Monday, November 30, 2009

Redefining vacation

There's a story from Stephen King (it's in his memoir, On Writing, which I have read and taught, and think is fantastic) where he talks about an interview in which he was asked if he wrote every day of the year. He told the interviewer no, that he didn't write on his birthday or on Christmas. And then after, he felt bad, because he did actually write on those days as well.

I've been thinking about that a lot today, as the first round of "how was your Thanksgiving?" phone calls and emails hit yesterday evening and this morning. I had a lovely Thanksgiving. I went to the home of a dear friend's parents, where I usually spend the holidays that I don't fly home for. I ate my weight in delicious food, saw people who make me happy, and felt loved. I wrote before I went, and after I came home. This past holiday weekend, I sent out two short stories, polished my query letter and synopsis, and put together packets for the first round of agents that I'm querying so I could send them out this morning. I transcribed pages from notebook to computer, and got some good new writing done. From the reactions that I got when I told people this, it is clear that what I did this weekend is not most people's idea of a vacation.

Part of that is just my own neurosis. I'm not good at doing nothing for extended periods of time, and right now, anything over 24 hours that doesn't have writing in feels like an extended period of time. But the other thing is, although writing is work, it's a sort of work that I love. And so I look forward to typing *ENDS* more than to what the calendar says.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Just curious

I have a couple of pieces of short fiction that are, or will soon be, ready to send out. So I spent some time last night and this morning looking over the submission guidelines of various markets, making notes of response time, and requested format, and the usual sorts of necessary information.

And the thing that I keep wondering is if anyone has ever actually claimed to be a lusty pirate, in order to submit a lusty pirate story to Clarkesworld.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In thanksgiving

About this time two years ago, my life changed. I didn't realize exactly what was happening at the time, but in hindsight, when I think of before and after moments, that was one.

Some friends and I had organized a conference on fantasy literature, and the weekend went really well. I was fortunate enough to meet some amazing writers and scholars, and among those are people that I now consider very dear friends. And then about a week later, I wrote a story. And writing it felt kind of amazing. And I was at a crossroads - my marriage had recently ended, and I had moved from the constrained microscope that was the life of a faculty wife to a sudden and terrifying amount of freedom. I didn't have to be anyone's idea of appropriate anymore. I could be just a little bit mad, and try on being a writer.

So I wrote a couple more stories, and applied to Clarion. Because if I was going to fail (which I was sure I was) I was going to fail big. Because I had tried the smaller failures, and been exhausted by them. But more importantly, while I was waiting for that rejection letter, I kept writing. Because by that point, I didn't care what anyone else thought, I was going to write. And that was where the change came - I'm a driven overachiever who craves recognition, so I had lived my life using other people's opinions to define my worth. So, you know, I taught my first law school class at 24. Which sounds impressive, but I was miserable. Other people thinking you're awesome isn't so great, it turns out, if you hate your life. Writing changed that. I was finally doing something not because other people thought I was good at it, but because it meant something to me.

And then I didn't fail. And I've changed my definition of what failure means. Failure means retreat: to see the edge of the cliff and not jump off. And so I'm thankful. I'm thankful that my life upended itself to the degree where jumping off a cliff seemed possible. I'm thankful for the friends and family who have supported me, and encouraged me, and been the safety net that has kept me from hitting the ground. I'm thankful that I got scared enough that believing in myself was the only option.

I'm thankful for you, who read what I write here, and will, I hope, read me in other venues as well. Your support, your comments, make me so glad to have an audience, rather than the feeling of shouting into the darkness. And I'm thankful that now, even if the darkness was the only thing there, I'd still raise my voice.

Monday, November 23, 2009

To read, or not to read

It was my second semester of graduate school, and it was Byron's autobiography. You know, the one that we've never read because it was burned. I was a student of literature, and was struck by the tragedy of it - a text, from one of the greats, that would never be read, never be studied. Somehow, the fact that the book had been written, and would never be seen, was worse than if it had never existed at all.

Fast forward to now, and the recent publication of the unfinished work by Nabokov, The Original of Laura. And somehow, this seems like almost as much of a tragedy.

The context is, as always, the clarity. I love Nabokov. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the quality of even his unfinished prose is better than the majority of finished prose that is published. But there is a difference between an elegant sentence, a graceful idea, and a finished novel. And whatever else the 138 handwritten index cards that make up The Original of Laura are, they are not a novel.

If I were reading them as a scholar, in the small cathedral of a rare book room, I would be wholly grateful to Nabokov's wife and son for not following his wishes and burning them. But if I were reading them as a scholar, I would not be evaluating them the way those index cards will now be evaluated, now that they have been given to the world in book form. The Original of Laura is not the story he wanted to tell us, and, as a writer, I don't know if I can read it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wherein I still cannot listen to Neverwhere

I love audiobooks. Love them. Listening to an audiobook is like being told a story, a sensation that I hope to never outgrow. Even my pug, Sam I Am, likes audiobooks. His favorites are Seamus Heaney's reading of Beowulf, and Neil Gaiman's reading of The Graveyard Book. I know these are his favorites because when they are on, Sam, who is an older gentlepug, will get up and go to where the speakers are, and then sit in front of them, quirking his head in that mix of attentiveness and puzzlement that pugs show when they are interested in something.

I also love Neverwhere. It is the first thing of Neil's I ever read. (True story: my first year of law school, an acquaintance began the book, realized "it was full of weird shit" and that as she didn't like "weird shit," she wouldn't like it. Knowing that I was someone with a passing fondness for weird shit, rather than tossing the book, she gave it to me.) Outside of Sandman, it is my favorite of his books. Door is extraordinary, and brave, and she has red hair. And Richard shows the grace inherent in being an ordinary person, who chooses to do right. Also, I should quite like to have the coat of the marquis de Carabas.

I was given the audiobook of Neverwhere as a pre-Clarion gift. I tried to listen to it as I loaded my iPod for the drive to San Diego. And then I unloaded it. The problem, you see, is Misters Croup and Vandemar. Or, well, Neil's voices for them. The voices are terrifying. They actually gave me bad dreams. I had this nightmare that my story for week 4 was such a failure that when I went to my conference with Neil, it wasn't him there at all, but Croup and Vandemar instead. When they don't like your story... well, let's just say they don't express their displeasure with a red pen.

And then today. Today, I have been working on writing the synopsis for my novel. This is a process that has been so frustrating that I have begun to understand why so many writers are driven to drink. So I thought, well, I'll give myself a break, and a bit of a treat, and listen to something nice while I fix dinner. I put on the CD of Neverwhere. Sam perched in front of the stereo. And then Croup and Vandemar came on.

I'm rereading the book instead. Quietly.

Monday, November 16, 2009

In Camelot

There are certain stories that are so large that it seems that nearly everyone knows them. One of those stories is that of King Arthur. The name is one to conjure with and invoking it brings images: Camelot, the Round Table, the Sword in the Stone. Or was it from the Lady of the Lake that Arthur received Excalibur? And there, that moment of possibility, is why writers return to stories like Arthur's again and again: that maybe there is still some bit of truth to be discovered, even though we all already know the end.

But because we know the end, or think we do, care must be taken when the story is told. Hew too closely to the truth that already exists in readers' minds, and your work is simply derivative. Novelty is appreciated only if done with great care, and knowledge of the interstices in the Story that are waiting to be explored. Anything too novel, and your readers will wonder if you know anything about your source material in the first place.

Or there is the option taken by Catherynne M. Valente in her exquisite novella, Under in the Mere: to acknowledge that the Arthurian Story has become so large that the characters in it are no longer characters, but have become archetypes, roles to be played that are dictated by the bounds of the story. This acknowledgment is open - each chapter opens with a Tarot card (illustrations are by James A. Owen and Jeremy Owen) that indicates what role the character fills. And by telling the story in this way, by looking at what it means to be the Lady in the Lake, the Lancelot, the Morgan, Valente manages to do something new with the Matter of Britain, to make the characters both fully inhabit the roles that the story dictates for them, and, at the same time, to make them more than simply those roles.

Under in the Mere also deals beautifully with the fact that when a story is told as often as Arthur's is, that the later versions of the story overwrite the earlier ones. In other words, post-Eliot, a reading of the Fisher King's story is as influenced by "The Waste Land" as Eliot's poetry is by the story of the Fisher King. And so there is the imagery of the desert in Valente's writing, and her characters are haunted by modern day Camelots, and the knowledge that their stories have been told over and again. They know how this ends as well as we do. And so what they tell us is not the beginning and ending of Arthur or Camelot, but the way their story begins and ends. Valente's writing tells the truth of a Galahad or Mordred as a literary symbol who is also still a person.

I love stories about Arthur and Camelot. My bookshelves are full of them. Under in the Mere makes that well-known story new again, makes me remember why it began to haunt me in the first place, so long ago that I cannot remember I time that I did not know it. It's an amazing, gorgeous work. I expect that I will see it on a lot of "Best of" lists, and I highly, highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ready for what comes next

Last night I finished the revisions on Linger, and so officially converted what began as a 3400 word short story to an 80,000 word novel. Because I like symmetry, I listened to the same song as I was finishing it as I had on constant repeat while writing that original short story (Clarion, week 5): "Take to the Sky (Russia)" by Tori Amos. One of the lyrics - "and here I stand with this sword in my hand" - was the beginning of the story. Well, one of the beginnings, anyway. But certainly a touchstone for me while writing, and for the character Aislinn, who sometimes had nothing other than herself, and the sword in her hand.

I began writing it when I got home from Clarion, so it's been about a fifteen month process from the beginning to The End. Which, honestly, is longer than I would like, but I also finished and defended a dissertation, and dealt with a Major Personal Upheaval. It's been through three major (addition and subtraction of thousands of words) revisions, two based on reader response, one based on my own realization that some things were missing.

I'm proud of what I've written, and proud of myself for writing it. I'm grateful to my Clarionmates, who workshopped it, to Neil who made me write it, and Geoff who told me it needed to be a novel. I'm grateful to everyone who generously read and commented on drafts, and who provided encouragement and support.

And I'm ready to find an agent.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Trust me, I'm a doctor

Doing literary analysis is hard. Oh sure, not like brain surgery hard, or airplane design hard, but it's one of those things that can be tricky.

Doing analysis of an actual work of literature within the text of a work of fiction, in a manner which is both accessible to the lay person and interesting enough to make said lay person actually want to read it, because it provides Important Clues about the Plot (and, oh yes, remembering to provide those clues) while in character is... well, it's so far beyond hard that writing this scene has fried my brain and I can't think of the right word to describe that level of difficulty.

Seriously, I feel like I should send this scene on to my advisor in the hopes of talking the U out of another doctorate.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thus and so

The revision of Linger continues, as these things do. The writing is done, and the changes are in the computer for eight of twenty-one chapters. I have conceived an intense hatred for the physical act of typing, and a miserable dislike of Courier 12-pt. On the upside, Sam I Am has eaten all of the Chewie of Eternal Stench, and so my office no longer smells like wet liver. The scent of wet liver is a serious barrier to creativity.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Please, please, please, let me, let me, let me"

I am officially at the point of revising where I feel that I have accomplished something if I remember that every sentence needs a verb. Two and a half chapters to go, and then this pass through Linger will be done. (Well, except for then transferring all the hand-written notes into the actual computer document. One day my process will be efficient. Today is not that day.)

And I was going to talk about how revising is hard, but necessary in order to be true to the story and tell it in the best way possible. And there were these amusing typos that I was going to share. But right now, I am too tired to be amusing, and all of my erudite and philosophical thoughts are going into putting the right words on paper. So rather than searching for any more verbs, I'll leave you with Amanda Palmer's version of the song from which this post takes it's title. It's a pretty accurate reflection of my current state of mind.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Recent reading

A. S. Byatt, The Children's Book. I wanted, so badly, to love this book. Possession is one of my favorite books, one that haunts me even when I haven't read it in a long time. The Children's Book I liked very much, but did not love. It had, I believe, the potential to be great, but was brought down by its own ambitions.

Byatt has an enormous cast of characters, and tries diligently to give each of them a moment on center stage. But what this means is that many of the characters are not fully realized, but rather are simply a name attached to a history and a set of characteristics. Because so few of them become people, it is very difficult to care about them, even when horrific things happen (and they do.) It's a book that deals with a grand geographical and temporal scale, and so Byatt often sums up the passage of history, telling us the events rather than showing them to us through the eyes of the characters. And (I can't believe I, of all people am saying this) if you are going to begin and end a story in medias res, you cannot allow the passage of time to serve as plot.

But what The Children's Book does well it does brilliantly, and that is meditate on the act of telling a story, and the effect that the stories we are told has on us. The connection between life and story is made real and tangible here, and that is a haunting and powerful thing to read, and to consider.

George Mann, The Affinity Bridge. On the other hand, The Affinity Bridge is a book that, based on the description - it has zombies! mad science! steampunk! - I never would have expected to enjoy. But based on the recommendation of a friend, and the shiny, fabulous cover art (art by Viktor Koen, jacket design by Jamie Stafford-Hill). I picked it up, and loved it.

The Affinity Bridge was a great deal of fun to read. The elements that I was wary of (zombies and steampunk) felt organic to the story, not tacked on for added shiny mayhem. And I particularly loved the character of Veronica Hobbes. Mann allows the male characters in the novel to pay service to the conventions of the day, and suggest that, for example, the smoldering ruin of an airship crash is no place for a lady, and then allows Hobbes to competently go about her business. She's great, and I'll read the next book just to see what she does next.

Elizabeth Bear, By the Mountain Bound. This tells the story of the events that precede All the Windwracked Stars (which you will want, so if you don't already have it, just get them both at once. If you do, find your copy now, because you will want to reread it.) Bear's Shakespearian delight in, and facility with, language is well on display in this gorgeous book. It is the story of love, and lies, and the end of a world. Of a Grey Wolf, and a girl in a red cloak. There is sacrifice and faith, magic and poetry. And, as is the case when a story begins with a marriage rather than ending with one, there is tragedy. Bear is one of the most brilliant writers working in speculative fiction, and if you want to understand why, this book is an excellent place to start.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy New Year

The timing of the Celtic New Year has always made more sense to me than the Roman one. This is the point of the year when things change. Night falls faster now. The leaves litter the ground, and the trees are dark skeletons, piercing a cold sky. The air carries with it cold, and a hint of decay. The old year dies, and we can see it.

It is the time of year when boundaries are thin. Dia de los Muertos, Samhain, All Saints' and All Souls' Days are celebrated. We remember our past, and make our promises for the future. The year dies, but it there is beauty in the end of things as much as in their beginning. We mourn our past so that we can look to our future.

Happy New Year.