Thursday, October 29, 2009

An alternate proposal

It's nearly November, which means that it's almost time for NaNoWriMo, that time of year when people attempt to write a 50,000 word novel between 1 and 30 November. Let me be clear from the beginning, and let me say this loudly, so you can all hear me: This post in is no way meant to disparage NaNoWriMo. I'm basically in favor of anything that gets people to exercise their creativity, and to challenge themselves to do something that they would not otherwise consider. NaNoWriMo does both.

And maybe you already have your characters and themes set out, your world built, and your working title in place. You've laid in extra stock of coffee, and downloaded Scrivener. In which case, good luck, and I'll see you on the other side. But if you haven't gotten to that point, I have something else for you to consider.

Apply to Clarion. And take the month of November to write your application stories.

Clarion's application period is opening one month earlier this year, on 1 December. To apply, you need a portfolio containing two short stories, both between 2500-6000 words. It's not quite the endurance test of NaNoWriMo, but writing two complete, polished, short stories in a month is still a challenge. And if you need an endurance test, please believe that the six weeks at Clarion will take care of that for you. Sure, if you sign up for NaNoWriMo, you will get writing advice from brilliant, award-winning authors. Well, take a look at the Clarion faculty. Then think about the fact that not only will they participate in the round-table critique of your work, but you will meet with them for personal conferences.

I can't think of a fun acronym for "I wrote two short stories and applied to a premiere writers' workshop month," and yes, you could certainly do both, in that the application period for Clarion is open until 1 March, 2010. But consider the alternative to writing a novel in November.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Writing to know the ending

Yesterday, I had one of those experiences that brought home, yet again, the fact that writers go about the work of writing in vastly different ways.

I, for one, use only a gold-nibbed fountain pen, filled with ink made from freshly crushed pomegranates. I set down my lapidary prose during the hours of dawn and dusk, and scribble my immortal thoughts onto parchment scavenged from the scriptoria of monasteries during the Henrician Iconoclasm.

Or something like that.

A friend mentioned an exercise she had done, in order to get a better understanding of plot. This is an impulse that I share: Plot and I have the sort of relationship where, if we discover we are at the same party, one of us makes excuses to the host and scuttles out the side door. But while I understand and share the desire to have a working relationship with plot, it was the method that knocked me backwards in awe. She made an outline of a novel.

I know there are people who do this, who sit down to write, and make outlines. Who know how many scenes they need to get from one place to the next, who have the story arc firmly in their grasp, and who even know the ending when they begin. I am not one of these people.

I have never known the ending of a story when I began - I'm lucky if I know what happens next, much less what happens 30,000 words later. I write because I want to know what happens next, and if I don't keep writing, I never will. I can't know the ending until I know the characters - where they live, how they speak, and most of all, what they want.

Some days, I think it would be nice to see a clear, well-lit path from beginning to end of story. But for now, I light my lantern against the fog, and pick my way through the rocks, hoping not to fall into a pit, and waiting to meet the dragon.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Previously, on Twitter

Last night, in an effort to help my brain process through a scene, I posted a question on twitter: Gate of Ivory or Gate of Horn? Some responses were more serious than others (and, to be fair, I didn't put the query in context.)

However, either the collected wisdom of twitter, or the pushing the question to the side of my brain worked, and I knew the correct answer. So here, from one of the far too many works in progress, That Sweet Sleep of Death, is the scene, and the answer:


Two gates guard the Temple of Dreams, one carved from ivory, and the other from horn. It's easy to think that the division is illusion and truth, for the stories have it so. Many newcomers to the City of Nyx make that mistake.

But the divide between the gates isn't quite that simple. Rather, dreams of deception pass through the Gate of Ivory and dreams of fulfillment through the Gate of Horn. Never doubt, as you choose which gate to walk through, that there is more to deception than mere illusion, and that more than truth is required for fulfillment.

I am a psychopomp. The dreams in my aegis are the dreams of fulfillment in a very absolute sense of the word. When I go to the Temple on business, the gate I walk through is the Gate of Horn.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Maybe crazy is my process

Project Writing Too Many Novels at Once continues apace. And, because you can never have too many notebooks open on your desk, I've added another pass-through on But I Linger On, Dear to flesh out the word count before putting together the query letter for it.

I know. That sounds like what we used to do in high school, and go back through an essay, frantically inserting adjectives and adverbs because it was supposed to be 750 words, not 679. If I'm doing it right, that's not what's going on in this case. My biggest flaw as a writer (that I am aware of, anyway, and for the sake of my sanity, I will ask you not to point out others in the comments) is a tendency to being overly concise. I'm almost always on the low end of a word count when one is assigned. When I was applying to Clarion, I panicked because the stories had to be between 2500 and 4500 words, and "Oh, my God, how was I ever going to write something that long?" The story I sold earlier this year isn't long enough to have been used as one of my application stories.

The reason for this conciseness is that I am often not awesome at getting what is in my head onto the page, at least not on the first pass. My second draft is always longer than my first. So when I say I am going back to flesh out the word count, what I should really say is that I'm going back to make sure that I actually wrote about everything I needed to, and that the level of detail in the story is correct.

And, crazy as it is, the good thing about adding this other project back in to the To Be Done list is that I am actually getting more things done. And the final bits of post-dissertation mush brain seem to have been cleared out of my head. So I will now return to my regularly scheduled insanity.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Well, that was unexpected

Last week I started a short story. Actually, let me clarify: last week I started what was supposed to be a short story. Clever readers that you are, you will have determined from the emphasis in that sentence that something altogether different happened. As I was writing (and writing and writing) I kept thinking "oh! you need to go back and add a lot of detail there!" and "but you already have all these words and you still have so many more you need to write." So, because I'm sure it's a good idea to have three (3) novels in progress at once, last night I finally admitted to myself that the story idea I was working with was a lot longer than a short story. I am pleased (?) to introduce you to (very working title) That Sweet Sleep of Death. It's about onieromancy, and psychopomps and the last dream between life and death, and in-between people and places. It's about living in a city where the dead dream, and dreams walk the streets.

My brain has decided right now that I write at two lengths - flash fiction (under 1000 words) or novel length. In theory, I don't have a problem with this. I like writing flash because the form frees me up to feel like I can experiment with ways to tell a story, but without a huge investment of time if the experiment winds up exploding. And I love the larger playground that the length of a novel gives me. And I'm certainly not complaining about being in the position of having multiple projects that I'm enjoying working on. But it would be nice to find a happy medium in between those two lengths as well.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Mermaid's Madness: A Review

The Little Mermaid has long been one of my favorite faery tales. And yes, I mean the heartbreaking version by Hans Christian Andersen. (Although I will confess that I am a bad feminist, and sort of love the Disney movie, too. Ariel has red hair. No heroines ever have red hair. Well, except for in speculative fiction, when they also then have tattoos and wear leather and sometimes use swords. Yes, I am a Mary Sue character in real life. And... moving on.)

Anyway. Love The Little Mermaid. Love retold faery tales. So I was both excited and apprehensive to hear that the extremely awesome Jim C. Hines was going to use The Little Mermaid as his source story for the follow-up to his novel, The Stepsister Scheme (which I loved, and you can find my review of here.) Excited because I love the source material, and was sure Jim would do a great job. Apprehensive because, well, would it be great enough?

The answer is yes. The Mermaid's Madness is a wonderful book. Jim uses the tragedy and heartbreak in Andersen's original story to great effect, making The Mermaid's Madness a deep and powerful story of love and sacrifice and heartbreak (and not just from where you would expect it) and at the same time providing enough moments of levity and snark to balance the darkness. He's obviously done his research into the underlying mythologies of the characters, but brings this information in with a deft enough hand that you can just enjoy the reading, rather than feeling as if you're being lectured to. And while this is a follow-up, you needn't have read The Stepsister Scheme first to know what's going on. (Although, you should read it at some point, because it is delightful.)

But the thing that made me happiest about reading The Mermaid's Madness was that is was like watching Jim level up as a writer. Don't get me wrong - he's always been talented. But there was something more here, something extra, that just made me want to cheer the whole time I was reading this book. The Mermaid's Madness is a terrific read, and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Brasyl: A Review

When I said that I was trying to read more science fiction, I was lucky enough to get recommendations from talented editor, Lou Anders. One of the books that he advocated very passionately for was Brasyl by Ian McDonald. The short version of my reaction to this book is "Wow."

The more specific and longer version begins with the fact that I am droolingly jealous of McDonald's ability with language. I lost track of the number of times that I would stop and read a sentence out loud to better appreciate how perfect it was. McDonald's prose manages to be both rich and precise: detailed, with no superfluous words.

The story is of three Brazils: present, future, and past. It is also the story of the multiverse of layered Brazils, layered worlds, that exist. McDonald's choice to tell his story in a temporal triptych, where the events of the story unfold at the same pace in different times is an example of the form of the story perfectly complimenting the kind of story that is being told. The multiverse is always happening. I also found the ordering of the stories - always present, then future, then past - to be very effective. It was a powerful method of conveying that all events are being influenced by both what comes before and what comes after, that time is a loop, not a line. (This would be the point, yet again, where I mention how jealous I am of McDonald's skill as a writer.)

Brasyl is also full of rich and interesting characters. I was most impressed by Fr. Luis Quinn, a Jesuit in the Brazil of the 18th century. I went to a Jesuit high school, and I've done the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, so I feel like I have a pretty decent grasp, for a laywoman, on the Jesuit psyche. Fr. Quinn is a Jesuit, from his fascination with languages to his continual prayer that God might give him "a task most difficult." Fr. Quinn is also a swordsman, and McDonald nails that detail, too - Quinn sees with a fencer's layered awareness for detail, even before... well, I won't spoil the details, because trust me, you'll want to read them for yourself.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Time, it seems, is out of joint

The seasons are not being very seasonal this year. There were 80 degree temperatures to close out September, and the first snow of winter fell yesterday. Tonight, we are under a winter storm advisory. Unless I have done the time warp again, today is 11 October. This is not right.

One of the things that most makes the weather feel odd to me, is that it has interfered with my reading. Let me explain. There are certain books that carry very strong seasonal associations for me. And every year, since the first time I read it, I reread Sandman in the fall. It is an autumnal sort of book - I mean, one of the trade volumes is called "Season of Mists." I hadn't started yet this year, but I'm thinking that, as weird as it may be to reread "Sleep of the Just" with snow falling, maybe I ought to start tomorrow. At least that will make it feel like fall.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

This season of mists

Fall has always been my favorite season. I love the red and gold color of it, like flame, painted across the trees. The ink-slash of branches against a grey November sky. The scents of burning leaves and Bonfire Night, the crisp, mineral smell of the earth, and the dust of leaf-mould. The tastes of apple and caramel and spice and richness. The cold air that flushes cheeks, the certain slant of light that turns a neighborhood street into a cathedral window. The reminder that things end, that beauty is transience, and that we cannot find ourselves in the light unless we walk into the dark.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Books, warm like love

If you are a person who reads, you probably have them: comfort books. The books that you go to when you are sick, or sad, or having a bad day, or just need to be reminded of something better than the current state of affairs. But what is it that makes certain books the ones we turn to for comfort?

My comfort books have changed over time, and some of them were very situationally specific. My Mom gave me Little Women to read when I was sick, and through most of my adolescence, if I was sick enough to stay home from school, I reread that book. My freshmen year of high school, I spent a week in the hospital. On one of his visits, my Dad brought me all of his Tom Clancy books. Military fiction has never been my thing, but I devoured all of those books because having them made me feel loved.

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber is one of my favorite comfort books. I've read it so many times I can't even really articulate why I love it any more, I just give it to people and tell them that it is amazing. It's also one of the few books that has been a comfort to me ever since the first time I read it. (For years, I didn't have a copy because I had given it away when purging my shelves of "childish" books. Thank God for friends whose blogs have enough readers to cause things to be reissued.)

During law school, when I often wondered what, exactly, I was doing there (and also in Minneapolis) and didn't come up with satisfactory answers to either question, I reread Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (particularly the Question Game bit) and E. M. Forster's A Room With a View obsessively. The Stoppard because the tone of it captured my frustration with the legal academy so precisely, and the Forster because it reminded me that there were other possibilities. I still turn to these on the days when things fall apart.

Right now, my comfort books are heavily on the spec fic side - the Harry Potter series, Madeleine L'Engle's work (especially the Time Quartet and The Arm of the Starfish). Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Neil's Neverwhere. Tam Lin and the L'Engle were security blanket books, ones that I took with me to every dorm, every too small apartment, ones that helped me ground myself and remember who I was when I needed to. Harry Potter just makes me happy - for years, my password into the University's computer system was "Expelliarmus!" Jonathan Strange and Neverwhere offer just the right combination of heartbreak, and hope.