Many authors struggle to find the perfect beginnings for their stories. “Sing in Me, Muse” opens with an exquisite poetry that set the tone for the entire story. Did you struggle to create those opening lines or did you know what you wanted and bring it onto the page?
Thank you! It’s a little half and half—I knew what I wanted from the beginning, but I also knew I didn’t necessarily have the chops to accomplish it without a lot of work.
Style-wise, I wanted to establish early on that the reader is in a sort of epic poem being written by the main character, Anisah, and so I specifically tried to reference the style of Beowulf and The Illiad—stories that generally start with the author calling the audience to attention (“Hwæt!”) or invoking a deity (“Sing in me, Muse,” the first line of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey, which I also cribbed for the title). Looking at it from that angle, it was easy to form the opening lines, because there’s a semi-established format.
But I am not by nature a poet, and so it was a matter of “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” I mimicked styles where I could, took the suggestions of a beta-reading group when they offered some poetic solutions to my worldbuilding, and listened to my much-better-poet friend when she told me that Euterpe was actually a terrible name for a main character.
I love the blend of historical reference and spacefaring life. Tell us something about what inspired this particular tale.
Honestly, there’s a lot—I tend to collect bits and bobs of things and let them marinate for ages just to see what comes together, and I don’t necessarily catch all of them. Three of the more obvious ones I’ve noticed, though:
- The original image I had in my head was a combination of Alphonse Mucha’s Topas and Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”—a woman sitting at a large round window, staring out at a universe that she can record but never really experience. (Unless, of course, she breaks the rules.)
- The Topas painting has always reminded me of an Art Nouveau version of Alma-Tadema’s romanticized paintings of Ancient Greek scenes, which in turn led me to thinking about Homeric poetry and the myths I’d read as a kid. “The Lady of Shalott,” besides giving me the pathos of the woman at the window, also led me in the direction of a love story, though one that ends in tragedy.
- Deliberately evoking a historical voice in a piece of science fiction comes, I think, from fanwriter astolat’s “All The Wonder,” an alternate-universe version of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series that’s set in space—astolat does an absolutely neat trick with transposing Napoleonic era language style and nautical terminology onto a space opera setting, and by doing so created a rich array of variations on traditional SF tropes in a very short space. I read it years ago, and I’ve wanted to play around with something similar ever since.
This story brought to mind so many things: social pressure; the mistrust and fear directed toward the queer community; the words of resistance in The Handmaid’s Tale and V for Vendetta. What are your thoughts on how writers draw from the world around them to create something new? Do you think a writer can create without such building blocks?
I genuinely believe that all stories come from somewhere else—humans are very fond of taking their own ideas and bundling them onto older things, changing them as we go to fit the needs of the moment. It’s the folk process. We are constantly iterating and reiterating the same ideas, either to serve some need within ourselves or to accomplish a larger purpose. Even an author who is trying to be completely original will end up referencing something, whether they intend to or not—and the audience will bring their own memories and stories to the reading experience, changing and coloring the work regardless of what the author intended.
We live in a world where tales of authoritarianism and resistance are especially needed, but I didn’t set out specifically to write one. For me, though, writing is essentially auto-cannibalism—I take parts of myself to write characters and scenarios. As a queer person living in America in 2020 (and 2017, which is when I first drafted this story), it’d be harder to not write a story like this one.
I loved the transition from “sea” to “space,” and “buoys” to “stars.” This shift not only set the stage for the plot, but it also spoke to Anisah’s fate, reminding me of how Cassandra was punished for speaking truths that no one believed. Why do you think Rachael and the other cousins and sisters feared what Anisah and Tara had to say? Did this new song fly in the face of doctrine or was it something more?
The language shift existed in the very first draft. I wanted to explore a variation of one of my favorite throwaway SF gags, what TV Tropes calls “Future Imperfect”: specifically, “The further one goes into the future, the more distorted history seems to become.” After I sorted out the mechanics of how/why everybody’s up in space and there for the foreseeable future, I turned to how I would get that epic-poetry feel into the mix—and landed on the idea that the missives back to Earth had started out as data reports from different departments with personal reports thrown in, and those had evolved over time and generations to a point where the purpose was gone/forgotten, but the core action remained. (Very Pavlov.) It made sense to me that they’d develop a sort of mythology around why they sing their songs, and changes to the language would be part of that.
As for Rachel and the other sisters and clones . . . Rachel is the equivalent of middle management, an administrator who enforces rules while also being subject to them. I see her as part of a massive, self-perpetuating bureaucratic infrastructure (shades of Gilliam’s Brazil). It’d be easy to think that there’s some evil queen ruling the entire ship, forcing the endless journey to keep her power intact, but I think it’s scarier to imagine how easily we could become our own perpetuators of the status quo, jailers locking ourselves in every night. This time, for this Anisah, the status quo appears to win, and something beautiful (the love between Anisah and Tara, and the history they discovered) is lost because of her community’s fear of change.
(Though: How many Anisahs has this happened to? Or Taras, or even Rachels? Anisah’s act of public defiance was heard by all the shift-sisters—and who knows which, or how many, of them will keep her song in their hearts. Even one moment of change has countless, unknowable ripple effects—and that may make that single moment worth everything.)
At the end of the day, though, I typically encourage readers to interrogate the story and find their own meaning, rather than depending on my intentions (is the name Tara intended as symbolic of Terra/Earth, or is it the name of a popular queer love interest from the ’90s? I’LL NEVER TELL).
You can be found far and wide in the wide world of words, including slogging through the slush pits. If you could speak to those writers who submit and then wait with baited breath, what advice would you share?
My parents are genre writers—I literally grew up in the world of fantasy and science fiction publishing, and I’ve been freelancing, writing, and talking about the nuts-and-bolt of fiction for most of my life. If almost forty years of experience behind the curtain count for anything, I can say:
- No, there isn’t a secret cabal that gets you published. If there was, my bibliography would be a lot longer.
- Don’t self-reject. Let editors reject you instead.
- Read the submission guidelines. Follow the submission guidelines.
- You never know who’s reading your work on the other end—so do your research, and hope no one notices the parts you fudge. I once received a slush manuscript for whom I was the worst possible reader, because almost every major plot point depended on circumstances with which I had personal experience . . . and nearly every detail was wrong. Needless to say, the manuscript didn’t make it past the slush pile—but maybe, with a different reader, at a different publisher, it could’ve gotten a little farther.
- A generic rejection doesn’t mean your story was bad. It just means your story didn’t get bought. On the other hand, if the editor bothers to spend time complimenting parts of your story, or providing feedback, or even just inviting you to submit work in the future . . . those are all wins, and should be treated as such.
What’s next for Katherine Crighton? What can eager readers look forward to in the latter half of 2020 and beyond?
After a rough few years for creativity, I’ve been working my way back to getting stories regularly written and out on submission—and the effort’s paying off. I recently sold a short story to Daily Science Fiction (“They’re Made Out of Corn”), I’m working with an editor on a proposal for a historical erotic interactive-fiction novel, and I have several stories out on submission right now (in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, historical romance, and mystery. I like a lot of stuff).
Announcements of future sales will appear on my website (katherinecrighton.com), where I also sometimes post free fiction and blog posts about writing/publishing. And for regular content, I’m one of the hosts of No Story Is Sacred (nostoryissacred.com), a twice-monthly podcast where my three siblings and I talk about, take apart, and rebuild stories. It’s extremely profane and also a ridiculous amount of fun.
Finally, in my day job, I work as an administrative assistant for a robotics engineering department. I shamelessly use world-class roboticists as my personal test ground for ideas; I hope to have it all eventually translate into one or more stories about the future of robots (who are all, as far as I can tell, just very good doggos trying their best).
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