when I re-read the novel to prepare for this tangent I discovered that my memory had embroidered her role a bit – really she has more in common with a geisha.

C’mell has little choice in her role. None of the underpeople do, and they resent being cast as second class citizens. Here Smith is drawing clear parallels with the American civil rights movement. He sees such unrest leading to open revolt and so does Lord Jestacost of the Instrumentality.

Jestacost also appears in many of Smith’s stories.  (I am firmly of the opinion that Jestacost is actually Smith himself.) He seems an untypical Lord in that he is more open-minded than most, more aware of what is happening around him. He is not blind to the implications and consequences of the actions of the Instrumentality, and he works actively to manipulate events.

JANE: Ooh…  It’s always dangerous to equate a character and the author.  Moreover, it diminishes the story by making a vital character into nothing more than a mouthpiece for the author’s opinions.

Jestacost has a reason for being the way he is.  His birth is a direct reaction to the events in “The Dead Lady of Clown Town.”  His mother, Lady Goroke – herself a member of the  Instrumentality – says near the end of the story:

“I’m going to have a child, and I’m going back to Manhome to have it.  And I’m going to do the genetic coding myself.  I’m going to call him Jestocost.  That’s one of the Ancient Tongues, the Parsoskii one, for ‘cruelty,’ to remind him where he comes from and why.  And he, or his son, or his will bring justice back into the world and solve the puzzle of the underpeople.”

ALAN: I agree that it’s rather simplistic to equate a character with the author. Jestacost is much more than that, and your analysis of his personality is spot on. But I can’t help feeling that Smith is an aspect of Jestacost in the same way that Robert Heinlein is an aspect of Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land. There’s no one-to-one correspondence, but each is an influence on the other.

JANE: All characters – even the worst — are aspects of the author who creates them.  Both my writer-self and my Lit professor-self rebel against equating.  But I shall leave it there.

Go on…

ALAN: Is this one of those “agree to differ” moments? I think it is… Never mind. Onward!

Jestacost finds C’mell to be a useful go-between, linking the groundswell of revolution among the underpeople to the interests of the Instrumentality, hopefully to the advantage of both.

This is the Rediscovery of Man – after centuries of being lotus-eaters, humanity is reawakening to a life of uncertainty and possible peril. It is the beginning of the end of their sterile utopia.

JANE: To say more would be to provide a major spoiler for the end of Norstilia, so instead I think the time has come to leave the peculiar yet oddly coherent universe of Cordwainer Smith behind and sail for other stars.

Open Letter to Annaka

May 24, 2017

Dear Annaka,

Last week on Twitter, I asked you about your writing.  You told me you write YA.  That you like to write about girls/women, friendships, and adventures, large and small.  You also admitted to feeling you have a problem with becoming verbose – specifically that you found yourself getting caught up in character exploration side plots that, once written, you ended up really liking.  Therefore, you didn’t want to discard them.  Instead, you wove them back into the plot.

Some of My Gardens

Finally, you wondered how I managed to keep the “richness” of my characters in my own stories without dragging down the plot.

First, thanks for the compliment…  Second… I’ll admit, there’s no real formula.  I thought that here, freed from the telegraphic communication constraints of Twitter, I might offer a few thoughts.

Since your bio note indicates that you’ve attended Viable Paradise workshop, which is taught by some very skillful editors and writers, I’m going to skip the basics and get to the philosophical.

I think the sort of story you like to write – in which friendships are as important as adventures, and that those adventures can be both large and small – probably lends itself to getting lost in character side plots.  Have you read the National Book award-winning “Penderwick” books by Jean Birdsall?  They’re very much that sort of book.   I love them…

However, readers of SF/F usually expect their adventures to be on a grander scale.  They often expect the characters they read about to be somehow super-powered, whether by means of magic or science.  A wandering side plot about very human issues – no matter how much characterization it offers – is not what they want.  They want – as one (adult by the way) reader admitted to me – to read about people who don’t get messed up by life events the way they themselves do.

So the first question to ask yourself is “Am I writing the right form of fiction?”  Would you be happier writing stories in which character exploration and development is the point, not something that has to compete with defeating dystopian governments or saving the space station or whatever?

The genre you’re writing shapes everything else.  Pretty much the first question any SF/F writer gets asked is “Why do you write ‘that stuff’?”  There are lots of answers – the ability to use the future or an alternate world to explore a social or moral or ethical question.  Because it’s what you like to read.  Because it’s a hot market.

For me, it’s because it’s how my brain works.  Except for occasional short pieces, stories without the speculative fiction element don’t hold my attention.  That, in turn, shapes how I characterize.  I slip inside the person and, while I’m writing in their point of view, I am that person.  Because people rarely go off into side plots that aren’t tied to the issue at hand, my characterization stays tight and yet gets expanded.  If someone remembers an event from the past in any sort of detail, it’s going to be tied to the events of the present moment.

I know a lot of things about my characters that don’t make it onto the page.  This material may never make it onto any page except as notes to myself.  However, I think it’s there in the story nonetheless, keeping my characters three-dimensional, making them react consistently to situations, keeping them from being pawns slid around according to the needs of the plot.

Here’s another question…  Are you sure novels are what you want to write?  Oddly enough, you sound very much like a short story writer (all those side plots) who is forcing herself to write a novel.  Side plots are very different from sub-plots.  Sub-plots exist in tandem with the on-going action.  A good example of this is Elise’s crush on Jet in the early Firekeeper books.  By itself, it would be a pretty slim romance story.  Tied into the novel, however, it helps flesh out the consequences of the competition for King Tedric’s throne, one of which is a girl’s broken heart and her realization that romantic daydreams shouldn’t be used to make major real life choices.

Back in the day, it was more common for writers to explore various aspects of a character or setting in short story format.  These days, too many relatively untried writers push themselves into writing novels.  Maybe you want to write short stories instead – stories about the same people and places, sure.  That’s completely acceptable.

Charles de Lint’s “Newford” stories had all the more punch because he was able to tell so many tales about an interconnected group of friends in a shorter form.  (His Dreams Underfoot is a short story collection that manages to read like a novel.)  David Drake’s Old Nathan is three stories that build on each other, but each stands on its own.  Many an early SF/F novel was actually cobbled together from strong short stories.

Maybe you should consider whether your side plots are really independent short stories.  Don’t weave them in or feel forced to condense them.  Pull them out and find out what the novel really is about.  If it crumples without the side plots, you’ve learned something interesting.

You described yourself as “pantser” as opposed to a plotter.  As I explored in another of these Wanderings, another term for “pantser” is “gardener” – this balanced against “architect,” as a term for those who like to build their stories out in advance.  But I know you’re also a “real” gardener. You know that (no matter what people who don’t garden think) gardens don’t “just grow.”  They need planning, pruning, watering, thinning, fertilizing.

A verbose novel is like an overgrown garden, not really a healthy place.  Consider the shape of your garden.  (Genre.)  The type of your garden.  (Short story.  Novel.)  Then tend appropriately.  You may find your imagination taking a new and wonderful shapes!

Happy Writing!


FF: Transformative Biology

May 19, 2017

Every so often I go on a serious non-fiction binge, for no reason other than my brain wants more raw material to play with.  This round seems to be biology – oh, and a bit of military history.

Who Said I’m Domesticated or Tame?

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut.  The first full-retelling of the fox domestication experiment.  Well-written and fascinating, accessible to a general audience without talking down to it.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald.  Audiobook.  A childhood favorite read by one of my favorite audiobook readers, the late Fredrick Davidson aka David Case.

In Progress:

Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser.  Audiobook. Not by the author of The Princess and the Goblin. However, I came across this when looking to see if the library had the audio of The Princess and Curdie.  A look at the campaign in Burma during WWII, from the infantry, non-officer level – very intimate.  Also read by David Case.

Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America by William W. Dunmire.  Jim gave me this for a gift.  Just started.


Almost done with my final proof of the e-book version of my twenty-some year-old novel When the Gods Are Silent.

TT: Rule Breaker

May 18, 2017

JANE: I’ve spent the better part of the last week trying to figure out what makes Cordwainer Smith’s work so special.  Finally, today, as I glanced at the opening of Norstrilia I had it.

Longer Works

He breaks all the rules and somehow makes it work.

Let me quote the first paragraph of Norstrilia since not everyone may have a copy at hand.  (I am happy to report, however, that Norstrilia appears to be available in a variety of forms, including an e-book.)

“The story is simple.  There was a boy who bought the planet Earth.  We know that, to our cost.  It only happened once, and we have taken pains that it will not happen again.  He came to Earth, got what he wanted, and got away alive, in a series of very remarkable adventures.  That’s the story.”

And then having broken the rule that people read books because they want to find out “how it ends,” and so need to be teased and tantalized, Cordwainer Smith launches into his remarkable tale.

ALAN: And the very next thing he talks about is “stroon”. I’ve no idea what the derivation of the word is, but it’s a vital element within the universe in which his stories are set. Stroon is a drug that indefinitely postpones aging in humans. It’s sometimes referred to as the santaclara drug, and I don’t know the derivation of that word either…

JANE: “Stroon” sounds very Australian and since Norstrilia is a shortened form of the planet’s original name – Old North Australia – this is probably not accidental.  You are married to an Australian.  Can Robin help out with this puzzle?

ALAN: I reminded Robin that in the novel, stroon is extracted from the gigantic sick sheep of Old North Australia and she thought for a moment, then she informed me that in her experience real North Australians don’t understand numbers – when they count their sheep they are only able to count “One, two, a mob.” (She may be showing her West Australian bias here…) So therefore it would seem that the most likely reason for the name of the drug is because, wherever you look, you will find a mob of sick sheep strewn all over the landscape… (Stroon, when you use the proper, lazy North Australian accent of course).

JANE: Ouch!

Let’s see what I can come up with that might help with why it’s called the santaclara drug.

Santa Clara translates into English as “Saint Clara” or “Saint Clare.”  Saint Clara was a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Although wealthy, she was so inspired by his preaching that she asked him for guidelines as to how to live a good life.  She then founded a monastic order that still exists today and is commonly called the “Poor Clares” because of their devotion to a life of quiet contemplation and renunciation of Earthly possessions.

Since the Nostrilians effectively take a vow of poverty in order to preserve their society in the face of what would otherwise be astonishing wealth, this seems to fit.  Nor is it out of line with the setting, since Christianity – alluded to as “the sign of the Fish” – provides an important undercurrent in the stories dealing with the underpeople.

So, what do you think?  Does Saint Clara provide a possible reason why stroon is called the santaclara drug?

ALAN: Absolutely it does. It’s very easy to imagine the lazy North Australian accent blurring those words together so that the space disappears and Santa Clara becomes the “santaclara” drug…

If this was an SF novel by anyone else, we’d expect that stroon would be synthesised in a lab or extracted from a plant; something quite mundane and scientific (or at least scientifically fictional). But this is a Cordwainer Smith novel and we quickly learn that stroon is impossible to synthesise. So the only source of the drug is from the mobs of gigantic and very sick Norstrilian sheep.

That’s a very surreal image. I’m not a very visual reader and I seldom make pictures in my mind from the words that I read. But I find that a large part of Cordwainer Smith’s attraction is that, unlike almost every other author, he always manages to conjure up very visual images for me, generally strangely attractive ones. And here I can so easily picture bare brown landscapes festooned with huge, diseased sheep, panting in the heat, perhaps baaa-ing plaintively and maybe with a soft Salvador Dali watch draped over them to give them some shade. I’ve no idea where the watches come in – Smith never mentions them, but to me they are always there…

JANE: I don’t need to add watches, in part because Cordwainer Smith always balances the surreal with the extremely real.  A good example is how he deals with water.  Norstrilia is a very dry planet, so canals are covered to reduce water loss from evaporation.  This very science fictional touch makes it possible for me to believe in a landscape dotted with enormous, nearly immortal, diseased sheep.

ALAN: But there’s much more to the story than just bizarre imagery. Images need to have a purpose and here, with the introduction of stroon, Smith is definitely not a rule breaker. He asks a genuinely SF question: “What if there was a drug that granted immortality and it could only be made on one planet?”   He pursues the economic, political and cultural implications of the answer to that question quite rigorously.

Stroon sells for astronomical prices and consequently Norstrilia is fabulously wealthy by the standards of every other planet. But (isn’t there always a “but”?) the Norstrilian way of life is simple, pastoral and rather archaic, and the Norstrilians are concerned to keep it that way. Consequently imports are taxed at something in excess of twenty million percent which means, of course, that even the fabulously wealthy Norstrilians are too poor to purchase much in the way of luxury, thus maintaining the status quo.

Linebarger (“Smith”) was an economic and political advisor to governments and the knowledge and experience he gained by doing that job is used to great effect in his stories. The surreal and complex imagery always has a firm foundation to stand on.

JANE: Another place where Smith breaks the rules and somehow makes it work in defiance of all logic is in the concept of the underpeople.  The underpeople have a major role to play in Norstrilia, as well as in many of his short stories.  Maybe we can talk about them and the mysterious Instrumentality of Mankind, next time.

Cat in a Fish Tank

May 17, 2017

Over the last several weeks – according to my records, we’ve just passed the mooniversary of my starting the actual writing of the book – I’ve been spending all my spare time working on a new novel.

Ogapoge in a Fish and/or Guinea Pig Tank

“What’s it about?” is the first question I usually get.  And that’s usually where I stall.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an intuitive plotter.  When I start a book, I have a strong sense that a story that’s been incubating in my subconscious is ready to go.  Then I go and find out what it’s going to be as I write.

This keeps me really excited, because I’m discovering along with my characters.  I’m usually a little ahead of them, but sometimes not much, and sometimes they surprise me as I’m writing.  I love it!

“Well, I get that,” is the usual follow-up.  “But what sort of book is it?”

“Uh…  Fantasy.  I guess.”

“What sort of Fantasy?”

And, again, I dig in my heels.  If you listen carefully, you may hear me growl.  Why?  Because categories are reductive.  Basically, they take a story idea and then reduce it to its lowest common denominator.  Tell me, does anyone ever fall in love with a story for its lowest common denominator?

I don’t.  Maybe I’m weird.

Probably am…  After all, my favorite books tend to be the ones that make the people putting labels on the spine uneasy.

When I’m writing something, the last thing I want to do is say “Well, it’s like this, except it’s not because…”  That reduces the story even before it gets started.

I’d like to think that even when my books seem to fall into a meme or trope or whatever, what they end up doing is surprising the reader by being something more or combining parts differently.  Expanding, rather than reducing.

Weird.  Yeah.  I guess.  The stories that burble out of my brains are like cats in fish tanks.  Unexpected, even when you know all the elements…

FF: Old Favorites and New

May 12, 2017

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

Persephone Reads!

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. Hadn’t read for many years…  Astonished afresh by the creative use of language.   Probably couldn’t be written today when computers would make so many of the plot devices impossible, but good if read as a sort of alternate history.

In Progress:

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut.  The first full-retelling of the fox domestication experiment.  So far well-written and fascinating.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald.  Audiobook.  A childhood favorite read by one of my favorite audiobook readers, the late Fredrick Davidson aka David Case.


Continuing my final proof of the e-book version of my twenty-some year-old novel When the Gods Are Silent.

TT: Shoemaker to the Stars

May 11, 2017

JANE: The other day I was trying to explain to a friend why I really loved Cordwainer Smith’s work.  I used words like “different,” “weird,” “off-beat,” “provocative,” but those are all sort of empty.  I’m frustrated because I’d like to be able to explain why periodically I go and re-read his stuff; why I was disproportionately flattered when I took an on-line quiz and the author I was compared to was Cordwainer Smith.  I know you like his work as well, and I was hoping that maybe you could help me.

Cordwainer Smith’s Short Stories

ALAN: I’ll try – but it’s not easy. When I lived in Wellington I belonged to a book discussion group where we recommended books to each other. One of the books I introduced to the group was Cordwainer Smith’s novel Norstrilia and rather to my surprise I found myself reduced to inarticulacy when I tried to describe it. Like you, I could only use empty words, concluding with “…the strangest story I’ve ever read.”

JANE: I was first introduced to Cordwainer Smith’s work by Roger Zelazny.  He used to mail me books – sometimes by the box load – by authors whose work he admired.  One of these was a collection of Corwainer Smith’s short stories.  He mentioned that “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was one of his favorite SF stories of all time, so I read that first, turned back to the first story “Scanners Live in Vain,” and was hooked for all time.

These days, especially with you having written a book review column for many years, it’s hard to imagine you rendered inarticulate by any author.  How old were you at that book group discussion?

ALAN: Quite old – it was only a couple of years ago! But I first came across Smith’s stories when I was in my teens. In some collection or other (probably one of Judith Merril’s Best SF of the Year anthologies – I was hunting them down obsessively at  the time) I found the short story “A Planet Named Shayol” and it made a huge impression on me, so much so that I returned to it time and time again.

JANE: Oh…  That’s a creepy story.  Let’s issue an official Spoiler Alert and talk about it!

ALAN: Mercer has been sentenced to the punishment planet Shayol for some unnamed crime. All that anyone knows about the planet is that the screams of the prisoners are broadcast across the Empire on the Emperor’s birthday. So he knows he is in for a terrible punishment…

Mercer is met on the planet’s surface by B’dikkat, an underperson whose ancestors were cows.

JANE: Let me interrupt you to clarify a point…  In Cordwainer Smith’s universe, “Underperson” means a person whose ancestors were genetically modified animals.  The details of how this was done is never gone into that I remember, but the underpeople and their relationship with normal humans is an important element in much of Cordwainer Smith’s work.

Okay… Go on.

ALAN: B’dikkat always wears armour to shield himself from the attentions of the dromozoa, minute insect-like beings that burrow agonizingly into flesh and cause extra organs to grow on the body.  But Mercer and the other prisoners have no such protection. Mercer comes across people with extra limbs, noses, eyes and even whole torsos attached to them. B’dikkat harvests these organs and they are shipped off planet to be used in transplant surgery.  In order to keep the prisoners relatively sane and healthy, B’dikkat injects them with super-condamine, the ultimate drug that makes the depredations of the dromozoa almost bearable.

Decades, even centuries pass slowly and nothing changes for the prisoners until one day the planet comes to the attention of the Lords of the Instrumentality. Then finally things change, but not necessarily for the better. Though that perhaps depends on your point of view…

JANE: Ah, the Lords of the Instrumentality.  That’s definitely something we need to come back to since this mysterious group is another of the key underpinnings that connect Cordwainer Smith’s stories.

ALAN: Yes indeed. When I came across them in this story I considered them to be a benevolent power for good. But after reading other stories in which they played a part, I changed my mind about their role.

There’s what I now think of as an obvious pun in the title of this story though when I first read it I was far too young to make the correspondence between “Sheol” and “Shayol”. Indeed I don’t think I’d even come across the word “Sheol” then. So some of the cleverness of Smith’s vision escaped me. But that didn’t matter – there was always so much else going on in the story. Who cared if you missed a layer or two?

I think it was that richness in the material that kept me coming back to it. There were always subtleties to explore and ambiguities that failed to resolve themselves. It was perfectly clear to me that this was just one small corner of a picture painted on a much larger canvas. The protagonists in the story (and presumably Smith himself) knew a lot more than they let on to the reader about what was going on in the universe at large. Things that they themselves took for granted obviously did not need explaining and so there were always unanswered questions, and that sneaking feeling in the back of my mind that maybe just one more reading would help clear it up…

JANE: I’ve had the same reaction!

ALAN: And then there was the style of the telling of the tale. I’d never met sentences like that before, or stories told in that way. I learned later that Paul Linebarger (Cordwainer Smith’s real name) had been an orientalist of renown and that his stories were often styled and structured in a manner derived from Chinese literature. Though later I discovered that “A Planet Named Shayol” had a comparatively straightforward narrative when compared to some of his other stories. But whatever the truth of it, this story grabbed hold of me and refused to let go. To this day, I absolutely love Smith’s work to bits.

JANE: Me, too.  I’d really enjoy chattering on more about it.  How about next week?

Into the Zone

May 10, 2017

Last week, a reader named Shona sent me the following question.

Ogapoge in the Cuteness Zone

“I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing.
I’ve had a difficult time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out there.  I do take pleasure in writing.  However, it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints? Thank you!”

Although I gave Ms. Shona a short answer at the time, I kept thinking about what she’d asked and decided to pursue the matter further.  After all, it’s a rare writer who doesn’t find himself or herself struggling to get into the zone at one time or another.

My short reply ran as follows:  “Sometimes I play a game of solitaire. Sometimes I go back and read the paragraphs leading up to where I plan to start. No one trick!

“Please remember. If you end up starting, then those ten to fifteen minutes aren’t wasted. They’re only wasted if you don’t start writing.”

There are as many rituals writers use to get themselves into the writing zone as there are writers.  Some are purely practical.  Some are almost mystical.  Some writers use one sort, some the other, some blend both types.  I’ll say right off, I fall into the “both” category.

One of the best of the practical “get into the zone” rituals is to go back and re-read what you wrote during your previous session.  This not only reminds you where you were when you stopped, it gives you an opportunity to polish and refine.

Wait!  I hear you say.  What if I haven’t written anything?  What if I’m trying to get started on something new?

Well, I’m going to assume you had an idea for a story or you wouldn’t be writing it.  Since you can’t review, why not try one of a variety of brainstorm exercises?  Freewriting is pretty much what it sounds like.  I prefer to do it on a sheet of paper with a pen, but you can also do it on a computer.  Without any attempt at providing a good opening or clever characterization, take that idea and just start writing.  Feel free to talk to yourself as you do so.

Idea.  Princess knows her sister’s latest suitor has been turned into a frog by an evil sorcerer.  She must save him, which will involve kissing him, because that’s how enchanted frogs are traditionally turned back.  Why her and not her sister?  After all, sister would be a princess, too.  Maybe sister is a coward?  Maybe princess one is better with magic?  Yes.  I like that.  Okay.  Princess one is better with magic.  Her sister is pretty much a waste of air, but she’s the heir apparent, so princess one feels she must help her.   (The previous paragraph owes a cheerful debt to Frogkisser, a novel by Garth Nix.)

A variation on freewriting which doesn’t even require you to write in sentences or sentence fragments is to write down scattered words.  Princess.  Enchanted Frog.   Find and kiss.  Boring.  Been done.  Variation?  De-enchant through magic.  No love.  Duty.

The same tricks can work when you get stuck in the middle of a project, maybe because you can’t find the right name or word or whatever.  Give yourself permission to be less than perfect and just get the ideas down.  Take a break and do the research or world-building you were putting off while the idea was “hot” and you were writing as fast as you could to get the basic bones in place.

All of these are practical suggestions, but since writing is a creative process, many writers need to put themselves into a “creative” zone – a mental space a little bit different from the world of daily concerns, like getting dinner on the table, or cleaning up after the cat, or whatever.

Music is one way to do this.  Some writers – Carrie Vaughn and Charles de Lint both spring immediately to mind – even construct “playlists” for a given book or story.  Playing these in the background puts them into the world of the book.  I don’t do anything as systematic as constructing a playlist, nor do I always listen to music but, sometimes, when I’m feeling slow music is a good way to perk myself up.  If I’m distracted by some concern, music can occupy the part of my brain that otherwise would be fussing, freeing me up to write.

Other times a simple game like solitaire can provide just a few minutes in which to hypnotize yourself out of the daily world, into the world of your story.

What doesn’t help a writer get into the zone is checking e-mail, chatting on social media, or doing other things that pull you out of your creative zone and into the outside world.  Take care that research (which I mentioned above as a possible way to stimulate) doesn’t become an outside activity, rather than one that carries you deeper into the zone.  I’ve heard many writers admit that a quick on-line search for one simple fact led to a wasted hour or more as they followed link to link to link, further and further away from what they actually needed.

I know at least two writers who have a “writing only” computer, unconnected to the net, because they know they need to be saved from temptation.  World-building can be similarly dangerous, especially if you are the type to get drawn into minutia.  I tend to save massive world-building sessions for when I’m feeling stale and overly focused on plot.  This different sort of writing encourages me to remember that a story is more than the plot elements of “this happened and then this and then this…”

So, practical or mystical or a bit of both?  Whatever you choose, remember this: If what you do to get yourself into the zone concludes with actual words being written – whether in the text of your story or something that will contribute to the story – then you haven’t wasted your time.

It’s only when the fine tuning, or the research, or the world-building, or the games of solitaire or choosing the right album, or whatever become what you do instead of writing that your time has been “wasted.”

I know we have a large number of writers who read these Wanderings.  I’m curious.  What do you do to get yourselves into the zone?