Posts Tagged ‘The Star Shard’

Quiz, Q and A, Goodreads, and Toponyms

January 14, 2012

I’ve been working over the past week through various channels to prepare the way for the swiftly-approaching publication of The Star Shard. It’s an exciting time!

As part of this initiative, I’ve set up an author page on Goodreads. If you don’t know about the site, this is an unabashed plug for it! Believe me, I’m not a fan of popular Internet time-drains. But I think most of you would agree with me that Goodreads rises above the morass. If you love to read, the site is worth checking out. It’s free, it’s easy to sign up for, and it’s a great way to connect with people who like the same kinds of books you do — or simply to find out about books that you may not have encountered yet. In the first twenty-four hours after I got onto the site and started rating books I’ve enjoyed and marking books I’d like to read, an acquaintance of mine (a friend of a friend) noticed one of the books I’d tagged and was delighted to discover it — he hadn’t known it existed, but he’d been wishing it did. That’s one way the site can work.

Anyway, I’ll end the commercial there. If you’re interested, you can explore the wonders for yourself. I just wanted to bring a couple things to your attention:

1. I wrote a quiz on Dragonfly that (I think) is a lot of fun. It has 13 questions, and some are apparently trickier than I thought — last time I looked, no one had gotten a perfect score. If you’ve read Dragonfly and would like to test your knowledge of the book — or even if you’d like to enjoy the questions and multiple-choice answers, which I had a GREAT time coming up with — then I’d encourage you to get onto Goodreads and take the quiz! I think the best way to find it is to look up Dragonfly on the site, click on the book, and if you scroll down on the book’s page, you’ll find the quiz.

2. Also on Goodreads, I’m leading a Q&A session from now until the end of January. I seeded it with four discussion threads, but discussion members can introduce new ones. If anyone is at all inclined, this is something I’d greatly appreciate your help with! I’m trying to generate a buzz for the new book’s release. If you can spare a few minutes to drop by and ask me even one question, that would help! If people start participating, I think it could get quite interesting. To find the discussion, either search for me on Goodreads or click on my name wherever you see me listed on the site, and on my page, (again) if you scroll down, you should come to the discussion; then just click on the topic you want to follow. If you’re able to help out with this, thank you very much!

Finally, let’s talk about some interesting words. (Yes, this is a groink, a major change of subject.)

I’ve been thinking lately about the phenomenon of toponyms, those words in our language that began as the names of places (topos is the Greek word for “place”). For example:

solecism — This has come to mean “an ungrammatical combination of words in a sentence; also, a minor blunder in speech”; “something deviating from the proper, normal, or accepted order”; or “a breach of etiquette or decorum.” But did you know that the word comes from the ancient Cilician city of Soloi, where “a substandard form of Attic was spoken”? So a soloikos, an inhabitant of Soloi, was a “speaking-incorrectly-one.”

gasconade — “bravado, boasting” — This word has come from the Gascony region of southwest France, bordering Spain; the Gascons were apparently known for boasting and exaggerating their successes. The word became common in English in the 1700s.

Cimmerian — “very dark or gloomy; stygian” — The Cimmerians were a mythical people “described by Homer as dwelling in a remote realm of mist and gloom.” Another source I found adds that this land was “in the west” (from the Hellenic point of view), and that the Cimmerii (the people there) were nomadic and were mentioned by Herodotus.

laconic — “using or involving the use of a minimum of words; concise to the point of seeming rude or mysterious” — I remember once reading a great story about the origin of this word. When the enormous Persian army came to the gates of the Spartan city of Laconia, the Persian envoy, in an attempt to get the Spartans to surrender, yelled: “If we take this city, we will kill all the men and lead the women and children away as slaves!”

The Spartan general returned the one-word answer: “If.”

As the story goes, the Persians were unable to conquer the city, and they eventually withdrew.

[The definitions I’ve written above are from my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.]

What got me thinking about toponyms was good old Dictionary.com, which led me to a couple of these. So, yeah, I guess this is another commercial! In the brief time I’ve been receiving Dictionary.com’s free daily word, I’ve written down several ideas for use in books and stories. I would highly recommend the word-a-day to writers and to anyone who loves words!

I’ll close with a couple more cool ones:

Words such as “sense” and “sensibility,” which have a common root, are paregmenons.

And the shape of a 20-sided die (a 20-sided polyhedron) is an icosahedron.

Yes, I get a little crazy when I haven’t written fiction for too long! I can feel the charge building . . . it’s going to arc any day now, and we’re going to have some lightning!

Name the Gargoyles Contest

December 19, 2011

How would YOU like to win your very own autographed advance review copy (ARC) of The Star Shard? How would YOU like to get the jump on all the fans who will be camped outside bookstores on the eve of February 28th, braving the sub-zero temperatures as they exchange Star-Shard trivia and speculate on how the novel will be different from the Cricket story? Granted, the ARC isn’t perfect — it was made from a draft before my final going-over, so there are a few continuity and formatting errors. And the ARC is a softcover; the real book will be a gorgeous hardcover. But it still has the wonderful color cover painted by Fernando Juarez. Also, there are so few ARCs that each one will be sought and prized by collectors in the future. So enter my Name the Gargoyles contest, and YOU may become the first reader to know what happens to Cymbril in those reams of extra pages  beyond the story’s first incarnation!

You remember my gargoyles, right?

The gargoyles on Broadway are waiting for names.

Here’s how it works:

1. You think up names for them.
2. You suggest the names in a comment.
3. I am the sole judge. They’re my gargoyles! I have to be convinced. If I don’t really, really like the names, it’s possible that there will be no winner, and I’ll introduce another contest to give away the ARC.
4. The deadline is the end of this calendar year. Get your entry in before midnight on New Year’s Eve — but the sooner the better, because if I fall in love with a pair of names before then, I’ll end the contest and the ARC will go out.
5. Chances are I already know your real-world address. If you happen to win the contest and I don’t know it, we’ll work out the details. If you are the winner, I will sign an advance review copy of the book and send it to you!
 
The name possibilities I’ve already thought of are:
 
Gog and Magog
Phobos and Deimos
 
What are you waiting for? Get those entries in!
 

Clock Tower

May 14, 2011

Black Gate Issue 15It’s an exciting week on the publishing front! First, over to the right here is Issue #15 of Black Gate — it is hot off the presses and loaded with stories, including my “World’s End.” This is the first publication of any of my stories in the Agondria cycle. Every issue of Black Gate is like a super-high-quality anthology of sword & sorcery adventure, along with reviews of books, games, an insightful editorial . . . even a cartoon! At 384 pages long, this issue is essentially a book. I am truly honored to be sharing the table of contents with some of the finest writers in the field, including my friend John R. Fultz (who has been interviewed on this blog). Also, I have to tell this story: some months ago, when Editor John O’Neill revealed the wonderful painting he’d purchased for the cover — and knowing some of the stories he’d chosen for inclusion — I remarked to him, “Wow! So this is the Warrior Woman Issue, huh? You chose that cover to match the content!” Actually, he hadn’t — or not consciously, anyway! But he agreed that I was quite right. Sure enough, in the table of contents, he has grouped eight stories into a section under the heading “Special Warrior Woman Issue”! So I had the honor of making one extra contribution to this issue, other than my story — it seems I even helped a tiny bit with the conceptual design (or at least in identifying it)!

Also, Mr. Gordon Van Gelder very kindly sent me a contributor’s copy of Issue #4 of the new Polish language version of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which reprints my Lovecraft-inspired story “The Place of Roots” just before an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin! In Polish, the story is called “Miejsce Korzeni,” and was translated by Konrad Walewski. I am told it was Mr. Walewski who chose my story for inclusion. It’s a tremendous honor to think that, of all the tales published in the long history of F&SF, he selected mine for Issue #4! So my deepest thanks go out to Mr. Walewski, and I salute him, too, for bringing this great magazine to the people of Poland! (This is the second language my fiction has been translated into: “The Bone Man” appeared awhile back in the Russian edition of F&SF.)

For fans of Emily Fiegenschuh’s illustrations for “The Star Shard” in Cricket: Emily has recently presented me with her amazing book Journey: Sketchbook Volume 3. It’s a beautiful, 96-page softcover collection of her artwork from around the time she worked on my story. One long section of the book is entirely devoted to “The Star Shard,” including conceptual designs, a motion sequence or two, and variations on the appearances and costuming of the characters. Herein are some of the sketches I got to see when we were still in the planning stages, when we were working out how some things should look. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the pre-production world of “The Star Shard,” though most of the images are quite detailed. One of my favorite pages shows the possible looks that might have been given to Bobbin and Argent. Really cool! For anyone who may not yet know: you can view the images for the story in all their full-color glory — and even order prints! — on Emily’s web site at www.e-figart.com.

And now, allow me to change the subject with a monkey wrench: Grrooiinnnkk! A couple weeks ago, some friends from out of town visited me. One highlight of the visit was an opportunity that even many Taylorvillians may not be aware of. Remember our county courthouse, situated on the Square in Taylorville right behind the statue of Lincoln and the pig?

Christian County’s third courthouse, built in 1902

There it is! Well, the man who winds the tower clock once a week is always willing to take visitors along with him. If you can get out of bed to meet him a little before 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday — and if you can climb a lot of stairs — he’ll give you a fascinating tour of this historic landmark. A more knowledgeable guide you will not find. His passion for history and mechanics becomes immediately apparent. Eighteen years ago, he escorted me and some Japanese friends up into the clock tower. This time around, knowing it would be just the sort of thing my company would enjoy, I gave him a call, hoping he was still the Clock Man — and he is! 

 

Seal of Illinois in the First Floor Rotunda

This seal greets you as you enter the courthouse. The building itself, constructed in 1902, is the third courthouse of Christian County. The first, as Lincoln afficionadoes will know, is located now on the grounds of our local historical museum, and is the building in which Lincoln himself practiced law.

 

Through the attic

My personal favorite part of the ascent is the journey through the dim attic, behind those roof-parts of the courthouse. It’s like being in a mine, with all the brickwork and dust and walkways. Are those dust-motes in my photos, or orbs?

The courthouse attic -- another inspirational source for DRAGONFLY

Seriously — I think this attic was an inspiration for the basement stairway scene in Dragonfly. Does the math work out? If I’m figuring right, 1993 would have been when I first saw this attic. Hmm. Iffy, but very close.

The brickwork of the tower

We’re heading up into the tower here. The wooden walkways really remind me of tourist pathways in commercial caves.

Onward, upward, by shadowy ways

The crowning jewel of the courthouse is a stained-glass dome that for decades was hidden by a false ceiling and all but forgotten. When I made my first trip up into the tower, it was visible in a dark crawlspace, but it was not yet restored.

 

Return to regions of light

Here, we’re climbing above the dome. You know, this courthouse has inspired two of my short stories as well. One, an unpublished “learning experience,” was called “Hunting the Vampire,” in which two pre-teen boys (heavily based on my nextdoor neighbor and me) become convinced that a vampire has taken up residence in the courthouse tower. Taking it upon themselves to rid the community of this horror, they break into the courthouse at night and ascend the black tower . . . to a somewhat surprising (if inept) ending. I used to inflict that story on my Saturday English students at Nozomi Lutheran Church. I had study guides to go with it and everything.

Early light outside the windows

This dome was discovered beneath four feet of dust! That’s a fact, according to the clock keeper, and he would certainly know. The other story set partly in this courthouse is “Witherwings,” in which a young boy gifted with a special “sight” sees horribly disturbing images in the stained-glass dome that no one else sees. I really like that one!

The restored dome, from above

The center part of the story beneath the dome was removed during the restoration, so that you can now stand in the First Floor Rotunda, tip your head back, and gaze up at the wonder of the dome! (And hope you don’t see horribly disturbing images . . .)

The restored dome, from below

Are you okay? Everyone still here? Whew! It’s quite beautiful.

Emerging into the bell space

You come up this narrow stairway into that open-air part of the tower that you can see from the ground. That’s where the mighty bell crouches.

The clock bell

And just as one of our party was kneeling in front of this bell to take a closeup picture, the bell struck 8:00 a.m. That . . . was . . . LOUD. And now we come into the small housing chamber of the grand clock itself. This clock keeper is only the third man to do the job since 1902. Clock keepers tend to be lifers — people who do the job because they absolutely love it.

Oiling the clock

Back in the fifties and sixties, many weight-driven clocks were gutted and fitted with electric motors. Doing so was a travesty. Aside from their historic value, the weight-powered clocks are simply better. They don’t stop during power failures. Furthermore, in wintry Midwest conditions, clock hands are often blocked in their movement by snow and ice. When this happens, weight clocks will just stop and wait (Do I have to pay the pun fund?). Electric motors will burn themselves out.

 

Maintaining the clock

Various conditions can affect the clock’s accuracy: temperature, humidity, weather . . . Good clock keepers learn to listen, to know the sounds and rhythms of the mechanics, so that they can hear when something is wrong. Some tiny glitch can occur that may stop the clock many hours later. So if there is a problem, the clock keeper becomes a detective. Did the wind from a certain direction push the clock hand inward just enough to snag on a number on the clock’s face? When might this have happened? And on which of the four clock faces?

This week, the clock was running fast by 25 seconds. (It must be wound once a week, at the same time each week.) Do you see this telephone atop the clock mechanism?

Hotline to the clock

The keeper is able to call the clock from his own cellular phone. By dialing in different codes, he can stop the clock and restart it. While we watched, he stopped the clock for precisely 25 seconds, then restarted it — putting it back on the correct time. And all by phone! He also has cameras set up to “watch” the clock; they stream their images to the Internet, so anyone can watch the clock! (Is it just me, or does this scenario suggest an element of a good murder mystery?)

The crank used by former keepers

The first two keepers used this crank (above) to wind the clock. It’s the bell side of the clock that is by far the harder to wind; you have to raise a weight equivalent (in weight, not size) to a smallish car up four stories to wind the striker. By hand, the process took a good hour, with frequent stops to rest. The current keeper did that once. Then he built himself a motorized attachment, which winds the clock (lifts the weight) in a few minutes. The former keeper did the job until he was in his nineties. At the time he retired, he could still turn the crank with no problem; it was his knees that forced him to quit. He couldn’t climb all the way up there any more.

Hatchway in one clock face

So we’re looking right out through the face of the courthouse clock here! One of the hands is visible.

Taylorville water tower

There’s the northeast corner of the Square (above). Look! Beyond the water tower is the soybean mill which is visible from my yard, which lies still farther east!

North side of the Square

There’s the north side, and the movie theater. I can’t quite see what’s playing. Isn’t it odd? Just a few short months ago, I was taking photos from atop a tower on the other side of the world. Strange feeling. These places we know so well, where we spend our lives . . .

Slave clock on the first floor

This clock on the ceiling of the first floor is tied to the great clock in the tower. What the big faces outside show, this one shows.

Lincoln’s Tomb in Springfield, Illinois

Here’s Lincoln’s Tomb in Springfield. The long-observed tradition is for visitors to rub Lincoln’s nose for good luck. The nose of this sculpture is bright and shiny. Looks like Tycho Brahe. (I don’t think this practice was observed while Lincoln was alive.)

My place in Taylorville, May 2011

And here’s my place. [Cue the “Concerning Hobbits” soundtrack.]

Looking southwest at my place

What do you say? Good place to end the post? Talk to you soon!

Long Live the Fine Arts!

February 20, 2011

There’s a quote from Paul Darcy Boles that I use every year with my writing students. I’m pretty sure I’ve brought it up on this blog before: “We are all storytellers sitting around the cave of the world.” When Mr. Boles said it (and I was there, so I know), he was talking about how all of us writers, regardless of genre, language, level of accomplishment, place, or time in history are all engaged in the same basic and fundamental (and necessary) human activity, which has been around since the dawn of our kind. Today, we are still gathered around the crackling flames while shadows dance on the walls and the night looms outside. We are still entertaining our companions with tales — tales that apply to our lives whatever they may be, if we think about the stories and see the connections. Stories bring us fulfillment, but also education, insight, catharsis, encouragement, and hope.

Yesterday was a great day. Through the experience of seeing many dance performances, of having an exhibition of my paintings (such as they are), and of reading one of my poems aloud as a talented young dancer expressed it visually, I felt again the unity among all the creative arts. They’re all about telling stories.

The performance yesterday was mostly about dancing. It’s the second annual event called “T.A.Y. — C” (the letters standing for the names of the central organizers, who are some of the main dancers). It features the dance club of Niigata’s Minami High School (quite a large group) as well as OB’s and OG’s (which, in Japan, means alumni and alumnae — have I got the Latin right? — and those letters stand for “Old Boy” and “Old Girl” — former members who have graduated and moved on from a particular group). So this event also starred university students who came back for it from their various schools all across Japan — and a professional dance troupe from Tokyo. Quite a big production!

It was held in the Ongaku Bunka Kaikan — the Hall of Music and Culture. And what a day of music and culture it was! We gathered in the morning, set things up, had informal rehearsals followed by a dress rehearsal in the afternoon, and then the real thing starting at 6:00 p.m. Lunch and supper were provided for us. The various groups used different parts of the building as dressing rooms. I was with a trio of singers and their accompanists — one of the singers, Aiko-san, is my co-worker at the university who “got me into this.” Their group sang “Singing’ in the Rain” and selections from West Side Story (both including dancers) just before my part in the program.

The images you’ll see below are the pamphlet for my art exhibition, which was held in the corridor just outside the auditorium. This pamphlet was included as one of the inserts in the main program that the audience members received. The teacher who made this for us — free of charge — did a fantastic job, didn’t she?

The cover for the pamphlet introducing me at the performance on February 19, 2011.

Yes, I know that title, “The Dreamworlds of . . .” is awfully pretentious. We were just having fun. I couldn’t think of anything better to call it, and everyone seemed to like that idea. Don’t suppose that I’m taking myself all that seriously, okay? In this scan, the paintings have a strange quality, like you can see the weave of the paper or something. They didn’t look like that on the actual folder.

Pamphlet interior, left side: the English version of my poem (which will appear in THE STAR SHARD this fall).

Pamphlet interior, right side: the translation of "Blue Were Her Eyes," set with great care and sensitivity into Japanese by Ms. Aiko Sato.

In the morning, a group of high-school girls helped me set the exhibition up. They attached monofilament strands to the backs of the paintings, and we suspended them at artistically-varied heights on two large corkboards along the corridor wall, just opposite one of the auditorium doors. I had made special laminated placards giving the title and some other information about each painting (usually a hint as to how to understand it — though of course, who am I to dictate that? — once a painting is out there, it’s all up to the viewer). Personnel announced the exhibition over the p.a. system, too, and invited the audience to see it. In the half-hour or so before the show started and during the intermission, I was on hand to talk with people who browsed the pictures. That was a good time.

The pamphlet's back cover. (That weird rectangle of paper isn't part of it. It's there to cover up my signature.)

My experience with the world of dance is very limited. Back in college, we needed a certain number of p.e. credits to graduate. Not being adept at sports, I wondered what course to take . . . until I saw one called “Folk and Square Dance.” Aha, I thought! Here was a chance to do something that might be fun, especially because I was sure it would throw me together with a lot of girls. That sort of physical contact would be infinitely better than getting slammed into by guys in football or basketball. And the course was a great time, but that’s the subject for a different post. My point here is, in nearly all the dances I’d encountered until yesterday, the moves are prescribed. There are right and wrong ways to do the steps.

But yesterday, these kids were doing what we always celebrate on this blog. They had chosen songs or simply ideas and developed their own movements to express them to an audience. They were telling stories with physical motion. And it was poetry of the most exquisite sort. I wish you could have seen it!

It would take far too much space to recount all of the dances for you (there were 17 other performances on the program, not counting mine). But I’ll try to hit some highlights. During the dress rehearsal I got to see most of them, and even during the real show at night, I went in by a back door and stood at the rear of the dark auditorium to watch the first half (the place was packed, and I heard that it seats 500 people!).

The professional girls from Tokyo did a fantastic piece from Senegal, which featured a red-lit background at one point, driving rhythms, and the music of Africa that evokes heat and an ancient heritage. I do not know how people can remember such a long progression of complex movements, let alone perfectly coordinating them with an entire team of dancers.

One of the more interesting dances was called “Passing Each Other,” performed by a guy and a girl. The soundtrack was simply a jingling, an irregular ringing, as if you would take a spoon, hold it loosely, and shake and jerk your hand to keep the spoon bouncing against a metal pipe. The dancers’ attitudes conveyed a sense of unfulfillment, of longing toward each other, but their paths were always skewed, always at odds, never quite lining up. They never quite managed to come face-to-face and make contact. So it is with some relationships, right? People can bounce all around the edges of a genuine connection, never quite getting there, until time takes its toll and their ways part irrevocably. The jingling became more urgent after the halfway point with a sound like static, which increased the sense of desperation. Toward the end, these sounds were joined by a recurring deeper note which, to me anyway, signified the big chunks of life breaking up and beginning to move, bigger things changing, the time of opportunity passing. At the end, when the guy almost embraced the girl from behind, she bent her knees, slid downward through the hoop of his arms that weren’t quite touching her, and very slowly paced away into the dark with him following — their postures showing resignation and sadness.

The most beautiful dance, I thought, was one called “Cosmos” (the flower, not the Carl Sagan show). It was performed by one girl. I won’t even lessen it with an inept description, but it communicated all that is best in the feminine and in the beauty of spring and awakening summer.

To me, the most interesting and moving dance was done by two girls — the same one from “Cosmos,” but in a different costume, and another girl in a matching costume. It was called “Little Girl.” I had the chance to talk to both of them at the party that night, and we discussed the interpretation of it. The dance showed the fear, reluctance, sadness, and shaky, fluttering hope of growing up, of moving from childhood into adulthood. The dancers very effectively used two pairs of bright red shoes as symbolic props. Barefoot, the girls slowly approached the shoes from opposite sides of the stage at the beginning, and then they did all sorts of things with them — tentatively trying them on, rejecting them, being drawn back to them, and at one point linking them together into a dangling chain of four shoes that then came apart and rained down like falling petals. In the end, the girls put on the shoes and moved forward into their grownup years. (I couldn’t help thinking of Narnia’s Susan.)

The music for that dance with the red shoes was Priscilla Ahn’s “Dream.” It’s about having a dream when you’re very young, and trying to find what you’re supposed to do in life. The end, which really got to me emotionally, goes like this:

“Now I’m old and feeling grey. I don’t know what’s left to say about this life I’m willing to leave. I lived it full and lived it well, there’s many tales I’ve lived to tell. I’m ready now, I’m ready now, I’m ready now to fly from the highest wing. I had a dream.”

Man, I can’t even type that with dry eyes! Sooner or later, I’d like to get a recording of the song. Isn’t that great, though? Live full, live well, and when it’s time to die, be ready.

I asked those two girls why nearly all the songs the groups chose to dance to were English-language songs. Their answer really made sense. It’s because their audience won’t be familiar with the songs. If the dancers chose popular Japanese hits, the audience would already have a clear mental image of the particular artist singing the song — they would bring all sorts of baggage to it. By using music that is unfamiliar, the dancers have a clean canvas to work with. Isn’t that an impressive answer?

The atmosphere backstage was energetic and a great thing to experience, too. It reminded me of my thespian years in high school, but this was on a much bigger scale. Imagine all these groups (many involving 15 or 20 people, many in identical costumes) crammed into various rooms and hallways, some girls helping each other with makeup, and many of the chief dancers (guys and girls) stretching in near-impossible ways and bouncing on their toes and practicing their expressive twirls and bends and gestures — everybody leaping around, the stage manager with his headset trying to keep things coordinated, the lighting and sound people at their consoles, adjusting toggles, watching the needles hop . . . Most of the large groups had to use long hallways to eat lunch, keep their stuff, and change (outer) clothes in. The room my group was assigned to was at the end of one such hallway, so every time we went in or out, we had to pass among all these high-school girls.

The dance club at Minami High School is incredibly well-mannered and highly disciplined. They act and answer in unison, like troops — Mrs. Funayama’s troops. Every time we would pass them, every one of the girls would brightly say “Konnichiwa” to us. So we would say it back. We all greeted one another all day. (The girls have an abbreviated form of the word that sounds like “Ch’a.” They say it politely, with a little bow.)

Two of my teacher friends from the university came for the big night, as well as one other acquaintance — it was good to see them.

As I said, I spent the first half of the show out in the auditorium itself, standing at the back, so I knew just how packed the place was. Five hundred souls. But when you’re on the stage under the bright lights, you can’t see the audience at all. Out there in front of you is just this huge black gulf that somehow conveys expectation and attention. If you listen really hard, you can hear the gulf stirring . . . you can hear it breathe.

In an interview, Gilda Radner talked about nerves before a performance, but how the moment before she’d go on stage, she just couldn’t wait to go on. That last part has always been my feeling when it comes to performance. There’s this sense that I have to get to that moment or I’ll go supernova — I belong there, I want to be there — I feel that I could tear through an interposing brick wall with my fingers if I had to.

I honestly wasn’t nervous for this one because there was nothing hard I had to do. I had my manuscript on a music stand, I knew the sound and the height of the microphone were adjusted, I knew the material, and I knew Tsuchida-san would do astounding things with the dance aspect — for me, it was just a matter of stepping out there in front of the breathing gulf and letting the moment ignite — enjoying it to the fullest, doing the sort of thing I was born to do.

When you have the audience there, an intangible something nearly always happens that simply can’t be generated artificially. No matter how well you nail a part in a rehearsal, when you’re doing it for real, something kicks in and takes hold and pulls you up out of yourself. I think that happened for both of us. When we’d finished our part (three scant minutes of a long evening of phenomenal dancing and singing), the applause was thunderous, and when I got back into the wings, two of the singers threw their arms around me in emotional hugs, which is pretty rare in Japan.

During the reading of “Blue Were Her Eyes,” I had to be looking mostly at the invisible audience, with occasional glances at the text — so I couldn’t be watching Tsuchida-san. (I’m told that I’ll get to see the video, and of course I saw some of his work in the first informal practice we did in the morning.) [He is the “T” in “T.A.Y. — C,” by the way — according to one of the singers, he is nationally known among dance people — he’s that good.] What he did in this case was a kind of spontaneous interpretation — chance art, or art of the moment. He had practiced for some weeks with an audio tape I’d made of me reading the poem, but we didn’t meet until yesterday. He coordinated his movements to the pace, pauses, mood, and volume I was using. He started out in a side aisle among the audience, appearing there under a spotlight as I began to deliver the poem. Then he was up on stage, flying and whirling, as the narrative led us through love and painful parting to the battle . . . to long imprisonment like death . . . to eventual release and the reunion of the lovers, with the changes their lives have undergone. By all accounts, he outdid himself — I can’t wait to see it!

Aiko-san, the singer who invited me to be part of this, described how she first started arranging for dancers to dance along with her group’s vocal songs. The stars of musicals, she noted, have to be able to act, sing, and dance. But not everyone is good at all three of those. So why not put together people who excel in the individual disciplines? After all, think of the various talents that go into making a movie — hundreds and hundreds of people working at their own crafts, but joined to produce a whole that no one person could possibly create — not even someone like Da Vinci. (Or a book! Again and again I’ve experienced — and did so again this week — how greatly my writing is helped by editors who know their business. And thank goodness I don’t have to do the cover illustrations myself! Or the binding . . . or getting those pages to be the same size . . .)

Just before the poem, Aiko-san interviewed me on stage. She made the point to the audience that when you see a poem and a dance come together like this, the sum of it is much more than one thing plus one thing. She asked me what the sum was, and I said, “I’m terrible at math,” which got a laugh. She asked me about the relationship between my writing and teaching, and I was able to say how blessed I feel to be able to teach creative writing — to share what I love so much with my students. When she asked what I thought of the dancers, I said they gave me goosebumps, and the breathing gulf laughed pleasantly — I think they were surprised I knew that word. (Don’t worry — I know “goosebumps” has the same meanings in both cultures.)

So — it was a shining day, one of those experiences that remains as a treasure of the heart — one of those times you’re thankful you had the privilege to be there for. It made me want to do more with performance when the opportunity arises.

Let’s all keep living in a way that will take us to that moment of readiness to depart when the time comes. “I’m ready now to fly from the highest wing.” Let’s put on the red shoes, but not too quickly — first, let’s string them together and let them fall like petals. And when it’s time to put them on, let’s put them on with calmness and grace, and discover all that is good about wearing red shoes.

Oh — that’s another thing Aiko-san and I agreed on in front of those two young dancers at the party: there’s nothing at all bad about growing up as long as you keep your childhood’s heart — as long as you love, and take part, and keep space in your life for stories.

God bless the storytellers — including those who pirouette!

Thanksgiving Weekend — Thoughts

November 24, 2010

Okay, it’s high time I posted here. What is a blog without any new posts, right? Though I must say, I deeply appreciate everyone sticking around during the quiet stretches, keeping the blog alive in the comments section. I’m reminded again and again of how it is our blog.

More about World Fantasy is still coming. But for this entry, I feel like simply talking — no unifying theme (unless one emerges) — just a stream of the state of things for me as we move into the Thanksgiving weekend.

I could have called this post “In the Smoke,” because I’m in that exciting place right now with revisions of The Star Shard. I’m doing some intense rewriting of the climactic scene. Up till this point, I’ve kept a clear tally of how far I’ve been getting through the manuscript, following my editor’s extremely helpful notes, adding in some new ideas of my own. But at the climax of a book, all cold calculation dissolves, and you just ride the avalanche on your surfboard. [How’s THAT for an analogy?] There’s no seeing or hearing anything but the dust and the roar until all the inevitabilities settle into place. So, for about the next three days, that’s where I am. It’s one of the most exhilarating times for a writer. It’s a good place to be on Thanksgiving weekend!

And just before the deadline, too. I’ve been working steadily toward my deadline of December 1st, when I have to turn the book back in to my editor. The timing should work out just right, Lord willing. But this close to the deadline, it’s suspenseful, isn’t it? It’s like the scene in Apollo 13 when the capsule with the exhausted, harried astronauts has re-entered the atmosphere, and no one knows whether they’ll make a safe splash-down or whether they’ll be incinerated in the atmosphere. There’s the expected zone in which all radio contact is lost. Silence, silence, the cameras scanning the skies . . . silence, silence, the attempts to hail them met only with silence. Gary Sinise standing there in Mission Control, a frown on his brow as he strains to hear a reply through his headset. Silence, silence . . . and then a burst of static, the voice of a living astronaut, and the glorious, blessed opening of a parachute.

Um, that will be me at the end of this month. Lord willing! 🙂 “Houston, we have a book! We have a book!”

Orion is dazzlingly clear tonight (as is the moon, a little past full), and I saw the bright cloud of the Pleiades. A friend back home who keeps me informed of what the Farmers’ Almanac says tells me that this was the Full Beaver Moon we just witnessed.
 
My writing class went really well today! [I warned you this would be rather stream-of-consciousness!] For the second time (at least the second time; maybe it’s happened more often) this semester, we had perfect attendance, which is really hard to do with a class of 31 upper-classmen. 31 university students is hard enough, but during a cold season (flu & colds going around), with all the job interviews and school visits and practice teaching and special seminars that seniors go to, it’s amazing that everyone can be there. And God helped! I prayed right before class that I would be able to teach clearly, and I think it was a very clear lesson. The topic today was essay structure, particularly the thesis statement and the body of the essay. After passing back homework papers and doing the Quote for the Week, I gave a brief lecture on essay structure using a big diagram on the board and a sample essay handed out to the students, in which we identified the various parts. Then, for the main part of the class, students used the information they collected last week from interviewing a partner. I gave them a worksheet I’d made: one side of a piece of typing paper with a blank line for a title and then five big rectangles representing the introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion. There were more blank lines in the appropriate places for the thesis statement and the topic sentences of the paragraphs. Our focus today was organization, so the students didn’t have to be so concerned with grammar and spelling. I instructed them to look at the information in their notes about their partner and try to sort it into material for three separate paragraphs. They filled in the worksheet accordingly, writing notes inside the rectangles to show what content they would put into each paragraph. And they had to write a thesis statement for the whole essay as well as topic sentences for the body paragraphs. (We didn’t officially do anything yet with the intro and the conclusion–I haven’t taught those yet–but some students tried it anyway, which was fine.) As they worked, I walked around to help them individually. I could really see the light going on for some of them as they got the idea that the three body paragraphs develop different aspects of the thesis. Days like this are fun!
 
Of course, I had a lot of papers to check through tonight, since I collected those at the end of class! 
 
So, I suspect a lot of us saw the latest Harry film this past weekend. (Don’t worry — absolutely no spoilers here. And don’t anyone dare spoil anything for me! I don’t yet know how this story is going to end.) I went to the delightful after-midnight showing at my local theater, which is the way I experienced many showings of The Lord of the Rings. [Twice, if I remember correctly, I’ve had to explain to patrolling policemen that I’m walking home from the movie theater at 3:00 a.m. — really! Police officers here don’t have a whole lot to do . . .]

Every single time I experience more of Harry Potter, either reading one of the books or seeing one of the movies, it messes me up emotionally. I don’t think I will ever fully get over my envy and the anxiety it sets off in me as a writer. I really, really want to write something that good, that big, that deep, that complex, that moving . . . I want to write a story that will far outlive me, that zillions of people around the world will embrace and enjoy–to create (sub-create, Tolkien would rightly say) a world that readers will want to live in. No other books/movies set me off in the same way. It’s partly the widespread success of the books, completely unprecedented in the history of the world; and it’s partly that J.K. Rowling is so close to my own age, and our careers were pretty much parallel until her books started taking off the way they did. (She even taught English as a Second Language overseas. Dragonfly and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out at about the same time.) It’s partly that I also write YA fantasy using magical creatures, dark mysteries, etc. Even a lot of our naming sense is very similar. It’s hard for me to deal with the fact that she really got it all together. The lightning bolt of inspiration struck her, and she pulled together just the right combination of ideas, storytelling, timing, etc., to produce a series of books for the ages. I can’t imagine anything I’d rather do as a writer than to make something like that! If it were totally beyond my ability, it wouldn’t bother me. (It doesn’t bother me, for example, that a friend of mine is a fantastic violinist. I can appreciate classical music as a fan, pure and simple. It’s not something I have any talent for, so I can just listen and enjoy it.) But creating a wonderful series of fantasy books seems so close, so much within the realm of possibility . . . but it’s finding that right, perfect combination. Or perhaps, that right combination finding us. I think it was more a case of Harry finding J.K. Rowling than the other way around. I believe she’s even said that, as have many other famous writers about their famous works.
 
One thing I’ve been thinking about is trying a more disciplined approach to plotting. J.K.R. said in an interview that she spent an entire year plotting the whole series before she ever started writing the first book. And that’s how she achieved that marvelous unity and coherence, that seamless quality — that steady improvement of the books. Instead of “trying to top” her previous books, she was steadily building one story toward its climax.
 
I have always taken the other approach, the one used by Stephen King of discovering the story as I go along. I know that can work very well — obviously! Stephen King knows what he’s doing. But I think plot — and especially plot as determined by character — is a weak area of mine, and I need to consciously spend more time on it. Focusing on people . . . on putting them into situations that threaten and test them to the max . . . on being true to their emotions, their reactions, their interactions. For me, I think the “cool settings” and place descriptions will always come naturally — but a book needs to be a lot more than that to resonate with readers. It HAS to be all about the characters. I really want to try something with many layers, with story threads in the past and the present. To do that, I think a writer has to be very conscious of the structure — that is, s/he has to plan it out — it’s much harder for a multi-layered story to happen “accidentally.” I think I’ve been leaving too much to chance.
 
If an artist is truly a genius, I think the “chance” approach is more likely to work. Such a genius can just “start writing,” and an awesome book will emerge — but what’s really happening is that the writer’s subconscious and instincts are doing all the work that us lesser intellects need to do more consciously.

Anyway, Thanksgiving is here! I always enjoy it in Japan. No one else is celebrating it. There are no turkeys, no feasts, no gorging on far too much food; so it’s much easier to focus on the essence of the holiday: giving thanks for the amazing blessings we have. (And yes, I usually find a way to work some sort of Thanksgiving-reminiscent food into my diet, whether it’s lunch from Kentucky Fried Chicken [a similar bird], or a turkey breast sandwich from Subway, or some cheese [a rare commodity here].)
 
When I was a kid, I associated Thanksgiving with reading for some reason. I have powerful memories of being curled up with a book while the aromas of Mom’s cooking wafted through the house. I think that’s a picture of Heaven — to be completely at peace and free, with no responsibilities; but to be in the midst of loved ones; to have the unending feast of the Lamb all laid out before us; to be full of excitement and creativity and Story . . . “And we’ll all go together, / Where the wild mountain thyme / Grows amang the bloomin’ heather . . .” (That’s from the traditional song “Wild Mountain Thyme,” as performed by The Tannahill Weavers on their album Dancing Feet — perhaps my favorite song of all time . . . perhaps . . .)

“Okay,” as we used to say during D&D sessions, “that’s about a turn!” That’s about a blog post, I reckon. Talk to you again soon!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Something Like a Dragon

June 19, 2009

By grace, 2,015 words written on the new book today! Whenever I throw word counts around, it’s not my intention to boast. And sheer numbers of words, of course, mean nothing: enough monkeys with enough typewriters could bang out an enormous number of words. I mean only 1.) to demonstrate that there is forward progress, and 2.) to establish credentials. What gives me the right to hold up my head and talk about writing as if I know something is not the things I’ve published: it’s the fact that, today, I’ve been walking the walk, with my fingers on the keys, choosing certain phrases over certain other phrases, figuring out how to get a little more of the story out of the excavation site without damaging it too severely. So the book is on track and moving ahead nicely. (Or, as Spock says in the recent excellent film: “Thrusters on full.”) Soli Deo gloria! [The story is told that J.S. Bach wrote that phrase on every manuscript when he composed music: Soli Deo gloria — Glory to God alone.]

That “excavation” theory of writing is set forth clearly by Stephen King in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I think he’s exactly right. How about this [my own variation]? — “Writing is bagging the smoke.” It’s attempting to throw a curtain around the misty shape that coalesces — just for a moment — within your reach. If you can get the curtain around it, you can preserve it (or at least its shadow) in a fixed form for yourself and others to enjoy. If you can’t, it’s gone again, because it’s always drifting, always changing, like the clouds in a summer sky. Ooo, I like that! (This cloud motion theory explains why, if you would tackle the same idea at different times of your life, you’d get significantly different stories.) Though you may not believe it, I am still on topic here. . . .

So it’s high time we talked about that dragon! To refresh your memory, and so that you don’t have to go back to a previous post to see the poem in question, here again is “Glory Day.” (The term “Glory Day” refers to the Fourth of July, which for me has always been a symbol of the height of summer . . . the time of freedom and imagination, the season “better-than-which-it-does-not-get.” I wrote this poem at some point during my college years. Specifically, I remember that I wrote it on a 5th of July, the day after Glory Day, sitting on a folding chair facing north across the field between my house and Chris’s house, in the shade of the maple trees at the northeast corner of our yard, with the barn directly behind me. The barn is gone now, but most of those trees are still there.)

“Glory Day”

We found the old cat one hot Glory Day

In the steamy weeds, swelled to twice his size;

Green glory thunder echoed in his eyes

As we laid him out where the smell of hay

And green maple shadows would make the flies

Forget him; and watching the heat waves rise

From the wind-mirroring beans we covered him with clay.

There was lightning low in the sky away

Off, and a distant rumbling down the road;

The Virginia creeper whispered to the wagon

It covered like time-snails’ tracks, the old load

Of bricks for building; something like a dragon

Crawled south in the blur of wheat’s golden sway

When we buried a tomcat on Glory Day.

 

That’s sort of a sonnet: it has 14 lines. But look at the strange rhyme scheme: ABBABBA ACDCDAA. In a departure from normal sonneting (sonneteering?), I compressed the part before the break and expanded the part after the break. See the overlapping effect in what’s normally the first eight lines (now seven)? — ABBAABBA has become ABBABBA. With that overlap, and by carrying that A-rhyme through as I did, I was trying to emphasize unity, that all these elements of the poem are inextricably woven together (“seamless throughout,” like that garment the soldiers didn’t want to tear but cast lots for instead).

In other words, the dead cat is the dragon. The beans, the heat waves, the maple shadows, the creeper, the tracks of time-snails: all these are the dragon, and they are the thunder, and the thunder is the cat, and the dragon is the image of the invisible wind mirrored in the beans that sway. All these things are part of growing up on a farm, where death and life are bound up together; where life bursts from the soil every spring . . . where fragile green things grow from the cracks of old dead fence-posts . . . where everything goes to sleep in the winter, blanketed with snow . . . and where there’s always the smell of something dead wafting from behind some hedgerow (“In ahind yon oul fail dyke / I wot there lies a new slain knight. . . .”) Moreover, it’s all bound up in “Glory Day,” the A-rhyme, the phrase found in the title and in the first and final lines of the poem. “Glory” is freedom and celebration and fireworks in the sky; it’s wonder and youth and being alive, learning and growing; but it’s also a word lodged in the Beyond, isn’t it? Believers in Christ live in “the hope of glory.” We speak of “the glory to be revealed in us.” . . . “We have beheld His glory.” . . . “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” . . . We often set “glory” as the condition opposed to the here and now: there are those of us alive now, and there are “the saints in glory.” So it’s a loaded word — and, I hope, a loaded poem.

Thank you to everyone who put forth a theory as to what the “something like a dragon” is! I appreciated them all, and every one of them was a good answer. A couple of you “went public” and gave us your ideas in official comments; a couple more slipped them to me by e-mail. Your theories about the dragon included:

a rumbling train, the sounds of its progress echoing the thunder;

a row of hills undulating in the distance;

a river, stream, or the Flatbranch Creek;

and even the “raccoon lugging a knapsack” from Maxine Kumin’s “The Presence”!

One might also say a tractor — a solitary tractor crawling across the distance in the vastness of a field can take on a mystical aspect. All these answers are good, and all can be right together.

As for me, I wasn’t thinking as literally as you all were. For me, the dragon isn’t necessarily anything physical or material. It’s more an abstract concept, suggested by those amazing and unsettling shadows the wind leaves in grain fields, which motif I’ve used again and again in my writing. [From my poem The Horror in the Wind: “The wind in shapes / and shadows masks / the dreadful footfalls of the gods.” And from “Seawall”: “Across the slopes, the wind stirs the green asili stems in vast wandering arcs, as if unseen creatures larger than dragons are playing there.”] Jesus mentions this phenomenon, too, doesn’t He, when He’s talking to Nicodemus?

The dragon-like thing crawls south. For me, south is the direction “toward warmth, toward imagination, toward enchantment.” South is the “good” direction. At that time in my life, “north” meant college and cold, hard work and the big city; “south” meant home and freedom.[Treebeard has the line in the LOTR movies about how he’s always enjoyed walking south, because it always feels like he’s walking downhill. I hear you, ‘Beard!]

My intention in this poem, then, is that on the day when all these elements are present: the green, the tree shadows, the dead cat needing to be buried, the heat waves, the passage of time, the thunder — on this day, the wonder and terror and joy and grandeur almost manifest themselves in a tangible shape. That thing crawling south is wonder itself. It’s the shape of something that has no shape; it’s the expression of something that cannot be expressed. (Heh, heh! Sounds like I’m talking about Arthur C. Clarke’s Monolith!) All you can do is get the general idea.

Whew! That’s more than anyone ever wanted to know about “Glory Day”!

I was thinking about this use of a dragon to represent something abstract and larger, and it occurred to me that animals — in particular, big animals — are sometimes used this way. It seems to be an ancient and fundamental device.

I need to quote again from my story “A Tale of Silences,” which appeared in Cicada, January/February 2006. This tale is set in a mountain village in Japan in 1970, about 25 years after the war. The main character is an old man named Jii who has lived all his life in the village, which is now slated for obliteration through the construction of a new dam which will flood the area. The story tells of Jii’s last year in the village.

One night, he is awakened in total darkness by strange sounds, and he realizes a bear has gotten into his house and into the very room where he’s been sleeping. For a long time he lies there, not daring to move, and eventually the bear (for reasons unknown) goes away. Jii ponders what this encounter has meant. Here’s the excerpt:

As Jii sawed, chopped, and bundled sticks, he watched the forest, wondering if his bear would return. At times he was sure he could feel eyes upon him, peering from the underbrush. Once he thought he heard husky breathing nearby, but it might have been a breeze in the pine branches. And once, just as a broken limb he’d sawed off dropped into the decomposing leaves, he saw a bear on the next ridge. It was black against the dull sky and huge, bigger than any he’d ever seen. Slowly its head turned in his direction. When the eyes found him, Jii was somehow sure this had been the bear in his house. It gazed at him for a long time, then ambled into the trees.

Later, at dusk, the bamboo swayed in the wind. Sipping hot tea, Jii watched from the window. He envisioned human figures coming and going among the grove’s shifting shadows: himself and Fusa, sometimes middle-aged, sometimes young, once hand-in-hand for the first time. . . .

Paler each day, the sun sought to warm the land by showering more and more thin light, the last of its summer store. It sparkled from the few sere leaves, blazed on the streams, and suffused morning mists like a golden forgetfulness. Jii felt an urgency in the clamoring light; soon all the bears would go into their dens. Before they began their long sleep, and all the land with them, something must be done. Some secret, Jii began to think, must lie hidden near at hand, some riddle of dying leaf or unturned stone that, if solved, would bring peace and clarity. He became convinced that the bear had come to call him out before the valley was lost, to awaken him from his den in the deep years, to lead him to an answer for which he did not quite grasp the question. All he knew, as surely as he knew the sun sank earlier each evening behind the purple height, was that time was running out.

Later, Jii again encounters the bear up close:

The great bear had come — the mountain’s nushi. As if sunlight were shining on his back, Jii felt a comfort, his fear melting away. The terror of the nushi’s first visit was gone, but still Jii could not turn around. A sense of his own insubstantiality kept him unmoving, as if to stir in the nushi’s presence might cause him to dissolve in light. He lowered his head, filled at once with weariness and a peace he had not known since childhood — the earliest days and nights of consciousness, the only time in mortal life that one rests completely. Sinking to the floor before the nushi’s gigantic paws, Jii slept.

Do not fear, said a voice to him in his dreams.

This Japanese concept of a particular area’s nushi  or “lord” — the guardian and master of a certain mountain, forest, or river — has to some degree been introduced to western audiences through the film Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) by Hayao Miyazaki, in which the Shinto gods of the forested mountain take the forms of gigantic animals.

It’s interesting, this manifestation of things powerful and divine in the forms of animals. . . .

In Lord Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder, I recall that one of those haunting, enthralling black-and-white pictures shows a pathless forest, and the hind parts of some huge, bear-like animal just visible as the creature passes behind a tree. I don’t have access to my copy of the book right now — anyone out there with a copy, can you confirm this memory? I was intrigued by how the artist chose to depict only part of the animal — and not the head.

In my own first, unpublished novel The Threshold of Twilight, I included a great Well called Twilintarn, which was a point where worlds intersected. Some tremendous, powerful Presence moved over the water there — the Keeper of Twilintarn — so terrible that to see it directly was death, as some unfortunate villains found out. From the glimpses we get of the Keeper, it seems to be a four-footed animal, though of colossal proportions.

In that same book, there is a wild Stag running through the fantasy world: a noble animal which is the embodiment of our own world, this one in which we live. Yes: in that world, our world runs around as a wild Stag. If the Huntsman with his black arrows kills the Stag, our world will perish. And already as the story begins, the Stag is wounded, its steps faltering.

How about Melville’s Moby-Dick? Isn’t the white whale really more than a whale? Doesn’t it represent something bigger?

Lurking in the shadows behind the Old Testament are Leviathan and Behemoth. Both halves of the world have their dragons, some good, some bad. Looming large in my childhood was King Kong: an animal of gigantic size, ruling his lost island of wonder. It’s not a stretch to say that Kong is a symbol of what is wild, free, beautiful, and should not be touched by humankind.

And then there’s Aslan, a lion and the Lord. There are humans and humanoids in Narnia; C.S. Lewis might easily have given his Christ figure a human shape, but he did not.

Back to that picture from The Book of Wonder, of the great beast moving among the trees, and only its hindquarters visible. . . . Since childhood, I’ve been intrigued by the passage in Exodus 33, in which Moses has asked to see God’s glory. God reminds Moses that no one may see God’s face and live, but He offers this alternative:

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

I quoted here from the New International Version. I checked four or five different translations of the passage. A couple say God’s “back”; one said “from behind”; and two used the phrase I remember hearing/reading as a child: God’s “back parts.” As a wide-eyed child thinking of this encounter, I always imagined that “back parts” sounded more like part of a quadruped than a human figure. (Yet God has a “hand,” too, that He puts over Moses’s eyes.) It’s pointless to read too much into “back parts,” which is only a translation. [Hey, you guys who have studied Hebrew — I know there are at least two of you! — This would be an excellent time to help us out!]

But what is clear is that Moses had a “Glory Day” experience here! We can’t see the face of God . . . or that of the Keeper of Twilintarn. Jii’s bear comes to him in the pitch blackness. We can’t see the wind, but we see its shadow in the grain, and we feel its power. We can’t clearly see what crawls south, but we know it’s something like a dragon, anyway! We behold God’s glory, and we press on toward glory. And we write, attempting to throw the sheet over the ghost.

Grrooinnkkk! Hey, it’s Midsummer’s Eve this week! There may be Good Folk dancing in your garden! When the Eve falls precisely is a matter of which you prefer and when the weather is best: I’d place it on Saturday night or Sunday night if you prefer the solstice, or Wednesday night if you want to go with the eve of the birth of St. John the Baptist.

Grrooiinnkk again: Are you ready for this? My agent has given me the green light to make this announcement. Through the outstanding work of my amazingly incredible agent, we have found a publisher for The Star Shard as a book! Though some details are still being worked out, and more revision is coming, Houghton Mifflin has graciously agreed to give the book a home.

So it’s truly a happy Midsummer’s Eve, and Soli Deo gloria!

Where the Corn Was Spilled

June 6, 2009

That title will make sense by the time we’ve come to the end of this entry. I’m going to quote first here from a wonderful comment that came into the blog today from Shieldmaiden. (You should definitely go back to the two previous entries, “Trees” and “Dark Doorways,” to read the latest reader comments! It seems there are often a few that come in just before I post a new entry, and I don’t want anyone to miss these extraordinary contributions from readers. In every way this is our blog, not just mine. Be sure to revisit the comments to “Trees” as well as “Dark Doorways”!) So, anyway, quoting from Shieldmaiden:

“Speaking of dark or magic doorways I don’t think it gets any more magical than the picture I saw on one of the blog posts last summer. The one of an old gate leaning against the trunks of maples and partially swallowed by their trunks. I couldn’t help but imagine that on a certain midsummer night when the moonlight fell just right, and several other elements lined up, that the gate would swing open and when you went through it you would step into an enchanted forest of another world.”

Eeeee! Shieldmaiden, I hope you’ll let me use that in a story someday! That picture is the new header for the blog, but since I change headers from time to time, I’ll include it here, too:

This old gate has been here for as long as I can remember. It's just behind our house in Taylorville, facing south toward the Big Woods.

This old gate has been here for as long as I can remember. It's just behind our house in Taylorville, facing south toward the Big Woods.

Now I’m going to quote again from The Green and Ancient Light, that unpublished, homemade book of vignettes and recollections from my childhood, printed in September of 1990:

“Beneath the living blanket of green leafy vines was a barn. Down among the roots of the high weeds going to seed were bricks and a concrete slab. At the heart of the hedgerow was a rusting fence, hardly recognizable as such. Only a nail and a chain remained, dangling against the peeling bark, of some iron thing the maple tree had swallowed years ago.

“This relentless march of the sprouting, encircling, all-consuming Earth is essential in understanding my childhood. Nature guarded its secrets well, its rough-edged relics of days gone by; they were tucked away in shady, whispering hollow places where only the folk of the hedgerows could readily find them, the cat and the rabbit, the dog with his nose to the dewy ground, the sleepy opossum, the raccoon with his humanlike hands. These folk climbed over and around the treasures in the gloomy hedgeheart — the forgotten gate leaned against the young maples, its boards bleached and bone-hard, its metal fastenings eaten with rust; the roll of fencing behind the tin shed, half-sunk in the earth, down between the treetrunks, a tunnel for foxes and a rusty trampoline for little  boys; the mysterious odds and ends of glass and tarpaper, the dimly-remembered toys of earliest childhood, sheltering now beneath the dusky hillocks of the grass; the several corroded things in the delightful hollows of the man-made cliff behind the cellar.

“All these things and a thousand more called out to two little boys, called out in voices soft and mellow as ripened rust, orange in the hot light, dark amber in the sunset; the grasses called out, their blades in the wind, their roots probing into matters. The world of passage and change called out, the world of transformation and chemical reaction, of unbecoming and becoming: ‘Come and see, boys; come and find. Discover in these green depths the things that once were, the things you lost five summers ago, the things your grandfathers’ compatriots built forty years ago; see what is now, how undauntedly nature takes your ball and runs with it, how it takes all your ideas and improves them, and goes on; and, boys, carry with you from this secret world these purposefully-formed seeds of things that may be.'”

I honestly think that a huge part of my writing is a giving back of the gifts I absorbed from the green world around me in my childhood. A Cricket editor’s comment that I particularly cherish was: “Your memory for detail is phenomenal: you sit in Japan and write lovingly about small-town life in Illinois.”

Anyway, while we’re speaking of the magic of trees and doorways, certainly this tendency of nature to advance and absorb and reclaim the objects of human construction is a worthy subtopic — it has always been a large part of the enchantment for me.

Again, I remember illustrations from a book of fairy stories I had when I was very young (and still have — I know right where it is, though it’s deeply buried in storage). It was a tattered old book that a library was throwing away. My mom the librarian would rescue such castoffs for me, and sometimes they became the greatest treasures of my own library. It didn’t even have a cover. But I remember a beautiful two-page panoramic color painting of a meadow; and half-hidden here and there among the tussocks of long grass were sleepy rabbits in their burrows, rusted swords, crocks of golden coins, and probably a fairy or two — the last time I saw it was several years ago.

But that picture expresses a wonder that I suspect is common to many of us. I remember my childhood fascination with objects overgrown, things half-buried, items long-forgotten and vine-clad and sinking into the ground. I don’t know why the phenomenon was so enthralling to me.

This bicycle beside a wooded path on Niigata University's campus has been welcomed and given a place.

This bicycle beside a wooded path on Niigata University's campus has been welcomed and given a place.

In the north wall of our barn, there were some closed hatchways or windows covered over by Virginia creeper vines. Piles of stone were soon overrun by weeds. Farm implements parked and abandoned sank into the embrace of nature.

As a college student, I was captivated by these lines from Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion”:

“Earth is eating trees, fence posts,

Gutted cars, earth is calling her little ones,

‘Come home, come home!'”

And here are three more poems that I think speak to this same theme, each in its own way:

“The Presence,” by Maxine Kumin:

Something went crabwise

across the snow this morning.

Something went hard and slow

over our hayfield.

It could have been a raccoon

lugging a knapsack,

it could have been a porcupine

carrying a tennis racket,

it could have been something

supple as a red fox

dragging the squawk and spatter

of a crippled woodcock.

Ten knuckles underground

those bones are seeds now

pure as baby teeth

lined up in the burrow.

 

I cross on snowshoes

cunningly woven from

the skin and sinews of

something else that went before.

The next one I remember singing in a choral arrangement in an all-state chorus festival when I was in junior high or high school — performed by a huge choir made up of kids from all over the state. The poem itself was written and published during World War II by Thomas Hornsby Ferril, and it’s called “No Mark”:

Corn grew where the corn was spilled

In the wreck where Casey Jones was killed,

Scrub-oak grows and sassafras

Around the shady stone you pass

To show where Stonewall Jackson fell

That Saturday at Chancellorsville,

And soapweed bayonets are steeled

Across the Custer battlefield;

But where you die the sky is black

A little while with cracking flak,

Then ocean closes very still

Above your skull that held our will.

O swing away, white gull, white gull;

Evening star, be beautiful.

 

That is an awesome poem! Do you see how it’s precisely to the point of this discussion? Finally, this next one comes to us courtesy of this blog’s own Catherine, who tracked down the words for me. It’s the old Scottish poem “Twa Corbies,” or “Two Ravens”:

As I was walking all alane

I heard twa corbies makin’ mane [making a moan]

And one ontae the other did say

Where will we gang and dine the day,

Where will we gang and dine the day?

In ahind yon oul fail dyke

I wot there lies a new slain knight

Naebody kens that he lies there

But his hawk and hound and his lady fair,

His hawk and hound and his lady fair.

His hawk is tae the hunting gane,

His hound to bring a wild fowl hane [home],

His wife has taken another mate,

So we can make our dinner sweet,

We can make our dinner sweet.

And you can sit on his white breast bone,

And I’ll pick out his bonny blue e’en,

And with a lock of his yellow hair

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare,

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.

And many’s a one for him makes mane;

Naebody kens where he has gane;

Through his white bones when they grow bare

The wind shall blow forever mare,

The wind shall blow forever mare.

 

Three diverse poems, but I submit they’re all really talking about the same things. Do you agree? And yes, I have a poem of my own to toss into the pot. This is my own version of the same theme — a poem I think I’ve alluded to on this blog but have never quoted in full. So here it is: “Glory Day,” by Frederic S. Durbin:

We found the old cat one hot Glory Day

In the steamy weeds, swelled to twice his size;

Green glory thunder echoed in his eyes

As we laid him out where the smell of hay

And green maple shadows would make the flies

Forget him; and watching the heat waves rise

From the wind-mirroring beans we covered him with clay.

There was lightning low in the sky away

Off, and a distant rumbling down the road;

The Virginia Creeper whispered to the wagon

It covered like time-snails’ tracks, the old load

Of bricks for building; something like a dragon

Crawled south in the blur of wheat’s golden sway

When we buried a tomcat on Glory Day.

 

As one of my two favorite professors would say, when he finished reading a poem aloud to the class, “How do you like them apples?” I’d love to hear your analyses of the poem — of what precisely the “something like a dragon” is. Any takers? (You won’t be wrong, I expect.) [The poem’s a sonnet, by the way!]

So, well, well, this theme of nature’s reclamation of objects is large in my mind this week because it’s such a key element of the book I’m writing now. (Since it’s passed 25,000 words, I’m just going to start calling it a “book” instead of a “story.” I think it will likely hit the minimum novel requirement of 50,000 before all is said and done.)

Here's my AlphaSmart Neo on my favorite bench on the Lavender Path. I've had some success lately with writing outdoors using this dear gem of a machine.

Here's my AlphaSmart Neo on my favorite bench on the Lavender Path. I've had some success lately with writing outdoors using this dear gem of a machine.

That book is still going well, by grace! On Thursday, I had the most productive day on this project so far, with 2,858 words written! On Friday I did 1,909, which is still ahead of a NaNoWriMo quota count. Today, Saturday, I was fixing earlier things, so didn’t make any forward progress. I spent a long stretch revising one seven-line poem that plays a crucial part. So it goes, in fits and spurts. . . .

Here’s one more poem of mine [still on the subject — no disbursements to the Pun Fund], written [I think] during my college years, though possibly right after I came to Japan. I’m not really advocating paganism; it’s more just a statement that humankind’s impact on the created natural world is temporal and transient:

“Urban Requiem”

In the rainy end of days the satyrs

Came and rolled on spools the broken wires,

Rekindled the old infernal fires,

And scooped clean soil over oily matters.

 

Heh, heh, heh! Yeah, I was going through a Lord Dunsany period. I think he had some similar ideas, didn’t he?

As I’m wrapping up here: I just received my copy of the May/June Cricket, and I was thrilled and delighted to see a letter and photograph from The Die-Hard Star-Shard Fan Club! Here are my heartfelt thanks to those readers and their parents! This issue of Cricket is one I’ll treasure. I think I’ll make a good color photocopy of the letters page and keep it in a picture frame! There are several letters that mention “The Star Shard,” and also in the back, the winners of the Urrmsh song poetry contest are printed — so even though the story finished in the April issue, we really need this May/June issue to complete “The Star Shard” Cricket collection!

I’m still listening to Enya. I have two of her CDs now: The Celts and Paint the Sky with Stars: The Best of Enya. Really wonderful. Also, I saw the new Star Trek for the second time tonight.

I’ll let some visual images close this posting out:

Bicycles at Niigata University: Hmm, where did I park it? Oh, yeah! -- Mine's the silvery one!

Bicycles at Niigata University: Hmm, where did I park it? Oh, yeah! -- Mine's the silvery one!

Cupid, the supermarket where I buy most of my groceries. As my other favorite college prof made us say at the beginning of every class: "Mythology is alive; mythology is ubiquitous."

Cupid, the supermarket where I buy most of my groceries. As my other favorite college prof made us say at the beginning of every class: "Mythology is alive; mythology is ubiquitous."

United Cinemas, the theater complex that's about a five-minute walk from my place.

United Cinemas, the theater complex that's about a five-minute walk from my place.

Talk about dark doorways into worlds of enchantment! This is the portal I walk through to see movies: it leads to infinite worlds!

Talk about dark doorways into worlds of enchantment! This is the portal I walk through to see movies: it leads to infinite worlds!

Finally, this is along the Lavender Path. This is a truck bed, parked so that it's sticking over a weed-grown drainage ditch. The truck seems not to have been moved in a very long time. Wouldn't you love to set up a writing house in that truck bed?! Well, I would, anyway. . . .

Finally, this is along the Lavender Path. This is a truck bed, parked so that it's sticking over a weed-grown drainage ditch. The truck seems not to have been moved in a very long time. Wouldn't you love to set up a writing house in that truck bed?! Well, I would, anyway. . . .

Dark Doorways

May 29, 2009

Updates first: This week I made a good exchange with Emily, the illustrator of “The Star Shard.” I sent her a signed copy of Dragonfly and she sent me a signed print of Minstrels’ Song, the picture of Cymbril, Bobbin, and Argent singing in the wagon bed. (I still believe that’s my favorite of her illustrations for the story, but several are right up there almost even with it.) If anyone else is interested in the artwork for this story, keep watching Emily’s website (see the blogroll at right); I think she plans to make prints available for sale in the near future.

This is not really an update, but I’m on something of an Enya kick lately. I just got her CD The Celts and like it a lot. (When I go to karaoke, which is not often these days, “May It Be,” “Only Time,” and “Orinoco Flow” are in my regular repertoire.) What impresses me about Enya is that she seems to see herself as just one component of the musical tapestry. The instrumental parts are often as important as the vocals; it’s about the whole, not about her being the star.

Third, my current project has now passed the 20,000 word mark (20,450 words as of quitting time tonight; 1,300 new ones today). I’m happy with it; it’s going well, by grace! Looks as if it will probably be a novella — possibly a novel — magic realism for about a teenage audience and upward. No caverns and no balloon craft — I know, that’s weird, right? Don’t ask me anything else, because I never talk much about works in progress — always afraid of jinxing them. [Unfortunately for everyone, I talk endlessly about projects that are finished. Blah, blah, blah, blah. . . .]

Groink. On to the main event: as an intro, I’m going to quote two passages. (In answer to my recent poll, one reader asked for occasional glimpses of works on the drawing board. This is a good chance to deliver just such, because they’re to the point.) These are from my manuscript Agondria, which is currently out under consideration. It’s a bigger story made up of smaller stories. In both of these excerpts, note that the characters are venturing over dark, perilous thresholds into the unknown. . . .

1. From “The Heir of Agondria”:

Beneath the arch, the reek was stronger. Even Ancaea seemed loath to go onward. She glanced at Lorian and paused at the edge of shadow, squinting up the dark track to the next patch of daylight.

“The air is foul,” murmured Iphys, behind Sarath. “There is a part of night that remains here, even in the day.”

“It’s the way of tunnels and caverns,” said Peleagar, his mace upon his shoulder. “They’re dark, and bats foul them.”

Elina, blue-eyed and slight, drew her sword in a slow, ringing glide from the scabbard.

Arlas leaned on his spear. “Should we return, and bring a greater strength of arms?”

Lorian considered, then shook her head. “Until we know what danger may be here, I would not lead our crew into it. Wait here, all of you. I will go a little farther on—“

“No, my Lady.” Ancaea glanced around at the others, and several chuckled. “Do not tell us to wait while you go on, for all will disobey. You must get used to that, before you put on a High Queen’s crown.”

Lorian smiled back. Arms akimbo, she surveyed the other warriors. She started forward, and again Ancaea and Arlas preceded her.

 

2. From “Lucia’s Quest”:

Hand on her sword-hilt, Lucia could feel the tension of the warriors around her, though all held their peace.

Then, in the rocky vaults ahead, a light began to grow. Red and flickering, it cast wavering shadows over great piers and buttresses of stone.  “Forward,” called Ethani, and the oars dipped again into the waves. Passing beneath a last stalactite-fringed arch, the bireme emerged into a subterranean harbor — a wide, calm lake in the caverns.

An uneven ceiling hung near the limit of vision. All around the harbor at varying heights, tunnels led away into obscurity. Beside these dark mouths, upon ledges beside endless stairways carved into the rock, torches flared. Even as the ship arrived, dim figures were carrying these lights, setting the last of them in place. These shrouded shapes must be the Chalybes, though the firelight did little to illuminate them. They wore black cloaks with peaked hoods, but their white arms protruded from the garments — spindly, sinewy arms so long they nearly reached the floor, the hands doubly broad.

The place was loftier and more terrible than the Temple on Vorcyra, even though Lucia recalled that edifice from her childhood’s perception, which made all structures larger. More frightening this cavern was, for it felt hidden from the sight of the gods, its dark masters a race who held no fear of Olympus or of any mortal army.

Ethani gave an order, and again the rowing ceased. Behind, a second gate groaned shut within the tunnel, as mighty and ponderous as the first. When silence reigned again, Ethani paced forward along the deck, hands on her waist, her cloak trailing. The firelight limned her bronze helmet with its tall comb of dyed and stiffened horse-mane. The Vorcyrans flanked her. At the bow they halted and waited, searching the shadows.

. . .

Ethani turned her rain-gray eyes on Iloni. As the leader of this quest, appointed by the Oracle, it was Iloni’s place to speak.

Taking and expelling a deep breath, Iloni moved another step closer to the prow. “Hail, Chalybes!” she cried, her clear voice ringing into the vaults. She spoke in Anren, the language of Vorcyra, Shandria, and the lands to the west, a tongue generally understood upon the rims of Middlemere. “Hail, sons of the Earth, lords of fire and iron! We come to you with honor and reverence for the great King Agetychus, whose name we know: may it please the Sea and the Rock that he still rules here, and shall till the mountains fall!”

The echoes of her brave shout faded. Stillness returned. Iloni’s Shandrian helm turned right and left as she scanned the cavern. She drew breath for another cry, but Ethani laid a hand on her arm. “It was well-spoken,” the captain murmured. “Let them see that we can wait as well as they.”

And well we may wait until the mountains fall, thought Lucia. The silence was oppressive, disheartening. She had the sudden notion that the indistinct figures might be no more than wraiths, the ghosts of a people long dead, with no more power to answer than the stones.

But at last, from a balcony at the head of a steep stair, one of the smith-folk replied in a voice dry and cracked, also speaking in Anren. “A fair speech, seafarer. Agetychus reigns indeed, and has for fourteen lives of the kings and queens under the sun.”

. . .

“It gives us joy,” Iloni continued, “to know that he who was mighty in our grandmothers’ days is mighty still. We have brought him rich gifts, beseeching one kindness in return.” Iloni spread her arms, bowed her head, and knelt on the deck. Ethani and Lucia mimicked the obeisance, though Lucia sensed it ill-pleased the captain to kneel.

 

The Doorway

The Doorway

Back in my junior high days, my Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set came with a playing module called “Descent into the Depths of the Earth.” It had me hooked with its very name. What could be more appealing than that? That is the essence of fantasy role-playing . . . and, in a broader view, the essence of fantasy reading, isn’t it? — the question of what lies beyond the dark portal ahead — of what’s around the next corner or just past the circle of torchlight.

Westering LightIt occurs to me that the passage of dark doorways is a primary element in the vast majority of these stories we hold so dear. Sometimes it’s a literal door, and literally dark. Sometimes it’s a figurative doorway, and the “darkness” is rather the mist of the unknown. Let’s consider a few examples, right after the following pertinent side note.

Traditional Japanese Noh play often deals with ghosts and the supernatural. The Noh stage doesn’t use painted flats or furniture; it’s very austere. But an essential element is the placement, along one runway leading to the main platform, of three small pine trees. These are set in a staggered line. They’re not all equally distant from the viewers; and this variance of depth represents an open passage into the spirit world.

I won’t even mention the authors and titles: you know them.

Max wears his wolf suit, and that night in his bedroom, a forest grows. He sails away through a year and a day to where the wild things are.

Children who don’t want to go to bed are given the chance, instead, to fly with a mysterious boy out the window into the starry night, all the way to Neverland.

The one good thing about being sucked up by a tornado is that it might plunk you down unharmed into the land of Oz and take out a major bad witch in the deal. (What darker doorway can there be than the dirty, freight-train-roaring, snakily-writhing, unpredictable, unstoppable vortex of a twister? Those things are the nightmares of kids growing up in the Midwest. You may run and you may hide, but you can’t take your house with you: it’s either in the tornado’s path or it isn’t.)

Alice slides and tumbles down a rabbit hole to Wonderland.

After a long voyage to the Island of Tangerina, Elmer Elevator walks along the coast until at last he locates the string of ocean rocks described by the cat, and he leaps across them one by one to Wild Island.

Lucy pushes her way through the coats in the wardrobe, and what does she find?

At King’s Cross Station, Harry finds his way onto a train platform that isn’t supposed to exist, and the train departs from there.

Beneath the Paris Opera House stretch flight after descending flight of stairs, dungeon after dungeon, down to a subterranean lake, and a boat, and beyond that. . . . (I’m just now realizing what an influence this book had on Dragonfly. I read it just before or after I came to Japan, at the end of my college years — immediately preceding the writing of Dragonfly.)

The Sumatra makes a long sea voyage for reasons unknown even to her captain, and within a perpetual fog bank she reaches an island bisected by a cyclopean Wall . . . and in the Wall there is a colossal gate. . . .

The U-33 limps along with her seething, conglomerate crew to the beachless, cliff-walled island of Caprona.

Before the coming of the white man, two Mandan Indian youths wander into a cave, become hopelessly lost, and eventually emerge into the Lost Land, a valley world beneath the desert, where prehistoric life still thrives in all its carnivorous glory.

When Ray Kinsella takes the suggestion of a disembodied voice and carves a baseball field out of his corn field, a magical world emerges from a door that is not dark, but whispering and green. (This one’s quite a reversal: build the door yourself, and they will come. This story appealed to me so much because I’d grown up knowing that cornfields were doorways into Faerie.)

Professor Challenger leads his expedition up the side of a South American plateau, at the isolated top of which is — you guessed it — a primordial world untouched by the passage of time.

In Jules Verne’s book, our intrepid heroes descend into the crater of Mt. Sneffels, an inactive volcano, following the promise made by an earlier explorer that they can “reach the center of the Earth. I did it.”

Burroughs again: the mole machine burrows into the ground, gets out of control, and takes its two occupants down, down, down to Pellucidar, at the Earth’s core.

The airship Hyperion braves the snows and storms of the frozen north to reach Astragard, a lost paradise of warmth and green growing things, populated by a colony of Norsemen.

Gandalf realizes at last the trick to the inscription above the gates Narvi made, and the wonder and terror of Moria is unlocked.

In my own stories:

Ren climbs the bell rope of a church steeple at the hour when the full moon is passing overhead; and so he comes to the frozen realm within the lunar shell. (“Ren and the Shadow Imps,” Cricket, October 2003 – January 2004)

The nameless narrator undertakes a journey no living person has ever attempted: to climb down the trunks of the mighty trees to a place described only in myth — the Place of Roots. (“The Place of Roots,” Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 2001)

And so it goes. And so our childhood games involved imaginative forays into these otherworlds, always beyond a dark door of one sort or another.

It’s impossible to show this correctly in movies. When it’s done in cinema, the world completely changes around the child, and he’s in another place, with a different landscape, with 100% visual realism. But that’s not how it works, is it? When we’re really playing as children, we don’t actually leave our mundane surroundings. We can still see them as they are; but they become charged with a special significance, a symbolic meaning. The living room wall remains a wall, but it is also a cliff wall; the carpet remains a carpet, but it is also a perfectly rectangular bed of molten lava. How marvelous it is that these things can carry so much enchantment! They can, because we have passed through those dark doorways into the lands of shadow and wonder, silhouette and dream.

My cousin Phil and I used to play Journey to the Earth’s Core at Grandma’s house. The space behind the sofa was always the entrance crater. At times we would even force parents, aunts, uncles, and Grandma to watch this as a play: the scientists would clamber up the rocky sofa, surmount its summit ridge, and descend, descend, into the infinite depths behind it. And they would emerge into the world at the Earth’s center, where recliner chairs were great boulders, where closets were cavern mouths, and where, yes, carpets were pools or beds of lava that must not be stepped into if one valued one’s life.

So . . . questions for discussion [and you’re by no means required to comment on all three — or any]:

1. What are the elements of a good passage to an Otherworld? (In a good story, what aspects or conditions are present to make it “work,” to make the passage feel right, plausible, and attractive?)

2. Are there stories anyone cares to tell about your own childhood imaginative forays into Otherworlds? (Or those of your kids, if you’re a parent? Are you now being forced to watch intrepid scientists climbing the stone-strewn sofa to get at the fathomless depths behind it?)

3. Are there other good fictional examples I missed (or covered inadequately)?

Sakura

April 17, 2009

Sakura is the Japanese word for “cherry” as in cherry blossoms, those

Cherry blossoms, 2009

Cherry blossoms, 2009

otherworldly white-pink flowering boughs that are one symbol of Japan — and a national craze at this time of year. I remember being bewildered by the profound mystery of cherry blossoms when I first saw them: how they can be both pink and white at the same time. You see a cherry tree from a distance, and it is a gentle pink haze. You approach it and examine the flowers at close range, and they’re as white as white can be. Then you back off, and sure enough, the tree is pink again.

I also wanted to point out the living presence of ancient folklore in

Kappa asking visitors to keep Toyano Lagoon free of trash

Kappa asking visitors to keep Toyano Lagoon free of trash

 modern times: one of these photos shows a sign asking people to help keep the area around Toyano Lagoon free of trash. The creatures making the plea are kappa, the water-goblins of many an old tale. Since the lagoon is their home, they have a vested interest in the neatness of tourists who come to see the cherry blossoms along the waterside.

Cherries at Toyano Lagoon

Cherries at Toyano Lagoon

This, by the way, is my favorite place in Niigata City for cherry viewing. The trees along the lagoon’s near side are quite old, their trunks gnarled and wizened with the elements and time’s passage. In another decade or two, these trees will no longer bloom so well, and the annual traffic of sakurophiles will shift to the lagoon’s far side and to other areas in the city with younger trees. And so the cycle goes on. . . .

Cherry blossoms at Toyano Lagoon

Cherry blossoms at Toyano Lagoon

The fascination with sakura in Japan includes the awareness of brevity. Full bloom lasts for a couple days — perhaps three, four at best, certainly less than a week. Then the long-anticipated petals fall in a pink rain, the new green leaves burst forth, and the blossoms are over for another year. I recall at least one old Japanese ghost story in which human youth is linked to the sakura tree. We humans, too, blossom and flourish for one white-pink moment in the sun, and then the wheel of time rolls on. (As some famous writer said: “You’re young for a moment, and then you’re old for a very long time.”) But the blossoming

Booth selling poppoyaki, a soft bread stick made with molasses/brown sugar

Booth selling poppoyaki, a soft bread stick made with molasses/brown sugar

— it’s all the more spectacular because it’s so brief. It is a Japanese ideal to savor every single instant, to perceive and experience the life in every breath.

Anyway (grroinnk!), “The Star Shard” is now complete in its Cricket run. Any day now, my corner of the Web site will be deactivated, and I’ll be passing the baton to the next featured writer. What a blessing it’s been to be a part of it all this past year! I hope I’ve savored every instant and experienced the life in every breath.

Toyano Lagoon

Toyano Lagoon

Another batch of hard-copy reader letters arrived from Cricket today; and the winners and honorable mentions are all up on the site now for the contest in February about writing a song that the Urrmsh might sing. I’m not ashamed to admit that reading through these entries brought tears to my eyes.

One young reader, Aashima, included sheet music with her song text! She composed a melody to go with the words! To read all the song lyrics, please visit Cricket‘s site at http://www.cricketmagkids.com. I can’t reprint the songs here, but I can say a heartfelt thank you to all these young readers/writers, who wrote beautiful song texts, most centered on the sadness but necessity of Cymbril’s leaving the Rake and saying goodbye to the Urrmsh:

Cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms

Emily/Sparks, NV; Hope/Lake Oswego, OR; Sarah/Andover, MA; Jack/Great Meadows, NJ; Sasha/Berkeley, CA; Isabel/Brooklyn, NY; Kayla/Cape May Court House, NJ; Isabel/Houston, TX; Sumayyah/West Babylon, NY; Jessie/Brentwood Bay, B.C., Canada; Kendra/Seattle, WA; Frances/Salt Lake City, UT; Aashima/Dallas, TX; Sam/Dallas, TX; Emma/Omaha, NE; Madeline/Valencia, CA; Max/New Hampton, NH; Mia/New Hampton, NH; Peyton/Dallas, TX; Phoebe/Dallas, TX; and

Strings of lanterns through the trees for nightly illumination

Strings of lanterns through the trees for nightly illumination

Miranda/Skokie, IL. And thanks also to the magnificent fan artists: Anhtho/Seattle, WA; Dylann/Vista, CA; Aria/PA; Irisa/NY; Maya/NY; Andrew/NY; Aloise/Baltimore, MA; Eddie/Bandon, OR; Samantha/Northport, NY; Olivia/Belmont, MS; Laura/Anchorage, AK; Ethan/PA; Natalie/Wilton, CT; and Ivy/Costa Mesa, CA.

Soli Deo gloria! That the story has had this much life of its own beyond

the tabletop where I wrote it is a blessing beyond words, beyond imagining. If I were to die tomorrow, I would have no regrets as a writer — as a writer, I could have more success in volume and magnitude — but in kind, in experience, what more could one hope for? This is the best of all worlds, and I’m thankful to have seen it up this close.

Finally (groink! — that’s the sound of changing the subject with a

The Anastasia ("Resurrection"): tour boat on the Shinano River

The Anastasia ("Resurrection"): tour boat on the Shinano River

monkey wrench, for anyone who came in late), remember how a while back we were talking about misconceptions of words we had as kids? I remembered another one: for a time, I thought a “Valkyrie” was something we sang in church, related to the “Kyrie” in the liturgy. I thought a Valkyrie was higher or stronger than a simple Kyrie, just as an archangel is of higher rank than an angel. (Tom Cruise’s film Valkyrie is playing here now; that’s what reminded me.)

 

The "Big Swan" stadium, built for the World Cup soccer games

The "Big Swan" stadium, built for the World Cup soccer games

Finally, I had some breakthroughs in thinking today about a story that’s teetering on the edge between being targeted for middle-grade and for teenagers. I guess I’ll know better when I get into the writing. (I’m hoping to get a shorter piece written before some publisher bites on The Star Shard [Lord willing] and I have to do another overhaul of that manuscript.) But also the dreaded last big chunk of the Japanese grammar dictionary I’m helping to edit arrived today, so I can blame my ineptitude and procrastination on having this dictionary job. . . . It’s good to have your writerly excuses in order. Keep them polished.

Setback

April 10, 2009

There’s disappointing news about The Star Shard. At the very last stage before acceptance, it was rejected by the people who control the purse strings.

As many of you know, the book was under very serious consideration at a large, first-rate publishing house. I had heavily revised the book with the help of an editor there who believed in it enough to invest a significant amount of his time in pro bono work, making careful notes for me on changes he’d like to see. Last fall and winter, I did an overhaul of the story following his suggestions, and we all felt the book became much better.

Then my agent made a long list of detailed notes for recommended improvements, and I did yet another draft. With this invaluable help from two industry professionals, The Star Shard reached its best shape yet, and everyone was excited about it.

The editor at [Big Publisher] loved what I’d done with the project. He quickly gained the enthusiasm of the editorial director there. There was whole-hearted support from the editors. But then on Wednesday, the sales and marketing people overruled them.

I guess I’m not supposed to get into particular reasons in this public forum. In short, it’s a reflection of the corporate world and probably the economic times we live in. It’s just incredibly frustrating that the book got so far as completely winning over the editors, who ought to be the decision-makers.

I just want to commend the work of my agent and the selflessness of that stellar editor at [Big Publisher]: the latter gave of his time and expertise to make a book better, without compensation, and you see the “respect” these people get from their marketing departments. This is a guy who loves the stories and the storytellers, and does what he can to prosper them, beyond the bounds of salary and job description.

Anyway, Lord willing, this is just a temporary setback. We still have the same book to send around–the book that lots of good people have helped to make better, and the story that many Cricket readers have responded to with enthusiasm. My agent already knows where the book is going next.

It’s “about the tenth hour” (4:00 p.m.) on Good Friday as I’m writing this. In our journey toward Easter, the Lord has finished His work for us. Now come the closed book, the dark emptiness, and the tomb.

But Easter is ahead.