Teasing: The second best part

Ironworks over Chicago River

To date, I have attempted five rounds of National Novel Writing Month. I’ve been a winner twice, which came at the heels of a solid month of no socializing; even my parents know I’m usually doing something that requires alone time during Thanksgiving. Last year I decided to stop, because while quickly writing 50,000 or more words of a story you’ve been idly dreaming up is incredibly satisfying, it’s also a recipe for six months of burnout, at least for me.

However, I will always be grateful to NaNo for slapping my fear of the blank page out of me. It’s done marvels for pushing me to stare down a new document and put some words on it. One of the reasons I started “Innogen and the Hungry Half” was because I wanted a big project, something that’s been thin on the ground for me this year. I’m thrilled to share that the first chapter should, barring catastrophic edits, be up for your delectation early next week. (Even if the edits are catastrophic, I’m one of those nerds who lives for editing. I love it. It’s like a puzzle for me.)

As I geared up for putting those first sentences on the page, I could feel NaNo roaring away in the back of my head. It sounded like Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”: Valhalla, I am coming! I’d spent weeks thrashing out reams of notes, going in circles, unable to get the shape of the thing. I tried starting in about three different places, none of them right. In the end, it meant sitting in my chair and telling myself over and over and over again that it didn’t have to be perfect, not yet. On the first day, I got about 500 good words (which became 700 around bedtime, because naturally that’s when lines start to flow); on the second, 700 more. Yesterday, I did a full-on 1700. NaNo has trained me well.

Now, of course, the real work comes, because while I’ve had the beginning minutely envisioned for a while, the lumpy middle now stretches before me. Now comes the fun part! (She says, semi-wretchedly, laughing as she does so.)

In the spirit of experimentation, and also of my love for previews, teasers and trailers, I’m kicking off what should be a weekly feature, in which you all get a glimpse of what’s going into the writing and — oh yes — the seat-of-my-pants research. (Wikipedia, let me love you.)

One song

“One Beat” by Sleater-Kinney [lyrics]

I worked at a student coffee shop in college, and a group on constant rotation with one particular cohort was Sleater-Kinney. I hated them as much as they hated my Bjork, but this track redeemed the shift every time. It’s fierce and beautiful and it’s either about nuclear energy or fractal geometry. Either way, it’s a great thematic pace-setter, which I hope, in a story about Shakespeare, makes you curious!

Two links
I’m a nerd, but I have some big gaps in my knowledge base. The largest of these is anything to do with Ancient Rome. I’ll blame learning to read on Asterix comics: I could never root for the empire! Luckily for me, I not only have Classics-nerd friends to pester for help, if it comes to that, but I also have Roman-Britain.org. It’s not snazzy, but it is informative. I came for the Latin abbreviations (which I find fascinating!), I stayed for the lifeline to world-building.

Another gap in my knowledge base: steampunk everything. I’m skimming through a lot on Tesla coils and the Great Exhibition of 1851, but one of the neatest sidetracks has been learning about early animation — specifically, the praxinoscope. It’s a one-off detail in the story, but I really like how it looks. There’s something sort of eerie and dreamlike and lovely about it.

And, because YouTube contains all things: yes, it comes in the steam-powered flavor too.

Three lines

“But is that life? The most vital connections come to us by speech, which cannot be touched, even if it can be felt.

“I propose a future cut like the Gordian knot.”

So that’s that! Intrigued? I very much hope so. Again, barring catastrophe or natural disaster, the first chapter should be up early next week. You don’t have to know anything about steampunk or Cymbeline to enjoy the story, though of course, if you’d like to read the play, MIT has the full text available for free online. For a lighter, quick summary, you can watch the short video linked at the bottom of this post. I assure you the original text is exactly that ridiculous, wonderful and strange.

Hope you all have a marvelous weekend — catch on the flip side, chapter in hand!

Not entirely swanlike

I’m feeling a bit swanlike over here these days — not in the sense that I’m graceful, or secretly vicious and cranky, but in the sense of appearing to just float when in fact I’m furiously paddling. Is that swans? It might be ducks. As you can see, I’m consumed with big questions.

When I’m not banging my head against my outline for “Innogen and the Hungry Half,” I’m trying to come up with ways to provide background on the project for my readers. I don’t expect everyone coming in to know anything about Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays, and even I don’t have all the answers when it comes to explaining steampunk. True fact: for about five minutes at the end of college, when I was desperately grasping for some idea of a career to pursue, I thought I might be interested in dramaturgy. I sought out some theater internships, though the one I got was in New Works, which may have been right for me anyway. Anyway, I believe one of the responsibilities a storyteller has is to teach the audience about the story and how to read it. In the story itself, this comes from good world-building, but since this is the internet, I’m also kind of excited to put together some subject guides for the curious. (Anything that gets more people to read my secret favorite play!)

Some of this means to turning to my friends, who are a collective of riches in every respect. When I talk to people outside my general group about this story, I find that very few of them have heard of steampunk, probably because not everyone is, like me, on the internet for most of their waking hours. I could send them to Tor’s Steampunk Week page, which ends today, or the fantastic and fascinating Beyond Victoriana. I could try and ramble about pseudo-Victorian alternate histories and how the most interesting of these stories deconstruct and subvert power structures and conventions. Or I could go with one friend’s quip that steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown. In the end, I’m still learning myself, and while the decision to set “Innogen” in a steampunk universe is a conscious one, maybe I’d be better served writing that essay when the story is already out there.

These are the things I think about! I’m also in the process of trying to explain Cymbeline in a straightforward manner, because it’s one of Shakespeare’s most ridiculous, overwrought plots, and that’s partly why I adore it. Wikipedia actually has a fairly good rundown, but really, if you want to appreciate how gloriously convoluted this play is, take ten minutes with this fantastic video from The Geeky Blonde:

If you liked that, one of the reasons it’s been a bit quieter over here (other than my constant scheming about this story) is that I’ve been playing around with Tumblr and Twitter a little more. I am definitely looking for more ways to interact with people and share neat things I’ve found, so if you’ve got an account at either or both sites, I would love to hear from you. The Tumblr especially is a great adjunct to this site, because it’s such a great curatorial tool for finding nifty things around the web. Some of my favorites so far include street art from around the world, real airship hotels shaped like whales, real places that shouldn’t exist, one hundred years of fashion in 100 seconds and any number of stories I would like to read or write.

So yes, please keep in touch! Things are fairly churning behind the curtain, even if I’m mixing metaphors there, and you might even get some nifty Magpie & Whale goodies before they make it over here, if they do it at all. Hey, it’s happened before! Hope to see you around, lovelies. Esther signing off.

Tumblr: magpieandwhale.tumblr.com
Twitter: @magpiewhale

Recursive inanity; or, Jonathan Franzen, you are wrong

If you were hanging around Twitter when I woke up this morning, you may have seen me get extremely grumpy about a quote from Jonathan Franzen. “Write in the third person,” he says, according to @AdviceToWriters, “unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.”

Having just rolled out of bed, I responded in the normal, reasonable way: by getting huffy.

@magpiewhale Not going to lie, this makes me want to write first person out of spite and make it amazing. POV “standards” just. That irritates me.

@magpiewhale Pardon my mulishness, I just woke up. But issuing quips on what you should default to unless you’re extraordinary limits experimentation.

@magpiewhale Not to mention discovery! So I say ignore Franzen and try anything. You’ll figure out what works for your stories.

As I thought about it later, I began to wonder if perhaps I’d skewed Franzen’s meaning a little. Perhaps he’s not being as condescending as he sounds, I thought. Maybe he isn’t speaking to the audience I assume he is, i.e., burgeoning writers. I’ve never read his work, and given the unbearable hype (and boorish subject matter, from what I see of reviews), I don’t actually plan to do so. But I do know how acclaimed he is, for whatever reason, and that his word supposedly carries a note of authority.

Either way, being prescriptive about point of view is irritating and limiting, I feel. As I said in my tweets, artists need to feel free to experiment. If “poorly done” first person is so offensive to a delicate reader’s eye, they’re free to walk away and the writer is free to learn from the experience.

I kept mulling it over, though. And the more I considered the statement, the more inane I found it — because any writer who is exploring a character finds that voice distinctive and irresistible. That’s why they’re using that voice, whatever the POV. The interest is inherent.

All that said, the incident has convinced me of two things. One, I am free from any obligation to read Mr. Franzen’s work. Two, I am thoroughly pleased with my now firm decision to try “Innogen and the Hungry Half” in the first person. It’s not a perspective I use very often, but I look forward to pushing myself with it.

As I congratulate myself for using the word “free” so much in this post, in homage to Mr. Franzen’s latest opus, I have to laugh at myself too. I may disagree with this little bon mot, but in the end, I’m no more authoritative than he is.

eta: Late this evening, @AdviceToWriters posted a different quote that I think is much, much more useful and inclusive.

There are so many different kinds of writing and so many ways to work that the only rule is this: do what works. Almost everything has been tried and found to succeed for somebody. The methods, even the ideas, of successful writers contradict each other in a most heartening way, and the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence—an overwhelming determination to succeed.


“But clay and clay differs in dignity / Whose dust is both alike.”

I’ve been moping for almost a month now about how I need a new project. The novels are nonstarters, the art is thwarting me and even my resolution to take advantage of Chicago’s cultural offerings hasn’t entirely stuck.

The solution is simple, then: conceive of something straightforward yet grandiose, announce it in front of the whole world, and commit to do it in full view of the public. I would like to try writing a serialized novella, and to post it on a regular schedule here. Since coming to this conclusion on Sunday evening, I’ve been riding the wave of joyous certainty that comes from having a project to plan. I’ve decided to attempt a story I meant to write but never did: a “fork,” if you will, of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, set in a steampunk universe.

I’ve never written steampunk before. Truth be told, I haven’t read much either. But I’ve got about five pages of notes, as seen in the illustration above, and I’m ready for an adventure. The story is called “Innogen and the Hungry Half,” which I hope intrigues you, and keeps you coming back for more. Posts will go up at least once (and I’m hoping twice) a week, probably on Tuesdays and Fridays, and I very much hope it becomes a participatory experience. (Translation: I love to hear from you, hi!) You can always find me on Twitter (@magpiewhale), and you can also now follow me on Tumblr (magpieandwhale, shockingly). (I really love Tumblr; I had a post all planned about how cool it is, especially for a site with “magpie” in the title. Then, appropriately enough, I got a bit distracted.)

So that’s it! If you’re totally unfamiliar with Cymbeline, that shouldn’t be a problem with this story, as it takes place before the events of the play. If you’d like to read the play, MIT has the entire text available for free; it is an amazing, hilarious, over-the-top late romance, in which Shakespeare steals liberally from every play he’s written thus far and parodies quite a lot of it, I think. If you’d like a brief trailer to whet your appetite, Cheek By Jowl has very helpfully provided such a thing, featuring the love of my life (who incidentally plays Posthumus and Cloten), Tom Hiddleston.

This double casting of the two male leads is actually what spurred the idea for the story in the first place. I hope to have a lot of conversations about this stuff as this project moves along. For now, though, I’ll leave it here, along with a plea to recommend your favorite Tumblrs to follow — including, if you wish, your own! Happy Monday, folks, and see you shortly in fair Lud’s-town.

Esther by genre

Elphine, a character in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, spends her days dancing in fields, dressing in fanciful costumes and generally gadding about like a sprite of the woods. She also announces to the heroine, Flora Poste, that she writes poetry. Flora, being the wry Jazz Age society girl (and would-be author) that she is, discourages publicizing such a hobby, particularly to men. Myself, I prefer the opposite tack. If a fella can’t grok that I’m a writer and reader of weird things, we probably wouldn’t get along in the long term anyway.

My OKCupid profile announces near the top that I enjoy writing hard-to-categorize genre fiction. Last week, for the first time, someone sent me a message using that as his hook. How would I categorize my fiction, given the chance? I haven’t yet taken him up on the opportunity to explain in person, but I did start thinking about how I could break down my preferences in an easy-to-digest format.

This won’t be about steampunk or dystopias or paranormal romance. All I know for certain is that I consider myself a fantasy writer: it’s the broadest category that’s always made me happiest. My caveat is that I’m not generally invested in Tolkienesque sword-and-sorcery: my definitive introductory fantasy text wasn’t Lord of the Rings, but Redwall, which took me in some different directions. (As a sidebar, I’m the heretic who adores Peter Jackson’s movies but is bored by the books, save for The Silmarillion, which many people find impenetrable.) I tend to think there’s an internal logic to my genres. Here are my top five.

1. Epics. Blame this on Homer. The bigger and meatier the story, the more I can get lost in the world, the more I love it. The experience of immersing myself in something else entirely is one of the reasons I read and write. Quest stories in particular are really delightful to me, and given that I wrote reams of Redwall and Odyssey spinoffs as a kid, it’s no surprise to me that I have a hard time assembling novels in which the protagonists stay put.

2. Myth, folk tales and fairy tales. There’s something so fascinating to me about authorless stories that everyone within a culture knows. I love how potently these stories become connective tissue within a society, and I’m always impressed by how the telling of these stories is such an important part of the story itself. These are narratives as an act of power, and they change so much in relation to who tells them. That dynamism never stops moving me; I always want to engage.

3. Magical realism. I loved this genre for a long time before I knew the term for it. I’ve always been attracted to the tone and atmosphere of a story where everything seems normal except for one particular thing, or where something becomes literalized — cities are people, books are alive, God is dead and needs to be towed out to sea. The scale of magical realist stories is something I also find inviting: it can be as far-reaching or as personal as you wish.

4. Literary derivations. Two of my ongoing projects are radical reinterpretations of Shakespeare plays — not just retellings from another perspective, but taking those characters and their lives and putting them somewhere entirely new. I’m also working on a version of the Odyssey actually set in space, with all the considerations for psychology and culture that a modern audience demands. I honestly think the value of reinterpreting texts and engaging with them through storytelling cannot be overstated, no matter what the text.

5. Pastiche. I recently finished a story told in the style and conventions of a Jane Austen novel, and it was the most fun I’ve had writing in a long, long time. In the same sense that poetry with strict stylistic requirements gives poets a framework to break and play with, so too does taking on a voice decidedly not your own. The writing can just flow once you’ve figured out the style. It’s a neat way of combining elements of improv and collage, in that you’re operating within a character more than dictating it, and that you’re playing with juxtaposition and combination.

As I look these over, the pattern I notice is how much I’m into reframing and world-building. Perhaps these aren’t as immediately marketable as “werewolf novel” or “deconstructing superheroes” (both of which I love dearly, don’t get me wrong!), but I find I’m not really nervous about that. Like Elphine, I know what I like, and when the time comes, if I can spoil the ending of Cold Comfort Farm a little, I’m confident I can land a guy — or an agent, knock on wood! — who gets that.