Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Looking for feedback on your writing? I can help

How can I help you with your writing, you ask? Well, I'm so glad you did.

I offer two kinds of services. The first, critique, is most helpful to you if you have finished your project. It doesn't need to be perfect - I don't expect it to be - but it should be in some state that you call "done." What kind of project? Just about any. Short story, novella, novel. Fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance. Whatever. Even nonfiction - I've taught writing at the undergraduate and graduate level, and to law students. We can work something out. 

I provide feedback on structure, plot, character, worldbuilding, general information flow. If you have specific questions - "Do my female characters read as actual people?" "Were the fight scenes clear?" - I'll answer those, too. I don't line edit you, but my feedback is very detailed.

The second kind of service is mentoring. Do you want feedback on your novel in progress? Do you have a project that is in some state of hot mess? Is there a specific part of your writing you're looking to improve? Do you have some writing-related thing that you want to work on, but that I haven't listed? This is the service for you.

Why should you work with me? Well, I've taught writing in some form or other since 2001. As I said above, I've taught at the university and law school level. I've also taught online courses for LitReactor. I'm a writer myself, and my work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, been in Best of and Year's Best anthologies, as well as a number of magazines. My current and former clients have made professional sales, gotten into Clarion, and signed with agents.

In both cases, rates and turnaround times are project specific. Please contact me at KatWithSword@gmail.com with any questions, or for any further details.

Monday, August 4, 2014

"Except for you and me, of course. We don't ever lie." - An interview with Sarah McCarry

It is quite probable that sometime in the past year or so, I have told you that you should read All Our Pretty Songs. I've told you that it was full of gorgeous language and rich mythology and heartbreakingly true characters. I may even have given you a copy, you lucky human.

Now that it's out, I can add Dirty Wings to that "really, you must read this, do it now" recommendation. Sarah McCarry is amazingly talented. Really, you must read these. Do it now.

To help explain why, here is an interview with Sarah about these wonderful books.

*****

Kat Howard: One thing I'm really interested in is the chronology of these books. You begin the trilogy in All Our Pretty Songs with events that happen after the events of Dirty Wings, the second book. And Dirty Wings itself goes back and forth in time between Now and Then. For me, that added to the sort of timeless, mythological feel of the books, but could you talk about the choice that lead to that?

Sarah McCarry: And About A Girl, the third book (out in 2015) moves quite a bit forward in time--its main character is Aurora's daughter, and the narrator of All Our Pretty Songs, who's also in the third book, is in her thirties. It was something of an instinctive choice, to be honest. I knew, when I finished All Our Pretty Songs, that I'd said everything I wanted to say about Aurora and the narrator at that point in their lives, but I also had fallen in love with their world--which is itself a kind of timeless one. I joke with my editor that it's permanently 1997 in all three books. I wanted to give myself a lot of room to move around and connect strands across generations. When you look at how actual myths are structured, they have that scope to them, too--they're often focused on families, or groups of people, but those relationships play out over long spans of time, lots of births and deaths and murders and old betrayals and grudges and affairs. So though I'd say the initial decision came out of impulse, I found more and more richness within it as I kept working on the books, and more ways to build connections between the characters across the years. All three books are basically standalones, but I think they're in conversation with each other in ways that are only clear if you read them all. And I think the stakes are higher when you can see the impact the characters' decisions have across decades--it's more painful when those decisions get repeated, and more powerful when other characters choose to break free of them and find their own paths.

KH: Both books deal with travel, with journeys. Dirty Wings is partially a road trip narrative, and the journey in All Our Pretty Songs is even stranger than that. I was struck both by the necessity of travel to discovery, and by the fact that these books are instances of women, of girls, going on these journeys, whereas in many cases those are narratives that are traditionally coded as masculine. Were you specifically aiming to subvert the usual narrative? Do you feel that travel is necessary for discovery?

SM: I don't know if travel is necessary for discovery for everyone, but it was certainly necessary for me. And no, I didn't set out consciously to subvert that narrative--I read all the epic boys' roadtrip books growing up, and loved them to a certain extent--I was a lot more able, then, to deal with narratives I'd been totally written out of, or was actively insulted by--and I spent my late teens and most of my twenties traveling pretty much constantly, and around people who traveled constantly. I'd work six or seven jobs at a time for six months and then quit them all and just leave (this was long before 2008, obviously; it was a lot easier to do that then). But even though I'd always been frustrated that my own story and the stories of a lot of the women I knew--I mean, we're talking women who hopped trains across the country by themselves, for fun; who hitchhiked alone through every continent that has roads; bicycled from Morocco to Ireland, you name it--that frustration wasn't at the forefront when I started writing Dirty Wings. It was more like, "Obviously they're going to go on a road trip." I definitely wanted characters whose sense of the possible wasn't in any way confined by traditional narratives about what women do and don't do and want--I come back often to Green Screen, Vanessa Veselka's brilliant essay on the lack of female road narratives, and I think that she beautifully articulates how important road stories are. For me there was never any question that the characters' journeys would be literal as well as metaphorical.

KH: One of the things that I love about these books is that they are set with rich, intense female friendships. The narrator of All Our Pretty Songs says at the beginning "This is a story about love, but not the kind of love you think." And while both books have romances that are key to the plot, they come in secondary to the friendships. What are some of your favorite books with strong friendships at their core?

SM: Oh, I love this question! I could go on all day about this question! Brian Hall's The Saskiad is one of my favorite books of all time, and the friendship at its heart--between two teenage girls, Saskia and Jane--is so painful and gorgeous and perfectly rendered. It's a phenomenal, phenomenal book. I love Lisa and Celeste's relationship in Amanda Boyden's Pretty Little Dirty. Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy portrays a brilliantly complicated and intensely painful friendship between its main character, Lucy, and the wealthy white woman she works as a nanny for. Blake Nelson's Girl (which was a central text of my own adolescence) is largely centered on its narrator Andrea's friendship with her best friend, Cybil. Brandy Colbert's Pointe and Erica Lorraine Scheidt's Uses for Boys both have beautiful, unexpected friendships between girls that alter the course of the narrative. Jillian and Mariko Tamaki's This One Summer; Bett Williams's Girl Walking Backward. Edie Meidav's Lola, California is a huge, ambitious, epic novel that's also centered on friendship between two women. I just finished Meg Howrey's The Cranes Dance, which is about two sisters but their relationship is very much of the complicated, competitive, freighted girl-friendship kind. Megan Abbott, obviously, and Margaret Atwood. I'm going to think of like thirty more as soon as I send this back to you. If I ever work in a bookstore again I'm going to make a whole shelf that's just Girl Friendships Curated By Sarah.

ed. note - Yes. Good. I would read the hell out of that shelf. 

KH: One thing that really struck me about these books is the way that works of art - books, movies, music of all sorts - matter to the characters in them. Things like reading Susan Cooper at Christmas - art is a touchstone to these characters, it is one of the way that they mark times in their lives. It made me think of what I used to call my security blanket - the small box of books I took everywhere with me, no matter how small the space I was moving into. Can you share some of your own artistic touchstones?

SM: Oh, I love this. I have a shelf of books that I need to be able to see from my bed, wherever I live, because if I can't see them if I'm not home. 

If we are in full confessional mode, while All Our Pretty Songs is not autobiographical I do share most of my own touchstones with its characters. Other than those, Michael Ende's The Neverending Story was another huge book for me--I read it when I was very, very young, I think probably eight or nine, and I have a first edition (printed in green and red ink!!!!) that has survived something like twenty moves. 

All of the books that I loved tremendously as a child I reread regularly as an adult, and I think the way my relationship to them and with them has changed is another way to mark time--I still love The Secret History, but I understand now why many people don't, and I can also admit that Donna Tartt is rather over-fond of her adverbs (and I think there's more than one scene where Henry smokes something like forty cigarettes in the space of twenty minutes--"Henry lit another cigarette" is a running joke I have with my best friend, who loves that book as well.) Weetzie Bat was a tremendously important book for me--I still remember reading it under the table in eighth-grade art class, walking out of the room thinking holy shit I didn't know you could do that, and there's no question in my mind that I wouldn't be the writer I am without that book; but at the same time, I can recognize now that its characters of color, and some of its references, are deeply problematic, and that I certainly took in those flawed representations as well. I still love the book and its sequels with all my heart, but I think it's crucial to be able to talk about the work we love and that shaped us with the same care and honesty that we bring to anything else. The books we love, and that made us the people we've become, are not beyond criticism simply because they're meaningful to us. It's a little like the process of growing up and realizing your parents are not the all-knowing, all-powerful beings you thought, that they're human and fallible and as prone to making mistakes as anyone else. I think being open to those kinds of conversations can only enrich our relationships with art and how we think about it.

KH: Obviously, your work engages with Greek mythology. But it also engages with a more modern mythos as well - the myth of the rock star who blazes onto the scene and then dies too young. It's a recognizable story, for all that your version of it is unique. Did you feel like you were rebuilding a mythology as you were writing? How do you see mythologies changing and reshaping themselves in around our superstars? Can you share some of your favorite myths, ancient or modern?

SM: All Our Pretty Songs is, I think obviously, referencing the trajectory of Kurt Cobain, and of what happened in Seattle in the very early nineties when the record industry landed with millions and millions of dollars in what had previously been an isolated, tight-knit community of people in a tiny, podunk town. I was too young to witness that actual moment--I didn't start going to shows until the summer of 1994, after Kurt Cobain died and after the city had already been pretty much ravaged--but I grew up in its aftermath and that story was, absolutely, a kind of central myth of my adolescence. And of course there are many, many intersections between that particular mythology and the older myths I was working with in the trilogy. It's been interesting, because Kurt Cobain is very much a fictive figure for me, if that makes sense--but as I've gotten older, there are more and more people in my life now who actually did know him and were friends with him and for whom he was a real person who died much too young and who left a tremendous amount of real pain in his wake. Which has been a little weird, frankly. I didn't base anything in the books off elements of his biography, there's nothing of him there other than the story itself--hypertalented musician who became famous almost overnight and died very young, which describes any number of people--but it was still strange to think of people who actually knew him reading the books. I wouldn't say I felt I was rebuilding a mythology, exactly--maybe more that I was deeply informed by one that I've lived with almost as long as the Greek myths that went into the stories as well.

And my favorites--I always love the really, really fucked-up ones. Medea, obviously. Philomela and Procne--Philomela was raped by her sister Procne's husband Tereus, who cut out her tongue and exiled her so she couldn't tell anyone what he'd done; she wove her story into a tapestry that she sent to Procne, who was so furious at Tereus she killed their son, cooked him, and served him to his father in a pie; the gods turn both Philomela and Procne into birds so they can escape Tereus's wrath. I love that one. All the original Grimm's stories where Cinderella's sisters cut off their feet and bleed to death and everybody gets eaten or torn to pieces or turned into terrible things. I was, like, ten when I was reading those, thinking, YES. 

I'm a really well-adjusted person otherwise, cross my heart.

KH: In the opening of All Our Pretty Songs, we learn that Cass has told her daughter (the narrator) one version of her past with Maia (Aurora's mom). In Dirty Wings, we see another version of that past. These books are steeped in mythology of course, but they're also about the way we mythologize our own lives. Do you think we're capable of seeing our lives truly, and telling them as they are, or do we always need the comfort of that myth, of that alternate version of the story?

I'm not someone who believes in a single truth, or a genuine "as it is," when it comes to stories--when it comes to anything, really. Even in science, a narrative form that's insistent on its own objectivity, the story you read depends entirely on how you're looking. I think even the most honest among us prefer to present our stories in ways that flatter us. And I think even for people who are more or less able to see themselves truly, it's always more fun--more alluring, more interesting, more profitable--to shape our narratives in ways that make us seem more clever or funny or savvy than we actually are. One thing that's been interesting to me is that I've seen more than one person describe Cass as an unreliable narrator, and to me she's not unreliable at all; she's telling the truth as she sees it, which is not the same thing as telling a falsehood. Even Tally, the main character of About A Girl, who spends much of the book obsessed with the empirical, end, s up learning that truth is a malleable thing depending on who's narrating the story. I think most people are inclined to see their lives in the light that leaves them loveliest. Except for you and me, of course. We don't ever lie.

****

If you want to know more about Sarah, and you should, you can visit her website,  http://www.therejectionist.com/ or find her on twitter at @therejectionist

Monday, June 23, 2014

Beyond the edge of the map

I'm not good at maps. They're tricky for me to read - I can't quite figure out how to orient myself and my directions at once. I am never the person you want to let navigate. I have a particular talent for getting lost, and I'm pretty sure that the nice lady in my GPS has given up on me as hopeless.

So perhaps it may seem strange for me to write a story with maps at the center of it, but that is exactly what I have done. "All of Our Past Places," out in the gloriously named Journal of Unlikely Cartography. It's about maps and about friendship and I'm not sure if it's about getting lost, exactly, but it is very much about being found. 

And there really is a St. Patrick's Purgatory, on Station Island, in Ireland. Seamus Heaney wrote about it, as did Marie de France, in her Espurgatoire seint Patriz, about a knight named Owein, who goes to Purgatory and returns via the cavern on the island.

Sometimes places are even more complicated than maps.

Monday, June 9, 2014

And the chick

In news that is probably not surprising to anyone reading this post, I am a woman, and I am a writer. And so, I am very interested in the relationship between women and the arts - both in the women who make art, and in how women are portrayed in art.

My friend, and kickass writer, Maria Dahvana Headley wrote this post earlier today, about all of the wonderful, women-filled movies that we are unlikely ever to see. It made me so angry to read it, because those would all be great, and she's right. That many women on screen? At the same time? And taken seriously? Not likely to happen.

I mean, think about it. We've all seen enough ensemble casts to know how this works, right? You've got the smart, handsome lead, you've got the jock, you've got the funny guy, you've got the black guy, and you've got the chick.

Being "A Woman" is not a character description. (Neither, I know, is being a person of color.) We are not interchangeable objects, able to be swapped out according to hair color. We are - sit down, because this is shocking - as complex and as complicated as men. We have stories that are as complex and as complicated, as Maria's post so elegantly points out.

But here's what happens, when being "the chick" becomes the character description. That percentage up there? It's one role out of five, or twenty percent. We see that, and it becomes normal. That's what we expect. When those five heroes slow-walk in front of the explosion, we expect to see one of them - and only one - as a woman. When we look at women in jobs that are given high social status - cardiac surgeon, tenured professor - those fields are seventeen percent female. Slightly less than one in five, but still, approximately the same percent as what we see as normal. 

And God forbid that number gets any higher  - I mean if you get a room where one out of three people in it are women, thirty-three whole percent, men will report that that room was majority female. Think about that - if men only outnumber women two to one, that is perceived to be a room overflowing with a majority of women. 

It hurts my brain to even type that sentence. Like, I seriously don't even know how that works.

Except, of course I do.

And the chick. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Looking for help with your writing?

Stuck on your novel? Have a short story you want critiqued? Need help polishing your query letter? I might be the person you're looking for.

I work with writers and offer both critiques of finished work as well as mentoring through ongoing writing projects. Here's a bit about what that means:

Critique services are where you send me a finished piece of work, from short story to novel length, and I read it with a critical eye. I make notes about what works and what doesn't, and I make these notes in a rigorous fashion - not "You suck! You can't write! Those words aren't even a sentence, omg!!1!" - but I am not going to lie and tell you that your writing is awesome if it is not. I will pay your writing the respect of taking it seriously. Note: this does not include line edits or copy edits. I will also look at query letters and offer feedback on those.

Mentoring services are for people who want to work on a specific thing, or a specific project, with close assistance. I know this sounds vague, but really, I will work with you to design a support system for what you need as a writer. This can be a short term or long term relationship, and again, I will work with you on anything from short fiction to novels. In fact, one of the most common mentoring services I offer is reading of and feedback on novels in progress.

In answer to some frequently asked questions:

Yes, I charge for these services. Rates and turnaround times vary by project length and involvement. Please query at the linked email address below.

I am happy to work with any writer, at any level of experience, in any genre. You don't need to send me audition pages. I work more with writers of fiction than of nonfiction, but if you have a nonfiction project you want help with, go ahead and ask.

One of my current clients, Martin Cahill, who has made professional sales and been accepted into Clarion, has some very kind words about working together.

Here's some information on me, in case you are wondering who you'd be working with: I have over 20 professional short fiction sales. My work has been performed on NPR, included in a year’s best anthology, and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. I am a graduate of Clarion at UCSD, and am represented by Brianne Johnson at Writers House. Additionally, I have a Ph.D. in English Literature, and have taught at the undergraduate and graduate levels at the University of Minnesota, and Stonybrook University. I have also taught an Intro to Writing SFF course with LitReactor.

If you're interested, or have questions, please contact me here, at KatWithSword@gmail.com.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Not All Men

Friday night, a 22-year old man went on a shooting rampage, leaving six people dead aside from himself, and seven others injured. It appears to have been a premeditated act, one inspired by the young man's feeling that he was owed something by women, something that they had not given him. In a video message, he said he was going to go to the hottest sorority house at UCSB, and "slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up blond slut" in there.

After hearing the news this morning, I posted a quote from Margaret Atwood on twitter. "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."

It didn't take long before I was told that I was wrong, that I was generalizing, that this wasn't about men killing women but people killing people, that only psychopaths kill people, that men could have psycho ex-girlfriends, too. That by posting a quote like that, I was part of the problem. 

Never mind the statistics

It's a thing that happens, whenever I talk about an act of violence or aggression, committed by men against women. I get told, "not all men." As if I didn't know any men, had lived all of my life in a same-sex bubble.

The thing is, of course I know. Of course I get that. Most of the men I know are kind, are compassionate, are people I am proud to consider my friends.

I know some very good men, men who have literally put themselves between me and the man harassing me. I believe that most men would do that. But not all men.

I know that most men are decent human beings, who would never call a woman a bitch because she chooses not to speak to him. Most men. But not all men.

Most men do not follow women who don't want to talk to them down the street, yelling streams of obscenities at them, because they just want some time. Most men. But not all men.

Most men would never put a drug in a woman's drink, or get her so drunk she can't even speak, or use coercion, or violence, to force her to have sex with him. Most men. But not all men.

Most men would not kill their intimate partner, because she has chosen to leave them. Most men. But not all men.

Most men would never go on a shooting rampage, because they believed that they were owed sex by women.

Most men.

Sadly, not all men.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Stories and where you can find them

I'm delighted to have a story in the brand new issue of Interfictions. The entire issue is well worth checking out - interesting fiction, poetry, and nonfiction articles.  My short story is called "To Hold the Mirror." The seed of it was first planted in my brain by a mention of solitary bees on last year's Elementary finale. This is the bee that appears in my story - I think it's very beautiful. The other interesting and nonspoilery thing you might like to know is that the Silver Swan of John Joseph Merlin is a real thing, and it is spectacular.

Speaking of John Josephs, I am also very pleased to announce that my short story, "Locally Grown, Organic," will appear in a forthcoming anthology edited by John Joseph Adams, Help Fund My Robot Army & Other Improbable Crowd Funding Projects. You can read "Help Fund My Robot Army!!!" the story that inspired this anthology, here.