When something bad happens, people who are otherwise reasonable and kind humans will say terrible things like, “In the end it’ll all be for the best,” “This will turn out to be a great opportunity,” or “When one door closes another door opens.”
It’s really quite unforgivable, isn’t it?
Too bad it’s often quite true.
It was April 1, 2013. I had been working for an architectural firm, doing great work, putting my heart and soul into my dream job. I had no idea that the axe was overhead until they called me into the boardroom. I was laid off along with about a half dozen of my co-workers. (Architects shed staff like fleas, by the way. Don’t work for architects unless you know this.)
I was devastated. Of course I was. And on April Fools Day, too.
I was also scared. You see, I’m the major breadwinner in our family. My darling Alyx has a couple part time gigs in addition to writing but I’m the bacon-bringer, the meat in the sandwich, the mortgage-payer. Without my paycheck, we’re utterly screwed.
So, yes, scared. Shitless.
What did I do? I cried a lot, then picked it all up and started looking for work. And I also started redrafting, from scratch, a story that had been emphatically not working. I pulled out a great piece of advice from the brilliant Steven Barnes (which I’ve blogged about here), put it down on the table, and started again.
Six weeks later, Alyx and I had sold our Vancouver condo and moved to Toronto. I got a new job, new city, new horizons to explore. And I was drafting a story that was, bit-by-bit and slowly-so-slowly, teaching me how to write. Finally, after years of desperately trying to learn to write while everything was comfortable and stable, at a time of great personal stress and upheaval I was able to figure out some of the skills I knew I’d been missing.
So this is how getting laid off — which probably ranks as #5 on the list of worst things that have happened to me in my adult life — gave me Sylvain, and the little fish, Annette, Gérard, a parrot, and a monkey, and a colorful Versailles that still leaps off the page into my mind. It gave me my first big-time professional sale, to the best-paying, most prestigious market in the SF field, to an editor I’ve admired since the 1980s, Ellen Datlow.
I’m not the kind to forgive and forget. I’m not that easy-going. But the memory of getting laid off doesn’t hurt anymore. In fact, I might actually be grateful for it.
Read the story that makes legendary editor Ellen Datlow cry every time she reads it! Read the story that Tor Associate Editor Irene Gallo had to stop reading on the subway because it was too darn steamy!
The following is the novella’s first scene. It starts with a bang (ha ha, sorry, couldn’t resist), so depending on how much steam you can take, you may want to avoid reading it on the subway, or at work.
Waters of Versailles – Excerpt
Sylvain had just pulled up Annette’s skirts when the drips started. The first one landed on her wig, displacing a puff of rose-pink powder. Sylvain ignored it and leaned Annette back on the sofa. Her breath sharpened to gasps that blew more powder from her wig. Her thighs were cool and slightly damp—perhaps her arousal wasn’t feigned after all, Sylvain thought, and reapplied himself to nuzzling her throat.
After two winters at Versailles, Sylvain was well acquainted with the general passion for powder. Every courtier had bowls and bins of the stuff in every color and scent. In addition to the pink hair powder, Annette had golden powder on her face and lavender at her throat and cleavage. There would be more varieties lower down. He would investigate that in time.
The second drip landed on the tip of her nose. Sylvain flicked it away with his tongue.
Annette giggled. “Your pipes are weeping, monsieur.”
“It’s nothing,” he said, nipping at her throat. The drips were just condensation. An annoyance, but unavoidable when cold pipes hung above overheated rooms.
The sofa squeaked as he leaned in with his full weight. It was a delicate fantasy of gilt and satin, hardly large enough for the two of them, and he was prepared to give it a beating.
Annette moaned as he bore down on her. She was far more entertaining than he had expected, supple and slick. Her gasps were genuine now, there was no doubt, and she yanked at his shirt with surprising strength.
A drip splashed on the back of his neck, and another a few moments later. He had Annette abandoned now, making little animal noises in the back of her throat as he drove into her. Another drip rolled off his wig, down his cheek, over his nose. He glanced overhead and a battery of drips hit his cheek, each bigger than the last.
This was a problem. The pipes above were part of the new run supporting connections to the suites of two influential men and at least a dozen rich ones. His workmen had installed the pipes just after Christmas. Even if they had done a poor job, leaks weren’t possible. He had made sure of it.
He gathered Annette in his arms and shoved her farther down the sofa, leaving the drips to land on the upholstery instead of his head. He craned his neck, trying to get a view of the ceiling. Annette groaned in protest and clutched his hips.
The drips fell from a join, quick as tears. Something was wrong in the cisterns. He would have to speak with Leblanc immediately.
“Sylvain?” Annette’s voice was strained.
It could wait. He had a reputation to maintain, and performing well here was as critical to his fortunes as all the water flowing through Versailles.
He dove back into her, moving up to a galloping pace as drips pattered on his neck. He had been waiting months for this. He ought to have been losing himself in Annette’s flounced and beribboned flesh, the rouged nipples peeking from her bodice, her flushed pout and helplessly bucking hips, but instead his mind wandered the palace. Were there floods under every join?
Instead of dampening his performance, the growing distraction lengthened it. When he was finally done with her, Annette was completely disheveled, powder blotched, rouge smeared, wig askew, face flushed as a dairy maid’s.
Annette squeezed a lock of his wig and caressed his cheek with a water-slick palm.
“You are undone, I think, monsieur.”
He stood and quickly ordered his clothes. The wig was wet, yes, even soaked. So was his collar and back of his coat. A quick glance in a gilded mirror confirmed he looked greasy as a peasant, as if he’d been toiling at harvest instead of concluding a long-planned and skillful seduction—a seduction that required a graceful exit, not a mad dash out the door to search the palace for floods.
Annette was pleased—more than pleased despite the mess he’d made of her. She looked like a cat cleaning cream off its whiskers as she dabbed her neck with a powder puff, ignoring the drips pattering beside her. The soaked sofa leached dye onto the cream carpet. Annette dragged the toe of her silk slipper through the stained puddle.
“If this is not the only drip, monsieur, you may have a problem or two.”
“It is possible,” Sylvain agreed, dredging up a smile. He leaned in and kissed the tips of her fingers one at a time until she waved him away.
He would have to clean up before searching for Leblanc, and he would look like a fool all the way up to his apartment.
At least the gossips listening at the door would have an enduring tale to tell.
End of scene 1.
The rest of the story is coming first thing Wednesday!
My story is an alternate ending to From Russia with Love, focusing on Tatiana Romanova and Rosa Klebb. Though the title is from Lord Byron and the story starts with a quote from Childe Harold, let me assure you this is no highbrow contemplation of Bond’s inner manpain. It could properly be subtitled James Bond and the Lesbian Dwarves.
The story is deviant as hell. Why deviant? Well, it explores a few things I believe with all my heart:
1. Women are not inherently nicer or kinder than men. With the right opportunities, women are capable of committing every possible crime and indecency.
2. Just because a woman is gorgeous and charming doesn’t mean she’s nice (I’m looking at you, Tatiana Romanova).
3. Beautiful romances can happen between unbeautiful people (I’m looking at you, Rosa Klebb and [redacted]).
I love this deviant freakshow of a story with all my heart and can’t wait for the antho to come out in November.
For less than a buck (yes, only 99 cents!) you get nearly 19,000 words of sex, magic, and plumbing — including hot guys in hose and wigs, hotter women in amazing dresses who put makeup in unmentionable places, a mischievous and powerful water spirit who just wants someone to sing to her, Louis XV who loves his cat and his mistress in equal measure, adorable monkeys, saucy parrots, bejeweled leopards, manly best friends, courtly intrigue, champagne fountains, and home renovation disasters in France’s most sumptuous and luxurious palace.
Waters of Versailles, because you need to know what these people got up to in 1738. Oh yeah.
A little disheartening to hear that my very first story was considered not worth reading, especially by someone for whom the political aspect of the story should be apparent. And also not great to have someone with a sizable following tell everyone that it’s not worth reading. But that’s neither here nor there. Not everything works for everyone.
1. It’s honest.
My story is based on a real (and ongoing) epidemic of murders along Highway 16 in BC and Alberta. I grew up on this highway, always very aware of the danger it represented. One of my high school classmates was one of the victims. As we speak, an epidemic of serial killers is still preying on Aboriginal women in Canada (a situation that the government and the police still barely acknowledge). Writing about this but pulling a curtain over the violence would be dishonest.
2. I did it as briefly as I could.
The sexual assault and murder scene is 350 words. I focused on the sensory aspect and kept it matter of fact. No pretty language. Just get it done.
3. I gave the rapist/murderer nothing.
I hate it when movies/TV treat rapist and murderer characters like they’re interesting people. It’s fetishistic and disgusting. I’m not interested in adding to that. He gets nothing from me, and I specifically divested him of his humanity in one line, “He didn’t exist except as a medium for pain.”
4. It worked.
The story has received a strong response, especially from men. On the whole, their reactions could be summarized as, “That was harsh. Really disturbing, but effective. I get it.”
I call that a success and a good justification for writing something violent and awful.
My Science Fiction horror story “The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill,” which appeared in the February 2015 Clarkesworld Magazine (text | podcast), will be reprinted in the In the Shadow of the Towers, Speculative Fiction in the Post-9/11 World, an anthology edited by Douglas Lain.