Ten Commandments for Storytellers

Quiroga1900aEvery writer has advice — good, bad, and unique.

Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937), a master of the short story, perfected an economic, naturalistic, and precise prose style. His works often contained irreal elements and themes of horror, illness, and death, and his achievements influenced the next generation of Latin American authors: Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Felisberto Hernández, and Julio Cortázar.

Here’s Quiroga’s advice on how to write (my translation):

Decálogo del perfecto cuentista
Ten Commandments for the Perfect Storyteller

I
Cree en un maestro —Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, Chejov— como en Dios mismo.
Believe in a master — Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, Chekhov — as in God Himself.

II
Cree que su arte es una cima inaccesible. No sueñes en domarla. Cuando puedas hacerlo, lo conseguirás sin saberlo tú mismo.
Think of your art as an unreachable mountaintop. Don’t dream of conquering it. When you can climb that high, you’ll manage to do it without realizing it.

III
Resiste cuanto puedas a la imitación, pero imita si el influjo es demasiado fuerte. Más que ninguna otra cosa, el desarrollo de la personalidad es una larga paciencia.
Resist imitation as much as you can, but imitate if the influence is too strong. More than anything else, it will take great patience to develop your own personality.

IV
Ten fe ciega no en tu capacidad para el triunfo, sino en el ardor con que lo deseas. Ama a tu arte como a tu novia, dándole todo tu corazón.
Have a blind faith not in your capacity for success, but in your desire for it. Love your art like you love your bride, and give it your full heart.

V
No empieces a escribir sin saber desde la primera palabra adónde vas. En un cuento bien logrado, las tres primeras líneas tienen casi la importancia de las tres últimas.
Don’t start to write without knowing from the first word where you’re going. In a well-told story, the first three lines are almost as important as the last three.

VI
Si quieres expresar con exactitud esta circunstancia: “Desde el río soplaba el viento frío”, no hay en lengua humana más palabras que las apuntadas para expresarla. Una vez dueño de tus palabras, no te preocupes de observar si son entre sí consonantes o asonantes.
If you want to express this with exactitude: “The cold wind blew from the river,” in human speech there are no better words than those with which to say it. Once you are master of your words, don’t worry about whether they sound sufficiently poetic.

VII
No adjetives sin necesidad. Inútiles serán cuantas colas de color adhieras a un sustantivo débil. Si hallas el que es preciso, él solo tendrá un color incomparable. Pero hay que hallarlo.
Don’t use unnecessary adjectives. They’ll be as useless as taping colorful tails on a weak noun. If you find the precise noun, it will have an incomparable color all by itself. But you have to find it.

VIII
Toma a tus personajes de la mano y llévalos firmemente hasta el final, sin ver otra cosa que el camino que les trazaste. No te distraigas viendo tú lo que ellos no pueden o no les importa ver. No abuses del lector. Un cuento es una novela depurada de ripios. Ten esto por una verdad absoluta, aunque no lo sea.
Take your characters by the hand and lead them firmly to the end without letting them see anything other than the road you created for them. Don’t be distracted by what they themselves can’t or don’t need to see. Don’t abuse the reader. A short story is a novel without the padding. Take this as an absolute truth, although it isn’t.

IX
No escribas bajo el imperio de la emoción. Déjala morir, y evócala luego. Si eres capaz entonces de revivirla tal cual fue, has llegado en arte a la mitad del camino.
Don’t write under the influence of your emotions. Let them die and evoke them later. If you can revive them the way they were, your art has taken you halfway toward your goal.

X
No pienses en tus amigos al escribir, ni en la impresión que hará tu historia. Cuenta como si tu relato no tuviera interés más que para el pequeño ambiente de tus personajes, de los que pudiste haber sido uno. No de otro modo se obtiene la vida del cuento.
Don’t think about your friends when you write or about the impact your story will make. Tell it as if your story were interesting only to the small world of its characters and as if you were one of them. You cannot breathe life into your story otherwise.

More about Horacio Quiroga

If writers are supposed to lead troubled and tragic lives, Quiroga’s is a paragon. His father died in an accident when he was two months old. His stepfather killed himself in front of Quiroga while he was an adolescent. Later his first wife and two of his children committed suicide. He made poor romantic decisions. His second wife left him. He accidentally killed a close friend. One after another, his business ventures failed. He was sickly and impulsive, and he drank too much. Finally, he was diagnosed with painful, terminal cancer, and he killed himself.

But in his early 20s, he discovered Poe and other writers and began his literary career. Later, he traveled to the Amazon jungle and fell in love with it. The harsh lessons of his life and of untamed nature fueled his fiction. Those resources, along with his attention to the technical aspects of style, made him Uruguay’s greatest short story writer, equal to his masters: Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, and Chekhov.

You can learn more about him and read his collection Jungle Tales translated into English at the Horacio Quiroga Foundation. You can also read one of his most famous short story collections in Spanish, Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte [Stories of Love Madness and Death], 1917, at the Fundación Horacio Quiroga.

And, of course, there’s more at Wikipedia in English and Spanish.

Giveaway reminder and updates for ‘Interference’

InterferenceCover_SmallReminder: Goodreads is hosting a giveaway of 20 copies of Interference. Enter here before November 14.

Not sure if you’ll like the book? You can read the first chapter here. You can hear a preview of the audiobook here. You can also read a few reviews at Goodreads.

Ready to buy? Links to online and bookstore outlets for the hardcover, ebook, and digital audio are here.

Want to meet me? I’ll be at Windycon, a Chicago science fiction convention, on November 15, 16, and 17, at the Westin Lombard Yorktown Center, 70 Yorktown Center, Lombard, IL. On Saturday, I’ll be participating in the Writer’s Workshop in the morning; at a reading at noon; on the panel “Talking to Little Green Men (Alien Languages)” at 1 p.m.; and autographing at 2 p.m. The rest of the weekend I’ll be wandering around more or less aimlessly. Come say hi.

I’ll be at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN, on Thursday, November 21, at 7:00 p.m. It will be Sci-Fi Night with Naomi Kritzer and Marissa Lingen. Naomi’s YA technothriller novel, Catfishing on CatNet debuts on November 19.

Not sure if you’ll like me? You can read interviews at PaulSemel.com and the Verge.

Warmth and food!

What an eight-year-old knows

UrracaRegina_TumboA_SmallAt a dinner recently, I found myself sitting next to an eight-year-old. I’m working on a trilogy of novels about a medieval queen, Urraca, who is eight years old when the novel opens, so I thought I’d use his help to see if I gauged the maturity of the character right. He was very willing to help.

I explained the situation. In those days, a woman wanted to learn everything she could about her husband’s work so that if he died or went on a long trip, she could take over. Since Urraca knew she might grow up to be a queen, she wanted to learn everything she could about being a king.

He asked, “Did kings need to know what queens did, too?”

“Well, no.”

“That’s not fair.”

“No, it isn’t,” I admitted.

“What happens if the queen dies?”

“The king would get a new queen.”

“So,” he said, “it’s like an iPhone that dies. You throw it away and get a new one because phones aren’t important. If you can just get a new queen, then queens aren’t really important.”

He had immediately identified the underlying conflict that Urraca faced throughout her entire life (and in the trilogy).

Kids these days … they give me hope for the future.

Goodreads review: “Armed in Her Fashion”

Armed In Her FashionArmed In Her Fashion by Kate Heartfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a fun book — and it just won the 2019 Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association’s Aurora Award for Best Novel. Congratulations, Kate!

A grumpy, greedy, dying widow, her head-in-the-clouds daughter, and a mercenary soldier who is secretly a woman join up with another rag-tag group of refugees fleeing medieval Bruges at war. The weapons against them include plague, revenants, and horrible animal-human-weapon chimeras sent by the Chatelaine of Hell, who has betrayed and imprisoned her husband, the Hellbeast.

As life goes from bad to worse for these refugees, they find they have no choice but to defeat the hellish Chatelaine and her ghastly army. It looks impossible – a mad plan, suicidal in fact, and complicated, but the widow’s money is in hell and she’s going to get it back.

Besides the action, plot twists, and historical accuracy, a bright thread of humor runs through the story and ties it up in a bow like a gift: a thinking woman’s tale of medieval sword-and-sorcery.

View all my reviews

“Interference” book launch – with free plants!

Coleus to give away

These coleus plants come direct from my living room: happy, healthy, colorful, accustomed to human interaction, and mostly harmless.*

The book launch for Interference will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, October 24, at Volumes Bookcafe, 1474 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago.

The novel goes on sale October 22.

On the 24th, I’ll be reading from the novel, answering questions — and giving away the plants in the photo made from cuttings from one of my own houseplants.

The idea behind the novel Semiosis and its sequel Interference started when some of my houseplants tried to kill other plants. So far, these coleus seem enthusiastic but not aggressive.

*No guarantees. As it says on the cover of Interference, “Sentience craves sovereignty.” Who knows what these plants are thinking?