Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Spangled Pandemonium, a classic of literature

I Accomplished Things today, which makes me feel a little less panicky.

I revised a story. Tomorrow, I will give it one more read through, and then send it out. I don't have a strong sense of what market it is right for, but I will let the editors reject me, rather than deciding on my own that no one will take it.

I read through The Sandman Papers, and took copious notes. I've reread Sandman enough to hold the bulk of it in my head, so this time, I'm reading the critical analysis and formulating reactions to that before rereading the text. Also, how lucky am I that rereading Sandman is for my job?

I did some in advance of packing sorting through stuff. Some lovely memories, like my baptismal gown, and baby clothes my Mom made me. Also, I found trunk stories from the second and third grade. When the critics go back over my opus, I believe that will be referred to as my Sparkly Unicorn Period. Still, it was not all a loss. The title of one of the stories was "The Spangled Pandemonium." Honestly, that title rocks, and I may need to steal it from myself.

Various internet delights

"For what has the cat done, that you should so afflict it with tape?" (Found via awesome friend Jen)

If you are a writer, you should read The Rejectionist. We loves it, yes we does, precious.

The animation in this short film by Tobias Gundorff Boesen is so beautiful: "Out of a Forest"

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Don't panic

Since I defended my dissertation at the end of August, my to do list has pretty much looked like this: 


Yes, at times it has been more detailed, reminding me to finish specific things, and occasionally "Clean house" and "Buy food" make an appearance, but generally, the focus of the day is writing fiction. And this works for me because I'm good at setting deadlines for myself and bad at doing nothing.

But I'll be back at a university this fall, doing my postdoc at Stony Brook. And lots of things need to happen between now and then. Thinking about all those things is slightly crazy-making, so I thought I would revise my to do list, and see if that made me feel more sane:

Sell house in Minneapolis
Find apartment in Stony Brook
Find good homes for one or two cats (If you want a lovely, darling cat, let me know)
Pack house (including organizing things to be moved, put in storage, and donated or sold)
Finish draft of whatever the fuck I am calling this cursed novel this week and send to beta readers
Revise/ send out "In Scarlet Nights I Saw You" (Little Red Werewolf Story)
Write Storyteller on a Ship story (not to be confused with Snakes on a Plane movie)
Course prep for "The Dream as Literary Form" (what I am teaching this fall)
Course prep for "The Fantastic as Place" including securing Fabulous Guest Stars (what I am also teaching this fall)
Begin work on Shakespeare and Sandman book (postdoc comes with snazzy research stipend. Snazzy research stipend is turning into this.)
Begin thinking about course I will be teaching next spring, "Saints and Other Troublesome Women"
Clean house
Buy food
Don't panic

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dying is easy. It's comedy that's hard.

I was lucky enough today to read a really fabulous short story, "The Creature in Your Neighborhood," by Jim C. Hines. (You can find it in the anthology, Strip Mauled.) If you were to imagine Evil Sesame Street with werewolves, you might possibly get some idea of the awesome of this story. It's dark, and snarky, and smart. And I'll be including it on my list of nominations for the Hugo when I send that in.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Someone needs to take responsibility for this

Over on, we finally learn who to blame for Neil Gaiman. What I really love about the entry is the comments section, where people have begun listing who bears literary fault for their writing. So, in the spirit of things...

I'm mostly your fault, William Shakespeare. You taught me that playing with language was fun, and that there was a world of amazing words out there. You threw ghosts and witches, fairies and wizards into your plays as if they belonged there, and so they did. You got me sent to detention for the first time (it is not, as a matter of fact, a good idea to have Birnam Wood march on Dunsinane at recess if the convent is standing in for Dunsinane) and taught me that literature could be dangerous.

I'm also your fault, Madeleine L'Engle, for teaching me that literature could wrestle with the numinous, and Susan Cooper, for beginning my obsession with depictions of King Arthur in literature. Ms. Cooper, it is also your fault that I attempted Welsh.

Parts of me are your fault, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Your fairy tale anthologies pulled me out of the wilderness that I wandered into during the brief period when I decided I was too old to read stories about imaginary things, and so read nothing but Sweet Valley High and Babysitters Club books. Best of all, the anthologies had lists of recommended reading, and so I found Charles de Lint and Pamela Dean and Emma Bull and Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman and so many other favorites.

I am entirely your fault, Robin McKinley, as you wrote Deerskin, which saved my life.

And yes, Neil Gaiman, I am your fault, too. You challenged me to write better, and bought a story when I did.

All remaining errors are the sole responsibility of the author.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The distant mirror of the past

I've been going through my things, files and papers and memories, a spring cleaning ritual that began early this year. Yesterday I found a stack of coursework I had saved, some even from my undergraduate days, including my final paper from my Honors Intro to Microbiology course, entitled "The Efficacy of Zidovudine Mono- and Combination Therapies in the Inhibition of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and the Treatment of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome."

For those keeping score at home, I got perfect marks on the science. The writing, however, was deemed slightly weak.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

You don't need to steal. I will give them to you.

Someone is, yet again, suing J.K. Rowling for plagiarism. Making Light has a great post on the subject. (Seriously. Read the whole thing. Think about it. I'll still be here when you come back. Well, I won't be. But this entry will. You get my point.)

What really struck a chord with me was Item 2 on Teresa's list of "What these lawsuits teach us:"

"2. Non-writers think it's the ideas, rather than the execution, that make a book. They've got that backward."

So. Very. True.

Writers so often get asked, "where do you get your ideas from?" that the question has become a cliché. I think the question gets asked because we admire, and perhaps covet, the ability to imagine, to think differently, to create a story that wasn't there before. It seems like some sort of magic, the using of words to build a world.

I know that when I began writing, one of my biggest fears was that I would run out of ideas. I hoarded them like a dragon hoards gold, keeping them tucked away in the dark. I stopped writing fiction completely between getting accepted to Clarion and showing up on campus because I was terrified that my inability to think of an idea for each week's story would mark me out as a fraud.


Of the six ideas that I had sketched out in notebooks, only two of them became stories there, at least in their original form. (I learned very quickly that having an idea was the easy part, that the putting the idea into story-shaped form on paper was where the work came in.) And of those two, I can tell you exactly where they came from. They were stolen.

My week one story was called "Mother Love." It was Beowulf, from the perspective of Grendel's Mom. Totally stolen idea. The other was my entry into our fool your friends flash fiction contest, "Dead Man's Party." I was out running, and "Dancing With Myself" came on the iPod. There's a line in there - "Your empty eyes seem to pass me by" - and when I heard it, I thought, oh, yes. Zombies love '80s dance music. And okay, maybe that one wasn't so much stolen as "inspired by" but you get my point. I took part of someone else's idea, and made something with it.

We do not create in a void. We are the sum of our experiences and our ideas come from those experiences. More importantly, what we do with those ideas comes from our experiences as well. Having an idea doesn't make for a unique story. The execution of that idea does. For example: Two people, a teenage girl and a male vampire. In love. Afraid to consummate their love because of the consequences. Buffy and Angel or Bella and Edward?

Learn to experience things as only you can, and then you will tell the stories that only you can tell.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Brush up your Shakespeare

I am delighted to be able to tell you that I will be the ACLS New Faculty Fellow at SUNY Stony Brook,  for the academic years 2010-2012.

I'm very excited, mainly because the English Department there will let me teach not only the medieval and early modern literature that my degree is in, but the fantastic literature that I love. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

99 problems, and a plot ain't one

Apparently, it takes me thirty thousand words to find a plot. Or at least it does for this book, My Nemesis,  The Novel What Ate My Brain, The Widening Gyre. (And yes, now that I actually know what this is about that may change again. One Thousand Titles in Search of a Story, anyone?)

I had characters, and a really cool world for them to run around it. There were conflicts. Things were happening. What I didn't have is the why, the driving engine for the story. I printed out the draft, made notes, sat at my notebook at made an appalling number of false starts. (Seriously, if books had DVD extras, I already have enough for two discs worth of bloopers and deleted scenes.)

I cleaned my house. I began organizing my desk. I ran through all the usual displacement activities that I do when the writing isn't working. I thought seriously about organizing my spice rack. And then, when I was getting Sam I Am's dinner ready, the why of the story dropped into my head. 

Sometimes writing looks like baking, or sorting through papers. I'm really glad that today, writing looks like writing again.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Two more weeks

Clarion is accepting applications until 11:59 pm (Pacific) on 1 March. Two more weeks to apply, which means if you haven't yet begun writing your application stories, you can now make your application process mimic the experience of being at Clarion, and write one story a week.

If you're serious about writing, I encourage you to apply. (Look at that faculty! That is an amazing group of people to learn from.) Having gone through the stress of the application process myself, I know it's easy to talk yourself out of applying, so I'm going to try to talk you back into it.

What if I don't get in? Well, then you don't. That sounds harsh, I know, but signing up to be a writer is signing up for a career's worth of rejections. Learning how you cope with rejection is a valuable part of learning how to be a writer. (And, let me assure you, Clarion is not six weeks of your instructors and fellow students telling you how wonderful everything you write is.) Even if you don't get in, you'll have written two stories. You will have created art that didn't exist before. It's up to you to decide what that rejection means - maybe you decide you weren't a writer after all, or maybe you are filled with a fierce desire to write better next time. And the other possibility, of course, is that you will get in.

It's expensive. Yes. It is. But it is worth it. The specificity and intensity of the situation mean that you will learn things about your writing that you might never learn otherwise. Take a look at that instructor list again, and think what it would mean to you to sit next to one of the people on there over breakfast, or at 3 am while you are still writing critiques for the morning's class. Think of what it would be like to have each of those people tell you what they think of what you wrote, and talk to you about where you see yourself going as a writer. Imagine brainstorming plot points with one of those people, and ask yourself how much that is worth to you. There are scholarships. And if it still seems impossible to afford this year, it is the sort of experience that is worth saving up for.

Six weeks is a long time away from my life (partner, child, &tc). Again, yes. Classmates of mine left behind partners and families to attend. We all left lives behind. My house and cat sitter had a nervous breakdown the day I moved into the dorms. The paperwork for my divorce was filed in week 4. Life doesn't stop because you are writing, regardless of where you are writing. I can't tell you the best way to balance the two. But it is possible to do so. And it may be easier to learn how to negotiate that balance when you are in a community of people all trying to do the same thing.

There is nothing that I have done that has been better for the quality of my writing or for my understanding of what it means for me to be a writer, than attending Clarion. You have two more weeks to apply. Good luck.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

No promises, no demands

When I was in elementary school, my Mom made me give valentines to everyone in my class. I hated it, because the valentines were so often used as weapons. The worst part of the day wasn't wondering whether a sparkly card would show up, maybe even with candy heart attached, from the right person. It never did, and I knew my place in the social hierarchy well enough not to wonder if it would. No, the worst part of the day was being mocked for who I sent valentines to - either for daring to send them to the popular kids, who were out of my league, or the assumption that I was "in love" with one of the other geeks because I had given a card to him. I became small inside, turned into a liar out of desperation. I denied that when I scribbled "love" on this card that I meant it, even though I had, from the bottom of my awkward, nerdy soul, never said that card hadn't been so bad to give, because at least the recipient treated me like a human being. 

The idea of expressing love became something that was wrong, fraught with peril and full of unhappiness. The best thing to do was to simply shut up. To stay small inside, mock the idea of love, because that was safer.

The thing is that love, real love - and not just the romantic sort, although I certainly include that - isn't a weapon. It is a gift. Juliet tells Romeo:

"My bounty is as boundless as the sea, 
My love as deep: the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite."

This is what telling someone "I love you" should be like. It should fill you with love as well, not because they say "I love you" back, as wonderful and miraculous as that is, but because telling someone they are loved is the way that we fight against chaos and entropy. Expressing love, telling people that they are valued, appreciated, doesn't make us less, it makes us more. When we love, we become bigger on the inside.

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. Celebrate. Choose a person that means something to you, who makes your life better, and say "I love you."

Feel infinite.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Circles and circles and circles again

The nice thing about working on the current book is it definitely lets me know when the story isn't working. The bad thing about working on the current book is that, when that happens, all the writing comes to a screeching halt.

Okay. That's not exactly right. What happens is, I write three or four scenes, and I'm not happy about any of them while I'm writing them, not really, but it's putting words on the page, so I keep going. And then I can't see what happens next. And I faff about with things, make false starts, and decide that I might as well type up what is written so at least I am doing something.

And somewhere in the typing, I can hear the false note. It's like I'm writing in the wrong key. So tomorrow I'm going to print out the last 10K words or so, and read through them again, make a bunch of notes on what needs to be happening and questions that need to be answered. I will steel myself to make the Scary Danger somehow Even Worse and acknowledge the fact that in Story, like in Life, Bad Things happen to the people I like. 

And then I will discover what happens next.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The unbearable whiteness of being

I went temporarily snowblind this morning, and boy, wasn't that fun. "Because I feel like a prat when I do" is no longer an excuse for not wearing Enormous and Fashionable Sunglasses while walking Sam I Am. 

And yes, there is now officially so much snow on the ground that restricted parking rules are in effect, making me even happier that I can actually park in my garage, even if my driveway is a hill on a hill.

Yesterday was not a day off, and I revised the draft of the Little Red Werewolf story, then realized it needed one more pass before I sent it out to readers. The rooms are built, I just keep putting the wrong furniture in them. The Widening Gyre has started making "look at me" gestures in the side of my vision again, which is good. I am a bit concerned that the title is going to prove a metaphor for the writing of it, though - the story is coming out in recursive loops, rather than straight lines. Fine, so long as the center holds.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A shiver in my bones just thinking

Finished the draft of "In Scarlet Nights I Saw You" - otherwise known as the Little Red Werewolf story - last night. It's broken, but I know how to fix it. (And thinking about that this morning made me realize that I am progressing as a writer. I didn't always know when a story was broken. Now, even when I can't see the fix, I can at least see that one is necessary.) And I'd like to take today and work on it, but I am literally and figuratively under the weather, so it may well be a day off.

So you're not bored:

I am currently obsessed with the Jamie Cullum cover of "Please Don't Stop the Music." It's dead sexy. Also: exploding piano!

The first episode of Season Three of Shadow Unit is up. Shadow Unit is one of the things I most look forward to reading, and I highly recommend it, especially if you are a fan of Criminal Minds or Wire in the Blood. "The Unicorn Evils" may be the best episode yet, although if you haven't read the show before, I'd recommend starting earlier. (Perhaps at the beginning, if you like being conventional.)

Beaker is my favorite muppet

Saturday, February 6, 2010

What book are you reading now?

A meme floating around right now asks the following questions:

1. What book are you reading now?
2. Why did you choose it?
3. What’s the best thing about it?
4. What’s the worst thing about it?

Here are my answers:

1. The fully correct answer is "many." I have bookmarks in a large number of books right now, fiction and non, research and pleasure reading, and some that blur those distinctions. However, for the sake of making this not the longest blog entry ever: Under the Dome by Stephen King.

2. King was the "grown up" author I read. I've read most of his fiction, and much of his nonfiction, and while I haven't loved everything, when he's on, there's no better storyteller out there. I heard good things from people whose opinions I respect and trust, so I used part of a gift card and bought it.

3. The pacing is incredible, and King's writing is so fluid, so right, that it all looks easy. And even though there is a serious page count, reading feels like flying, not slogging.

4. It was too easy to tell which side people would wind up on based on character description, rather than actual character. Having said that, he is working with actual characters, not just collections of traits on a page.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Find your place on the shelf

Sometimes I think that my friend Monica is actually a benevolent spirit in human guise. She has this amazing gift for sending along bits of inspiration, just as I need them, and often before I can think, this, this is what I was looking for

The latest bit was an essay from which she had pulled the end quote: 

"Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go.... Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time."

Sometimes I forget, when I'm writing, that the end result will be a place in a bookstore. This week, in particular, which was a whiplash in terms of productivity. Last week ended in a rush of writing, culminating in writing through the night Saturday. And then the story stopped.

I'm not panicked (yet) because I'm far enough into this book that I know that's how it wants to be written - in explosive bursts of imagination followed by periods  of rest, where my brain recharges. I'm not panicked (yet) because the previous times this has happened with this book means that the story engine is gearing up to give me the next piece of the plot. I need the next piece of the plot, because I'm also far enough into the book where I can see the edges of the shape and color of the ending, and I need to figure out how to get there from here, how to stop adding complications and wrap up the ones I already have, and the path between isn't an easy or a pleasant one, for the characters or for me.

And I'm not panicked, not really, even though it's been almost a week since I've written a new word on The Widening Gyre because my brain decided it was done percolating the werewolf idea, and gave me the title and the opening and the very angry pov character for my Little Red Werewolf short story, and I am getting writing done on something, at least.

And I'm not panicked, because I can see my place on the shelf. And I know there will be books there.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"In Scarlet Nights I Saw You"

"There are three things you should know from the beginning. There was no woodsman. I already lived with my grandmother.

And I was the wolf."

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

And they will know we are Christians by our love

Once again, the man who is supposed to be the spiritual leader of my church has made me feel as if I need to apologize for being Catholic. The Pope has encouraged the English and Welsh Bishops to fight against an equal rights bill with "missionary zeal." Now, maybe it's because I was educated by tricksy, equivocating Jesuits, but I was taught that equal rights for all actually means equal rights for all, not just equal rights for heterosexuals. And so yes, I think the Pope, and my church, are wrong on this one.

Thankfully, my dark night of the soul was prevented by the words of British speculative fiction writer, Paul Cornell. Especially this bit: 

"I say there's no excuse for Christian homophobia. The New Testament references are tiny. There's nothing at all from Christ. But most importantly, he told us that when the book's wrong, you chuck the book and love."

Reading that, seeing the  #godlyforequality campaign Paul has started on twitter, where those of us who consider ourselves people of faith and who also believe in things like equal rights for everyone can speak, with a loud voice and an obvious show of support, that makes me proud.

I don't believe that the solution is to leave my Church in protest. It may be for some people, but I believe that my role is to stay inside it, and say, with missionary zeal, "This is wrong. This is not how God asked us to behave."

I believe that God is love. And while I have quoted this passage from Julian of Norwich before, she is one of my favorite theologians, and I think it's worth repeating right now: 

"'Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Hold yourself in love, and you shall know more of the same. In time without end, you shall never know other than love.' Thus was I taught that love is our lord's meaning. And I saw with certainty in this and in all things that before God made us he loved us, which love has never decreased, nor never shall. And in this love, God has done all of his works, and in this love, God has made all things good for us. And in this love, our life is everlasting."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Re-entering the hallowed halls

I spent the day dreaming up imaginary syllabi. Not the kind of imagining that I usually do.

I have a job interview this week, as part of the fellowship I was awarded. No, I'm not going to say where. It just seems more polite, in case that's not where I wind up. But I will say, based on what they would want me to teach - medieval lit, and fantasy lit, and creative writing - I'm really excited. 

One of the things that you do in academic job interviews is talk about the sort of classes you might want to teach, and the sort of research that you want to do. So I got to imagine the kind of classes that I always wanted to take, and how I would teach those: Shakespeare as Fantasist, where we could look at Hamlet as a ghost story and think about what it means that there are witches in The Scottish play and that The Tempest is a story about a wizard. I could teach a course on the medieval roots of modern fantastic literature and a King Arthur in Literature course that has Cooper and Kay and Bear and Valente and Gaiman on the syllabus along with Malory and White. I can write an article about Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Love and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and a book on Shakespeare in Sandman. It's a new kind of imagining, and I'm thrilled to get the chance to do it.