Thanks for the ships, Melville!

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click through for source

Despite my landlubber life, I’ve always had a fascination with books about the sea. Maybe that’s part of why I love Melville so much.

It’s not surprising, then, that one of the earliest inventions of the world of Aerdh were the pirates. I’m certainly not the first person to write about a spec fic pirate  society, and I won’t be the last. The pirates of Aerdh figure heavily in the plot of The Search, the follow-up to Ariah that I’m currently writing.

For someone who loves worldbuilding, pirates are inherently fascinating. What does it mean to create a society that is inherently a society of outcasts? What sort of mores do they hold? For a society to survive, it has to last more than a generation, which means that children must be born and raised into it. What are the people indigenous to that way of life like? How do they see the world? How do they justify that their culture is, by definition, parasitic–for them to prosper, they must prey on other cultures. And what about the economies that spring up in the pirates’ wake? What are the moral grey zones there?

I’ve written about the pirates before, most notably in Cargo. One of the major secondary characters in The Search is a pirate king–defining the scope of his influence and how he wields it is enlightening. The Search is building out pirate culture above and beyond what was seen in Cargo, and I’m having a wonderful time exploring it.

Beyond the idea of the pirates themselves, with their potential for outlaw justice and redemptive arcs and sanctuary for marginalized individuals, there are the ships. Melville, in his books, used the microcosm that is life on a ship to great effect. I think I was always taken with that, with the way that ship life pens you in with a very limited number of people in a very proscribed amount of space. Ships are truly tiny little worlds of their own drifting through the maw of pure natural force.

Such a strange thing, and such a raw thing, and how could you not then forge such deep relationships with your crew? How could they not become your family? No one ever has neutral feelings about family. You only ever love them dearly or hate the sight of your family. Imagine spending all that time working a ship with someone you can’t stand, who annoys the shit out of you, but you know your life is basically in their hands. It’s maddening. The psychology of ships is insane. So, I keep coming back to them in my writing.

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ARIAH Countdown: ARIAH and Overlapping Timelines in Aerdh

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click through to pre-order!

As I’ve mentioned in other posts , Ariah is set in the same secondary universe—Aerdh—as many of my other pieces of fiction. If curious to see where Ariah fits in chronologically to those other pieces of Aerdh-based fiction, check out this handy timeline I made below!

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

The width of the boxes above corresponds to the timeline below: longer boxes mean the story covers more years. The height of the boxes corresponds to the word count of the piece: taller boxes mean the story took more words to tell.

The blue boxes are “canon” works—those which have been published or accepted for publication. I consider something canon when it’s accepted for publication because that’s the point at which I stop fiddling with it, and it becomes a fixed point in the world of Aerdh; these works serve as scaffolding, or the ‘bones’ of the other works.

The gray boxes are unpublished works that are ready or very nearly ready to be submitted for publication. They’re included to give you a sense of scope and the degree of overlap between my Aerdh-based fiction.

ARIAH Countdown: The Value of Magic

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click through to pre-order!

A defining trait of Ariah is the presence of magic. It’s a key element of the world of Aerdh, the book’s setting, and it’s a defining feature of the titular character. The fact that Ariah is, among other things, a magical creature, gets the narrative going—the book starts with him seeking out a mentor who will guide him to mastery over his magical gifts. Such training is traditional for Semadran elves like him, and his particular combination of gifts are rare enough that finding a suitable mentor takes him far from home. Ariah’s gifts are strong enough, formidable enough, that he eventually must take on a second mentor even farther from home to fully understand himself.

Writing fiction is an art defined by choice. So, what drove my choice to weave magic into this book, and to place it so prominently? What makes magic, as an idea, valuable to the reader? And what makes magic, as a fact in Ariah’s world, valuable to him and those around him?

The truth is that magic as an idea is only as valuable as I make it to the reader and to Ariah. It is a clear case of “show, don’t tell.” I can tell you it’s valuable—but unless I shore up that claim with worldbuilding and details and narrative tension then you, as the reader, won’t feel that value. It won’t add anything to your experience of the book.

For Ariah, the value of his magic is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it grants him great insight into those around him. It makes him prescient; it makes him astute. Given his social position as an elf in a Qin-led society, there is value in this. Anyone who has ever been marginalized knows that it pays to pay close attention to those in power. It’s always useful to be the most knowledgeable man in the room. Over the course of the book, his magic saves his life and others’ lives quite literally.

But there is a danger to his magic, too. As protective as his magic can be, the use of Ariah’s magic has the potential to get him arrested, impressed into military service against his will or rejected by friends and loved ones. The use of it sometimes comes at a steep cost for complex, layered reasons: issues of personal privacy, issues of cultural confusion and purity, issues of outright oppression. All of these things weigh on Ariah’s mind in the moments when he must decide when to use his magic and when not to.

For me, a recurrent theme in Ariah is the toll exploitation takes on marginalized people. This is best captured in the relationship the Qin Imperials have towards the Semadran elves’ magic—they use it, constantly, to improve the Empire, but berate it, constantly, as unclean and impure. Elves with a facility for what is called patternwork (something akin to real-world engineering) are assigned work in research laboratories and paid a pittance to design bigger, better factories and military machinery. Those elves continue to live in the ghettos while the Qin profit off their magically influenced creations. Ariah and his mentor, Dirva, get work as linguists, helping to translate in diplomatic parleys between far-flung ambassadors. That Ariah and Dirva know these languages and can learn them extremely quickly due to their magical biological wiring only seems to matter functionally insomuch as it means they can be paid very little.

The Qin have evolved religious reasons why magic is impure. Rationales always spring up to explain away injustices and support the status quo; this is a social fact. By the time Ariah tells his story, these rationales have been ensconced in law, codified and enshrined. His life is structured such that the Qin are able to get the maximum value out of his magic while he reaps the least amount of profit from it—because he is impure for having magic in the first place.

But magic, because it so totally shapes how Ariah perceives and relates to the world around him, also becomes a primary means of his small acts of resistance against the system exploiting him. In the doing, Ariah exists in that tension between the value and the danger of his magic for much of the book.

ARIAH Countdown: Fez and Rabatha

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click through to pre-order!

Much of Ariah is set in the capital city of the Qin Empire, Rabatha. This is where Ariah receives his training with his mentor Dirva. This is where Ariah inevitably returns—twice—after living elsewhere. This is, for a long time, where Ariah calls home.

Rabatha is a bustling city, a place of great political clout, nestled in the heart of the desert Empire. It is an urbane city: universities, libraries, art galleries, exotic markets, the very first clockwork train station. It is the jewel of the Empire. And it also has ghettos.

Ariah, because the Qin have deemed his skills useful to a point, is able to catch glimpses of both sides of Rabatha. He lives in the Semadran districts, but he works in the Qin areas, so he sees this contrast between how his people are forced to live compared to the Qin.

Ariah’s experience of Rabatha is very loosely based on my own experience living, for a

Fez New City (click through for source)

Fez New City
(click through for source)

short time, in Fez, Morocco. I spent time there as a study abroad student in a program focused on cultural psychology; half the time in the program was spent there, and the other half of the time was spent in Tartu, Estonia. It was an immersion program—we learned what we could of the languages (I was terrible at that) and had homestay placements. We took history courses and modern culture courses. We were mostly white college students, and we were cultural tourists, and we bore our immense privilege on our sleeves most of the time. I am exceedingly grateful for the experience.

Fez Medina (click through for source)

Fez Medina
(click through for source)

Morocco stuck with me. It has a deep and fascinating history—every place does. But something about it really stuck with me. My homestay placement was with a family who lived in the new part of the city, the part of the city that had been built by the colonial French. They lived in a beautiful modern apartment—top floor, overlooking the entire city, with a beautiful view of the mosques with their reaching minarets. I remember the building had a doorman. I remember feeling some class shock at that growing up the way I did in the States. I spent most of my time in the medinas, the old city, with its winding narrow streets with walls so high it seemed always in perpetual twilight. The medina was the original Fez, but when the French took the city they forced the Moroccans to move there—all of them. It became a ghetto. It still is a ghetto; the people there are uniformly poorer than the family I stayed with. Poorer and more traditional—the women there wore hijabs; the women in the family I stayed with did not.

Fez Mellah (click through for source)

Fez Mellah
(click through for source)

But it gets more complicated than that. If you dig further into the medina, you find the mellah. There was a period when Jews lived in Morocco, and at that time, they were forced into ghettos of their own, these small pockets of blue-washed walls where they were separated from the rest of the population. They are haunting places.

I think about these evolving relationships—new city, old city; new city, medina, mellah—quite frequently still, ten years later. It was this complexity I wanted to capture in the fictional city of Rabatha.

New Pub: “Matters Of Scale” released by Inkstained Succubus Press!

Matters of Scale cover

I’m thrilled to announce that my novelette, “Matters Of Scale”, has been published as a stand-alone work by Inkstained Succubus Press! The issue is available for purchase here, and I encourage y’all to check it out! Here’s a synopsis of the story to whet your appetite:

Moshel has hidden himself away for years, trying to keep the emotions of others from driving him mad. It’s in mechanics alone that he can find relief, the reliable tick of clockwork his escape. It’s only when he meets his counterpart, Tovah, that he realizes all may not be as it seems in his world, and there may be a way to change it. It’s all a matter of scale.

First, many thanks to the lovely folks over at Inkstained Succubus. I was thrilled to work with them again! I wrote this story as a response to a call Inkstained put out for steampunk short stories about a year ago, and when I hear steampunk, I think clockworks, and when I think clockworks, I think about the Semadran elves in Aerdh, my secondary fantasy universe. And no Semadran elf is more Seamdran than Moshel Atoosa’Avvah.

Moshel was formally introduced in my debut novel, Resistance but I have been writing him as long as I have been writing fiction. Moshel is the very first character I fleshed out on my own, and his is the very first novel that I wrote by myself. It was terrible–maudlin and overwrought, and it will never see the light of day. But I cut my teeth on him. Over and over. And he’s evolved as I have evolved.

In his formal introduction in Resistance, readers meet Moshel as a middle-aged man, someone who knows himself well, who has figured out who he is and what he wants. He still has room to grow, to surprise himself, but he is a man in control of himself. In “Matters Of Scale”, Moshel is not there yet. He is young yet, just barely out of adolescence, and still grappling with the weight of his own mind. In Resistance, Moshel is an almost paternal figure for Shandolin–gracious and supportive and competent. But he wasn’t always like that. He chides her for being brash, but I’ve written him so long…I know Moshel. I know he had a brashness, once, too. And I saw a call for steampunk, and thought about clocksprings, and then I thought about Moshel, but young and out of control and struggling.

I’m glad this episode in Moshel’s history has come to light. I wonder what other bits and pieces of him have yet to surface.

On Finishing THE INCOMING TIDE

TheIncomingTide_wordle

According to my meticulously kept daily writing records, I started planning out The Incoming Tide last October two days after finishing Extraction. The records show fairly steady work on it, interrupted now and again for a burst of short stories or focused edits on other projects further down the publishing pipeline. Still, I didn’t finish the first draft of The Incoming Tide until May 22nd. It clocked in at 70k words, which is on the slim side for a novel. It took me seven months to crank out 70k words. Maybe that’s not slow, but it certainly felt slow to me—Ariah is a hefty 128k words and I wrote it in a little under three months. Ariah is nearly twice as long and took half the time, so what gives?

The Incoming Tide was an altogether different beast. Ariah was a second draft. It was a substantively rewritten second draft, but still it was a second draft. I knew the characters. I knew the shape and color of the narrative. I knew, in short, what I was writing. So there’s that: first drafts feel different, and for me, they often take a little more time to get out. And, actually, referring once again to my copious records, The Incoming Tide is the only first draft of a novel I’ve written since I started trying to get my work out there. Everything else had been rewrites. Extraction, the volume preceding Tide in the Tale of Rebellion series, is on its fourth draft.

But it was more than that. Tide felt sometimes hard to write. I felt a weird pressure while living in that book. Drafting and redrafting and redrafting Extraction meant that I could never quite move past it. Tide was like a light at the end of that tunnel. Tide was the promised land. It’s strange, you know, getting finally to that blinding light. It takes awhile for your eyes to adjust. It took me some time to find the rhythm of Tide, to find the style and voice of it.

Of course as soon as I finished Tide I started planning the follow-up book, The King and His Makers. Of course I did. But I’ve taken a couple of weeks off from it to queue up blog posts, to work on edits for Ariah, to ponder life. A little bit of space, I think, will take the edge off and make the first draft of King a little less scary.

Call for Beta Readers: EXTRACTION & THE INCOMING TIDE

Hi friends!

I’m looking for a few brave and candid beta readers to provide feedback on the first two novels in a series. I’m sketching out the third novel in the series, and I’m 99% sure there will be a fourth volume as well. Leave a comment or use the form below if you’d like to get in on the ground floor of this series!

extraction_wordle

Times are desperate for the red elves: a generation of rebellion has brought them nothing but a decimated population and a shrinking army plagued with low morale. Dealing with heavy losses and now out of options, the elvish captains retreat to devise a new strategy which just might turn the tide of the war to their favor. While the captains bicker about theoretical tactics, their beleaguered soldiers are left behind to hold off the Lothic Army.

EXTRACTION follows the Cardinal’s Clutch: last fighting band of elvish guerrilla strikers left on the front lines. Old loyalties are sorely tested when their captain, Li, returns with orders for a suicidal mission. As the strikers of the Clutch travel across mountains, through deserts and back into a country that would see them dead, three of Li’s soldiers—the young and ruthless interim captain Rethnali, the bitter medic Sellior, and Li’s old friend and confidant Vathorem—begin to suspect this last mission is not what it seems.

Set in the unique and finely realized fantasy universe of Aerdh, EXTRACTION is the first of a series of books about the Lothic Elvish Rebellion. EXTRACTION is about the toll of war, the price of loyalty, and the cost of building a better future.

TheIncomingTide_wordle

As hard as guerrilla warfare on her own turf was, negotiating with pirates is far worse. Following the events of EXTRACTION, Rethnali finds herself and her crew mired in deadly pirate politics, surviving a sea voyage and finally laying siege to an unsuspecting port city. Lives are lost and new lives come into the world. Friendships splinter, and new ones blossom in their place. Everything changes.

Set in the unique and finely realized fantasy universe of Aerdh, THE INCOMING TIDE is a completed fantasy novel 70,000 words in length and the second in a series of books about the Lothic Elvish Rebellion. THE INCOMING TIDE is about victory, grief, and hope.

Writing EXTRACTION – entry 11

so many questions!!

so many questions!!

This is the eleventh in a series of posts about the redrafting process of THE LONG ROAD which will be composed and published as I rewrite the book. The other posts in this series are here.

I know I’m getting close to the end of a piece when I start brainstorming for the next one. Unlike in my personal life, in terms of writing I am a serial monogamist: slavishly devoted to one piece…for a while. I can see them through the end, but as the story wraps itself up I get a wandering eye*. And so it is with The Long Road rewrites (which I’ve tentatively titled Extraction.

I’ve been working steadily on the manuscript. Between a particularly hectic period at work and a particularly hectic period at home I haven’t had much of a chance to blog about the rewrites, but they’ve been going well—lots of bus writing, you know. The draft will definitely need a second pass to clean up characterization and clarify themes, but the draft looks really solid. I’d been shooting for a rewrite which streamlined the previous draft down from a sprawling 150K word novel to a tighter 70K word young adult novel. Parallel storylines were jettisoned, the cast of characters was pared down. I’m entering the last section of the book at the 63K word mark, so I’m right on schedule.

But is it a young adult book? That part I don’t know. YA seems to me a slippery construct, probably in no small part due to the fact that I was a precocious reader who read frankly inappropriate stuff quite early. I’ve read most of the YA books I have as a fully-fledged pushing-thirty adult. I guess what I mean to say is that I set out to rewrite this book as one I would have wanted to read as a young adult (which is what, when you’re 14? 15ish?). But there’s part of me that suspects that if I tried to shop this around as a YA novel it would be deemed too adult. There’s some drugs in it, and not all of them are portrayed in a DARE-ish JUST SAY NO kind of way. Addiction is explored somewhat. There’s sex in it, some of it fairly explicit (though there are plot reasons for that). All the sex is consensual, a lot of it is queer, and all of it is of the positive life-affirming variety, even when it’s not a 1:1 match with love. There’s surprisingly little violence in the book. This seems appropriate to me.

But then I think about The Hunger Games. Those books are all violence, no sex. Some chaste kisses, that’s it, though kids get gutted and torn apart by genetically mutated dogs. Somehow that’s more ok for young minds to read than two women having heartfelt and thoroughly enjoyable sex together? I don’t know. It makes no sense to me. Which is not to knock The Hunger Games at all—I love those books. They are fantastic, and they explore a lot of ideas about PTSD and heroism and propaganda that I think are absolutely appropriate for young adults. But America, with its Puritanical streak, is so much more ok with kids reading vicious ciolence than positive portrayals of sexuality. It just so strange.

Ultimately I’m not sure it matters much one way or another. Hopefully this book will find its audience, and its audience will probably be some adults and some young adults. I think it will probably get out there through a small press, likely not one with a particular focus on YA lit, so this is probably all a moot point. But it’s food for thought.

*I’ll expand on this in another post soon. YOU GUYS I’M VERY EXCITED ABOUT THIS ONE.

Writing in seclusion

IMG1156

a rustic tea-fueled two-person writing retreat

I’m on vacation right now, which I very much needed. I am on vacation visiting a friend whose taste in books is very nearly completely compatible with mine, and who is as much of an introvert as me. Being with her is sublimely restful. She had been considering a trip to a remote cabin in the woods, and I sort of gently invited myself along, which (it turned out) she was sort of hoping I would do. So, I flew out to Chicago, and we rented a little red car, and I drove us to the Wisconsin woods next to the Mississippi River. The cabin was twenty miles away from any cell phone reception and had electricity adequate to power my laptop but no distracting internet connection. We returned to civilization yesterday and are now in a re-entry to society day where we’re pleasantly sitting in her apartment with her cat and watching Foyle’s War and eating oreos. Tomorrow I return to Denver and my family and my job, and I’ll return restored and replenished and feeling more like myself than I have in weeks.

We didn’t do much in the cabin. We sat around drinking coffee and tea with vegan marshmallows in our hot, caffeinated beverages and talked a lot about feelings and parenthood and Supreme Court decisions and The Iliad. At one point we ventured outside to meander up a dry creek bed, but we were both stoned and neither of us navigated the rocks there with any sort of competence, so our excursion was short-lived. Really nothing happened but the tea drinking and the talking and reading and watching fireflies and some writing, but that was perfect, and the Wisconsin woods was a prefect place to be doing that particular kind of nothing.

And the writing–travelling, for some reason, brings a focus to me and makes it extremely easy to write. I rarely find it difficult to write, but there’s something about the solitude of travelling alone and the distance from the every day grind that lets my mind drift into that little writing pocket with virtually no effort. I wrote 2,349 words on the plane on the way to Chicago. I wrote another 8,772 words in the cabin itself. It was effortless writing, and it was an ideal time for some effortless writing because I managed to establish the voices of my POV characters. My friend doesn’t read my writing. She’s generally interested and we talk about writing in the abstract, and we read the same books at the same time(ish) quite frequently, but I’ve never asked her to read anything of mine and she’s never asked to read anything of mine. I think it was better this way. There are times I very much want someone around invested in what I’m writing, pushing me to get it out, wanting to consume it as much as I want to create it. And there are times I want to create things in a private, hidden bubble. I think the lack of expectation involved in writing around a friend who is not a fan of mine helped the writing.

All of this is to say that the writing for A TALE OF REBELLION is clipping along.

Writing Snippet: A TALE OF REBELLION

Idle hands while I wait for a response from the editors on RESISTANCE means I’m working again on the rewrites of THE LONG ROAD, which I’ve tentatively retitled A TALE OF REBELLION. Here’s a snippet of something I wrote yesterday:

Vath worked the compound’s washing with a young woman named Siddah. She was small and wiry, free with smiles, curious and uncomplicated. She was, like every other red elf but Vathorem, a compulsive talker, and she kept up a steady and largely one-sided conversation as they worked. “I’ve never been nowhere but the valley,” she said. “Bardonner born and raised. A body forgets there’s a world out there beyond the peaks. You all, you must be from all over.”

“From here and there,” Vath said.

Siddah grinned at him. She bestowed these pleased, delighted grins on him when he spoke. She had a giddy, contagious enthusiasm, and he found that since she weren’t asking anything of him, since she weren’t trying to suss him out, since she seemed simply pleased to have his company, that he didn’t mind her chatter. It was a lovely change of pace for him, to be stuck with someone happy and untroubled, someone who had, perhaps, never known panic. She kept on. “Where are you lot from? Rethnali, I didn’t know her or nothing. I’m young, right. I know she’s from here, but I didn’t know her myself. But the rest of you, you all must be from all over! From the flatlands. From the cities! And you all found each other in the forest and stuck together. Like a song, it is. Sort of…romantic. You think?”

“Far less romance than you’d guess,” Vath said. And then he remembered the way Fenner was forever trailing after Rethnali, and the way Sellior was forever pining over Fenner, and he laughed. “Well, there’s a bit of romance to it, I guess.”

Siddah dropped her washing in the tub of soapy water. She leaned across it, conspiratorial and curious. “Oooh, is it that tall one with the pale hair and that boy in mourning? Is that the romance?”

“Par and Selli? No. It’ll be some time before Par’s going down that road. Deep in mourning, that one. Lost his girl and he’s drowning in guilt.”

“That’s sad,” Siddah said. She plucked the sheet out of the tub and clucked her tongue.

“Mostly it’s sad stories, what we have, and not romantic ones,” Vath said.

“But you all, you’re heroes!” Siddah said. “Everyone round here says so.”

“If you really listen to heroes’ tales,” Vath said, “you’ll find they’re riddled through with a wicked sadness, each and every one.”

The girl frowned. She beat the sheets against a boulder. Vath could feel brewing in her a disquiet. She stopped and wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her arm. “If it’s all such wicked sadness,” she asked, “then what’s the point of fighting?”

Vath laughed.

Siddah looked over at him and smiled. “You laughing at me, soldier?”

“No, girl,” said Vath. “I’m laughing at me.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” she said.

“There’s no answer to it. Or there’s a thousand answers to it, and not a one is satisfactory.” Vath sat on the rocky ground and cracked his knuckles. “The reasons we started fighting aren’t the reasons we’re still at it. Some of us ain’t got nothing but fight left in us. Some of us don’t know nothing but the fight.”