"May the devil's head-cook conjure my bumgut into a pair of bellows"

For the stories in our second chapbook, each of us at The Homeless Moon chose as inspiration a fictional setting. Here’s the first scene of mine, “The Cannon and the Prophetess”:

One Kestrel pronounced the last phrase of the sonnet he had been reciting for the Duchess of Ennasin, and the crowd of loungers who made up her court erupted in applause. Acknowledging their flattery, he lowered himself to one knee.

“No, no,” said the Duchess, twiddling her manicured fingers to indicate he should arise. “You mustn’t prostrate yourself. Your primitive origins are of no consequence””you outrank me, Your Majesty!”

The assembled nobles tittered at their hostess’s kind condescension.

With an abruptness inappropriate to tact””but which he had come to know would be expected, secretly desired, of an educated savage such as himself””One Kestrel surged to his feet like a predator ready to strike. The bones and beads sewn in his robes of state rattled satisfactorily, the brilliant feathers of his royal headdress rippled, and he allowed his eyes to flash just so.

The nobles gasped, recoiling; this time, the nervous laughter of the Duchess betrayed an underlying terror. “My dear Captain Saturno, you are to be commended on such a magnificent find! If only you would allow me to purchase him from you.”

Captain Saturno took a knee himself. Resplendent in his shining steel cuirass and waxed moustache, he made a flourish, and taking her offered hand, placed his lips to her ring. “Your praise is acknowledged most humbly””but I am afraid King Kestrel cannot linger, for he is called away on an engagement at another court””and I’m sure Your Eminence could not wish to sully His Majesty’s reputation by making him late.”

“At the very least,” the flush Duchess begged, “allow me to offer His Majesty a parting gift””a boon. Name anything! It shall be wrapped and placed in his flagship’s stateroom, where my court’s generous donations to his cause already await.”

One Kestrel drew back overeducated lips from filed teeth, and throwing a ravenous glance at his master and keeper, uttered that too-familiar entreaty with which he’d caused himself to be expunged from so many a court. “There is one small secret I dearly desire. I can only
further impose on Your Eminence’s hospitality in this: if you would, provide me with your military’s recipe for gunpowder.”

Amidst the ensuing uproar, Saturno clutched One Kestrel by the elbow and propelled him from the court. His face was bloodless, blank””but whether with rage or something else, One Kestrel didn’t know.

Once they were safe aboard the caravel Constança, Captain Saturno barked orders to throw off the moorings and get underway. He escorted His Primitive Majesty One Kestrel, King of America, to his sumptuous, gift-strewn lodgings in the brig, shoved him inside, and slammed the door.

And here are the relevant lines from Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, from which I took my inspiration:

Pantagruel then asked what sort of people dwelt in that damned island. They are, answered Xenomanes, all hypocrites, holy mountebanks, tumblers of beads, mumblers of ave-marias, spiritual comedians, sham saints, hermits, all of them poor rogues who, like the hermit of Lormont between Blaye and Bordeaux, live wholly on alms given them by passengers. Catch me there if you can, cried Panurge; may the devil’s head-cook conjure my bumgut into a pair of bellows if ever you find me among them! Hermits, sham saints, living forms of mortification, holy mountebanks, avaunt! in the name of your father Satan, get out of my sight! When the devil’s a hog, you shall eat bacon.

I’m not going to make any attempt to synthesize one with the other; chances are it would turn out a disaster, and anyway I’d much rather just encourage you to read the story and form your own opinions.

So instead, I’ll close with Gustave Doré’s utterly demented evil jester illustration to Rabelais’ prologue, which starts like this:

Most noble and illustrious drinkers, and you thrice precious pockified blades (for to you, and none else, do I dedicate my writings)….

200 Chapbooks Equals Heavy

Particularly when they are twice as big! Last year’s Homeless Moon chapbook weighed in at 44 pages. This year’s: 80. The poor woman working the register at the printers nearly killed herself trying to get them up onto the counter.

Two weeks remain until Readercon and the “official” release. In the meantime, we will be sending out a few advance copies for review and/or to wedge under your chair legs so they don’t wobble. I am setting ten copies aside for ye F&SFesque blog promo. If you want one, and are willing to write a bit of a blog entry about what you thought of it, ask. If you are not the eleventh person to do so, you’ll get one.

Otherwise, you’ll just have to wait the two weeks and paypal me the two bucks for shipping. Less than that, even, if you’d prefer the electronic version. Not sure exactly when that’ll come off. But soon–in the next couple days. When it does, you’ll see it here.

Turn of Phrase

Nancy Kress had an interesting blog post the other day about her actual moment-by-moment process of constructing a paragraph: hashing out a couple of sentences, then shoving off the ones that come out of chronological order, cutting the excess words, fixing the sentence structure so it feels natural/fresh, fixing the language so it feels appropriate to the character and setting. A lot of what she says is pretty universal—which I think is one of the things that makes her such a great teacher of writing. She can point out the nose on your face, and somehow it comes across as a revelation, because you’ve never looked at it in quite that way.

Another of Nancy Kress’s great strengths is her economy of language, how she can build a subtle, complex story out of so little.

Thinking about this as I go along with my own writing, it occurs to me there’s one element of this sort of in-the-trenches prose styling that she hasn’t touched upon—possibly because there just is no way to codify it. It can be a painful thing to think about for those of us aspiring writers reading every how-to book we can get our hands on, hoping to someday write as well as Nancy Kress, but there’s always going to be a part of the writing process that’s ineffable, that can’t be fully grasped by rational means. There are too many words and too many subjects, too many unplumbable depths for the mere mind to fathom. Call it the unconscious, the minor deity of inspiration, or pure, dumb randomization, but at some point, you’re going to be hammering away at a sentence, and out will come something astonishing. Call that thing “turn of phrase”.

It’s hard to identify that thing in other people’s work, just because no matter how effortless and flawless a phrase or sentence seems, there’s no way to know the author didn’t agonize over it for hours, going through dozens of word choice options until they found the perfect one. The feeling I get when I come across such a phrasing, however, is unmistakable. And at that point, it doesn’t matter to me whether it came to the author in a flash of divine comprehension or not. Because even if I can’t pinpoint and identify the processes by which such a flash can occur (and if I could, I contend that the writing of fiction would cease to be art and become something soulless and mechanical), I can still train myself, by identifying that flash in the work of others, to recognize it when it comes forth from my own hands. And then, through everything I have managed to learn about the craft of fiction by studying the work and the teachings of masters, I can nudge and tweak and twist the rest of the sentence and paragraph and page to fit around it, carve away and slough off surplus until it stands out like it should.

This is why I keep seeking out great prose stylists in spite of the frustrating fact that whatever powers they possess may never be mine.

“A good strategist concentrates on what he can change,” says the divinely-touched sculptress to the brooding, crippled, chess-playing boy in Vandana Singh’s “The Room on the Roof”, which I happened to be reading over breakfast when this notion came upon me. That’s a wonderful line, and one of those truths of the human condition that are, for me, what writing is all about. But it’s not the line that stopped me in my tracks.

But sometimes a hopeless melancholy possessed her, and she thought the rain would never end, and that she and her brother and parents would never be happy or free, that beyond one wall there were others, an infinite concentricity of walls. Up in Aparna’s room every evening, she felt joy and yearning like a fever. and underneath it the fear that all she had gained was temporary, that one day the sculptress would leave them and the magic would go out of their lives. Sometimes she caught herself holding her breath, waiting for the change.

Show Not Tell

I just stumbled onto possibly the best object lesson in showing, not telling in fiction I’ll ever get.

In 2005, I wrote a story called “Hope and Erosion”, about a kingdom living in a sandcastle threatened by the rising tide. It was the second story I’d ever sold, to a Christian fantasy e-zine called Dragons, Knights and Angels. I was very proud of it at the time. At the time, it was the best story I’d ever written.

In 2004, all unbenknownst to me at the time, Jeffrey Ford wrote a story called “The Annals of Eelin Ok”, which was published in Datlow and Windling’s The Faery Reel, and won the Fountain Award for that year (and on whose website it can still be read for free). It’s based on the exact same premise: a tiny, fantastical being living out his life in a sandcastle made by human hands. His story is way better. I just listened to it on a Podcastle show from a couple weeks back, read by Rajan Khanna, who may be my new favorite podcast reader—his voice is understated, quiet and calm and eminently listenable, but somehow capable of hitting just the right emotional notes with the strength of a clapper striking a cathedral bell. It almost made me cry.

Here’s the lesson: everything about a story is more powerful when you’re experiencing it right there with the character. “Hope and Erosion” is told like a parable. Hermit, the hero, is a hero in the classic fairytale sense, the way Sir Gawain is a hero, or the Red Cross Knight. Which is fine, but there’s no understanding that kind of hero as a person. He’s away up there on the pedestal of myth.

Eelin Ok is a fairy, but he’s a person. His whole life is there on the page, his heart is open, and you’re in it.

I suppose this lesson may work better on me than on you, gentle reader, since you may not have had the luck to have written the exact same story as Jeffrey Ford. But if you feel so inclined, you might could get a similar effect if you read the two stories side by side.

Read the Jeff Ford story, anyway, if you haven’t. It’s awesome.