This week quality genre author James Everington has chosen my music for his “Music For Writers” section on his blog.
Thirty seven years ago, when I started university, one of the first people I met was a chap called Pete Wyer, then the guitarist in a friend’s band. We’ve remained good friends ever since, and in fact of all my friends Pete is the one I’ve known for longest. He’s a great bloke ― a musician and composer of many and considerable talents, a good friend, thoughtful, insightful and never less than interesting to talk to. We don’t see each other often, but it’s one of those friendships where you can pick up at any time, knowing the other will listen, will be interested, and do all the other things friends do.
Pete is an internationally reknowned composer, who recently published privately a collection of short stories. Recently I’ve had online conversations with authors and would-be authors about the nature of art, writing and commerce. At the back of Pete’s book was a coda, which I thought might make interesting reading for those entangled deep in the mire of the publishing world. Here it is.
What’s the Point of Art? (And: Shouldn’t We Rebrand the Species?)
“For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first.” ― Immanuel Kant
When you go to bed at night you go there to be transported to a strange, unknown land where you speak a different language: the language of symbolism and metaphor. Its a language that all homo sapiens speak and because we all speak this language we frequently use it in our creative works.
We are using symbolism right now, of course. These squiggly patterns on a page have no intrinsic meaning, if you doubt that cast your eye over a page of Sumerian script, it will only have meaning if you have learnt what each hieroglyph symbolises.
Why is symbolism important?
Symbolism allows us to convey large amounts of understanding with small units of information. If I say to another English speaker ‘kitchen’, ‘mother’, ‘climate’, ‘driving’ these arbitrary sounds represent concepts. This makes a huge difference because, while we may have massive storage room in our brains, our consciousness is tiny and typically has room for only a few items at a time. If we think of the brain being like a building the size of the British Museum, then consciousness is a little like the light from a pencil torch inside that building with the rest of it dark.
The brain does most of its work in this dark and, aside from having to manage bodily machinery such as intestines, hormone levels and the like, its day job also includes instincts, emotions and intuitions (the last one happens when stimulus queues up for the attention in the torch light of consciousness and doesn’t quite make it, giving us an ‘intuitive feeling’ about something. Hence it’s always a good idea to have a dialogue with your intuition since it’s telling you things you have unconsciously picked up, but not to assume it knows best; it’s as prone to mistakes as any conscious information).
Rebranding the species
Homo sapiens means ‘wise human’ – this is a terrible name for our species, firstly, because the most intelligent humans were probably homo neanderthalensis, the so called ‘Neanderthals’ whose brains were ten to twelve percent larger than ours, but more importantly our intelligence is not our most defining feature and, funnily enough, it may be that symbolism is. For example, homo erectus walked the earth for well over a million years, at least ten times longer than us, and was smart enough to develop tools, learn to make fire and to cook, so, where is the homo erectus cookbook? Or any book? When we study ancient humans we find homo sapiens are the first hominids to create ‘art’ and that is very telling.
Of course, art isn’t the reason for the ‘success’ of the species (‘success’ is a matter of perspective here) it’s a product of it. Symbolism allows us to create language, and language allows us to know each other’s ‘inwardness’; our thoughts, ideas, emotions. In other words it allows us to network and it’s this which defines our species. Any human-made object you encounter is likely to be the product of an unimaginable number of human interactions. Take the pen on my desk as I write this; were I to tell the story of this pen it would need to include its designers, manufacturers, the people who promoted the product, the ones who transported it, the retailers, but, of course, that would be the tip of the iceberg: each of these stories is a small part of a whole series of other stories: who the designers each studied design with, who developed the complex polymers that made the plastics possible, who financed them… then there’s story of the ink, the paper.. let alone the vast web of infrastructure that meant that all of the people in these stories could be who they were in the first place; providing them food, water, medicine, shelter, transport, schooling, parenting and so on. The accomplishments of any single human, no matter how brilliant, are nothing without our ability to form these networks, to exchange and build on each other’s ideas. Our image of ourselves is misleading. Take a look at a picture of a feral child or adult; that’s you or I without the network.
If intelligence was the reason societies developed then not only homo neanderthalensis but squirrels, cats, badgers, monkeys would all have evolving societies too, even if they developed more slowly.
Rebranding exercise: homo sapiens
So, while I’m here to talk about art, along the way I’m going to audaciously rebrand our species, I hope you don’t mind: we are not homo sapiens we are homo communicare, communicating humans. If we one day learn to overcome the evolutionary programming in our brains that gives rise to that great deceiver who masquerades as an angel of light, the ego, we will have done what the philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed when he said: “For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole”.
Enough about the species and its new brand name, back to art. We all speak the language of symbolism and metaphor in our dreams and so we use that language in ‘art’, but why do we then get into such confusion about it? I’ve seen people get red-faced and yell “is this art?”, with undisguised contempt. This is silly and many people are robbed of the enjoyment or experience of art because of it.
Here’s the root of the problem: the word ‘art’ has two meanings and both are in common use, worse, both regularly find themselves side by side in the same sentence and sit there in sullen, silent conflict, refusing to admit their differences.
So, let’s deal with the first: ‘Art’ is originally a 13th century word that means “skill as a result of learning or practice,” – this is still its meaning in, for example, a ‘Bachelor of Arts’ degree, but then in the 19th century, a French writer, Théophile Gautier, came up with the phrase ‘l’art pour l’art’: which became in English ‘art for art’s sake’. This was part of a movement against the idea that creativity should serve some didactic or moral purpose and it was the philosophical fork in the road from which a tangle of misunderstanding ensues to this day.
‘Art for art’s sake’ has come to be a euphemism for self-indulgence and pointlessness, but in fact it’s a good philosophical definition of the thing we’re seeking to describe: our motivation, art as our creative response to the ‘universe’. When we make things for this reason, we make ‘art’. Whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art is a completely different question.
Art is not Science
In science we seek empirical understanding of the universe, in art (as used in the later meaning) we make a creative response to it. Science deals in universal laws and provable theories which have to be tested beyond doubt. Art is anything but universal, every day in galleries around the world people stand side by side in front of paintings and have entirely different responses to them.
In the fog of different meanings we often conflate ‘art’ into both meanings: Our highest skills of craftsmanship married to our most profound and imaginative creative visions, we step back and say, in appropriately awed tones; ‘it’s a work of art!’. What we really mean is that we consider it a great work of art.
But there’s a problem; there is no universal definition of the experience of art – just ask the two people standing side by side in front of the painting: One of them may be transported to heavenly realms by it while the other may be utterly indifferent.
The answer is easy. We should use the word ‘art’ in the same way we use the word architecture. Architecture is ‘the complex or carefully designed structure of something.’ – the word doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the buildings or other structures but it groups things within a useful category so that we’re talking about the same thing: we can decide later whether it’s good, bad, unusual or common architecture but we can agree: it’s architecture.
Of course, it gets still more confusing because ‘art’ is regularly lumped in with ‘entertainment’, the dictionary definition of which is ‘effortless engagement’ and the ‘performing arts’? That’s just asking for trouble; the performers are regularly described as ‘artists’ in the 13th century meaning of the word whereas the work they are performing may be considered ‘art’ in the 19th century sense. Let alone the fact that still others try to measure art by its commercial value but its financial value is merely what someone will or has paid for it, and yet more by it’s popularity, but popularity fluctuates and is strongly tied to exposure.
It’s not surprising that we end up with red faced people who can’t agree because they are using the same word to talk about different things and trying to evaluate them by using different criteria.
You don’t owe art anything and art doesn’t owe you anything. You can live a happy, wonderful, fulfilled life without ever engaging with art, and many millions of people have done so, so don’t feel obliged, some of my fellow artists may scream ‘heresy!’ but if you opt out the world doesn’t end. However, before opting out, consider that art is the place we share our wildest creativity, our highest and our most extraordinary visions, and this is a party you’re invited to. It really can move, inspire and inform and it really does transform lives. Many people are passionate about art not out of pretension but because they love the world that it invites them into and it brings them enormous joy. Some would claim it deepens their experience of being alive.
When you go to bed at night you go there to be transported to a strange, unknown land where you speak a different language: the language of symbolism and metaphor, its a language that all homo sapiens speak and because we all speak it we frequently use it in our creative works. Hence, when Marcel Duchamp produces a urinal and puts it in a gallery (‘Fountain’, 1917) or John Cage produces a work that invites us to contemplate four minutes thirty three seconds of silence (4’33”, 1952) then we accept these as art because they are invitations to explore Duchamp and Cage’s creative responses to the universe – whether they are ‘good art’ or ‘bad art’ is up to you and to each person who encounters them.
However, while there’s no single definitive experience of a work of art I believe there are helpful ways to approach it. I’ve met people who are baffled and put off by art and who can blame them with all the confusion about it? (I’ve also met people who feel obliged to experience art and wondered what on earth they get out of it). So, in hopes it may be of help to someone somewhere, here’s my personal rule of thumb for considering any work of art (I call them the ‘Four E’s’):
Express: What is the artist seeking to say? Emotionally, philosophically etc
Explore: Are they doing anything new or just regurgitating old ideas?
Engage: Does it ‘resonate’ with the human experience? Or are the ideas so niche that only a few can connect to it?
Execute: So much for the ideas, were they able to pull them off?
If Art has anything to recommend it…
Art invites us on a journey and some journeys will mean more to one person than to another. One journey may be more demanding than another but you may find when you get to the pinnacle that the view is breath-taking and unforgettable. Others may make you smile but quickly be forgotten.
In the end, ‘art’, the place where we share our creative response to the universe, is, I think, a healing place. It can draw our attention to amazing things we’d otherwise have overlooked, make us laugh, cry and share more deeply the experience of being human.
It’s the last one, the ability to share the experience of looking at ourselves and others, that to me is the richest thing that art has to offer. It’s uniquely human and something that great wealth and extraordinary technology don’t offer and while in theory religions and philosophies with noble ideas do, ideas are often doomed to the same fate: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Communism, Capitalism*, Nationalism and ping pong teams throughout history have hit the same problem: we attach our ego to each of them and out there in the darkness of the brain an unconscious primal mechanism becomes active that, if unchecked, quickly turns those teachings into ‘us and them’ (of course, there are many devotees of all these faiths and philosophies who adhere to them and do wonderful things, nonetheless, in each of them we can find people doing extraordinarily destructive things that seem contrary to the teachings). The same pattern plays out over and over again throughout human history: psychologically we never kill ‘us’ only ‘them’. Empathy helps us see that this is nonsense because ‘they’ are ‘us’.*
Perhaps this is the point that underlies art: it helps us find our deeper connection to ourselves and each other. When we have a profound sense of connection and empathy we have the potential to break down the archaic barriers such as race, culture and gender that have haunted our species throughout its history, to one day become the ‘wise humans’ we thought we already were.
* In Adam Smith’s 1776 ‘Wealth of Nations’, capitalism had noble ideas, capitalism has been responsible for much initiative and advancement but anyone who trots these out as justification today should be thwacked over the head repeatedly with a gigantic graph illustrating the narrowing fortunes of the 99% of people who actually live in capitalist societies. In 2nd Century Britain, in response to the rebellious Britons, the Romans created an aspirational system under Agricola, where a very few had the chance to escape penury and join an elite, ruling society. In the chronicles of that time (by Tacitus) it says “because they didn’t know better they called it civilisation when it was in fact their slavery.”
‘Ancient terror, modern error, future era.’ Otter shook himself. ‘Mean much to you?’
Two years after being washed up on a remote beach, freedivers Orc and Cass still have no idea who they are or where they came from. Worst of all, they feel like lovers but look like brother and sister, and must repress their instincts for fear of committing a terrible mistake.
Now at last they’ve tracked down a psychic artefact powerful enough to restore their memories. But others also seek its forbidden magic. To reach it, deep within a sunken ruin, they must flirt with a ruthless occult conspiracy, one intent on summoning an ancient goddess to destroy the dreadnoughts of the Empyreal fleet.
The depths of the sea, of the past, of the world’s collective mind: down there are truths, but also madness and despair. And a power that will plunge the world back to a new dark age, if it can’t be stopped…
New author Bryan Wigmore is a member of the SFF Chronicles forum, with many friends and fans there. Bryan and I chatted over the course of a few weeks about his Snowbooks debut novel The Goddess Project.
Stephen: To start with, what characters do you have for this novel?
Bryan: The two main characters in The Goddess Project are Orc and Cass, a young man and woman of about twenty, victims of magical amnesia. They feel like they used to be lovers, but can’t act on that because there’s a suspicion they might be siblings. As part of their search for the truth, Orc develops a dangerous relationship with the psychic residue of an ancient goddess, which Cass, the more rational one, has to try to rescue him from. Then we have Tashi, a young warrior from a mountain monastery sent with his ascetic master on a mission to the “lower world” they see as being ruled by the Witch Mother; Martin Seriuz, a naval officer intent on saving his country from war by physically manifesting a powerful goddess to act as peacekeeper; Lucian Daroguerre, magician and Seriuz’s co-conspirator, who also has plans of his own; and Hana, a shaman interested in the Great Mother figure and what she meant for human development. Plus various animal spirit guides and whatnot.
Stephen: What led you to write in this particular world?
Bryan: Partly, I was interested in exploring why we might have switched from female gods to male (if indeed we did); the figure of the Great Mother; shamanism; and the division/war between what have been called the Apollonian and Dionysian (broadly, definition versus dissolution, or I guess order versus chaos).
Would any of those tie in with your own interests/writings, for instance matrilineal societies?
Stephen: There’s evidence in Homer’s Odyssey of matrilineal arrangements. But the whole ‘-archy’ thing began with men taking over by force. It’s a very interesting area, and there’s been many super books written, mostly by women historians, on how and why men took control. I used a lot of these ideas in my 1996 debut Memory Seed. But you only have to look at the hate, disgust and fear of women expressed by every single religion since 3000 BC to grasp how men think; it could hardly be more obvious.
How will you be working in the prehistoric “Great Mother” concept into your books?
Bryan: I agree the evidence for women-dominated societies is slight (though I think there is evidence that something with much greater equality was around on e.g. Thera, now Santorini). But it’s a powerful idea.
I first came across it in Riane Eisler’s book The Chalice and the Blade, and worked the concept into a previous story which involved a semi-sentient planet trying to work itself out from under the oppressive heel of colonists from Earth: effectively earth goddess versus sky god, a dynamic that has always interested me. I see the “great mother” as a primal force of both nurturing and destruction – the embodiment of the cycle of life – as Nature might have been seen at the beginning of language development. Other later goddesses are more developed parts of her, but not truly differentiated. As I said, I’m interested by the switch from this kind of earth-goddess worship to mountain/sky-dwelling gods, and what drove that switch. You cite the triune of male disgust/hate/fear of women. Of those three, I believe fear is the driving force, as it leads to the others. In fact I realised quite late on that what I was seeking to do in The Goddess Project (or more perhaps in the rest of the series) is to ponder the question “why do men fear women?” – not on an individual level so much as one of collective myth and symbol. How would you answer that?
Stephen: Blimey, where do I start!
Bryan: Do you accept the premise, though? If so, well, we could take the advice of surely one of the most feared women in fact or fiction, Maria von Trapp: “Let’s start at the very beginning: a very good place to start.” At what point in a man’s or boy’s life does this perhaps begin, and why?
Stephen: There’s strong evidence that basic gender stereotypes are in place by the age of 2, which is a pretty frightening thought. I think most men fear women because they believe they have a lot to lose if they lose their masculinity, which, in my opinion, most women would like them to do. The whole patriarchal concept is a stack of lies created to make a mythology of male superiority. But any boy would do that, given the chance… Boys are socialised to remain boys at any age.
Tell me more about the set-up of your novel.
Bryan: The set up of my story-world is based on an exaggerated split between female earth deities and male sky deities. Thousands of years ago in the world’s history, there was a successful and peaceful agrarian society based on the worship of an earth goddess, in which her consort, the Sun-King, willingly sacrificed himself at the end of his seven-year reign in order to ensure her fertility. (You’ll probably recognise the idea from Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, etc.) Until he refused. I’ve tied that in with the ideas of a Buddhist mystic writer Ken Wilber, who correlates the phases of growth in societal human consciousness with those we all undergo as individuals growing to adulthood. The phase I’m most interested in is the growth from unconscious to ego. He roughly relates this to the phase of moving from goddesses of vegetation/earth to gods of mountains/sky. So in my book, this is where humans move from body-focus to mind-focus. What drives this is complex and I haven’t quite worked it out, but it might have something to do with men wanting to escape the feeling that they are inferior because they cannot create life. By moving away from body-focus, indeed almost to body-denial, they reduce the importance of child-bearing, which is beyond them. The present-day story (set in a world roughly equivalent to ours of about 1900, partly so I could include a recognisable patriarchy like the Victorians or Prussians) in part deals with the consequences of that split, which in my world has been widened by such things as an actual god of technology.
Does that make sense, and does any of it chime with your own ideas?
Stephen: Yes, it does – interesting stuff. I think there’s a lot to the idea that men were envious of women’s child-bearing ability, but I suspect there was more to it. I think that was probably a symptom of something still deeper in the development of human (for want of a better word) psychology. We’re much more constrained by our environment than we realise, I think.
But the whole notion of moving to ‘The Word’ as the principle of creation mirrors the arrival of patriarchy. I’m currently reading The Discovery Of Death In Childhood And After by Sylvia Anthony, and it’s reminded me how much amazing work was done through the 20th century by child psychologists. So much yet to learn!
Bryan: I think there was more than envy of child-bearing too, and I think it might have something to do with separation from the idea of the body and from nature, a process of which language is part, as you point out. I think it’s actually part of a larger tension between what we might call “order” and “chaos”, or what Nietzche and Camille Paglia term Apollonian and Dionysian – definition versus dissolution, ego versus id, man versus nature, mind versus body. Our society, over thousands of years, has swung very markedly towards the Apollonian, and increased gender equality hasn’t swung us back; we’ve just adopted different ways of keeping it there. Maybe we can come back to that, though my ideas aren’t definite. I could mention a couple of books that helped shape them.
Having mentioned my main characters’ amnesia, the title Memory Seed, and some things I’ve read about The Girl With Two Souls, suggests memory is an important theme for you. Is that the case, and if so, why do you think that is?
Stephen: Not really. Consciousness is the main theme for me. Those ideas of separation that you mention are comparatively new – post-Descartes.
I’d be very interested to discover your reading list.
Bryan: Well, your Memory Seed for one! I remember your mentioned it before as having something to say about gender dominance, and a quick look revealed vegetation as a major element, so I’ve been reading it. I think I mentioned in the reading thread that it reminded me a bit of Winterlong by Elizabeth Hand. Have you ever read that, or anything by her? I certainly can’t say Memory Seed reminds me of anything else I’ve read (and I mean that in a good way).
Stephen: I think I have read Winterlong; I certainly read one of hers, and loved it. I think it was Aestival Tide? It was quite like Memory Seed.
Bryan: As for my reading list relating to these topics: The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler was what introduced me to the main idea. Up From Eden by Ken Wilber then developed it and gave it a Buddhist/ mystic/ consciousness angle that I found very interesting. Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia introduced me to the idea of the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy and how it might relate to gender relationships and how they’re expressed in art. Male Fantasies by Klaus Theweleit was a hugely interesting academic study of fiction and memoir produced by members of the Freikorps, post-WW1 proto-fascists, and showed how men of a rigid and militaristic patriarchy perceived themselves and their bodies, and women and theirs. Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand is a novel that draws on the ideas of the ancient matriarchal society as outlined in The Chalice and the Blade.
Stephen: Women In Prehistory, Margaret Ehrenberg, The Myth of the Goddess, Anne Baring & Jules Cashford, Rosalind Miles, The Women’s History of the World, Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman.
Bryan: I was interested to find on reaching the end of Memory Seed that nature didn’t seem to have reacted against human activity by a process of evolution as we understand it, but as a decision by a planet with some level of sentience. Is that a fair interpretation? The idea of a sentient planet doesn’t really come into The Goddess Project, but it will become important later in the series. What were your thoughts behind your decision (if I’ve interpreted it right) and do you think a sentient planet is a useful image or concept in terms of viewing our own planet and its relationship with us?
Stephen: It’s really the people of Kray who give their interpretation of “what Earth is doing” more than anything else. I’m a strict Lovelockian, so don’t go in for any ‘sentient planet’ stuff, despite being of the hippy persuasion. I did use artistic licence a bit though, I have to confess… (Having said that, in Urbis Morpheos I did have a go at trying the notion out, by using extremely long time-scales.) The storms/rain etc are a result of global warming, i.e. the massive input of human-created energy into the atmosphere. The oestrogen-mimicking chemicals are pollution, as is much else. I do think though that evolution can work, in certain circumstances, on the short time scale, the classic example being moths in the Black Country.
Bryan: The thing in Memory Seed that made me think sentient planet was the way nature reverted to what we might call benign after the humans had gone. Now, I guess we don’t know (or you might!) how much time had passed, but I assumed the fact that it had happened during the Cowhorn Tower’s lifetime meant it must have been thousands of years at best, rather than millions. Given that everything before that had been scientifically explicable (with maybe some licence) it surprised me.
By the way, is Kray on Earth? I assumed it was, but then in a recent post somewhere you say that Flowercrash moves “back to Earth” or something.
Stephen: Yes, Kray is on Earth – in Wales, in fact! The Welsh clues and context are all there…
Bryan: I thought it might be Wales when there was the Men Eye bridge, but I didn’t spot other clues. Because there seemed to be what I perceived to be a lot of Dutch-style naming, I wondered if it was South Africa. What did I miss?
Stephen: My original idea was to have three distinct cultures in Kray, one “vaguely exotic,” one “vaguely European” – I did German at school, hence the kinda German/Dutch thing. The other culture was the Krayan one, where everybody spells their name with a y. I developed this three-culture thing from reading Mary Gentle books…
Bryan: You said you were of the “hippy persuasion”. Can I ask, did you ever give any credence to what we might call ley-line-type stuff?
Bryan: I take it that’s a yes? No, seriously, I’ve been having some thoughts about how to reconcile a classic “hippy mindset” (of the 1970s variety) with a firm belief in proper science, and if you are a person who’s moved from one to the other, I’d have a few questions for you.
Stephen: I’ve always been a scientist, but I love the alternate/counter/hippy way because of the environmental concerns, general humanity and liberalism, and of course the FANTASTIC music! I must say though, a lot of my more cosmically inclined friends find my inability to believe in crystals, ley lines and healing by hot cats on the back a little odd… Recently I annoyed a former member of Ozric Tentacles by posting on FB a link to an article on how cannabis cures absolutely nothing at all… He didn’t unfriend me though!
Bryan: I wonder how many people adhere to such beliefs because they have a deep psychological need, maybe a genetic one, for “meaning”. The problem is, perhaps, that we’re supposed to have only one reality, which should be objective, so in someone whose need for “meaning” is strong, this could make them reject scientific evidence that counters their beliefs, and thus lead to a diminishing in their eyes of science generally. This is the kind of narcissism you mentioned in your recent blog post, I think. I’ve been pondering whether it’s feasible to have a meaningful relationship with a “god” one does not believe objectively exists, by some kind of “magical” exercise, and whether this might help those predisposed to the mystical lose the contradiction between the objective and subjective worlds.
Stephen: Everyone has an innate need for meaning, I think, it’s a – perhaps the – fundamental part of the human condition. But because of the way consciousness works, we find ourselves at a comparatively primitive stage of development – only 500 years of effective scientific understanding of the universe – yet with not much progress within ourselves. Our understanding of ourselves lags way behind… only 120 years since Freud’s discovery of the unconscious/subconscious, which kicked off so many developments. People lose the contradiction by simply compartmentalising thinking, or by sheer self-deception. There’s plenty of thinkers who’ve shown how most people, religious, atheist, hippy or scientist, compartmentalise thinking in order to keep contradictory aspects of life in their minds all at the same time. You and I both do. We all have stuff in our childhood that sets this off. One of the tasks of life is to overcome all this.
Thank you, Bryan! Fascinating conversation, and very best of luck with the novel.
The Goddess Project by Bryan Wigmore is out now from Snowbooks.
Today I’d like to present a new guest blog from Jo Zebedee.
By an extraordinary coincidence – and I promise you this was not designed – Jo’s piece describes something that I am this very day wrestling with, since yesterday I completed the copy edit on the Factory Girl trilogy. So I greatly sympathise with Jo, and am feeling a bit melancholy myself…
Anyway; I hope you enjoy what she has to say.
LOSING A WORLD
Last night, I lost a world. Which sounds careless of me.
It went like this. In the morning, I looked over the final copy edit of the last book of my Inheritance Trilogy. I changed four sentences around and sent the document back. I can’t tell you what was the last word I typed. I can tell you it wasn’t The End.
That evening, around 10, I got a message back to say the document was good. It was gone to the publisher for formatting.
Gone. I wouldn’t be working on Abendau again. No more deciding if Kare was over-thinking things (probably) or Sonly too waspish (she had her moments). No more musing over whether it’s data pad or datapad, and where commas should go. It is done. I have no more input into the book.
Now, this is my fourth book release, so I am used to that sense of completion. But this is the first time I’ve finished something with the expectation of never returning to the world. In book one and two, I always had the next one to keep me busy. Inish Carraig, although a standalone, is crying out for a companion book (as are many of the readers). But, at this stage – and, of course, time might change this – I have no plans for another Abendau book.
Which means the world I’ve been developing since I was 16, the characters I’ve spent so many hours musing on, are gone. And I’m feeling….
I’m proud, first and foremost. Novels are hard to write – hell, short stories are hard to write – but a trilogy? From the off? That’s harder than I ever anticipated (or I’d never have started the process. I’m determined, but I’m not a masochist.) It’s not just the words, it’s learning to tell a story, to stay close to the characters. It’s learning to find my voice, if I have. (I think I have. Except that in each story it goes for a wander in the woods and comes back with pine needles hanging off it, looking a little older and more thoughtful.)
I’ve had – mostly – good reviews. Some better than others, but overall, I can’t complain at all.
So, yes – proud. I wrote a quarter of a million words that people mostly enjoy.
I’m also a little sad. I won’t be the writer of Abendau anymore, but the author of it. That change of status, moving from being active to passive, feels bigger than it should. Abendau is now my back story. I will be releasing new stuff and, whilst I will of course continue to talk about Abendau, it will be in the past tense. In Abendau I tried to create a very human hero. I tried to. I did. I’m not trying to anymore.
All writers have to do this. Release, promote, let go. Like sending a child out to the world, at some point stories must stop being a writer’s obsessional focus and find their own place.
There is a plus side to this process. I like discovering new writers. I will give most writers a go. But – whisper it – a writer’s first book is rarely their best. Already there are things I would change about Abendau’s Heir and no doubt a year or so down the line, I’ll feel the same about the sequels. But that first book often has an honesty* about it that gets lost as we learn the craft more. I’d like to think that people who read the Abendau books will see the freshness of a first idea and climb aboard for the ride of where my mind might go. (I can’t say for sure but spooky fairylands, deep lakes holding secrets, and a frontier fantasy world are good bets).
What I really like is finding a writer that I enjoy the book by AND who has a backlist. I can happily spend months trawling the goldmine that is a writer’s backlist.
In a year’s time, Abendau will be my back list. By then, the books will be out, and the audiobooks. It will be a project that is complete and contained. But it will not be a dead project, because in it is much of what shapes my current writing: great characters, fallible and likeable; some imagery that I love and will always keep with me; a storyline that grew enough to sustain three books; a world and planet that came from whatever part of my mind creates such things.
Which brings me back to my feelings, and I’ll end where I started. I’m very, very proud to be the author of the Inheritance Trilogy. I’m proud of my Abendau world. I hope it continues to entertain people for many years to come.
*Some early books that come to mind, for me, as defining an author in a fresh way are:
Shards of Honour, Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s not one of my favourite books of the series, but there is something in the portrayal of Aral that he loses later when he becomes more statesmanlike. Aral shrinks as the books go down, just as much as Cordelia grows.
Salem’s Lot, Stephen King. Not his first book (which was Carrie, which has a feel to it unique to that book), but his second, Salem’s Lot remains, for me, a masterclass in horror. In fact, I vastly prefer King’s early work. He had a fun side to freaking the hell out of me, and a certain ’70s/’80s cheesiness that I enjoyed.
The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffeneggrer. If there was ever a book and a character it feels like someone was born to write, this – and Henry de Tamble – is it.
The final Abendau book can be found here. I hope you enjoy it.
In this guest post the tireless Jo Zebedee, esteemed author of Abendau’s Heir, talks about her new self-published novel Inish Carraig, which is soon to be available (link below).
On the cusp – on characters, and why they don’t stay in their box.
I write stories which are hard to neatly categorize. Stories that have teenagers in them, and adults. I often write about characters on the fine line that divides childhood and adulthood, about the connections that reach across ages, about what adults can learn from the young and the young from the old.
Cat Stevens made a fortune doing that. I find myself in publishing limbo for the same.
Firstly, I can’t define why I write stories with so many characters in their late teens. I can’t tell you why I often bring an older point of view to that story. I know, hand on heart, I know, it does not make my stories an easy sell. Agents want a book that they can sell as YA or adult. Publishers want a book that goes on a shelf in the bookstore where it fits and everyone knows just what’s so.
What I can say is that the inter-relationships between my characters are part of what makes my writing tick. It doesn’t seem to be putting readers off (publishers, take note) – the first reviews on Inish Carraig have been tremendous.
So, why does it work for me? Well, firstly, we live in a society. I talk to teenagers – and children – all the time. They’re part of my life, and not just because I have kids but because we don’t – yet, anyhow – have little glass houses for us all to sit in our groups in. To not show that interplay between generations makes a story one-dimensional to me. It lacks the pathos of life, where we get taken from our comfort zone and forced to confront concepts and people we don’t know.
At the centre of Inish Carraig is a relationship between a teenager and a policeman. There are other relationships, adult to adult, teen to teen, child to teen. It’s the mish-mash of interactions that happens in life. But at the very, very centre, this is John and Henry’s story.
When I subbed the book to agents, a clear message came back. Many loved it. Nearly all liked the setting. But not one could sell it as it was – I had to go either YA or adult with it.
I went YA. John is the main protagonist. It’s his story. And I thought it was right, and that Henry could go. Having revisited it, I can see how wrong I was. Cutting one out, sidelining their point of view – I write big, meandering point of views with thoughts and feelings – lost the power of the story. Sure, the plot stood up, and the characters were still there, but the part of the story that was human, that translated the horror to the personal level, was gone.
At one point, I wondered if I had plumped for the other option and made Henry the focus, if that would work. Perhaps I had chosen the wrong point of view?
I hadn’t. Neither character stands alone. And so, when I got my sticky mitts back on my story after subs had run through, I put both of them back in. John, in all his feisty, pissed off at life, teenage glory (and he’s right to be pissed off, life’s dealt him a bad set of cards). Henry with all his guilt-laden, conflicted thoughts. Together, they work. They strengthen each other. They understand each other, in an odd way. They drive the pace and the story forwards, keep the momentum up, and support each other’s story when it flags.
So, um…. Lesson learned, yes? I write one or the other, but not combined, right?
Well, no. My work continues to be invaded by these mixed up ages. Abendau has the teenage Kare, and then the adult. In the sequels teen povs are as important as the adults – and add depth to the world portrayed. In my next book, a fantasy in the Antrim glens, Amy is 18, on the cusp of adulthood but it’s her mother’s actions that drive the plot and add the depth and danger. Even the book I’ve just embarked on, a supposedly YA story is becoming a little older, creeping to the top end of teen. I see an adult in it who might become more important. I see the tendrils of connectivity growing as I write, the importance of people around us, not just our tiny adult or teen world.
So, I’m resigned to it. I can’t help myself writing stories that cross definitions nor do I want to. What that means for me as a writer, whether I will find a niche that accepts what I write, I’ll wait and see. All the indications to date are that I will. Either way, I’ll write it. I’m not sure anyone intent on an agent and publisher should.
Unless, of course, they can’t help themselves.
The novel is here on amazon.
Occasionally I’ll feature a guest blog from established or up & coming authors, and today I have something a little unusual – an extract from the work of a new author. Alex Davis is published, via the energetic Tickety Boo Press, with his first novel recently appearing. Alex is active in Derby and the Midlands generally, and has established himself as a much admired, energetic and wide-ranging man. He runs Edge-Lit (which I visited a couple of weeks ago, and much enjoyed), the upcoming Sledge-Lit, plus his own Boo Books imprint. Very active in the Derby publishing and literary scene, he is without doubt a name to watch… and here he is!
So, with the days counting down on my July Blogswap Trail, I’m offering up a few extracts from my debut novel The Last War. And while today might be the third extract, this probably would have made sense to put first really – here’s the prologue, in which we see life created where there was none before…
A Birth in the Stars
Sejurus had grown used to many things about space. He was accustomed to the faint and endless sensation of movement around him, the limited chance to converse with his fellows, the hours of scientific analysis and research required of him.
The one thing he had never grown used to was the darkness.
Broken only be the intermittent light of distant stars, the shadows enveloped everything beyond the harsh glare of the ship. On the whole, he preferred not to look beyond the viewscreen, being much more comfortable in the small confines of his quarters or studying within his laboratory. But this was a momentous occasion, and one that he was determined not to miss.
The sound had become familiar, but he had never cared about the cargo like this before. Creeping into view, sending blazing contrails into the infinite dark, went the phalanx of seeding pods. He tried to count them, but quickly lost track as they made their way towards the surface of the virgin planet.
Within their metallic flesh lay the core of new life, the beginnings of a race previously unseen to the universe. Sejurus had been involved from the very earliest days of this burgeoning experiment, and now he would finally see his efforts bear fruit. By now the seeding pods had disappeared so far into the distance that they must be breaking the atmosphere, preparing for descent and landing.
‘Sad to see them go, Sejurus?’
The voice from behind him is bold and clear. The voice of a leader, and one who had earned that title many times over.
‘Sad is the wrong word, Canturus. It is a… mixture of emotions.’
‘I hope that none of them are negative, Sejurus. You should be most proud of your work.’
‘It is too soon to start swelling with pride. There is no knowing yet if this experiment will be a success.’
‘The measure of success is to create life, Sejurus. What that life decides to do once we have seeded it… well, that is beyond our control.’
‘Perhaps. The pressure here is…’
‘Greater than anywhere else? Of course it is. That is precisely why you were chosen. You are one of the most intelligent among us, an intellectual titan among mental giants.’
‘I appreciate your words, Canturus. They mean much coming from you.’
‘Do not speak to placate me. I would like to know what troubles you.’
Sejurus turns to face Canturus for the first time. His superior is dressed simply, a marker of both modesty and confidence. To look at them, you could consider them equals, but nothing could be further from the truth. Canturus’s authority does not come from trinkets or garments, but emerges from within him.
‘What troubles me is how much lies at stake on this new race. What goes on here will determine much of not only our own future, but perhaps what lies ahead for all Ensium.’
‘What if… what if I have made some fatal miscalculation? An error in my workings?’
‘I have the greatest of belief in you, my friend. I doubt that any such thing has happened.’
‘Even if it has not, even if all the equations were perfect, what of it? The seeding pods will already have landed on the surface. As we speak, the simplest forms of life will be vented from the pods. The evolution will be starting shortly, and ending soon enough. That is when the imponderables begin!’
‘Why do you worry about things beyond your control? Your role is complete – you have given them every chance to take the right path, to be the greatest of the races that we have birthed.’
‘But what if they do not, Canturus? So much will be lost!’
‘Nothing will be lost. All that we can do in this venture is gain. We may have to begin again, and we are not afraid to do so. If that time comes – and I hope it does not – you will once again be the man to lead the efforts.’
‘After such a failure?’
‘Failure is much of what enables us to learn. We have learned many lessons in our time, and no doubt there will be many more to come. The wise seek to avoid repeating these errors again. To fail does not make you a failure.’
Sejurus turns away from his ally, his disagreement tacit. Canturus steps alongside him, his eyes seeing the same darkness. The Animex have always sought to bring light to these shadowy wastes.
‘Would you stay, Sejurus? Would you watch over them as a custodian, a guardian?’
‘Given the choice? Yes, I would.’
‘They are not your children, old friend. Admittedly you are their creator, but they are no part of you.’
‘I do not seek to care for them. I feel… I feel like my work is not complete until they have settled, until I have seen them grow. What I have done so far is worth no acclaim.’
‘If I could give you the chance to stay?’
‘Down there? On Noukaria?’
‘Ha! I have told you already you are not their father. They do not need you there. It is imperative we let them develop their own way. But… perhaps I could spare you a vessel?’
‘You can do such a thing?’
‘I can do much, Sejurus. Admittedly, it is an unusual request. But there may be value in it. There is much yet to discuss, of course. Such a decision cannot be made lightly. It would mean the loss of a great mind, but of course you would not remain here permanently.’
‘No, I merely wish to see them on the right path.’
‘Very well. I shall take it to the Council. Until then, you are welcome to remain here. The first days of the Noukari, eh, my friend?’
‘Thank you, Canturus. I shall not forget what you have done for me.’
‘It is not done yet. Take a moment here before getting back to your duties – there is much recording yet to be done.’
Sejurus nods, looking once more down at the sphere of Noukaria, wondering what the life he has placed there will bring.
I’m delighted to post here a guest blog by Tickety Boo author Jo Zebedee, whose new book Abendau’s Heir is almost published. I asked Jo to write about the topic of prose voice, and so, with no further ado, here she is…
I have a writing voice, right. Of course I do. It’s zippy and Northern Irish, and my sentences are short and have more than a few swear words (I did say it was Norn Irish, after all.)
Hold on, though. Not everything I write is quite that way. The heir to a distant space empire doesn’t tend to call people eejits. He doesn’t, actually, swear that much. He’s prone to thinking, too. To musing. And to using long sentences with colons and semi-colons and dashes, of the M and N variety.
It always surprises me, when I shift from work to work, how much my writing changes. It’s on a subtle level. The books all still feel like me, but each has a different cadence: Abendau has long, flowing sentences. It’s more reflective. Inish Carraig is fast and pacey, with pithy asides. Waters decided to become descriptive and almost poetic in places (which is what I get for stealing my title off the genius that is WB Yeats.)
The contrast is even more marked in short stories. I write young people, and not-so-young. Sometimes they want to talk like an American, which I hate because I can’t nail the idiom just as easily. Sometimes they’re from down the road. In one notable instance they spoke with a nice old-fashioned BBC-best English accent. Quite sexy, that one.
I’m now embarking on something new (in between edits andd submissions and queries and many, many blogs not to mention life,) which has already decided to have its own voice (somewhere between the flowing Abendau and the poetic Waters, with little regard for descriptive prose to date). Which made it timely to think about the thorny subject of voice a little further. I suppose what I wondered was which came first – the setting or the voice?
Sometimes it’s easy. In Inish I wanted a Belfast setting, with hard voices and black humour. We Norn Irish talk fast. Very fast. (Anyone ever googled The Wee Man From Strabane? Do it. Give yourself a giggle. And then try to imagine capturing that in a sci fi book for mass appeal and still make sense…) So the people I was depicting led to the voice I used. (Did I mention that I actually hear my characters’ voices? I’m not sure what, exactly, that says about me except, possibly, I need to get out more.)
But why then did I end up with a pacy space opera with long flowing sentences? Surely that makes no sense? Except that the characters are deep thinkers, by and large. They juggle a lot to think about – big themes, an epic scale, much angst. Here, the characters shaped the language to capture the feel of the book. And once captured it filtered into pretty much every aspect of the book.
I’m not the type of writer who sits and deconstructs what I write. I write, and read, for flow. I’m as likely to enjoy a literary classic as a nice shoot-em-up. I like a range of voices. So for me finding a definitive answer is hard. Except, perhaps, this: If the voice is wrong for the book, it stands out. If your characters have the wrong sentence style, a drawl where it should be quick and pithy, your inner critic will nag and nag until you fix it.
When you find the book flowing when you read it back, when you don’t second guess if it sounds right, then you know you have the voice in place. Even if it’s not the one you expected, and it’s different from the one in the book edited last week.
But watch for bleeding between voices – I’ve said it once, and I will again – a space emperor with a Norn Irish accent is just plain wrong. Unless it’s Liam Neeson, of course. But he makes everything right.
In 1726, British newspapers published accounts of one Mary Tofts, who gave birth to seventeen rabbits, three legs of a cat, and portions of the backbone of an eel. Nathaniel St. André, physician to the royal family, was sent to verify this story. He concluded that the rabbits were bred inside Mary’s Fallopian tubes. This seemingly miraculous event was explained by the wide-spread belief in “maternal impressions”— that any strong stimulus received by the mother during pregnancy might in some way mark the child, particularly the sight or fear of an animal. By the time the story was revealed as a hoax, several prominent doctors had been taken in.
Research can be tedious, but then sometimes you find resources that make you feel like you’ve walked into a candy shop, there’s such a delicious selection of details you can use to make your story more real— and more fantastical at the same time. The past is much stranger than any fantasy world and it was populated by people who viewed that world in ways that were sometimes, genuinely, stranger than anything the mind of a fantasy writer could create. And when you can get these delightful glimpses into the way they thought and the things they did, then you can just jump off from there and let your imagination fly where it will.
Let us take a brief trip around our metaphorical candy shop. In one glass case, for instance, we find the story of Robert Fludd, medical man and Hermetic philosopher, who early in the seventeenth century, while distilling blood, reportedly pulled from the vessel a screaming human head, complete with hair and all the requisite facial features.
On the shelf below: the rural practitioners who prescribed a meal of mouse on toast (fur and all) as the cure for such various ailments as stammering and bed-wetting, also lice, the sexual organs and excreta of animals, human perspiration, saliva of a fasting man, cuttlefish, and scorpions regularly used in medicines. Next to them, the country folk who kept bottles of urine, in order to monitor the health of distant loved ones by observing the appearance of their piddle.
Here is something meant to satisfy your sweet-tooth: Theriacs— antidotes for poisons or the bites of poisonous creatures, viz. apes, snakes, dogs, and human beings— were in use from the time of the Roman Empire through the nineteenth century. An antidote originated by Nero’s physician contained sixty-four ingredients, including cinnamon, viper’s flesh, honey, and opium. These sugar-based antidotes, which came to be known as Venice treacle eventually became, in a debased form, the common syrup we know today. This in turn led to the brimstone and treacle (or in the United States sulphur and molasses) prescribed as a tonic by our own grandmothers and great-grandmothers. As for viper’s flesh, it too remained in use into the nineteenth century.
And another confection: In the sixteenth century, the renowned physician Paracelsus (a.k.a. Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) not only claimed to create a homunculus, or miniature human being, he also published the formula. Other formulas, by lesser-known philosophers, cited such ingredients as wax, soil, human sperm, and egg white. Mandrakes pulled from the earth beneath a gibbet were also popular, nourished as they were by a hanged man’s tears. (We might bottle them for our own use.)
A century later, natural philosophers occupied themselves with the resurrection of plants, most particularly the “spectre of the rose” in all its glory of petals, leaves, and stem. Many notable scientist of the era experimented and some, according to their own writings, were successful at calling up this apparition, reviving the “vegetable phoenix” by heating the ashes, which had previously been burned, then treated with a salt reduced to a fine blue powder. Continuing to extend our metaphor, we might characterize this historical snippet in the nature of a bonbon.
Here at the back of the shop, almost hidden, is a grotesque little story, the kind of thing not to be taken in excess, unless you are writing horror. It is said that a certain physician obtained the body of an executed criminal, for the purpose of dissection. Completing his work, he ordered his assistant to pulverize the brain case, a popular remedy. Afterwards, the student went to bed, leaving the powder in a paper on a table. At midnight, he was awakened by a noise, the source of which he could not immediately ascertain. At last, going to the table he was horrified to discover a small head staring at him from the paper with the powder. Two arms sprouted, and then the hands. A ribcage developed next and the musculature. After growing legs and feet, the tiny figure stood up, wearing the very same clothes the hanged man had worn to his execution. One can scarcely imagine the assistants terror— but perhaps a certain scientific satisfaction at achieving such a remarkable result?
If the clockwork figures beloved of steampunk readers and writers stimulate your appetite: long before the Victorian era and as early as the ancient Greeks, people were fascinated by mechanical figures and automatons. According to the poet Pindar, on the island of Rhodes automatons were so common that:
“The animated figures stand
Adorning every public street
And seem to breathe in stone, or
move their marble feet.”
During the Renaissance, in Augsburg, Hans Schlottheim built a mechanical galleon made to sail up the dinner table during a banquet, cannons firing and trumpets blowing. By the eighteenth century, spectators were charmed by clockwork flying pigeons and digesting ducks, a rooster powered by means of a bellows, a mechanical chess-playing Turk, and dolls that wrote or played musical instruments. Personally, I find the duck a little daunting.
And these are just a few of the treats available to the fantasy author with a strong stomach, a taste for whimsy, and a craving for the grotesque.
Many thanks to Teresa for these insights into her writing life. I’m currently reading her Goblin Moon novel, just out from Tickety Boo Press, and it’s really good (review to follow soon).
I am currently preparing a guest blog on my own research for Teresa.