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In an earlier post, I talked about my enthusiasm for Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings. One of the things I adored was Howard Shore’s music. I ran out and bought the CDs, of course. At first I listened to the music as a way of re-experiencing the movies. I’d done this with other movie music, like The Last of the Mohicans, Shakespeare in Love, Titanic, and all the work of Ennio Morricone. Romantic, evocative music fits the same slot in my brain as Mendelsohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or his violin concerto, or Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” suite, or Borodin’s “In the Steppe of Central Asia” (one of the pieces I listened to while writing Shannivar). It’s narrative music, emotive rather than abstract, and I find it marvelous to write to.

When at long last it was my time to embark upon piano lessons, as a first-time older adult student, I grabbed a copy of the easy piano versions of The Lord of the Rings music. My goal was to play “Into the West.” I was one of those folks in the theater with tears down my cheeks as the song ended. But I was just starting out, I had zero self-confidence, and I wanted to make sure I had the skill to play it well. My teacher and I selected “In Dreams” (which is also the leitmotif for the hobbits) as one of my early pieces. Even in the easy version, it was a challenge. And it had words, words in a key within my limited vocal range.

Like others of my generation, I got caught in the folk scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and even taught myself a few chords on the guitar. Although I enjoyed singing in a group, I had become convinced I had a terrible voice. I remember being told as a child that I couldn’t sing. So of course, my voice was strained, thin, unreliable in pitch. With the piano to support my voice, however, along with lots of practice when no one else was in the house, not to mention having an encouraging teacher, I learned how to breathe more deeply and relax my throat. The higher notes became easier and more clear. I added other songs and vocal exercises, which helped my confidence. “Wow,” my teacher said after one class, “who knew you had such a voice?”

Learning to sing in this way helped me to see places in my life I had “lost my voice.” When preparing for a parole hearing, when I needed to speak loud and clear, this was the song I came back to. Like so many other songs, it became more than a particular piece of music by association.

As I gained in skill, I played other pieces from the easy piano book and eventually arrived at “Into the West.” Then came the seven weeks I spent taking care of my best friend and her family as she died of ovarian cancer. I found a place near her home to walk, a mile round trip down a country lane, and did this two or three times a day. The brisk autumn air, the glorious colors, and the solitude (except for a few horses and goats) gave me a blessed break. I found myself singing as I walked, as I once had done as a child. One of the songs that came to me was “Into the West,” octave leap and all. I sang it terribly and with tremendous emotion, often alternating phrases and sobbing. It said so much I wanted to tell my friend, but it was for me, not for her, who was not at all a Tolkien fan. It wasn’t her kind of song, but mine. Even now, when I play it (I can’t sing the key the easy piano version is written in), it eases me through another layer of grief.Read more...Collapse )
"As a child, my family's menu consisted of two choices: take it or leave it." -- Buddy Hackett

Just about everyone who reads this smiles, but actually I think they should be screaming. Either/or choices and black-and-white thinking serve none of us well. Either you get an A+ or you are a total failure. Your book is either #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list and wins both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, or it is an abysmal flop. Your marriage is either the stunning example to all humankind or it's crap. Exaggerated like that, it's easy to see the ridiculousness of perfection-or-nothing. But how many times do we see ourselves and our lives through a perfection-tinted lens?

Years ago, when my children were small, I agonized over my many, many lapses in maternal perfection. At times, I was sure that a single moment of inattention or crabbiness had ruined my beautiful babies forever. A friend (who, interestingly enough, was childless herself) gave me a book in which I read that it isn't necessary to be a perfect mother, only a good-enough mother. Was I good enough? Even in my darkest moments, I knew that I was. For all the black marks, I could look at a thousand time more of games played, books read aloud, lullabies sung, trips to the zoo, mommy and me classes in everything from gymnastics to piano, walks along the beach... (And my daughters have grown up to be amazing, strong women, for which I take an eensy amount of credit, the rest being all their doing.)

I've also learned to relax about my cooking. I'm a good cook, although not given to following recipes too closely or attempting anything too fancy. My general approach is to grab a bunch of fresh produce, mostly from our garden, and not overcook it. But from time to time, the results might be edible but are unlikely to be requested again. Then there are the spectacular disasters. I am notorious for burning things in pots, which is what happens when plot ideas strike in the middle of preparing dinners. My best weapon against perfectionism here is a sense of humor. If I can laugh at the inedibility of an experiment (and follow it up with a 30-minute-or-less-from-pantry-staples dish) then it becomes a shared source of merriment. Silly, rather than tragic.

Why then is it so much harder to cut myself some slack when it comes to writing? In my saner moments, I know that no piece of prose is ever perfect. It works or doesn't work or sort-of works or works for some folks but not others. We say "perfect" when it carries us away so completely, we are oblivious to any flaws. But the flaws are there, and another reader (or viewer, or listener) might well find them looming large.

What would it take for me to say, "This is the best I can do right now"? To remember that, as Paul Valery wrote, "a poem is never finished, only abandoned."

Can I trust my creative instincts to know when to let a project rest and come back to it later, when to keep working away, or when to release it to the world, warts and all?

Writerly Support Goes Both Ways


Some years ago, I struck up a conversation with a young writer at a convention. (I love getting to know other writers, so this is not unusual for me.) One thing led to another, led to lunch, led to getting together on a regular basis, led to frequently chatting online. I cheered her on as she had her first professional sale, and then another, and then a cover story on a prestigious magazine. One of the gifts of such a relationship is not the support I receive from it, but the honor and joy of watching someone else come into her own as an artist, to celebrate her achievements. It's the opposite of Schaudenfreude -- it's taking immense pleasure and pride in the success of someone you have come to care about.

I've written about these lunches here: The Lady (Actual and Honorary) Writers' Lunch

I find such friendships invaluable, and even more so when they shift from "pro/newbie" to one of true peers. Although we may not be in the same place in terms of professional publication, we each bring a wealth of life experiences to the conversation. Often, critical skills develop faster than writing craft, so even a novice writer can provide invaluable feedback.Trust arises from recognition of each other's strengths.

This happened recently, when I was wrestling with the opening of a new novel. I typed "Chapter 1" and then stared at the blank screen. Everything I could come up with for a beginning sentence was -- to put it mildly, just awful. I wouldn't want to read a book that began that way. But because my friend and I were IMing and she often shares thoughts about her creative process and struggles with various aspects of storytelling in a very different style than mine, I felt safe with her. She agreed that my idea wasn't very entrancing (she was very nice about it, for she understands that beginnings are vulnerable times and that this is indeed a process, not the final copy on the editor's desk). Her support lightened the burden of "I'm totally useless and now everyone is going to find out; I'll never write another decent sentence in my life and I have no idea how to begin a novel!" which we both knew to be not true, but the sort of self-doubt that regularly assails writers of all skill levels.

Eventually I calmed down enough to remember one of my tried and true techniques for coming up with titles. I write down every one I can think of, quite quickly so that I get through all the really stupid ones first. I give myself permission to be ridiculous -- and silly -- and quirky -- and by this time, I am usually generating stuff that has some potential. I did the same thing with opening lines, and before long I realized I'd become ensnared by one of my perennial challenges: wrong point of entry. By backing up (in this case) or leaping forward, I can find the place that clicks. 

I went to bed, having written a page or so, and woke up with: "Yes, and this other thing happens and then she gets thrown into jail (on page 2 or 3) and by the time she gets bailed out, her father has been brainwashed..." Okay, this has possibilities!

Thanks, dear friend, for cheering me on through the discouraging part!
In other news, appreciate Martian moons while we can:

Phobos, the larger and inner of the two natural satellites of Mars, is slowly being pulled apart by tidal forces and is expected to break up within the next 50 million years, says a team of planetary researchers led by Dr Terry Hurford of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Phobos is Slowly Being Torn Apart by Mars | Space Exploration | Sci-News.com


First and foremost, congratulations to the winners of the World Fantasy Award, and also to the finalists. Many splendid creations here.

Now this post will veer off in a highly personal direction, applying to no one but myself. I have read one of the winners and when I saw the title, I felt a little sick. Do not get me wrong -- the work absolutely deserved the award. It was highly original and superbly executed, a stellar addition to the field.

And it gave the the absolute shakes. There's no way I can see myself ever reading it again. Our local library got my copy.

I've talked with folks who write and love horror about my aversion to it, and I appreciate their point that horror gives us a way of regaining power over the things that terrify us. Once upon a time, I got a delicious thrill out of that adrenaline jolt and the weird, fascinating dark stuff. I don't anymore. I think my threshold has been permanently re-set, and the consequences of exceeding it are more tenacious.

So why am I not pushed over that edge by the violence in the Peter Jackson Middle Earth films? There's plenty of excitement and twenty ways to kill an orc, each sillier and bloodier than the one before, and characters I love in dire peril. Is it the fantastical setting? The characters, even nonhumans like Elves and Dwarves, don't feel unreal. Is it the knowledge that all will be well in the end, or as well as can be, given the price various characters play? I still cry at Boromir's death -- he didn't have a happy ending.

And yet, as I wrote in an earlier, watching the films, with all their flaws -- and also reading the books, albeit less vividly -- leaves me with a feeling of peace. Emotionally wrung-out, but brought to a good place by all the adventures I've gone along on.

Truly, we each see and read a different story. They are all colored by what we as individuals bring to them.

How I Became a Reader

Over on the Book View Cafe blog, sartorias describes her journey as a "passionate reader" (her phrase). She writes how a babysitter brought over a book that ignited that passion:
The story was everything I wanted: kids with no parents, girls getting to adventure as much as boys, no drippy patriotic or moral message in that inimical fifties way of “do what I say, but if you do what I do you’ll be in trouble,” funny stuff as well as action.

I suppose every one of us who loves books has a story. Here are some tidbits from mine. I'd love to hear yours, as well.

I am of an age when kids were expected to learn to read at school, usually in 2nd grade or so. Also, for some reason, I never went to kindergarten (and no one I knew went to preschool, not that my family could have afforded it). I got dumped into first grade with no prior school experience and spent the next couple of years absolutely confused. Reading was opaque to me. I remember struggling with the word "laugh." I just could not translate those letters into anything like a familiar word.

Then in the summer between 2nd and 3rd grades, I was given a discarded reader (3rd grade, I think). I remember the brightly colored pictures and stories I wanted to gobble up. The fairy tale about the hill of glass, and excerpts from books like Understood Betsy (the chapter where she and Molly get left behind at the fair and have to make their way home). These memories are mixed with the rocking chair in which I sat and the sun streaming through my bedroom window. I learned to read that summer because reading gave me entry into wonderful worlds, places I wanted to be, and people I wanted to know more about. I dove into the books on my own shelves. I think that by the time I entered 3rd grade, I was reading and a 5th or 6th grade level.

So what did I read in 5th and 6th grade?

Anything I could get my hands on!

By this time, I was checking out library books and snatching books from the shelves of the classrooms. I read Black Beauty and Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island and Stuart Little and Dr. Seuss. And anything with horses or dogs in it: The Black Stallion and the Albert Payson Terhune books featuring collies (Lassie -- the original version with Roddy MacDowell -- was very popular). It wasn't until high school that I tackled Crime and Punishment and then discovered Andre Norton, my gateway drug into fantasy and science fiction.

I don't remember how I came by that reader, but I am so grateful to whoever it was.

How and when did you fall in love with books?
It has often seemed to me that fans of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit) fall into two categories: those who adore Peter Jackson’s films and those who despise them. I fall into the former category and my husband into the latter. From our conversations, I have concluded that in most cases, it is impossible to change the other person’s mind (not to mention disrespectful to try). This is hardly a problem of cosmic importance, unless one person attempts to drag the other to all six extended cut versions of the movies or prevents the other person from enjoying them. Both sides put forth arguments and reasons, and they are entitled to them. I think just about everything that can be said has already been expounded upon.

I am firmly in the love-them camp. All the objections folks have are absolutely right, and have no relevance to my experience of the movies. The uncritical, immersive, “take me away” quality of my enjoyment of the films has definitely piqued my curiosity. What happens when I spend hours in Jackson’s Middle Earth?

In general, I am far less critical of visual media than of text. Because my own art form is prose, I have developed a keen internal editor and critic that may be regaled to the back seat but never entirely departs. I have no such filters for films or paintings. Only a horrifically bad film can destroy my suspension of disbelief, but horrifically bad films are enjoyable for quite different reasons than good ones.

I devoured Tolkien’s novels as a young adult, although I never wanted to run away to Middle Earth then. I found some aspects of the books frustrating: the “travelogue” passages were often tedious, I had no idea what Tom Bombadil was doing in the story, and I had trouble forming clear images of many of the places, for example Helm’s Deep. Nonetheless, I joined the ranks of fans wearing buttons that said “Frodo Lives!” and “Beware the Balrog.” I stood in line to see the films by Ralph Bakshi and Rankin-Bass (The Hobbit and The Return of the King), all of which I found unsatisfying. The hobbits and dwarves in the animated versions were silly, in bad need of haircuts, and the Bakshi film was just plain weird. The orcs looked like sabertoothed Sand People (from Star Wars), the Balrog was a costume from a bad opera, Boromir looked ridiculous in a Viking helmet, and none of the character moved in a natural way. Et cetera.

I had no idea who Peter Jackson was, but special effects had come a long way since the 1970s. Needless to say, I had excitement but not high hopes. I came prepared to see a live action version of the previous attempts. Five minutes into The Fellowship of the Ring, I was in love. The Jackson films “clicked” for me and brought the stories alive in ways that previous versions, even the original text, fell short.

This is not to say that everyone must feel the same way. Different media and different interpretations work for different people. I’m delighted that some folks prefer Tolkien’s text or even the animated versions. I am also delighted that this one form of presentation worked so well for me. When I go back and read the books, I can now immerse myself in the rich and varied landscapes of Middle Earth, and see and hear the characters.

After the extended editions of all three Ring movies came out on DVD (and I had watched all the commentaries and appendices), I set them aside. Every few years, however, I would watch them (3 movies over 2 days, usually, and when my husband – who is in the “doesn’t work for me” camp – was out of town). Either by happenstance or internal prompting, my schedule synchronized with the parole hearings of the man who raped and murdered my mother. That is, I’d gear up for the hearing, get re-traumatized no matter what precautions I took, come home and fall apart, and slowly put myself back together again. Some quality of the Jackson films spoke to me and offered itself as a healing tool.

I have some ideas of how this works. “Sanctuary” is one of them: a safe and glorious space, with companions who ensure I do not walk alone through the darkness. The defeat of evil when all hope is lost, with the crucial role of an act of mercy, a reminder to nurture my own capacity for compassion – for myself, for others. Lastly, the cathartic nature of the battle scenes.

This latter had not occurred to me until I was relating to an acquaintance that one of the ways I “let down” after a parole hearing was to watch the Jackson films. His response was that the films were way too violent for him (and he implied that exposure to violent scenes is in itself a destructive thing). As I thought about this, I realized that the re-triggering of past trauma, overlaid with new, painful revelations and the harrowing experience of entering a prison and seeing the perpetrator, left me saturated with feelings I had no way to discharge. Vigorous exercise was insufficient, and calming practices like yoga or meditation were too sedate. In years past, I practiced Chinese martial arts, particularly kung fu, but injuries and the absence of a studio ended that outlet 15 years ago.

On the other hand, if I allowed myself to enter into the world of the films, leaving my movie critic outside and immersing myself in the story, welcoming the psychological manipulation, I experienced a physical and emotional release. The length of the films gave me time to do this. The effect was to shorten the time of tension and restlessness. It was as if I had taken my own nightmares and thrown them into the fight scenes, and then done battle with them, with Aragorn and Gandalf and Eowyn and all the others at my side. And in the end, I came home with Sam to my own garden.

Now I can watch them – and The Hobbit movies as well – for escapist style entertainment, but there is always at least a hint of magic that lingers. The music has brought its own gifts, which I’ll share with you in a subsequent post.
Originally posted by spiziks at Aran and the Scammers

I was at the hardware store--my version of the shoe store--when I received a text from Aran: "I got a call from a computer company saying that there are errors on my laptop. They are getting rid of them, but the bad part is that the charge is $500."

I froze.  This was a scam.  I've heard of it.  I've gotten it.  A guy calls, claims to be from Microsoft, and says there are errors on the computer.  They'll fix them for a fee.  It's an obvious scam, simplicity in itself to spot--unless you're autistic and naturally trusting.

I called Aran.  "Did you give them your debit card number?"

"Yes," he said.

By now I was running toward the door.

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Tools for NaNoWriMo Participants!

What a resource! And to make it even better, you get my two essays in Book View Cafe's Brewing Fine Fiction -- one on how to write when there is no time, and one on surviving reviews...


BVC is delighted to be included in StoryBundle’s 2015 NaNoWriMo Writing Tools Bundle. Not only is ourBrewing Fine Fiction anthology part of the bundle, so are two additional guides by BVC members: Writing Horses by Judith Tarr and Writing Fight Scenes by Marie Brennan.

Never heard of StoryBundle? It’s where you can get fantastic ebooks at one low pay-what-you-want price. DRM-free means you can read them on just about all the devices you own, no matter who makes it.

– Pay the minimum $5 and get Brewing Fine Fiction plus five other great titles.
– Beat the bonus price ($13), and get seven more books including Writing Horses and Writing Fight Scenes.
– Opt into the 2nd tier bonus ($25) and get the 2014 NaNoWriMo bundle as well, for a total of twenty-five fantastic writing books!

Plus Bundle buyers have a chance to donate a portion of their proceeds to charity.

National Novel Writing Month happens every November. Thousands of writers all over the world take up the challenge to produce a novel in a month.

This toolkit offers great advice from a multitude of seasoned professionals including Kevin J. Anderson, Lawrence Block, Algis Budrys, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, and Al Zuckerman. Curator Kevin J. Anderson writes:

Here, to get you ramped up for the marathon, I’ve curated a baker’s dozen of instructional books on all aspects of writing, from craft, to productivity, to business, to career advice, to specific areas of expertise. Presenting, for the second year in a row, the NaNoWriMo Writing Tools StoryBundle: a massive batch of useful books that will help you survive—and thrive—during National Novel Writing Month—the full spectrum of useful information. You name your own price, whatever you feel this batch of books is worth, and part of the money you pay goes to help the supportive non-profit NaNoWriMo organization.

I put together these books from the general to the specific, a treasure chest of books vital to your success—not only in writing your novel but in launching your long-term career as a successful writer. This is a toolkit, a drill sergeant, a mentor, and a cheerleading section, all in one.

For complete details and to pick up your bundle, visit 2015 NaNoWriMo Writing Tools Bundle.

Book Release Day! (and an Introduction...)

I love reading "the stories behind the stories," so here are some background musings from the stories

in my new collection from Book View Cafe, Pearls of Fire, Dreams of Steel.


As I put together this collection of short fantasy fiction, I realized it comprises a retrospective of my writing career. Although it does not include my very first professional sale (“Imperatrix” in Sword & Sorceress), it spans the decades from novice to seasoned writer. To my delight, I found many of those early stories still spoke to me—delighted me—as much now as when I labored to create them. Often the output of a young writer will be justifiably relegated to the Trunk of Doom (hence the term “trunk stories”). When we’re learning new skills, we need to practice, and not all of those early experiments succeed. More than that, in order to grow as artists, we need to take risks, to “push the envelope,” even if it means falling flat on our faces, so to speak. But it does not follow that every early effort is best forgotten. Stories ignite within us, waiting to take shape on paper. Once we have acquired a certain basic level of craft, it no longer matters if this is our first sale or our fortieth. And one of the gifts of new publishing technologies is the ability to revive those stories, even from decades ago, so that new generations of readers can enjoy them.

“Storm God,” “Fireweb,” and “Dragon-Amber” all come from those early years, when I was trying out lots of new ideas. Astute readers will recognize a touch of a well-known American folk tale in “Storm God.” “Fireweb” was an early exploration of the “wounded healer” theme, and also taught me that whatever I thought a story was “about” when I started writing it, I was sure to be wrong; I developed the wisdom to let the “underneath” story tell itself. When I wrote “Dragon-Amber,” it seemed as if everyone and their cousin was writing stories based on Anne McCaffrey’s “Pern” series. True to my contrary nature, I insisted on something different. No oversized fire-breathing flying reptiles here, but a creature of magic nonetheless.

“Bread and Arrows” and “Nor Iron Bars A Cage” were written within a couple of years of one another. Both stories arose from a turning point in my life. When I wrote it, I had just moved from a large city to a redwood forest. I’d started a full-time day job to support myself and my younger daughter. It’s about new beginnings, and also making choices that close off other avenues. “Bread and Arrows” echoes “Summoning the River” (Transfusion and Other Tales of Hope) in its journey into a dark place, grappling with loss and mortality. I also wanted a different role for the charismatic, sexually attractive stranger; Celine looks beneath the handsome exterior to the suffering man, and draws compassion from her own struggle. And the bakery salamander was irresistible!

Sometimes readers ask where I get story ideas, and often I honestly have no idea. I suspect the Idea Fairy leaves packets of them under my pillow at night. For “A Hunter of the Celadon Plains,” however, I had been thinking about the place of women warriors in peoples of the steppe or plains. In Azkhantian Tales (later developed into The Seven-Petaled Shield trilogy), women used horsemanship and archery to compensate for lesser physical strength. In thinking of how the North American Plains peoples were able to hunt buffalo on foot, I kept the arrows but substituted long-distance running and superb tracking skills for the advantages of horses. Where the rat-thing that gnaws the bonds between worlds came from, I am not at all sure. Probably a nightmare.

Likewise, “Poisoned Dreams” came from a specific idea and then took off in its own direction. The Greek general Xenophon wrote (Anabasis) about a honey that intoxicated his soldiers: “A small dose produced a condition not unlike violent drunkenness, a large one an attack very like a fit of madness, and some dropped down, apparently at death's door.” How could an author resist? But one idea, not matter how bewitching in itself, does not a story make. Hence, the fairy who is crippled in body but not in capacity for malice. I leave it to the reader to decide whether she has just cause.

“Under the Skin” also explores the effects of festering hatred. I wrote it not too long after my mother had been raped and murdered, and I wrestled daily—sometimes hourly—with raging fury. I remembered Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot saying that if you invite evil into your heart, it will make a home there. The story first appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine and when Marion selected it for The Best of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, I sent her background notes for the introduction. “Are you sure you want to make such a personal issue public?” she asked, for the murder was not referenced in the original publication. I did and I do. The seductive nature of hatred thrives when kept in the dark. By putting words to page, the pain and anger lose their power over me, and others who suffer similar tragedies are invited along the healing journey.

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