Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Guest Blog by Donna Del Oro - Behind The Delphi Bloodline: My Personal Research into ESP Phenomena

It started with my cousin. She was a full-time, practicing psychic. People came from all over California for her “readings”, at which she claimed an approximately 85% accuracy. One day, while in my 40’s, I decided to get a reading from her.  Extremely skeptical—although I’d known her all my life and knew she wasn’t a con artist—I arrived, fully expecting a lot of lucky guesses on her part.  An hour later, I left dazed and confused. How did she know that my husband and I were deliberating over which of two investment opportunities to take. We hadn’t mentioned this to anyone, not even anyone in my family or my husband’s.   The one my cousin advised against—and which we didn’t take, fortunately—ended up in bankruptcy a year later. There were other revelations that day that proved true in the months to come.

And so, I became intrigued by this strange phenomena known as ESP, or sometimes psi. Whatever you called it, it was known as “extrasensory perception”. My cousin claimed to be a “clairvoyant”, or able to “see” what most humans cannot see. Her insights into people, their health, and other personal facts were amazing to me. People in my family both welcomed and dreaded her phone calls. It was often: “You’ve got diabetes,” “You have a cancerous tumor in your bladder. See a doctor immediately”, “Your appendix is infected. Get yourself to a hospital now!” One close friend of the family received one of her calls. She told her that her brother was dying of cancer and that this friend should call him as soon as possible. The friend insisted that her thirty-five year-old brother was perfectly healthy and they’d just spoken days before. However, my cousin persisted and prevailed, even over objections of the friend’s brother. Two weeks later, the friend’s brother called back. He’d seen a doctor, had gotten a series of tests, and his prognosis was grim. He died a year later after a valiant battle against cancer.

When I probed my cousin, she explained the genesis of her visions and revelations. As a child of eight, she began having dreams. Some occurred at night while she slept, while others happened as daytime visions.  A recurring vision puzzled her but one day it suddenly made sense. Her parents—my aunt and uncle—had announced that they were moving to Hollister, California and had just bought a house with property attached. My cousin “knew” what it looked like and proceeded to describe it to her parents, who hadn’t shown pictures of it to anyone. What she described, from the house to the trees, driveway and outbuildings, matched the place her parents had just put a down payment on.

After that, the family believed my cousin to have a gift from God. That experience prompted me to open my mind and begin a twenty-year exploration into ESP. What I’ve learned has convinced me that clairvoyance does exist, and that perhaps to some extent, precognition. Many people have incredible, intuitive abilities and many share this gift with others, at no intent of monetary gain but simply a desire to help others. A poll cited in the Journal of Parapsychology showed that at least sixty percent of Americans believe that they have had at least one psychic experience in their lives.

The difference between a true psychic and a charlatan, or someone who uses trickery and seeks profit or notoriety?  Only one does it for monetary gain. True psychics, as do the psychic women in THE DELPHI BLOODLINE, share their gifts quietly and gratuitously.

Like my cousin.

Monday, February 25, 2013

In Search of the Lost Tale: Returning to a Stalled Novel

I've just returned to writing a novel I haven't worked on since 2007.  That's not really as negligent as it sounds, since I started writing it in 1969.

Well, in a way.  Back then, it was a series of poems, and the story I was telling then has become virtually lost.  It's also grown into a trilogy — and, beyond that, into a loose ennealogy — with the original bit consigned to volume three, which is why I'm only just addressing it.

The trilogy's called The Winter Legend (the title I first came up with back in 1969, while taking the dog for a long walk in the country) and the components are The Tryst Flame (currently under submission to Harper Voyager's open submission window) Children of Ice (complete, but in need of heavy revision) and Dreams of Fire and Snow — the one I'm now working on.

So why the delay?  Both since 2007, and way back since 1969?

Well, the second is probably easier to explain — I simply haven't been a good enough writer until now (I hope) to do justice to the story.  Before the current versions, I'd written two complete versions of each of the first two instalments, as well as a couple of unfinished ones.  Over the decades, both my writing technique and my understanding of the world and human nature have improved, and I think I've finally expelled enough of the clumsiness and clichéd behaviour to give it a go.

Not that I've wasted the idea in the interim.  An originally minor background character has taken on a life of his own under the name of the Traveller, while I've written stories covering ten thousand years and seven continents of the world I created for The Winter Legend.  But it's time now to come back to where the whole thing started.

My original plan, back in 2004 or so, was to write the three books straight off, before going back and revising them.  That way, anything unexpected that came up in the course of writing — and it always does — could be written into the revision stages of the earlier books. 

A great theory, and it worked well enough for the first two books, where I was rewriting earlier versions.  When I got to Dreams of Fire and Snow, though, I was in territory I hadn't trodden since 1969, and the story's changed beyond all recognition.  Certain basics are still there, of course, but a lot of extra characters and subplots have found their way in since then, and other people have fundamentally changed.  Including the main antagonist, who's transformed from a stereotypical "dark lord" villain to someone you can almost like.

The tone has changed, too.  In the original version, for instance, the hero had to venture into Hell.  I quickly realised that this didn't fit at all, and I decided to turn it into the Underworld, seeing that as very much like the Underworld from Greek mythology.  Eventually, though, I came to the conclusion that would be a bit clichéd.  The episode still involves a place called the Underworld, but it's about as far as possible from any traditional concept of what that represents.

So I got to around 100,000 words and approaching the grand dénouement of the whole trilogy — and came to a grinding halt.  This was partly for practical reasons.  Because I was flying a bit blinder than in the other books, I found I'd followed plot threads I wasn't sure how to resolve, and I suspected I needed a rethink on those.

I think there was a psychological reason, though, as well.  The Winter Legend has been part of me for most of my life.  On a conscious level, it's important for me to finish it — which is why I've put my effort into a trilogy, something all sane advice tells us not to do till we can rely on getting it published — but, deep down, I think I'm actually a bit scared of it being done.  What's it going to be like when I don't have it to work on any more?

It needs to be done, though, and, having prepared The Tryst Flame for submission and revamping Children of Ice into something close to the form it'll finish with, I've just started working on Dreams of Fire and Snow again.  I've written chapter 26, introducing a couple of major retcons I'm going to have to write into earlier chapters, and finding one key scene resolving into an outcome I didn't expect, and I'm hoping to reach the end in a couple of months.  I wonder how many more surprises it has in store.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Wolves, Birds & Orgies: Not Just a hallmark Holiday

It's the annual celebration of luuuuurve and the chance for the flower, chocolate and greeting card industries to make their biggest profit of the year.  But what's behind Valentine's Day?  Is it really more than a Hallmark holiday?

In the Christian calendar, the 14th February is the anniversary of the martyrdom of St Valentine, a 3rd century Bishop of Terni.  He had very little to do with love, except for the kind that's a theological virtue, although all kinds of legends about him sprang up later to justify the identification of his day with lovers.

The earliest known mid-February festival that might be connected with today was the Roman feast of Lupercalia, but this was nothing to do with sighing lovers and pretty flowers.  Lupercalia, the festival of the wolf, was a celebration of fertility and an excuse for an orgy — assuming the Romans needed an excuse, of course.

The more formal part of Lupercalia was a ceremony (if that's the right word) in which men ran through the crowds with goatskins, hitting people with them at random.  This was supposed to promote fertility, a belief referred to in the opening scene of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which takes place "upon the Lupercal", where Caesar is contriving to get his barren wife so blessed.
The exact relationship between Lupercalia and the later Valentine's Day celebrations are uncertain.  It's possible there was a direct carry-over, but it's likely that this was a time for fertility celebrations.  Although it seems hard to credit, mid-February marks the first stirrings of spring, the time when, as we know, a young man's (or woman's) fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love — or, failing that, of a roll in the hay at least.

In the 14th century, Chaucer referred to the tradition that this day marked the mating of birds:

For this was on seynt Valentynes day
When every foul cometh there to chese his make [choose his mate]

and this may have encouraged similar behaviour in humans.  Customs connected with love were certainly well established by Shakespeare's time.  In Hamlet, one of the ballads Ophelia sings when she's mad begins:

To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine
This refers to the tradition that, if you get up early today, the first face you see is destined to be your True Love.  Though presumably only if it's an appropriate face, of course.

Another tradition was the Valentine lottery, an ancestor of the modern swapping party, where you picked from a box the name of the person you'd be taking home from the dance.  They didn't have car-keys back then.  Robert Burns wrote about this in the 18th century:

Yestreen at the Valentine's dealing
My heart to my mou' gied a sten,
For thrice I drew ane without failing,
And thrice it was written, Tam Glen.

And what of the ubiquitous cards and gifts to the loved one?  This is actually recorded as early as the 17th century.  Of course, the cards would have been home-made, but the custom caught on to such an extent that, by the 19th century, the Royal Mail was taking on extra casual workers in the second month of February to deal with the volume of cards being sent.

Things have certainly changed in recent years.  Until just a few decades ago, Valentine's Day was purely for finding a lover, not for celebrating an existing relationship.  The custom was to send an unsigned card to the person you fancied and hope they guessed it was you.  And, of course, that they were pleased about it.  If they weren't, it was probably just as well you could deny it.

Valentine's Day has been over-exploited recently, but it's definitely not just a Hallmark holiday.  Sending Valentine cards is a time-honoured tradition, but if that's too modern for you, there's plenty of older ones that could be revived.  The Lupercalia orgy, anyone?  Get your goatskins out.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rules? What Rules?

As a writer, it seems impossible to go anywhere on the internet without bumping into someone laying down rules for how to write, usually in the form of "Never do X."  Advice is great, but, as far as I can see, writing rules are like the Pirate Code - more in the nature of guidelines than actual rules.
Of course, some of these guidelines are a lot more rule-like than others, and can very easily be mistaken for absolutes.  Take grammar, for instance: there are constructions that are right and constructions that are wrong.  Is there really any room for manoeuvre there?

Well, yes and no.  I'd certainly encourage any writer to learn how grammar works, how to punctuate correctly and the actual meanings of words - many are hideously abused - but there are times when the rules are flexible.  Flexible, but not infinitely elastic, and only if you know precisely when and why you're breaking them.

Sometimes it can be for effect.  The last sentence in the previous paragraph is ungrammatical, because it's a fragment, but a fragment can sometimes be extremely effective, as can starting a sentence with and or but.  The secret is to do it at exactly the right time and to know why you're doing it.  The two secrets are to do it at exactly the right time and to know why you're doing it, and to use it very sparingly.  The three secrets...

The other main reason for using incorrect grammar is register, or the level of language-use you want to convey.  The most common distinction is between narrative and dialogue, but there's a great deal of variation within these.  Narrative might be the formal relation of an old legend or a chatty first-person account.  Dialogue might be spoken by a pedantic academic or by a yokel, or anywhere between.  In some cases, correct grammar isn't appropriate.

I'll take a simple example - the word like.  If you're following grammatical rules, it's correct to say He ran like a demon but wrong to say He ran like a demon was after him (here, like should be replace with, for instance, as if).  However, many people use the incorrect form, and in some circumstances it might give a feeling of the character or the narrative atmosphere to use it.  If you don't know it's wrong, though, you're likely to use it where it's inappropriate.

If even the rules of grammar are flexible, what about all the other "rules"?  Don't use passive voice; cut out adverbs; don't use words ending in -ing; don't use past continuous - and so ad infinitum.

Most of these have some reason behind them, but they're ridiculously dogmatic.  It's rare to find a construction or part of speech that isn't effective in its right place (I'm tempted to say it never happens, but I wouldn't be that dogmatic) but some are easier to misuse than others.  That's all.

Take the much-maligned passive voice.  Now, for a start, many writers (and even some editors) don't know what the passive voice is.  It isn't "writing weakly" or "distancing" - it's the form of the verb where the subject is the person/thing acted on, as opposed to active voice, where the subject is the actor, and middle/reflexive voice, where the subject acts on itself.  An active sentence would be John hit Fred.  The passive form would be Fred was hit by John.  Middle would be John hit himself (idiot).

Neither active nor passive is right or wrong: they perform different functions.  In the example given, it depends largely on whether the sentence is about John or Fred - whichever we want the reader to focus on should normally be the subject. 

Beyond that, though, passive can give an impression.  The anti-passive sentiment originated in business writing, where it's important to be strong and positive all the time, but this doesn't necessarily apply to creative writing.  Imagine a character who appears to be a strong leader or general - but you have your doubts as you read.  Something about him doesn't seem quite as strong as he makes out, and it turns out in the end that this impression is correct.  Where did it come from?  Simply that, throughout the story, a lot of statements about him, or things he says, are passive constructions.

This kind of thing applies to all the "rules", so where did they come from?  I suspect a lot of them may have originated in mistaking specific advice for general advice.  An author might get a critique from a Respected Source (a top editor, or a published author) who criticises a battle scene because "You use a lot of passive constructions, and this slows down the action and makes it seem remote."

Now, this is perfectly good advice: there are valid places to use passive, but a battle scene isn't one of them.  However, the author doesn't quite get that and spreads it all over the internet that "Respected Source says using passive slows down your writing and make it seem remote."  This isn't what RS has said at all, but it's plausible enough to catch on, especially if Acknowledged Expert and Impeccable Authority can be similarly misquoted.

Thus a "rule" is born.  It's not entirely wrong, but the correct guideline should be "Keep an eye on your use of passive voice.  It has its place, but avoid it in sections where you want the action to be fast paced and vivid.  If in doubt, it's probably best to change it to active."

The same is true for all the other "rules" that are flung around: guidelines, not rules.  In reality, I've only ever found two genuine rules for writing.  One is If it works, do it; if it doesn't work, don't do it.  The other is Never believe a rule that contains the words always or never.  Including this one.