Of love and grief

I can’t read romance, I can’t write romance.

It’s not for the lack of trying. Sometimes I would love to read a story about two people who overcome great obstacles and end up together, happy and in love. Sometimes I think my own stories would benefit from a little romance and a HEA thrown in here and there. But whenever I try to write it, it turns into this or this or this.

The truth is, the unconscious part of my mind that comes up with story ideas doesn’t believe in happy endings. I don’t know why – I’m not a particularly morose grouch in real life. However, my writing brain is bored with attainable love, and studies it from a great distance with a faint, cynical smile. In almost every story I’ve ever written, the characters yearn for something they cannot get, and even if they somehow triumph in the end, it’s always tainted with a touch of melancholy, the realization that life never quite turns out as we expect it to.

My latest published story, Heart of My Heart, Soul of My Soul started as an exploration of the ways in which grief alters our perception. I made it deliberately vague, open to the readers’ interpretations. And I’ve made a conscious effort to allow at least one of those interpretations to lean towards a happy ending. I hope you will find it enjoyable.

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Immersion Vortex or How to Step Into a Story

I binged on TV series during the pandemic in the attempt to get away from the ugly reality. I’ve always been a sucker for period dramas (history + pretty people + gorgeous costumes = pure joy) and for some reason, I felt especially comforted by Regency pieces. I wondered – what if VR was so advanced that we could step into this world? How many women would choose to dance with Mr. Darcy rather than date modern guys? And that’s how my latest story, Immersion Vortex, sprang into my mind.

Photo by Barbara Zandoval

However, this idea is older than my pandemic binge watching. It’s connected with the way I read books. I was a lonely, introvert child who spent her days reading quietly in the corner. I didn’t mind it at all, reading was my favourite activity and the characters often seemed more real than the people I knew. I judged books by their immersion potential – the easier it was for me to step into them, the more I loved them. I suppose that’s where my preference for history, fantasy and myth comes from – those are the stories which usually have the most substantial world-building.

I spent hours and hours inside some stories – The Count of Monte Cristo springs to mind – moving through the world, rearranging the events, interacting with the characters. I guess that even my impulse for writing stories comes from that same need to find a world I can step into.

Strangely enough, this need to step into a world was never fully satisfied by movies, series or games. Perhaps because – beautiful and meticulous as they might be – they still offer someone else’s vision. So far, books have been my favourite portals into different worlds. However, the future I imagined in Immersion Vortex might be quite near. And the possibility to step into a story fuelled by one’s own imagination is very attractive. So attractive, in fact, that I fear I would never return.

Imagine this: you choose a period you like, shape the characters according to your wishes, outline the events. You build a world based on a book, or a period, or an idea – and then you step into it. And it feels real in every sense. It’s controlled and shaped by your imagination, but it’s not inside your head, it’s all around you.

I know where I would go. Do you?

Rejection II – Turning down acceptances

As a writer, dealing with rejection is something you need to cope with if you want to get published. However, sometimes I found myself in the position where I had to reject an offer and withdraw my story. It didn’t happen very often, because when you’re new to publishing, you’ll jump at every opportunity to be published, but it did happen several times.

Here’s my experience:

1. Something is wrong with the contract

If you use the Submission Grinder, sometimes you’ll see a warning that a publication has problematic contracts, or you’ll hear other writers complaining. I am no expert on contracts, but I believe every writer should learn how to read them and see the red flags. The good place to start is the SFWA website and their model contracts. If you feel uncomfortable with the contract, you should seek advice (more experienced writers will often be able help you) and try to negotiate it – new, amateur publishers can sometimes be too grabby, and you have every right to protect your work. If it turns out that you can’t agree with the publisher, you should walk away. Even if it’s just one story, a bad contract can hurt your career.

2. Something’s wrong with the editor

When this scenario happens, it’s hard to say whose fault it is – sometimes the editors are inexperienced, or too invasive, sometimes the writer is too stubborn to let go of their vision of the story. My rule of thumb is this: if someone wants to buy my story, I’m guessing it’s because they like it. A few changes here and there, some tweaking and clarification are fine. Bigger changes that require serious rewriting, but will make the story stronger are also fine – if I have the time and skill to do them. Changes that make me uncomfortable, feel wrong or I believe miss the point of my story are not fine. Most editors will let you stet their suggestions or negotiate some other way around the problem. If you cannot reach a satisfying agreement, and the publication has more than one editor, you should ask to work with another one. If that’s not possible, you should consider walking away. A mangled story will not hurt you as much as a bad contract, but publishing something you’re not 100% happy with will seem like a missed opportunity and a waste of a good story.

3. Grabby contests

I’ve also had bad experience with contests and I’ve learned to be wary of them – they’re a great way to scam the writers. The prizes may look great, but always read the rules carefully – sometimes they will state that just by submitting your story, you’re allowing them to use it or modify it in any way or for any purpose they want. You should never agree to assign any rights just by entering the contest.

I admit that each time I withdrew my work, I felt a pang of regret. Opportunities to get published sometimes seem few and far between, and when rejections swamp your inbox, you’d sign a contract with the Devil just to get your story out there. However… when I look back, I know I made the right decisions. Not getting published hurts, but getting published by someone who scams you or destroys your work is much worse.

Pogača

My new story How to Bind a Sailor’s Heart is in the May issue of Mermaids Monthly.

Charles Payseur writes about it in Quick Sip Reviews

A grim and bracing story, but one that acts as a fierce warning, full of haunting beauty! 

To celebrate its publication, I decided to share my recipe for pogača – the dish described in the story (without the gory details, of course – but feel free to be creative if the circumstances demand it).

Komiška pogača is a traditional filled bread from the island of Vis. This is my version of the recipe – delicious and really easy to make.

Mermaids? What mermaids?

Komiška pogača

Dough

  • 600 g plain flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 7 g dry yeast
  • a splash of virgin olive oil
  • 400 ml warm water

Filling

  • 50 ml virgin olive oil
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 500 g tomato puree
  • 8-10 anchovy fillets
  • 1 tbsp capers
  • 1 bay leaf
  • rosemary
  • thyme

Instructions

Prepare the dough: mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl, add oil and water. You can use a hand mixer at this point. Knead the dough until you get a nice, smooth texture. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and let it rise in a warm place until it doubles in size.

Prepare the filling: chop the onion and sauté it in the virgin olive oil over medium heat for 10 min. Add the garlic, sauté for 1 min then pour in tomato puree. Add bay leaf, rosemary and thyme and simmer for about 20 min, until it thickens. Set aside to cool.

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C.

Assemble the pogača. Take the risen dough, knead it and divide it into 2 equal parts. Roll the first part into a round shape and transfer it to a baking tray lined with baking paper.

Spread the tomato sauce, arrange the anchovies in a circle and dot with capers. Roll the other part of dough into a circle and cover the first part. Fold the edges and seal them with a fork. Bake the pogača for 30 – 40 min, until golden. Slice it into wedges and enjoy.

White whale has landed

Those outside the querying trenches often mock those inside them for comparing the process of researching on-line, writing a letter and hitting “send” to the experience of sitting in a freezing hole in the ground while shells explode above your head. However, in my humble opinion, those who’d never tried to run the minefield of MSWL, died an agonizing death in no man’s land while waiting for requests, or felt the bayonet-in-the-guts pain of the full rejection have no right to express their opinion on the subject.

However, I’m not here to moan but to celebrate an extraordinary occurrence, the white whale of story writing: four days from the first word written to the story acceptance. Call it a wild fluke or karma or divine benevolence, but it was a ray of sunshine in my trench. Started the story on Friday, sold it on Monday. Admittedly, it is a very fast market and, also, I had a hunch that the story was right for them, but it’s still a miracle. What makes it even more important, on a personal level, is that the story was my reaction to the anxiety and heartbreak of the querying process.

I suppose it’s better to pour out your pain and sell it than to keep it in.

Anyways, Immortelle is coming soon. It’s dark, violent and crawling with zombies.