Sunday, January 31, 2010

Corporate entities are people, and this one is a petulant child

I was going to write a long and involved post on the Macmillan/ Amazon issue. But instead, I'll point you at this articulate, balanced, and detailed post by Tobias Buckell. It is long, but well worth reading, and I agree with his analysis and conclusions.

ETA: If Buckell's site is still having hosting problems, you can read his post on the SFWA site as well.

If you are still interested in my personal feelings here they are:

I don't, as yet, have an e-reader. I can see situations where I would want one (like over Christmas, where there was a pug in one of my carry-on bags, and a laptop in the other - it would have been nice to be able to pack a device, rather than an assortment of paperbacks), but I prefer to read paper books. Having said that, if I did have an e-reader, the price point of e-books would simply be one other data point that I would take into consideration when deciding when, and in what format to buy a book.

When I buy a book, unless it is a rare or limited edition, I am buying it for the content, not the delivery medium. Some authors I buy in hard cover, the first day the book is available, some I wait until the mass market paperback edition. I balance the cost of the book with my impatience to read it. Having an e-reader would just mean one more data point to consider when I decided when to buy the book.

But that's a decision I am quite capable of making on my own. I really don't appreciate Amazon behaving like the class bully (and, sorry Amazon, but that, and not a consumer advocate, is what you look like right now) and injuring the people who work for or publish with Macmillan because it thinks that I am too stupid to decide how much I am willing to pay for something.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Why I am not angry at John Scalzi today

People keep sending me the link to John Scalzi's blog entry mentioning Joan of Arc, wondering how pissed I am, and whether I am going to say something to him: "Did you see? He called her crazy. Aren't you upset?"

I did see, as I'm a regular reader of Whatever. No, I'm not upset, and even if I were: Speaking of crazy, how does starting an internet slap fight with John Scalzi sound? Do you guys want me to get burned at the stake, too?

Let me explain. The following is the relevant text from the post:

"(Actually, if you’re going to give me a teenage hero, give me Joan of Arc. There’s an achiever for you: Kicks English tail and saves France, despite suffering from profound schizophrenia (Shaw argues that the voices were an expression of the “Evolutionary Appetite,” but in truth, there’s no reason they couldn’t be both). Thank God she wasn’t born in the 20th century; they would have medicated her ass into catatonia, and then the Germans would have been able to roll right over the French forces at the start of WWII! Hmmmmm.)"

The thing people seem to think I should be upset about is that rather than saying Joan's voices were from God, Scalzi writes that Joan suffered from profound schizophrenia. Here's the thing. When I am wearing my Catholic hat, I believe that Joan is a saint, one of God's best beloved, and hardest used. I believe in the divine origin of her voices, and that what she accomplished was nothing short of miraculous. When I am wearing my scholar hat, I believe that Joan's experience of her voices was that they were divine in origin, that she was an incredibly brave and articulate young woman, and that what she accomplished was nothing short of miraculous.

Had Scalzi been writing a paper for a course I taught, I would have evaluated his claim for the origin of her voices in the context of the evidence I am sure he would have provided, and made a marginal note about the peril inherent in attempting to diagnose anything at a distance of nearly 600 years and without direct access to the patient. However, he wasn't writing a scholarly article about the origin of Joan's voices, but rather making an incidental point where he used her as an example of a teenage hero, a characterization I have no problem with.

So, no. I am not pissed at John Scalzi today. In fact, Mr. Scalzi, if that "hmmmm" at the end of the text I quoted is the sound of a storyteller contemplating an idea and you are thinking of writing an alternate history Joan of Arc story, well, I'm part of the Clarion blob you met at WorldCon. I have one pro and one semi-pro short story sale. I've won awards for my academic writing, can read Middle French and Latin, and my dissertation opens with a chapter on Joan of Arc. I've read her trial transcripts enough times to be able to tell you all of the lines Shaw stole from the lady in question. If you want a research consultant, drop me a line.

Otherwise, thanks for calling her a hero. I agree.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Not every lady wears Chanel No. 5

I talk about my writing process a lot here. Part of this is because I'm pretty new at playing the role of Serious Writer (tm) and blogging about what is or isn't working for me is a way for me to process through why my writing process is what it is. But it's also because I find reading about people's creative processes interesting, and useful and I figure if I share my own personal insanities and quirks maybe it will be useful to someone else (if only for the reaction of, "I would never do that.)

The thing is, a creative process is an individual one, and mimicking the writing process of your favorite author does not mean that you will suddenly be able to write like her. And, quite often, what works for other people does not work for you. The most important thing about writing is finding what your process is, not driving yourself bats by searching for some magical combination of process fetishes.

I like to read about other writers who handwrite, because it makes me feel a kinship. (I may be the only person who cares what color ink the story is written in, but I'm willing to be unique in my madness.) While I never want anyone to be blocked on a project, it's a little comforting to find that I'm not the only one who sometimes wants to light her manuscript on fire, or forgets to put the plot in the middle, or cleans her house in the wee small hours of the morning as an offering to the gods of What Happens Next. I understand that some of you may find my need to write with music on an abomination unto the Lord, but that's fine. I think that writing in a coffee shop is what you do in Purgatory so you're not sent to the Hell where you're made to write on a computer.

And the thing about process is, it's designed to get you to the end goal of words on a page. Which means that you have to be willing to change things if those words stop flowing, or if your life changes. For the past two years that I've been writing seriously, I've been able to work at home, and my only accountability has been to deadlines. So if I wanted to get up, and believe six impossible things before breakfast, and spend the rest of the day watching Buffy on DVD, I could. Likewise, if it was dinner, and my characters hadn't shown up to work that day, and my plot had taken a frolic and detour, and the setting had been condemned by the building inspector, it meant being a big girl, and canceling plans for drinks because I had work to do that night. Starting this fall, I'll be teaching at a university again, and I'll have places to be at a regular time, and responsibilities that won't be writing related. So I'll have to change how I work in order to keep working. I may even learn to take my notebook to a coffee shop.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Adjutrix quondam, adjutrixque futurus

One of the most important decisions I made in grad school was the choice of my advisor. Thankfully, I got that one really, really right. Becky was not only someone who I thought of as a brilliant scholar and the type of instructor I wanted to be, but also became someone that I feel fortunate to call my friend.

Last night, I got an email from her that reminded me both how much I enjoyed working with her, and how well she knows me. She's teaching a course in King Arthur in Literature this semester, and they are beginning with T. H. White's The Once and Future King. The relevant part of the email was the statement "I wish you were the TA for the class. I could have made you dress up like the Questing Beast, and you would have been fine with that."*

She's right.


* She knows this because the list of things that I (by request) dressed up as or did in her classes includes, but is not limited to: attending class as Lady Macbeth and the Wife of Bath (not on the same day), participating as her foil in a loud and vigorous extemporaneous swearing contest based on the vocabulary of Prince Hal and Falstaff, and being cast as Nicholas in a class performance of "The Miller's Tale." Including the bits at the window.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The sound of the story

I almost always write to music. I can write in silence if that's the only option, but I prefer a soundtrack in the background. And yes, the choice of the word "soundtrack" was very deliberate. Even if it's just one song on repeat while I'm writing a short story, the choice of what to listen to while writing is very important. Knowing how the story sounds in my head is key to helping me know the characters and build the world. When I'm writing a novel-length project, I build whole playlists - for the place, for the characters, for the themes. So if you've ever wanted to know what the inside of my head sounded like, here's one from the current project, The Sweet Sleep of Death, The Widening Gyre:

1. "Keep the Streets Empty for Me" Fever Ray
2. "Plainsong" the Cure
3. "Howl" Florence + the Machine
4. "No One Would Riot for Less" Bright Eyes
5. "9 Crimes" Damien Rice
6. "Even Gods Do" Thea Gilmore
7. "Left of Center" Suzanne Vega
8. "Silence" Delerium
9. "Your Ghost" Kristin Hersh
10. "A Night Like This" the Cure
11. "Gorecki" Lamb
12. "Cruel" Tori Amos
13. "Take it Easy (Love Nothing)" Bright Eyes
14. "Solitude Standing" Suzanne Vega
15. "Drumming Song" Florence + the Machine
16. "Heartland" U2
17. "Live with Me" Massive Attack
18. "Mercy Street" Peter Gabriel
19. "The Host of Seraphim" Dead Can Dance

Feel free to speculate what you think I'm writing about. I don't promise to answer, though. Spoilers and all.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The alchemy of ideas

So my book is being taught in a King Arthur in Literature course at the University of Minnesota this semester. I'm pretty much thrilled about that. I'm also very excited to have the opportunity to go in and talk to the students about the book after they read it. One of the things I've been asked to focus on is how I went about putting the Arthuriana in the text, and this has led to me asking myself a Very Important question:

"Self, where do you get your ideas?" 

Sometimes, I even know the answer. The book starts with a fight scene because I wanted to see if I could write one. Which meant that the lead character needed to be a fencer, because this book started out life as a Clarion story, and so I didn't have time to learn a new combat sport. Fencing I knew, muscle-memory level, so I could block that correctly. The title of the book comes from a song I had listened to the night before I started writing it, and the nightmare with tentacles is for Steffi. 

When I have to make specific choices, I can almost always go back and tell you why this, and not that. Sometimes when I'm reading back over a text, I can tell you what else I was doing when I was writing: three instances of describing something as "bigger on the inside" in twenty pages? Doctor Who marathon (and a note to self to go back and edit at least two of those on the rewrite.)

But the big idea? This story is about a woman whose nightmares manifest in the waking world, and I have no idea where that came from. And when I started writing it, I had no idea that the story would take the shape it did. Once I knew I needed the Arthuriana, it was a matter of choices, of rereading the Preiddeu Annwn and of giving a nod to my long held desire to have a dog named after King Arthur's, and of the combination of any number of other things that have built up inside a head that has loved King Arthur since the first time I watched "The Sword in the Stone."

But ideas come from everywhere, and the immediacy of the idea is only the beginning of the story. Wanting to write a story about vampires covers everything from Dracula  to Twilight. That's a wide range, with room for a nearly infinite variety of stories.

So I think that the most interesting part of ideas isn't where they come from, but how they are transformed in the alchemical process of story.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The books that change our lives

I was delighted yesterday, to learn that Rebecca Stead's wonderful book, When You Reach Me, was awarded the Newbery Prize. When You Reach Me was one of my favorite books of last year, a quietly lovely book that grew into something extraordinary, and the story has become one of those that I find myself thinking of often. (My original review is here.)

I originally decided to read it because I had heard about the connection between When You Reach Me and A Wrinkle in Time (also a Newbery winner, 1963). Those of you who have been reading here for a while know that A Wrinkle in Time is a book that means a great deal to me. When I look back over my life (and look forward to what I want my life to be) it is a book that is always there, and I can see the shape of its influence. And A Wrinkle in Time seems to be one of those books that is beloved by everyone who picks it up.

So I'm curious: what is the book that changed your life?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Continuing education, part II

My quest to read more widely, and to read nonfiction in particular, continues. Since I loved Spook so much, I picked up Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. (and wow, I just typed that as "The Curious Loves of Human Cadavers" which would have been a really different book.) Stiff had the same characteristics I enjoyed while reading Spook, and Roach writes in a manner that really makes me think that she would be an excellent person to have a drink with. At the same time, it was a bit difficult - in an emotional sense, not a stylistic one - to read. Roach is extremely respectful of her subject area, and her deceased subjects (who are all thanked in the acknowledgments), but I sometimes needed a break from contemplating what might happen to my body after I'm no longer using it. It's a thought provoking book, and one I definitely recommend.

While reading Stiff made me feel that I was learning at least as much about myself as the subject matter while I read it, this next book made me think that I was learning at least as much about the author as I was about her topic. I received Allison Hoover Bartlett's The Man Who Loved Books Too Much as a Christmas gift. On it's surface, this is the story of a rare book thief, and the man who pursues him. I was very interested to read it because I love rare books. Love, love, love them, in a way that could easily become obsessive. (I often think, wow, that's a lot of money to spend for a house, or a car. I sometimes even think that one could spend too much money on shoes. I have never thought that there was an amount that would be too much to pay for the right book.) Bartlett wondered, as she wrote, whether she might someday become fascinated with collecting books, as well. She concludes that she wouldn't, that her obsession is collecting stories. The depths of her need to collect this particular story becomes clear as she writes about the lengths she went to in order to stay in the good graces of the book thief who was her subject. Her own ethics became wobblier and more strained as she continued her pursuit of her subject. It's an interesting read that speaks much more about the nature of obsession than it does about signed first editions.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Learning to let go

The first things I wrote with an eye to publication weren't creative, they were academic. (Okay, maybe they were a little creative. When you write an article arguing for a broadening of the first amendment right to freedom of speech and you title it "Lex and the City," it is, to some extent, a creative endeavor.) My point is, the process of writing was an entirely different one. There was no question that research would be involved, only of how much. There were footnotes. Entire many-legged creatures worth of footnotes. Headings and subheadings. The writing process was a rigid one, full of rules to be followed and formats to be honored.

And so when I started writing stories, I followed the same process that I was used to. I didn't have footnotes and subheadings, but I had control. I agonized over word choice and sentence placement, and didn't move on until I knew that what I had could support what happened next. Which meant that, on a good day, I'd write about 300 words. 

Now, writing 300 words a day, every day, means you've written a novel and change a year. So that's great. But those 300 words were a good day, and the days weren't all good. 

Thankfully, my process has evolved. The first major change was Clarion. I learned that if I wanted to get a story a week in, and keep up with the critiques for my classmates, and have time to be social, and to think about eating and or sleeping, I needed to write more when I sat down to write. And I began to let go of the idea that perfection, or at least a close approximation thereof, was necessary before I could move on to the next sentence. And yes, it helped that I was in the environment of a writing workshop where everyone else was under the same pressures, where it was acceptable to turn in a story with bracketed scenes because you knew what had to happen at that point, but not how to write it yet.

The other major thing that has helped me, is that I've learned to trust my writing. I can recognize when a scene is almost there, and move to the next point, because I know I can turn the almost into there in the revision process. And I've begun to be able to cut myself the slack I need to go off down the wrong road, or at least to take an extended frolic and detour in search of the right one. It's not quite a shut off of my internal editor - my internal editor speaks in the voice of a Benedictine nun, and has not taken a vow of silence - but it's an understanding that if I jump, the story will be there to catch me.

And, oddly enough, the coolest thing about relaxing the need for perfection in the first draft has meant that, not only am I able to get more words on the page when I sit down to write, but it's also a better story, one that's more honest and less concerned with being anything other than what it needs to be.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Without a Love Story

Okay. Embarrassing confession time. (Takes deep breath, straightens spine.) Here goes: I love the Taylor Swift song, "Love Story."

It's not an embarrassing confession for the reasons you might be thinking. I don't believe that commercial success and artistic integrity are mutually exclusive, and I feel that having an eclectic music collection and a willingness to listen to - and like - all genres of music is actually a good thing.

No, It's an embarrassing confession because I can't shake the feeling that dancing around my office to "Love Story" makes be a bad Shakespearean: Romeo and Juliet does not end with the male lead saying "I talked to your Dad/ Go pick out a white dress." Romeo and Juliet get married, sure. They also get dead.

Which is why this Stereogum mashup of "Love Story" with U2's "With or Without You" makes me so happy. It's not just that I also love "With or Without You." I do. I think it's one of the most gut-wrenchingly heartbreaking songs ever. It's that the mashup puts the tragedy back in "Love Story." The creators cut the bit I quoted above, taking away the idea that there's a happy ending to the story Ms. Swift is telling. And they layer it over what we all know is a sad song, a song about being in love with someone and having that not matter, not be the magic force that changes everything. Love. Longing. Tragedy. Shakespearean in scope.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Really useful writing advice

No, no. This is not writing advice that I give you. I'm just starting out, and the only thing I really feel like I know about how this writing thing works is that you sit down, and you put pen to paper. (Well, if you're me. Finger to keyboard also works, although it lacks the catchy alliteration.)

This is writing advice that I got from someone else, my week two Clarion instructor, the completely fabulous Jim Kelly. He gave us a list, Jim Kelly's 10 Stupid Plot Tricks, which he then told us to forget immediately.

I am a bad student. I wrote them down.

Most of the time, I forget about them. Plot, for good and ill, isn't something I consciously think about when I write. But the tenth Stupid Plot Trick, I come back to that one over and over again. Here it is:

Write ten endings.

I actually don't think I've ever used this to discover what the end of the story is. I do use it all the time in the middle, though. When I don't know exactly what's right for the story at that point, I make a list of possibilities, and think through what might happen next, and then what each of those "might happens" means for the story as a whole. Sometimes doing this solidifies that my first instinct was right, because it helps me to understand why Possibility A was my gut choice. But sometimes I walk through a number of different scenarios before I get that mental click that tells me that Possibility Q is not only right, but takes the story in a better direction. It's a useful technique for me as a writer because it asks me not to just think about possibilities, but to think about why those possibilities matter, and what sort of consequences they might have.

So there you are. One of the most useful things I've learned about writing. Now, forget that I ever told you.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

By the quality of her friends

Yesterday I learned that I have been awarded one of the ACLS New Faculty Fellowships. This is such a wonderful opportunity, and I'm so excited and so grateful for it. I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to go somewhere new (I don't know where yet) and teach for two years, and that I'll have the time and support to research and write during that period as well. It's an adventure that I'm thrilled to have the chance to undertake.

It's a chance I almost missed.

After I was awarded my degree at the end of August, the University of Minnesota cut off my access to my U email account. This was fine, and expected. What wasn't fine was that they kept trying to use that account to communicate with me. So when the English Department was trying to get in touch with me to find out if I would be willing to be nominated for this fellowship, I didn't find out until someone sent a panicked email to my advisor. And then even though I explained what was going on, when I was nominated, the old, bad address was used. I didn't hear anything, and so I assumed the University had passed on my project.

A week before the application deadline, I got a phone call from my friend Jen, who had also been nominated, telling me she had seen the old email on a message that had gone out to the nominees that morning. Because of her, I was able to contact the ACLS, and get the confusion straightened out. I was able to contact my advisor, and two other members of my dissertation committee, who were willing, even under the time crunch, to write recommendation letters for me. I literally would not have this chance without Jen's help. I cannot even articulate how grateful I am to her, other than to say I am so blessed and lucky to have her in my life.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Through the wardrobe, and what I found there

Laura Miller's fabulous The Magician's Book is the story of her relationship with C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. It's wonderful: clearly written and honest, the story of a story as well as the story of a reader. Reading her book made me think of my own reactions to The Chronicles.

Miller writes of loving The Chronicles wholeheartedly at first, of wanting nothing more than to be able to go to Narnia someday, and then, feeling terribly betrayed when she discovered the Christian symbolism in the books. I remember a similar cycle of love and betrayal, but mine came differently.

I read The Chronicles of Narnia for the first time in second grade, and I realized on the first reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that Aslan was supposed to be Jesus. And I was fine with that - it didn't ruin the story for me at all. If anything, that was the first time that I felt any sort of realization of what the death of Jesus was supposed to mean to me. Lewis makes it so clear - Edmund was a jerk, and he made a mistake that he couldn't take back, and then things got so much larger than that. I could see how someone could behave like Edmund much more than I could understand the disobedience in Eden or Judas' betrayal. Aslan was real, and people loved him, and you could see the horror of his death, and the joy of his resurrection - I cried at them both. (I sometimes still do.) Jesus was a guy in a story that, to be honest, I wasn't really that interested in reading, someone I loved in the way you love a relative you've never met - because you're supposed to. And the stylized and formal and flat prose of the biblical versions of the Passion did nothing to make me feel pain over his death or delight in his resurrection.

No, my betrayal came later, in The Last Battle, and it was twofold. There was, first, The Problem of Susan. Susan, who does not get to go back to Narnia because, "she's interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up." Here's the thing: Susan was my favorite of the four Pevensie children. And as someone who, in second grade, liked to wear pretty dresses, and put on lipstick when I played dress-up, I was furious that those things, things that seemed specifically associated with being a girl, were enough to keep you out of Narnia. The betrayal got worse a few pages later, when I realized that Lewis seemed to be saying that those things were enough to keep you out of Heaven as well. And that, in order to create Heaven, Lewis destroyed Narnia.

That, for me, was the last straw, and the reason that, while I have reread my favorite books in this series - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Horse and His Boy - over and over, I've only reread The Last Battle when I've needed to for academic reasons. Lewis tries to create a place that's better than Narnia, one whose beauty and wonder continues to unfold as the lucky people who get to enter (and, oh, I had problems, even then, with the people left outside the stable door) go further up and further in, but he doesn't. I loved Narnia, and so, with all the passion in my young heart, I hated the new place that was supposed to be better. It wasn't. And I knew, reading, that Lewis was talking about going to Heaven, and I didn't care. Narnia was better.

Like Miller, I read The Chronicles differently now, as an adult, as a medievalist and academic, as a writer, than I did as a child. I see the flaws and the beauties, and there are many of both. And I see how these books have shaped me, as a reader, as a writer, as a person, and I'm grateful for them.

And I still wear lipstick.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Are short stories practice?

The conventional wisdom in the literary field, in speculative fiction anyway, used to be that beginning writers began by writing short stories. Once said beginning writer had done enough of that, sold enough short stories to have a "name" in the business, then and only then could said writer write a novel. It's conventional wisdom that is still being passed on. At this past WorldCon, I was in a group of newbie writers who were lucky enough to be getting writing advice from one of the giants in the field, and he told us to publish lots of short stories.

But this post by (amazing short story writer, whose first novel I am so looking forward to reading this year) Mary Robinette Kowal makes me wonder how much the conventional wisdom still holds, and whether it should. Because here's the thing: I don't consider writing short stories practice for writing a novel.

Maybe this sounds odd, considering the amount of flash fiction that I wrote while I was alternating between work on my dissertation, and work on my recently completed novel. But writing the flash wasn't practice, it was a sort of palate cleanser, a way to switch mindset and writing style. And yes, I've written short fiction as five finger exercises - using a short form as experiment in voice, in pacing, in style. But that was practice for writing, full stop.

A short story and a novel are two completely different things. To begin with, a novel is much longer. To be nominated for a Best Short Story Hugo, your story must be no longer than 7500 words. Most speculative fiction novels are between 90-100K. Writing a novel means sustaining a story for a much longer time, and that brings a set of perils and pleasures that are quite apart from those of short story writing. It means working with a whole different set of ideas, a different way of looking at things like character development, and pacing. You learn, then, to write a novel by writing a novel.

And so I think that if you want to write a novel, you should write it. And if you want to write short stories, you should write those, too. But write them because you want to, because that's the kind of idea you had, because you want to see if you can speak of grace and redemption in 4000 words, not because you see the form as the literary equivalent of a learner's permit.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Continuing education, part I

I have begun my quest to continue to read works of nonfiction even though no one is making me do so for a class, and to read outside of the areas which I normally gravitate to. (I'm thinking of this project as like being back in grad school, only this time I get to pick the syllabus.) It's going very well so far.

The first book I chose to read was The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes. I decided to read this book because while I'm interested in the Romantic era, I don't know nearly enough about it, and because I have been missing reading about science. The Age of Wonder was a phenomenal book. I can easily understand why it had been shortlisted for prizes and why I have seen it on so many best-of lists. Holmes profiles key people in a number of scientific fields - anthropology, chemistry, astronomy, aeronautics - and gives a sense not only of the people working in these fields, but of the culture of science during the Romantic period. I was astounded at just how much was discovered during this time, and in awe of the people who risked their lives for the sake of knowledge. Holmes also shows how the culture of science was intertwined with philosophy and literature. Coleridge, Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley make regular appearances in these pages as well. In fact, my favorite chapter was "Dr Frankenstein and the Soul." The Age of Wonder is a brilliant and beautiful work, and I'm very glad I read it.

I also read Spook by Mary Roach. People have been recommending Roach's books to me for a while now, and I decided to start with this one because what happens after death plays a large role in the novel I'm currently working on. I didn't read Spook for research in the normal sense, but more for atmosphere and flavor. It was absolutely delightful. Roach's genuine curiosity comes through on the page, and she gives the sense that the most important thing is learning the answer, no matter how strange the learning process or how odd the eventual answer is. In an area where so many aspects of the subject could have been held up to ridicule, Roach treats everything and everyone involved with respect, from the scientists involved in soul-weighing to the modern research being done on near death experiences. I enjoyed reading this so much that I am now reading Roach's book on cadavers, Stiff.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

No boys allowed

Realms of Fantasy magazine has announced a plan to publish an all-women issue. I'm not going to comment on whether I feel that this is a good idea or not, mainly because I'm still formulating my own thoughts about that subject. But I can say, as a writer, that while I would consider it an honor to be published in Realms of Fantasy, a great magazine that has published a number of talented authors whose work I admire, I would not submit a piece for consideration in the women-only issue.

I've already seen comments on blogs that are suggesting that RoF will be "forced" to accept "subpar" stories for this issue because there just aren't enough women writing for the editorial board to be able to fill even a single issue with good work by women. And yes, this sort of idiocy and ignorance pisses me off a great deal, and is perhaps part of the reason that RoF feels the need to publish this special issue. But here's the thing: there's always going to be a story that someone doesn't like. And that's fine in a regular magazine. It happens. But here, that story becomes not just a piece of fiction that didn't work for that reader, but a symbol of the fact that not enough women can write well, and so the editors were "forced" to accept that story just to fill their page count. And if that story were mine - well, I can handle the idea of people critiquing my work in public. I can't handle the idea of watching them say that it was my work that let down the side.

And here's the other thing: I would always wonder if I would have sold that story under "normal" circumstances, or if it had just been chosen because I have a nice pair of matching chromosomes. And yes, that's my flaw, a gap in my confidence, and yes, maybe that need to wonder is again part of why RoF feels the need to publish this special issue, but I can't escape it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A solitary pleasure

I love to cook, and I live alone. Living alone can make cooking problematic, in that there are often tremendous quantities of leftovers, and I don't actually have a very high tolerance for eating the same thing for a week straight. Sure, there are ways around this. Many (not all) recipes for four servings are easily halved. Things can be frozen (although my freezer space, due to poor kitchen design, is comically small - seriously, I cannot even fit a regular size frozen pizza in there because the wall was built partially over the freezer door, thus preventing the door from, you know, opening). I have friends over for dinner, or I deliver baked goods to my neighbors (who, I'm pretty sure, think I'm playing some strange version of Hansel and Gretel with them).

There are cookbooks for people who live alone, but many of them feel sort of tragic, in the "here's how to stretch a chicken, a potato, and a carrot into a week of meals, you sad, rejected individual, who must be a miserable human being since you have no one else to cook for" sort of way. But I've recently found two that aren't, and I love them. The first is Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express. This isn't necessarily a cookbook for one, but as Bittman does not give a standard ingredient list, but rather just tells you what goes in the recipe, and how to prepare it, it's easy to adjust these recipes. (This might not be the best sort of cookbook for a novice cook, something that he acknowledges.) The other was a recent Christmas gift, Suzanne Pirret's The Pleasure is All Mine. This is a cookbook for people who are, like I am, sort of hedonistic about their food, and I love that Pirret makes no apologies for being so. I've only tried a couple of the recipes so far, but they were great, and the recipes are written in the same snarky, insouciant voice as the accompanying essays. It's a great deal of fun.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

This happens every time

The loudest story in my head right now is the novel with the awkward (and definitely to be changed) working title of The Sweet Sleep of Death (makes it sound too much like a noir/ murder mystery. Which would be awesome, but is not what this is). And since I'm not under deadline or contract with anything right now, that's what I've been working on with the most focus.

I've mentioned before that I don't work from an outline of any sort, that I write stories in order to find out how they end. And that's definitely true here. This project started out when two sentences popped into my head one day:

Dreams and the Dead walk the streets of the City of Nyx. Dreams and the Dead, and both are mine.

And I kind of love that opening, and my point of view character, Siobhan Black. And I love writing the city, Nyx. I am having such fun writing this story, I cannot even tell you.

But about a week ago, things began to go wrong. My daily word count started slowing down. I wrote an entire scene - a scene that's really good, with an interesting secondary character - that is completely and utterly wrong for this book. So I took a break from writing new stuff, and concentrated on transcribing words from the notebook to the computer. And then the word count clicked past a certain number and I realized, oh, right, this is the point where it stops making sense.

Linger did this, too. And I really worried then: sent out a mass email to my Clarion classmates begging for readers, spent an hour on the phone with one of my instructors, because, Oh, dear Lord, I had left out stuff here and there, and written an entire character incorrectly, and fought against putting in a defining theme, but I had written what felt like so many words, so did I start over, or keep going?

The thing that I realized is, I could do both. I knew then, and know now, the gist of what I've done wrong (or not wrong so much as not true to the story). In the case of Linger, I made extensive notes on what to do for the rewrite, drew a line in the notebook to remind myself where things changed, and continued to write as if I had made the changes. I had never finished a novel-length project before, and I needed to let myself know that I could.

This time, I'm doing the rewrite now. Partially because I know that I can and will finish, and will not remain here, seduced by the search for perfection, but also because in Linger, I could see how the pieces would fit if I made changes and in this case, I can't yet. I feel like I am writing what T. S. Eliot described in "Little Gidding": "Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning." I need, in this case, to know every bit of the beginning before I can know the end. And I have confidence that I will get there, and that the words will be right when I do.

Friday, January 1, 2010

In the beginning

And so there it is: new day, new month, new year, new decade. Endless possibilities, stretched out before you. Not that every day isn't a new possibility, but today, well, today is one of those that is especially symbolic.

Think of what the time means: a day, a month, a year, a decade. Think back to what you were doing each of those time periods ago, and contemplate what has changed between then, and now. There was a meme going around twitter yesterday, where people were saying what they were doing ten years ago. As I said there, I was halfway through law school, and had never written a short story. If you had shown it to me, I wouldn't have recognized the life I have now. But each step I took then brought me closer to here. And here, now, I am happy.

Do you want to make a change? You can. Today can be the start of something new, something amazing, something you've always wanted to do. Paint a picture, write a story. Learn a language, a musical instrument, a new skill. Today can be the day you decide to be your better self. And I don't mean that in the self-help, personal improvement sort of way, but in the way of being the most you that you can be. What will make you happy, make you feel that you have accomplished something, make you proud of yourself? Today, you can begin to do that thing.

Today, everything is new. And you have time, stretching out before you. A day, a month, a year, a decade.