How many fantasy authors do you know who live in Malta, study martial arts, and write wildly funny, action-packed stories about a wizard who can’t use magic? There’s only one: Ryan Attard, author of the “Legacy” fantasy series.
Today’s blog is part of a writers’ blog tour, so the format is predetermined. I was nominated to write this by Ryan Attard, author of the wild, action-packed “Legacy” fantasy series. Ryan has two books in the series out now, “Firstborn” and “Birthright.” His blog on the subject of “My Writing Process” can be found here.
1. What am I working on? At present, I’m marketing “The Obsidian Mirror,” which is my debut novel. As a new writer (OK, I’ve been writing my whole life and write for a living, but I am newly-arrived as a novelist), I don’t have an established reader base, and I’ll have to work hard to build one. I expected this and I’m eager and willing to put in the work, but I have not been able to turn my full attention to the next novel, which will be the second in the “Obsidian” series.
As those of you who have been hanging in here with me for a while know, “The Obsidian Mirror” is based entirely on New World mythologies, legends, folk tales and traditions. Supernatural beings—they may have been called gods or folk heroes or even demons—are active in today’s world. I call them “Avatars,” more or less to avoid the whole religion thing. There were thousands of different religions in the ancient Americas, and I wanted to be able to draw on any of them without getting too embroiled in theology.
The second story in the “Obsidian” series will be set in Hawaii. I thought it would be interesting to see what happens when an ancient Avatar such as Coyote the Trickster ventures from his native land to another land where he and his cohorts never had any influence. Hawai’i may be part of the United States now, but the ancient Hawai’ians had their own traditions that owed nothing to the mainland Americas. I have plans for Coyote (also known as Chaco) in particular, but he’s not going to like them much.
Fred the mannegishi will also venture to Hawaii with Sierra, but his experience will be radically different from Chaco’s. As I was writing the character of Fred, he always reminded me of the Hawaiian menehune; Fred is small, green, and mischievous, as are the menehune. Well, it’s time that Fred met some menehune, and we will see what happens. (I honestly don’t know any more at this point.)
The underlying theme of “The Obsidian Mirror” is threat to the natural environment. I plan to continue that with the next book, but my focus will be on the “Pacific Garbage Patch,” which is a continent-sized area in the Pacific that contains millions of tons of particularized plastic swirling around in the ocean—and Hawai’i is right in the middle of it. Marine birds and animals consume this plastic confetti, often with fatal results, and the plastic leaches toxic chemicals into the water. “Plastiglomerates” have been washing up on Hawai’i’s beautiful beaches—chunks of plastic fused together with volcanic rock, sand and coral. Next time you have a fun day at the beach, please be sure you take all the sand buckets, bags, plastic shovels and toys home with you, even if they’re broken. Otherwise—it’s off to the great Pacific Garbage Patch! (Unless you’re picnicking by a different ocean, in which case, please do the same.)
I won’t get preachy with all this. If the story isn’t fun to read, it won’t be read.
When I’m not marketing the first book, I’m trying to find time to do research on ancient Hawai’ian culture for the next book. I may have to actually travel to Hawai’i to accomplish some of this, but no one ever said the writer’s lot is an easy one.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre? Basing my work on New World mythologies, legends and archetypes is the most unique aspect of my work. I don’t mean to say that no one has ever done this before, but my observation of fantasy is that it leans heavily on European traditions such as swords, sorcerers, vampires, elves, faeries, cloaked adventurers, and so forth. As a matter of fact, that’s why I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror” in the first place. In early 2007, I finished reading an epic fantasy by Robert Jordan. (It was one of the “Wheel of Time” novels.) I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but found myself pondering the whole Eurocentricity of fantasy. My freelance writing business was slow at the time, so I began writing the story largely as an experiment. Much to my surprise, my characters became so vivid and real to me that they did not allow me to quit until I had finished the entire book and rewritten it about three times.
That being said, I am as intrigued by the mysteries of European traditions as anyone—especially when it comes to Celtic folklore and legends. Ethnically, I am pretty much a mutt, but I’m as much Scots-Irish as anything else, and these stories resonate with me. I’d like to write something based on Celtic tradition someday, but I would need to develop my own personal twist on it.
Back to what makes my work unique—I may be fooling myself, but I like to think that I have developed a distinctive “voice” as a writer. Key to this voice is humor, which I use much like salt in cooking; drama, action, and suspense are so much tastier when served with a good dollop of humor.
3. Why do I write what I write? I have wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old. In many ways, I have always been a writer; that’s how I got through school, and I built a career in public relations and marketing communications on my writing ability.
But of course, I didn’t aim to be a marketing writer at the age of eight. I wanted to write fiction because I read everything fictional I could get my hands on, and I thought writing fiction was the most amazing and wonderful thing anyone could do.
I majored in English Literature, so I thought I should be writing “literature”—something profound. Something that might eventually wind up on some college sophomore’s reading list. I attempted this a few times and quickly gave up in despair.
For some reason, it had not occurred to me to write the book that I wanted to read. You will more frequently find me curled up with Diana Gabaldon, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman or Tom Holt than with Faulkner, Saroyan, Shakespeare or Melville. When I started writing “The Obsidian Mirror,” I finally set out to create a book that I would enjoy reading—which is probably why it worked.
4. How does my writing process work? I think this has changed, because I learned a lot about writing a book from creating “The Obsidian Mirror.” And the next time, I will outline the plot FIRST. When I started the story, I was writing on a whim, so I didn’t bother with plotting it out or doing character backstories, or creating walls full of stickies with timelines and so forth. I just wrote it, and that created some difficulties.
My most challenging problem was finishing the book. My second major rewrite had taken me past the end of the original version, but I got to a point in the story where I could not see how it would end. I knew how I wanted it to end, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there from where I was. I had written myself into a corner. It took probably six months and many earnest and frustrated attempts before I located where I had gone wrong and corrected it. The book just about finished itself from that point—I think it took a week.
So, long story short, I will create a plot outline for the next book. Beyond that, my process is: just write. I read somewhere that Terry Pratchett set himself the goal of writing at least 400 words per day. Every day. Holidays, weekends, sick or well. That struck me as a wise discipline, so I take the same goal for myself when I’m in writing mode. Usually I write far more than that, but 400 words is the minimum.
I write whether I’m feeling inspired or not. When you write for a living, as I do, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike. You just do it because it’s a job like any other job. Waitresses, accountants, lawyers and phlebotomists do what they do with or without the muse of inspiration. (Note for short story: waitress meets the muse of table service!) I write whether I think every word is golden, or whether I think it’s trash. That’s what editing is for.
I do not edit as I write. I wait for it to “cool off” first. That’s true for my marketing writing as well as fiction. You can’t edit your work effectively if you try to do it while in the throes of composition. You have to walk away and come back later when you’re fresher and more objective.
With the exception of my difficulty finishing “The Obsidian Mirror,” I have never had writer’s block. This is because if I start writing and I think it’s basically shit, I force myself to continue. Eventually, the process of writing gets the creative juices flowing, and then I’m over the hill and far away with my characters. I can always go back and fix the shitty parts.
Finally, every writer needs an editor. I paid a well-regarded fantasy writer to edit my story, and she was worth every penny. I also paid an editor friend of mine to proof and edit the final manuscript. (I didn’t pay her what she is worth, but I did pay her.) When you write something and then go back and read it, I don’t care how good you are, you will tend to see what you thought you wrote instead of what you actually wrote. This inevitably results in typos, missing words, and sentences that read as though you were just coming off a 10-day bender on ‘shrooms. A good editor is worthy of h/her hire.
Of course, once the story is finished, you have to find a publisher (unless you self-publish, which has become more respectable these days). And once it’s published, you have to market it, because unless you’re Neil Gaiman, your average publisher these days is not going to fly you first-class to every bookstore in the nation and run ads in The New York Times Review of Books. The author must market his or her own books through social media, bookstore appearances, reviews and so forth, seeking for that elusive audience. But that doesn’t have anything to do with writing, though it has everything to do with making money at fiction writing.
So nothing is wasted. I’m glad I learned about marketing before I wrote a book!
I am supposed to nominate two other authors to pick up this blog tour. I invited two, but only heard back from one: the inimitable Sorin Suciu. Sorin wrote a wondrously funny urban fantasy called “The Scriptlings.” I defy anyone with any sense of humor to avoid laughing out loud while reading this tale, which is full of sly references and geeky humor. His “magical system” will delight anyone with even a passing acquaintance with computer programming. I have never met Sorin Suciu, but he comes across even in email exchanges as engaging, kind, smart and funny. I don’t know what Sorin will write, but I can flat-out guarantee that you will enjoy reading it on his blog next week.
The launch party for “The Obsidian Mirror” went beautifully last Saturday afternoon. Kepler’s Bookstore in Menlo Park, CA graciously hosted the event, and there was a good crowd of people there. I did a very brief reading and answered questions.
Here’s a sampling of what I was asked:
Q: Is your protagonist (Sierra) autobiographical?
A: Sierra is concerned about the environment; so am I. Sierra is a PR executive, and used to be one. Sierra designs silver jewelry, and I do, too. There the resemblance ends because Sierra is way cooler than I am. (I didn’t mention this, but she’s also younger and more athletic than me.)
Q: What started you writing the book?
A: I had recently finished a Robert Jordan novel that involved riding horses, armor, swords, sorcery, etc. I really enjoyed the book, but later I wondered why, with thousands of legends, mythologies, folk tales and traditions, the New World is rarely used as inspiration for fantasy. Most epic fantasy, at any rate, is usually set in some pre-Industrial Age, pseudo-European environment. Elves, faeries, trolls, ogres, goblins, vampires, etc. are staple fare.
I love swords-and-sorcery, don’t get me wrong! But I had time (my freelance writing business was slow at the time), so I began writing a story based on New World traditions as an experiment. Before long, the characters took over and I HAD to finish the story.
Q: Is Chaco (Coyotl the Trickster) based on a person in your life?
A: I said Chaco was based on my husband, Tom, but I was kidding. Coyotl the Trickster is a folk hero among many of the Native American tribes. I should have mentioned that appearance-wise, I saw Chaco, in his manifestation as a deliciously sexy young man (as opposed to his coyote gig), as Gael García Bernal, the excellent Mexican actor who (among many other roles) played Ché Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries.”
One person thanked me for not making Chaco the villain. I started out thinking that since Chaco was The Trickster, he ought to be rather ambiguous; the reader would not be sure whether he was good or bad. I really, truly would have liked to write him that way, but he came out more of a scamp than a real rogue. (That was all his doing, not mine. I had other ideas.)
Q: What other characters are in the book?
A: There’s Fred the Mannegishi. Mannegishi are sort of like leprechauns in that they are small and green, but mostly because they are mischievous. Mannegishi are from legends of the Cree tribe. Fred is truly unreliable, but as one person present said (she had edited the manuscript for me), “Fred seemed like a pain in the butt at first, but he became my favorite character.”
I was asked if I made up Fred’s appearance, but I followed the description of Mannegishi in Wikipedia. I rarely made up anything about the supernatural characters; I tended to follow the traditional descriptions if they were available. Of course, much of my research consisted of strolling around the Internet when I needed a new monster. As the New Yorker cartoon has it, “Nobody knows you’re a dog on the Internet.” By the same token, it’s hard to know whether you’re reading something authentic, or a made-up legend by a tequila company or something. As “The Obsidian Mirror” is fiction—and fantasy fiction at that—I didn’t worry too much about academic purity.
Q: Do you have a sequel planned?
A: Yes, two. The next book will be set in Hawai’I, where Fred might meet some cousins of his. “The Obsidian Mirror” has an underlying theme of threat to our natural environment, which will continue to be a theme of my work. I am very concerned about the Pacific Gyre, also known as the Pacific Garbage Patch, a continent-size vortex of plastic particles in the ocean swirling around Hawai’i. But I do not plan on getting preachy. The books have to be fun to read, or no one will read them.
Of course, I may have to make the ultimate sacrifice and travel to Hawai’i to do research. A writer’s life is so hard.
The third sequel will be set in Mexico, and will have something to do with the Virgin of Guadalupe as Tonantzin, the Aztec flower goddess. I don’t know much more about it yet.
After answering questions, I sat down at the assigned table and signed books. The store sold out, with Kepler’s purchasing the last one for the staff. I hope they enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the party. I got a ton of compliments on the food—which I never touched because I was too wound-up!
Growing up, I learned in school about the natural wonders of our great land—the deep forests, crystalline rivers, wide and sweeping plans, and pristine deserts. This was probably reinforced by various Disney nature films depicting animals in the wild, with not a telephone line in sight.
Imagine my surprise when I got a little older and found out about “dead” lakes so polluted that nothing much could live in them. Rivers that caught on fire from time to time. Sweeping landscapes of gray factories belching dirty smoke into the air, surrounded by heaps of toxic slag. And because I lived a mere 100 miles from Los Angeles, that mother of all urban blight, the pall of grayish-brown smog that obscured the nearby 8,000-foot-plus-high mountains on many days.
I know it sounds as if I were a complete naïf, but I was stunned. The people who were dumping toxins and garbage into the water had to live here, too. Their children were being exposed to poison in the air and water. They had to look at the blight of human ingenuity, right along with the rest of us. So what could they possibly be thinking?
Many decades later, I am still wondering. It has never made sense to me that people would crap all over their own dinner tables. And it has never made sense to me that governments allow them to do this. Every time I read about some scheme to defang the EPA, or lower air and water quality standards, or build another nuclear power plant even after the disasters at Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukishima, I am newly gob-stopped. Why would anyone knowingly and deliberately destroy the only home we possess?
That’s one reason I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror.” In it, the ancient and evil Necocyaotl devises a new way to entice people to “look into the obsidian mirror,” after which they become so focused on their personal wants and desires that they are willing to despoil the earth to obtain them. He does this by spreading his evil essence in a fiendishly clever way, using modern technology.
To be honest, it’s the only explanation I can understand. Nothing else makes any sense at all. Profit motive, you say? That’s like burning down your own house to warm your hands for a bit. Until I get a better explanation, I’m sticking with the Necocyaotl Theory.
This is it–my first podcast! I am reading Chapter One of “The Obsidian Mirror,” due out from AEC Stellar Publishing on June 27.
I will be hosting a launch party for the book at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California on June 28 at 2:00 pm. I’ll be reading a portion of Chapter One and signing books. Come on down! Wine and munchies provided. (Leave a comment here to let me know if you’re coming. I’d hate to run out of food.)
I attended FogCon a couple of weeks ago. I had only attended one other con, and that was several years ago when I went to WorldCon in San Jose, CA. WorldCon was huge, taking up much of the McEnry Convention Center. There were lots of cosplay people dressed as Galadriel or Romulans or as people/creatures/characters I didn’t even recognize. And I met Terry Pratchett.
Yes, I know I said I was going to talk about FogCon, but I have to stop and talk about my encounter with Mr. Pratchett, who is one of my VERY EXTREMELY MOST FAVORITE fantasy authors.
You see, I met Connie Willis first. I was in the vendors’ hall when I happened to glimpse her nametag. Connie Willis is also a favorite author, so I introduced myself—and proceeded to commit every rabid-fan sin it is possible to commit in attempting to praise her work. Even as I heard the vapid words burbling out of my mouth, I knew I was doomed. The expression of pain on Ms. Willis’ face only confirmed my gauche blundering. I attempted to extricate myself by saying, “Well, I’m starting to drool on you, so I guess I’d better go now.” Ms. Willis nodded mute agreement, and I slunk away with my tail between my legs, feeling like a complete moron.
I was standing at a vendor’s stall wondering if it is possible to actually die of embarrassment when a tidy gentleman with a gray beard and a black fedora walked up. I thought he looked familiar, but when the vendor called him “Mr. Pratchett,” my suspicions were confirmed. He stood right next to me as the vendor handed him a CD and said, “I’ve been saving this for you, but I was afraid I might come across as a rabid fan.” (Like me, I thought.)
Pratchett took the CD and said, “I adore rabid fans!”
I turned to him and said, “Well, then, would you mind if I drooled on your shoulder?”
Pratchett responded, “Not at all—but would you mind drooling on this shoulder”—he patted his right shoulder—“as the other one is already rather damp?”
Instantly, the oppressive cloud of feeling foolish lifted and disappeared. I will never forget how Terry Pratchett’s humor and kindness brightened my day and turned my embarrassment into laughter. (Not that I mean to say Connie Willis made me feel bad. I made myself feel bad. I should’ve kept my mouth shut.)
Okay, back to FogCon, which is a very different con. I thought the topics appeared geared more to writers than to fans (“How To Create a Magical System” is one example), but there were probably more fans than writers. The sessions were a combination of panel discussion and group discussion. I introduced myself to several people, and sometimes got into conversations, but most people seemed to be there with groups of like-minded friends, and they were more interested in hanging with their posses than mingling. No one was rude or even cold; I just never clicked with anyone. I asked several people why they came to FogCon, and the answers were all along the lines of “I enjoy the discussions. The topics are so interesting.” Perhaps other cons are not as participative? I don’t know yet.
I managed to miss all the good parties because I didn’t know about the con suite. I handed out a few cards about “The Obsidian Mirror,” but no one expressed much interest. I finally just left a stack on the literature table. When I tried to talk about the book to a bookseller (from whom I was purchasing three books at the time), he just looked bored and pointedly set the card aside without a word.
By the time the “Non-Awards Banquet” rolled around on Saturday night, I was kind of done. There was a party afterwards, but I was tired and didn’t feel like trying to push myself onto more indifferent people.
I’ve done a lot of successful networking in my time, but I felt like a complete tyro at FogCon. I suspect that I am on a learning curve here. I went to the con to learn more about how cons work, and from that perspective, I was successful. I think I need to attend more cons and pick up on the culture (which I think differs from con to con, based on my limited experience). If I continue to attend, I’ll probably get to know others who go to cons and vice versa. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll have my very own posse.
When I turned six years old, my grandfather gave me a present. It wasn’t wrapped, as I recall, but just placed in a plain cardboard box. As it happened, it was my favorite gift that year: a genuine human skull.
My grandfather, Frank W. Moore, was an adventurous man. In the earlier days of the 20th century, he helled around California in a Model T, driving across the desert before there was such a thing as “off-road” driving. He had a sailboat called “Amy H” in which he explored the California coast and offshore islands. (My grandmother was not named Amy H. I think the boat came with the name and he never got around to changing it.) In those days, California was underpopulated and he had the freedom to go pretty much wherever he wanted to do whatever he felt like. One of the things he liked to do was go out with his buddy, Dr. Walter B. Power, and cut down billboards.
On one occasion in 1917, he landed on San Nicholas Island, later made famous by writer Scott O’Dell as “The Island of the Blue Dolphins.” On or near the beach, he saw a white dome poking up out of the sand. He uncovered it and found a skull with half of its lower mandible. The teeth (those that were left) were ground down quite smooth as a result of the inhabitants’ diet of shellfish which contained a lot of sand. My grandfather took the skull home, where it became an object of envy for my mother, who had ambitions of becoming an archeologist (and eventually did). Mom named it Yorick after the skull in “Hamlet.”
In those days, there was no Native American Repatriation Act, aimed at restoring the remains of Native Americans to their tribes and homelands. The battle of Wounded Knee was a mere 27 years in the past when my grandfather found the skull, and the term “Native American” hadn’t yet been coined. Indians, in short, were not highly regarded by the mainstream culture back then. No one thought twice about my grandfather taking Yorick from his resting place on San Nicholas Island.
In 1917, there were no inhabitants on the island. The Nicoleños (or Ghalas-at) had been almost exterminated by Russian fur-trappers. In 1835, the padres of the California mission system moved five of the six remaining inhabitants to the mainland. The one who stayed, Juana Maria, became known as “The Lone Woman.” She lived there, utterly alone, until her removal from the island in 1853. She died not long after.
My mother thought the skull was that of a young male in his 20’s, pointing to the supra-orbital ridges and cranial sutures, and we continued to refer to it as Yorick. Sensibilities toward Native Americans hadn’t improved too much by the time my childhood rolled around, so I happily took Yorick to show-and-tell sessions at school–and I have to tell you, he never failed to make a hit appearance. No one could top me when it came to show-and-tell; imagine following my human skull with your toy cap gun (also a perfectly acceptable show-and-tell item in the 1950’s).
I took as much care of Yorick as a small child might be expected to do, but one day, something heavy fell on him as he rested in my off-duty Easter basket. My mother undertook to glue him back together–and while she was engaged in this project, the chipmunk I had taken home for the weekend from my third grade classroom escaped in the family room and took up residence in the couch. Mom thought this would be a good way to start a book: “While I was glueing my daughter’s skull back together, the chipmunk got loose.” I thought this had promise, but she never did write the book.
When my own children were in elementary school, I let them take Yorick to their show-and-tell sessions. He was as much a hit as ever, but I heard back from one teacher that Yorick was an inappropriate show-and-tell subject. She mentioned the Native American Repatriation Act, and I realized with something of a shock that Yorick was, of course, subject to that law. That ended Yorick’s career in show-and-tell.
I suppose I should have realized earlier that Yorick had been a human being whose remains had been wrested from his native land in an insensitive and chauvinistic manner. But Yorick had been a fixture in my life, and I hadn’t really thought of him as such. He spent the next couple of decades in a cardboard box. Out of sight, out of mind.
When I finished “The Obsidian Mirror” and began to look for a publisher, I remembered my unfulfilled obligation. My novel is based on New World legends, myths, and folk tales, and I recognized my enormous debt to the Native Americans and their many cultures. I thought if I got published–by a real publisher, not self-published–the finest way to celebrate this would be to repatriate Yorick to whichever Native American tribe now held the responsibility for those long-dead people of San Nicholas Island. I thought the Chumash were the most likely, as they are the tribe that lives around Santa Barbara now. I pledged to Yorick and the Powers That Be that I would repatriate Yorick if my book were picked up by a publisher. (I planned to self-publish if I failed to find a publisher, but I didn’t even contemplate what I would do with Yorick in that case.)
Well, AEC Stellar Publishing is bringing out “The Obsidian Mirror” sometime this summer. So I had a promise to keep.
To be honest, I had never before investigated where San Nicholas Island was, precisely, or what had become of it. I had assumed, as the island is considered part of the Channel Islands group, it had been rid of its introduced species like rats and goats and made into a nature preserve like Anacapa. A group of us sat in our living room this past holiday season and did some research. Some of us (not me) were voluble in proposing that we hire a fishing boat and go out to San Nicholas to rebury Yorick ourselves.
It turned out that San Nicholas Island is considerably south of the other Channel Islands (except for Santa Catalina and San Clemente), and sits perhaps 100 miles out to sea from the Southern California coast.
It also turned out that the island is under the jurisdiction of the United States Navy, which uses it for weapons research. The occupants of a fishing boat that attempted to land would probably be arrested. Some of the group still wanted to do it. “We’ll just tell them we’re old and we got lost,” said my friend Meg. Nope. Nope. Nope. Not going there. I reserve my feckless adventuring for my fiction writing.
I contacted my cousin Sally, who lives near Santa Barbara. Sally suggested contacting Dr. John Johnson, an anthropologist specializing in the Channel Island Indians. Dr. Johnson, a very kind and knowledgeable man, explained that there was an investigation underway to try to determine who (if any) were the legitimate descendants of the Nicoleños. And the organization in charge of the investigation? The U.S. Navy. I don’t have a whole lot of faith that the U.S. Navy feels any urgency about resolving this problem, but according to Dr. Johnson, there isn’t any alternative. Repatriated remains go to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where Dr. Johnson works. He assured me that there is a special area where these remains are kept until they can be interred in an appropriate manner and place. Yorick would stay in the museum until the Navy decided where he belonged.
Well, Santa Barbara was at least closer to San Nicholas Island than Yorick has been in more than half a century. I made an appointment with Dr. Johnson to turn Yorick over.
When my husband and I went to Santa Barbara, Dr. Johnson spent some time examining the skull, then said, “I think what we have here is actually Yoricka.” He believes that the skull was that of an older woman, not a young man, and showed us why he thought so. (Sorry, Mom. I think he’s right.) He asked me details about my grandfather and mother and I filled out some paperwork. Then it was time to say goodbye. On the way out of the museum, my husband turned to me and asked, “Feeling a little sad?”
I said, “Yes.” I wish I had taken a picture of Yorick before we left. After all, he–she–was a member of my family for 97 years. I wish I had known who you really were, Yorika. I hope you find your way back to your Island of the Blue Dolphins.