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The Conclave of Shadow
The Conclave of Shadow, by Alyc Helms
Published: July 2016
Publisher: Angry Robot
The line between enemy and ally is thinner than a shadow’s edge.
Ever since she saved the spirit guardians of China by selling out to her worst enemy, Missy Masters — a.k.a. the pulp hero Mr. Mystic — has been laying low. But when knights serving the Conclave of Shadow steal secret technology from a museum exhibit on the Argent Aces, everyone looks to Mr. Mystic for help. If Missy doesn’t want her masquerade blown, she’d better track down the thieves, and fast.
But stolen tech turns out to be the least of her problems. Recent events have upset the balance of power in the Shadow Realms, removing the barriers that once held the ravenous Voidlands in check. Their spread threatens destruction in the mortal realm as well… and only the Conclave stands ready to push them back.
In a world of shadow, telling friends from enemies is easier said than done. But if she wants to save San Francisco, Missy will have to decide who to trust. Including her own instincts, which tell her that something is stalking her with murder in mind…
Yes, another writing advice post. In fact, my first such post!
Seems like an oxymoron, I know. The ‘not another – Ugh’ energy has more to do with how much writing advice there is out there, and my own hesitation over adding something useless or repetitive to the noise.
My editor for the Mr. Mystic books once described my writing as ‘artisanal’ (which amused me greatly, because isn’t all writing?). But I sort of get what he was going for with that description. I don’t tend to follow expected paths or fit into known molds, and it can make my work hard to describe. Is high-concept literary queer pulp adventure xianxia even a genre?
Answer: It is, MXTX did it better than I ever could, and it looks like this:
(In other news, ask me about my obsession with Heaven Official’s Blessing).
My writing is also artisanal in that I don’t know how to package what I do into advice that other people can use. I don’t think of myself as a ‘tips, tricks, and techniques’ writer. My usual response to writing advice posts is ‘that is a fantastic tip… I have NO IDEA how to implement it, much less how to integrate it.’ The notion of having to do something like teach a class on writing fills me with dread. It’s like the centipede teaching the spider how she dances. I guess I know how to do it, but fuck all if I know how it’s done.
Because of this, I’ve never tried to join the stream of (frankly much better) writing advice posts that are out there. It seemed disingenuous to post tricks and tips that I don’t necessarily use myself. But a recent question from a new writing acquaintance shed a different light on this. Even if I don’t struggle with a particular issue (or even if my struggle looks more like a fox putting on their scorpion mecha-armor and powering through, stabbing everything – including themselves – with their poison stinger along the way), I still have some skill at coming up with ways that other writers might identify and tackle challenges they’re facing in their own writing.
One of my dance teachers used to say that improving dance technique was all about finding the right kinesic analogy. Thanks to her, there will always be a little family of imaginary mice huddled under the arch of my foot, helping me remember to pull up and turn out.
So this (maybe) series is my little family of imaginary mice for whomever out there might need them. And I will start with the trick that spurred the idea, with thanks to my new writing pal Jeff, who has been struggling with passive voice.
We’re told it’s terrible to use — hah, see what I did there? Yeah, okay. Using passive voice to discuss passive voice is barrel-scraping humor. I will try to stop.
Who says it’s terrible to use, and why is it so terrible? I first grokked this in a history class, where the professor (rightly) pointed out that writers who use passive voice to describe historical events usually have a stake in erasing the perpetrators of atrocities in those events, or in making those events seem eternal and inevitable instead of the direct result of people making choices. Z was done to Y has a different impact than X did Z to Y. Almost every action has an actor (I use almost as a caveat. I can’t think of any actions that don’t have an actor, but they probably exist). Passive voice lets you leave out the actor, almost always to remove culpability for the action.
In fiction writing, passive voice does have a use and a place. It’s a great tool (especially in conjunction with omniscient PoV) for evoking a mythic, legendary feel – like Morgan Freeman is narrating the events of your world. But the closer your PoV, the less passive voice tends to work. It ends up distancing the reader from the character, their actions, and the actions enacted upon them, in ways that you probably don’t want (unless you do, but that should be a deliberate choice).
While SFF has a long history of great works that make liberal use of omniscient PoV (and the associated tendency toward passive voice), the current taste is close third PoV (with some sub-genres like Urban Fantasy making a hard turn into first person). If passive voice distances readers from the characters in close third PoV, then in first person it can feel downright unnatural.
Tips and Tricks!
This is where I tend to get hung up. A lot of writing tip blogs give great, granular advice for avoiding passive voice – don’t use ‘to be’ constructions, especially ‘it was’ and ‘there were’, choose more active verbs, etc. But that advice doesn’t give you a path for how to naturalize and integrate this into your writing flow. She can try to teach you the steps, but how does the centipede dance?
If you want to get away from passive voice (or if you need help recognizing when you’re doing it), an exercise you might find useful is to write a scene in first person, then swap it to close third person (or take a scene that’s in close third and transpose it into first person). It’s more challenging to use passive voice in first person because you are behind the wheel of the “I” that is acting (rather than the over-the-shoulder view of close third, or the birds-eye view of omniscient, to use a video game analogy). You can still do it – ‘I was struck by the disintegration beam’ vs. ‘The disintegration beam struck me’ – but shifting the PoV can help you identify when you are doing it and give you the space to make that a deliberate stylistic choice.
Note that this technique is also a helpful way to work out kinks in voice and PoV switching. First person encourages you to only think in that character’s voice, to only notice what the character would notice, and to only describe it using terms the character would use to describe things.
Like I said, there is always more (and better) writing advice out there. If you want more info on passive voice in all types of writing, check out this UNC Chapel Hill Writing Center Passive Voice Handout.
A few weeks ago, I knocked out some masks for myself and my brother using t-shirts — because I have waaaay too many t-shirts. Copyedits for The Mask of Mirrors are turned it, and since I’m in the ranks of the Covid-19 unemployed, I have some free time to make more.
I don’t really need another mask for myself, but it occurred to me that other folks among my friends might want some. The masks I’m making are fairly simple. They’re not N95-certified or HEPA-compliant or anything that fancy. They’re just two layers of thick t-shirt cotton with cotton ties to go around the back of the head and neck. However, most of the reports I’m seeing indicate that these are still helpful for people doing necessary errands, etc.
They’re washable, which you’ll want to do on receipt (both for sterilization reasons and because I have a cat) and regularly as you use them, but with three masks, you can easily rotate them. So, let me know if you want me to make you some masks. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your request and shipping details.
Each t-shirt yields three masks — one plain and two with a portion of the t-shirt design. No charge, though if I get a lot of requests then I wouldn’t say no to folks Venmo-ing me a few bucks to cover packaging and postage. Depending on the response I get, I’ll probably churn out a bunch this weekend and do a single trip to the post office on Monday to send them out.
If you have a particular design you’d like, let me know. Designs available are on a first come, first serve basis. Base t-shirt color is listed in parentheses. I’ll update this list as designs are claimed — assuming I get any requests at all 🙂
Winter Fairy (navy)
Disney Princesses (grey)
Princess & Dragon (black)
Princess & Dragon (kelly green)
Fox Leafpile (kelly green)
Dragon & Phoenix (black)Claimed!
Story Dragon (navy)
Fire Dragon (black)
Distressed Flash (black)
Wicked Witch & Flying Monkeys (black)
Unicorn Mermaid (bright blue)
Ursula 1 (black)
Ursula 2 (black)
Ursula 3 (black) Yes, I have a lot of Ursula t-shirts. And?
Last summer, I started working on a collaborative project with Marie Brennan that ended up being more or less NaNoWriMo for four months straight. We finished the 220k word behemoth in October, tossed it back and forth between beta readers, our agents, and each other, and sent it out to editors this past spring.
This week, we accepted a deal from Orbit Books to publish it as the first book of the Rook and Rose trilogy! It will be coming under the joint pen name M.A. Carrick (there’s a story there, but that’s for later).
I’m still working on my elevator pitch for the series, but here’s the general gist:
Alta Renata Viraudax is actually Arenza Lenskaya, a con artist who has infiltrated the nobility in an attempt to set herself up with a cushy life… only to run afoul of The Rook, a Dread-Pirate-Roberts-style vigilante whose mission is to oppose the nobility — including the increasingly visible Alta Renata. Capers, banter, double-crossing, and identity hijinks ensue. Think The Scarlet Pimpernel meets Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora series.
This was the most fun writing that I’ve ever had, and I think it shows on every page. Marie and I bring out the best in each other, and because we’re both anthropology worldbuilding geeks, we were able to create an incredibly rich, dense setting for us to play in. We’ve got multiple, inter-locking magic systems — Marie developed a whole divinatory card system that will definitely be Kickstarted so we can create an actual deck, and I got to get my ritual magic on by creating another system based on sacred geometry. There’s politics and economics, swashbuckling and derring-do, queerness and genderplay galore (because hell yeah there is), and so many fun characters that it hurts sometimes to do terrible things to them.
More news to come as this moves from editing into production! A little over a year ago, all we had was an idea. Now we have a book deal. Soon we’ll have a book! These things move faster than you think. I hope you’ll all come along with us for the ride.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with what has sort of become our unofficial theme song:
Worldcon Dublin is coming! I’m heading off a few days early so I can ride a bike along the Great Western Greenway and around Inishmore, but after that I’ll be in Dublin with a few thousand other SFF geeks. Here’s where you can find me:
Making the transition from player to Games Master
16 Aug 2019, Friday 10:00 – 10:50, Wicklow Room-1 (CCD)
It can be difficult to understand exactly how to make the change from being a player in roleplaying games to running games for friends or convention attendees. Come along to this panel to get some advice from experienced GMs on how to make this switch, and what would be helpful to know in the beginning.
Alyc Helms, Michael Cule, Ell Schulman, Andrew Barton
The bare bones of worldbuilding: archaeology in SFF
18 Aug 2019, Sunday 10:00 – 10:50, Wicklow Hall 2B (CCD)
Whether it’s an actual archaeological dig looking for evidence of alien civilisations or fantasy characters camping in the ruins of their ancestors, archaeological evidence and research can be used to help develop a world beyond the here and now and add complex layers to a story without the need for exposition. The panel will discuss the ways in which archaeology has been used to deepen SFF worldbuilding and storytelling.
Ehud Maimon (M), Dr Katrin Kania, Alyc Helms, Marie Brennan
I’m also going to be hanging out at the Angry Robot booth to chat and sign things on Friday from 3:00 to 3:30pm, and on Saturday from 2:00 to 2:30pm.
We’ve all fallen down the bottomless pit that is TV Tropes (WARNING: Following this link will result in loss of time ranging from several minutes to several days or longer). Even if you don’t know what a trope is, you know what tropes are. For the purposes of this series, I’m not talking about the very broad literary definition of tropes that covers everything from irony and metaphor to plot elements and characters, but rather the narrower folkloric definition that refers to recurring motifs across stories. Done poorly, tropes can feel like the enemy of the original, merely warmed-over cliché. But done well? Yeah, I’m a sucker for a well-executed trope. I’m a folklorist. It comes with the territory.
It will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody who knows me that one of my favorite tropes is time travel. Due to a recent viewing of Avengers: Endgame, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I love about time travel stories and why. This ended up being a much longer exercise than I thought it would be because there is so much, so I’ve broken them down into five main story types, from easiest to hardest to execute (and, not coincidentally, my least to most liked): Time Tourism, Alternate Timelines, Open-System, Groundhog Day, Closed-Loop.
My original intent was to cover all of these in one post, but… it turns out I had a lot more to say than I realized, so I broke it down into six posts, one for each type listed above, and then a bonus deep dive post into Avengers: Endgame, the time travel story that inspired this post.
Note: For spoiler reasons, except for the Endgame post, I’m deliberately going to use examples from either really well-known properties (Back to the Future, Doctor Who, etc.) or else things that it’s very unlikely anyone will watch unless my discussion of them stirs their interest (i.e., mostly kdramas!)
Time Tourism, aka “The Past is Another Country”
The past is another country; they do things differently there. But you can visit, hang with some famous locals, eat strange food, get involved in a history-defining event, and go on your merry way without having to worry about any damage you might leave behind. Time tourists don’t really worry about damaging the timeline because the stories they live in aren’t interested in the physics or limitations of time travel. They are pebbles that leave few-to-no ripples.
I like these stories for the tourist element rather than the way they handle time travel — I love a good fish-out-of-water story. It can be fun to watch people from our future fumble through an imagined past, using anachronistic terms or technology, imposing contemporary moral and ethical expectations on the people they meet. It’s similarly fun to watch someone from an imagined past interacting with contemporary technology that seems like magic, or encountering beliefs and behaviors that are shocking or emancipating (or both) for them.
The darker underbelly of time tourism is that it’s a safe sort of imaginative tourism in the same way that killing robot or zombie armies is safe – characters and audiences are rarely encouraged to consider the colonial or imperialistic assumptions underpinning these encounters. Time tourists aren’t held to the same standards of cultural sensitivity that spatial tourists might be, especially in this day and age. Time tourists going into the past are allowed to look down unquestioningly on other cultures they/we perceive as ‘less advanced’ (technologically-speaking) than ours. Stories about time tourists from the past to our present often dwell on a sort of uncomplicated nostalgia for a simpler past that never was – these stories often end up being a shallow and untethered critique of modernity.
Doctor Who is, with a few story arc exceptions, an example of time tourism that I enjoy. Because it is a long-running, open ended series with multiple writers, it has little choice but to take a ‘time travel physics HAH! What’s that?’ approach. The audience is almost always experiencing the past from the Companion’s perspective rather than the Doctor’s. This allows the show to sidestep a lot of potential cultural insensitivity or problematic nostalgia pitfalls through framing them as limitations of the Companion’s perspective that the Doctor can then respond to (even if it ends up creating inconsistencies in the Doctor’s own ethical palimpsest over time).
Many of my favorite time tourist stories are about doctors – of the medical rather than the Time Lord variety. I’m not the only one, as it seems like medical professional is the occupation most likely to time travel into the past. The crossroads where science collides with superstition – a place where people with an advanced skillset have to adapt to hostile conditions to save lives – is a breeding ground for competence porn. In your usual medical drama, you have to get to House levels of medical obscurity to get that sort of effect, but in a time tourist drama, any rando doctor can be a god.
The k-drama The Great Doctor (aka, Faith) plays with this in an amusing way when a soldier from Goryeo (pre-Joseon Korea) kidnaps a present-day doctor to save the life of his queen (the co-founder of what would become Joseon) who has been stabbinated in the neck. Unfortunately, Eun-Soo (the doctor he kidnaps) is a plastic surgeon. The show plays with the increasing limitations of her skillset as she runs out of supplies she brought with her, and it also shows her learning from doctors in the past as well as teaching them what she knows. It also has a fairly decent closed-loop time travel execution, so it gets double marks from me.
Another example with great medical competence porn is Time Slip Dr. Jin. During Dr. Jin’s jaunt back to the late Joseon era, he trepans people multiple times, makes penicillin to treat syphilis, and struggles through a dysentery outbreak, all in gloriously gory medical and scientific detail that gives me joy. The time travel framework of the show is… better if you just don’t think about it. But the doctor-out-of-water competence porn is A++.
You don’t have to be a doctor from the present to engage in competence porn to bring me to the yard, though. I love stories that let people from the past be competent in the present. Although Sleepy Hollow had a lot of problems, one of the places it worked for me was when it juxtaposed Ichabod Crane flailing with modernity against him being a smart and adaptable fish-out-of-water. I wish they would have delved more into him flailing and then figuring things out.
A similar example that worked better for me in executing that element was Queen In-Hyun’s Man. Although he’s a Joseon scholar plopped onto the film set of an historical k-drama, Kim Boong Do doesn’t stay a fish-out-of-water for long. He has the transferable skill of being smart and crafty. He quickly adapts and figures out how to use his jaunts to present-day South Korea to defeat his enemies in the past.
What are your favorite time-tourist stories, and why do they work for you?
Next up – The ‘have your cake and eat it too’ of time travel stories: Alternate Timelines!
The Clarion West Write-a-thon is over, and I’m pleased to share that this year was by far my most successful year, both in terms of donations and in terms of blitzing through my main goal.
The first goal was to progress on the Super Sekrit Projekt, with 5k words a week. I can now share that the secret project is a collaboration with Marie Brennan, code-named R&R. You can read about it on my blog and hers.
We’ve been knocking out about 9k words a week, and this past week we managed a whopping 15k. We’ve completed six chapters and hit the 1/4 mark. We’ve also mapped out all the chapters and scenes for the next quarter — collaboration pretty much requires both of us to do a lot more gardening than either of us are wont to do on our own. It works really well to keep our pace up. There is never a question of ‘what are we doing next’… except insofar as both of us are likely to forget our names if we sleep. But that’s why Google made spreadsheets.
Marie is much better about providing weekly updates for that project. You can find them on her blog under the R&R tag if you want more details.
My second goal was revising Chiaroscuro. I’ve made some progress on that, though the runaway progress on R&R has dominated everything. I don’t think I will make the August 30th deadline I gave myself, BUT I have a good map and a few empty weekends ahead of me before Worldcon, so I’m going to plow through on that.
Third goal was short stories in my re-imagined ballet line. I managed bupkiss on that one 😀
I’ve recently made passing mention to a super secret collaborative project I’m working on. I’ve been hesitant to say more because so often projects like this die before they ever get momentum.
However, after six-ish months of planning, plotting, and worldbuilding, and three weeks of intense writing that have already pushed us past the 25k point, I feel confident in saying this is a thing.
To get a feel for the flavor, listen to this:
Capers! Heroic vigilantes and antiheroes! Identity hijinks! Masquerades and mistaken identities! Romance and betrayal and rooftop assignations, all while wearing fabulous outfits!
So that’s what Marie Brennan and I are working on, if you can call it work. Writing with her is so much fun that I actively look forward to getting butt in chair every day.
Now that R&R (our code for it) is out of the bag, look for posts about collaboration, magic systems, clothing design, economic and political systems, folklore, civil engineering, and all the other fun things that come up when you knock two anthropologists together and tell them to design a world for fantasy intrigue.