Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Problem with Middles, in Lives as well as Stories



Working through the middle of a story

You would think that when you made it to fifty years on the planet, you'd come to at least some measure of self-comfort and self-acceptance. And sure, I guess that's true, but where on the scale that 'some' lies isn't where I'd thought it would be.

When I was younger, the term 'middle aged' always seemed to speak of being settled and a certain degree of complacency. I should have known better. Middles are never comfortable places to inhabit.

Look at stories: writers refer to "the muddle of the middle" for a very good reason. Middles are inherently unsettling places in stories. Our heroes are mired in conflicts, nearing the all-hope-is-lost section of our narrative.

While our lives may not be a story, they are certainly a collection of stories, and right now, all of mine feel spectacularly unbalanced and confusing.

All the roles I have taken on are shifting and I'm not sure where this will lead me.

My role as a parent is changing dramatically, and in a short stretch of time. For the past 20 years, one of my primary identities has been mother to two children. While I will always be their mother, they are no longer children in their own lives and in the eyes of society. My relationship with them is changing, has been changing, will continue to change.

My very body is changing to reflect that external shift with internal ones. I have been Maiden. I have been Mother. I am becoming Crone. And while I have a role model for this stage in my life - my late beloved grandmother - it is still unfamiliar territory.

It has been a lifetime since my husband and I were new lovers, learning each other's secrets, hopes, and fears. We have become as comfortable as Sunday jeans and a faded chamois shirt. Our challenge will be to hold onto that hard-won ease as we find ourselves a primary couple again.

And even as my role as parent changes, so does my role as child. My mother passed away a year and a half ago. My father just celebrated his 91st birthday and while he is still a force in my life, several years has seen this child take on more and more of a parent role in our relationship. There will be a time when I am no longer anyone's daughter. And yes, I do realize how blessed I have been to have a parent as an active part of my life at fifty.

Maybe the ground beneath our feet is always quicksand and we spend so much of our lives' energy pretending or hoping otherwise. All I know is everything is changing so much faster than I feel like I can manage.

I know in stories, what comes after this dark moment, is clarity. So I will muddle though the middle of my own story, and stay hopeful about what lies ahead.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

What's New in Your Corner of the World?

original cover art copyright Veris Maya

original cover art copyright Chris Howard




This Spring, I have two new projects in the production pipeline. A collection of short stories, "Stranger Worlds Than These," and an SF novel, DERELICT.

I'm very excited about them both, and I'm especially pleased to be moving forward on new things after what felt like a very long and difficult Winter.

The story collection (look for it end of April or early May) includes the SF story I contributed to our charity anthology, PEN-ULTIMATE, along with 6 others that have not been published elsewhere. Some have been included in my occasional newsletter, others are brand new. I used to think I didn't like short stories - not reading them and not writing them, but I realized that this wasn't true. My frustration with short stories is that they are hard. In some ways, they are far harder to write than novels, where the author has all kinds of wiggle room to explore and define character, setting, and conflict. With short stories, you have to punch it and hit your mark right away. There is no meandering around. Every word must count.

Short stories are much closer to poetry than they are to novels. But poetry is something I'm at home writing and once I realized this kinship, it became much easier to work with small narratives.

Another lovely thing about short stories is I can reward myself with one every night before I go to bed, with less of a risk of staying up way past my bedtime because I can't put the book down. :) I'm working my way through the Tor 5 years of story anthology this way and discovering several authors whose work is now on my TBR list.

I can't wait until I can release DERELICT (late spring or early summer, 2014) into the world! It's a story I love, with complex and diverse characters, an insane AI controlling a broken ship, and a chase through space. What's not to love? I have plans for multiple novels in this universe, so if you like space opera, stay tuned.

I'll be announcing the release dates on my newsletter, so please subscribe for the latest news and a sneak peek at one of the stories in the collection.

And I'm still working on TIME AND TITHE, the sequel to THE BETWEEN. My target date for publication is late Fall 2014.

Lots happening here at "Chez LJ". What's going on in your part of the universe?

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Guest Post: If you think Lisa is an alien, turn to page 27

I happened to attend a local networking event last week, where I met fellow author Rachel Zakuta. Writing can be such a lonely and tunnel-visioned work, so it was lovely to know I'm in good company in the writing trenches. Rachel has recently published a new text-based adventure game and I invited her to visit my blog and tell us about it.

Welcome, Rachel!

Reckless Space Pirates, by Rachel Zakuta


Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the '80's?

If you think Lisa is a wizard, turn to page 84.
If you think Lisa is an alien, turn to page 27.
(Wait. . . have you been talking to my kids, Rachel? --ljc )

Those books have been reincarnated, here in the digital age, as text-based adventure games.  And they're so much better.  Today's games, designed for adult readers, keep track of your choices and how they reflect your character's personality.   So, what you choose determines much more that just "what happens."  Your actions, your capabilities, your relationships with other characters, and your possible futures are all under your control.  Reading a story of this kind is a truly immersive experience; you feel you are inside the world of the novel. 

I recently had the privilege to write one of these games, entitled Reckless Space Pirates.  In my game, you have been kidnapped by space pirates on their way to a forbidden planet.  Will you join them and plunder an alien colony?  Or will you resist, and save the aliens from the rampaging pirates?  (You can download Reckless Space Pirates for very little money at the App Store, Google Play, or Amazon).

An adventure in writing

Writing  the game was an exercise in freeing my imagination, because the central question became not "What should happen next?"  but "What could happen next?"  Instead of searching for a right answer, I was compiling as many interesting answers as possible.  Every simple exchange of dialogue was fraught with possibilities, as I imagined how the secondary character would respond if the reader's character was loved, respected, distrusted, or dismissed. 

Alternatively, I sometimes felt as though I were writing with my hands tied, as I struggled not to say anything that would be inconsistent with any of the myriad choices the reader might have made.  When I write regular fiction, the point of view character's mood usually colors the scene, shading even the description of the physical setting.  In Reckless Space Pirates, the reader's character might show up to a scene in literally any mood.  The scene must work whether the reader's character is a sensitive hacker who has just achieved a small victory, a hardened space veteran who has just lost a fistfight, or anything in between.

An interactive plot

The plot of an interactive novel must branch and converge, branch and converge – or else the author would need to write millions of words. (As it is, each reader only reads about a quarter of the possible text each time through, so while I wrote enough words for a novel, the game is only as long as a novella from a reader's point of view.)  The need for convergence creates a series of fixed points in the story, events that happen no matter what the reader's character does. 

In a regular novel, this inevitability would create a problem with the main character's agency.  With the help and advice of the wonderful people at Choice of Games, I learned to solve this problem with careful programming.  As the reader's character responds to these fixed situations, succeeding or failing to overcome obstacles, building or destroying relationships, data is collected.  When this data is used to determine the final branch that the character will travel – the only branch that is free to continue outwards from the story with no limitations – it seems to the reader that the character's actions did determine the outcome of the story. 

Of course, good old-fashioned craftsmanship has a role to play, too.  I had to sell the inevitability of the fixed points, both by crafting difficult situations that could not be avoided, and by transferring some of the agency to the secondary characters.  The genre demands a cast of rich, intriguing secondary characters, since the main character is fluid.  I enjoyed meeting that challenge, peopling the starship Reckless with a mismatched crew and creating an alien culture.  Once I thoroughly convince the readers that second-in-command Krantic is a dangerous maniac teetering on the brink of sanity, for example,  then they can accept that he will plunge the story into chaos at a certain point, despite the best (or worst) efforts of the reader's character.

A new language

I wrote Reckless Space Pirates in choicescript, a simple and free programming language designed by the Choice of Games creators.  I had no programming experience at all, and I definitely experienced a learning curve, returning to the beginning scenes to add more sophisticated code.  But it was easy to learn choicescript, so much easier than I feared, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in writing interactive fiction.  Also, as a teacher, I immediately recognized how easy it would be to use choicescript to create self-grading quizzes and homework, though I'm not in the classroom right now and haven't tried it out.  So, I encourage educators as well as writers to go to choiceofgames.com, select the "Make Your Own Games" tag, and download the free program.

To learn more about me and my writing, you can visit http://rachelzakuta.com

Thanks, Lisa, for lending me your microphone.  It was fun!

And thank you, Rachel, for this fascinating look inside the world of creating an interactive game. It seems as if the software has a lot of possibilities, perhaps for creating small games within the world of an existing book. Hmm. . . ideas are percolating!

Thursday, April 03, 2014

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy: Poetic Inspiration


Photo by Miri Dunn, used with permission.
I follow Miri on Google+ and saw this arresting photograph she posted yesterday. To caption the photo, she wrote, "One crow, sorrow; two crow, joy." The line resonated with me, and I asked her where it came from, or if it was something she had written. She told me it was from an old nursery rhyme.

The photo and the phrase really spoke to me and I wrote the poem in response.

One Crow Sorrow; Two Crows, Joy
(for Miri Dunn)

The light slants low across the water.
Shadows stretch the tree trunks long. Soon
darkness will hoard the last spark of bright.
A magpie's feathers flash purple and blue
like a bruise, like dusk, like the tumbling river.
Bare branches burst to life in a call of crows
until the sky cracks open and the sound
falls up. The night is made of beating wings, stars
clever eyes blinking, blinking against the black.

--LJ Cohen, April 2, 2014

Part of the pull of writing poetry for me, is writing in response to another piece of art. It was a long time before I knew there was a word for that: ekphrasis. For many years, I have had the image in my mind of crows roosting in the trees at sunset, but it took seeing this marvelous photograph (it looks like a woodcut!) to craft that image into a poem.

When I showed it to Miri, she linked me to another ekphrastic work: a song, "One for sorrow, two for joy" by indie artist, Christophe Curtis. It is a moody, atmospheric piece, that evokes the sense of crows.

So many ways to express the emotions triggered from a single source of inspiration; in this case an old nursery rhyme, discovered through a photograph.

Happy Poetry Month!