So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to talk for a few minutes about what I’m trying to do with the main novel in my series, and why it terrifies me.
Most fantasy with a Big Bad and a Chosen One tends to get a lot of its conflict by the fact that the CO refuses the call to destiny. It’s a formula that works, so it gets used a lot. And I still remember the exact moment when I decided MY Chosen One wasn’t going to pull that shit – it was when I was reading The Dragon Reborn, and Rand literally ran away instead of sucking it up and doing his job. And then he spent basically the rest of the series being all “Woe is me! I am cursed!” and similar.
Our civil war of words continues! Alas, this is the final installment – the story pauses here. Someday, when the poetry overflows from the depths of my not-usually-poetic brain again, I’ll finish it. I know how it ends. But I’m not sure what’s between here and the end. Not yet.
No one ever heard Disahnahle’s original three phrases. They had only themselves to blame.
The outcry started as a disgruntled rumbling and turned into a volcano. Plains Cousins crowed, seeing those three phrases as a tacit admission of their superiority, while Mountain Cousins trooped up to Disahnahle over the ensuing weeks to complain, at some length, of his betrayal. How can you envy a people too foolish to come in out of the rain? they asked. Why that ill-considered verse? Our reputation rested with you, and you trampled it. And other words to this effect.
Disahnahle stood in the entrance to his cave and listened gravely, head tipped to one side, one ear forward and the other back in an attitude of utmost consideration, until the last group (including some of the most respected members of the community) finished their tirade. He shifted his weight from his off to his near side. They waited. “It is the glory and the curse of poets,” he said finally, “to have meaning invested in our works that we never intended.”
Then he turned and went inside, leaving them alone in a sharp spring wind. The next group that tried to express their opinion were met with the flat of his horn. Further visitors decided it was prudent not to venture into a cave entrance that contained a sharp horn and forehooves with no room for flanking maneuvers.
The Plains Cousins proclaimed Nahkorah victorious. Disahnahle, they said, had as much as conceded defeat. The contest was over. Had she heard? He had retreated to his cave and refused to come out. She had destroyed him.
Nahkorah gazed out over the plains. It was high summer now, just before the rains, and the grass wilted under the blaze of the sun. There were no clouds, except where a fire sent smoke boiling up to the stratosphere some miles distant. Even the snow-fed rivers were shriveling, limping and wincing in the center of muddy channels between their banks. “I envy him his daylight shadows,” she said.
A little later, she ventured up into the mountains, and squeezed herself into a cave entrance that had no consideration for the dimensions of a Plains Cousin. The cavern blessedly widened after several feet. There was a small stream in the center of it, a freshening breeze from somewhere at the back, and stocky hindquarters planted firmly opposite, swaying with the motions of his work. He had propped a slab of mudstone on a ledge and was carving it with short, certain strokes of his horn. Other slabs lay propped all over the cave. She stood in the center of a vortex of words.
She drank from the stream, wandered around and sampled phrases, captured forever in lovely angular script. It certainly seemed easier than etching one’s words on living minds, and entrusting them to endure.
By the time he finished chipping the last phrase, she was standing stone-still in the middle of the cave, beside the stream. And then she began to move, without thought:
Nothing lasts, eternal
Yesterday long past
Someone cooled their hooves in the mud of a stream
Where today you carve a line
Which holds greater worth:
That moment of coolness
Those lasting words?
I know what each of you would say
Things become separate
That side of the stream or this
This elevation or that
Mountains rise, plains fall
And it is often forgotten
That this mountain was a plain once
That this plain washed down from a peak
Not really separate
Need for divisions
Without boundaries we would be no different
We need divisions
Remember the places between
Disahnahle stood there facing her for a moment, tail swishing. He wiped rock dust from his horn onto his shoulder. She waited for him to remark on the symmetry of right side and left side, front and back words, which she felt was this poem’s greatest strength. Had he caught the echo of his first poem to her? He had said they were many surrounding the same center, after all, and she had spoken directly to it in her last phrase. But he said nothing.
“Well?” she said after a long silence.
“Oh, you were done. I thought you were just resting. Usually when there is a trickle of water during a storm, a flood follows.” He turned away, blowing rock dust from his most recent work.
Nahkorah stamped her feet. “You ungracious lout.”
His head swung around, staring at her past his hindquarters, and then she saw his left rear hoof pivoting on its toe. He was right – she had fallen for his tease. “It was very kind of you to come up here and apologize for the fear of my kin,” he said, turning away again.
“Of course. What else would make them so angry?” Disahnahle had taken down the finished slab and was raising another. She had expected his speech to change when transmitted directly with te’i’ahne, but it was just as clipped as his physical speech. “They fear such admissions as mine. They think that wanting something you are says that we no longer want to be ourselves, that we concede your superiority.”
“Your poem was nothing like that.”
“Of course not. But you are more visible, down there on the plains.”
She had never quite thought of it that way. She pondered it now, as Disahnahle lowered his head and began chipping. “You do realize that what I said about Mountain Cousin poetry was just an observation? That I never meant that one was superior to another, but so different that one could never appreciate the other?”
“You appreciated my three phrases.”
She ground her teeth. The sound harmonized well with the grate of his horn against mudstone. “And I can admit when I was wrong.”
“Never. If you do, I have nothing to strive for. Now hush.”
She hushed. She watched him work, carving one torturously slow character after another, and thought she understood why Mountain Cousins kept their verses so short and simple. If they did not, they would spend a year giving a poem that a Plains Cousin could trip out in moments, and likely forget where the verse had begun before it ended. How could he think, with that noise? How could he keep the phrases in his mind, even short as they were?
He finally stepped back, cocked his head to study his lines, and seemed satisfied. He moved aside so she could come read them.
While you recite,
We speak in pages of stone.
Flowers fallen in swift streams.
Nahkorah had to read it several times before she realized the truth. “That is what I just said.”
“Do you have anywhere to keep it?” he asked. “I doubt you could dance it.”
She kicked him, but not hard. “We have places for our things. Not that you would know that, lurker in caves.”
He planted his forelegs apart, head twisted in a grin that nearly ruined the last of her dignity as she gathered up his gift. She meant to depart in icy silence, majestic, unshakable, but he pricked her flank with his parting words as she left his cave, the poem bounding behind her in its net of te’i’ahne: “The next salvo is yours, Nahkorah. Give me notice so I can free a month to hear it.”
She threw a withering glance over her shoulder. “I once respected you, a minute ago.”
It would have made a far better retort had she not hit her horn on the cave wall turning back.
Copyright 2016 by Dana Hunter. All rights reserved.
The spring convention came again. This time, neither poet could wander freely, alone or with a few close companions. A retinue followed each, waiting for the next salvo. Word (and words) had spread to other nations. Something had begun, no one was quite sure what, or what it might mean, or when it would continue, or how it would end. All wanted to be there to witness whatever it would be. Anticipation was fueled by a rumor that Disahnahle had crafted the perfect retort, in three phrases. If this were true, it would end speculation and prove him supreme. The Plains Cousins’ prestige would suffer a severe blow. Unless, of course, Nahkorah could rally.
Neither of them showed the strain of it. They seemed unconcerned. They wandered about with their followers, carefully avoiding each other, and took interest in the political and trade details of the convention. Nahkorah arranged for some winterberries to be delivered to her at regular intervals throughout their growing season and expressed her opinion regarding solutions to a poorly shielded part of the world. Disahnahle bargained for a few flat sheets of rare mudstone and lent his weight to an argument for aid to a beleaguered but unreliable ally a few solar systems away. There were other wars being fought, beside their own. They both seemed to care more for them.
The days of the convention rolled on toward their close. Disahnahle’s entourage began to feel discouraged, Nahkorah’s smug. Significant fractions of each felt that this waiting was simply a buildup toward something earth-shattering, and depending on whose side they took, either went about with prancing step or quivering nerves.
No one’s nerves were quivering more than Nahkorah’s. She hid them, but after two weeks of such pretense, close to coming unstrung, she plunged into a race. It was that, or fracture like those frost-torn cliffs that had almost killed her the year before. She went to the running ground where the plains swept into the foothills and let her stately stride uncoil into enormous bursts of speed along a serpentine track. She normally finished around the middle in these contests, but nervous energy trumped native skill this time and she streaked past the last turn with the rest of the field tasting her heels. They were certainly close enough to.
She pulled up, blown, lathered and exhausted, and saw Disahnahle perched on the last low hill. He looked like one of his tors.
If she could have gotten enough breath, she would have screamed at him. Of course he would deliver his precious three lines when she was too spent to stammer so much as a couplet. He deserved her horn through his neck. Only she would have to climb the hill for that, so it would have to wait.
He stared down at her as Plains and Mountain Cousins alike began clustering, silent, when they should have been cheering her victory. He could have at least allowed her that much before showing up like this, she thought.
When silence had rippled through them like wind through summer grass, he spoke:
Wistful I gaze
On your fleet eternity
Your shadows come only at night
It was the sweetest victory tribute she had ever heard. She had been wrong, at least about this Mountain Cousin. His single verse proved that he had the gift of extemporization, and that simplicity in its way could be just as lovely as eloquence. She thought it was quite gracious of him to forego his planned retort in favor of this. It just went to prove: poets may compete, but they cared about each other despite all that.
And so she was quite shocked later when she found out that no one else saw it quite that way.
Copyright 2016 by Dana Hunter. All rights reserved.
Outland historians proclaim that Atheseans have never fought a war among themselves. By their definition, this is correct: no sentient Athesean species has ever formed an army for the express purpose of causing the submission of their worldmates by killing. However, Athesean definitions differ. By their reckoning, there have been eighty-seven major wars fought since the rise of sentience, twelve of them catastrophic. There are, they say, worse things that you can take away from a people than their lives.
All right, my loves. Many of you on Facebook were looking for something happy with Unicorns, rocks, and aliens. So here you are: Unicorns who are aliens (their proper name is Drusav – please don’t call them unicorn to their face, it’s an insult), and rocks will come in after this first scene. I haven’t yet finished this short story, but I think you may like the bits I have got so far. I’ll be posting them throughout this week. Let us begin at the beginning, then…
It’s been rather quiet around here lately because I’ve been reading back through my own canon, and doing some deep thinking, and then I spent thirteen goddamned hours writing a chapter. That was a Merry Christmas, indeed!
One thing that stood out like a tumorous thumb was the fact that I’ve got a sausage fest going on. Oh, yes, I’ve got strong women characters. But aside from one, they’ve mostly been supporting cast. And they were thin on the ground compared to the dudes. Dudes, everywhere, man.
A lifetime of consuming media that featured mostly male protagonists and antagonists, overwhelmingly white male ones, has an effect, even when we’re fighting it. I wanted diversity, but I kept reverting to the default. Walk-on character? Probably going to be a dude. Tech guy? Well, dude, obvs. Lead detective? Dude. You’re a dude, and you’re a dude, and you’re a dude… Here a dude, there a dude, everywhere dude, dude. Okay, some of them were gay dudes. Some of them were black dudes. But they were still so many dudes.
You know, I’ve been worrying that my quite talented main character is a Mary Sue. I mean, Mary Sue bad, right? We don’t want our characters to be Mary Sues. Or Gary Stus, for that matter. But then I read this article, and it occurs to me that I’m going to end up with my main character being called a Mary Sue no matter what I do. It is because she is
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from some of my short stories, novellas, and novels in progress. In this one, we’re going prequel. This is a short story that’s threatening to turn itself into a novella, exploring how one of my most important main characters met the teacher who had the greatest influence on him. That teacher also happened to have written a little book that has shaped a civilization for 16,000 years. What I discovered when I started writing about it was that the book very nearly never got written at all.
They pestered him, Jiiren Naaltoba’s current and former students, so relentless about it that after months of coordinated remarks, he decided there must be a conspiracy. He never determined who began it. Others over the decades had, occasionally, mentioned to him the desirability or wisdom of putting his teachings into a manuscript, but never more than a few in a given year.
Then, in the course of a single week, he heard from his past student Yriit Samoven, now responsible for the training of kaataani at the Academy at Haalaat, saying how nice it would be to have a manual students could refer to; and Iisren Aalanvo, who manufactured a chance meeting in the dining hall to thank him for the training that had produced his exquisitely-skilled kaataan, and incidentally, would Jiiren please glance over the text he had just finished on certain tactical aspects for kaataan-soraan pairs, and add whatever might be missing? He would. He did, and came to the conclusion that parts had been deliberately designed to provoke him.
Over the following months, former students accosted him at odd moments to reminisce about their years training with him and lament the fact they had failed to note some things down. Current students took to haranguing him. “Write it down, old man!” they shouted, and variations thereof, when he said something they considered particularly pithy. When he declined, they made a great show of doing so themselves, until he changed their training to such an extent that their hands were never empty of swords when he spoke to them. They laughed at him for it.
All through winter and into spring, he endured subtle and less-so suggestions that he should write. Sometimes, he tried to explain that the warrior’s art was not one that could be taught in pages. And no, he never would write his memoirs. That would just leave ground for curious laymen and historians to plough.
On his last day with that cohort, with the lasaa trees dropping their petals in pale purple blizzards all over the senonsai, his students interrupted their own advancement ceremony to present him, with mock seriousness, a sheaf of mismatched papers tied together with a string. As he did not want to write his own book, they had spared him the trouble. They must have collected those scraps all year. He saw his own words stare back at him, on bits of all colors and inks, written in a dozen hands, in an order so out of order that they must have shuffled the pages thoroughly before stabbing a blade through one corner and tying it all up with an ancient length of frayed string.
“I thought I had taught you better tactics than this,” he said. “I may have to request another year with you.”
They laughed at him again. So, this time, did the friends, family and instructors watching from the balconies and the colonnade. He would later swear that the gale of laughter shook the last of the petals from the trees, where they were later crushed into the training ground’s matting during an impromptu sparring session and left it smelling as if several bottles of scent had been spilled.
Later, after food, drink and celebration, they scattered to their new lives with their war-trained soraani. Some of those pairs would find themselves on battlefields almost immediately. Some would not return. Some would, and that justified everything he had put them through. Perhaps it would forgive what they had just put him through.
He took the sheaf to Ishaarda Telsuun’s office, and dropped it on her desk. It made a sloppy sound. “See what they have done.”
She put aside her own work and turned random pages. “They listened. How appalling.”
A tiny bird landed on the ledge of her open window and began laughing at him. On the other side of him, one of the atrocious Outland relics she salted her shelves with as a means to test her students’ distractibility seemed to do the same. And while her face remained expressionless, her ice-blue eyes joined their chorus. Naaltoba took the sheaf back from her. “They failed to listen when I told them I would never write a book.”
“Students develop excellent selective listening skills.” Ishaarda crossed her hands on the bare expanse of polished black wood that had just held his students’ goad. She looked up at him, and now her eyes stopped laughing. They bored into him like paired blades. She always had used her eyes like weapons. Sometimes, she stabbed with them, sometimes merely threatened; this time, she leaned into them and drove them slowly home. “Will you listen?”
“What is there to listen to?” He shook the sheaf. The bird stopped chuckling and fled. “These are skills that can be shown, they can be practiced, they can be learned by repetition. They can be lived. But they can hardly be pinned to a page. What use would a book be?”
“Judging from what your students did, you used words as you taught them.” She inserted a pause, calibrated for emphasis, just long enough for him to open his mouth and not long enough for him to protest. “Why did you speak if words are so useless?”
He closed his mouth. She waited. Finally, he said, “Words and actions together are different than words alone.”
“So draw diagrams.” She rose as he snorted, planted her hands on her desk with her palms flat, and leaned toward him. “What is that winter white in your hair, Jiiren? What are those lines in your face? What do those mean?”
He could have said something cruel: that I am older than you can ever hope to be. He did not say it. It would not have hurt her, but she could have used it to hurt him.
“You are in your sunset years,” she said. “What do you have left? A decade, two? Perhaps three, if everything goes just right. Then you will be dead. Your students will eventually die, and then there will be nothing left of Naaltoba. They will not even have your words.”
He would have liked to deny most of that, but she left him no time for seeking flaws. She pointed to the swords he wore. “Others can teach skill with the blade, and some will think up clever tricks you never considered. Such techniques can only be transmitted by demonstration, not in a book. But there will always be those who can teach the techniques of war. I asked you to teach them its mind.”
She gave the sheaf in his hands the briefest of significant looks. He wished he had a defense against the truth. “Mind and technique are one,” he considered saying, but she would mention diagrams again. “Mind is more than words,” he said instead.
“That is why words stand for things other than themselves.” She very nearly smiled at him then, but she never had been arrogant in victory. She sat down instead and pulled her work back in front of her, as if nothing much of consequence had happened. “What are your plans for the summer?”
“Someone recently pointed out that I am in my sunset years,” he said. “There are many places I have never seen and things I have never done. The time has come for me to enjoy them before I have no time left.”
He turned and stalked out. He would have liked for his heels to pound on her stone floors, but her long, narrow reed rug meant they merely rattled. Everything laughed at him today.
Copyright 2015 by Dana Hunter. All rights reserved.
It’s been a hell of a year so far. I’ve published two books. I’ve lost my apartment and gained a home, in large part thanks to you, my darlings. There have been lots of disruptions, but at least I’ve managed to keep writing, again, thanks to you.
And I’ve been plugging away at the nonfiction stuff, and I really love it. I plan to continue on. We’re in the middle of Mount St. Helens, there’s a ton of other interesting stuff to see and do, and I can’t see ever stopping now. I’ve got an incredible new editor at Scientific American Blogs who I think is going to help me do better than ever in the new year, and he really loves my stuff (or so he tells me). I’m looking forward to exploring so many topics new and continuing for this old cantina going forward. Besides, we’ve got 64 books of the Bible left to skewer. I can’t stop doing nonfiction now.
I’ve known for a very long time that I want to write for a living. Been writing since childhood, y’see, and at some point it occurred to me that being a writer was the most sensible thing to do for a person who was decent with words and wanted to be lots of things. A writer can vicariously be whatever they damn well please. A writer can spend all day every day fantasizing, and get paid for it.
So yes, I knew by my teens that I wanted to be a writer. And I began doing all of the things necessary to become one. Literature classes. Creative writing classes. Job in book store. Change name.
Oh, yes, the name change was essential. I share my legal last name with a well-known retailer. It isn’t the done thing to crack your adoring public over the head with your latest hardcover for cracking jokes. And a character of mine had filched my first name and refused to give it back. And stalkers. And I wanted to be taken seriously. That, I thought, required picking a male pseudonym – or at least masquerading by initials. Continue reading “When You’re Prepared to Give Up Name and Face”→