Back Again, I Hope

Been dealing with some rather extreme family issues on top of the book release (and a terrible cold) recently and it’s made me quite silent, for which I apologize!  I am here, and can be poked into response.  My hope is that I can get through the holidays and then really start to get back into the swing of things.

In the meantime, I got my first phone call from a friend today saying she’d read my book and was totally pleased with it.  This is the first person to give me feedback outside the small circuit of husband, editor, and writer buddies who normally read my stuff.  How cool that people can hold my writing in their hands and read it — and LIKE IT!  It really made my day.

You know what?  The first thing I’m going to do as I start to slip back on track is to pick up my prequel (the one that’s halfway done but now I suddenly realized needs horrendous amounts of editing) and get back in the saddle.  Yay!

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eBook Now Available for Reviewers

I got an eBook copy of Songs yesterday, I’ll begin sending them out to reviewers shortly.  If you’re a reviewer, and you’d like to receive a copy, shoot me an email at heather – at – heathermcdougal – dot – com, and give me the URL of your review site (or the name of the paper media you work for), and I’ll send you something as soon as I can.

And so the ball begins rolling!

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Ursula LeGuin: The Conflict and The Plot

I’ve been finishing one novel and starting another, so I’m in the mode of thinking about fiction lately. I seem to be able to either write fiction or non-fiction, but not both at once. Not easily, anyway.

Below are some words of wisdom from Ursula K. LeGuin, words that make me feel much, much better, because although I write stories, I don’t always write about conflict per se. Sometimes, to me, there are better things to think about, and when people tell me that to make a successful piece of fiction I need to have plot! I need to crank up the conflict! then some part of me deep inside says, “Oh, yeah?”– and I just can’t shut it up. Like the title of the book this quote comes from (Steering the Craft), I have an internal guidance system which takes me where I must go. Perhaps as a result, I do have trouble selling stories: the nice comments from genre editors I’ve gotten is that the story is too slow, or that not enough happens. From the occasional literary editors, what I’ve heard is that because the story contains speculative elements, they can’t use it (though I’m much more likely to get form rejections from literary editors).

I don’t mind rejections, and I’m actually pleased that I’m getting comments and personalized rejections nowadays. Believe me, it is so wonderful to be getting these nice letters now, after all the years of form rejections; however, reading these words below, especially from one of the writers I most admire, makes me want to go on trying anyway. And the words make me want to turn back against the tide of pressure I’ve been floating in, the one that urges plot! plot! plot! perhaps at the expense of other things: they make me want to think again about the actual words I’m using, the phrases, the intricate, tiny narratives in tiny situations that fascinate me.

I love wisdom; I love people who have gotten old enough to have this kind of perspective. I love people who are well-read and incredibly eloquent, talking about things that matter deeply to me. Steering the Craft has been a marvelous read, and these words ring, not only true, but resoundingly.

“I define story as a narrative of events (external or psychological) which moves through time or implies the passage of time, and which involves change.

“I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode usually in the form of conflict, and which closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax.

“Climax is one kind of pleasure; plot is one kind of story. A strong, shapely plot is a pleasure in itself. It can be reused generation after generation. It provides an armature for narrative that beginning writers may find invaluable.

“But most serious modern fictions can’t be reduced to a plot, or retold without fatal loss except in their own words. The story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves.

“Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.

“Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

“We don’t have to have the rigid structure of a plot to tell a story, but we do need a focus. What is it about? Who is it about? This focus, explicit or implicit, is the center to which all the events, characters, sayings, doings of the story originally or finally refer. It may be or may not be a simple or a single thing or person or idea. We may not be able to define it. If it’s a complex subject it probably can’t be expressed in any words at all except all the words of the story. But it is there.

“And a story equally needs what Jill Paton Walsh calls a trajectory — not necessarily an outline or synopsis to follow, but a movement to follow: the shape of a movement, whether it be straight ahead or roundabout or recurrent or eccentric, a movement which never ceases, from which no passage departs entirely or for long, and to which all passages contribute in some way. This trajectory is the shape of the story as a whole. It moves always to its end, and its end is implied in its beginning.

“Crowding and leaping have to do with the focus and the trajectory. Everything that is crowded in to enrich the story sensually, intellectually, emotionally, should be in focus — part of the central focus of the story. And every leap should be along the trajectory, following the shape and movement of the whole.”

I’ll leave you with that taste in your mouth, rather than even trying to reach that level of eloquence. Phew.

Posted in books, fiction, Personal, Writing | 1 Comment

New Story Coming Out

Just a quick note to say I have a story coming out this fall in the new Hadley Rille anthology, The Aether Age (Helios). The book is a collaborative between the editors and the authors, set in a world where steampunk technology is developed by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and so on. It was really interesting and absorbing for me to write, and I’d love to do more – apparently this is only the first of several books set in the Aether Age world.

Hadley Rille Books published a story of mine in their Footprints anthology, if you recall, and I got some positive mentions for it – by people like Gardner Dozois in Locus’ Year in Review, to name one. Let’s hope this will do as well… though I have to say, it looks like a very cool anthology!

You can find out more about the Aether Age at the blog. I’ll announce the publication date as soon as I find out about it! In the meantime, I’m very pleased about the cover art.

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“Cent mille milliards de poemes” (A hundred thousand billion poems), by Raymond Queneau

For a number of years I’ve been really interested in the possibilities of hypertext as a vehicle for really interesting and complex narrative. I diddled around with writing stories in hypertext, but was never satisfied with the result; they seemed to me either confusing or aimless or simply mechanistic, and at best I came up with something so voluminous that I couldn’t possibly complete it in one lifetime.

I decided to try poetry instead.

Poetry has the virtue of being all about simplicity, about using as few words as you can to create complex images and ideas. It’s about making little windows into reality, places where the world stops for a moment and you see, really see, something unexpected.

It’s really a perfect place for hypertext, being spare and clear and often having a specific structure. And there is a long history of what is called combinatorial poetry, or combinatorial text – the creation of poems that can be changed around by the reader, usually based on some mechanism in the book form. I decided that I would try haiku, since the form is so fixed. This would a) allow me to work within a specified framework, so I didn’t have to also create (and get tangled up in) my own system; and b) would keep the poems from wandering off on a tangent, keeping them simple and clear. I also decided I would specify the number of links so as to keep it as structured as a traditional haiku.

What I came up with, using the simplest tools I could, was an HTML frameset system in a set window size. The top frame held the top line, the middle frame held the middle line, and the bottom frame held – well, you get the picture. Then in each line I chose one word which would be emphasized, making that the link word. When the reader clicks on that link, the line changes, creating a new haiku. (more about my process here)

It’s difficult to describe it, and I can’t actually insert one here in the blog, so I suggest you try one. Here’s my little MetaHaiku site, where you can see a few that I’ve written.

The thing I like about these is that it enlarges the tiny window of a haiku without compromising its essential qualities. By nature, haiku are traditionally supposed to describe a moment, and they are supposed to contain some clue about season, and they are supposed to speak only of small things – which of course capture something much larger. So when you make a haiku with hypertext, you are creating a series of moments, a progression of snapshots which move slightly through time, describing a longer moment than a regular two-dimensional haiku. It’s not so much that they describe more as that they describe longer, and the reader can unveil the moment in a way that is pleasingly exploratory.

The haiku have five links on the top line, seven on the middle, and five on the bottom, echoing the syllabic line-structure. The experience is a lot like our experience of real moments – in other words, you can’t go back. There is a starting haiku and and ending haiku, and any number of ways to get there. In the present structure, you have more than 175 ways to get from the beginning to the end, so the process is surprisingly repeatable.

What I’ve decided is that I’d really like to share these, and see if others are interested in writing some. What I’d really like to do is to find a simple way to do it, given that mine are done in a clunky and complicated way, and then broadcast the template for everyone to use. I’m working on having a friend make a Flash interface to simplify things, but in the meantime if anyone wants to know the more lame way I did it you can email me (look in the sidebar for the address) and I’ll do my best to define it for you.

Vive la Interactif!

Posted in art, Personal, Writing | 14 Comments