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If you’re like me, the phrase “Orpheus myth in space” gets your immediate attention. Here’s Jessica Reisman to tell us about the spark that brought Substrate Phantoms to life!

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cover to SUBSTRATE PHANTOMS by Jessica ReismanSubstrate Phantoms had a long road to publication, so I’ve had to cast my mind back to remember the original writing and when the fire seemed to catch. I already had my far future science fiction universe, the Aggregate, in which I’ve had several stories and my first novel (so long ago now that Substrate gets to be a new debut), and had been playing around with the idea of the Orpheus myth in space, a kind of ‘don’t look back’ when a character is fleeing a space station, trying to save a loved one.

That was all very well, but things weren’t really taking any compelling shape. It was with the haunting of the space station that the first sign of heat flared up. A kind of film reel unfurled in my mind, of powerful images and feelings having to do with the intersection of technology and futurity with superstition and our need for the kind of possibility inherent in the more inward, arcane, and irrational side of our natures. Where these elements—often set in opposition—cross is a deep vein of story for me.

It was a pretty potent unfurling of image and feeling, that film reel. It had what felt like the whole story—and more—within it. My writing process is what we sometimes call “organic.” The initial phase of image, feeling, and story arc is like a seed for me, a tiny, dense ball of potential in which the story exists. To maul the metaphor, note-making, research, background work, and world building are all preparing the ground, planting, and fertilizing; the actual searching march of words onto page is when the growth begins and the story stretches toward its shape.

So there was the spark of the haunted space station—a usefully compelling elevator pitch, but what now? I think it leapt into full conflagration when I found the opening of the first chapter:

Revelation deck rested currently in station shadow, spangled in reflections off the solar collectors. Long glimmers cut through the high dim space in a slow dance. Revelation deck was a big space with open gridwork, gridwork being the bones of station superstructure hidden on other decks. Tall viewports and a lack of adult traffic made it a favorite haunt of station kids, four of whom sat clustered under a twenty-foot span of the grid arch. Likely there was someplace they were supposed to be, and strict regulations said they shouldn’t be there, but it was a regulation never enforced.

Jhinsei, two-thirds of the way through sitting a shift at the automated shuttle monitors, liked the murmur of voices. He had been such a kid himself, not too many years past, listening to tales on Revelation; besides, they lessened the loneliness of the cavernous deck.

Revelation deck, far future space station, kids telling stories, future and past: it makes friction for me and, voila, sparks!

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From the cover copy:

The space station Termagenti—hub of commerce, culture, and civilization—may be haunted. Dangerous power surges, inexplicable energy manifestations, and strange accidents plague the station. Even after generations of exploring deep space, humanity has yet to encounter another race, and yet, some believe that what is troubling the station may be an alien life form.

Jhinsei and his operations team crawl throughout the station, one of many close-knit working groups that keep Termagenti operational. After an unexplained and deadly mishap takes his team from him, Jhinsei finds himself—for lack of a better word—haunted by his dead teammates. In fact, they may not be alone in taking up residence in his brain. He may have picked up a ghost—an alien intelligence that is using him to flee its dying ship. As Jhinsei struggles to understand what is happening to his sanity, inquisitive and dangerous members of the station’s managing oligarchy begin to take an increasingly focused interest in him.

Haunted by his past and the increasing urgent presence of another within his mind, Jhinsei flees the station for the nearby planet Ash, where he undertakes an exploration that will redefine friend, foe, self, and other. With Substrate Phantoms, Jessica Reisman offers an evocative and thought-provoking story of first contact, where who we are is questioned as much as who they might be.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indigo | Publisher

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Jessica Reisman’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. A three-time Michener Fellow, she has been writing her own brand of literary science fiction and fantasy for many years. Jessica has lived in Philadelphia, parts of Florida, California, and Maine, and been employed as a house painter, blueberry raker, art house film projectionist, glass artist’s assistant, English tutor, teaching assistant, and editor, among other things. She dropped out of high school and now has a master’s degree. She makes her home in Austin, Texas, where well-groomed cats, family, and good friends grace her life with their company. Find out more at her site.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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Spark of Life is a chance for authors to talk about a key moment when the story came to life: a character did something unexpected, the world acquired new depth, or the plot took a perfect but unforeseen turn. For more details, go here.

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Juliet McKenna, The Shadow Histories of the River Kingdoms

This Must Be Kept A Secret

After four series and fifteen novels, I’m familiar with that electrifying moment when a story comes alive, when the interaction of people, places and plot generates an internal momentum to drive the narrative, often in unexpected directions. It can be a wild ride. It’s always exhilarating.

My experience with the stories in The Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom was very different. This new fantasy world started with one short story for an anthology called “Imaginary Friends”. What if a lonely child’s imaginary companion proved to be a threat? not a consolation? What would make this significant? It would be, if that child was important. So I devised the tale of Princess Kemeti discovering that her imaginary friend can step out of the Unreal World. Worse, he threatens to break free of her control. That’s some challenge for a nine year old.

So far, so good, for a single story. Then I realised something about the magical environment I’d just created, where dreams, longing and other emotions can call something or someone into existence in a parallel world. The possibilities were limitless, and if those creations could cross over into day-to- day reality, so was the potential for confusion and for dangerous situations. More stories floated through my own imagination. But that wasn’t the ‘spark of life’ moment.

That came when I realised this magic would have to be kept a secret. Except, how could that possibly be done? If someone’s dreams of a unicorn could send one trotting down a street? Unicorns get noticed. Apparently inexplicable things get noticed by the authorities, religious, political, whoever. Once those in power worked out what was happening, they’d see that same limitless potential for chaos that I had. Then they would go one step further. They’d realise the uses they could make of such magic, as well as the ways their enemies could abuse it. What would this mean for the River Kingdom which I’d sketched into the background of Kemeti’s story?

More than that, something so powerful would have to be kept a secret. But how do you keep something so unpredictable hidden? By watching and waiting and concealing every manifestation as quickly as possible. By assessing anyone and everyone who proves to have this uncanny magical talent. By enlisting those powerful enough to be of use, whatever their character or their background might be. When the stakes are so high, that’s going to be an offer these people would be very unwise to refuse. But that’s okay if we’re the good guys, right? The ends can justify the means…

That’s it. That’s the spark. This tension, this challenge, the inherent instability, which will drive more stories, novellas and novels set in this world.

cover art for THE SHADOW HISTORIES OF THE RIVER KINGDOMS by Juliet McKenna

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels, from The Thief’s Gamble which began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, to Defiant Peaks concluding The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. In between novels, she writes diverse shorter fiction, ranging from stories for themed anthologies such as Alien Artifacts and Fight Like A Girl through to forays in dark fantasy and steampunk with Challoner, Murray and Balfour: Monster Hunters at Law.

Currently exploring new opportunities in digital publishing, she’s re-issued her backlist as ebooks in association with Wizard’s Tower Press as well as bringing out original fiction. Most recently, Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom offers readers a wholly new and different fantasy world to explore. Learn more about all of this at www.julietemckenna.com and find her on Twitter @JulietEMcKenna

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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Aliette de Bodard’s latest book, The House of Binding Thorns, is the second book in the Dominion of the Fallen series, which began with The House of Shattered Wings. What’s the point at which the book came to life for her?

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cover for House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de BodardI really dithered about where to start The House of Binding Thorns.

The book is a Gothic dark fantasy set in a decadent Paris set in the wake of a magical war: I knew pretty early on that it was going to be "opium war with dragons" and that it was going to involve politics, backstabbing and magical intrigues around an arranged marriage, but while I hammered out the basics of the plot pretty quickly, I couldn't get the entire thing to gel. It sounded fantastic on paper, but I tried and discarded several beginnings that didn't work.

One of the main characters, Madeleine, is a drug addict (to the opium analogue in this universe, a drug distilled from the ground bones of Fallen angels). I knew that her first chapter was going to involve her being forcibly weaned off the drug in unpleasant ways (since the magical faction she belongs to, House Hawthorn, is headed by a sadist and completely ruthless). But every attempt I made at opening in media res fell flat.

And then I realised I was having a twofold problem: the first was that opening on a character being tortured felt too over the top for me personally. The second was that opening in media res is a very tricky thing. It's too early for the reader to care about the characters that horrible things are happening to, so the writer needs to both get the reader to care and to keep everything else going at the same time, which is a lot of very hard juggling.

The usual fix to this is to open earlier, get the reader time to get attached to the characters, and then have things go pear-shaped. I realised that I could actually open later, after the weaning from the drug had already happened, and only allude to it in flashbacks. This solved both of my problems in one go. I could make the reader attached to a character recovering from trauma, and I also could leave the description of said trauma mostly to the reader's imagination– which I've always found to be more effective than graphic descriptions of violence.

I sat down, and wrote:

In the House of Hawthorn, all the days blurred and merged into one another, like teardrops sliding down a pane of glass. Madeleine couldn’t tell when she’d last slept, when she’d last eaten—though everything tasted of ashes and grit, as if the debris from the streets had been mixed with the fine food served on porcelain plates—couldn’t tell when she had last woken, tossing and turning and screaming, reaching for a safety that wasn’t there anymore.

And just like that, the character (and the book) came alive for me.

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cover art to The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de BodardAliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction: her short stories have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and two British Science Fiction Association Awards. She is the author of the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings (2015 British Science Fiction Association Award, Locus Award finalist), and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns (Ace, Gollancz). She lives in Paris. Visit her website or Twitter for more information.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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Spark of Life is a chance for authors to talk about a key moment when the story came to life: a character did something unexpected, the world acquired new depth, or the plot took a perfect but unforeseen turn. For more details, go here.

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Alma Alexander, The Were Chronicles

It’s very easy to just follow comfortably in the ruts of a well-trodden road when it comes to telling a story – but every now and then something WILL happen to jolt you out of that and then all of a sudden it’s a bumpier ride but you’re out of the ruts and the view is spectacular out there. That’s largely what happened with the Were Chronicles, because two things collided here – the well trodden road of Were-creatures and their archetypes, and the never-quite-before-explored edge of just how the Were-creatures existed, what made them not-quite-human. And I turned back to my long-ago roots – I hold a MSc degree in Molecular Biology and Microbiology, and all of a sudden I had all this relevant knowledge I could draw on. And the story exploded on me. I suddenly had immensely alive characters who couldn’t wait to tell their stories, in their very distinctive voices, characters who lived and breathed and who were genetically Were-creatures but who were so achingly, vulnerably, totally *human* that they made me wince when bad things had to happen to them. For me, these three books – Random, Wolf and Shifter – are amongst the most vivid, most involving, and by far the most important books I may ever write.

a triptych of the three WERE CHRONICLES covers, by Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website, her Facebook page, on Twitter, or join her on her Patreon page.

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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medium-sized version of the cover for WITHIN THE SANCTUARY OF WINGS

At long last, the series is complete.

This story has been living in my head for . . . about a decade, I think. I know I wrote the first third of A Natural History of Dragons in 2007 or thereabouts, before stalling out on the plot and setting it aside. I came back to it in late 2010, sold it in 2011, the first book came out in 2013, and now, my friends, the end of the story is in your hands. (Or will be, as soon as you run out and buy it.)

I’m going to be launching a new blog series, along the lines of John Scalzi’s THE BIG IDEA or Mary Robinette Kowal’s MY FAVORITE BIT, called SPARK OF LIFE: a place for authors to talk about those moments where the story seems to take on a life of its own, with a character doing something unexpected or the world unfolding a bit of depth you didn’t plan for. For me that mostly tends to happen in the depths of the tale, when I’ve built up enough momentum and detail for such things to spring forth. But in the case of this series, it happened less than a page in, because the spark of life?

That was Isabella.

Countless reviews have talked about how the narrator is one of the strongest features of the story. I’m here to tell you that, like Athena from the head of Zeus, she sprang out more or less fully-formed. The foreword got added a bit later, so it was in those opening paragraphs of Chapter One, where Isabella talks about finding a sparkling in the garden and it falling to dust in her hands, that she came to instant and vivid life. Part of the reason that initial crack stalled out in 2007 — or rather, the reason it got so far before stalling — was because I was having so much fun just following along in her wake, exploring her world and listening to her talk. The narrative voice has consistently been one of the greatest joys of writing this series. I have an upcoming article where I talk about how sad it is for me to be done with the story, because it feels like a good friend has moved away and I won’t get to see her regularly anymore. That’s how much she’s lived in my head, these past years.

Stay tuned on future Tuesdays for a glimpse at how other authors’ stories came to life. And stay tuned in upcoming days for some more behind-the-scenes stuff about my own characters!

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In the meanwhile, the book is out, and so are the reviews. Here’s a spoiler-free one from BiblioSanctum, and two reviews on one page at Fantasy Literature; here is a SPOILER-TASTIC one at Tor.com. (Do NOT click unless you’ve read the book or are fine with having the big discovery of the entire series laid out in full. I’m serious.) (And while I’m at it, the same goes for that Gizmodo article that shows all the interior art for the book, because spoilers can come in visual form, too. Love ya, Gizmodo, but oof. Tor.com warned; you didn’t.)

Back in the land of no spoilers, you can read about my absolute favorite bit of Within the Sanctuary of Wings on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog. It’s . . . a wee bit topical, these days. And I’m on the Functional Nerds podcast, talking about all kinds of things that aren’t this book, because they like to give authors a chance to branch out and natter on about roleplaying games and things like that.

And finally, I’m currently running a giveaway on Twitter. Name your favorite female scientist in any field (there, or in comments here), and get a chance to win a signed book of your choice from my stash of author copies. It’s already a stiff competition; we’ve had dozens of women named. (If you were wondering why my Twitter stream has turned into a sea of retweeted names, that’s why.) You have until tomorrow!

Originally published at Swan Tower. You can comment here or there.

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