Friday, December 31, 2010

One headlight

There are things I don't do when I write. One thing, something I will never do, is make an outline. Never is a long word, but I think I can say it here, being that I've never outlined anything. I didn't even outline my dissertation. (Um, this may be why one of my chapters went through 13 drafts. Or why, when I had approved drafts of all four chapters, and four months left to put the project together, I decided I needed to completely rewrite three of those chapters because I had finally realized what my project was actually about. Insanity may also explain the latter.)

This is probably where I ought to reiterate that my process is just that: my process. It's the way to write that works for me, right now. It may not be your process, and you shouldn't change yours to fit mine.

The reason that I don't outline my fiction is that if I know how the story ends, I have no interest in writing the story. But writing by my headlights means that I usually have significant revisions to do at the end of something. (Not always. "A Life in Fictions" had two word changes from the time I set down the pen to the time it was published.)

Which leads me to the other thing I don't do when I write: revise as I go along. I make notes to myself, stuff my notebook full of post-its and marginal scrawls, keep a running list of things I'll need to fix on the next draft, but I almost never actually stop and go back over what I've written. I need the forward momentum so that I can outrace the doubt.

The clever readers among you will have noticed the "almost" preceding the "never" in the previous paragraph.

Sometimes what I'm writing goes through a big enough transformation from what I have written to what I'm going to write that I need to stop and revise. This happened once, about a quarter of the way into The Novel Formerly Known as Linger, when I realized that a major subplot was causing me to tell a story I didn't want to tell (and, more importantly, that my character didn't want to be in). I stopped, typed it out, sent it to approximately all of my beta readers, and had a frantic phone conference with a friend in order to be reassured. Once I got through that, I kept writing until I had a finished Bad Draft.

Yesterday, I realized that was where I was at with Stronger Than Death. The shift in the story is good. It will add depth, and be more my kind of story, and I'm far enough into it that the terror of stopping to type all the words and then slash enormous amounts of them out is balanced by the excitement of the kind of book this is going to be when I'm finished.

I will make notes, signposts for myself, and mark the places where the path is rocky, and the bridge is out. I will not, however, draw a map. Can't read 'em, anyway.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Tipsy Cherry Fudge

Apparently, if you mention on twitter that you're drowning cherries in rum, people get very excited about the recipe you're making. It was a new recipe I was trying, so I wanted to make sure it turned out before I shared it. It did, so here you go. (Also, I have provided helpful commentary.)

Tipsy Cherry Fudge (This is a bit of a misnomer. The cherries are not tipsy. The cherries are drunk.)

Soak 8 oz. of dried cherries in your choice of liquor overnight. (Rum, brandy, bourbon, whiskey were all suggested. I used rum. Also, the cherries will plump up as they soak, so be sure to use enough to account for this.) When you're ready to make the fudge, drain and save the liquid, and pat the cherries dry.

The original recipe said to butter a 9- or 10-inch pan, and then layer the ingredients so that when the fudge is set, you can turn the pan upside down and have the nuts and cherries on top. I used an 8x10 inch pan, and then required the assistance of my Ironman brother who has an engineering degree to remove the fudge. If I were to make the recipe again, I would line the pan with wax paper to make removal easy, omit the nuts (because I'm not a fan of nuts in fudge) and mix the cherries into the chocolate. But, if you want to be a traditionalist, toast 6 oz. of chopped pecans, and spread them in the bottom of the pan. Then layer the cherries on top of the nuts.

Melt together one bag semisweet chocolate chips, one bag butterscotch chips, and one can sweetened condensed milk. Stir in one teaspoon of the reserved liquor from the cherries. Pour the chocolate mixture over the nuts and cherries (The recipe said pour. I would have used the verb "smooth." What you have is not of a loose enough consistency to pour.)

Refrigerate until set, and then cut into whatever size pieces you like. 

Please note that you are not cooking the alcohol off. In other words, if you eat too many pieces at one sitting, it may not just be the cherries that are tipsy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The gift was ours to borrow

I know. I haven't been blogging. Either as often as I ideally would, or even as often as I have in the past. And this time, I'm not going to apologize. I'll just explain.

In my usual form, with a number of digressions and parentheticals.

There are any number of small explanations, but the big one is this: for the first time in far too long, I am making a comfortable amount of progress on a book. A new book, not a revision. A book of fiction, not a research project. And I'm not really going to say what it's about, because I've gotten very superstitious about talking about my works in progress. I'll give you the working title - Stronger Than Death - but that's about all I feel comfortable sharing.

Or can share, really. I have no idea how long it is right now, because I'm not letting myself think about the writing even long enough to type the words from the notebook into the computer. (My friends who watched me turn into a babbling madwoman, who wouldn't go anywhere without her notebook as I was finishing the Draft Zero of The Novel Formerly Known as Linger have some idea of what this is going to turn into, and I'm sure they are glad that multiple states now separate us.) I'm refining and discovering as I go, which means the revision on this book is going to be fairly mind-boggling in scope.

I kind of don't care, because having something to revise will mean I finished something. And more, because writing feels normal again. Not easy, or like I am communing with the Muse or channeling the collective unconscious or whatever other blather people go on about in relation to the creative process. But right. The thing I am supposed to be doing.

Except, here's the thing. My biggest fear about my writing is that it's a limited time offer. Not that I'll run out of ideas, but that I'll run out of ways to express them. That my talent will plateau, or grow stale. That my words will be ordinary, my story commonplace.

So I am reluctant right now to sit at the desk and write anything other than Stronger Than Death. Being able to write this story, as messy and disorganized and flawed as this draft is, is a gift, one I don't want to be ungrateful for. One I really don't want to have to give back.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Great expectations

The first time I wrote a draft of a novel, it was only as difficult as I expected it to be. It took about four months, and it was a terrible draft. Seriously: my cat peed on it when it was finished, and, in retrospect, that was an appropriate response. But a year after that, it was much better. Good enough, in fact, to query agents with.

I haven't finished a draft of a novel since then. 

It's hard to say that, here, in public. Most of me wants to point very loudly to the other things I've done since then, and all of the things that have happened in my life, or at the very least to point out the proximity in time between finishing that first, terrible draft that grew up to be a book I am proud of and now. But at a very real level, none of that matters. I need something tangible, and I don't have it. I haven't met the goals I've set for myself.

We have all these terms we use, to take the pressure off: draft zero, the shitty first draft, the discovery draft. I'm sure there are others. What I wasn't doing, as my wonderful friend and Clarionmate Steffi suggested, was actually taking the pressure off when I wrote. When I wrote what was supposed to be the bad draft, the fixable object, all I could see was the flaws, and the knowledge that there was so much wrong became paralyzing. Instead of asking for help from beta readers, or leaving myself notes, or just ignoring the crap and moving on, I stopped writing. I always picked up something else, but I stopped writing.

And part of that was because I am a better writer now. So it is easier for me to see the flaws, and to know what needs fixing. This is one of those things that is obviously a blessing and a curse, and, quite frankly, I am still waiting for the blessing part of it to make itself clear. Leveling up your craft isn't one of those things you expect to have to work around.

I went back, and I looked that the major drafts of that novel. I looked at the emails I sent friends, and the blog entries I wrote, and I made myself remember how very fixable something so obviously imperfect was. And right now, I am writing a Very Bad Draft. Characters have different names than they did 20 pages ago. Ninety percent of what I have on the page is dialogue. I'd say it was all white-roomed, but that would assume there's enough setting to make a room. My notebook is covered with post-its, reminding me to research [redacted] or translate [redacted]. And one other post-it is attached to the drawer of my desk where my pens live, where I have written down a reassurance from a friend, given the day the cat peed on my manuscript. It reads: "The point of words in notebooks is that they are anything from the words of the story, to yogurt starter, to palimpsest." It is a reminder to myself that words are not perfection, but possibility.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Final examinations

Today was the last day of my classes at Stony Brook. This means that posting here may be light, or nonexistent, or truly bizarre because I have 90 final papers to grade, and then 90 final grades to calculate.

It was, from my point of view, a dream semester. I got to teach classes I designed myself (the syllabi are here, if you're interested), on material I was really excited about, to students who were smart and enthusiastic. Oh, and the Department fully supported me, both in my academic work on genre literature, and in my creative writing of it.

This was a huge change for me - the school where I earned my PhD had no patience with speculative fiction. I remember being told, by a tenured faculty member, that Shakespeare - who, you may recall, wrote plays full of witches and ghosts and fairies and wizards - did not write fantasy, because he was good. This same person also informed me that Beowulf was not in the tradition of the fantastic, because "medieval people actually believed in those sorts of things. They expected them." "So, what you're saying is William the Conquerer expected Grendel?" "Yes." 


(My friend Jen, who is now teaching at Valparaiso University, and is one of the most intelligent scholars I know, actually pulled off writing a dissertation on the fantastic in this atmosphere. I am completely in awe of this.)

So I've taken being at a university that allowed me to teach a course in "The Fantastic as Place" and has requested that I teach it again, that is letting me teach "Medieval Monsters, Magic, and Ghosts" wherein we will discuss how the presence of a dragon in that poem was as exciting in the 10th century as it is in the 21st, as a huge gift.

I also take as a gift that the question most asked at the end of the semester (that was not related to the final papers) was "where can I read more books like these?" That's the sort of thing that makes grading 90 papers bearable.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


As there so often is, there is a meme going around twitter today. This one, tagged #WhyIRead, was quite popular with the bookish crowd I hang out with on that part of the internet. I gave a couple of different answers, but one maybe deserves a longer meditation.

I said, "Because I wouldn't recognize myself if I didn't." I joke, quite often, that if you were to cut me open, what would come out wouldn't be blood, it would be coffee. But really, the thing that flows through my veins is words, stories. I don't actually remember a time before I could read. I have been told that I was one of those verbally precocious children who completely skipped the normal baby babble, and ran headlong into speaking in full sentences, that one night I took The Cat in the Hat from my Dad, and read the whole thing to him. (I'm actually kind of sad that was the end of bedtime stories. I love being read to. Yes, still.)

I always had a book in my hand. I read under the covers or tucked into the closet at night, under the desk in class, and whenever I could get away with it, I stayed in to read instead of going out to recess. At a family reunion, when the rest of the cousins got in trouble for play with Grandpa's pool table, I got in trouble for reading his rare edition of Moby Dick. I was six. I still haven't finished it.

When the worst things happened, even the very worst, I got through them by reading. Two books saved my life after that: Robin McKinley's Deerskin and Andrew Greeley's Lord of the Dance. There's a great quote from G.K. Chesterton, "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." Books are where I learned to beat the dragons, and when I couldn't, how to climb on their backs, and fly.

I know better who I am when I'm reading. One of my friends mentioned that reading makes him clearer in his head, and I think that's a good way to describe the sensation. I see the shapes of my world more truly, and feel more present, more real. I am creature made up of bone and skin and stories, and I read to know who I am, and who I'm going to be.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Adeste fidelis

I studied Latin in grad school. My specialty is medieval literature - the assumption of the various powers was that I would not only study Latin, but study a rather great deal of Latin, and perhaps woo attractive people of both genders at cocktail parties by demonstrating my felicity with the ablative.

My decision to certify fluency for in Russian and French caused not only a great deal of consternation, but also three separate memos. (Memoranda. See what I did there?)

The thing is, I wrote my dissertation on medieval women's religious writing. Not really a topic full of Latinate texts. Okay, yes, there was a moment in Joan of Arc's trial transcript where the Middle French text was corrupt, and I read some of Aquinas, but women spoke in the vulgar tongue.

So what have I used my Latin for? Well, I did some translation for a friend's comic, I'm working out a system of magic in the new novel, and Greek is too liquid for the sound I want (Latin is totally the JS Bach of the language world) and... Oh! Christmas carols. I'm awesome at Christmas carols.

No education is ever wasted.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The most wonderful time of the year

One of my students stopped by my office hours today. "I've been looking at the Clarion website," he said. "Do you think I should apply?"

It was very easy for me to tell him yes. He's a talented writer already, and someone who is serious about the idea of writing.

But since the application period opened yesterday (1 Dec.- 1 March) it seemed like a good time for me to go into some depth about why I think applying to Clarion is a good idea.

I attended Clarion (sometimes called Clarion East or Clarion UCSD) in 2008. For six weeks, seventeen people who became my family and I studied writing with Kelly Link, James Patrick Kelly, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Neil Gaiman, Nalo Hopkinson, and Geoff Ryman. It was one of the most challenging, terrifying, and wonderful things I've ever done in my life. There may come a time when I no longer consider attending Clarion as the best thing I've ever done for my writing, but I don't see that happening any time soon.

Was it difficult? Yes. Clarion gets called boot camp for writers, and while that's an amusing description, it's also an accurate one. Someone did the math, and figured out that we were reading about 20-25K words of fiction a night in order to prep for the next day's critiques (and usually reading them twice.) At the same time, we were writing our own stories. Sleep was very far down on the priority list. I'm pretty sure everyone had one really bad crit, that made them rethink whether or not they belonged there, or should keep writing, or even if they knew how to write in the first place. I know I did.

Is it expensive? Yes. Education is. And attending Clarion is an education in being a writer. I don't just mean how to write a better story, although you will certainly learn that, but when you live like a writer for six weeks, you can start to think about whether or not this is something you want to continue. And while I realize this is the kind of phrase that can start shouty matches on the internet, I believe attending Clarion is the useful equivalent of an MFA. That puts the tuition in perspective. There is also financial aid.

Is it the only way to become a writer? No. Obviously not. I know many people, good, great, and brilliant writers who didn't go to Clarion. Would I be a writer if I hadn't gotten in? Yes. Would I be a writer if I hadn't applied? Well, now, that's a trickier question.

I've said before that the only reason I got up the guts to apply was that I was sure I would never get in. That way, I didn't have to worry about how I would afford it, or who would take care of my animals, or the effect running off to San Diego for six weeks to write fiction would have on finishing my dissertation, or my ability to survive an increasingly ugly divorce. And I'd never really tried writing short fiction before. (When you apply, you do so with a portfolio of two short stories, both between 2500-6000 words. This word length is still a problem for me. Nothing I've sold is long enough to be part of an application portfolio.)

But the act of sitting down, and working on fiction, of letting myself take the crazy ideas in my head seriously, that's what made me a writer.

So yes. I think you should apply to Clarion. I wish you the best of luck, and I hope you get in.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Haunted by my past selves

I went home for Thanksgiving. Perhaps that doesn't seem like a noteworthy thing - people do it all the time, I know. But for me, well, it had been since undergrad.

I don't particularly like Thanksgiving. I love the idea of being grateful, and I try to be so every day. I love food (if not turkey and stuffing so much) and I am fortunate enough to get along with the family I was born into. Still, I was planning on spending Thanksgiving with a dear friend. 

Because the thing is, I think Thanksgiving is sort of a cursed holiday for my family (or maybe just for me.) Because I don't remember ever having a good one, growing up. I remember fights, and stress, and being glad to be back in the dorm. I remember being relieved, when the law school finals schedule meant it was impossible to both study and fly home. I remember the year spent in shock, curled on the kitchen floor, when I realized "over" wasn't a big enough word for what had just happened to my marriage. I didn't want to go home, not for Thanksgiving.

But family called, so I went. It was, oddly, good. I still don't like stuffing, but there was pie. Which I also had for breakfast. There weren't any big fights, or drama, and I listened to family stories I'd never heard before. My Dad and I had a contest to see how many languages we could each curse in, and I fell of my chair laughing when I realized it was his Mom, my Grandma, who taught him how to say "Kiss my ass" in Irish.

But even with the joy, it was strange. The house my parents live in now is not any of the houses in which I grew up. I stay in a guest room when I visit. It's the one I always stay in, and the one they just bought a desk for, so I can write in privacy when I visit, but it's not my room. There are pictures of me in it, from high school. 

I don't really recognize that girl, even though who I am right now is probably the closest I've ever been to the secret dreams she held at her heart of who she wanted to be when she grew up. And I thought a lot about my past, there in that room that wasn't mine, and about the choices and changes and victories and mistakes that have gone into the making of who I am right now. I have no desire to lay the ghosts of my past. I have become used to being haunted.