Friday, June 26, 2009

What does the zombie say?

This morning, I went to visit my friend Jen and her little girl, my faery goddaughter, Zoe. It was a great visit. Jen and I caught up, Zoe showed off her completely adorable new trick (giving kisses), I got the latest installment of my birthday desserts (for my birthday last year, Jen gave me six homemade desserts of my choosing, whenever I wanted them). Like I said, a great visit.

But perhaps my favorite part came while Zoe was going through some of her books, and Jen was telling me about some of the frustrations inherent in reading to a small human. There are the books where the only way to distinguish the animals is by color: dogs are brown, pigs are pink, elephants are grey, but they pretty much all look the same. There are the alphabet books that go for odd: "V is for vicuña." Okay, lions roar and cows moo, but what sort of noise does a vicuña make? Then Jen said, "Hey, Zoe, what does the zombie say?" Oh yes. Zoe is learning to shamble and say "BRAAAINS" when prompted. I love my friends.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"And though scary is exciting, nice is different from good"

I've mentioned before about Cat Valente writing a serial novel online to pay her bills. And it looks like Tim Pratt is going to be doing something similar. Amanda Palmer's rent isn't being paid by her record label, it's being paid by her fans. And Thea Gilmore is looking for angels to help her make music.

None of them are looking for charity. They just want to get paid for working.

What? Being a writer or a rock star doesn't sound like work? Okay. Try this: Write a song, music and lyrics, please. You can even choose the instrument. Now go perform it in public. In front of strangers. Or this: write a short story, 2500-4500 words. With a beginning, middle, and end, character development and plot. Then give it to people you don't know, and ask them to tell you what they think of it. That's just one song, one story. Think about making an album, writing a novel.

Just because something is creative, doesn't mean it's not work. Just because something seems like a nice way to make a living, doesn't mean it's a good way, or an easy one.

And I wonder if we're returning, at least partially, to the age of patronage, where fans support artists directly. As someone just starting out as a writer, and thinking about how long it might take to establish myself, and knowing that even having books on shelves, like Cat Valente and Tim Pratt do, doesn't mean security, I wonder if that might not be a good thing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Zombies running all around

There are any number of reasons why I miss living in Seattle. Today, I add zombies to that list. 

(Incidentally, I found out about this marvelous event from Elizabeth Bear's twitter stream. She writes absolutely amazing books -- if you're not already, you should read her stuff.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Father's Day

My Dad travels a lot. Once, when I was flying home from law school, we ran into each other at the Atlanta airport. As we walked through to catch our flight, there was a chorus of greetings from the airport employees: "Hi Mr. Howard." "Is that your daughter in law school, Mr. Howard?" "Are the rest of the kids already home for Christmas?" Everyone knew him. Like I said, he travels a lot.

For all that he was gone a lot, I don't remember him ever missing anything important. I remember him being there. Even for the small stuff, like the Girl Scout Father and Daughter Day that we would go to in the summer. We would sing the Little Bunny Foo Foo song (and my Dad has an enormous voice, so when he sings Little Bunny Foo Foo, it stays sung) and roast marshmallows, and go canoeing, and those are some of my best memories of him. Out together on the lake, in the sun, not even needing to talk, just knowing my Dad was there, at my back. 

Thanks Dad, for always being there, and for always having my back. Happy Father's Day. I love you.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Strengths and liabilities

I recently heard a panel of authors discuss their bad habits as writers. My immediate reaction was one of utter relief: "Oh, if you, who wrote that book that I've been rereading as a favorite for 17 years now, cannot plot either, then there's hope for me." Then one of them mentioned that many of the same things that she thought of as her bad habits were really just the dark side of her natural gifts.

That was a thought that really resonated with me. It's certainly true in my own writing. I love pretty words. Elegant language, delicately arranged into poetic patterns, seduces me utterly. I've read Shakespeare for pleasure since I was ten, and I used to read the thesaurus for fun. (Out loud, of course, so I could hear what the words sounded like.) I'm good at words and language. And so when things aren't going well in my writing, it's so very much easier for me to just sweep the flaws under the edges of a well-turned sentence.

Of course, I got called out on that at Clarion. One of my instructors basically said, "That's lovely. You can do that, or you can be good." It's so much harder to put the real emotions on the page, to understand what the character really wants, what the story needs. But I want to be good. So while I am grateful for my gift, I try not to let it become a curse. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pushing the Needle Too Far

So, hurrah, my advisor read the chapter last night. This morning, I made the edits she suggested, and sent it out to my committee. Three down, one to go. The next one involves Anne Askew, martyred for being too Protestant for Henry VIII. I expect my dreams of being burned at the stake to continue. Fun times, this academic life.

I did take the afternoon off from the dissertation and finished another piece of flash fiction, one that I have been working on for an amount of time disproportionate to its actual length. Yes, the title is the same as the Indigo Girls song, and yes, I listened to that while writing it. (Alternating with Amanda Palmer's "The Point of it All.")

****

Pushing the Needle Too Far


            For the past three nights I have dreamt of being sewn into another woman’s skin.

            While not precisely a friend, she’s hardly a stranger, and on occasion I have idly wondered what it would be like to be in her shoes. Yet sharing a skin with her is a bit beyond what I had imagined.

            The needle that pierces her flesh is long, bright silver where it shines through the dark smears of blood. The thread that binds us together is thick and black, and we are held closed with large, clumsy x’s. This seems normal, right, somehow.

            It is your hand that does the sewing.

            You laugh when I tell you about my dream. I try to put it from my mind, but I can feel the phantom tugging of coarse, black thread, feel the pressure of her skin as it stretches over my elbows and ankles. I am just the slightest bit taller than she is.

            I wonder if, in her dreams, she can feel me inside her, not quite fitting.

            People who know us both joke nervously about how similar I am to her, how you must have a type. The half-empty bottle of perfume she left behind is the same scent I wear.

The dreams make my shadow heavier. I feel where it clings to the edges of my skin, sticky like spider silk. It tugs at the boundaries of my body, weighted down by someone else veiling herself in its tenebrous gauze.

            On the fringes of sleep and waking, I hear other conversations. Hers. I feel the words on the inside of my mouth, nearly speak them.

            You give me her favorite novel, something European and erudite. I do not see the point of this. You are here because I am not her, after all. But still, I look for her in the white spaces between the words, seek her among semicolons and adverbs.

            The dreams continue. Every night you bind us together, slipping me inside of her, pulling the thread tight.

            I wake to find blood pinpricked down the backs of my arms. I wash, and am surprised that the underlying skin is unbroken. Perhaps the blood is hers.

            I wonder what she has been dreaming. I wonder if she wakes feeling as if there is a stranger inside of her skin, or with my breath in her lungs.

            When I ask you what you dream, you do not answer. But you look at me as if you are measuring. As if I do not quite fit. And I feel my heart race in her chest.

            The dream comes again. You have hollowed her out, and you slip me into what remains, smoothing her flesh over my bones like a glove. I fit so easily inside her.

            I do not feel the pain, because it is her flesh that you pass the thin, silver needle through, her skin cross-hatched by ragged black x’s.

            But there is pain when I wake. Dull, deep pain, and my skin bears stitches like those that close a rag doll. Blood has soaked the sheets, violent, wet scarlet. My pulse flutters and throbs against the bindings in my skin. I smell perfume through the pain, and it clouds my head until I cannot remember if it is hers or mine.

It doesn’t matter. You are sleeping, blood-splashed, next to me in the bed. On the bedside table, there are scissors, a spool of thick, black thread. Still stained from its employment, a long, sharp needle rests between them. I push it through your skin, blood, bone, heart.

I take up the scissors, and cut myself free.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Even my blood is tired right now

That sound you hear in the background is another dissertation chapter unspooling from my printer. When my eyes uncross, I will read it over for typos (my favorite of the day = "Hundred Tears War"), fix the citations in the footnotes, and send it on to my advisor. 

I have gotten to the point of the project where my friends have been asking if they need to come by with food. (I forget to eat when I am working. Once, in a now-notorious incident, I wrote a meal into the novel, and convinced myself that I had eaten as well, and was astounded to, five hours later, walk into the kitchen to see my meal laid out and realize that no, my characters had dinner, but I did not.)

And I am grumpy at the dissertation all the time. My friend Damien says this is because I am at the end, and I know all the arguments and just need to get them down on paper. And he's exactly right. I have been living with this project for three years. The entirety of it is in draft, and two of the four chapters are approved. I know what it is I need to say, I just need to make the translation from it making sense in my head to it making sense on paper. Which is easier said than done, and sometimes results in my railing at the French for speaking so much French. 

But for right now, I will let the sound of the printer soothe me.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A brief miscellany

Chapter One of Cat Valente's novel, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, is live. Honestly, I fell in love at the chapter title, "Exuent, on a Leopard," but the chapter lives up to the promise. The writing is rich with detail, and allusion, and just my sort of thing. New chapters will go live every Monday. If you love what you read, and can afford to pay Cat for her work, please do so.

Another wildly exciting bit of serial fiction on the web is Shadow Unit. It's currently in the second season, and is written by the exceedingly talented Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, and Sarah Monette. The site's own introduction explains exactly what it is better than I can, so I'll just say that it is fabulous, and so well done. The Season One finale absolutely broke my heart.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

An opportunity to do good

I've mentioned Catherynne Valente's amazing and gorgeous novel, Palimpsest, before. It's the kind of story that is still lingering in my brain, and so beautiful at a sentence level that I could fill a commonplace book with quotations from it. And I met Cat at WisCon, and found her smart, and funny, and articulate.

She's going to be posting her new YA novel online, in real time. Here's an explanation of exactly what it is she'll be doing, and why.

I know times are hard. But if you can help, even just by passing on the link, please do. Thank you.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

And it breaks my heart

I am Irish, and Catholic. And while these may be accidents of biology and upbringing, they are identities that I take pride in. Well, that I normally take pride in. Sometimes I read something like this, and I feel like I need to preface that statement of identity with the phrase that I learned while preparing to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation: "Forgive me Father, for I have sinned."

I wish that I could say that that Church is not my Church. In a way, it is not. My parents sent me to a Jesuit high school, St. Robert Bellarmine, and the Church I met there is the reason that I am still Catholic. Fr. Jerry taught me that God would never be angry at my for using the intelligence that, after all, God had given me, to ask questions. Br. Paul always called God "She," because She is infinite, not one or the other, and using the alternate pronoun would remind people of that, and had us read Asimov and Clarke for World History, to get another sense of the infinite. All the Jesuits on the faculty were good people, as well as good priests. When I think of my Church, they are who I think of.

It was, I think, Fr. Jerry, who in talking about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which has also been called the Sacrament of Penance, explained that a sin was something that hurt a person's relationship with God, with another person, or with her self. If her action had done any of those things, she ought to confess, seek to make amends, and try to reform her actions. By that definition, even the Church, which is made up of people, can sin. I pray that she remembers her own sacraments.

And as a person in that Church, I am so very sorry.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

It takes a village to make a writer

My writing life divides neatly into Before and After Clarion. Before, I hadn't thought seriously about being a writer, and after, I knew that I was. Ten months ago today we all went home. A year ago today, I had no idea what I was in for. But I know now how much the experience meant, and so I have some people I need to thank.

My family. I didn't tell them I was applying, but I wrote the first of my two application stories at my parents' house over the Christmas holidays. I was given time and space to write and people brought me coffee and took me to eat sushi. When I graduated law school, my grandparents gave me a check. I invested it, and that money meant that I could pay for Clarion, tuition and related expenses, without worrying. 

My friends. Oh, so many friends. Terri and Midori, who gave me a place to think seriously about fantasy literature and wished me luck. Nnedi, who answered all my questions and gave such good advice. Pat, who talked me through the panic when my second application story just stopped working.

Jen and Adam, who cooked me an amazing congratulations dinner, and gave me a generous gift card to a book store. (I bought books by my instructors, books my instructors recommended, and the unlined, soft-cover moleskine notebooks that I love to write in.) Dot and Scott. Dot drove to and from San Diego with me. When my car broke down, 163 miles from a mechanic who could fix it (I drive a Beetle. Which is, you know, foreign.) Dot kept me sane and found the only still-open rental car place so we could still go to see the Grand Canyon. Scott let me steal his wife, and, because he had read Storyteller, gave me a watergun as a going away gift. (Clarion 2009, I left it for you. Use it wisely. And often.) Sarah and Chris, who gave me a place to relax in between the road trip and moving in to the dorms, and took Dot and I to the best sushi ever. Chris made us lemon bars, and Sarah helped drive my classmates from the airport to the dorms.

My dissertation advisor, Becky, who when I told her that I was going to take two months off from the dissertation to go to San Diego and write speculative fiction, gave me a hug and told me that was great. The chair of my dissertation committee, John, who, in a conversation in his office, gave me the phrase that became my second submission story, and will be my next novel.


My amazing neighbors, Holly, Mike, and Sierra, who let my pug, Sam I Am, live with them while I was gone, and let me call on the days that I just needed to hear him snort. He still walks right in the front door of their house like it is his. And Dorene, Tracy, and Holly, who took care of my cats when my house sitter cancelled on the day I moved into the dorms.

And my fellow students and instructors: Megan, Lauren, Crystal, Sarah, Monica, Steffi, Keffy, Grá, Ferrett, Dana, Emily, Dan, Damien, Durand, E. J., Paul, Mary, Kelly, Jim, Mary Anne, Neil, Nalo, and Geoff. Everything story I ever tell will owe something to you.

Thank you. I love you all.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A small gift

The dissertation is further along than it was when I last mentioned it. Which is how it ought to be. I have decided that I am through fighting with Chapter 14 of the novel, and am just going to throw it out and rewrite it. (Er, the chapter, not the novel.) I think this is a good plan. 

Transitioning between the projects is tricksy. Dissertation brain is not like novel brain, and I keep putting too much narrative and not enough argument into the dissertation chapters. And I have found that if I have put too many days into the dissertation without working on the novel, my creativity needs a warm-up exercise to write well again.

Which brings me to this next bit.

My friend Jen is awesome. She's awesome in a lot of ways, but the relevant one to this post, is that she's a completely brilliant scholar of fantasy literature, a subject in which she has just completed a draft of her dissertation. One of the things that she's been thinking about a lot in that project is interstitial spaces, the places in-between. I've been fortunate enough to be able to listen to her talk about her thoughts on those between places, and I found them really inspiring. When I thought about what I wanted to write to transition my brain between projects, Jen's dissertation sprang to mind. So I wrote this for her, as a way of doing a little thinking about the places between.

****

The Patron Saint of Passageways

            The angel stood in the doorway, the curve of his wings brushing the lintel. Had there been dust in that place, it would have sprinkled grey over the feathers that pressed on the edges of the boundary. But the dust was elsewhere, and the angel’s wings were as white as sun-blazed snow.

            In his hand, the angel held a key. Rose had come to that place for the key. The key, and the multitude of doors that the angel, Ashriel, stood at the center of.

            Rose bit her lip, hard, and tasted the salt-copper of her own blood. She didn’t speak, she just watched as the key in the angel’s hand shifted and changed. Now a rusted iron skeleton key, its finial a death’s head with a mouth shaped like a lock, now a house key with teeth worn from use, now a thin plastic rectangle, its mystery encoded in a magnetized strip.

            One of the keys was hers.

            One of the keys, and one of the doors.

            In her pocket, in a small plastic bag with a zipper, the sort that she had used to pack her peanut butter and raspberry jelly sandwiches in when she was a child, Rose carried the dust of her life. It hadn’t been as much as she had expected, not nearly, but then she wasn’t sure how such things were calculated.

            She clenched her hand around the bag, worrying at it gently, feeling her history shift and reshape itself under her hand. Rose watched the angel’s face, hoping for some sort of sign, some way to know when it was time to hand her life over to him. But there was no alteration in the expression of calm compassion that he wore. He looked upon her that way when she stumbled out of her life and through the door that brought her here, and he would bend that same look upon the next person who would stand in this endless passageway.

            The key in the angel’s hand continued to change shape. Now a switchblade key, now the simple bit of metal that would open a young girl’s diary.

            None, yet, were hers.

            Rose knew what would happen. She would pull her life from her pocket, and exchange it for a key. A key that would open a door and offer a choice. That was all. An exchange. A life for a key.

            Hand still in her pocket, holding the weight of her past, Rose turned away from the angel to look at the infinite doors. As many closed on her past as opened on her future, and that was something to consider as well. She could select a key that would allow her to step back into her old life, give her the option of living it differently, or she could move on.

            She had regrets, certainly. Rose had felt them, gritty and sharp against her skin as she gathered the dust of her life and swept it into a plastic bag. But there were also moments that she wouldn’t want to lose, and she risked their disappearance if she returned to the life she had before.

            The doors spiraled on before and behind her, as variant as the keys that would open them. Deciding that she had lingered long enough in the corridor between one life and the next, Rose pulled the bag of dust from her pocket and walked toward the angel.

            His hand closed around the key, obscuring its transformations.

            Rose offered her life to him, but the angel did not move to take it, nor did his hand loosen around the key.

            Eyes fixed on the terrible beauty of the angel’s face, Rose slowly peeled open the interlocking strips of plastic, and flung the dust of her life over the waiting angel.

            Flares of color streaked across his skin and dappled his wings. Her life flashed behind his eyes, and he handed Rose her key.

Still warm from the angel’s hand, the key was simple in shape, but made of clear glass, veined through with silver. When she looked up from it, she knew exactly the door it was meant for. She slid the key into the lock, and opened her life. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Leaning into the blade

Perhaps oddly, for someone whose life has been full of swords, it was a phrase I had never heard before Clarion. (Perhaps not so odd. The secondary point of fencing is not to get hit. Leaning into the blade is pretty much discouraged.)

To lean into the blade. For a writer, it means to step into the discomfort. To be brave. To take the emotional risk and actually put something of yourself on the page. It doesn't necessarily mean to be confessional in your writing, but it does mean to be honest. To strip away the artifice and leave the naked art. I imagine that this is something all artists strive for, even if the terminology is different.

As the phrase suggests, it hurts. I don't believe my job as an artist is to offer comfort, I believe that my job is to do the exact opposite. I want to cause you,  my reader, to think in a way that is uncomfortable for you, to ask you to see things differently, to consider alternate possibilities. My job is not to give you the happy ending, it is to give you the right one. 

Even if I have to bleed to do it. 

Monday, June 1, 2009

Current bits of happiness

Blah blah dissertation revisions, blah blah novel revision, and yes, that's about how the writing is going, thanks. Send chocolate.

Rather than wangsting on about all of that, I will tell you about some things that are making me happy right now.

1. The Unwritten. Honestly, I picked this up because of Yuko Shimizu's cover art. I saw the issue at DreamHaven, and thought, why yes, this is the sort of thing that I want to read. And it is. I'm sort of a sucker for anything that explores the power of the stories that we tell ourselves, and I really enjoyed this. Right now, you can buy the issue for $1. You should.

2. Zoë Keating's "one cello x 16: natoma" I heard Zoë Keating open for the also utterly fabulous Amanda Palmer, and fell in love with the music. This recording is extraordinary. I've been writing to it, putting it on to listen to while I sleep, playing it while I do annoying household chores -- if it were a cassette, I would have worn it out by now.

3. Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente. My friend Sarah told me that she thought this was my kind of book. She was right. I feel like I will have more to say about it, but for now, if you like deep, rich prose, elegant language, and haunting cities that are terrible and beautiful at the same time, you should read this.