Wednesday, December 31, 2008


This is one of those things I don’t know how other writers do, or what they feel about it. One of those scary things at the intersection of mind and story, where I have nothing at all to go on except my own experience.

Years ago, when I was a very beginning writer I took a workshop with the Oregon Writers Network. One of the things the teachers told me then was that sometimes you’d be writing and suddenly find yourself in the kitchen, polishing your silverware or doing something equally unneeded.

At the time they told me this wasn’t necessarily the block, and not necessarily a sign that I should change something about the way I worked. I understood that. But I didn’t understand what the symptom would be in me.

Oh, I have my days of being in the kitchen, polishing silverware. And I’ve talked about how I go through entire weeks when my toilets and catboxes are sparkling clean, because even those tasks are infinitely preferable to facing the empty computer screen and coaxing the words onto the page, one by one, by one.

But that in me is block – block of one sort or another. Block in me usually manifests in the form of second guessing every word I write and rarely, very rarely, in the form of not being able to write at all.

What my teachers then were talking about wasn’t block. And I didn’t realize what it was, nor how I behave when confronted with it until this week.

What they were talking about – I think, if I understood them correctly – were those moments where stories form in the mind and flow onto the page, so clear, so pure so... loud that it’s as if they existed all along, somewhere else. As if they’ve waited for years – centuries – for someone to be their voice and have now found you.

In our universe of rationality and in my mind – a mind of which I like to be in control, thank you very much – this is a scary feeling. It is, in fact, a terrifying one. And though I know the stuff that flows like that is coming from me – I presume from my subconscious – and that it is often, if not always, very good, it scares me out of my wits.

And then suddenly I find the need to write another story, to start another novel. Anything, anything, to avoid facing that story, flowing clear and pure through my mind.
In the new year, I have only one resolution – to face the story unabashed and ride it where it takes me, even if it terrifies me.

Does this mean I won’t write other stories? That there will be only one?

No, only that there will be only on at a time, and that I’ll do my best to face it without blinking. And if I fail sometimes, to get back to it. To try again.

That is also my wish for all my readers – that you may face your dreams unabashed, and pursue them unflinchingly in the new year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


What makes a movie/book/painting/song unforgettable?

Is it the brilliant ideas?

Is it the acting/writing/brush-work/musical technique?

You need technique, but only to make the artifice of construction invisible.

Looking back there are movies that have stayed with me for thirty years, paintings that have haunted me, books that I have finished and then wondered about the characters' fate, as if they were friends, and music that moves me no matter how many times I hear it. And it is not the technique that makes it memorable.

I believe it is the emotion. The four creative mediums are very different. Music seems to bypass logical thought and play straight to the emotions. Some paintings have left me with images that seeped into my subconscious so that they become part of the way I filter the world. Some movies combined images, music and dialogue to create characters and capture their dilemmas in such a way that I was captured. Some books have done this with nothing but words.

If, several days later, I am still in that book's head space, still engaging with the characters, then they have become real to me.

What makes a creative work unforgettable? I think it's the ability to bypass thought and engage us on an emotional level, to make us think and to make us wonder.

It's been a long day. I've spent the last week trying to do a final read-through on my Shallow Sea book. I don't know if it is working. I've had so many interruptions (kids and school holidays), and I've read it so many times that I'm blind to it now. All I can see are construction tools of my writing craft.

That's why I need to finish the book and put it in front of my writing group, ROR. They'll come to it fresh. They'll tell me what works and what doesn't. And because they are fellow writers, they'll make suggestions to help me use the tools of our craft to improve it.

One day I'd like to write something unforgettable. Until then, I'll keep trying.

Cheers, Rowena.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Sex, altruism and the working writer

The subject of sex ratios of college entrants came up on a list I participate in. (For anyone who didn’t know: sex ratios entering college having historically been skewed toward males, have from IIRC 1991 (US) and 1992 (UK) gradually become more female than male. There was quite a good UK government research paper showing this is directly related to school results). Now obviously (you’d think) reading and tertiary education -- or at least the potential to take part in it -- are strongly correlated. And of course reading and education have so many added benefits beyond the obvious, that for any society both are a huge benefit. The various sides of the discussion ranged from those who were proposing ways to alter the situation (both male and female) to a couple of women who where finding every possible rationalisation why the status quo was just fine (or possibly despite the figures, the situation didn’t exist). The discussion moved on to why there were so many male participants in Physics and Computer Science, and the deliberate exclusion of women. Once again the discussion’s sides ranged from those who looked for ways to increase participation (both male and female) to one male who defended the status quo.

Now I was lucky enough back at University to have a very Germanic Professor of Ichthyology. Tom believed all nice boys should be ichthyologists. He believed all nice girls should be ichthyologists. Actually he believed that the not nice ones too could instantly become nice if they wanted to study fish. If you could show him that you loved fish he would move heaven and earth and indeed even the apartheid government for you. Yet he was not capable -- outside of insisting you loved fish -- of showing any favoritism. The subject was what mattered not your skin color or sex. It was all about FISH. He taught us a lot outside of fish, all the same. (The other valuable life lesson was to take your trousers right off if you go into the bushes in wild country to relieve yourself. When pursued by a hippo or black mamba who happens to be in the same bushes, running with them around your ankles is a serious impediment. Better trouserless than dead)

Back in the bad old days of apartheid you could tell very precisely what a white south African’s level of education (and hence job security) by what their attitude to maintaining white privilege was. Professionals wanted it to go. The ‘got the job because I’m white’ foreman would find you a hundred examples of why black people were inferior and maintaining the status quo was all that stood between civilization and barbarism. Seventeen years on you see the same with affirmative action. Of course, both now and then, some people rise above this, look at the bigger picture, or... are just good people. You can guarantee the ones fighting for the status quo to be maintained are the those who feel threatened (or their ideals or friends threatened, knowing they stand on fragile ground). The rest, well, they’re willing to accept or even foster a challenge to that status quo. (BTW this most certainly not a Liberal/Conservative in the political sense split. You will find altruists who are conservative politically and plenty of protectionist status quo-ers who come from political left. And vice versa of course. It’s about self-confidence and, indeed, selfishness, rather than ideology.)

I have found this applies very strongly to writing. I’ve met a few of the kind who are self-centred and insecure and try to put you down or discourage you. And then there are the others. People who put the love of what they do first. I was lucky enough to have my first ventures into the US (via the Internet) met by the latter (after my brush - by post - with the former in the UK (yes, UK publishing is still on my shit-list)) to run into Eric Flint. At that stage Eric was not a long way above me on the writing tree (he was poised for a big leap) but he was anything but protectionist and worried about his status quo. He gave hugely of his time and attention to get me going. I’ve tried to do the same with a bunch of others (you simply can’t do for everyone - but you can be supportive). The story repeats itself through many different authors. And occasionally of course you meet the other kind. Don’t be put off by them. Writing is hard. Getting published harder. But... if someone like me can do it, you can too. And if you need a motivation when your turn comes around to pay forward: besides the satisfaction of pushing forward the writing which you love, you’re showing you’re not a loser.

Oh, and always remember to take your trousers right off, if you might have to run for it.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sunday Snippet!

"The Prostitute's Escape"

by Jennifer Stevenson

On his first visit, the merchant was a model client. He set a box of precious stones on the prostitute's lap. "The manners of your city, wherever that good place may be, are fair. Or are they your own?" said Monatin. Cash down payment she usually got, coldly offered. "And you don't know yet who you want?" He would want her. No sense handing this over to one of the girls.

Sunlight fell on her through the ceiling lattice, so that her reed-green dress phosphoresced in patches and her hair burned a richer mahogany. Monatin ran her fingers through the gems. "You are generous." She played with a ruby, letting its bloody light spill over her fingertips. "How may I please you?" The ruby ran into her palm like a drop of crimson mercury, quivering, seeking a low place in her flesh. She smiled down at it with lowered lashes.

"I can't resist you in that color. You must always wear green!" he said huskily, drawing her to him.

Her mouth worked over him inch by inch. "For you," she murmured, "I will always wear green."

He stayed a day and a night, as he had paid for.


"Not that dress--the other. The one you wore when we met." He found it not always easy to talk to her. She could hear anything, he felt, and forgive. Some nights, his whole life seemed to stream out of his mouth on stinking air and, where it hung about their bodies, was made sweet. What stuck in his throat was that he had come that first day to buy someone, anyone, and had changed his mind. It made him ashamed. Secret treasure had entered his heart in that most artificial of transactions. He could not afford to lose sight of it. To praise her was to purify that first shameful motive. To pay was the other half of honor, for he was first and last a merchant. Yet paying reminded him of his sin. His heart was renewed every night on a thorn.

Monatin knew all there was to know about love. Since her initiation, men had poured out all the pretty speeches there are. The merchant's was no mystery. She was a mirror to his soul. She showed him what was sacred and beautiful in the world through a veil made of her body. She smiled on him and the sun becurdled his unquiet mind until he basked like a lizard, empty and worshipful, in the place at the center of all things. If he had written her passionate poetry she could not have known more--it took some that way, though not him. Her merchant expressed himself in cash, fine horses and slaves, unset gems, and gifts of an intimate ornamental nature. Monatin found him oddly sweet. His directness touched her where no poem would.

She knew what men wanted most from her, each one with his private hunger, and as a matter of business she gave it.

What he wanted from her was growing inconveniently big. With the gifts now came worship, his imagination making of her personal self both the temple and the goddess.


"I have built something for you," he cried. "You must come, you must see it, and I you, in the most perfect setting for your perfection."

She bit her lip. Leave town? With his command came a bottle of perfume so expensive that the bottle itself would pay her taxes for the year. So she scented herself with the perfume, put on the reed-green dress, and took a chair to his house in the country.

The chair passed under humid cathedral arches festooned with trailing moss, through rings of white villas like wedding cakes for grander and grander weddings. Turbaned men moved their goats from the road to let her pass. Red women, leathered and beaded to the eyebrows, stared her out of countenance. The afternoon rain came down like a kiss on golden fields of enormous aromatic leaves, burnishing the shoulders of her chair-bearers and wetting the hem of the reed-green dress when she leaned out to smell the air.

The merchant met her at a gate of black iron contorted like grapevine. "You are on my property from here on," he said, and she thought she heard him correctly, to her indignation. Though she smiled, her eyes narrowed. "Come, I'll show you!" he cried.

On his property a wood, and in the wood a clearing, and in the clearing a garden, and in the garden a pool of ornamental water, and in the pool a shrine of white marble like a tomb or temple. Together they crossed the tiled causeway into the temple. Sunshine poured out of a lattice in the ceiling upon a chair placed just so.

"You are the sun and moon, Monatin! You give meaning to all of life! I will inebriate myself on your wit, I will prostrate myself in your wisdom! When I die, I will come to inhabit the great house of your soul, room upon room of goodness and mercy, the beginning of truth and the end of justice! I will contemplate you and be purified!"

You will pay through the nose for this, my friend, she thought, how did I let him get me out here in the middle of a holiday weekend? The girls at the putatorium would be raising the devil without her supervision.

Paid he had however so she sat, with the faithfulness of her trade, just as he desired, and let the sun cascade over her red-brown hair and the jewels pour into her lap. She did all his favorite things on the very hard marble couch in the shrine. Afterward, in the pool, he lay his head on her belly and told her all about his sin, and she forgave him with a wry smile he could not see. It was stale news to her that a man might pay happily, or love happily, but never both.

When she got back to the city that night, there was a party smashing furniture in the side parlor, the cook had quit, and a girl huddled in tears on the mezzanine, having accepted offers of marriage from two separate drunken young noblemen who had then refused to pay her until their duel for her hand had been settled.

"This cannot go on," Monatin said.

She was not a stupid woman, nor was this merchant the first troublesome admirer in her career. Over the next months she let him make her further into the woman he loved, and of course also the woman to whom he would give the most--business was business. By this means she contrived her escape. When he covered her with trinkets, she incorporated them into the straps and fringes of her dress. When he put precious combs in her hair, wound priceless silken scarves around her zone and gold chains around her ankles and wrists, she made sure to wear them all, every one, whenever they were together. His cash gifts increased. Monatin measured them carefully against the losses inevitable in the cost of doing business, which she more and more clearly foresaw.

His obsession increased in power. He now knew her for Keeble, for Duve, for Ocean. Every gesture was a divine message to him, so that merely by walking across the room to pour wine for him she tangled him in a welter of sweet inarguable commandments, which he must needs explain to her at length. He bought huge blocks of her time, so that she had to put off several of her regular customers. He was difficult and superior with her political patrons. She had a hovering dread of his confronting the tax collector in her defense.

Still she did her work well. She wore the reed-green dress at all times, scented with his gift of perfume. She was careful always to dress her hair alike to the way she wore it on that first, most wonderful day of his life. She made sure to sing the same songs, perform her professional duties similarly, finally to say only certain words to him, like a priestess handing down a liturgy to her parishioner, faithfully every time they met.

"Never leave me, Monatin! You are my life, you are all that is real!"


One day, a year from the day of their first meeting, he entered her private room to find a strange woman in the bonnet of a servant standing before a screen with folded arms.

"Where is Monatin?" he demanded. "Why is her chair concealed?"

The woman, plain and middle-aged, hoary-headed and thick about the waist in her housekeeping robe, said sternly, "She is gone."

"Gone!" he cried, the long-anticipated grief sinking into his breast like a grateful spear.

"She left this for you, and you alone," said the woman. Setting the screen aside with soft white hands, she left the room.

It was the reed-green dress. It lay over her chair with the sun sparkling on its many trinkets, all known to him, and the costly scarves wound about its zone, smelling of his gift of perfume. The so-familiar anklets and bracelets were there, and most wonderful and terrible of all, the combs he had presented to her, binding a great coiled lock of mahogany-colored hair, still smelling unbearably of her skin, his private doorway to heaven.

The merchant never visited the putatorium again. Possessed by a contented melancholy, he took away the reed-green dress and all its many parts, and put it in its temple on his country estate, draped across the marble chair just so. And when he died perhaps that is indeed the heaven into which he entered.

The prostitute sold the bottle with the remains of the perfume still in it, along with the unset gems, the horses and slaves, and the gold casket he had given her to keep his gifts in. Not counting cash payments that went for overhead, and after taxes, it put his account just over the line into the black. There is such a thing as doing the job far better than the market requires, indeed, too well. Sometimes, however, it is unavoidable.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Lucy's Blade

My very first novel in mass market paperback format, Lucy's Blade", has been published this Xmas by Baen. It is a strange sensation. I first wanted to be a novelist back in my early teens. I devoured Saint stories, James Bond, Len Deighton, Modesty Blaise and a wonderful sixties spy series called the Bang Bang Birds - or something similar. In a long and varied career, I have had published more than seventy five scientific research papers, three popular history books, a couple of radio plays, half a dozen computer games and many, many articles aboutgame playing - but never a novel.

So here we are, forty years on from when I lay in the sun in my family's back garden in Newquay reading a purloined thriller from my mum's collection and I have a paperback under my own name.

You know, the most important quality for success in life is persistence.

I have just finished my sixth short story for a Baen anthology. It's called "Beauty is a Witch" and features an anti-hero, the crooked, devious wicca, Rosalynne.

You can find a free extract of "Lucy's Blade" here:

If you want to be a writer, write!

John Lambshead

Friday, December 26, 2008

Boxing Day

Lots of traditions are associated with Boxing Day. The one I remember is that of the nobility boxing up the leftovers from the Christmas feast to give to the poor or to their servants, depending on who's telling the story.

These aren't exactly leftovers, but they're fond memories of the holiday season. They're also grist for the writer's mill.

Earlier this month my husband and I took a quick trip to Carlsbad, New Mexico, with a couple of friends to view the Christmas on the Pecos light show. This is a one hour boat cruise along a stretch of water that’s not actually part of the Pecos River. It’s surrounded by beautiful homes, most of them with beautiful light displays.

I found out just how hard it is to take photos at night from a moving boat. The full moon floated overhead, as if to say that no matter how much effort man puts into light displays, Mother Nature can’t be beat.

Before heading home the next morning, we drove down to Carlsbad Carverns to take the Left Hand Tunnel tour. This is a guided walking tour by lantern light. On the way in, the only light we were permitted was that of the candle lanterns issued to each of us. This is the way the cave’s first explorer, Jim White, saw it, except that he was alone and instead of a candle lantern, he had a coffee pot full of oil with a rope for a wick.

Our guide, Ranger Rick (I kid you not), was terrific and reassuring from the start. Before the tour began, the lights in the cave went out a few times due to high winds up top. I was glad we were going to have our own lanterns. Glad to be in the calm, pleasantly cool cavern, too, instead of being buffeted by 60 mph winds.

The footing in the tunnel was rough and we had to help each other avoid obstacles. Ranger Rick told great stories about the filming of a bad TV movie (Gargoyles) in the tunnel in the 70s, and a hostage situation that also took place in Left Hand Tunnel that I'd never heard of.

On the way out we could take flash pictures, including these of drapery and a stalagmite. It was fun, if a little scary at times. I would do it again in a hot second.

(PS—I still have 2009 year-at-a-glance calendars. Send me your mailing address and I'll send you one for free.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

But the dog DID eat my homework

This is not exactly a post to say there is no post. Not exactly, because of course I am posting. It is however very close to that.

I have been battling a horrible cold and the final phase of a novel at the same time -- children don't try this at home -- it is neither a pleasant experience nor a particularly fruitful one. I'm averaging nailing down about twenty pages of "final" text (pre-last pass, of course) before I have to nap. Throw Holiday shopping trips on top of this, and you have a very exhausted writer who feels like she's using her last ounce of strength and really doesn't have much more to give.

I hope as a compensation it is all right if I post the opening of this novel I'm working on finishing beneath. It's called DarkShip Thieves and it is -- sigh -- currently overdue at Baen. I have hopes of having it sent in next week, at least if I can get over the very stupid cold in the next couple of days.


I never wanted to go to space. Never wanted see the eerie glow of the Powerpods. Never wanted to visit Circum Terra. Never had any interest in finding out the truth about the DarkShips. You always get what you don’t ask for.

Which was why I woke up in the dark of shipnight, within the greater night of space in my father’s space cruiser.

Before full consciousness, I knew there was an intruder in my cabin. Not rationally. There was no rationality to it. The air smelled as it always did on shipboard, as it had for the week I’d spent here – stale, with the odd tang given by the recycling.

The engines, below me, hummed steadily. We were departing Circum Terra – a maneuver that involved some effort, to avoid accidentally ramming the station or the ship. Shortly we’d be Earth bound, though slowing down and reentry let alone landing, for a ship this size, would take close to a week.

My head felt a little light, my stomach a little queasy, from the artificial grav. Yes, I know. Scientists say that’s impossible. They say artificial gravity is just like true gravity to the senses. You don’t feel a thing. They are wrong. Artificial grav always made me feel a little out of balance, like a couple of shots of whiskey on an empty stomach.

Even before waking fully, I’d tallied all this. There was nothing out of the ordinary. And yet there was a stranger in my cabin.

It never occurred to me to doubt it. Years in reformatories, boarding schools and mental hospitals, had taught me that the feeling I woke up with was often the right one. I assumed I’d heard something while asleep – a door closing, a step on the polished floor.

It didn’t matter. There was someone in my cabin. Now, why? Knowing the why determined how I dealt with it.

There were three reasons that came to mind immediately. Theft, rape, murder. But all of them were impossible. The space cruiser belonged to Daddy dearest and there was no one aboard save Daddy dearest, my charming self – his only daughter – and his handpicked crew of about twenty, half of whom were his bodyguard goons and half maintenance-crew of one description or another. Far more than I thought it would take to run a ship this size, but then what did I know about ships?

Now, whatever I thought of my father, the Honorable Patrician Alexander Milton Sinistra of the ruling council of Earth, I neither thought him stupid nor stupidly inclined to think the best of people. His goons were the scum of the Earth – only because there were no real populations on any other planet – but they were picked, trained, conditioned and, for all I knew, mind-controlled for loyalty. Hulking giants, they would, each one of them, have laid down his life for my father. Not the least because without Father they’d only be wanted men with no place to hide. And Father took good care of the families of those who bought it in the line of duty.
As for his other servants and employees, they were the best Father could command, in any specialty he needed.

None of them, nor anyone who had ever seen Father in a white hot rage would ever do anything against Father or his family. Well... except me. I defied Father all the time. But I was the sole exception.

There were no crimes at our home in Syracuse Seacity. There weren’t even any misdemeanors. No servant had ever been caught stealing so much as a rag from the house stores. Hell, no servant even broke a plate without apologizing immediately and profusely.

So the three reasons I could come up with for an intruder in my room made no sense. No one would dare steal from me, rape me or murder me under Father’s roof. And no one – no one – who had ever dealt with me or heard rumors about me would do it even away from Father.
And yet, I was as sure that there was a stranger in my cabin as I was of being female, or nineteen or named Athena Hera Sinistra.

Without opening my eyes I looked through my eyelashes – an art I’d learned at several sojourns at various institutions – and turned in bed. No more than the aimless flailing of a sleeper seeking a better position. The cabin was dark. For a moment I could see nothing. I could turn the lights on by calling out, or by reaching. But either of those would give away that I wasn’t asleep.
And then, my eyes adjusting, I saw him standing out of the deeper darkness,. It was a him. It had to be a him. Broad shoulders and tall though not as tall as most of Father’s bodyguards. Nor as broad. He stood by my bed, very still.

My heart sped up. I tensed. I didn’t know who he was, nor what he was about to do, but it couldn’t be good. No one with good intentions would come in like that, while I was asleep and then stand there, quietly waiting.

Then I thought it might not be one of Father’s people at all. Look, our security was good. Really good. But we’d just been on a four-day-long state-visit to Circum Terra, where the population was the top scientists in their field. Smart people. Smart people who were halfway through duty rotations a couple of years long. Smart people who had stared and sighed when I walked around and attended parties and been my most flirty self in the clothes that were one of the few perks of being Father’s daughter.

If one of those people had sneaked abroad...

Moving slowly, in the same seemingly aimless movements, I clenched my hands on the blanket about an arm’s length apart, and made fists, grabbing handfuls of the stuff. I’d have preferred to twist it around my wrists, so it wouldn’t come loose, but that would be way too obvious.
The man in the dark took a step towards me. He was good. If he was a scientist, he must have been a cat burglar in a previous life. He moved silently. If I hadn’t been awake, he surely wouldn’t have awakened me now.

I sprang. I hopped up to the edge of the bed. The ceramite bed-side gave a better surface for bouncing. I bounced, on my tiptoes and flew up, blanket stretched between my hands.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Grounding the Story

Along the Great Ocean Road of Victoria, Australia, there is a stretch of coast called the Shipwreck Coast.

When Europeans settled Australia, they would pack their families and set off with high hopes. If they made it around the tip of Africa, across the Indian Ocean and along the southern coast of Australia, they still had to sail through Bass Strait, between Tasmania and Australia, to reach the port of Melbourne.

From 1836 to 1932 approximately fifty ships did not make that last treacherous 130 kilometers. But until you see this stretch of coast, see the breakers rolling in, stand on those cliffs and feel the wind buffeting your body, you don't appreciate the forces involved.

My husband grew up on a farm not far from the cliffs of the Great Ocean Road. He grew up hearing stories of the Mahogany Ship, a fabled dutch ship lost around 1520 and uncovered on the dunes by a storm, then lost again.

He took me to the gorge where the two survivors of the Loch Ard wreck swam in and sheltered in a cave above high tide. It was one of the few spots along the coast where a person could scale the sandstone cliffs. When I stood in that cave in mid summer I was glad I wore a winter coat. I saw the blow-hole, where bodies from the wreck were washed in and battered against the rocks until they disintegrated. (Blow-holes occur inland from the cliffs, when the sea carves out tunnels under the ground and a pot-hole appears).

The diaries of those who sailed along the Shipwreck Coast tell of how the exotic scent of Wattle and Eucalyptus reached them as they stood on the deck of their ship, longing to set foot on their new land. Reading of their experiences, seeing the belongings saved from the wrecks all helped bring the past to life for me.

Most fantasy writers will find themselves writing about a sea journey at some point. And, unless you are lucky enough to sail a tall ship, like me you'll have to do your research from books. Snatch every opportunity you can. I walked through the reconstructed Endeavour (the ship Captain Cook sailed to Australia). And I was impressed by how small it was to sail halfway around the world.

Since I don't know the technical terms for all the sails, masts and ropes on a ship, I don't want to use them in my story. I remember reading Treasure Island as a child and skimming all the strange nautical terms. They got in the way of the story, which was about Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver.

When I write, what I want to do is create a feeling of verisimilitude, so that the reader gets enough of the sense of being on a ship to empathise with the character. So my phillosophy is, research enough to create that sense of being there, then get on with the story.



Monday, December 22, 2008

fallen from grace... fallen.

Dave Freer posting:

Ok I’m going to keep this brief because I’m chasing a deadline in ever decreasing circles and it is now coming around to bite me on the tail end. When I wrote the first Heirs of Alexandra book with Misty Lackey and Eric Flint, I handed over my first draft with great pride. I got this back. (I paraphrase) "If you want people to get your foreshadowing, then you must do it 3 times."
Oddly, it’s pretty good rule of thumb. A decent novel contains some surprises. That doesn’t mean -- as I and many other newbies assumed -- that it was the totally unexpected and unexplained custard pie from left of field. It meant the author had taken us to Goa and showed us the fruit-peel littered road and the troop of monkeys overhead in the trees, and the open manhole, with the hero walking closer while reading his newspaper. Then the author showed us the open manhole and the monkey munching and tossing debris from the overhanging banana tree, pointing at the manhole and sniggering. Then the monkey tossed a rotten banana at the manhole cover, as our hero walked closer and closer to the route to sewers...
And stepped over it.
Onto a banana-peel...
And Merry Moose-kissing to all.
Always remember the Christmas spirit is not what you drink :-)
(pass the bottle, Rudolf. That's why you have such a red nose)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday snippet: "Glad Yule"

"Glad Yule" first appeared in An Armory of Swords, an anthology edited by Fred Saberhagen and set in his Swords universe. Fred was a kind and gentle human being and is greatly missed. His invitation to write a Swords story meant a great deal to me. As today is Yule, I'm inclined to curl up by the fire with a cup of mead and drink to Fred's memory. Here's a snippet in his honor.

"Glad Yule" Copyright © 1995, 2008 by Pati Nagle. All rights reserved.


Trent opened the door to a cozy chamber where a fire crackled on the hearth. Heavy curtains had been thrown back from tall windows to give the ladies of the house, seated around a table, light to work by. Elian and Mari were stitching golden trim to a half-cape of dark green, while Sylva fashioned a wreath out of sprigs of holly. They looked up at Trent, who smiled and swept them a bow. He knelt beside Elian's chair and kissed her hand. "Fair lady," he said, "your father sent me to tell you that the Midsummer mead is palatable."

She smiled down at him in amusement. "Oh, I'm so relieved," she said. "How much is left?"

"Plenty," said Trent. "Shall I bring you some?"

"Thanks, I'll wait till tonight."

Trent shrugged, smiling, and wandered over to sit beside Sylva. "What are you making? A crown?"

"Yes, for the Holly King," said Sylva with a sly glance at him.

"Who's that?" asked Trent.

"The Holly King," repeated Mari, opening her brown eyes wide. "Don't you know?"

Trent shook his head, his face all innocent puzzlement.

"It's one of our customs," said Elian. "Every Yule the young girls all share a cake with a bean baked into it. Whoever finds the bean gets to choose the Holly King, and he presides over the Yule festival."

"And he has to dance with all the girls, and be merry all night long," added Sylva.

"Ah," said Trent. "Sounds like hard work."

"Not for you, my Lord." Elian smiled."

Trent glanced up at her inquiringly.

"If King Nigel requires you to dance, you've had good training."

Trent laughed. "True. Do you think I would make a good Holly King, Sylva?"

"I don't know," said Sylva. "Let's see." She placed the wreath on his head, dark green leaves glinting against his soft brown hair. "Not bad," she said. "What do you think, Mari?"

"I think he's perfect," said Mari, then she blushed and looked down at her stitching.

Trent laughed again. "Thank you, kind lady," he said, coming around the table to kiss her hand. "If you find the bean and choose me, I'll dance with you all night long."

Mari giggled and smiled at him shyly.

"You would be a fine Holly King," said Elian, regarding him with her calm green eyes. "You can make anyone laugh, and you are always merry yourself."

"Not like Lord Paethor," said Sylva. "He never smiles."

"Oh, he does," said Trent. "You just have to be watching."

"Why is he so glum?" asked Sylva.

"Why? Well—it's because he's heartbroken, lady. All his life he has wished he had red hair."

The girls laughed.

"No," protested Trent. "It's true. And now he comes and meets you, Sylva, with the prettiest, reddest hair in all the world." Trent sat beside her again and picked up a strand of her hair, stroking it with his fingers. "Redder than sunset, and softer than a rabbit's fur. No wonder he's mad with grief.

Sylva laughed again and punched his arm. "Be serious!"

"I am!"

"No, I mean tell me! Why is he so sad? What's the truth?"

"Don't pry, Sylva," said Elian.

"The truth? The truth, dear lady, is that I don't know. I'm not in his confidence." Trent sighed. "He isn't always this gloomy. At King Nigel's court I've seen him dance through the night. The ladies there are all mad for him, but not one of them has ever touched his heart. Not that I know of, anyway." He looked up and found the girls watching him, even Elian, whose needle lay forgotten in her lap. He broke into a foolish grin. "You shouldn't listen to me, though," he said. "I never tell a tale the same way twice."

Sylva frowned, laughing, and took the wreath from his head.

"Have I displeased you?" said Trent in mock alarm. He knelt beside her chair. "Tell me how to make amends. I want to be worthy of the holly crown!"

"Help me finish it, then," said Sylva. "Hand me that ribbon. "

"I hear and obey," said Trent, jumping to his feet and snatching up a ribbon from the table, then presenting it to Sylva with an exaggerated bow. She laughed and took it from him.

"Now a piece of holly," she demanded, enjoying the game.

Trent scooped up a sprig and yelped as a thorn pricked his thumb. He squeezed it and a bright red drop appeared.

"You're supposed to take the thorns off first!" said Sylva.

"Are you all right, my Lord?" asked Elian.

Trent smiled sheepishly, sucking at the wound. "Fine," he said. "It's nothing but my own carelessness. My own stupid folly, for playing with holly—"

Sylva giggled, taking the sprig from him and snipping off the thorns with a little pair of scissors.

"Folly, lolly, lolly—" sang Trent, picking up two more sprigs by their stems and making them dance on the tabletop.

The girls laughed, and Trent kept them laughing until they'd finished their regalia. Then Sylva made him try it on, and he struck a royal pose, the cape lightly draping his shoulders, holly forming a halo around his head.

"I hereby decree that mistletoe shall hang in every doorway, and anyone who doesn't smile shall be sent to the kitchens to wash the dishes," he pronounced.

"Paethor, be warned!" said Elian, taking back the cape. "Come, Sylva. It's late, and we still have your dress to trim."

Sylva reached for the crown and Trent gave it to her, lifting her hand to his lips. She smiled coyly at him, picked up a leftover sprig of holly and stood on tiptoe to tuck it behind his ear. Then she and Mari tossed all their odds and ends into a large basket and ran to the door where Elian waited.

"Thank you for your help, my Lord," she said. "We'll see you this evening."

Trent bowed and watched them go, then grinned to himself and made his way back to his chamber.


The full text of "Glad Yule" is available at

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Happy Christmas

A very happy Xmas to all of you from Kent, the Garden of England.

May you eat, drink, be merry, enjoy good company and forget the recession.

With very best wishes for the New Year.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Write what you know

Write what you love

I would take issue with this dictum. I’ve tried writing about swimming, horseback riding, roller derby, even about writing, and I soon find myself lost in a terrible maze of emotion, anecdote, and wishful thinking disguised as advice.

I’m much better at addressing a specific question—Is this bridle on right? (Yes.) Am I crawl-stroking correctly? (Twist your body more.) Did it hurt when I knocked you down? (There are no apologies in derby, but since you ask, yes, it hurt like sin.) Do you understand that my character, a stoner dwarfish thief from the mountains, is in love with the moon? (No, but here’s what you can do to punch it up so the reader gets it.)

Rudyard Kipling was a genius at writing about what he didn’t know. But of course he was a newspaperman. He said that anyone was capable of giving him ten minutes’ worth of fascinating shop talk. Once he had heard that ten minutes, he had enough for a story about (say) steamfitting, a story that made every steamfitter who read it shed a tear and say, Yeah, he sure knows his stuff. He also believed that, unless you had a great white whale in your sights, those ten minutes were sufficient, because no reader would put up with more shop talk than that.

So he's saying, think cocktail-party neep. Chatting-up-the-girl neep. Grumbling-in-pubs neep.

In a sense it’s almost impossible for me to write coherently about my current passions. I need distance. And even then it’s not going to be the truth. Just the truth for today.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Nuts and Bolts of Writing

As an adjunct to my writing career, I teach writing to young adults and adults, in various venues. (I did the same in my musical career, as many singers do--the income from concerts and operas can be variable, and it's nice to have a steady income stream from somewhere!) At the moment, I'm doing distance learning for the excellent Long Ridge Writers' Group, a beautifully structured course called Breaking Into Print.

There are people for whom the nuts and bolts are just really, really hard. For those of us who think in terms of language, who love to play with words and punctuation, similes and metaphors, these nuts and bolts come as naturally as breathing and swallowing. Where to put a period, when to start a new paragraph, when a sentence fragment works--these aren't the big issues we deal with. But for lots of people who yearn to write, and in fact, have something important to say in their writing, these are hard issues to grapple with.

This isn't a matter of intelligence, either. I know doctors and nurses and engineers who are way smarter than I am, in their area of expertise. But language is its own skill. Its own talent, I should say. It's rather like classical singing--the desire to do it, even possession of a good voice--isn't enough. There has to be that "genius", if you will, that knack for it.

I don't know, yet, how much of this can actually be taught. I certainly came to know, in teaching singers, that for some aspirants the whole process just never comes together. But as I watch the sincere effort and dedication of some of my students, I really hope that my attempts to teach them where the comma goes (and where it doesn't) are helpful. And their struggles remind me not to take my own talent, such as it is, for granted.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Yes, but what do you read?

Apropos nothing I’ve been wondering if I’m typical of how writers’ read. I don’t mean in fiction.
In fiction – with the strange exception of people I’ve been hearing about lately, who do not read at all because they’re afraid it will taint their writing (most of these people aren’t published, I should add) – the short answer to a writer’s reading tastes is like the one about the eight hundred pound gorilla. The short answer is "Anything he/she wants to." The even shorter answer is "Everything."
For years I held fast to one certainty. I didn’t read Romance. And then it started trickling in. It started with Dave Freer – curse you my friend ! – telling me I had to read Heyer. He was right, I did. Venetia quickly became one of my favorite books, an obsession I promptly passed onto the boys. And then friends recommended other writers. And then at RWA I found my reaction to Romance is about the same as to other genres. It leaves no mark. Meaning that I can read most of it painlessly. About ten percent will strike me one way or another. Ten percent will make me run out and buy everything the writer ever wrote. Ten percent makes me throw it against the wall and at least metaphorically stomp on it. Which makes Romance just the same as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and Thrillers.
Two things I don’t read, and they’re highly personal distastes – one of them is gross out horror. It’s not that I’m a sensitive plant. My friend Charles is forever protecting me from gross/shocking sights because the fact that I don’t like paint-the-room-red scenes fits in with his idea of being a lady. I’m a lady and therefore I should flinch from this sort of thing. Actually the truth is that it bores me. In the dank mess that is my mind I can come up with much worse than anything I’ve ever read. Without trying. Depending on how stable I’m feeling, sometimes the difficult part is not to write this stuff.
The other thing I don’t read, for a different reason, is porn. No, look, I’m not going to claim to be much purer or high minded than other people. I assume some of you have read my stuff – coff. It’s just that what goes where and how many times has never held any kind of fascination unless it is at that precise moment happening to me (and then I don’t particularly want to share it). I’m not excluding erotica. In fact I’m learning to include erotic passages in my writing. (Which is funny, considering I sold my first erotica piece ten years ago, but it was very much a one-off.) But in erotica what’s important is the emotions that dictate the acts and are shaped by them. That’s different from in and out and "oh," and "ah." Fictional characters need to have emotions to be real.
But everything else that falls to hand, from fairy tales to my kids’ Disney comics, gets read. Depending on the time of day and what I feel like, I can find myself reading very odd things.
On the other hand, my non fiction forms a much more interesting pattern and one that I’m not sure other writers follow at all. I know that many of my friends – Dave Freer, for instance – read a lot of non fiction as well. But I also know that a lot of them read almost exclusively fiction. I read at least as much non-fiction as fiction. Possibly more, depending on what is going on in my life. (Non-fiction demands less emotional involvement than fiction, so when I’m tired or depressed, I read mostly non-fiction.)
One of the first books I read was a scholarly history of Portugal and since then I have continued to read a lot history, but also other things – things I love include old biology books. Old science books, of any kind, including nineteenth century educational texts. Travel logs. Books on economics, physics... well, just about anything.
I buy non fiction the way other people buy food when they go to the grocery store hungry. "Oooh, that looks good." Hitting Amazon with time on my hands, means a jumble of books gets bought. Ditto hitting a bookstore. Or for that matter the dumpster outside a bookstore.
Generally speaking there is a pattern to it, though, and it can be exemplified by the stuff that dropped into the house today via the mail. First, there was Black Swan, a book on well... our perception of quantum reality and rare history-altering events that were thought to be impossible before. So far I have no reason why I’m reading this. Just... it’s interesting and it’s there. I keep it downstairs in the kitchen and read it while having meals, or tea, or cooking (or huddling by the oven because it’s been so cold). That sort of thing.
The other one is Gentleman Boss, a biography of President Chester Arthur. This one is being read with the vague idea of a series of historical murder mysteries. I’ve discussed the first of this with my agent, with the idea that it was a one-off, and possibly main stream. For all it know it’s still main stream, but I have a vague suspicion it’s not one-off. I’m reading this book with the idea of pinning that feeling down and seeing if there is a "there" there. To put it in perspective, the idea for the first of these mysteries came to me almost a year ago, and the suspicion there might be more did not hit until last month. That one is by my bedside table, and I read a few pages before sleeping.
Then there is – still un-started, (because if I start it, it will make me go back to that project and away form the one in which I’m working just now) and I don’t remember the title, is about the status of women in baroque France. That one is for a very specific half-way through project.
And then there’s just general "ooh" reading. When I had the idea for my Heart of Light Series, I didn’t even know where my memory of African History came from. It wasn’t until we were moving that I found, stuffed in a closet, all the books I’d already decided I needed to buy to carry the project through. Finding them, I remembered I’d read them ten years before and that was why I just needed to refresh my knowledge. I’d read them in a fit of "Ooh, that looks tasty." In the same vein, lately I’ve been doing a lot of cryptozoology reading. No idea where it fits in, yet.
Do other writers read like me? I don’t know. I know that the older I get the more I want to read – and listen. And watch. The Great Courses series is ruining me – and the more conscious I am of how little I know. Even with all my reading, the idea that I can create a plausible world – scientific or magic – is a staggering piece of hubris. I look at my book-stuffed house and I think "I want to know more."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Antique Futures

Last month the Logan North Library had a SCI FI month to promote Speculative Fiction. It culminated in an open day -- a 50 piece orchestra played tunes for the movies and people from the Star Trek, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings groups came in costume.

Earlier in the month local writers had run workshops on genre writing and been on panels. My friend Marianne de Pierres launched her latest book, 'Chaos Space', and a good time was had by all.

The kids were catered for with face painting and Star Wars finger puppets and face masks. No one, from grandmothers to five year-olds had any trouble identifying Storm Troopers or Darth Vader. Seen below checking out a copy of Dolly Magazine for teenage girls.

When I was a kid growing up in a sea-side town on the east coast of Australia, lots of houses still had out-side dunnies (toilets). My grandmother had a wood stove as well as her gas stove. I didn't know there was such a genre as science fiction or fantasy, I only knew that I loved it when Disney showed magical cartoons, or World of the Future. I was 10 when I saw 'Forbidden Planet' I was blown away by the idea that a monster could come from the subconscious.

I was 11 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I thought by the time I was an adult, there'd a base on the moon and we'd all have our own personal jet packs. Like Marge Simpson, I wanted to grow up to be an Astronaut.

But we don't have hover cars like in the Jetsons. The wonderful juvenile adventure stories that Heinlien wrote about settling Mars and the Asteroid Belt are no closer to coming true. And the Brave New World that science promised to bring hasn't eventuated. Instead we have mobile phones hounding us with advertising text messages and reality TV that is more boring that real life.

The genre that I love is now common place. TV shows like Charmed, Stargate, Buffy and X Files bring concepts and ideas into everyone's living rooms. They are doing a remake of 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'.

Yet ... I miss that sense of Wonder. I find it less and less now days but I'll never stop looking.

Cheers, Rowena.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dragon motivation

Sarah wrote about the relationship you develop with you books -- and coming to love them.
One of the things about being a career-writer/professional novelist/ bloody hack (please cross out those that do not apply) is that you write a lot of books. Many (all but 1 of 18 in my case) are sold on proposal. Now... that sounds very nice. You know the book is "accepted", how much money it’ll earn (at least), when it’s due etc. It is nice. The part that isn’t, of course, is just same as the on spec process: you write proposals which you have no idea if will appeal. You attach hope to them. Sometimes you get pointers from the editor, agent or in my case, co-author. You’re tossing bread on the water... so you try all sorts, from baguettes to good-solid-with-potato-in-it poi. On spec you write the book you want to write - here you offer them the book you hope they’ll want. The simple truth is Murphy is out to get you - or at least me. Quite a few of the books I’ve had accepted would not have been my first choice to write. For eg. Mike (my agent) leaned on me to work on a high-fantasy proposal with dragons. Now, I’m not exactly your typical high fantasy author, being far too inclined to satire, humor and science. Not that I don’t enjoy some of it, but it wasn’t something that I thought was me, really -- or that anyone would be interested in a proposal from me for. Yeah, well, you know the story about the ESL immigrant who had made something of horse’s hind end of a job and had his young supervisor roll his eyes and say: "Igor, you know, you know F!$% nothing about this." And Igor, much affronted draws himself up and says "You young squeakpip! You say I know F!$% nothing, but compared to you, I know F!$% ALL!"
And I proved Igor and I have a lot in common because I also proved I know F!$% ALL. (Remind me of this if I get jumped up in my own self importance.) because that was the one (out of ?8) proposals that got bought. So now I am learning to love it. Because that is the mark of the career-writer/professional novelist/ bloody hack: you can write about anything, you can write it more-or-less to length required, and mostly so that the editor gets something they don’t throw up in disgust over. And yet you make it you own. Put your hallmarks and twists on it. For me that means that although it high fantasy complete with dragons and elves and dwarves and the repressed female heroine... it has internal logic. Rather like a good detective story, the characters have to have motive and opportunity. And when the end comes the reader ought to slap his forehead and say "now why didn’t I see that coming?" I find once I have that internal logic with the motivations established I can love any book. I just struggle to get it sometimes. Well, I did yesterday.
I’m getting very fond of my dragon.
He’s fond of humans too.
And not just roasted.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Between Books

It's a strange state for a writer to be in. One book is done. The next proposal is almost finished. And the mind wanders through the possibilities like a bee in a flower garden, tasting this idea, that idea, wondering where exactly to alight and dig in.

The question every writer hears, over and over, is "Where do you get your ideas?" In truth, there are more ideas in the air than there are years in which to write them. As I approach this decision, I have to think about what book would best follow the last one, what my readership might like, what the market will bear, and what my editor and my agent think is a good idea. It shouldn't really be like this, of course. If I were a New York Times Bestselling Author, it might not be. I could let my brilliant imagination flit wherever it wanted.

But I'm not a NYTBA just yet, so I have to consider this choice carefully. It will be colored by all the above considerations. If the new book is published by a new editor, that will make a difference, too. But I can't wait to find that out, of course! I need to start it now, or there will be no living with me. A writer writes, after all. It would be nice if a writer could always write what a writer wanted to write!

Plus ca change

Do you know when the first recorded credit crunch happened? No, bear with me. This is going somewhere.

Cicero referred to the first known credit crunch in a speech he gave to the Senate in 66BC. Cicero was supporting the suggestion of sending Pompey against Mithridates VI, King of Pontus. He reminded the senators on the interdependence of economies in a globalised world. In 88BC, Mithridates invaded the Roman Province of Asia (now Turkey). The invasion caused a financial crisis in Asia, leading to the collapse of credit in Rome itself.

"Defend the republic from this danger and believe me when I tell you - what you see for yourselves - that this system of monies, which operates at Rome in the Forum, is bound up in, and is linked with, those Asian monies; the loss of one inevitably undermines the other and causes its collapse."

As Philip Kay pointed out in a lecture at Oxford University: "Substitute US sub-prime for 'the Asian monies' and the UK banking system for 'the system of monies which operates in the Roman Forum' and it could have been written about the current credit crisis,"

The lesson is that there is nothing new under the sun and that the important things never change.

To put it another way: "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose", Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.

We might set our stories in fantastic worlds but human beings do not change. Fundamental human motivation hasn’t altered in any significant way since we burst out of Africa. That means that the whole of human history is available to be plundered for plots, characters and political organisation. How could we ever run out of ideas?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Messing with Reality

One of the privileges of being a fiction writer is that one has license to reinvent the world. Don't like something about reality? Adjust it.

For many years, I've wondered why Midwinter, the Winter Solstice, doesn't actually fall in the middle of winter but instead marks the beginning of winter. In my region, we can get snow in October and November doesn't look much like autumn. Nor does early March, with crocuses popping up, look much like winter. The conventional seasons just seem wrong to me.

Therefore, when creating the Ælven culture for my new fantasy series, I messed with the calendar. I rearranged things so that Midwinter and Midsummer land in the middle of their appropriate seasons. This puts the spring and autumn equinoxes in the middle of those seasons, which pleases me very much.

I like this system so much I made a 2009 calendar using it. If you'd like a free copy, send me your mailing address via my Ælven calendar page. While you're on the site have a look around for more about the Ælven, and about my first Ælven novel, The Betrayal.

Pati Nagle

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Writing in the 21st century

There's a really good reason I love to write on an airplane. It's because there's nothing else to do.

Yup. I love airplane writing, motel writing, retreat writing. I love all venues where there's no internet, no telephone, no dog needing a walk, no yoga class to take, and no housework niggling at me. It's no wonder, to me, that there are people who never read books. There are so many other things to do!

I grew up on a ranch in Montana where we had no television, barely had radio, and had a party line telephone. I used to read for hours when the chores had been done, immersing myself utterly in whatever book it was, no matter the genre, the length, or the challenge of the text. Now I have trouble focusing for even an hour without something diluting my attention.

I have a new method for getting "in the zone" to write. TV off, of course. Music off, because for me, a musician, music is a great distraction. Telephone close at hand so I can hear the Caller ID without having to get up, and ignore 99% of the phone calls that come in. A fire is nice, because it crackles, but it doesn't demand that I do anything. Internet, especially, OFF. I try to sit someplace that feels relaxing, as if I'm indulging myself, and I tell myself that for at least one solid hour, I'll do nothing but move forward on the work-in-progress.

So far, so good. I have to organize my day, though, to win this hour of peace, especially at this time of year. I have to plan--walk the dog, do the Long Ridge lessons, answer my emails--and then ignore the housework (hard for a compulsive neatnik). I don't know if it's enough, but I'm hoping once the holidays are over I'll look back and realize that I got a lot done, despite the hectic season.

I may need a new approach in 2009, but this is working for now.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lassoing Mavericks

For the last three months I’ve been battling the very final finishing phase on two books. You know, the phase you go through the book and make sure the characters make sense and that the internals all agree with each other. Now I’ve done the one "I like the least." (Because, like any good little girl I was taught to eat my veggies before I was allowed to have desert. Not that I’m saying I’m a good little girl, understand. Just that I was taught that just like they were.)

(Part of the problem with finishing and the reason it took so long is that both books were attempting to "come through at once" something that’s about as much fun as if they were human twins instead of literary ones. This is not a matter of a coincidence of deadlines but one of those things where for reasons unknown to you you can’t settle into a task unless you also make progress on another one. This has been known to happen to me with such disparate things as painting the fence and cleaning the kitchen. It didn’t end well in that case.)

Whenever I say stuff like "the book I liked" or "the book I wanted to write" or "the book I liked least" I seem to run into trouble with my non-writing friends who then become convinced that I dislike some of the books I write.

I’ll be honest with you: I’ve written while very sick, I’ve written while very tired and I’ve written while very depressed. None of these occasions is conducive to doing my best work and sometimes I can’t help but delivering things that I’m afraid I’ll cringe for in the future. (I’d like to point out not only am I usually wrong, but ninety percent of the time they turn out to be the most popular of my works.)

I also can’t say the books that sell or that are due at a particular time – at least while working as I’ve been the last ten years – by selling a proposal first are the ones I want to do the most. I don’t know if this was different at one time, but these days it is as though there were two universes – the books I’d like to write and those my publishers think are marketable. I’m lucky, those universes intersect pretty widely, and I’d say there’s probably a 95% overlap. From what I understand from other writers, this is not always true. However, sometimes the books that sell are in the periphery of my preference-universe, not the center. And sometimes they’ve moved there in the time between selling and finishing. However, as with all things that relate to being a creature of flesh in an imperfect world, it could be worse – much worse.

This last book I wrote was one of those and fairly peculiar as it was offered as replacement for the last book of a contract that the publisher wished to modify. It was, as such "sold" on a two line pitch and I guess psychologically it was associated with "failure" in my mind, which made it very hard for me to get into it as a project. And then there was this other siren-call from a book that is not only at the center, but in a sub-genre I’ve wanted to write in for the last... twenty years. A subgenre I have written in but not sold till this proposal.

And yet now that it’s done – through snivelling and whining and throwing hissy fits (me, not it) – I can honestly say it might be one of the best books I’ve written. It’s also, very strangely, one of the most autobiographical (incidents, not the main point) I’ve written. And though it will be published under a pen name (part of the deal that made that replacement thing so unpalatable) I can honestly say that no one could deny it’s very much MY book.

I guess some books are born yours, some become so. And some you have to pursue on horseback across the bleak prairies of writing, lasso them then burn your brand on their squirming flanks and make them yours.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Persistence Pays Off

Artwork by R & D Studios.

My fantasy trilogy, 'The Last T'En', was a finalist in two US awards and won a national Australian award.

Even so, it is possible for an author to be orphaned. The line finishes, the editor moves on, the agent retires and suddenly, even though they've sold internationally, the author has to start all over again.

During this dry patch, I never stopped writing and I read voraciously, trying to work out why I loved certain authors' books.

The more I wrote, the more I was sure I was on the right track. I set out to write the kind of books I wanted to curl up with on a Sunday afternoon, ripping reads that transported me to other worlds, where ordinary people found the inner strength to battle incredible odds.

And now my agent, John Jarrold, ( Go John!) has sold a three book fantasy series.


John Jarrold has concluded a three-book deal for Australian fantasy writer Rowena Cory Daniells with Christian Dunn of Solaris, the mainstream genre imprint of Games Workshop’s publishing division, BL Publishing. The series is entitled King Rolen’s Kin and the first book, provisionally called BYREN’S BANE, is due for publication in early 2010. The deal is for World English Language rights.

The books follow the lives of three of King Rolen’s heirs, when their kingdom, Rolencia, is invaded by their ancestral enemy, Merofynia. A sweeping fantasy adventure, the narrative explores the eternal questions of ambition, trust and betrayal.

Rowena Cory Daniells first became involved in speculative fiction in 1976. Since then she has run a bookshop, then a graphic art studio where she illustrated children's books, had 6 children in 10 years, sold nearly 30 children's books and a fantasy trilogy (The Last T’En) internationally, established R&D Studios and served on the management committees of state and national arts organisations. She lives by the bay in Brisbane with her husband and children, and has a Masters in Arts (Research).

Contact John Jarrold for further information: e-mail: phone: 01522 510544.

8th December 2008

Persistence pays off. Keep writing, keep growing as a writer and believe in yourself.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Framing Theory - how to be gifted at descriptive prose

Years ago I was quite obsessed with descriptive prose. How had some of my favorite authors managed to capture places and views that only I had seen? (I have seen places where no other human has ever been. It is a rare and wonderful drug and totally addictive. Don’t even try it once unless you are prepared to give up a large part of your income and possibly your health, welfare, and even life to it.)

Then I read Tolkein’s ‘On Fairy Stories’. And finally I understood just what these masters of prose were doing. The reason they were doing such an awesome job of describing things which existed in my memory was that they hadn’t. They’d got me to do it for them. Naturally I got it just right (for me, anyway).

This is another one of the tricks of the trade, folks. You can of course describe a scene minutely... and then you’d better try to never get it wrong in way. Or you can provide sufficient cues and let the reader draw that perfect valley/mountain/ forest in his head. The frame needs to be evocative, to draw on the five senses, be precise and sharply accurate and... leave the minutiae to the reader. Set the limits, fill in a few pointers, and let them do the rest.

Try it. It takes a bit of practice to do well, but it can be learned. And look for it, now that you know it is being done.

Don’t blame me if ruins your belief in an author’s descriptive skills for you.

Dave Freer

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Short Story Set in Shifter's world

*I'm writing a series of short stories set in my Shifter's world, being published by Baen Books -- Draw One In The Dark and Gentleman Takes A Chance, so far. This is the first one of those: Sweet Alice. If you're intrigued by the story, check out the books.*

Sweet Alice

Sarah A. Hoyt

The young man walked along the streets of Goldport, Colorado, his collar turned up against the November wind, his mind in turmoil. The day before Thanksgiving, and the lights of the shop windows and neon signs puddled like curdled milk on the patches of ice that dotted the sidewalk.
Rafiel Trall might look like a California surfer, with his slightly-too-long blond hair, his seemingly built-in tan, but he had been born and raised in Goldport, and knew of the customary Thanksgiving blizzard, and avoided the ice on the sidewalk without even thinking about it; just like he avoided broad splashes of slush thrown by passing cars.
He’d walked from his parents’ home, a mile and a half away, in the older part of downtown where dignified Victorians set on broad lawns had resisted the various waves of devaluation and now gentrification that had submerged the surrounding areas.
His feet had brought him, as they so often had when he was much younger, to the shabby splendor of Fairfax Avenue, which ran – in a straight line – the length of Goldport and where used bookstores competed for attention with diners, with headshops, with used cd stores, with craftshops. As a young boy, he had frequented the comic book store he was now passing. Later on, his interest had moved to the specialty mystery store down the street. And he – his entire class, really – had gathered at the Athens down the street for milkshakes and burgers and conversation.
He wondered if Alice, his high school sweetheart, still worked at the Athens. When they’d parted – trying to be very grown up about the idea that he was going to Denver to study law enforcement, while she would stay here and study art and design at the local community college, while working – she had intended to continue waitressing.
Alice was the last person he needed now. And to even think of telling her what had brought him back home – what had made him give up his life long dream of being a police officer – made his throat close in a knot of panic. He’d have to admit to her he’d lied. That he’d lied to her all these years. That he wasn’t anything like what he had seemed in school – in all the time they’d spent together. He’d have to admit he’d lied to himself. That he was not the person he’d thought he was. That he wasn’t even human.
His father had picked him up at the bus station, well away from the college, where Rafiel had asked to be picked up. He didn’t even know why, except, for a moment, with the barest of hesitations, he had thought of getting on the bus, of going somewhere – somewhere unknown. Of never coming back.
Only rationality had overcome him like nausea. There was nowhere he could go and be away from all humans – be away from all humans in such a way that he was sure he wouldn’t hurt them. The more he isolated himself, the more he would be likely to give in to the beast and to let it take over, let it submerge him. What he needed was to go home – to go back to people who knew what he was, and loved him nonetheless, and helped keep him safe.
He’d called his father on his cell phone, despising the way his voice shook at his father’s worried tone. And when his father had driven up in the old pickup, Rafiel had gotten in without a word, set his duffel bag at his feet, clicked the seat belt shut and hunched against the questions he knew would come.
Only they never came. And an hour later, on the highway, Rafiel had felt he needed to give his father an explanation – the same explanation he’d decided he’d deny him had he asked for one. "I can’t go through with this," he’d said, hearing his voice hesitate and break, as it hadn’t in at least two years, and feeling much, much younger than his nineteen years. "I can’t, dad. I just can’t."
His father, driving carefully under increasing snow fall, had only grunted and said nothing else, his eyes seemingly intent on the highway.
Was he upset? Rafiel had wondered, and then on that almost slapped himself. Of course his dad was upset. In a way, though no one had forced him into it, Rafiel’s decision to become a police officer had been as much a family inheritance as anything else. His great grandad – arrived in Goldport from some godforsaken German town or other, had been a beat cop. His grandad had followed in his footsteps. Rafiel’s father was the only one to have formal training as an investigator. And Rafiel – from his earliest childhood, hearing his dad discuss his cases at the dinner table – had never wanted to do anything else. Rafiel’s mom had named him after a literary character who thirsted for justice. Rafiel had grown up surrounded by mystery books, steeped in the idea that justice must be done.
He wrapped his arms around himself and moaned. "I can’t."
His father grunted again. He kicked the windshield wipers up one notch. "What happened?" he asked at last. "What put the fear in you?"
Rafiel let out a long exhalation of breath. "I didn’t..." He stopped, because he felt tears pool in his eyes and drip down his nose. He wasn’t crying. No. He wasn’t crying. He refused to cry.
"There’s tissues in the glove compartment," his dad said. "Cold is making your nose drip."
Rafiel grabbed a tissue and rubbed at his nose and face. "I woke up shifted," he said, his voice made firm by anger. "I woke up and I was a lion, in the middle of the hallway. Just... wandering around. There was no one. But if there had been.... I might have eaten someone, dad. I might have..." He bit his tongue, because if he went on, he was going to cry in earnest, and it would embarrass his father even more than it would embarrass him.
His father nodded. He said nothing. He turned his lights on medium, to avoid their being reflected on the increasingly thicker snow. "Let’s hope we make it home," he said. "Before they close the pass. Your mom said she’d make dumpling soup."

They had made it just ahead of the patrols closing the gates on the highway. And now two days later, Rafiel was restless and lost. Confused, he thought.
Oh, it wasn’t his parents. They hadn’t said anything, really. His father had told him to call the college and explain he might not be able to come back before Christmas break, because the highway was closed, and it often stayed that way for two or three weeks. If needed, he’d said, Rafiel could claim illness. Just don’t make any hasty decisions.
But Rafiel didn’t think there was any decision he could make. The decision had been made for him. Six years and some months ago, he’d shifted into a lion – in his sleep, the first time. His body had changed shapes. His father and mother had seen it, that first time. There was no denying it, no telling himself it was all a dream, no matter how crazy it all seemed. It was what he was – a shape shifter. Maybe the only one. Maybe there were others. He didn’t know. Neither did his parents. They didn’t want anyone to know. At best, Rafiel thought as he walked along Fairfax Avenue through the frost of the gloomy evening – at the very best, he would be locked up in some lab and studied within an inch of his life. At worst... at worst people would go crazy and start hunting for creatures like him. It wasn’t the future he wanted.
And, after seven years of living with this – after seven years of learning to control himself and his shifts, and the animal that shared his mind and body, he’d thought he could survive college. It was only the dorm – so many people together, all the time, so many creatures that the half of his brain insisted on thinking of as meals or, at least, prey. He’d watched himself. He’d prevented himself from shifting. And then... And then he’d woken up in the middle of the hallway, in his lion form, padding softly along linoleum-floored hallways.
He shoved his hands deeper into the pockets of his tight jeans. So, he’d stay in Goldport. Not as a police officer. He would have to think of some excuse as to why he’d given that up. And he’d have to think of something he could do. Goldport had a college, but a law enforcement major was not offered. He would have to study something else. Perhaps teaching–
He had no more thought that then he flinched from the idea of children, all day every day, while the lion looked out of his eyes and judged them for plumpness. He clenched his hands on his jean-clad thighs. No. Perhaps he could take a course in advanced hermit-living or intensive reclusiveness, or something.
And his steps had brought him, insensibly to the door of the Athens, where he looked through the grimy, cold-befogged windows at the people sitting around cracked green formica tables, having the Athens’ patent battery-acid coffee. Groups of laughing students and rosy-cheeked teenagers, wool caps and scarfs stowed next to them on the torn vinyl booths. For a moment, he thought if he blinked, he’d see himself in one of the booths, Junior Highschool Rafiel with Alice...
On that thought, he pushed open the door, causing the bells affixed to the inside to tinkle. He would see Alice. He would talk to her. Surely they were still friends. He wouldn’t need to tell her the truth, but she could help him figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life. She knew him better than anyone but his parents. They had been boyfriend and girlfriend since eighth grade. If Rafiel had thought he could ever marry, like people who didn’t turn into lions could, he would not even have thought of cooling it with her when he went away to Denver. As it was, he’d seized on the opportunity. But it didn’t mean he’d forgotten Alice.
The sudden rush of hopefulness as he saw a blond waitress come out of the back told him he hadn’t forgotten her at all. Not even a little bit.
But as the blond took a step into the restaurant, it became obvious she wasn’t Alice – much smaller-framed, and freckled. A girl from school. He struggled to remember her name, and managed it, just as she came close enough to recognize him and smiled, in surprise, "Rafiel!"
"Jen," he said, smiling back.
"Wow, I didn’t even know you were back."
"No, just... decided to come back for Thanksgiving," he said. "Where’s Alice? Is she working?"
Jen flinched. She visibly flinched, and Rafiel started immediately, "It’s okay if she had another boyfriend or... I just want to see her as a friend."
Jen looked up at him, startled, then seemed to observe him intently. "You mean no one told you?"
"No one told me what?" he asked, suddenly panicked, his heart beating in his throat. "What happened?"
Jen shook her head. "Alice has been missing for three weeks, Rafiel."
"She disappeared from her apartment. No one... The police..." She shook her head.
His dad was in the garage, sleeves rolled up, doing something or other to his 65 Mustang convertible that he’d been working on every weekend for the last three years, salvaging pieces from the junkyards, sanding away rust, priming.
He’d made great progress since Rafiel had left in early August. The convertible was now shiny red all over, and his dad seemed to be installing leather seats – proper leather seats, not the fuzzy-green-shag seats that had come with it when his dad had bought it, and which his dad had said must have been home-recovered Thunderbird seats.
He looked up to see Rafiel in the doorway, and looked a little embarrassed as he always did when caught fussing with the car. He cleaned his hands – which looked perfectly clean – with a nearby rag. "It’s almost done," he said. "Come spring, I’ll have the vinyl top replaced by this little old guy who says he’ll do it for five hundred, on weekends, and then I can take your mom for some drives with the top down." He started to smile at the idea, but his features froze as he looked at Rafiel. "What’s wrong?"
"How come you didn’t tell me about Alice, dad?"
"Alice Harten. Don’t tell me you didn’t know she was missing!"
"Oh. That." His dad seemed to become suddenly very tired. He sat down on the driver’s seat, his feet out the door, resting on the floor of the garage. "I didn’t think you needed any more trouble..."
Rafiel tripped down the steps into the garage and dropped to sitting on the bottom step. "What is it, dad? What happened? Where did she go?"
"Damned if I know," his dad said. "We’ve... asked everywhere. At first we thought, you know, she’d gotten tired, had a fight with her boyfriend, left town. But there’s no sign of her having left, and no sign of her anywhere else. Her credit cards haven’t been used." He shook his head. "It’s like she vanished into thin air."
"Are you going to take up about that?"
"No. No. How could I? I left her. I knew... It was likely to happen. Who is it?"
"Carl. From the basketball team? Carl Leuten?"
"Uh." Rafiel nodded. He and Carl looked alike enough at a distance. Both were more athletic than bookish, neither was stupid. Perhaps it was not surprising.
"She’s been living with him. About a block from the Athens. Just down the street. They rented an apartment. Her dad doesn’t approve, but... I don’t think he was that upset about it. They’re nice kids, Carl and Alice, and Carl says they wanted to get married. Just, when they finished their associate degrees. He’s studying to be some sort of computer repair technician."
"You’ve talked to her father? Carl? Her mom?"
"We’ve talked to all of them. Even the grandmother that lives out of town." His dad sighed. "Do you want to read the reports? I brought them home. I planned to look them over, I thought... perhaps there was something I’d missed. I know it’s not strictly right to let you see them, but perhaps you can see something I missed."
Feeling numb and more than a little lost, Rafiel nodded.
There was nothing in the reports. His father said, calmly, the things he’d heard him say so often when other teenagers were missing. "Nine times out of ten when a teenager is missing, they’ve left," he said. "Another boyfriend, a different job. Running away from home because they think themselves offended. Anything."
"And this time is the tenth?" Rafiel said, pushing aside the piles of printed paper. Question, answer, evidence, deposition. And nothing in them. Nothing. Rafiel was only a beginning student, but he could see his father had followed up the case, flawlessly, by the book. Perhaps a little more energetically than he would have done had he not known the girl.
"Alice wasn’t the type to run away," he said. "To take up with a new boyfriend, to skip town without telling anyone. She was not the type to run away if she was mad at her parents. Besides, I don’t think she was. A little impatient at her father, maybe, but she knew he was only trying to protect her."
Rafiel nodded. Of course, he also couldn’t imagine Alice living with someone. In their time together, they hadn’t even got there. Heavy petting was about the extent of it. Of course, part of it was Rafiel’s heart-felt conviction that he should not marry. He should not have children. He should not risk creating anyone else who would be born with the beast inside; who would be incapable of controlling himself, of being fully a human.
It was the same reason he’d told Alice, in the end, that they should cool it. She had agreed, almost too readily. Perhaps she had never been that interested in him as a husband. Just as a highschool boyfriend. Rafiel Trall, sports star, cool guy on campus. Or perhaps she thought he had never loved her, or that he gave a damn that he had the money to go to a four year college and she didn’t.
He bit his lip. Wherever she was, he hoped she wasn’t thinking of him as a snob, or doubt that he had loved her – loved her despite his best efforts to control it. That he loved her still. If they could get her back...
"Anything ring any suspicious bells, dad? When you talked to people?" He had grown up with his father’s talk at the kitchen table. He knew what his father called his bells. It was some feeling of suspicion, never justified by what was happening, exactly, and yet almost always accurate.
"Well," his father said. He dug into his pocket and brought out his cigarette pack. He’d once been a pack a week smoker, but he’d cut it down and now smoked only on weekends and only outside of in the kitchen – per his wife’s decree. He turned on the fan over the stove, piously, though he sat at the table with his cigarette. "I don’t know." He blew a ring of smoke, something that used to fascinate Rafiel when he was a very little boy. "I don’t know. I would hate to..."
"Come on, dad," Rafiel said. "It’s just me."
His father looked at him, seriously, as if evaluating him – as if Rafiel too were a stranger, perhaps a suspect. It was so intent, so searching, that Rafiel almost blurted out that he’d been at college and he could prove it. He controlled himself with just a shuffle in his seat showing his discomfort.
"It’s the boyfriend’s place," his dad said. "Look... it’s nothing..."
"Blood? Some other woman’s belongings? What was it?"
His dad shook his head. "Just too clean. Really clean. Not the whole place. It’s just one of those student apartments, you know, small kitchen, living room, tiny bedroom. The living room and the bedroom were a mess – well, not really, but you know..." He allowed his lips to quirk. "Like you keep your room."
Rafiel shrugged. A book here, a book there, a bit of dust. His mom didn’t dust in his room, not since she’d thrown out his chem notes in his Junior year. "But the kitchen?"
"The kitchen was sparkling. Shining. Old vinyl tile on the floor washed till it shone white. It smelled of cleaners." He shrugged. "Look, it’s nothing."
"It could be a lot if someone was killed in that kitchen. If there was blood," Rafiel said.
"Or maybe they had a mess there, of any sort, and cleaned," his dad said. "They didn’t report her missing for three days, you know. They had heard all the stuff about how we wouldn’t do anything for three days, anyway, and she was over eighteen."
Rafiel nodded. The clean kitchen had triggered his father’s sense for something out of place. Rafiel couldn’t think of anything but an attempt to hide blood. "Did you bring a black light in?" he asked his father. "And the reactive spray?" There was a spray that reacted with hidden blood, which would then shine under black light.
His father gave him a quick, embarrassed grin. "Once. Quickly. I had Carl go and find a picture, you know, so I was left alone."
"Bleach and certain cleaners will change the blood," Rafiel said. "So that..."
His dad didn’t say anything. Of course that was what was bothering him all alone.
Middle of the night, and Rafiel lay awake in his room. The neighbor had set up one of those displays that should be worthy of the death penalty – particularly when set up before thanksgiving. Multicolored lights chased each other around the steep roofs of a house of Edwardian design, while Santa Claus and his elves sat in improbable neon on the roof.
On the front lawn, the reindeer and sleigh – fully illuminated, of course – competed with a family of ducks dressed as Victorian Carolers and not only lit up in horrible glory, but also emitted a faint jingle of Christmas music. Or at least they’d been until ten o’clock, when, by city ordinance, the sound had to be turned off or down. Now the ducks of Christmas had fallen silent.
And yet, Rafiel could not sleep and he got up and paced his bedroom, from dusty desk to bed cluttered all about with the report he’d borrowed from his dad once again. He wanted to read it. He was sure there was something there.
Because the thing about the kitchen being clean and the blood would presume that Carl killed her, and this was not something that Rafiel could even imagine Carl doing. Not even on drugs. Well, okay, maybe on drugs. Maybe that was why the kitchen was so clean. Because they’d been cooking meth. But he couldn’t imagine that either. Not Carl and Alice.
They were both serious. Rafiel knew Carl less than he knew Alice, of course, but he would say both of them were – or appeared to be – much more serious than himself. He could imagine them grimly saving to buy their first car or their first house. He couldn’t imagine them dealing drugs.
He walked again, from the desk – set in front of the window, through which the riot of lights spilled – to the bed, and then back. The black light hadn’t found anything. Perhaps it was drugs. Perhaps Alice had skipped town to escape being arrested. Or perhaps it was blood; perhaps the black light hadn’t picked up anything because it had been cleaned up. If there were some other way of telling.
In his mind, clear, stark, the idea of the lion. Of what things felt like to the lion. Of the lion smelling. Some smells were always very clear to the lion. Blood was one of those.
Rafiel had never turned into the lion on purpose, and certainly never to figure something out. But now the idea had come and lodged, and he could not avoid it. If there was blood there – if there had been blood, the lion would smell it.
He turned to his father’s report and got the address. He didn’t worry about finding the key. If Alice had been living in the house, he was fairly sure he could find her emergency one. In case she got locked out. She had a limited number of places where she liked to hide the spare key, but she always hid one, because she often forgot her keys.
Taking off his pajamas, he slid into a t-shirt and jeans. He was going to go hunting. He was going to go hunting as a lion. Heaven help him, but after all these years of keeping the beast down and keeping the beast hidden, he was going to shift on purpose, and he was going to use the abilities of his shifted self.
He rang the doorbell, first. And knocked at the door for a while. He had no intention of breaking in, unless he were sure there was no one in there. People got nervous when that happened. And he never, ever, ever wanted a human – other than his parents – to watch him change. He was helpless when he was between states, incapable of either speaking or forceful action. The last thing he needed was to be caught in that space and attacked. And he knew damn well that half the people attacked when they were scared.
After some minutes, he looked in the logical places and ran the key to ground under the flower pot next to the door. Alice’s habit of always leaving a key to her home in a place she could find came from – she said – her being so absent minded she often found herself locked out. Rafiel did the same at his parents’ house, though his reason was more that he often found himself out of doors and in lion shape.
He opened the door to the apartment, finding it a little hard to believe – truly believe – that Alice had been living with someone else, that she’d been living in a place he’d never before seen.
The apartment was crowded with furniture – most of it looking like garage sale finds. An old tv held pride of place, faced by two plastic chairs imperfectly covered in some Indian print throws. There were books everywhere, which made sense, and none of them was called how I plan to run away from my boyfriend. None of them was called how to kill your girlfriend for fun and profit, either, for that mater.
He made a circle of the living room, looked into the kitchenette where floors and counters and stove were indeed sparklingly clean, though there were now several plates, and a couple of empty noodle packages on the counter.
The bathroom was as Rafiel expected bathrooms to be in a student apartment, at least if one of the students was Alice, who would keep it from getting downright filthy. But no one had taken the trouble to make sure it sparkled, either. It was just a bathroom, with a bit of dust in the corners and a bit of grey mold here and there between the tiles.
And then clockwise from there, the bedroom, which was Alice’s bedroom from her father’s house – white bed, with princess draperies, and matching white dressers and desk. For some reason, seeing it gave Rafiel a cold feeling in his stomach, and made his eyes mist over.
He couldn’t take it. Not as a human, he couldn’t stand there and think. And besides, he had come here to change into a lion and to see what the lion’s nose might tell him.
He undressed quickly. It seemed odd to undress in the apartment of some guy he barely knew, but he undressed and dropped his clothes behind the sofa, and then he stood there and willed himself to change. It wasn’t easy. It was never easy. Sometimes, with the moon right and the right emotions taking over, it could happen almost instantly. This time, it happened slowly, almost painfully, his will driving his body to do something it didn’t want to do.
First came the cough, the spasmodic twisting and wrenching that changed his body; the grind of bone against bone; the splitting pain of the muscles swivelling to new positions.
The lion behind the sofa growled, softly, and padded a careful route between furniture that all looked to him like strange, looming animals. Rafiel, in the back of the lion’s mind, analyzed the smells and the feelings.
There was a smell of old food and a smell of – Rafiel winced – semen from the bedroom, and a smell of old food from the living room, popcorn mingling happily with cheap noodles and canned soups. And then... and then near the kitchen, he smelled it.
Blood. Not fresh, but bright, a symphony that overpowered all other thoughts. Blood, which to the lion smelled like prey, the hunt, and...
Rafiel forced the lion back behind the sofa, step by step. Then forced the change again, against the lion’s will, against the pain in his body. His face set and grim, he went back to the kitchen. He thought you wouldn’t need the black light. Carl wasn’t used to cleaning. He’d used bleach, clearly, but he’d forgotten that stoves and refrigerators weren’t attached to the floor, and that liquids would run beneath.
He pulled the stove forward, looked behind it. His knees went weak, his stomach curled, and he punched the wall, hard, over the stove.
"What?" Carl asked coming in, which, of course, made perfect sense, because he wouldn’t expect a stranger in his home. Rafiel, feeling a hundred years old, was sitting on one of the plastic chairs, his hands in his lap.
After the first moment of surprise, Carl seemed to recognize him. "Rafiel. You’re in town. Alice is... Alice is not... that is..."
"I know," Rafiel said, his voice croaking. "Alice is dead."
"She..." Carl ran his hand back through his hair, in utter confusion. "She... No! She... disappeared. The police are trying to find her. Maybe she tried... maybe she wanted to leave me."
"No," Rafiel said. His voice was very still. "Alice never left here." He got up. He led Carl to the kitchen. Rafiel had set two blades on the rickety card table that served as a dining table. "I’m guessing you killed her with this knife," a pointy, sharp knife. "And you dismembered the body with this," a vicious, heavy cleaver.
Carl’s mouth had dropped open. He made a lurch towards the knife, but Rafiel interposed an arm. They were much the same build, but Rafiel was more muscular. Nights as a lion, running did that. Carl crashed against his arm. He looked up. Again, his hand went up, nervously.
"It’s her blood all behind the stove," Rafiel said. "And I bet you if we pulled up the linoleum we’d find her under there blood too. Those cuts would allow it to leak under there." He felt very tired. Beyond anger. Carl had to be mad. It was the only explanation. Rafiel had dated Alice for years. Oh, he’d never slept with her, but even if he had... he couldn’t imagine her doing or saying anything that would deserve that kind of treatment. "I bet you they’ll find blood on those knives, Carl, and then they’ll look for the body. Where is it? What did you do with Alice?"
"It wasn’t Alice!" Carl said. A thin wail. He didn’t so much sit down as fall on his behind. "It wasn’t. It was... a lion. I..."
"A... lion?" Rafiel asked, his voice breaking as it hadn’t in years.
"I woke up in the middle of the night, and she wasn’t in bed, and I thought that was weird, and I got up... and there was this lion, in the kitchen. And I... I didn’t even know I was awake. I... I took that knife. It didn’t attack me. I thought... I had limited time, and I stabbed it before... before it turned on me." He looked up at Rafiel, his eyes looking as though he were staring at untold horrors. "But then... but then, as the lion died, it changed... and it was Alice!" The last word was outraged, a sound of complaint. "It was Alice, and I’d killed her, and ... and all I could do was get rid of the body. Yeah, I chopped her up and I..." His eyes looked glazed. "So much blood."
Rafiel found he had his phone out of his pocket and had speed dialed his dad.
It must have taken a considerable time, but it seemed to him the police car arrived almost immediately. He left his dad and his partner – both in their pajamas! – talking to Carl, and went outside. In the cool dark of the alley behind the apartment building, he tried to vomit, but ended up sobbing.
"She was like me," he said. "All along. We could have..." He didn’t even know how that sentence ended. We could have had litters of little lions? No. We could have shared our lives and supported each other? Perhaps.
His father refilled Rafiel’s coffee cup and looked concerned. "No use beating yourself up over it," he said. "There was no way you could have known. She wouldn’t tell you, anymore than you’d tell her. And then, perhaps it had never happened before you left. For you it started at twelve, maybe she only started last year."
"If I hadn’t left, she’d never have lived with him and she..."
"No one forced her to live with him, Rafiel. You’re not responsible for other people’s life choices."
"I know," he said. And he did. He wasn’t responsible for other people’s life choices, but he was responsible for his own. And if there were more people like him out there, how many of them were prone to suffering this kind of assault? How many of them were unprotected? How many might be killed – or kill – in the grip of the shift? Or just get lost and need a figure in authority to protect them. "You... you found her then?"
"Yeah, in the city dump, where he said he took the bags," his father said.
"He... What will people... I mean..."
"People will think he went crazy. Insanity defense is notorious for failing in Colorado, but in this case..." His dad shrugged. "... no one forced him to dismember her and get rid of the body." He paused. "But it’s a bad thing, Rafiel. I don’t think the boy would murder a person, in cold blood. And I don’t think it will be considered murder. Man slaughter, probably. A few years of psychiatric care and he’ll be out. And now he needs psychiatric care. Whether he needed it before or not."
Rafiel nodded, but he still felt the sense of terrible waste, the awful loss of a path not taken. You weren’t responsible for other people’s choices, but you were responsible for yours.
"When do you think the road will open, dad?" he asked.
His dad looked surprised. "The pass?"
Rafiel nodded and sipped his coffee.
"Weatherman said probably tomorrow."
"Good. I think I’ll go back to Denver. The... dorm and all... a matter of self-control."
"I see," his father said.
It was Rafiel’s choice to become a figure of authority, someone who would be law to those like him. Sometimes the only law. And perhaps prevent a tragedy like this from happening ever again.