Monday, June 28, 2010

All day I've been wondering what is inside of me

State of the revision rewrite of Linger: Officially halfway, pagecount-wise, as of last night. (I have not actually typed any of the changes into the computer, as I don't want to measure progress by a number right now, and also because currently the urge to write more words is louder than the voice in my head yelling "The house will burn down and your manuscript in it! TYPE!) Changing this subplot has meant changing a larger amount of the story than I thought it was going to when I realized this was what I needed to do.

Amount of work aside, I'm glad I made that decision, because it never should have been as central to the text as it apparently became. So - better book, when this is done.

I also have realized the best way for me to successfully decide what parts need to be changed and how much is not to ask "what is the scene doing?" Those parts, I pretty much got right. I'm asking "how is the scene accomplishing that? and what does it mean for the story for it to happen that way?" I think in thematics, not in plot. This is a strength and a weakness in my writing, but I feel that it's so fundamentally a part of the way I write, what I need to do is figure out how to work with it, rather than around it.

My goal is to have a polished manuscript, ready to submit to those who have asked for it, by the time classes start this fall. If I weren't moving in ten days (from housesit house to actual house) I would have signed up for Clarion's write-a-thon, and made that my goal, but I think moving will eat part of my life so Labor Day weekend it is. (By the way, you can still sponsor write-a-thon writers. If you want to sponsor one of my Clarionmates, or one of my instructors, let me know, and I'll give you the list of names.)

For now, I'm tired, and overcaffeinated, and somehow lacking in chocolate. But I know what happens next.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

They call me the Count because I love to count things

Dear my manuscript:

Why, why do you have two page 142s? And also, two page 143s? With different words on each? Have you not puzzled my brain enough today?

Very sincerely yours, 


How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes

I have reached the point on the rewrite where I have become a shambling wraith. All of my interesting words are going down on paper, not being sent out here to the ether.  So if you want interesting words, I highly recommend you head over to Cat Valente's blog, where she is writing a series of 30 posts in 30 days. You might also visit The Style Rookie, which is ridiculously smart and articulate, and seriously, I love anyone who is that excited about nebula shorts.

You might listen to: 

Sigh No More, Mumford and Sons. I am predisposed to love anything using a Shakespeare quote for an album title. That it is part of one of my favorite quotes makes it even better (full marks if you can tell me the play without googling). But I really, really love this album. The lyrics are as if someone cracked open my soul and read what was inside.

The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monae. Along with Evelyn Evelyn, The ArchAndroid is making me reconsider my suspicion of concept albums. Enthusiasm for this album is sweeping SF fandom, among other places, and justifiably so. Intelligent music that makes me want to dance, and really, what could be better? 

You might watch:

This video. I have no great fondness for Ke$ha, but watching the original Star Trek with my family is a great childhood memory. (Yes, we're all geeks. Ask me about the Epic Christmas Lightsaber Battle.) So this mashup makes me so happy I cannot even tell you.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Whose everyday life is being illuminated?

I am currently reading Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. I'm about halfway through, and I'm enjoying it so far. That, however, is not the point of this post.

The novel is about Rose Edelstein, a girl who, the day before she turns nine, develops the talent  (receives the curse?) of being able to taste emotions in food. The flap copy assures me that Bender's prose "illuminates the strangeness of everyday life."


I'm all for strange, but whose everyday life includes anything like this? I feel pretty certain this is a speculative fiction novel, but perhaps my everyday life just isn't strange enough.

This reminds of a definition I was once given of magical realism. I was told, "well, it's like fantasy, but it's usually written by Catholics, or people from Catholic countries, so they actually expect that sort of thing to happen, because it does all the time in their religion."

You know, I've been Catholic my whole life, but if some girl resurrects at her funeral, and follows that trick with levitating out of her coffin, a la Christina Mirabilis, I am going to think words that I don't normally say in church, not, "Oh yes, this sort of thing happens all the time. Carry on." 

It's called a miracle because it causes wonder, because it is strange, and very far from everyday. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

And... scene

It is dark. 

The houses are far apart here, the only light the occasional flicker of a car passing on the periphery. They are not part of this, those lights, and neither are the people they carry, away and safe.

A cello sobs seduction from somewhere beneath the cascade of rain. The wind whips through, groaning the trees and carrying the scent of exposed earth and bruised flowers through the window screens.

Inside the house, the weight of the air has changed - a cool benediction after the sticky heat of the day.

A large, white moth beats itself against the glass, searching for the darkness behind the light, and falls, leaving only dust behind.

And the woman picks up her pen.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Half awake, in my fake empire

I don't really mind revising short stories. Oh, sure, I like it better when they spring from the page, fully-formed, but revising a short story isn't that bad. 

Partially, this is because my short stories tend to be short. The minimum word count required to use a story as part of a Clarion application portfolio is 2500 words. Nothing I've sold so far is that long. The longest story I have in circulation right now is 2800, and that's really long for me. So even if I have to completely gut the story during the revision process (and I did for that one), I'm not throwing out a lot, time-wise or text-wise.

But also, I don't mind revising short stories because I tend to use them as places to experiment. So I'll alternate between second person and tight third pov, or write an unreliable narrator, or use the rhythm of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, just to see what will happen. And it's fine if the end result goes flat, or doesn't sell, because writing the story taught me something.

Revising a novel is different. Linger is approximately 80K words right now (actually, on the short side for a novel, and that's one of the things the revision is fixing.) As I cut text, I am very much aware of how much work went into writing the scene that I just gleefully slashed lines through. Sometimes, that's a very discouraging sensation.

Last night, I realized that the subplot that needed fixing was woven more tightly into the main thread of the story that I had let myself remember when I decided it needed changing. So I am, I suppose, not actually revising, but rewriting the last two-thirds of Linger. Not in the sense of, oh, hey, I just dumped 250 pages into the recycling, but there is definitely going to be a lot more new writing than I had bargained on.

This is actually not a discouraging sensation, but feels rather akin to having skidded to a stop right before plummeting off a cliff. Things could have gone badly. I have the chance to make sure they don't. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

High fidelity

So I am about to go into Serious Revision Mode for the weekend, which likely means I will be very boring, and not have anything to say. (If you feel this is the status quo, well, you'll be happy to know it will be business as usual, then.) But before I do, I'm going to borrow a meme from a recent blog entry by my friend Lev (whose blog you ought to be reading because it is excellent), and sort my iTunes by play count, thus sharing the dark backwards and abysm of my musical taste with you. 

Here are my Top 10:

1. "The Last Beat of My Heart," DeVotchKa, play count: 275.

This is the best song ever. 

2. "Tear in Your Hand," Tori Amos, play count: 165.

Got me through my divorce. Also, I'm writing a book about Sandman. I hang out with the Dream King a lot. (I soundtrack my writing. That's going to affect some of these numbers.)

3. "There She Goes," The La's, play count: 126.

4. "Icarus," Jason Webley, play count: 114.

"and as I fall I feel myself relax."

5. "The Jeep Song," The Dresden Dolls, play count: 112.

One of my best memories ever is dancing with my Clarion class in Neil's apartment to this song. I love you guys.

6. "The Promise," When in Rome, play count: 105.

I have loved this song since I was in seventh grade. No, I am not as cool as I think I am.

7. "Spem in Alium," Thomas Tallis/ King's College Choir version, play count: 102.

Would be higher if I didn't have multiple versions of the song. I also highly recommend Peter Gregson's cello version. So cool.

8. "Disturbia," Rihanna, play count: 101.

9. "Everyday is Like Sunday," Morrissey, play count: 97.

You can't take the goth out of the girl.

10. "Take to the Sky (Russia)," Tori Amos, play count: 93.

Theme song for novel-in-progress, Linger. "And here I stand, with a sword in my hand."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The thin line

Keren left a really interesting comment on my last post. It read: Even though your panel last night said the opposite, I really don't think universities are where literature goes to die, but where taste and appreciation goes to be cultivated.

I started to write a response in the comments, but then I just kept writing, and realized it would make a better post all on its own. So here goes.

NB: I want to make it perfectly clear that this is my response. I am not presuming in any way to speak for any of the other members of last night's panel. Not because I think we disagree, but because I don't know. (Look, our conversation in the green room was sort of like this: "Hi, I'm Kat. I really liked your story." Except for when I introduced myself to Larry Block, when I said: "Hi, I'm Kat. Oh, my God, your story scared the crap out of me!")


I love universities. I've pretty much spent my adult life in them, and I'll be teaching at Stony Brook University for the next two years. I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't like them, or if I believed they were the graveyard of literature. In fact, as I was walking through the Columbia campus last night with Ellen and Delia, I said how much I liked visiting universities because I loved the idea of them being places where you could go to learn, and to think about things.

I think, in the ideal world, Keren is exactly right, that people can go to a college or university to learn about literature, and cultivate their taste for and appreciation of it. And categories, such as the "mainstream" and "genre" labels that were being tossed around last night can help with that cultivation.

My difficulty comes in when the labels are used as value judgments. While this attitude is not universal, I've met too many academics who feel that some literature is not worth studying, and all too often, the texts that fall into the "not worth studying" category are the ones that are popular - on the best seller list, or with cult fan bases, or both. It's as if they think if people like something, it can't be worth thinking seriously about.

I call shenanigans on that.

First of all, the idea that if something is fun to read, it's not worth studying is ridiculous. It also makes me really wonder about the thought-processes of the people who think this way. Why do they spend their lives thinking about things they don't like, that aren't any fun for them to think about?

But more importantly, the corollary to Sturgeon's Law is the other ten percent of everything isn't crud. So I have no patience with anyone, academic or otherwise, who tell me I can't teach or write about Sandman just because it's a comic, or Harry Potter because it's for kids (or fantasy, or it sold too many copies.) Nor, as I said, do I have patience for people who tell me that Shakespeare wasn't a fantasist because he was good. 

What something is has nothing to do with its quality. It's laziness to think otherwise.

Literature shouldn't go to university to die, just as the people who read it shouldn't have their curiosity smothered because they want to think vigorously about things outside of the canon. Categories should act as guides in foreign lands, not as barriers.

Best. Day. Ever.

I am exhausted. There are an appalling number of blisters on my feet (curse you, seductively cute new shoes), and I think I may have lost my voice.

I do not care. I feel like a rock star.

And not just because the Stories event was amazing. (Which it was, and when I am coherent, I will try to post about it.) But because you guys are amazing.

For all of you who called, or emailed, or tweeted, or used some form of communication to tell me you bought Stories or you liked "A Life in Fictions," thank you. My wonderful friends, Ellen and Delia, who took me to dinner, and then came to the event for moral support, even though they were exhausted from travel - you made today wonderful. Thank you. Everyone at Columbia tonight who introduced themselves, said kind words to me, asked me to sign your book (!), thank you. Even with a coherent brain, I would not be able to adequately describe what your support means to me.

So I'll just say it again: You are amazing. Thank you.

Monday, June 14, 2010

If only I'd thought of the right words

I'm pretty good, at this point, at knowing when a story is broken. Sometimes, though this happens pretty rarely, I even know how to fix it. More often, I send the story (or the novel) around to my beta readers with a request: "I know the ending is weak. How do I make it right?" or "I can't figure out how to convey what my pov character wants here" or some other such thing.

Beta readers, for those who might be unfamiliar with the term, are the people who read my work in draft, and lovingly tell me all the things I've messed up this time how I might make the story stronger.

Beta readers are, I believe, one of the most important resources a writer has. Sometimes, it's hard to see the broken places in a story, much less understand how to fix them. Sometimes a story isn't so much broken, as it is just... meh. Flat. Fine, but nothing more.

I don't particularly want to write stories that are fine

There was a subplot in Linger that was fine. I didn't love it, but it did what I needed it to in the story. I tweaked it a little, every time I went through and revised, and it got a little better each time. I had gotten comments back on it, but the comments were all over the place - each potential fix was drastically different from the next. Sometimes this means the story is right as it is. In this case, it meant that I hadn't been clear enough about what I needed that subplot to do for my readers to tell if that was what has happening.

Every time I went back and revised, I thought about those comments. Last week, I started what I thought was going to be my final revision. Where, basically, I would just be polishing the manuscript. And I realized what was wrong, and how to fix it. 

This is good, because I realized it now, before I've sent the manuscript out on the market. This is... somewhat annoying, because it means a fairly serious rewrite, rather than just a revision. (Annoying enough that, I'll be honest, I was briefly tempted to just leave things as they were. Then I put on my big girl pants, and started cutting text.)

The point it, I couldn't have done this in isolation. Without those people who picked apart the text, who gave feedback that wasn't "Ooh, this is awesome" but was "You know, this isn't working for me" Linger would be a lesser thing.

I can't be fine with that.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An open letter to academia

So here's the thing: Getting a post-graduate degree is hard. When you've finished, you want people to acknowledge - perhaps even be impressed by - your efforts. One of the women I graduated law school with insisted on being called Doctor afterwards, because we had earned JDs. I can sort of sympathize with that, as, post-dissertation, I made a plea for a TARDIS of my own, or a sonic screwdriver at the very least, and I'm still sort of sad that the only person who ever introduces me as The Doctor is my friend Neil. I get the need to have that effort acknowledged.

Right. So. Grad school = hard.

Writing a book: also hard. Full marks to anyone who does it. I'm not being facetious or snarky there. For most people, writing a book takes a serious amount of time. Writing an academic book (so, nonfiction) which involves research, takes a really serious amount of time. I spent an entire year doing nothing but research before I began writing my dissertation, and I kept researching even after the writing had begun.

And I can see where, if you have taken a large amount of time out of your life to write a Serious Book on a Serious Subject, you would want to make sure people took you it seriously, and gave you it the respect you it deserved.

But here's the thing, and I want you to listen closely, because this is important: Taking all of the fun out of a subject is not the way to make it seem more important, or to make yourself seem smarter. It is just a way to write a really boring book.

I recently read a book on the Affair of the Poisons. This is a juicy, scandalous event, full of Sex! and Murder! and Sorcery! and Amatory Masses! and Sex! and Naughty Priests! and Politics! and Sex! A book on this topic should be fascinating, just by virtue of being on the topic. Except for a brief but pithy description of how to make secret du crapaud, a particularly vile poison made from a toad, that was taken almost entirely from primary sources, this was one of the dullest and most pedantic books I have ever read. I wondered if perhaps someone had administered arsenic to the text, making it pale and wan.

I wondered if the author had cared about, or even been interested in the topic, and came to the conclusion that the answer was no, because how could she have written such a lifeless text if she did?

Except that I knew exactly: She wanted to show that she was smart, and this was a Serious Topic. I know this, because this is the explanation I can think of for the sad state of rather too much academic prose.

Because it can't be that people spend all that time and effort to write about subjects that they don't actually care about. That really makes no sense. I mean sure, I know you have to write a book to get a PhD, and publish to get tenure, but if you don't care about anything in your field, why start down that career path in the first place? Academia, especially in the humanities, is not the place to be if you are looking for fame or fortune.

Academic writing needs to take its cues from popular nonfiction writing. It should be interesting, and accessible. The best part about being in academia is the luxury of time to think about things, and the luxury of a platform from which to tell other people why we think those things are fascinating, and worth thinking about. Because the work is too hard to do it for any reason other than love, and no one will understand why we do it if our writing is so dull they put down our books.

Colorless prose does not equal dispassionate analysis, and overly dense prose does not equal erudition. Those things just make for boring and inaccessible texts. We owe our subjects of study, and ourselves, better.



Monday, June 7, 2010

So then this happened

In a week and a day, you will be able to walk into a bookstore and buy a book that has a story I wrote in it. Stories, the absolutely amazing anthology edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, will be released on 15 June. 

I am really, really excited about this. "A Life in Fictions" was the first thing I ever sent out, my first sale, and a story I am really proud of. The fact that it is in this book, in such amazing company, makes me want to dance every time I think about it.

Also, on Tuesday, there will be a reading and panel and well, this.

I will be there, too. Reading and paneling, and trying to pretend I am not going out of my mind with OMG!WOW!

So if you're in New York next Tuesday, stop by. I'll be the red-head who can't stop smiling.

It's not you, it's me

Recently, my Clarionmate, Ferrett, wrote a very useful post on how to submit short stories. My submission process isn't identical to his, but I highly recommend that you take a look at his advice, especially if you are a beginning writer, and new to the process of submitting to markets. There's a lot of good information and advice in there.

I would add one thing, and it's something I'm trying to work on in my own career: Let the editor reject your story. Don't do her work for her.

Here's what I mean.

Submission is the hardest part of writing for me. Hitting "send" when it comes time to actually turn the story in makes me shaky, and physically ill. I've never submitted to a market with print-only submission guidelines because I know I would never be able to bring myself to take the envelope to the post.

I don't know why this is so difficult for me. I do everything I can to increase my chances of my story being accepted. I read the submission guidelines, and follow them. I make the story the best I can at that moment in time. 

And I understand that most stories, even a lot of good stories, get rejected. No market can, or should, publish everything. Editors are people too, and like people, their taste in fiction varies. I'm not afraid of rejection. I don't enjoy it, but I'm not afraid of it. If I were, I couldn't write.

I'm just really good at talking myself out of things. I excel at finding reasons why the story I knew would be a perfect match for Market X when I was writing it is explicitly prohibited from existing by their guidelines. It's crazy, I know.

So one of my goals for this year is to submit the stories I finish. To hit send, once I've done my due diligence on the market, and let the editor decide that my story isn't a good fit. A rejection letter is the worst thing that can happen.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

An acceptable time

As I was writing the post about "The Least of the Deathly Arts" the other day, and thinking about how it took me two years to write a 2700 word short story, I realized that a lot of what I am currently working on has been a while in the making, or at least in the contemplative stage.

Linger is the exception to this. I began writing Linger in mid-August of 2008, when I got back from Clarion. By the end of November of that year, I had a draft. A bad draft, there's no arguing about that, but a finished one. I'm bracing for the final pass-through of the revision on this right now. Send chocolate. And vodka.

Seen is a novel-length work in progress that is finally going to be my Tam Lin origin story. I wrote one of those while at Clarion. Seen is nothing like that story, but "how did Faerie wind up having to pay a teind to Hell?" has been one of those questions that has been like a rock in my shoe since I first read Tam Lin. So even though I haven't been actively writing this one for longer than about a month or so, I've been thinking about it for a while.

New and as-yet untitled novel-length project that involves poison and politics. When I decided to apply to Clarion, one of my writer friends said "I'd kill to go there." And I laughed, but then I thought, what if you really did have to kill to get into something? And lo, one of my application stories, "Admissions," was born. "Admissions" was not ever a short story I was interested in revising, but as I was driving from Minneapolis to New Hampshire, the idea started getting really loud in my head. When I got here, I started writing it. So I suppose, at some level, I've been working on this one for two years, too.

I don't know what any of this means, or if it means anything. I've written short stories that were good enough to sell in less than a day. I've also spent serious amounts of time on stories that wound up falling flat. But the lesson I'm taking from it is, if a story is meant to be told, it will let me know when the time has come to tell it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

One night in Brooklyn

I am not the sort of person who would normally make a trip of over three hours, requiring multiple forms of transportation, to go to a reading. Such an undertaking seems vaguely stalkerish, and well, I have writing of my own to be doing. And I get violently motion sick. One cannot write while one is casting up one's accounts.

However, yesterday I went into Brooklyn for part of Lev Grossman's tour in support of the paperback release of The Magicians. Partly, this was because I love this book. Love, love, love. I'll be teaching it in my course on "The Fantastic as Place" this fall. But also because Lev is a friend. We met (writerly cliché of all writerly clichés) when I sat next to him at a bar serving absinthe at last year's WorldCon. Aside from being a talented writer, he's a delightful guy. And when your friend is on book tour, and you can get to the reading, you go.

The trip in was something out of a farce. For those of you keeping track at home, I have lived on Long Island for eight days and 16 hours as of this writing. I am still not sure where things are near me. And the GPS lied about where the LIRR station was ("recalculating.. recalculating"), so I literally had to run to catch my train. And a rail broke on a track into Penn Station, so we were held. I was almost late, and really stressed, when I got off the train, so I thought, I will take a taxi, rather than the subway. And I got the only cabbie in NYC who could not find Brooklyn. So I called up a map on my iPhone, and read him the directions as he drove like the proverbial Hell-fleeing bat.

I think I was only thirty minutes late.

But the reading was great. (New material! The tour is still going on. Minneapolis area people, Lev will be at the Roseville Barnes and Noble. Go!) There was wine. The space was lovely. I met the utterly delightful Laura Miller, whose book The Magician's Book I also love, and I will also be teaching this fall. There were drinks after, and catching up, and I was very kindly put on the correct subway line to get safely home.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I hear the clock tick, and think of you

Yesterday I sent out a short story I had been working on for nearly two years. It was my week 6 story from Clarion, "The Least of the Deathly Arts." I love that story. It was the story I had the most fun writing. 

But I couldn't get it right -  the ending, in particular, was a problem. It was so much of a problem that, when it came to be my day that week to workshop something, and I still hadn't figured out how the story ended, I just sort of stopped writing. And didn't tell anyone. (Sorry, guys!) It was week 6, we were all so far beyond exhausted we had come out the other side, and I loved that story, and wanted it workshopped. 

I got great comments. (Thanks, guys!) Then I got Neil's response, which pretty much ended with, "And where's the sestina?" I laughed. Of things I was never going to be crazy enough to attempt to write, a sestina was number one on the list. He told me I really needed to write it, if it was that important to the story, and besides, he had written one and felt it was a good skill to have.

I wrote it. 

(The end words, which were dictated by the needs of the story, are: touch, dance, grace, dream, love, death.)

Let me tell you, after you have - in character - written a sestina, you finish the damn story.

So about a month after I got back, I revised it. It had an ending this time, but the wrong one. I knew it was wrong, but I didn't know how to fix it and get it right. I sent it around, got some feedback, and set the story aside.

I wasn't trunking it - I knew the story was there, and I knew it was something I needed to write. But there were other deadlines, and other projects where I did know the ending. Every few months, I'd pull "The Least of the Deadly Arts" back out of the box, look at it, reread some of the comments on the latest version, think about it, and put it away. 

At the beginning of May, I decided it was time to finish it. I finally knew what the pov character truly wanted, rather than what I thought the story ought to be. I revised so thoroughly that it was more of a stripping the story down to its bones and reanimating it than a revision. And I wrote an ending.

And then I scrapped it, and wrote another ending. And another. They were all fine. They got the story to where it needed to go. But they weren't right. And then the story got stuffed in the bag with all the other works on progress from the top of my desk, and I drove across the country. I reread it when I unpacked this weekend, and I knew exactly how the story ended: "A poem, Scholar. A poem for your death."

And so it does.