Author’s Notes: Bearing the Flame

What fantasy stories might you find inside a photocopied ‘zine handed to you on the streets of Constantinople by a like-minded time traveler? (Don’t forget to give him credit for making an additional trip to type it up on an electric typewriter, draw the cover with a Sharpie, and have it photocopied in the late twentieth century.)

I was trying to come up with story ideas from a medieval imagination, and the cliché magical ability of conjuring fire seems to have an obvious employer when setting things on fire is part of the daily routine at church. But imagining fire as a liturgical art requires facing the fact that some of us who like church and like art are not as good at it as we think we are. Fellow listeners of the Lord of Spirits podcast will recognize the idea of an idol as a trap, and fellow Orthodox will recognize a pale shadow of the early morning hours of Pascha.

Scratching at these ideas in a story that was intended to be fantasy, not theologically or historically accurate for our world, meant that this particular work fit one publication best: Mysterion, and I am beyond delighted that it was accepted there because I admire it so much. I would like to specifically thank the editors, Donald S. Crankshaw and Kristin Janz, for their suggestions on how to improve it.

It can be read early on the Enigmatic Mirror Press Patreon page, and I hope to meet you all in imaginary Constantinople.

Are short stories good preparation for writing a novel?

I see this question asked frequently on writing boards, and I’m at a place in my own writing to answer Yes.

I focused on short stories for a few years because I was trying to create my own self-paced MFA in fiction writing. The creative writing course that I tried in college did not move me toward my goal of commercial fiction. Dollars go a lot further when spent on how-to books, online seminars, and an occasional paid evaluation instead (I found the Writers of the Future contest valuable because I could enter for free and get detailed feedback about where I fell in their slush pile).

Short fiction is a great way to make sure that you have mastered basic skills, and that you can keep the bicycle upright and moving. It takes a complete narrative to apply storytelling lessons, and I have time to finish multiple short stories a year, but not multiple novels. I don’t think I would have absorbed information as quickly without practice. My stories from 2017 mostly fell over, and the friends kind enough to read them probably suffered. But in 2020 I completed five short stories, and by mid-2021 I have sold two of them at professional rates.

I think I’ve reached the point where it matters where the bicycle is going: whether the story concept is interesting to the reader is more important to the success of a work than my technical skills. That’s uniquely terrifying, because I can only feel motivated to complete a work if I’m excited, and I am a weirdo with a poor grasp of what normal people think about all day.

And I’m setting my writing routine aside for a few months because our youngest son has a congenital heart defect and requires open heart surgery this Fall. It’s been a chance to examine how I spent my writing time and to plan how I will spend it in 2022. When I come back it’s time to focus completely on the novel that’s about a quarter done, and send it out into the world somehow.

Of course, short stories differ from novels in more way than length. I don’t think they are required before writing a novel, but I do think they are the most efficient way to practice the entire process of fiction writing, including submission.

Author’s Notes: The Healer of Branford

The events of this story began with thoughts about how the process of rejoining a community can be painful, since even the smallest community involves some work on yourself, treating festering flaws. Cats came into the story because I believe they are the best domestic animals to be medicine for the soul. Other pets may suffer nobly and silently if you are too self-absorbed with your own pain, but a cat will intrusively recall you to your responsibilities. His campaign of harassment when the kibble is two minutes stale is not based on moral superiority. It’s that he is more self-absorbed, and the two of you are negotiating a relationship.

I have also always remembered reading in Katherine C. Grier’s book about the history of pet-keeping that large populations of unowned cats were once part of urban life the way that squirrels and Canadian geese torment us now. That would be wonderful and terrible, and I intend to give “needs more stray cats” as worldbuilding advice to other authors whenever possible.

Finally, I’m proud to announce that this story was a Finalist in the Writers of the Future contest for the Third Quarter of Volume 37. It makes me giddy to know that my story advanced far enough to be read by authors who I have been reading since middle school.

A Eucatastrophe is not a Deus Ex Machina

The literary concepts of deus ex machina and eucatastrophe are not synonymous. Both are sudden reversals at the climax of a narrative where things are looking grim for our protagonists, but calling eucatastrophe a subset of deus ex machina misses an important nuance.

Deus ex machina, “god from the machine,” is a term originating from ancient Greek theater. When the heroes were in an impossible situation and the play was out of time, a god character would be lowered from the rafters above the stage and hand them victory. Today this is considered flawed storytelling. It breaks the integrity of the story to have an external force resolve the conflict: nothing leading up to this point actually mattered. It feels arbitrary, as if the storyteller had no plan.

The eu (good) catastrophe, the happy disaster, also saves our heroes from an impossible situation. But they are saved because the outcome of their failure is unexpected success. It is not an external intrusion, but a direct consequence of the story pieces already in play.

Since Tolkien defined the term eucatastrophe in On Fairy Stories, an explicitly religious essay defending the specific writing goal of pointing to Christ’s resurrection with fiction, I consider it disingenuous to separate the term from a Catholic mindset when defining it (as Wikipedia has done, and I assume some literature courses somewhere). When Tolkien proposed the term eucatastrophe, we know from the text and his letters that he was thinking of Christ. As a Catholic, he believed that Christ’s complete defeat and death was a necessary part of the process that saves mankind.*

In a eucatastrophe, what looks like a huge loss is the reason that our heroes succeed. It’s not merely an emotional beat sequence of almost-defeat and then unexpected-success, but a causal link.

The archetypal example of the eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s work is not the eagle rescue, but Gollum biting the ring from Frodo’s hand. You can also find deus ex machina in Tolkien: he used both literary devices to explore a larger theme of grace. But in a eucatastrophe, the interference of supernatural grace is not a negation of character agency but instead uses the antagonist’s actions, intended to harm the heroes, for their good instead (as in the story of Joseph, Genesis 50:20).

Another common way of summarizing Tolkien’s eucatastrophe essay is to see only an argument that a deus ex machina providing an unearned rescue can be satisfying. And I think that statement is correct, and that not all story consumers count it as a flaw. But defending deus ex machina does not need a new term, so I’ll fight for using eucatastrophe to indicate a different literary technique, one that does not break the logical chain of events making up a plot.

* Footnote… I am summarizing recklessly here, since theologically this is one of those Big Deals that gets subtle quickly, and what I consider relevant to this argument is Tolkien’s understanding when I am not myself Catholic. See Catholic Biblical commentary on Luke 24:26.

Author’s Notes: The Candy Story

My submission received an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest for the second quarter of Volume 36.

It stars a candy-maker and is directly inspired by the fantastic mini-documentaries about candy making from Lofty Pursuits and Public Displays of Confection, so I’m eating a bag of their nectar drops to fuel my revisions in the hope that my story will see publication one day.

In case you’re wondering about the secret, historically accurate taste: honey and marzipan is my best description. The sweetness is more complex than white sugar, and I feel convinced that there’s a tiny almond note in the finish.

The pieces are smaller and more ornate than the last modern hard candy I bought, and feel very precious. The detail, particularly on the starfish, is amazing. The way the pieces fit on your tongue almost changes the taste.

I also realized that I have never actually eaten fresh hard candy in my life and it was as much a revelation as fresh green beans would be if you’ve only ever eaten canned. I was careless about resealing the bag and the last few pieces changed significantly, and dulled into something closer to sugar cubes. So I both recommend that you order some, and that you eat it before the magic fades.

Author’s Notes: Pinecones

Image by bigdan, licensed via depositphotos.

Pinecones appears in Fell Beasts and Fair: A Noblebright Fantasy Anthology, published by Spring Song Press.

I like the term “noblebright” that editor C.J. Brightley coined as a response to the “grimdark” trend that boiled across fantasy. I believe that we need stories about larger-than-life moral strength just as we need stories about larger-than-life physical strength, and that readers need signals to help them find the flavor of fantasy they like.

This year I’m consciously exploring Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe in my short stories: that an apparent defeat is the mechanism of victory. Some pinecones only open and release their seeds during forest fires. Horrific disaster is part of their process. They came to mind immediately as an item to use.

I had some half-formed ideas about dryads and a related magic system and had been reading mythology, so adding pinecones as a central element gave me the fire-starting satyr with his thyrsus staff as my antagonist.

All artwork becomes a record of where you were at the time, and I hope that the hard work I’ve been putting in since Pinecones will show as growth in my next publication. The prose feels a bit too cautious and stilted to me, and I think that’s a direct result of over-reliance on automated editing software, a topic that I plan to write more about.