Good news, bad news

June 11th, 2022Posted by Nancy

Bad news: husband went to get out of bed one morning and couldn’t stand up. He’s now three weeks into serious pain in his back and leg, lousy sleep, multiple ineffective prescriptions, and physiotherapy, Things are slowly getting better.

Good news: I’ve had to take over the grocery shopping and basic food prep and we haven’t killed each other yet. I’ve also discovered that my husband is considered “the nicest customer” in numerous stores in our area. I’ve got some big shoes to fill…

Bad news: We were supposed to go to Nova Scotia to visit family, leaving this upcoming Thursday. That’s not happening – but at least we could cancel without penalty or get our money back for almost everything.

Good news: We had a great visit from some other far-flung family. Turns out my husband cannot be deterred from making latkes, even if he has to do it sitting down, so they were well fed, even if they had to entertain themselves more than we would have liked. But they’re quite good at that and we managed to have a lot of fun, despite it all.

Other news: We were finally able to film a flamenco video, featuring me and two other dancers. I’d say it’s good news but I’m reserving judgement until I see it. But the lighting was fabulous, so we all took selfies. And yes, of course I knocked that jaunty hat off at least once while dancing.

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100,000 words

May 27th, 2022Posted by Nancy

Somewhat to my own surprise, I’ve now passed 100,000 words on The Witch Novel. Some of them are even good words, I think.

This project had its beginnings in 2015, the year after COLD HILLSIDE was published. I’d gone back to some old, unfinished projects to see if anything might spark some inspiration. I made a few half-hearted attempts to begin something and then, in May, the British fantasy writer Tanith Lee died. I wrote an early blog post about how influential her work was on me, though that may not be entirely obvious in my published work. I can honestly say that reading THE BIRTHGRAVE changed my life.

One of the ideas I’d resurrected seemed particularly suited to Lee’s gorgeous, baroque prose, cool sensibility, and damaged characters. With the vague idea that perhaps I could submit to it any tribute collections that might be in the works, I wrote a short story and ran it past my writing group. They all assumed it was the beginning of a novel.

To my surprise, I didn’t hate the idea. I had originally thought it might be a novel so the short story version did feel a little … short.

So here I am, almost seven years later, 101,267 words into it. I’ve added POV characters and several tense changes. Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to write one of the characters in second person? Turns out, yes, indeed it is. Depending on what decisions I make about the plot (plot? what’s that?), I could – in theory – finish the first draft in the next year.

And then? Well, we’ll see. Maybe I’ll decide the damn thing is a novella after all.

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Camp Nanowrimo

May 3rd, 2022Posted by Nancy

Photo by Nancy Baker

I spent April in the woods and the weeds of both WIPs. I wish I could say that I had a clear plan for what I was doing, but it was more a case of “write the next thing you think might happen here” and hope for the best. I’m not sure any of it will end up in the final versions, but I feel as if I learned some things I didn’t know about the characters. And, of course, any words are better than no words.

I met my target of 10,000 words so gold star for me, I guess.

Now to figure out my project for May …

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What I’ve been reading

April 18th, 2022Posted by Nancy

As a break from the WORDS & MUSIC series (because, quite frankly, we haven’t started working on the next video yet!), here are the best things I’ve read since the beginning of 2022.

FICTION

Matrix, by Lauren Groff. A beautifully written book about the life of a young woman who sent to be the prioress of an impoverished abbey in Eleanor of Aquitaine’s England. A nice supplement to my earlier reading of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner that Held Them.

Sudden Traveller, by Sarah Hall. I was so in awe of the stories in this book that I read some of them twice. Just bloody brilliant writing.

Burntcoat, by Sarah Hall. A short novel that came out this year, encompassing both the timely (pandemics) and some of my own personal obsessions (artists and their work). The sex scenes in this one are very different than those in romance novels but I admit I still skipped over them. The rest I devoured and then reread key passages. More bloody brilliant writing.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers. Charming and very human (even if some of the characters are robots) science fiction.

Bewilderment, by Richard Powers. Not quite as successful as The Overstory, but a compelling and sad look at loss, both personal and planetary.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. I put off reading this book about escaping slavery but was glad I finally bit the bullet and plunged in. The magical realist conceit (the railroad is a real railroad, the places it goes are not quite real places) doesn’t take anything away from the brutal truth of oppression and the persistence of hope.

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel. I might quibble a bit of the SF elements but this is Emily St. John Mandel, so the prose is wonderful, the story booms along at an incredible pace, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey. A scientist specializing in cloning discovers that her ex-husband has made a clone of her. Gailey isn’t afraid to take this scenario to it’s darkest conclusions and provides a masterclass writing lesson in the art of revealing that your first-person narrator is not at all a nice person.

Non-Fiction

The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist. Subtitled “The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World”. I was never convinced by the central premise but it was an interesting read with some thought-provoking ideas. I admit to being put off by the contention that modern and contemporary art is a symptom of the left brain (which is bad) because it’s not beautiful and uplifting.

Being You, by Anil Seth. A look at the science of consciousness and being human. It takes a bit of concentration to really grasp the science but Seth does a great job explaining and it was an interesting combination with the book mentioned above.

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, by Camilla Townsend. I was fascinated by the South and Central American cultures when I was younger but this book was a revelation.

Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas, by Jennifer Ruff. Ruff explores the latest archeological and genetic evidence that support the various theories and proposed timelines for the settlement of the Americas. Includes a great chapter on the process of working with DNA, explores the history of European attitudes to the indigenous inhabitants (past and present), and outlines ways scientists are now trying to build respectful partnerships with the descendants of the first peoples to arrive on the continent.

Second-Hand Time, by Svetlana Alexsievich. A few years old but very timely. Alexsievich interviews a wide range of Russians about the changes to their world in the early 1990s.

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Words and Music: Blood & Chrysanthemums

April 2nd, 2022Posted by Nancy

This was the book for which I had the most difficulty choosing a passage to read.  I had sections that I’d performed successfully before, but they tended to be long, require explanations, and lack any shorter sections that had internal arcs.  This latter is very important in readings, at least for me, because I want there to be a sense of story, even in a short excerpt.  It needs, at the least, a movement towards something, even if the climax of the scene isn’t included.  Ending on a cliff-hanger works, too, but there needs to be enough before that point to make the tension meaningful.

In the end, I went for the opening of the Hiroshima entry from Fujiwara’s diary.  I used to read the entire chapter at events and inevitably would choke up on the last paragraph.  Which made me very happy, even when I had to go off-stage wiping away my tears.

It was a challenge to find appropriate images but the illustrations for the Night Parade of 100 Demons proved a good starting place and set the style for the highly processed images that Richard assembled to match the mood of the words and music.

Don’t forget to check Richard’s Youtube channel for his other compositions and videos.

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What should I read next?

March 7th, 2022Posted by Nancy

That’s the perennial question for an avid reader. My “to read” list is always much too long but now I’ve got a new way to make it longer. I was contacted by Shepherd, a new site for connecting readers, authors, and books. Authors are invited to provide a list of five recommended books on a particular topic, with information about the books and what makes them special. They asked me if I would be interested in providing some suggestions related to vampires or witches or ghosts or werewolves or just about anything. The author also has the opportunity to showcase one of their own titles that relates to the topic at hand.

I decided to go back to my roots and suggest some of my favourite novels featuring female vampire protagonists. This turned into a way to revisit and reread a number of the books that influenced my writing and my thoughts about vampires. My selections ranged back into the 1980s for SABELLA by Tanith Lee and up to 2015 for CERTAIN DARK THINGS by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

I’ve also been poking around on the site myself – because I clearly need more books to read – and have added books on Spain (because someday I will actually get there), Venice (because someday I will go back there), fairy tale retellings (because I love them), and apocalypses (because of course).

The site is still growing, with more lists being added all the time, so if you want to add some more books to your list, check it out.

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Words and Music: The Fair

February 13th, 2022Posted by Nancy

Here’s the second installment in my collaboration with my husband on “words and music”.

This passage for COLD HILLSIDE is the most description-heavy of the excerpts I chose for this project.  It’s the first introduction to the fey and I wanted to try to capture their elusive, unreal qualities before the later part of the book introduces their more “human” characteristics (such as cruelty, corruption, boredom, and politics).

I’m very fond of writing description, no matter what the writing advice books say on the matter.  Sometimes I end up cutting it, but in this case I felt that, with the fey, “more is more”.  

I hadn’t been able to find any good images to accompany this reading until I remembered I’d done a mosaic based on some of my mental imagery for Lushan. I took a photo and sent it to Richard, who found a way to make it visually interesting and evocative of both the colours of Lushan and the mutability of the fey.

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Words and Music: The Project

January 24th, 2022Posted by Nancy

During the pandemic, an opportunity arose to get a grant to do some digital creative work. That never happened, but it seemed like a great project to work on anyway, especially in the middle of ongoing COVID restrictions. I’ve had some experience recording myself reading but now I had the opportunity to add music, as my husband’s post-retirement project is learning to compose on his computer.  A creative challenge was just what he needed (at least, in my opinion!).

I set to work picking sections roughly 3:00 minutes long from my four published novels and from The Witch Novel (my WIP).  I reviewed the selections I’d done at public readings to try to find excerpts that would make sense with minimal explanation, would give a feel for the book, and would be different from each other in tone and content.

Richard would then record me and compose a background score that complemented the theme and tone of the selection. We both have had moments of “wait, should I go back and change that?” but sometimes it’s best just push the little creative craft off from the shore and let it go.

To see more of what Richard has been up to in our basement, you can check out his Youtube channel.

PROJECT #1 Leontine and the Bees

This is the introduction to one of the three main characters in my Work-in-Progress, unimaginatively titled The Witch Book.

The readings for this project were all done in May and June, which was the perfect time to read this excerpt, which is set in a hot summer garden amidst lavender and poppies, buzzing with bees. For the video accompaniment, all I had to do was sit outside in our garden with my iPhone. We have no shortage of bees and they are particularly fond of the lavender, salvia, and Russian sage in our yard.  When I’m pruning or weeding in those areas, I move carefully, tell them I’m coming, and we seem to get along just fine.   

When I started working on this book, I decided that, just for fun (???), I’d experiment with different voices and tenses for each of the main characters. I don’t know if that will survive into the final version but I’ve enjoyed the process (well, as much as I ever enjoy the process these days).

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The Best Things I Read This Year

January 2nd, 2022Posted by Nancy

I did A LOT of reading this year. I suppose being stuck at home during a pandemic will do that for you.

Total books read: roughly 160

Fiction: 62% Non-Fiction: 38%

Below are some of the ones I liked best, in no particular order. While I read fewer non-fiction titles, more of them stuck with me as memorable.

BEST FICTION – SF, Fantasy, Horror

Plain Bad Heroines, Emily Danforth

In That Endlessness, Our End, Gemma Files. Gemma managed to make me afraid of Airbnbs, old houses, downtown Toronto, writing groups, and Northern Ontario. Plus numerous other things. Thanks, pal.

Severance, Ling Ma – which pairs nicely with Everything You Ever Wanted, Luiza Sauma

The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson

The Fisherman, John Langan

A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine

The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, Nghi Vo

Witness for the Dead, Katharine Addison (plus a reread of The Goblin Emperor)

Temporary, Hilary Leichter

Living Alone, Stella Benson

BEST FICTION – Other

The Corner that Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner

The Queen’s Gambit, Walter Tevis

The Leftovers, Thomas Perrotta

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

The Hearing Trumpet and The Collected Stories, Leonora Carrington

The Weekend, Charlotte Wood

Leonora in the Morning Light, Michaela Carter

BEST NON-FICTION – Politics, Society, and Related

Our Own Worst Enemy, Tom Nichols

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis

The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee

Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe

Everything Now ,Rosencrans Baldwin

The Next Supper, Corey Mintz

Uncanny Valley, Anna Weiner – pairs very nicely with the novel Sourdough, Robin Sloan

BEST NON-FICTION – Art, Music, Literature

Villa Air-Bel, Rosemary Sullivan

On Freedom and The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson

The Lonely City, Olivia Laing

Putting it Together, James Lepine

Where am I Now? Mara Wilson

Beeswing, Richard Thompson

My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend, Tracey Thorn

Astounding, Alec Nevia-Lee

BEST NON-FICTION – Science, Nature and History

A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings, Helen Jukes

Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Skyes

The Story of More, Hope Jahren

The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan

Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, Julie Zarankin

A World on the Wing, Scott Weidensaul

Against the Grain, James Scott – pairs very nicely with The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow

The Anarchy, William Dalrymple

Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow – pairs nicely with Eliza Hamilton, Tilar J. Mazzeo

The Verge: Forty Years that Shook the World, Patrick Wyman

Hero of Two Worlds, Mike Duncan

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Word counts, counting words – and why am I bothering?

December 15th, 2021Posted by Nancy

Well, I made my target of 10,000 words in November for Nanowrimo, though I have done not a thing since. Even without any more writing in December, I’ll beat 2020’s total word count by a bit.

Does this matter? Some of the words aren’t very good. Some of them will end up having nothing to do with whatever the plot turns out to be. Is the whole process just in the service of persuading myself I’m accomplishing something when in fact I’m not?

I have no answers to these momentous, existential questions. I find setting word goals helpful because I’m the kind of person who goes to fitness classes rather than riding an exercise bicycle or lifting weights. I need outside pressure – or at least perceived pressure – to combat my natural laziness. At the very least, writing a bunch of words I end up cutting will probably net me more progress on the books than waiting for the perfect scene to write. In the process of just writing the next thing that happens in order to meet my target, I do sometimes discover something I hadn’t suspected about a character or a situation or a direction the story needs to go.

None of this resolves my essential problem, which is figuring out what to write not how to craft a good sentence.

I can make 35,000 words this year if I write another 1,700 words. Easy-peasy, as they say. So maybe I’ll try for that. But not today.

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