To all you wonder-writers out there, I give you good greeting.
I used to say writing was like breathing. It came to me naturally; I did it because I couldn’t help it, and also as a matter of course; and, as certain breeds of breathers like to breathe in other people’s faces, I generally liked to read whatever I wrote out loud to whoever happened to be within a mile radius of my person.
Then came Columbia College Chicago, with its tools and techniques for writing, and assigned page counts (I had no problem with page counts), and after the B.A. in Fiction Writing came the Day Job.
Who am I kidding? Actually, I had several jobs in college, so graduating wasn’t like this big leap into Careerlandia. But after school’s over you do start to wonder how you can put that B.A. to use, and if by some magic you might use your writing work to pay off your student loans – and look – you stepped right out of the shelter of school into The E-Book Revolution!!! – and oh, the pressure of it all! It’s enough to stymie anyone’s creative process.
But this world is full of wonder – “for,” as Sondheim writes in Sweeney Todd, “the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru,” and sometimes a fantasy writer like me needs to escape the headlines and dash headlong into worlds of her own creation. There she may create or destroy worlds of her own, and hammer out Real World Issues in a more controlled setting (with a war hammer forged of lightning by insert-your-choice-of-thunder-god-here, or maybe chiseled out of a dragon’s tooth, or, you know, smelted from a meteor or something). She may bring unlikely lovers together. She may set reluctant adventurers a-questing on dangerous roads toward rewards unimaginable. She may take her darkest fears and give them a monster’s face, and then have her hero totally pwn that monster.
Writing can be awesome like that.
That’s not to say it’s not hard. Yes, the market is fiercely competitive. Yes, the pay’s kind of laughable – even if you manage to (finally at last thank every deity that ever merited a shrine or temple) sell something. Yes, the rejection and criticism (both self-criticism and otherwise) is wearing. But if you’re writing for the sheer compulsive holy joy of it, then that other stuff… Well. Okay, it doesn’t really get easier. But you get tougher. You learn to live with it.
When I was a teenager, I’d sit my best friend down on my bedroom floor and happily read to her for hours out of my latest Epic Fantasy with Kitchen Maids novel. She’d bring her tatting or her embroidery or her sketchbook and let me prattle at her, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank her enough for that.
Even now, some of my greatest delight in being a writer comes from reading my work aloud. Whenever two or three writers gather near to me, you can bet an impromptu “open mic” (usually sans microphone) will be born. Better yet, once you start attending professional writing conventions, or going to bookstores and libraries to give readings and try to sell your work, all those practice readings in the safe company of friends and peers really comes in handy. If you are a writer, find others. They’re out there. They’re allies. You can survive without them, but life’s so much better with them.
Shakespeare wrote, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
I myself can’t claim greatness, but whatever success I’ve had so far, I blame largely on writer Gene Wolfe, winner of multiple science fiction and fantasy awards, author of hundreds of shorts stories and many, many fine novels. He sort of by accident became my mentor when I was about eighteen years old. He took me to my first writing conventions, read my letters and replied to them, and when I sent him stories told me honestly (very, very honestly) what he thought of them.
Recently his daughter Teri Goulding helped head a donation drive to help budding teenaged writers attend a sci-fi/fantasy summer camp called “Shared Worlds.” Part of the fundraiser entailed asking a bunch of writers to scrawl their own writing advice on their hands.
Gene Wolfe, of course, was one of these contributors. So was Neil Gaiman and N.K. Jemisin and Patrick Rothfuss. So was I. The images of our scribbled-on hands can be found here: http://www.wofford.edu/sharedworlds/handinhand.aspx
(If you didn’t already deduce it from this blog, then the hectic amount of scrawl on my left hand should inform you that I have not yet mastered the art of a pithy phrase.)
What follows is an excerpt from my novella “Martyr’s Gem.” It will appear in an online fantasy/sci-fi magazine called GigaNotoSaurus sometime this May or June.
Sharrar swung her legs off the bench, took up her cane, and pushed herself to her feet. Leaning against the table for support, she used her cane to pound the floor. When this did not noticeably diminish the noise in the hall, she set her forefinger and pinkie to her lips and whistled. Everyone, from the crone’s table where the elders were wine-deep in gossip and politics, to the children’s table where little cakes were being served, hushed.
Sharrar smiled at them. Shursta held his breath. But she merely invoked the Sing, raising both fists above her head to indicate the audience should respond to her call.
“Grimgramal the Endless was the wave that changed the world.”
Obediently, the hall repeated, “Grimgramal the Endless was the wave that changed the world.”
Sharrar began the litany that preceded all stories. Shursta relaxed again, smiling to himself to see Hyrryai absently chewing a piece of flatbread as she listened. His sister’s tales, unlike Grimgramal, were not endless; they were mainly intended to please greyheads, who fell asleep after fifteen minutes or so. Sharrar’s habit had been to practice her stories on her brother when he came in from a day out at sea and was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. When he asked why she could not wait until morning when he could pay proper attention, she had replied that his exhaustion in the evening best simulated her average audience member in the Hall of Ages.
But Shursta had never yet fallen asleep while Sharrar told a story.
“The first city was Hanah and it fell beneath the sea
The second city was Lahatiel, and it fell beneath the sea
The third city was Ekesh, and it fell beneath the sea
The fourth city was Var, and it fell beneath the sea
The fifth city was Thungol, and it fell beneath the sea
The sixth city was Yassam, and it fell beneath the sea
The seventh city was Saheer, and it fell beneath the sea
The eighth city was Gelph, and it fell beneath the sea
The ninth city was Niniam, and it fell beneath the sea…”
Sharrar ended the litany with a sweep of her hands, like a wave washing everything away.
“But one city,” she said, “did not fall beneath the sea.” Again, her fists lifted. “That city was Droon!”
“That city was Droon!” the room agreed.
“That city was Droon, capital of the Last Isle. Now, on this island, there are many villages, though none that match the great city Droon. In one of these villages – in Sif, my own village – was born the hero of this tale. A young man, like the young men gathered here tonight. Like Dumwei whom we celebrate.”
She did not need to coax a response this time. Cups and bowls and pitchers clashed.
“Dumwei whom we celebrate!”
“If our hero stood before you in this hall, humble as a Man of Sif might be before the Men of Droon, you would not say to your neighbor, your brother, your cousin, ‘That young man is a hero.’ But a hero he was born, a hero he became, a hero he’ll remain, and I will tell you how, here and now.”
Sharrar took her cane, moving it through the air like a paddle through water.
“The fisherfolk of Sif catch many kinds of fish. Octopus and squid, shrimp and crab. But the largest catch and tastiest, the feast to end all feasts, the catch that feeds a village – this is the bone shark.”
“The bone shark.”
“It is the most cunning, the most frightening, the most beautiful of all the sharks. A long shark, a white shark, with a towering dorsal fin and a great jaw glistening with terrible teeth. This is the shark which concerns our hero. This is the shark that brought him fame.”
“This is the shark that brought him fame.”
By this time, Sharrar barely needed to twitch a finger to elicit a response. The audience leaned in. All except Shursta, whose shoulders hunched, and Hyrryai, who drew her legs up onto the bench, to wrap her arms around her knees.
“To catch a shark you must first feed it. You must bloody the waters. You must send a slick of chum as sacrifice. For five days you must do this, until the sharks come tame to your boat. Then noose and net, you must grab it. Noose and net, you must drag it to the shore where it will die upon the sand. This is how you catch a shark.”
“This is how you catch a shark.”
“One day, our hero was at sea. Many other men were with him, for the fishermen of Sif do not hunt alone. A man – let us call him Ghoul, for his sense of humor was necrotic – had brought along his young son for the first time. Now, Ghoul, he did not like our hero. Ghoul was a proud man. A strong man. A handsome man too, if you like that sort of man. He thought Sif had room for only one hero and that was Ghoul.”
“Ghoul said to his son, ‘Son, why do we waste all this good chum to bait the bone shark? In the next boat over sits a lonesome feast. An unmeshed man whom no one will miss. Let us rock his boat a little, eh? Let us rock his boat and watch him fall in.’
“Father and son took turns rocking our hero’s boat. Soon the other men of Sif joined in. Not all men are good men. Not all good men are good all the time. Not even in Droon. The waters grew choppy. The wind grew restless. The bone shark grew tired of waiting for his chum.”
“The bone shark grew tired of waiting –”
“—Who can say what happened then? A wave too vigorous? The blow of a careless elbow as Ghoul bent to rock our hero’s boat? A nudge from the muzzle of the bone shark? An act of the gods from the depths below? Who can know? But our hero saw the child. He saw Ghoul’s young son fall into the sea. Like Gelph and Saheer, he fell into the sea. Like Ekesh and Var and Niniam he fell into the sea. Like Hanah and Lahatiel, Thungol and Yassam. Like the Nine Islands and all Nine Cities, the child fell.”
“The child fell.”
“The bone shark moved as only sharks can move, lightning through the water, opening its maw for the sacrifice. But then our hero was there. There in the sea. Between shark and child. Between death and the child. Our hero was there, treading water. There with his noose and his net. He had jumped from his boat. Jumped – where no man of Sif could push him, however hard they rocked his boat. Jumped to save this child. And he tangled the shark in his net. He lassoed the shark with his noose and lashed himself to that dreadful dorsal fin! Ghoul had just enough time to haul his son back into his boat. The shark began to thrash.”
“The shark began to thrash.”
“The shark began to swim.”
“The shark began to swim.”
“Our hero clung fast. Our hero held firm. Our hero herded that shark as some men herd horses. He brought that shark to land. He brought that shark onto the sand, where the shark could not breathe, and so it died. Thus our hero slew the bone shark. Thus our hero fed his village. Thus our hero rescued the child. He rescued the child.”
“He rescued the child.”
It was barely a whisper. Not an eye in that hall was dry.
“And that is the end of my tale.”
Sharrar thumped her cane to the floor again. This time, the noise echoed in a resounding silence.
“Martyr’s Gem” is a 19,100 word story I wrote last year in 2012, based on a strange dream I had in 2011 that never quite let go of me.
I dreamed of a young man and a young woman – complete strangers –who are engaged to marry one another. In their society, it’s law that young people have to marry and produce a certain amount of children, because not many generations before that, a terrible disaster befell their world and destroyed most of humanity.
The young man falls in love almost instantly with the young woman, but there is a problem. The young woman is in mourning for her little sister, who had been horribly murdered very recently. Her grief is still raw, her desire for vengeance, great. All she wants is to find her sister’s murderer. Her fiancé desires desperately to help her, because he loves her. But, being a stranger, he does not want to intrude on her private grief. The young woman, too, begins to love her chosen fiancé, but is determined that these tender new feelings not interfere with her revenge.
When I woke up and recalled the dream, I found that whole relationship so appealing that I knew it would be worth writing about.
Also, I remembered one of those strange little dream details: the murdered child had been missing a piece of jewelry – a green stone.
So I began by researching green gemstones and their meanings. It came like a gift from the sediment itself: green chalcedony, also called “bloodstone” – a green stone with tiny flecks like blood – was sometimes also called “The Martyr’s Gem.”
I’d found my title. There are, after all, many kinds of martyrs.
I also found my plot. Why would a child – the most precious commodity on a world that needs re-peopling – be murdered for a simple green stone?
It is a question I tried to answer in “Martyr’s Gem.”
And boy, did I have fun doing it. Keep an eye out for it, if it sounds at all appealing to you.
In the meantime, I hope you, dear readers, keep writing, keep reading, keep creating and working, feeding your imaginations, adding to your knowledge.
These “blue-green hills of Earth” are so full of things to know and do that there is no possible way anybody can be bored unless it is out of utter laziness.
May you find some new astonishment around every street corner.
– C.S.E. Cooney
C.S.E. Cooney lives and writes in a well-appointed Rhode Island garret, right across the street from a Victorian Strolling Park. Her poetry collection How To Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes and her novella-in-stories Jack o’ the Hills are available on Amazon.com. She blogs at csecooney.livejournal.com.
Keep an eye out for Cooney’s novella “Martyr’s Gem” which will be appearing any day at GigaNotoSaurus, and for her short story “10 Cigars,” appearing in Strange Horizons later this summer.