First things first: a personal update! Yeah, I’ve been quiet these past few months, mostly because my job situation went belly-up while I was finishing Tinder Stricken. When I say that, I mean the boss thought it was fine to give me zero hours per week.
I quit with extreme prejudice and focused solely on Tinder Stricken. After the book launch at What The Fur? 2015 — and a few merciful days of sleep — I got job hunting and found another prep cook position, one with plenty of working hours and lots of physical demands that leave me tired after work. I haven’t had much energy left over for freeform essays. That, and I simply didn’t feel like I had anything to say on this blog. I’m a big advocate of not talking just for the sake of it.
But anyway, here I am with a blog post! Because I read a metaphor today that stuck in my throat like an awkward segue, or perhaps a rock.
We Don’t All Need To Be Diamonds
I subscribe to some book bargain mailouts and today, this testimonial caught my eye:
Not because I have any particular interest in Robin Hobb or G.R.R. Martin, but because a series of fantasy novels was described as “diamonds in a sea of zircons”. That turn of phrase saddens me.
We use diamonds as a metaphor for greatness and they are pretty remarkable stones (if not as rare as we often think). But it’s all too easy to keep barrelling past a love of greatness, right into the thought that only the #1 greatest things ever matter. Only the blockbusters and runaway hits are worth noticing. Only the hardest gemstone on Earth is worth wearing or considering beautiful.
It ties into my thought that “typical fantasy” should be an oxymoron. Sure, it’s sad to be a zircon, a material with nowhere near as much merit as the stone it mimicks. There are few things more disappointing than a fantasy story that’s clumsily imitating a better book. But when we’re considering minerals, we have more to choose from than just diamonds and zircons, just as there’s more to the fantasy genre than who writes the grittiest political coup. We’re not limited to winners and losers — why, just look at the variety out there.
There are minerals for every purpose. Mountains of them, both literally and figuratively. There are quartz crystals for your watch components, and granite that’ll look great as a polished countertop. Quartz and granite are common, humble minerals that will never measure up to a diamond — and why should they? Olivine isn’t the most glamorous stone group around, but if you like how your peridot earrings look when they catch the light, then who cares?
This metaphor is particularly personal for me because I associate Remedy, my first-published novel, with amethysts. At the beginning of the story, Peregrine is a miner who brings home mostly amethysts. These stones aren’t ideal for common useage (clear quartz is preferred, since it’ll take any and all magical charges), but amethyst has its place in Aligare society. It’s perfect for darkcasters. Brightcasters can’t use it and that’s fine; it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with either the caster or the stone. We all have our tastes and alignments, that’s all. Remedy is my own handful of natural amethyst — amethyst that a New York editor once told me would never be a diamond, so I should rewrite it. No, thanks. I happen to like quartz formations.
It’s great to write a classic-styled epic fantasy, or wear a diamond. But as with all things, the world needs variety. I tell myself this every time I read or write a story. There’s plenty of room in the fantasy genre for jasper and amber, and even room for an old piece of petrified wood if it manages to shine.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be happy. Y’know, other than the obvious.
This isn’t a new quandary for me. I’m part of the millennial generation, an age group that’s getting a lot of mixed messages about what to do with our lives. And as a fantasy writer trying to make meaningful statements, I’ve always questioned what life and its components really are. But in the past year, I’ve been thinking particularly about what happiness is —partly because I’ve been managing anxiety in that past year, too.
I mean, it was nothing serious. Difficulty sleeping and some general unease, fixed with a tiny daily dose of antidepressants and some life changes. Pretty easy fix, as far as medical conditions go. My family history of nervous dispositions — we’re like horses, you see: strong but sometimes finicky — wasn’t as big an issue as the fact that I needed to examine my life. Get a different job. Adjust my writing career focus. Throw out some junk, both literal and figurative.
It’s a lot like what Peregrine does in my first book, Remedy. His doubts and fears need to be addressed, and a job change and a plague relief effort help him break out of his little rut of worries. I didn’t take as long to straighten out my issues as Peregrine did, thankfully (partly because I’m not a dragon and I don’t have 80 years to spend on a midlife crisis).
And as the Tinder Stricken draft opens up to me, I find more and more that Esha isn’t simply chasing the thief phoenix to get her stolen heirloom knife back. She’s also chasing that phoenix as a desperate attempt to put her life in order and, ultimately, be happy. The story isn’t about a petty theft so much as Esha and the phoenix reacting to their crummy lots in life, and trying to change those lots. That’s how I write. I don’t typically like stories that focus on hatred, or revenge, or a lust for power — because there’s too much of that in our real modern Earth. I’d rather spend time with characters who seek happiness and comfort in the middle of a turbulent world.
Last time I saw my nurse practitioner, she said she’s glad to hear that I’ve made some positive changes.
“I had all the pieces,” I told her. “I just had to move them around.”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling kindly, “but some people don’t move their pieces around.”
I think that’s an important way to view life. We all have pieces. Maybe they’re not the pieces we want — but we have pieces. Maybe we can construct happiness if we just try moving them.
- Why do we have “the usual” fantasy stories?
- Fiction begins with real life: The story of a rapping guy
- What maturity means
I recently changed my day job. Tired of the customer-service grind of being a waitress, I decided to return to my professional cooking roots — but this time, I’m working as a prep cook. It’s less exciting than being the line cook who makes meals with speed and flair, but that’s okay. I’m not looking to be a hotshot in my day job. Cutting vegetables and making basic sauces will hopefully be a low-stress occupation that leaves me more energy for writing.
Although, it’s been about 6 years since I last chopped restaurant quantities of vegetables. My knife callus had long since faded away, and in the past few weeks I’ve had to harden my hands up again. It made me realise that a chef’s knife leaves a very particular mark on its user — and that’s a detail not everyone is aware of, because it’s not very glamorous. Knife calluses aren’t something a Food Network host will grinningly tell you about.
So, since I’m a world-building fantasy writer, how about I show you a defining part of my real-life world? I’ve been showing all my friends this visible change in my hands. I find it interesting that my occupation is changing the texture of my hands, and leaving a visible mark. It’s telling. But more on that later.
First things first! When I talk about using a chef’s knife, I mean something like this:
Chef’s knives vary slightly in design, depending on whether the knife is German, French or Japanese-styled. The blade can be between 6 and 14 inches long (15 and 36 cm), but the most common chef’s knives are between 8 and 10 inches (20 and 25 cm) long. My own knife is a 9-inch Victoronox, a lightweight, nimble model preferred by the female chefs who trained me. My new workplace provides a whole bucket of chef’s knives for my use, all between 8 and 11 inches, and all of them a heavier tool than I’d prefer. It’s like wearing nice, breezy sneakers every day and then suddenly putting on hiking boots that, relatively speaking, feel like blocks of cement.
Anyway, regardless of the knife’s exact measurements, a professional cook gets a callus from using it. A very particular callus, on the index finger of their dominant hand. Here’s mine:
Why does the chopping friction affect such a small, specific area? Because when you use a knife for hours each day, it’s not always held by the handle. Well, uh, let me show you. With some pictures of me using my Victoronox knife in my tiny apartment kitchen.
Tender foods — such as parsley leaves — don’t provide much resistance. The cook can easily hold the knife by its handle and make a quick up-and-down chopping motion.
But when cutting larger or tougher foods, holding the knife by its handle puts the cook’s wrist at an ineffective angle. It’s more efficient to actually hold the base of the blade, to allow more direct downward force. Like so:
That blunt edge of the knife is what creates the callus. And that callus shows that I work with actual meat and vegetables, not factory-made things pulled out of the freezer. My prep work isn’t glamorous but it’s a necessary part of making really good food, which is why I’m proud of my little friction wound.
And that’s what I mean by my knife callus being a defining detail of me. It’s always kind of bothered me when I’m reading a fantasy story and it offhandedly mentions some character’s “callused hands of a swordsman”, or whatever their profession is. Callused in what way? Just callused all over? Probably not. And they’re probably not the same calluses you’d find on an archer, or a seamstress, or a blacksmith.
Granted, I’m sure most authors don’t want to include an infodump explanation of exactly where a swordsman’s hands get callused. They might not even know where a sword hilt rubs on its user’s hands — because I sure don’t. It … varies by the type of sword and the fighting technique, I’d assume. But that’s exactly why I want the book to specify that detail! It would lend authenticism to a fantasy world if the seasoned warrior gets lost in thought while rubbing that one particularly leathery spot on his hand.
Calluses are something I’ll have to include in Tinder Stricken, since the main character Esha is a manual laborer. She’s been farming for most of her life and even if she doesn’t think much about her own calluses, she’ll probably notice the state of other people’s hands and what that says about them. I could have included calluses in the Stories of Aligare, now that I think about it. Aemet and korvi skin have different properties than human skin — but however tough korvi hide is, it’s nice to think that Peregrine’s hands tell a story of hard work.
And as for me and my day job? I’ll get more interesting marks to go with my knife callus, I’m sure.
- Scars: fictional meaning versus real mundanity
- Why fantasy?
- The Western view of snakes and how I changed it in my spare time
Just a quick update on my writing-related endeavours lately, for those who didn’t happen to catch my Twitter commentary:
—My short story submission was selected for the Distorted anthology forthcoming from Transmundane Press. Distorted‘s theme is modern reimaginings of mythology — and my story puts an environmentalist spin on the oceanic Greek sirens. This is my first sale to an established fiction market, which finally makes me a professional author by conventional standards. I’m awfully amused about that! Distorted is tentatively slated for a fall 2014 release.
—This past weekend, I had a great time at What The Fur? 2014. It’s a small convention (breaking 300 attendees for the first time this year), so it’s a wonderfully friendly event to return on an annual basis. I always see familiar faces dropping by my dealer’s table. As a first, I was invited to participate in the annual Iron Artist competition — which isn’t exactly geared to writers, but I suppose I made an interesting underdog against the three well-known visual artists! The surprise medium was cheap face paint (plus brushes and a small canvas). My painting didn’t win — that honour went to the Guest of Honour, Ookami Kemono — but I enjoyed the challenge a lot anyway.
—Work continues on the tabletop game Omens of Aligare. A small game company has expressed interest in our project! Further developments if something solidifies.
—Work also continues on the first draft of Tinderstrike, my next novel. Hopefully this summer will be a productive one.
This past weekend, I attended Furnal Equinox 2014 in Toronto, Ontario. It was my first time at this particular anthopomorphic convention. I had some technical difficulties over the weekend, and my Render reading had less than a handful of attendees (possibly because of its timeslot: 1 PM on Friday, when many of the con-goers had yet to arrive).
But the convention’s atmosphere was great. I chatted up artists and costumers. I participated in a goofy scavenger hunt. I lounged in the hotel’s lobby, reading an ebook and giggling when fursuiters leaned over me to peer at my phone’s screen. Overall, I’d call it an enjoyable weekend!
I also did a lot of thinking while sitting at my dealer’s table, waiting for people to happen by. My biggest life decisions are made while I’m away from home, it seems. So, here goes.
I’ve been giving the Stories of Aligare series the best treatment I’m capable of right now, but its very essence is also its greatest handicap: these are small, odd stories. They’re not thrill-a-minute page-turners. They’re not the kind of book people gobble down in one night and then rave about to all their friends. I firmly believe that quiet stories deserve to exist, and deserve to be read. The tiny little legion of Aligare fans is so meaningful to me — but I think I need to increase my reach as a writer and publisher, or else I’m not doing justice to this goal of mine.
I’ve got other unusual, human-free stories in mind. Some of them I’m holding back because I don’t think I’m ready to execute them well. (I felt kinship in the way Pixar’s WALL-E took years of development and tinkering with the emotional tones. ) But as a writer, I like working with a variety of literary tones and approaches. And Serpents of Sky has gotten a better reception so far than any of the Aligare books. I’m clearly able to write higher-concept stories.
So my next full-length novel won’t be a Story of Aligare. The next story (or stories) I publish will be something with broader appeal. I’ll still twist and subvert fantasy clichés wherever I find them. But I’ll see if I can tell a more crowd-pleasing story, before asking that crowd to give my weirder works a chance.
Stay tuned! I’ll tell you folks what my next book will be as soon as I’m sure myself.
So, hey, when was the last time I told you folks an anecdote from my life? I’ve been talking about Serpents of Sky and other book-centric stuff for quite a while now. Yeah, let’s have a science center story.
To recap: when I was a teenager, I volunteered at the local science center. I was stationed in the live animal section — so I sometimes did cool things like handle snakes and give spontaneous educational speeches, and I mostly did less cool things like scrub animal habitats.
One of those animal habitats contained a deer mouse.
“Deer mouse” is a generic term for many different mouse species, but I’m fairly sure he was a white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus). I don’t remember what the signage said: I was busy studying the animals that visitors handled on a regular basis, like the snakes and flying squirrels. Regardless of his scientific classification, this particular deer mouse was a tiny thing, about 3 inches long and weighing less than an ounce (7 1/2 centimeters and less than 30 grams). Despite his delicate size, he was a willful creature who did not like to be handled.
One day, I was working with a fellow teenage volunteer named Eric. We were tasked with cleaning the deer mouse’s enclosure: just put the animal in a bucket for safe keeping, scrub all the hard surfaces, change the bedding, and put the animal back in. Sounds simple enough. Armed with buckets and supplies, Eric and I went out onto the science center floor and opened up the lid of the big triangular plexiglass box that was the deer mouse enclosure. We were wearing lab coats so that probably made us experts!
Now, we had a net to catch the mouse with. One of those fine-meshed green nets you’d use to scoop up a goldfish from an aquarium. But the deer mouse didn’t appreciate being woken up and he was having none of this grabbed-by-humans nonsense. He evaded the net, and evaded our attempts to seize him by the tail. And then the deer mouse darted up Eric’s arm and out onto the floor — to bounce away across the wide open carpet. In the public area of the science center, where tourists wandered around by the dozens.
Oh geez oh my god grab more buckets and nets and another teenage volunteer, we have to catch this thing before it escapes into a crevice or gets stepped on! So we — this gaggle of three lab-coat-wearing kids — chased that deer mouse behind displays and under equipment. I imagine Yakety Sax would have made an appropriate soundtrack.
Eventually, we cornered the deer mouse in a dark, curtained-off alcove. The deer mouse hunkered in a corner with nowhere to go. I positioned my foot beside him so that he only had one direction left to run: into Eric’s bucket. Well, actually, the deer mouse’s other option at that moment was to run up my pant leg. So that’s what he did. Ran up my pant leg.
Did I mention that our science center deer mouse was known to bite when agitated?
So, yes, I had this biting-prone small animal jamming itself higher and higher in my khakis. While I was surrounded by science center visitors I couldn’t just drop my pants in front of, and also two male coworkers.
“Excuse me a minute,” I said. And I calmly walked back into the staff-only area, with a tiny lump of a time bomb creeping up my thigh.
I’m a little sketchy on what the more experienced staff were doing during this ridiculous slip-up. But thankfully the department supervisor that day was female, making it marginally less uncomfortable to undress so she could grab the deer mouse. I didn’t get bitten in any sensitive areas — and to be really optimistic about it, deer mice are known for their personal cleanliness so really, there are worse animals I could have had inside my clothes.
As my supervisor and I exited the back room with the deer mouse safely contained in a bucket, Eric came around the corner asking why I just left like that.
The entire mousecapade is one of those events that my writer’s brain wants to attach some meaning to. Is there a lesson to be learned here, other than not underestimating rodents? (No, really, mice and rats have pretty incredible capabilities.) Should I learn from my own example? In the 15-ish years since that happened, I don’t think I’ve ever handled any crisis as gracefully as I handled walking to the staff area with a mouse in my pants. (My supervisor did make sure to praise me for that part.)
Maybe this is just an example of life’s great capability for chaos, and the human ability to make stories out of chaos. Even the weirdest nonsense gives us chances to laugh, learn and share a narrative. And I can offhandedly describe things as “less scary than having a mouse in my pants”, which is a fun mental image to throw into a conversation. I’ll call that a win!
◦ The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Hanging out with a porcupine (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Psychology at tableside: what waiting tables taught me about people (heidicvlach.com)
Hey, readers! Whether you just stumbled across me in some Google result today, or you’ve been reading my fiction for years, I’m glad you’re here. Let me tell you what I’m working on for the coming year.
—That short story collection I’ve been talking about. Tentatively titled Serpents of Sky, it’ll have many different spins on dragon mythology. One of these shorts will be a new Story of Aligare about the motherly korvi, Constezza. I predict a February 2014 release, but we’ll see how it goes.
—A tabletop game called Omens of Aligare. My roommate/best friend is a tabletop game enthusiast. He’s been tinkering with the idea of a cards-and-tokens game that’s faithful to the Aligare books — because multi-racial fantasy societies can make for really interesting roleplay games. The Aligare tabletop project picked up steam when some of our other writer friends got involved, and I’ve been offering up ideas and lore that might make the game more fun. All the effort is beginning to pay off!
Playable for 2-6 players (probably), Omens of Aligare is a resource-management game where the players work together against Aligare’s “demons” of natural disaster and illness. The game is in a playable state right now but it still needs adjustments and balancing. We don’t have concrete release plans yet; crowdfunding will likely be involved. I’ll keep you posted if anything happens.
—Two convention stops this year. I’ll be attending Furnal Equinox in Toronto, Ontario for my first time. As well, I’ll be at What The Fur? in Montreal, Quebec for my fourth year running. I’ll have dealer’s tables at both events and I hope to schedule readings, so folks can hear me perform a sample of Render (A story of Aligare). With character voices, of course. You gotta do character voices.
And since we’re very near the end of 2013, I’d also like to mention that Render (A story of Aligare) is eligible for the 2013 Ursa Major Awards.
The Ursa Majors recognise excellence in anthropomorphic art and literature — that’s anything where non-human character(s) plays a significant role. If you’re voting, please keep Render in mind for the Anthropomorphic Novel category! If you’re not voting, then I’d still recommend browsing the Ursa Majors’ recommended list for 2013, as well as previous years’ listings. They’re a helpful compendium of books, artwork and other media featuring non-human characters, with many works coming from independent artists and small presses.
That’s all I have planned for 2014 so far. I’m not sure what I’ll write after Serpents of Sky — maybe another novel in the Stories of Aligare series, or maybe something from a new world. I’ll chew what I’ve got on my plate first.
Hoping to see anything in particular from me in 2014? Doing anything special yourself? Share in the comments!
When I was in high school, there was a talent-type show in the auditorium. The student council performed a skit. I did some stand-up comedy poking fun at the school. One guy rapped.
Now, this rapping guy was notorious around the school. He was the type of teenage boy who thought he was cooler than he actually was, and thought he had more buddies than he actually did. He tried to wear a gangster image that fit him like a cheap Halloween mask. This guy didn’t spend high school crammed into a locker or anything — but his name was certainly a punch line among the student body.
So this guy got up on stage and began his rap. He made a decent rapper, in my thoroughly amateur opinion. But that wasn’t the issue. It was the sheer fact that he was on a stage in front of the whole school, nonchalantly wearing this persona that everyone made fun of. It was a firing range. Some kids booed. A few threw fruit, paper wads and whatever else their school bags could provide.
As a sandwich came flying at his head, the rapper stopped his performance and caught it. He was done rapping. Even he could tell it wasn’t going so well. But he stood there and took a bite of that sandwich. The tables had turned: the rapper had a free sandwich and the thrower was presumably missing some of his lunch. I saw it as a turnabout, anyway, or maybe even a victory — even though the rapper walked off the stage with people still heckling. That classy sandwich catch raised my respect for the rapper considerably. Hey, if you can manage that level of aplomb, then do whatever you want and let the haters hate.
I would have forgotten that rapping guy along with many other high school. But a few years ago, while I was waitressing at a little sushi restaurant, the rapping guy turned up as a customer. I’m not sure if he remembered me as the stand-up comedy chick (or as anything else). All I did was take his order and bring him some food. I didn’t see a reason to bring up long-gone high school, because it’s not like I knew him as a person. I know him for that inspiring scene he made. By catching a sandwich, he lodged a scene in my head — one pinned in place with the kind of character tropes and morals I associate with books and TV shows and video games, not real life.
But inspiring things happen even in our ordinary lives, and they gain meaning when we think about them. Characters walk among us. There’s potential fiction everywhere.
◦ Purple dinosaur earrings and other telling details (heidicvlach.com)
◦ The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time (heidicvlach.com)
◦ The meaning of book titles: how I named the Stories of Aligare (heidicvlach.com)
The other day at my restaurant day job, three young women came in for dinner. They asked for their waitress friend to serve them — let’s call the waitress Madison because that’s her name. Madison wasn’t working that day, though. When she heard that her friends ate at her workplace, she asked which server they got.
The friends reported that they didn’t remember their server’s name, but she was wearing purple dinosaur earrings.
“Oh, that’s Heidi,” Madison instantly said.
The details of someone’s appearance can be really distinctive. I don’t mean the details they can’t control, like their body type or face shape. No, I mean the telling ways they arrange themselves. The colours they like to wear. Whether they always look clean and pressed, or they usually look like they’ve just rolled out of bed. Whether their accessories are personally meaningful or just one of a hundred trinkets in their roster. We make a lot of minor decisions when we pick what to wear. Those decisions aren’t just items on a visual checklist: those decisions tend to reflect who we are.
And my purple dinosaur earrings are distinctive enough that they stand out in my coworkers’ minds. When Madison told this story and got to “purple dinosaur earrings”, the other servers knowingly grinned. Heidi likes vivid shades of purple, and awesome stuff like dinosaurs. When those two things combine, even better! Awesome purple dinosaurs! I like to think that if Heidi the waitress were a book character, those earrings would imply a lot about who she is — more than a laundry list of her height, weight and hair colour.
- Flashback post: What maturity means (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Dogs in Aligare (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Aligare wildlife: the sylph (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)