By Brantley Thompson Elkins
Once upon a time, Lisa Binkley advised me that a good way to improve my own writing skills was to edit the writing of others. I'd already done a bit of that, but I've done a lot more since.
Usually, it's just a matter of correcting typos and other minor errors, but sometimes I have to go further. I can tell what the writer is doing, or trying to do, but can see that the thought, or the emotion in the scene could be expressed better, or even that the scene needs a fresh approach.
I work only with writers for whose style and subject matter I have a natural affinity. It is a joy to work with them. If their work were incompetent, or simply uninteresting to me, it would be only a chore at best -- and torture at worst. The writers I work with don't always agree with my suggestions, and I respect that. But they trust me, as I trust them. And I can trust myself with them.
But I could never edit Lisa's work. It's too good. Perhaps some latter-day Maxwell Perkins could. I'm not going to pretend that she's perfect; she may commit the occasional typo (far less often than anyone else I know, including myself), and perhaps there are scenes of hers that could be written better. But not by me; I could never trust myself to improve on her.
Take "A Matter of Perspective," which appeared in Kudzu Monthly. One of her other readers suggested cutting the last two paragraphs. Well, maybe. But maybe not. Perhaps she might take a blue pencil to her story, but I never would. Final paragraphs or not, it's a wonderful story and it's like nothing I've ever read before. I suppose there must have been thousands of stories about lost hikers, but none like this. Depend on it.
"A Matter of Perspective" is a woman's story, and one that could be told only by a woman. At least, I can't think of any male writer who could have told it. Many, perhaps most men (Ed Howdershelt is the most shining exception among those associated with the Abintra Universe group) don't write about women with any great insight. In our particular genre, we can get away with that because we write about the kind of superheroines who don't have to go through any of the things ordinary women do. They may not be men in dresses, or in our case blue and red costumes, but they tend to be super tomboys, at least.
There's been a lot of rubbish about "woman writers," and it can run to extremes. There are those who still think women are fit to write only soap opera or romance novels (And I'm not putting those down; there are good examples of both.). Then there are those who praise (or sometimes condemn) women who can "write like a man." Those who praise seldom realize how condescending they are in admitting a few women to their private club; those who condemn are usually the kind of radical feminists who think that all women's writing should follow their agenda.
Lisa Binkley doesn't have any agenda, except writing good stories, stories that only she could write. I don't know where she stands politically, or in the culture wars. But I can tell that she has no regard whatever for the Thought Police. You can tell that from As Pretty Girls Do, her novel of alien abduction and rape. Kind of an interstellar Story of O. Except that the character of Beth grows in the course of the story, and becomes a true heroine at the end. What seems at first to be only a string of sexual encounters turns out to be a learning experience. APGD is what the Germans call a bildungsroman, a novel of the hero's (or in this case heroine's) education, and a worthy addition to that genre.
My first acquaintance with Lisa's fiction was, of course, "Questlings." I was new to the Aurora Universe, and I was sampling all the AU fiction I could by "Sharon Best," Alternate Histories, AK and others. But I could tell that Lisa's was totally different, like nothing else in the genre. Better. I've always wanted to see more of the Story of Nov'ayul, the flawed Protector who nevertheless seems more heroic than most of her counterparts -- she surely influenced my own Theel'dara. But AU fiction was never Lisa's first love and, for various reasons, we may never see any more of it from her.
APGD was still being serialized at the time I joined the AU community. I devoured the chapters that had already been posted, and waited eagerly for more. Like many, I wondered where the story was going and, even more, what the point of it was going to be. When that point became clear, in Chapter 41, it was catharsis, it was epiphany. Beth, the seeming victim of circumstance, had become one of the greatest heroines of science fiction -- and in a scene terrible in its intensity. She is being tortured to make her betray a friend, and she will not betray her. I won't go into the details. But when you read that scene, ask yourselves: would any man have shown such courage under the same circumstances? It doesn't matter that she's rescued in the nick of time; she could never have known that. All she could have believed was that even if she were to survive her ordeal, she would be mutilated for life. Yet she was true.
I won't even speculate about how a conventional soccer mom, a woman as "square" as can be in her everyday life (Shooting pool and wearing biker togs is about as rebellious as she gets.) could have written something like APGD. And its hard for me to imagine the kind of memory and concentration she brought to the prolonged writing process, although I know this is typical of Lisa. She has four current science fiction and fantasy projects -- "Schism," "Blondes and Blades," "Emerald City" and "Chestnut Eyes" -- all of which are being written and posted in fits and starts. Yet she can return to one of these serials after months, and it's as if she'd never left -- the flow of the story is still there; each further installment, no matter long delayed, meshes perfectly with the one before.
It must have been the same with The Secrets of Katie Zurin, which is all the more remarkable in that the novel is structured as an incredibly complex series of "present" (several presents) scenes and flashbacks. No secret that its a vampire story, but its like no vampire story you've ever read. Nothing like anything you've ever seen on the screen, either, from the alien cultural background Lisa creates for her vampire race to a plot that touches on everything from a scientific research project to the decadent Dolce Vita life of the families that support it. Most of all, the tangled relationship of Michael and Katie and why everything that happens between them depends on what makes Katie tick.
Where does Lisa get her ideas? The only time I was present at the creation, so to speak, was for "Emerald City," which was inspired by some on-line jests about how she'd look in an emerald bikini as the Princess of Oz. Needless to say, the actual story has nothing to do with either bikinis or Oz. I know that "Blondes and Blades" is like no other swords and sorcery story I've ever read, but I don't know where it came from. It's the same with "Schism," which could become the best lost colony science fiction story. And "Chestnut Eyes," which is I'm not sure what it is, but it's terrific. Like all her works, it makes me wonder why Lisa Binkley isn't a household name, why we don't see her novels at Barnes & Noble or Borders. God knows, theyre better than at least half the stuff there now.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that literature is "a series of windows, even of doors." Lisa's work is like that. I still have to catch up with The White Lady, her historical epic, but I'm sure that it took will open new vistas for me. And, by example, by inspiration, she has helped me to do the same. I want to close by telling about how a story of hers enabled me to complete a story of mine.
I'd just written a scene for "Throne of the Gods," the one leading up to the trial of Theel'dara before the High Council, and I didn't like it. Something was wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it. So I asked Lisa. I can't remember her response in any detail; it was good advice in a general way, but it wasn't to the point. And yet her "Questlings" was itself to the point.
There is a scene in which the young Nov'ayul proves her right to be a Protector by forcing open the Great Door of the Hall of Protectors. Shadar (then known as Sharon) had given me a description of the Hall, which I'm sure had nothing in common with Lisa's version. But when I found a way to reconcile those images, the Great Door was opened to my own heroine. I knew that Theel'dara had to go through that door (under different circumstances, of course!), and Lisa -- without even realizing it -- had given me what I needed to finish that scene, and the story.
But that's what Lisa is good at. Opening doors.