"This story is called 'The Transformation of Things'" in Zooscape, a few thoughts on point-of-view, and other details
This Story is Called “The Transformation of Things” in Zooscape
My story This Story is Called “The Transformation of Things,” originally published in the Xenocultivars anthology, is reprinted in Zooscape. I’m very happy to finally have a story in Zooscape, which is a fascinating publication and well worth reading. I’m very grateful to the editor, Mary Lowd, for being willing to publish an anthropomorphic tree story in a genre that is primarily about anthropomorphic animals. (Although properly the trees in the story aren’t anthropomorphic. They’re physically ordinary trees. Only their thoughts and dialogue and societies are human-like.)
The title and much of the content of the story is based on the philosophy of Zhuang Zhou. He’s famous in the English-speaking world for his vivid dream of being a butterfly, but that’s only one example of his incredibly deep thinking on many topics such as language, identity, and categorization. If you find the ideas in the story compelling, I’d encourage you to go engage with Zhuangzi!
Unfortunately there isn’t an English translation that captures the vivid, kinetic feeling of his writing in Classical Chinese, so I don’t have a great one to recommend, but I use AC Graham’s translation as my baseline.
A few thoughts on “writing rules”
I hope you will forgive these scattered thoughts on “how to write.” I’ve both seen a lot of awful prescriptions tossed out on social media and been reading a lot of “how to write” books that engage very poorly with these topics, so it’s on my mind.
It's not uncommon to see writers confidently dismissing particular approaches to write or the use of particular techniques. This is done either with an authoritative voice—"you must never use more than two forms of 'to be' on a single page—"or it is framed as a matter of universal taste and aesthetics—"second person is so cringe."
This is all completely wrong. There is no structure, form, voice, person, or narrative style that cannot be written beautifully, thoughtfully, and well. Similarly, there is no specific set of techniques and approaches which are so widely accepted that they place one's writing above reproach.
As writers, when writing, it behooves us to put this sort of pseudo-rule or pseudo-taste out of our mind, and write the story we want to write in the manner which best befits our own goals for the story and the story's own demands.
Sometimes, of course, this means we should critically look at our own approaches to voice, person, point of view, &c and determine whether they're serving the story. Likewise, it may often require us to leave our comfort zone and learn to use new voices and new grammars effectively.
To me, the most fruitful approach to these techniques is not to ask whether they're allowed (it's fiction—everything is allowed), or whether they're good (every approach can be good, every approach can be awful), or whether they're popular (screw popular), but rather to ask myself what reader-experience they're good at producing, and how best to use them to accomplish that. To give an example: second person can provide intimacy, alienation, ambiguity, or immediacy.
Sometimes, that means learning. For instance, for a current project, I had to learn how to write in close, emotional first person. I'd done similar writing in the second person, but my first person narrators have tended to be detached and intellectual—they have tended to reminisce rather than react. Learning to write an intense first person narration is not trivial, but neither is it impossible: It's a project, and requires both reading other writers that do it well (in my case: Holly Black and Alaya Dawn Johnson) and a lot of my own trial and error.
To give another example: most writers and editors detest "head-hopping--" having multiple narrative points of view in a single scene. But it can be used to great effect. In Frank Herbert's Dune, we see almost every character's inner thoughts every time they speak or act, regardless of how many characters there are in the scene. The effect of this in a twisty political narrative like Dune, where every character has secrets and plots, is that the reader can actually follow along with the plotting and maneuvering—absolutely none of it is saved for a "reveal." This serves to make the intricacy of the political action incredibly legible to the reader, in a way that it would not be if we were stuck in a single point of view (or even if we changed point-of-view once a chapter.) In many cases, head-hopping can be confusing, which is part of why it's generally disdained. But in Dune, it makes the action of the narrative clear and comprehensible, and I think it's a big part of why it's a classic story that is still beloved and still read many decades after it was published.
The most important thing, when writing fiction, is to use the correct techniques and approaches to make your story clear, compelling, beautiful, and interesting (or to accomplish whatever other aesthetic goals you have for the text.) Secondarily, you can rely on your own strengths and growth as a writer. "Rules for writing" or current stylistic fashions should be a distant concern, if they enter into your process at all.
Appreciating Leonora Carrington
One of my favorite 20th century artists is Leonora Carrington, a English-Mexican surrealist whose painting “And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur” inspired Leaving Room for the Moon. I just think she’s an excellent artist and I “click” with her work creatively in a way that I can struggle to with other visual art.
Something a friend of mine pointed out is that, unlike many other painters, Carrington does a ton of “world building” work in her paintings. Take, for example, “The Lovers” which was just posted on a fan twitter account. Yes, it’s gorgeous and compelling and unsettling. But also there’s just so much going on in that painting. They’re in a tent. In a desert. There are stars. There’s some weird cult of crypto-nuns surrounding them. There’s an anthropomorphic wolf with two walking sticks. A snake is talking to some kind of animal. And that’s barely half the details of the painting.
Anyway, if you’ve never seen her work before, I recommend checking it out! There are fan accounts on twitter and tumblr that post images regularly, if you’re a social media person, and of course also art books and so on.
Until Next Time
I know things have been relatively quiet here, after a big burst of news. I’ve mostly been working on novels with my new agent, so I expect that there will be less frequent updates in the future (although hopefully some big ones eventually!) I do have a story coming out in F&SF in May, and another coming out in Lightspeed in June, so I will let you know as soon as those are available.