Friday, July 31, 2009

What the story requires

I remember reading an interview with J. K. Rowling a few years back (right before Order of the Phoenix came out) in which she mentioned that she cried after she wrote the scene in which a major character died. I wasn't that bothered by the fact that writing it was upsetting enough that she cried. Even then, there was a part of me that recognized that putting something difficult on the page ought to hurt a bit if the author was doing it right. My reaction was more along the lines of, well, if it was that bad, then just change the story so that he lives.

(Brief pause while every writer who is reading this engages in hysterical fits of laughter.)

The thing is, I have discovered, it's not quite that simple. Not that a writer cannot change a story. Of course we can - we're the ones writing, and we are writing, not channeling some divine muse or some other such rubbish. But making a change means acknowledging that we are telling a different story from the one we started out with.In story as in life, people die. Bad things happen. The good guys don't always win, and even when they do, they are changed and sometimes tarnished by the experience.

It's hard writing those scenes. I am currently hiding from revising a particularly nasty scene in the novel. But it has to be there. I owe it to the story.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What sort of stories do we tell

After the longlist for the Booker Prize was announced this week, my friend Damien wrote a fairly strongly worded post, bemoaning the lack of speculative fiction authors on the list. Megan wrote this follow-up. I agree with elements of both: I would love to see a work of acknowledged speculative fiction on a list like the Booker Longlist, but at the same time, I feel that the prize has already gone to works of speculative fiction.

The careful readers among you will notice a missing word in the second half: acknowledged. And that, for me, is the key issue.

I joke, quite often, that the category of Magical Realism was invented so that no one had to admit that a speculative fiction writer had won the Nobel Prize. And it's not just Marquez - try Lessing, or Saramago, or Heaney. But if you look on the bookshelves, these authors, like those on the Booker list, are shelved with Literature, not fantasy.

In Young Adult literature, the genre categories don't seem to matter. What is arguably the biggest prize in YA lit went to a work of speculative fiction this year: Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. As far as I can tell the award goes fairly regularly to speculative fiction, and no one seems to make a fuss.

I'm not sure what causes this difference. Perhaps because in "kids' books" we expect fantastical elements? Well, maybe, but then I'm not sure what people are reading that makes them not expect fantastical elements in works of literature for adults. Stories that are generally considered to be great works of Literature - the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, the Divine Comedy, The Tale of Genji - all of these have speculative elements. The presence of ghosts and gods doesn't make any of these stories less great.

I describe what I write as speculative fiction. Not because I am arrogant enough to think that I'm getting on the longlist for some fabulous Literary prize someday, and I need to categorize myself as something other than a writer of Fantasy, but because I truly believe that the truest genre division is between mimetic fiction, and speculative fiction. And really, I'm promiscuous in my literary tastes. I don't care on which shelf I find my favorite book. But I do wish that people would realize that the category on the shelf is not an arbiter of the quality of the writing that is shelved there.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Gang aft agley

I had plans.

Today, I was going to do nothing. I cannot remember the last day I did nothing. No writing, no errands, no household chores. I was going to catch up on Torchwood, read fashion magazines, make a dent in the to-be-read pile.

I am rubbish at doing nothing.

My brain had these ideas about how to fix the opening scene of Chapter 17 of the novel. And there was a friend's story to read. And... well, at least I'm caught up on Torchwood.

There were also post-dissertation plans. I have the idea for the next novel. I've had it for a while, actually -- the opening section was one of my application pieces for Clarion. Kelly Link told me it was a novel, not a short story. That was something I suspected when I wrote it, but Kelly saying that, well, that's the writerly equivalent of the voice from the burning bush. So I have been planning on writing it, but had put it aside because it required research, and there are only so many things I can do at once.

But then tonight, as I sat down to dinner, I got a first line: "Mariah was fourteen years old the day she first entered the Library."

By the time I got from the table to my office to write this down, I knew what Mariah looked like, and why she was in the Library, and the Scary Danger. And I knew it was a novel. So it looks like I'll be trying something YA while I research the other one. I like having multiple projects to work on. This will be fine.

The Four Felines of the Apocalypse, incidentally, ate half of my dinner.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

No lies, or damn lies, but some statistics

Final title for the dissertation: The Word Made Flesh: The Perception of Holiness in the Texts of Late Medieval and Early Modern Women in England

Word count: 38,498. (I'm guessing that the words written, but not included, comes in at about four times this.)

Footnotes: 170

Languages used that are not modern English: Latin, Homeric Greek, Middle French, and two dialects of Middle English

Supreme Court cases cited: One - Jacobellis v. Ohio

Newbery Award winning books cited: One - A Wrinkle in Time

Number of times all of my research was stolen: Once. That was more than enough.

Time to write: Either just over three years, or just over four months. I started my research in June of 2006. In March of this year, I finished the chapter on Julian of Norwich, and realized that I needed to rewrite the entire project to around the argument that I made in that chapter. So I did.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why I write

My friend Damien wrote a fairly amazing post on his blog, about why he writes, and specifically, why he writes speculative fiction. At the end of his post, he asked others for their answers. Here's mine.

"In the beginning was the Word."

Words are magic. Really, that's the heart of it for me. Words create form from chaos, and while I understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics means that things fall apart, I will hold the center as long as I can. I write because when I can't sleep at night, telling stories holds the nightmares at bay. I write because, as Damien said, I am a Clarion grad, and that is what we do. I write because I need to know what happens next.

"It was a dark and stormy night."

I write speculative fiction because for me, that sentence is not the beginning of a bad fiction contest, but the beginning of a book that changed my life: A Wrinkle in Time. It's the first book I remember reading to myself, and it made me wonder about the extraordinary. I write speculative fiction because it allows me to skip to the interesting bits. Of course high school is Hell - what happens next? I write speculative fiction for the same reason that I wanted to live in Bordertown - because life is so much more real when the numinous creeps through the places between. Because I never thought "Here there be dragons" was a caution, I thought it was cool.

Because "we are such stuff as dreams are made on," as a great writer of speculative fiction once said, and our dreams are the truest part of us.

Why do you write?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009

Your internet: Now with additional vampires

I am pleased to announce that there is now a Vampires in the Library blog. Yes, Megan and I are still twittering bits of vampire story at each other. Since there are people who (probably because they are smarter than I am) are not on twitter, and since it is difficult to read in reverse order, the wonderful Megan organized this for us.

We'll be posting to the blog in chunks that make sense in terms of story, rather than in 140 character bits. And we will put in useful things like paragraph breaks and dialogue markers, emend "&" to "and," and correct the assorted typos, but otherwise not edit or alter the story.

We're having a great deal of fun writing it. I hope it's also a fun read.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


This morning, I scheduled my dissertation defense. Barring Armageddon, it will be at 12:30, Monday 24 August. (For a moment there, I thought about counting the days. But I think not.)

It's a weird feeling, having that on the calendar. Not because I wonder if I'm ready. I am ready. I've been working on this project for three years. My fabulous advisor has read countless chapter drafts, and my committee has signed off on all of them.

But suddenly, there's a concrete date for After. And I sort of know what I'm going to do. For a week, I'm making everyone call me Doctor. And I'll be writing. I am so excited about the next novel. But just the idea that there will be something else, that for the first time since kindergarten I won't being going back to school in the fall, it's a little strange.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Recently loved

Here is a sampling of some of the books and music I have recently enjoyed. (NB: Yes, I link to Amazon. Not because I get any money from sales made with click-throughs, but because there is almost always a fairly decent product description, and things tend to be available there. I like it when people buy things and support artists. If you happen to have a cool independent bookstore in your area, you might also consider taking your business there.)

The City and the City, China MiƩville. This was the first MiƩville I read. I love stories of interstitial things, and I love the fantasy of place, and I really loved this book. It's a detective story, set in a city that is also another city, and the residents of each must carefully unsee each other and the other city to avoid Breach. It's a mind-exploding concept, and extremely well-executed.

The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen, Delia Sherman. I got to hear Delia read from this at WisCon. My friend, E. J., loved what he heard so much he immediately wanted to buy the book. If it hadn't already been on my to-buy list, that would have been my reaction, too. It's an utterly delightful story, and written in such an effortless fashion that I was able to just be swept away by my enjoyment of it. Set in New York Between, this is a modern fairy tale. And the scenes at Miss Van Loon's School for Mortal Changelings (which were some of my favorite parts of the book) might serve as a gateway into fantasy literature for the Gossip Girl crowd.

Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton. Somehow I missed this when it came out in 2003. It is a Victorian novel. With dragons. Not people who just happen to have scales and wings, but dragons. An excellent example of mannerist fantasy, and it just happened to win the World Fantasy Award.

Recorded Delivery, Thea Gilmore. Further proof that I really need to hear this woman perform live. I'm not even going to tell you how many times I've listened to "Concrete" because I'm pretty sure the number is embarrassingly high. If you like a beautiful voice singing intelligent lyrics, you'll love this.

God Help the Girl, God Help the Girl. A soundtrack for a movie that doesn't yet exist, this is a side project of Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch. It's lovely.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

One year ago today

One year ago today, the batteries on my carbon monoxide alarm failed. I know this because there was a series of messages left on my cell phone, from the neighbor girls who were cat sitting for me, from their Mom, and then from my Mom, in increasing states of grumpiness over having to evacuate my cats from my house (which was done before it was established that this was an equipment failure and not an emergency) and over the fact that no one could reach me for over four hours. "I hope you're having fun at the beach," was what the last message said.

Except I wasn't at the beach. I was sitting in a classroom at UCSD, critiquing stories with the rest of my Clarion class, under the wise and benevolent aegis of Kelly Link.

"They make you go to class on the holiday?" Mom asked after I explained that my phone had been turned off and so I hadn't known about the seven voice mails. I hadn't really thought about it as being made to do anything. It was what I wanted to be doing.

And yes, I wrote today.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Vampires in the Library

In our defense, it started as a discussion on gchat about dead languages. Granted, that's not much of a defense, as it quickly turned into the contemplation of a vampire linguist battling Beowulf in the British Library.

Megan and I have a long history of gchat conversations that devolve into complete and utter madness. (Award-winning author friends doing Elvis karaoke in a spangly white jumpsuit. I'm just saying.)

As she explains here, last night the madness got the best of us, and we decided to write a vampire story on Twitter. The search tag is #ViL, and you can find the thing as it stands now here.

We're completely working without a net on this one. We haven't discussed plot or character or anything. We're just reacting to what the other tweets. Updates are likely to be spontaneous and surprising.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A blank page is a blank page

And lo, I have sent the fourth of my dissertation chapters to my advisor. I am sure there will be some minor tweaks to make, but pretty much what's ahead of me at this point is the introduction and conclusion, and then putting the thing together. (Which I don't want to discount. There are going to be hundreds of things in the Works Consulted section. And decidedly un-Pratchett-like footnotes to format.)

Still. The worst part of the insanity is over. The end is in sight.

Oddly enough, one of the things that has helped me the most in writing this project was a piece of advice I got at Clarion. When stuck, ask your character what she wants. When I had trouble making an argument, going back and thinking about why these texts were written, what the women I am studying hoped to do, clarified things. It took me outside of my own agenda in writing, and made me consider perspectives other than my own -- a good thing on days where I was grumpy at the Protestants for having a Reformation, as that meant I had to have a fourth chapter.

I love the days when speculative theology is like speculative fiction, and writing is just writing. It makes me feel like maybe I'm getting something right.