Transcription work: my new challenge

I haven’t had a day job for a while. Food service isn’t known for providing a stable life for its workers, and I’ve had an exceptionally bad run of jobs throwing me under the bus after 2 or 3 months. What’s a writer to do?

Well, I stumbled into a freelance gig as an online transcriptionist, so there’s that.

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My desk is a real mess. You might even say it’s a sty! Thank you, remember to tip your waitress.

The work is pretty simple: listen to an audio file and type down all of its discernable English speech (using clean formatting, punctuation and speaker tags). I turn in my work and, if it meets the QA checker’s standards, I get about 50 cents per minute of audio.

The listening part is … weirdly entertaining? Even when the audio file is a subject I’m not really interested in, like legal texts. Listening in on these random speakers reminds me of sitting in a coffee shop, eavesdropping on strangers — which isn’t creepy as long as you’re doing it for writerly purposes, right? Right …?

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“You’d make a GREAT minor character.”

People’s speech patterns are a tricky thing to capture in fiction. What sounds like “real conversation” in a book isn’t actually realistic at all, because real conversation often proceeds faster than our brains can manage. Listen to any casual conversation and you’ll hear a lot of “um”, “well”, stumbling on words, starting over, and other indicators that we’re trying to wrangle our thoughts into coherent order.

Transcription pays close attention to that. I was told in the style guide to remove false starts and other word-sounds that aren’t contributing any meaning. No problem! That’s editing! I’ve done several novels’ worth of that! Economy of words means that every phrase has its place.

My biggest struggle right now is speed. The QA checkers are giving me high scores on accuracy, so now, I just need to complete more than one file per hour and maybe I’ll be able to earn minimum wage.

But hey, whether or not this transcription work is a practical way to pay the bills, it’s definitely a workout for my writer muscles.


What’s up with Heidi, May 2016 edition

Boy, it sure has been a while since I posted! I’ve been quietly working at a lot of things.

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A rare picture of me, hard at work and contemplating making a chin-waxing appointment.

 

But, yeah. You’ll see some new work from me in the coming months — work such as:

  • Reason (A Story of Aligare) will appear in the ROAR 7 anthology. The ROAR series is an ongoing production of FurPlanet, and this year’s theme is “legend” — a perfect fit for the Aligare races and their storytelling traditions. ROAR 7 will release this July.
  • Repast (A Story of Aligare) will appear in Gods With Fur. Another Furplanet production, this anthology is helmed by long-time furry historian Fred Patten, and it explores animal/anthropomorphic gods in their many forms. Another solid fit for the Aligare series and its non-human peoples!
  • I’ll be attending What The Fur? 2016 in Montreal, Quebec this coming weekend. I’ll be selling paperbacks of all my books, plus some one-of-a-kind paper maché sculptures. I also contributed a furry spy story to the conbook.
  • This June, I’ll also be selling my books at Graphic-con,which is Sudbury, Ontario’s new SFF convention. The con was a huge success its first year, with attendance outstripping the venue’s size and causing long wait times to get in. I’m looking forward to being a part of it this year, in its much roomier location.

 

That’s all I’ve got for now. Photos and release dates will be forthcoming!


Tinder Stricken concept art and more paper maché

Work continues on Tinder Stricken. What I originally thought would be a quick blitz through a mountain world has become an odyssey of learning and stretching myself as a writer. So I’ve been painting lately, trying to cement some mental images. You might have already seen these if you follow me on Twitter!

tselayahousesmallThis is a house on Tselaya Mountain, made of clay, stone and bamboo (one of few plant products cheap enough for lesser castes to build with). This concept painting was mostly to help me remember the coloured flags. Inspired by Tibetan and Nepalese prayer flags, the five colours of flags are used to show a household’s rank, occupation(s), marital status, and much more.

kaewaandrooftopsmallI don’t think I’ve mentioned this significant character much —mostly because her personal traits only gelled recently, and also because I can’t decide on a name for her. She’s Kaewa right now and we’ll see if that sticks! Kaewa is from a Maori-inspired coastal society. On Tselaya Mountain, she works as a diplomat, using plant-based magic to translate languages, understand people, and mediate disputes. She also speaks with animals — which is a taboo subject among Tselayans. She’s pictured with her closest phoenix friend, who is her clever partner in less-than-legal human matters.

And with a new novel comes a new table display! I’m building up a base for a nearly-life-size Tselayan phoenix made of paper maché. Like my other paper maché display pieces, this will be built up into the right shape and then finished with acrylic paint and feathers. Nothing says “cool, non-human character” like a dramatically fanned pair of wings, am I right?

Also pictured: my cat Selphie being adorbs.

Also pictured: my cat Selphie being adorbs.

So if I’m quiet in the next few months, it’s because I’m working my creative butt off! Tinder Stricken will hit metaphorical shelves in late May, 2015.


All Things Blended: a short story

 

I wrote a story based on the prompt word blue.

 

 

All Things Blended

by Heidi C. Vlach

 

The apprentice lost track of how many months passed, as she travelled under the shifting sky on her two dusty feet. Gradually, she gathered all the components.

In the secret depths of mountains she found lapis lazuli, a vivid-hued thing like a jungle bird. On the salt-sprayed coast she found a sea snail, plain and viscous but its chroma was hidden inside. In markets and bazaars, she bargained for treasures: azure crystals; a velvet pouch of cobalt powder; a lovely turquoise gem polished to a pearlescent shine; desiccated leaves of indigo. When her coin ran out, she walked herself through green-flourishing places, for woad, and cornflower, and periwinkle.

She had all that the earth could give her. With feet sore and blistered, and her face weathered like wood, the apprentice returned to the workshop. The dust-cloaked space was hers now, its original master long since departed. There was no alchemist here — not yet, not until this apprentice claimed her true colour.

Over and over, she read the spellbook, with her knuckles brightly sore from gripping the pestle. The instructions were distinct for each shade and each preparation; she left fingerprints, cobalt smudges glaring against the yellowed pages.

She crafted a nerve-wracking array of fine pigments, all heaped onto tin plates. The apprentice waited some hours, tried to summon her soothing choice of colour in her heart, and finally she could stand it no longer and she spilled of her powders all onto a hammered gold platter beneath the sky. Carefully, with a knife’s edge, she arranged the powders into a ring. All her tints fanned together now, blending.

She bent close over the pigments, her dun robes a shield against the breeze. She read the spellbook with purpose now, running its words through her mind’s voice like sand through her fingers.

Combine with the hue of the sky, the claiming spell said.

Her heartbeat welled up underneath her. She had hoped the journeying would grant her wisdom, hoped that she would be a lightning rod to revelation but she was no master just yet.

Patience was key. A cool presence like her chosen colour. She closed her eyes and sat there breathing, aware of her mundane body’s outer husk. The apprentice was a fleshy thing rent in common earth’s colours but she was blue inside, she knew she was. She returned to the passage at the end of the spell, the one lodged in her mind like an eloquent fishhook:

When blended, the ingredients will produce the very colour of a productive life: equal parts calmness, confidence and clarity. Know the colour blue and you shall be as the sky, the sea, the ice never melting.

Really, she thought, a clear and oceanic life was all an alchemist could want. Breeze fingered the apprentice’s robes and she was calm regardless. She had her ingredients gathered; she could persevere a little longer.

Combine with the hue of the sky, the book said.

She turned her face upward, poised over her azure and turquoise and ultramarine. The apprentice spent a little more of her time as the daylight waned and waxed, as the winds turned and the sky showed her more of herself.

She would know the right shade when she saw it.

 


Furnal Equinox 2014, and my new writing direction

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!

My dealer's table, complete with the paper maché Render scene.

My dealer’s table, complete with the paper maché Render scene.

The view from behind my table. This was taken early in the day on Friday — again, before all of the attendees and dealers had arrived.

The view from behind my table. This was taken early in the day on Friday — again, before all of the attendees and dealers had arrived.

A few of the many fantastic fursuiters passing by!

A few of the many fantastic fursuiters passing by!

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.


NaNoWriMo and the importance of reckless first drafts

For years now, November has been an exciting time for me. Because November is National Novel Writing Month — NaNoWriMo for short — and I like to participate. Or at least hang out with the local participants.

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In past years, I’ve used NaNoWriMo to quickly hash out a story set in the Aligare world. Ravel was originally a 50 000-word mystery-drama story completed in one month. I didn’t like that draft much. The mystery part was pretty clumsy. I dreaded fleshing it out into a more typical 80 000-word novel — but the core relationship between Aster and Llarez was kind of charming. So I hacked away all the plot points I didn’t like and ended up with the 14 000-word romantic friendship story that Ravel is today. Who knows how long I would have struggled with that story if NaNoWriMo hadn’t pushed me to pour words out now and edit later?

That’s the real strength of NaNoWriMo: it encourages you to finish. Just finish. It’s okay if the novel you’re writing is the biggest steaming pile of awfulness ever composed: we can fix it later. New and/or young writers often find NaNoWriMo encouraging for that reason — plus the community spirit of many people writing messy drafts together. Sometimes those messy drafts have potential, viewed later in the cold light of December. Even if one’s NaNo draft is nowhere near publishable, it can be tons of fun.

Because one of the staples of NaNoWriMo is accepting truly random writing prompts. Your story has gotten stuck? Well, what would happen if the heroes’ car broke down? Or someone found a lost pet monkey? Or a secondary character revealed that he’s actually an alien? Or if the entire plot so far has been a delusion forced on your hero by an evil psychic wizard? Anything can happen, and sometimes you stumble across cool ideas. The Night Circus  — a book that spent seven weeks in the New York Times Best Seller list — came about when Erin Morgenstern got bored with her NaNo novel and had her characters randomly go to the circus.

But in more recent years, I haven’t been using NaNoWriMo for my Stories of Aligare: I’ve been turning to NaNoWriMo as a refresher. To run away from the Aligare world on a mad, commitment-free tangent. This year I’m writing a murder mystery with a fairy forensic investigator. Last year, in October 2012, I was sick of struggling with Render (A story of Aligare) and I found it very helpful to write some random other thing for a month. I came back to Render with fresh eyes in December. My previously frustrating story now looked wonderfully structured — although I couldn’t throw in spontaneous ninja battles like during NaNoWriMo. (Well, I could throw spontaneous ninja battles into the Stories of Aligare, strictly speaking. But you know what they say about great power and great responsibility.)

I always sympathize with authors locked into big publishing contracts for five, six, seven books in the same series. Don’t know about anyone else, but I go stir-crazy when I dwell on the same ideas for too long. And that’s why a scheduled month of reckless nonsense is something I wholeheartedly embrace.

Related articles:

◦  Flashback post: why I built a peaceful fantasy world (heidicvlach.com)

Trying to write colourfully (heidicvlach.com)

◦  Headcanon means joining in (heidicvlach.com)


My interview with Eye on Ashenclaw

Whew, well. Thanksgiving weekend was much busier than I anticipated. I’m usually too optimistic about how my holidays will go and whether I’ll be able to write some kind of coherent blog content.

But I did answer some interview questions! I’m hosted today by Gary Vanucci, author of the Realm of Ashenclaw series. We met on Twitter — as fantasy authors often do.

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Click here to read the interview. I touch on topics like how I got started writing, my favourite Aligare character, and whether I prefer chocolate or vanilla.


Working personal issues into my writing

Fiction writers are often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve never been asked that  — not in that exact phrasing, anyway. But I do read about the creative processes of others. Sometimes, authors are inspired by some great tragedy in their lives, or an experience that shook them and changed their outlook, or a decision they regret. Fiction becomes a means of exploring and resolving their own life experience.

It’s a perfectly legitimate place to begin a story.  Life is senseless sometimes; a well-structured story can bring closure. A writer already controls what the characters do and how they feel about their deeds, so why not have those characters act out a scenario the author would like a second chance at? Emotional connection can make for a powerful piece of fiction, indeed.

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And it makes me wonder if I’ve ever done that. Are the Stories of Aligare rife with my own pain and insecurity?

I’m confident they’re not. When I write my original fiction, I’m specifically trying to build something outside myself. I’m imagining a world where people can have fur or feathers or antennae, and where they don’t even know what war is.  I want my characters to have their own reactions to events, not some pre-determined outcome I impose on them. And I’ve never thought of a bad experience I had and decided to dress it up in fictional characters. (Or, well, I’ve considered it and decided that the resulting story would probably suck.)

A big part of my creative drive is my wish to change the adult fantasy genre, to raise awareness that anthropomorphic characters are not just cutesy talking puppets, or humans with animal parts tacked on. For a purpose like that, I don’t think it’d make sense for my own experience to be the primary drive of the story. I’m a human, you see. I might not like it much, when I watch the news and see the atrocities humans commit on a regular basis, but I’m still a Homo sapiens in my DNA and in my socially conditioned mind. I wouldn’t feel right taking things that happened to me and other humans and just pushing them onto aemets, korvi or ferrin. I’d rather figure out what their issues are, and explore those past hurts and tragedies.

Sometimes the personal issues of Aligare folk are very similar to human issues: I imagine that sentient beings’ problems often run parallel to each other. But being parallel doesn’t mean they’re the same.

 

Related articles:

    ◦ Aligare’s lucky numbers and their basis in lore (heidicvlach.com)

    ◦ Flashback post: What maturity means(heidicvlach.com)

    ◦ Aligare’s Mandragora, the Legend Creature of stories (heidicvlach.com)


Trying to write colourfully

When I was writing my first terrible manuscript — set in the beginnings of the Aligare world — I showed it to people. Because I was proud of my work and I wanted praise, of course. But also because I had heard critique was a good thing to get.

One scene in particular was set near the Great Barrier, the dome of casting essence that shields the land from the deadly Cold. The characters had seen plenty of casting but never like this, never an amalgamation of all casting elements. This Barrier was clearly a work of the gods. It was a semi-transparent wall that seemed evenly golden from a distance, but up close it shone with flecks of every colour.

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I imagine that magic looking like some of the more beautiful galaxies in our solar system — just more near and present. Like a shaft of light one can stick a hand into.

It was just one detail of the world I was trying to paint. But it was far from the first time my characters had used or seen magic. They brought it glowing forth from their hands and shining out of gemstones on plenty of occasions. And one of the people reading this Great Barrier scene — an acquaintance who just liked my fanfiction and was curious about my original work — made a comment that struck me. She said this fantasy world sounded like a beautiful place, with all the colourful magic.

 

That’s definitely part of what I like about fantasy. It’s easier to make colour just spring out of nowhere when you’ve got whimsical powers and environments to work with. But the “beautiful place” comment resounded with me so much because it was about a specific fixture of my invented world. Not some random pretty castle or waterfall, but a vital part of the proto-Aligare world and its mechanics. It sounded beautiful. Like human readers might enjoy visiting this place and imagining the sights.

 

I’m sure every writer has a mental gallery of feedback made on their work. And it’s easy for negative comments to fill up that gallery. If we hear ninety-nine comments of, “It’s kind of interesting,” and one comment of, “It’s terrible; never write again”, there’s no question which one will stick in the human mind more firmly. I’m just grateful that one of my early gallery comments was so simply positive. Maybe that casual acquaintance was just fishing for something nice to say, or maybe she really thought my world would be a great place to visit; I can’t know that. But I saw a lot of meaning in what she said. Colourful can literally refer to visible spectrums of light, or it can refer to the variety and interest in the world around us. I’ve always tried to be colourful in my writing. I don’t want to blend into everything “normal”.

 

And while I developed the Aligare world and got lots of discouraging comments, it was nice to have that positive comment to fall back on. Every time someone said, “No adult will ever read this”, I was able to think in response, “Hmm, well, someone already has. And they thought it was colourful.” I guess you could say it’s the compliment I’ve based my goals on.

 

 


Chimera creatures in mythology: why are they so familiar?

If you ask me, the best part of fantasy writing is the variety of creatures. We can go ahead and imagine strange beasts that don’t actually exist in our world. The weird part is that we’ve usually seen them all before. Mythical creatures are mostly just amalgams of more familiar animals.

Which makes them chimeras. Chimera often refers to the Greek monster that is a combination of lion, goat and snake.

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But the term can be used to refer to any fictional creature that is a mishmash of species. Even in real-life science, a living thing made up of different groups of cells fused together is called a chimera. So whether literal or figurative, many of the fictional beasts we know of are chimeras.

Because a griffon is a combination of eagle and lion’s physical traits. Add human characteristics to that and you’ve got a sphinx. Basilisks and cockatrice are combinations of chickens and snakes/lizards. A unicorn is fundamentally just a horse with a horn, but it’s traditionally depicted as having a goat’s beard, deer’s feet and lion’s tail. Even if they’re not explicitly described as “half this, half that”, mythical creatures are usually a mash-up of animal features we’ve seen before. They’re chimeras in spirit if not in actual DNA. Dragons are so common in Earth history because nearly every culture invented a reptilian creature that fit the  general description. Sometimes dragons have bat wings, fish scales, deer horns or a snake’s venom, but they still fit.

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The people paint the dragon’s shape with a horse’s head and a snake’s tail. Further, there are expressions as ‘three joints’ and ‘nine resemblances’ (of the dragon), to wit: from head to shoulder, from shoulder to breast, from breast to tail. These are the joints; as to the nine resemblances, they are the following: his horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam (shen, 蜃), his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow.

– Wang Fu, a Han Dynasty scholar

I think this happens because humans are hard-wired to prefer familiar things. When we’re struggling to understand a new idea, we try to compare it to things we already know. Heraldic unicorns probably weren’t actual genetic fusions of horses and goats: it was just easier to describe them as having  “a beard like a goat”, and trust that other Europeans know what a goat looks like. So even if we’re inventing a nightmarish monster that doesn’t really exist, we seem to prefer that it look familiar.

We learn from the world around us, and from the experience of others. We draw from what’s already been established in our world. So inventing a completely new animal is actually pretty hard. And on the off chance someone succeeds, we usually compare it to Earth animals anyway. It hunts in groups? Oh, like lions! It has a venomous bite? Ah, like a snake! A four-footed herbivore that humans can ride? Much like a horse! That makes description much easier but, well, what’s the point of inventing a distinctive wild animal for your fantasy world if people are just going to think of it as a “lion-snake”, anyway?

 

Sci-fi finds it more worthwhile to invent completely new animals. It’s unreasonable to think that everything in a populous universe will look like an Earth animal — and a truly foreign creature can reinforce the idea that we’re not in metaphorical Kansas anymore. Fantasy, though, has stronger ties to human history and the things we’ve thought since antiquity. So fantasy creatures are naturally going to look familiar, I guess. And what’s more fantastic than a chimera, an impossible blending of very different animals? As much as I wish fantasy would stop leaning on old tropes, there are reasons behind most of these norms. And mixing animals together has as many combinations as there are creatures in nature.