Thursday, March 28, 2013

Notes on a Page – Barbara A. Barnett

"Notes on a Page" began life as a flash-length story written for a contest over at the Codex Writers' Group called Weekend Warrior. You're given several prompts Friday night and have until Sundaynotes-on-a-page night to write a flash story using one of them. One of the prompts last year was to write a story in which someone finds a secret passage in a public building. At the time, I had just been offered an internship working in an orchestra library, and that inspired my take on the prompt: a portal in an orchestra hall that quite literally takes one inside the music.

I realized two things very quickly with the story: 1) it didn't want to stay at flash length, and 2) my protagonist's internal conflict was pretty weak. My first draft involved her wanting to have learned to play violin, but she had been pressured into learning oboe instead—not a particularly compelling problem. Luckily, my orchestra internship came to the rescue and inspired a more interesting angle.

The more I spent my work hours scrutinizing and marking up scores and parts, the more I thought about how, even though most of us experience music on an emotional level, there's often this amazingly complex level of technical detail beneath it all. But technical perfection, while impressive, usually isn't emotionally satisfying. As a result, sometimes a musician will be criticized for being technically proficient but lacking in personality or feeling. Similarly, we'll often forgive technical imperfection because of the emotional effect achieved. As a performer, it can be a difficult balancing act—how do I invest the music with emotion while still staying on pitch and in notes-on-a-pagetempo and hitting all the right notes with the right rhythm and the right articulation?

For this story, I decided to carry the technical perfection vs. feeling conflict a performer faces to an extreme with a character who was an odd duck because her passion was rooted in technical perfection, because she didn't understand or know how to achieve the sense of feeling that others demanded from her. I think that made for a far more intriguing dilemma than the first draft's "my parents wouldn't let me play the violin" angle.

And perhaps using Beethoven's ninth symphony in the story was the obvious choice given the ironic resonance the final movement's "Ode to Joy" text would have for my protagonist, but . . . well, it just felt right.

--Barbara A. Barnett

Monday, March 11, 2013

Through the Veil—Michael T. Banker

This story was the culmination of two self-imposed missions. One was through-the-veilon a train, staring out the window, telling myself that I had to come up with a story idea this trip. (It's amazing how often that works, actually, I should really do it more often.) I just let my gaze flit around, latching onto random things and immediately twisting them into something else. I am a very visual person, so it's often images I’m working with. This time, melting icicles became melting wax, became a girl encased in wax like a cocoon. So there has to be some sort of metamorphosis, right? I saw her emerging from her cocoon and realizing that the moon shone like the sun, and the sun like the moon. And a boy--husband, brother--was searching for her, but couldn't find her on that other plane. I eventually lost the cocoon, but no matter, I had the seed to my story.

So, fine, mission accomplished, I pocketed that idea, knowing I was going to do something with it. Usually, I'd just set it in Generic Fantasy Land (albeit doing my best to make it as interesting and original of a Generic Fantasy Land as possible). I'd marry myself to the concept and acquaint myself with the characters and off I'd go. But I have a bad habit of writing stories that are all imagination and no research, so this time I made myself research a culture to set it in. Specifically, I wanted to learn more about an Asian culture that wasn't Japan (I majored in Japanese and studied abroad there). I chose Korea and read up on their culture, history and, increasingly as the story developed, folklore.

Note that I consider this story to be inspired by Korean culture, not through-the-veilrestricted to it. Mudang are women of Shamanism (or Muism) who hold rituals to communicate with spirits, but the details of the ritual and nature of the communication are my own. The spirit world itself is inspired partly by their folklore, largely by imagination. I like to use research as a starting point; my goal was never to construct a world true to history.

This was possibly the hardest story that I've ever written. It was stubborn, intractable, and fought me the whole way. I quit the first time midway through, eventually coming back to insert an unsatisfactory ending. Then I left it for quite a while before finally picking it back up again, axing a redundant character (there were originally three mudang), and completely rewriting the latter half of it. I’m very happy that after all of that, it was able to find a home.

--Michael T. Banker

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Temple’s Posthole—M.K. Hutchins

"The Temple's Posthole" is filled with things that make me happy: postholes, a cool family dynamic, and lots of Classic Maya-ish stuff.

the-temples-postholeMy writing group was once waiting for someone to return to Skype. After an awkward silence, our illustrious leader asked if there was anything we wanted to talk about. Without hesitation, I answered "Postholes!"

Postholes are fascinating. Carefully excavated, they can show the shape of a structure long after the actual building has disappeared. Someone else in my writing group jumped in with her love of postholes and ruins. Our leader groaned. Awkward silences have, ever since, been traditionally filled with postholes -- largely because postholes are excellent, but partially as good-natured teasing.

During one of these awkward silences, someone joked about how onethe-temples-posthole or all of us should write a posthole story. The idea lodged in my brain. I day-dreamed about a postholes magic system. I scribbled in notebooks. I outlined. And I wrote.

In those early brainstorming notes, Ayin didn't have a son -- she had a romantic interest to play the role of Lord Yuknoom's hostage. It was the first trope on the shelf, and it felt flat to me even as I scribbled. There are plenty of other important relationships in the course of human existence; romance just seems to get the most attention.

And so Tzi entered the picture instead. I haven't read much fantasy where the protagonist is a mom. Kids are hard to pack for on the road to Mordor. But I'm happy that I was able to place a mother-child relationship at the heart of this narrative -- I think Tzi made this a richer story than it otherwise could have been.

My love of postholes comes from my love of archaeology, and I knew I'd be setting this in a fantasy land drawing from the Classic Maya. This story, with its abundant magic, isn't anything near historical, but I hope I was able to capture some of the feel and flare of that time period anyway.

I focused on the Classic Maya and their glyphs in college, and I've long wanted to write a story that criticizes the mountains of media that depicts them as a bloodthirsty, incomprehensible civilization. These depictions seem especially unfair, given that the Roman Empire's particular brand of human sacrifice -- the gladiators -- are celebrated. Gladiators themselves are praised for their bravery, and the socio-political motivations behind the arena are explained, neatly and rationally, as bread and circuses.

The nations I've created are fictional, but I'm happy I was able to take something that is at first glance utterly alien, and reframe it into something human and comprehensible.

More Maya stuff: Kaloomte is actually a high-ranking title. If anyone reading the story is familiar with Classic Maya titles, I apologize for the blatant foreshadowing.

Last tidbit: My favorite part of this story is the line "sit in the lordship." I doubt anyone else will notice it, but it's a direct translation from a phrase the Maya used to write about ascensions.

--M.K. Hutchins