Thursday, October 31, 2013

Winter is Coming: A Discussion of Samhain

Blogger friends inspire the most creative and connected blog entries. The verbose and gentleman scholar Matt Anderson, after doing a wonderful Halloween countdown on his blog, wrote about the pagan summer festival Beltane/ . Matt happens to live in Australia, so it's technically not time Samhain in the land down under, or the harvest festival that precludes Halloween and inspired it.

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We Americans, unless we practice Wicca, do not have Samhain. We have trick-or-treating, Halloween specials, haunted houses and costumes. These aspects are not bad things, because we no longer have a reason to fear winter. Americans, and most of the Western world, have access to food and shelter all year round. I for one live in Florida, where we have vegetables and fruits growing in the middle of December, and my family is lucky to have food and an insulated house every day. Not because of the cold, but because of the rodents that would take nibbles out of our tomatoes at night, and they would freak out my mom and older sister. Also, we had to watch our tomatoes and bananas more carefully.

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For civilizations that lacked preservatives, refrigeration and mass-production of food, however, winter was a scary time. People had to fight for their lives, and witness the world dying around them. Food would become scarce, blizzards would bury villages for weeks, the cold could freeze over cattle's nostrils, and people would huddle in their homes while listening to monster tales. Rats and mice would huddle with them, stealing whatever food they could find. It was a time when ordinary people feared Grendel the monster storming their homes in the dead of winter, eating the bravest warriors and taking no heed of weapons. Even if Grendel was no more real than the dragon that St. George fought, or the Headless Horseman, but nature was not friendly with ice and snow.

Samhain in the olden times meant preparing for the winter, celebrating the harvest that would feed villages while offering deference to the wild, natural forces. People would light bonfires, set cattle bones ablaze as a promise of life in the cold, and take a portion of the flame home to enliven their hearths.

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In addition to warmth that battled the cold, people prepared for fae, or ancient spirits, to cross over into our world. For this day, October 31st, people would leave out food offerings to feed the spirits and make room for dead family members at the dinner table. Others would wear costumes and go from house to house, to imitate the spirits in their demands for food and treats. Imitation was apparently a form of flattery, for the spirits encouraged this sort of behavior each year.

Samhain makes for an interesting holiday because it begs one fascinating question: how has our fear changed, and how did changing fears change this festival into a secular holiday? As noted above, though people still go hungry each year, most Americans don't and in fact suffer the opposite problem with obesity. Parents now worry about sugar highs and crashes, if their kids can handle haunted houses and horror movies.

For me, Halloween is having a secure net of fear. We invite scary things when dressing up because we know that they can't hurt us, and in this way we court death, treating our worst fears like playmates. We get to change into other creatures, to entertain our friends and walk into the night.

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On that note, I didn't wear a proper Halloween costume this year. That won't stop me from planning for next year, for dressing up for one day as someone else. Perhaps I'll find a fairy spirit to imitate, or a Disney princess to emulate.

But for now? I'll just sit back, await the green winter to come, and enjoy the darkness.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Writing Zone

Hi all long time no see. There's loads of news, however, that I will reveal. First, on November 1 Indian SF is publishing my short story "The Lion in the Wave," on their website; be sure to check it out and to give the magazine your support if you can provide anything, from readership to funds. "Lion" is an ocean story, about my fear of large waves and how their crashes sound like lions' roars, and it's my first successful attempt at a literary style.

The reason I've been AWOL is because I've been working on a novella for an editor, a fantasy horror novella expanded from a short story that I finished in the fall. The time that I would have spent crafting a response to a StoryDam prompt instead went into reading about Tarot, studying the language behind Ray Bradbury's novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, listening to my new beta reader's comments on the story, and writing about twenty thousand words in a week and several days. The editor is reading the novella this week, so I have my fingers crossed.

"Carousel" is about a haunted orchestra conductor who fears a strange creature called the Piper, a humanized force of chaos that steals children with his magic flute. He suddenly makes reappearance at her university, first taking the sound away from orchestra rehearsal. She has to become someone she hasn't been in a while to confront the person who summoned the Piper, as well as to get rid of him.

Novellas typically start at twenty thousand words, which is roughly one hundred pages double-spaced, with Times New Roman font sized 12. I have written three thousand words a day, every other day. With that track record, I thought adding twelve thousand words to an eight thousand word short story would be a cinch. I'd set up my computer at night, or during two hours I had free in the morning, and type away. I even had a day off I knew the story's plot, what I wanted the characters to do. All I had to do was write, write write, which is what I enjoy doing! Surely nothing could be easier!

I couldn't have been more wrong. See, the times I had been writing three thousand words a day had involved some form of having three or four hours a day to write freely, or when I had been willing to stay up till midnight putting in the work. They were also part of fanfiction, which I have always found easier to write than original fiction-- that will be another blog post's subject. Original fiction requires the brain to produce more description, in terms of picturing the world and how the characters act. I had to borrow liberally from my university campus, and then memoirs of driving to Miami Beach at night for the new climax.

To immerse myself into the novella's world, to be able to expand, to explain, to make deeper characterizations, I had to swallow the necessary language, research, and suspension of disbelief. Something Wicked This Way Comes inspired part of the story, including the title, but only in terms of how a fun place or object has creepier implications, that you have to cling to joy and laughter to fight the darkness that threatens your soul. Bradbury's prose also emphasizes that not all parents fail their children in times of crisis, and that sometimes an adult can provide wisdom that the children lack. I consider it one of his more uplifting, nostalgic tales about the wandering carnivals that don't appear any more these days.

I also had to answer a lot of questions. My first beta reader had complained that draft four hadn't held enough back stories. Beta reader two didn't complain about that, but rather about how the protagonist let weeks of time go by before taking action, and that the climax did not satisfy him. A male love interest had no personality or motivation, and the Piper wasn't threatening enough. Both readers went on a long rant, which meant that they liked the story and were frustrated by its shortcomings.

The story had to change. I ended up throwing out the old ending, which had survived six drafts, and crafted a new one. That took four hours to write, on two separate days. Only then, sweaty and relieved, did I email the draft to the editor, who was gracious enough to accept my submission and who let me resubmit it with correct formatting.

"Carousel" taught me many things: one, a story can always get longer. Sometimes it will stretch like an anaconda, demanding that you count every scale on its body till you reach the end, sweaty and exhausted. Sometimes you have to let that anaconda grow, and grow, so that you can get the best story possible.

Two, always answer a readers' questions. Though Stephen King likes to write short horror stories that have no explanation for the supernatural causes, we cannot all be Stephen King and the age to abruptly blame haunted laundry machines on nightshade and mandrake root has passed and gone rotten in the grave. When two readers want back story, even if you dislike flashbacks, provide back story. Connect characters that were previously drifting like bits of seaweed in an ocean current.

Three, write what you know, and what you only know. Not every writer has played in an orchestra like I have, and not every person noticed the clock tower that played melodies at noon on my university campus.

Next post will be about Halloween, and I promise it will be on time, maybe on Thursday. We'll see what I can write this week.