Saturday, December 31, 2011

Turning years, turning pages, making wishes

I wish you joy.


I wish you people to celebrate your successes, and to hold you when you cry.


I wish that you are challenged in your convictions, and so have the chance to learn what they truly are, and to learn who you truly are as well.


I wish that you will make something - a poem, a pie, a sweater, a song - something only you can make. It won't be perfect, but I believe creation is our way of fighting entropy, and 2011 was a year of things falling apart for too many of us. Let us help the center to hold.


I wish that you feel truly understood.


I wish that you try something that scares you, something you think you aren't good enough to do, something that you have always wanted to learn, or to learn to be. Working without a net is scary, but it is how we become.


I wish that you are able to shed one of the layers of skin that you have been longing to cast off, to forgive an old wrong, to let a wound scar over.


I wish you material comforts - food, shelter, warmth, light - and I wish you the particular comforts of your own soul.


I wish you moments of transcendence, of compassion, of hope.


I wish that at the end of this coming year, when you look back, you are proud of who you are and of what you've done.


I wish you love.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

One more new beginning

I don't normally get very excited about New Year's Eve. I like a sparkly party and champagne as much as the next girl, and I've thrown NYE parties in the past, but it's one of those occasions I am perfectly happy to mark in flannel pajamas with a cup of hot chocolate, rather than out with the riotous crowds. Besides, after spending basically my entire life in academia, I believe the new year begins in September. 


But I got to the end of this fall semester, and I was burnt out. On teaching, on writing, on very nearly everything. This was Not Good, as I have twice as many teaching obligations next semester, and my writing obligations are (thankfully) increasing. And I love the teaching, and the writing (especially the writing), but I was just so very tired. So tired I didn't even know what to do to get myself out of being tired.


When I went home for Christmas this year, I decided to use the time to regroup, and to actually relax. To work differently than I usually do when I am on vacation (laugh at that phrase all you want, but welcome to the life of a working writer), and to think about how I worked, and what was really important to me, and how much of what I was working on was focused toward that. To think about how much of my life was focused toward that, and how I might rearrange things.


So I'm giving myself a new beginning, here at the turn of the year. Not resolutions, but a new way of looking at things.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Dancing and sitting with happiness

I am delighted and honored and - honestly - a bit overwhelmed that "Choose Your Own Adventure" has been chosen to appear in The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2012, edited by Rich Horton. 


I found out earlier this week, and did the ritual dance of joy in my office. Today, I saw the official Table of Contents, and I pretty much had to sit down. The other stories are so good, and the people who wrote them are people whose fiction I turn to for inspiration. It's an amazing thing, to be included in such company.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

In case you were wondering

It is the end of the year, and, as such, many places are putting together Best of lists, or Top Ten articles, or other such things that talk about what they enjoyed in the previous twelve months.


I have a passing fondness for lists myself - there are three within easy reach on my desk, even now - and so I have put together a list of my favorite books from the past year.


But! you must go over to Fantasy Matters to read it. (I know, I know, there's always a catch.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Good night and thank you, whomever

I have been an appallingly bad blogger of late. The worst part is, when I click through my list of blogs I follow, and I have sadness because they haven't updated, and then I have guilt, because neither have I. And I have good reasons - I am writing two books, a novella, a short story, and a ballet! And tomorrow I will get 45 final papers to grade! And also, it is two weeks until Christmas! Apparently, I use exclamation points when I am full of terror!


This is the point where my head explodes and/ or I search for consolation in the egg nog. Choose your own adventure.


In the spirit of five things make a post, then...


1. I have absolutely no plan to see this movie, but the version of "Is Your Love Strong Enough?" from the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack is amazing.


2. Writing is full of preoccupations. Current ones: the poetry of T. S. Eliot, Arthuriana, bad boys, and time.


3. "The Least of the Deathly Arts" will be in the Winter '12 issue of Subterranean. I am so excited. I am also incredibly excited for "Seeräuber," by Maria Dahvana Headley, also in that issue. It rocks. You will love it. 


4. Yesterday, I met a man dressed in a Santa suit who encouraged me towards a greater understanding and appreciation of the truth in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. In other news, Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Rudolph R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.


5. Goonies never say die.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

On being a writer

My students know that I write. So even though I don't teach any creative writing courses, there are usually a handful of students from each class every semester who come and talk to me because they want to be writers.


There are, I tell them, lots of ways of being a writer. There is writing that you do solely for yourself, or writing that you do because you want others to see it. You write because you want to see your name in print, or because you want to get paid. There is writing that is a hobby, and writing that is a career. Sometimes these categories combine. I tell them there is nothing inherently better or worse about any of these ways of writing, they are just different to each other.


Usually, though, when a student comes to see me about writing, it is because she wants to write for publication, with the stated or implied hope of it being a career, and the often implied hope of seven-figure book deals, lunches with King and dinners with Rowling. I try to give a reality check - I mention median first novel advances and that professional short story rates are five cents a word. I talk about people I know with multiple books on the shelf who still can't afford to be full-time writers. This information almost never makes a difference, and I'm glad, even though I think it should be part of the calculus. I don't think there's anything wrong with being attracted to a profession because you think you will be blindingly successful in it - you might be. Better to dream.


So I talk about rejection letters and submissions guidelines and daily page counts and rejection letters and query letters and letters you have to send to markets that forget to pay you and that time that I cut 20,000 words because they were the wrong words and critique groups and beta readers and that year I couldn't sell anything and rejection letters. I tell them that I love writing, even on the days that I hate it. That even though it is work, it is a job, there is nothing I would rather being doing. I think I must speak that last bit louder than the rest, because they walk out of my office bright eyed and shiny, and I see them clutching notebooks, and typing madly on laptops before class.


I hope they succeed. And by succeed, I mean get what they need out of the experience of writing, whether they only think of themselves as writers for a semester, or whether they go on to a career of millions of copies sold. 


But I think the next time someone asks what it is like to be a writer, I am going to point them at this post of Nova Ren Suma's, where she says "I'm a writer first, and then a person." It's a fantastic post for reasons more than simply that phrase, but that description really spoke to me. Because I think that to continue - especially if you are writing for someone other than yourself, if you are writing for publication, if you are writing with an eye to being a better writer, you must learn to be a writer first, and then a person.


You must learn that you cannot wait around for inspiration to show up, but must find it, whether by being open to ideas or by refusing to get up from your desk until you have 250 new words. You must learn that strange double self, of having an ego large enough to sit down at the notebook and pick up the pen in the first place, yet still able to sublimate itself in pursuit of the best story. You must learn how to have deadlines in lieu of a social life, and how to keep working even on the days the rejections make you weep.


You must learn to pare away everything, until all you have left is that core of what's most important, and then build your life outward from that. Then, you will be a writer.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Because fairy godmothers are real

It is neither exaggeration nor hyperbole to say that without Terri Windling, I would not be a writer.


I'll start with the obvious - she helped create and edit Bordertown. She has, with Ellen Datlow, edited a number of volumes of excellent, fairy-tale inflected, short fiction. Her own novel, The Wood Wife, is one I have turned to again and again, when I needed thoughtful magic. So her work has, in a number of ways, shaped my literary DNA.


But she also gave refuge and sanctuary to my soul. She took me on as a reviewer for the Endicott Studio of Mythic Arts, and she and Midori Snyder were unfailingly kind and encouraging to me while I was there. I needed that place - a place to feel that these stories that l loved were important, and mattered, and that it was okay to think seriously about them. I felt part of a community there.


And it was there, on the reference pages of the Endicott website, that I first discovered how to apply to Clarion, and when I said that I was going to, Terri wished me well. Even now, I cannot write what it meant to me, to have someone whose work I so admired, someone who I looked up to in that fashion, say good luck, and you can do this thing. It gave me courage, and strength.


We still haven't met in person, but Terri Windling is my fairy godmother, and someone I love deeply.


Right now, Terri has had to deal with a number of ongoing legal and health issues. She needs help. Here, at Magick 4 Terri, is a place you can do that. It's an auction full of beautiful and fantastical things.


Thank you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

One more star, to hang in the heavens

If you had told me yesterday that I would cry at the news of Anne McCaffrey's death, I would have been surprised.


I read her, of course. Didn't we all? It seems to me that anyone in my generation who read any science fiction or fantasy read Anne McCaffrey. And some of her books I truly loved - I read Dragonsong quite literally to pieces, and loved the rest of the Harper Hall trilogy, as well. Menolly is still on my list of favorite heroines. And I have a particular fondness for Black Horses for the King, which lives on the shelf of my comfort books downstairs. 


I read her, I loved her, but I outgrew her. Sometimes we do - we cannot always take the pieces of our childhood with us into adulthood. It does not mean they meant any less to us, then.


But the world has been hard, lately, and cold. Still, as the news of McCaffrey's death spread tonight, I watched as all of us who read her mourned, and shared their memories of what they loved best. In the sadness of the loss, the world became a little smaller, a little more connected. And so I cried, because I didn't realize until now that not only had Anne McCaffrey given us stories, she had given us each other as well, one more tremendous gift in the wake of her passing.


So thank you, Anne McCaffrey. Thank you. The harpers will always sing your name.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

This is dedicated to the one I

The other day on twitter, someone asked if I had a specific person in mind when I wrote, someone to whom I was writing. He had written something for his son, and having that audience in his head helped him.


I started to answer with a "No, absolutely not. That's the sort of thing that would paralyze me." and then realized the reason behind my answer was actually a good deal more complicated, so I'm giving it here.    


So let's step back in time to the summer of 2008, when I was at Clarion. It's probably no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers. He was also my week 4 instructor. And the way Clarion works is that the instructors run the critique sessions of the stories that get workshopped that week, and then also have a one-on-one conference with the writers. So, you know, no big deal, only someone whose writing I thought was brilliant going to be reading and picking apart something I wrote, and then meeting with me in person to tell me  exactly what he thought. No pressure, right?


Let me just say that if I ever take up a career in burglary, the first thing I am stealing is the copy of my week 4 story out of the Clarion archives. It is, perhaps, the worst thing I have ever written. And it is that level of disaster because I focused on the audience, and forgot about the thing I had come there to do: tell a story.


Thankfully, Neil is as kind as he is talented, so when it came time for our conference, instead of rehashing the horribleness of what I had written, he said, "I watched you during the critique, so I know you know what's wrong with the story. Let's talk about your writing, instead. Tea?"


And so we had tea, and talked, and one of the things we talked about was fear. Fear that people would think things about me, because of what I had written. That they would judge me. The fear that made me focus on the audience, and not on the story. The fear that would suffocate any talent that I had, unless I told it to go fuck itself, and wrote what I needed to write.


I'd like to tell you that happened all at once, that I am always and ever brave whenever I sit down and open a notebook. But it's hard - my grandmother reads everything I publish, you guys. I have scenes that I hide from, things it takes me multiple drafts to get the emotion right in, because it hurts, it makes me sick to my stomach to put those things on paper. I still can't write a sex scene without blushing, even when I don't remind myself that one of my regular readers is a Jesuit.


And I am always aware that I am not writing solely for myself. If I were, I would not be seeking publication. I want people to read what I write. Sometimes, I even know what people will be reading it - I have had editors ask for stories, and I have, on occasion, written things as gifts. But that is an awareness I push aside when I am writing, because I need to fill my head with story until there is no longer any room for fear.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A meditation on the nature of time

I finished Stephen King's 11/22/63 last night. This isn't meant to be a review of it (though I liked it, very much, and while it seems odd to say the words "cross-over appeal" about someone who has as many readers as King does, I do think this is a book that can be read and loved by people who don't normally gravitate toward his writing.) Rather, I want to talk about the way the book handled the problem of time.


As you might expect from a book that has a date for a title, time is a huge presence in 11/22/63. It is not quite a character, but it is the monster in the closet, the shadow at morning striding behind you, and at evening rising to meet you. And for most of the book, time moves at what seems an achingly slow pace. Oh, not that the pace of the book is slow - it isn't (unless you compare it with the careen of Under the Dome), but time cannot seem to move normally when history stands in front of it. Jake has to get to 1963 by way of 1958, and the ticking clock of the past echos louder and louder as we read towards the unanswered question. That tick tock becomes amplified almost unbearably when we arrive in late November of 1963, and King's text begins counting down the days. Trust me when I say that six numbers can make you shudder.


And yes, what King is interested in doing is exploring the idea of time travel, not alternate history, so I give away nothing (or at least nothing more than the fact that portal to the past opens in 1958 does) by saying that the titular date arrives very near to the end of the book. After Jake Epping has learned, time and again, that the past is obdurate. After entire flocks of butterflies have flapped their wings. It might seem obvious in a novel about time travel, but in 11/22/63 time is a force that cannot be ignored. I would say that it is the organizing force of the story, but then, isn't it always, when we begin with "Once upon a time" and end with "happily ever after?"


One of my favorite television shows is about a time-traveling mad man in a box, and one of the most quoted lines of this season was that "time can be rewritten." On my desk right now is Sean Carroll's From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. I am writing an alternate history and wrestling in my own way with obduracies of time. Plot is made of people, you see, and while changing history can be accomplished with a sweep of my pen, the people inside it are surprisingly resistant to being altered for all that they've been dead for 400 years now. And they keep trying to put the pieces of history that I have broken back together. 


Time is a thread, a layer, a piece of a coordinate in spacetime. Time is a bubble on the side of a multiverse. Time is the crack of a bullet, the flutter of wings, the inexorable ticking of a clock creeping in its petty pace. It is the beginning and end, and all of the pieces in between, no matter how often they are rewritten. It is all we have, and it is never long enough.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

First

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It seems I am hopelessly naive. I thought these words actually meant something.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Standing on someone else's soapbox

I sent out my first query letter (the letter that a writer sends to an agent, looking for representation) at the end of 2009. As I was getting ready to do so, I did what any sensible person does - I consulted the internet. 


Oh, not just for research on which agents might be a good fit for me, and what a query letter was, and how one wrote a synopsis without descent into madness and despair, but also for some sort of clue as to how I might survive the process - the process of being a new writer who was querying, and writing other things, and trying to figure out the business, and all the assorted angst and wankery (wankstery?) that goes with it. 


Reader, I found The Rejectionist. She was, at the time, an agent's assistant. But she didn't just write about the rejectionist part of things. She wrote about books and feminism and fashion and discovering who you are and the perils of nostalgia. And she wrote about them in a smart, snarky, insightful way that I loved. It became one of my favorite blogs, and it still is.


So I am so excited to tell you that I am guest-blogging for The Rejectionist today, as part of Feminist Speculative Fiction Week. I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Frailty, thy name is

I was faffing about on twitter the other day, as one does when one is between scenes and needs a break, and I saw that an online writing group was getting ready to have a public chat. While it's not a group I participate in, it's a fairly large one, and they often have guest visits from professionals. The topic? How to Write Flawed Heroines.


My first thought was, oh, they're not really doing this, are they? (Actually, that's a lie. My first thought was a great deal shorter and more profane.) And then the chat started, and I started to see things get retweeted, and the first two posts I saw were that heroines in particular needed to have noticeable imperfections and that women readers will forgive an arrogantly perfect male hero just about anything if he's hot enough.


This isn't the first time I've been grumpy on this subject. And I should point out that the title and the subject of the chat wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest if it had been something like "How to Write Imperfect People" or "How to Write Characters With Depth" or "How to Write Characters Who Actually Resemble Real, Flawed, Human Beings." Because let's face it. None of us are perfect. It's one of those inherent-in-being-a-person commonalities. And writing perfect characters is boring, and bad writing, and - I've taught Milton enough to know - makes for boring reading. 


But what I don't understand is the insistence that female characters need to be more flawed, or the perception that a male character can be a hot alpha hero who has all the skills, lets everyone know he knows best, and makes sexytimes with all the ladies and women readers will love him, but if the hero is a heroine who does these things that then she's a pushy bitch and a slut.


And it really pisses me off that a writers' group would decide that teaching people how to write acceptably weak women is a better use of its time than teaching people how to write interesting, believable, complex characters. And maybe it did - maybe someone pointed out that heros should be flawed as well, or that readers read to find strong women, as well as weak ones - and the discussion changed. I hope it did.


Because I don't believe it's true that the only way to write a believable female character is to emphasize her flaws, any more than I would believe that's the only way to write a believable male character. We can, and we should, write better.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Reflections on the turning of the year

So here is the obligatory post-Convention write-up post. Though I'm never sure why these things are obligatory - to remember what happened, perhaps? I am as likely to forget the enormous hug by my collective Clarion class as I am to forget the early morning phone call from my most excellent pet-sitter, saying the police were in the yard because the insurance company forgot (!) to tow the hurricane-smashed PugBug as I am to forget being chatted up with my excellent friend Maria Dahvana Headley by the Jagermeister Spokesstrippers as I am to forget opening weeping while Neil Gaiman read "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury" or gasping with laughter as Nalo Hopkinson read from her forthcoming YA novel, The Chaos.


That was pretty much my World Fantasy Convention. I saw the people I loved, never for long enough. I met new friends, and heard some excellent stories (I strongly prefer to go to readings over panels, as I love being read to.) I had dinner with my agency, and realized how very lucky I am to be part of such a terrific and talented collective of people. Throughout the weekend, I felt like a professional writer, not just in my own eyes, but in those of others.


And while I was gone, the seasons shifted. The last gasps of summer well and truly became fall, with pieces of winter sneaking through. These are the days of the dead, of saints and souls and turnings of the year. Endings and beginnings, and I cannot settle back in. I feel stretched too thin, and I cannot say why. Not lost, because I know where it is I need to be going, but off-kilter. 


I cannot say if the two things are related, if I am still disoriented from travel, from flinging myself at a place and people and dreams, or if it is simply the time of year, which has always felt like a haunted one for me. Or if it is simply that, like the time of year, there is so much that is almost ready to happen, and I need to lay the ghosts before I can reap the harvest.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Where to find me

This weekend I will be at World Fantasy Con, in San Diego. If you are going to be there, and would like to find me I am:


Having a solo reading! Friday 11:30 am, in Pacific 6/7. I will probably be reading "The Speaking Bone," which was published in Apex earlier this year.


Reading as part of the Fantasy Magazine group reading. Saturday 3-4 pm, in one of the hotel suites (tbd). There are some really great writers who are participating in this one, so I'm quite excited for it. I'll be reading an excerpt from "Choose Your Own Adventure."


I will also be wandering about most days (except for Sunday, when I leave, lo, very early), attending readings and panels and BarCon. If you see me (I am a tall and redheaded person, so fairly easy to spot) feel free to say hello.



Saturday, October 22, 2011

Would you like to hear something strange?

I love pretty much everything about October. The cooler weather, and the way that lends itself to cooking soups and stews. The smell of the leaves and the slant of the light. The reds and golds and ochers. Pumpkins and apples and cider. 


I also particularly love Hallowe'en. I love dressing up, and scary stories, and really, every part of the celebration. Including the music. I always make a playlist, and I generally ask Twitter to help. I got some great suggestions this year, some of which didn't make it on here because they didn't quite fit the mood, but I'm holding them in reserve.


Here it is:


1. Danse Macabre  - Béla Fleck (with Ben Sollee)
2. Every Day is Halloween - Ministry
3. Heads Will Roll - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
4.People are Strange - The Doors
5. Buffy Main Title Theme - The Breeders
6. Peek-A-Boo - Siouxsie and the Banshees
7.Transylvanian Concubine - Rasputina
8. Living Dead Girl - Rob Zombie
9. Bela Lugosi's Dead - Nouvelle Vague
10. This is Halloween - The Citizens of Halloweentown
11. The Killing Moon - Echo and the Bunnymen
12. Nemesis - Shriekback
13. Dead Man's Party - Oingo Boingo
14. Zombie Jamboree - Rockapella
15. Monster Mash - Bobby "Boris" Pickett
16. In the Hall of the Mountain King - Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
17. A Forest - Bat for Lashes
18. Ramalama (Bang Bang) Róisín Murphy
19. L'il Red Riding Hood - Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs
20. Walk Like a Zombie - HorrorPops
21. Time Warp - The Rocky Horror Show Original Cast
22. Bad Moon Rising - Thea Gilmore
23. Werewolves of London - Warren Zevon
24. Thriller  - Michael Jackson


If you have a favorite that I left off, please feel free to leave it in the comments. I'm always looking for more creepy music.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Still alive, still writing

I'm at one of those weird places where I'm very busy, lots of things are happening, and yet I have very little to write about here. I'm working on a number of writing projects, and teaching my course, and getting excited for World Fantasy next weekend. And things are happening, but nothing I can really talk about in a concrete way, and blog posts full of "I've got a secret" aren't really that fun.


There is, of course, the option of the blog that isn't a personal update, but that requires the time and the brain and the words to write it. And my time and brain and words have all been going to other things recently, with more or less degree of success. So I'm semi-hoping that this post will do what posts of this nature so often do, and give me such wonderful things to blog about that I'll make myself find the time, and so there will be a post apologizing for lack of posting followed by lots of writing, but I have my doubts.


So. I'm alive. I'm writing. I'm busy. Things are generally good, and I hope they are for you as well.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

We are our medium

This post is a response to two other posts I read today. This one, by Cat Valente, which - to vastly oversimplify an elegant post - wishes we talked about the content of books, rather than the medium by which we read them, and this one by Paul Jessup, which longs for the days when writers talked about writing as art, rather than as business. 


Here's the thing. Writing has always been a business. That Anglo-Saxon bard, chanting out Grendel's destruction of Hrothgar's men in thumping alliterative verse? Did so in exchange for a place by the fire, food on his plate, mead in his mug. Dante and Chaucer had wealthy patrons. Shakespeare didn't just write the plays that were performed at Blackfriars Theatre, he was co-holder of the lease on the building (a building he helped dismantle and move when cost of the original location proved too great.) Now, am I trying to say that Will and Kit Marlowe or Ben Jonson never talked about dramatic structure or whether a clown ought to speak in blank verse when they had drinks at the Mermaid? Absolutely not. But I do think they discussed how those drinks were getting paid for, and thus, the business and economics of writing.


And for nearly as long as writing has been a business, there have been innovations in the way it was done. The switch from oral to written story-telling. The move from books being completely handcrafted and thus available only to the very wealthiest to moveable type printing. And yes, ebooks and podcasts. All of these things - and more - had effects. Even if not on the way stories got told, they had effects on who had access to them, on who bore the costs of their creation, of who had the ability to create.


And Cat is absolutely right to say that the thing that matters most in all of this is the story. She and Paul are both right to say that the reason we become writers is because we love stories and want to tell them. I agree with this absolutely. But I also think that once we start writing for publication, things become not so simple.


If I just wanted to think of myself as a writer, I could write stories for myself. I could polish them until they were perfect, and care not at all about what the market looked like or if they would ever sell or if anyone would ever read them. But once I start writing for publication - whether publication on my own blog, or through some form (paper or electronic) of self-publishing, or publishing professionally, I am no longer simply writing for the art of it. I am writing in order to get something back. That something may be money, or fame, or simply someone else reading it and thinking of me as a writer, but it is something. So let's not be disingenuous here and say we only care about the art. It may be the thing we care most about, we may be willing to make less money and reach a smaller audience in order to have more artistic freedom, but we are engaged in the business of writing, as well as the art of telling stories.


And when people outside of our immediate world of people who tell stories and get paid to do so get a chance to ask us questions, they are going to want us to respond to things like ebooks, and the fact that award-winning professional magazines are only available on the internet and for download and are never available in print format. They're going to want to ask us questions like why we trunk a story rather than self-publishing, or why we self-published our backlist, or why a publisher can't have an e-version of a long-awaited sequel available for download the day after the author presses send on an MS. Hell, I've seen writers complain about ebook pricing, and formatting errors, and say they won't buy something if they can't buy it for their ereader, so how can we be grumpy when fans do the same thing? We can say the only thing that matters is a good story, and I do believe it is the thing that matters most, but this other stuff - well, I understand why people want to talk about it. 


This doesn't mean that I don't believe there's space for discussion of stories, and the books that have made us who were are, and the things that have inspired us, that have made us want to be better writers. And yes, I would absolutely rather discuss someone's novel, rather than the format in which it was first published - reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making will make me a better writer. Knowing that Cat first published it as a serial novel on her blog won't. I've made plans when at World Fantasy at the end of the month to get together in the bar and talk about the contents of Little, Big, not about the fact that Crowley is going to be recording an audiobook of it. We should talk about our stories - they are the best part of us. We should want to make them the most important part of the discussion. But I don't think it serves us or anyone well to pretend there was once some halcyon age where talking about our stories was all we ever did.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It is not now as it hath been of yore

It was one of those runs. One of those runs where your body reminds you that you are, lo, very far from being a teenager. Where every ache manifests itself, just out of harmony with all the others. Where you ask yourself why exactly you are out doing this, and wouldn't it be nicer just to go home and put on sweats, and hang out with the dog.


I could lie to myself, and say that I am running because I am a writer who does not wish to be writer-shaped. I could lie and say I am doing this for my health, and because I rather like chocolate and triple cream brie, and something must be done to counteract their effects. Those things wouldn't even fully be lies. But they wouldn't be the important truth, the truth that keeps me running, even though the real reason may well be the biggest lie of all.


I didn't realize it at the time, but my competitive fencing career ending in an ice-slicked parking lot in Edina, Minnesota in December of 2002. A woman in a black Ford Explorer pulled out of a parking spot without looking, hit me, and sent me flying. I landed on my right hip, cracking, as I discovered later, the cartilage. Surgery wasn't an option. I had already qualified for Nationals, so I trained through it, with the help of an orthopedic surgeon used to dealing with high-level athletes.


Nationals was a disaster, but my hip held up. Unfortunately, once I got back, and we stopped spending all that energy fighting entropy, entropy won, and the rest of me fell apart. My next two tournaments, I brought home a dislocated shoulder and a torn hamstring. It was time, we all agreed, to be done.


Except I didn't want to be. I fenced again as a refuge from the horrid end of my marriage and as I was writing the first draft of my first book and the final draft of my dissertation, and training kept life and soul together through all of those things. I still don't want to be done. I've found a club here to train with. It's the shoulder, even though that was the least of the injuries at the time, that gives me the most problems. (And please, I love you guys, and you are awesome people, but trust that I have good doctors, good physical therapists - including a sister who is one - and that I have tried just about everything to put it back together again, and please do not give me helpful suggestions about what might work.)


But I'm not ready to say never. I'm not ready to put away my equipment, and say I'll never compete again. So I run, not just to get into less-writer-shaped shape, but to help get back into competitive shape. I run, and then I come home, and put on sweats, and hang out with the dog. And pick up my pen, and sometimes my sword.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

"The Calendar of Saints"

I am extremely excited to tell you that I have a new short story out, "The Calendar of Saints," in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I am very pleased to be in such a great magazine, and incredibly grateful to Editor-in Chief Scott Andrews, not least because he said it reminded him of one of Ellen Kushner's Riverside stories, which is on the short list of nicest things anyone has ever said about my writing.


"The Calendar of Saints" was an unusual story for me. I wrote the first draft in the late winter or early spring (they blend together to a rather appalling extent in Minnesota). It was the first time I tried experimenting with structure, and it was about twice the length of what I normally wrote. I knew it had issues when I finished it, but I wasn't sure what, and I sent it to my beta readers. They were very helpful, and after I read all their comments, I trunked the story.


I had no idea how to fix what they said was wrong. I knew they were right, but I couldn't make the changes. 


Then, earlier this year, out of the blue, I woke up, and I knew how to fix it. I made the changes, and knew I wanted to send it to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. And lo, I did. Scott asked for a rewrite, and this was my first time doing that, but he bought the revised story. And his editorial work was fabulous - he was a keen-eyed reader who was willing to talk to me to help me get the best story I could write.


I am really proud of this story. I hope you like it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The heart and stomach of a king

Because of the new book I'm working on, I'm doing a lot of research into various sixteenth century people and places. One of these people is Elizabeth I of England.


Elizabeth, you may recall from her sobriquet, "The Virgin Queen," famously remained unmarried throughout her life and her reign. This was remarkable for a couple of reasons. The smaller reason is, after the dissolution of the monasteries as part of the Henrician reforms, marriage was the only option for women. There was no other career path, even for a woman born to royalty. The second was that, for a woman born to royalty, participation in the marriage game was expected. Weddings were how treaties were sealed, the promise of a betrothal was an expected part of political negotiations (and those promised betrothals were often undone as negotiations fell apart). Women were pawns in a very real game of thrones.


Not only that, even though Elizabeth had literally been given the education of a prince and was a staggeringly intelligent woman, no one, including her advisors, thought she was capable of ruling a country. At the beginning of her reign, her ambassadors and staff would bring messages to her privy council, rather than to her, when the information was "too great a burden for a woman." Parliament petitioned her multiple times to take a husband, who could better deal with the great tasks, and then to show her greatest love for her country by producing heirs and shoring up the succession.


At eight years old, the woman later called "the greatest catch in all her parish" told a childhood friend she had no wish ever to marry. Considering her father's marital disasters - which included the judicial murder of Elizabeth's mother - it is not hard to see why. But for twenty years after taking the throne, Elizabeth played the marriage game. She agreed to be courted by most of the crowned heads of Europe, and used her potential marriage as a negotiating tool. It was a game she played with consummate skill.


Yet so far, every single book I have read at one point or another, dismisses the intelligence and cunning Elizabeth used throughout those twenty years of almost-promises and says she was simply "acting like a woman." You know, changing her mind, being fickle, and enjoying watching the boys fight over her.


Oh, sure. Some of the books sometimes go back and say, "hey, that was pretty strategic of her, she really was her father's daughter" but no one - and mind you, these are modern biographies - seems to be able to sustain the notion that maybe, just maybe, Elizabeth was thinking with her head and not her loins. It's a puzzle to me, and it's especially a puzzle when the book presents Elizabeth as an otherwise intelligent and politically savvy person.


I don't know if it's that we're so conditioned to believe a princess must have a prince that people are trying to rewrite political maneuvering as romance (no matter that the prince is her dead sister's husband or a boy half her age with known sadistic tendencies and a weeping ulcer on his face), or if people are still underestimating Elizabeth and refusing to believe that she knew what she would be giving up by marrying - that she would go from being the most powerful person in the country to being a broodmare - and so they cannot imagine that she spent twenty years outsmarting the crowned (male) heads of Europe, and then another 400 outsmarting historians.


She said once that though she had "the body but of a weak and feeble woman, I have the heart and stomach of a king." I think she had the heart and brain of a queen, as well.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Everything and nothing

I feel like I'm living in the land of Almost and Not Quite right now. It's a place where all the streets are paved with uncertainty, and the stoplights flash in code. So many pieces of things are almost ready to happen. Almost, but not quite, and so I can't talk about them.


I don't even like to think about them, because there's so much flux, I don't have the foundation to make a decision. So instead, I make all the decisions, and let my thoughts trace down all the paths, and then my brain races like it's on a hamster wheel, and let me tell you what, that's a very uncomfortable feeling.


But some things I can share: I am working on a new book. I am kind of embarrassingly excited about it. The elevator pitch right now is "it's like a female-driven version of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell set in the sixteenth century." The exciting part - research. For example: Catherine de Medici had seven stuffed crocodiles hanging from her ceiling. (My brother pointed out that this would be a great deal more impressive if said ceiling-crocodiles were live.) This has to go in the book. The not-exciting part - maps. I am so bad at maps, and this book is really going to need them.


Also! I will definitely be at World Fantasy this month. It was in serious doubt for a while (my dog has had serious medical bills a couple of times this year, and then there was the whole "the hurricane smashed my car with a tree" problem.) But due to a very generous gift of a plane ticket, I will get to go. I am incredibly grateful. And if you're going to be there, I hope you'll say hi.


Also also! Perhaps you know that my friend Megan and I are writing a ballet together. (If you do not know this, and wish further information, you can find it here. This entry describes the current state of things.) We had a planning meeting today, and talked about some of the next steps. One of which is where I block out a fencing sequence that is translatable into dance. I am excited, terrified, and doubting my sanity, which is probably the perfect frame of mind to be working in.



Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pushing pause

"I'm so busy, I don't have time to breathe." How many of us have said or thought that? I know I do, quite often.


There are a lot of things in my life that are uncertain right now. Uncertainty and lack of control are not my favorite feelings, but many of my uncertainties are because of things I cannot control, or even affect. My response to this is to focus more on the things I can control, which sounds very healthy, until I sit back and realize that one of the few things I can control is my writing.


To put it more clearly, my coping strategy is to work. A lot.


This is, of course, a healthier coping strategy than drinking to excess, or trying various and sundry mind-altering substances, or sleeping with inappropriate people. But overwork still has consequences. The obvious ones are things like being sleep deprived and thus fuzzy brained and short tempered. But there are more subtle ones as well - I lose touch with my family and friends. I get tunnel vision. I forget to breathe - respirare - to take in spirit, to be inspired.


I spent time doing that this weekend. I worked, yes. But a dear friend was in town, and I spent time catching up with her - eating full meals and having long conversations, walking on the beach. I met another friend in person for the first time. She's also a writer, so some of the talk was business-related, but much wasn't.


And then I had time before my train, so I walked through the city. I watched dogs, and listened to conversations in four languages I recognized and two I didn't. I danced on a sidewalk with a man I did not know, and he gave me a rose, and never asked for my name.


I felt happy, and peaceful. I breathed, and was inspired.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Let's talk about sex

Apparently I'm a good deal more grumpy about this than twitter has characters for. There is a book out promising to break the silence on teenage girls and promiscuity. Based on the product description, and it's promised interviews with "self-selected loose girls" there's not much silence left on this particular topic to break, as this is one more in the line of "WOE! The girls are all having the sex and acting like sluts and the nation will fall because of these sex-having girls!" books.

Woe.

Look, I don't want anyone having sex before they are ready for it, and I get that for a lot of people "teenage sex" is a lazy short hand for "too early sex." And I might disagree with a book that tried to speak in absolute terms about when people were and were not ready to have sex, but so long as that book spoke about *people* having sex too early - you know, boy people as well as girl people - I could respect it. But I have absolutely no respect for the argument that a teenage girl who has sex is destroying her life (or undervalues herself or is desperate for love or is a slut) whereas a teenage boy who has sex is totally cool, and is engaging in a normal and age appropriate rite of passage, or is a stud.

Do I think there are some problems with the interactions between women and sex in our culture? Sure. Like, oh, I don't know, the idea that if you sleep with a guy on the first date you're a whore, but if you don't put out on the third - I mean at least a blow job, am I right? - you're frigid. The idea that if a woman ever wears anything that any man ever might be turned on by, or has a drink in a bar, or is alone with a man, that's she's giving up her right to say no to his sexual advances. The idea that if a woman has ever had sex voluntarily before, and she is raped, a jury will be told she's a slut. The idea that women don't actually like or want the sexual act in and of itself, but will use it and their bodies to manipulate men into doing things for them. That any woman, no matter what her age, who has casual sex is a slut with self esteem issues. These are the ideas about sex that are bad, and problematic, and that cause huge issues in society when it comes to sex.

These are the dirty secrets we should be talking about.

But Kat, you say, you are being disingenuous. These are issues about adult women and sex, not about teenage gir.. oh, fine, teenagers and sex. You're missing the point. They're just too young. 

Well, leaving aside the issue that attitudes towards women and sex do not emerge from the void when women turn 18 or 21 or whatever age society has decided it can safely say they are adult sexual beings, high school covers a wide age - and development - range. I started high school when I was 13, and there were 19 year olds in my graduating class. That's a range from people who can just barely get into movies with swearing and people who can die for their country in the armed services. So even if we were to be beyond reductive and say the only thing that mattered in whether or not someone was ready to be having sex was their age, that's a lot of years to consider. I'm willing to guess that while many if not most people would feel 13 is too young, that many if not most people would think 19 is okay. (And no, just for the record, I do not feel there is a magic age at which everyone is ready for sex.)

If we're going to break silences around sex, let's please speak loudly about things that matter, rather than trying - yet again - to shame women for their choices.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dramatic license

So here's a bit of information that will probably come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog (er, except for the person who recently arrived here because she or he was curious about which people are in Hell. I am perhaps not the best resource for that.): I digress. I do that a lot. 


Anyway. That bit of information? I'm a writer. Not yet full time, though because my day job is in academia, there's a lot of writing involved in that, and also many days where I can Be a Writer all day.


So let me tell you about how my day goes. I wake up, take the dog out and other associated morning chores, and head to the computer. Sometimes I start writing, sometimes I do the first round of internet triage for the day. If it is like to be above 75 that day, these activities are cut short so I can go run.


Wildly exciting so far, yes?


Then I do more chores that involve sitting at the desk and writing - blog posts here or at any of the other places I blog on the web. I read whatever books I am reading for research purposes. Sometimes I break for lunch. Then I head back to the computer and write. If it's not wicked hot, I run in the afternoon. There are further breaks for animal chores. I eat dinner. I read. I write. I write some more. I faff about on the internet. I write. I go to bed.


So I get why a television show like Castle - ostensively about a writer - pretty much never shows him doing writerly things. Charming and attractive as Nathan Fillion is, no one would watch him sit at a desk all day. I get why they only show the sexy parts of the writing life - book release parties and signings. And these things can be fun and exciting enough for television, even without exaggeration. Though this has not yet happened to me, I have seen multiple friends get asked to sign parts of people's bodies, for example.


But you know what we do not sign? The dust jackets of our hardcovers. Seriously. Ever. Primarily because they fall off and get lost. Also, because many are designed out of a material  that does not take ink. This is not a hard thing to discover.


And I'm not really sure why on a show that takes such dramatic license with, oh, everything, (a book where the author wrote the ending three months ago is not out being signed either, guys) that this detail bothers me as it does except, really? You have a writers' room, none of whom has ever gone to a book signing? The Devil is in the details, guys. You would think the staff of a procedural would know that.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

35

Today is my birthday. I am, as Dante was, before he headed off on a three-epic tour, midway through life's journey.


So maybe that's why I'm feeling introspective. I've felt weird about this birthday for a couple of months now. Not because I feel old, or uncomfortable about my age. I'm happy with my life - the way it looks, the things I've accomplished. I have regrets, but I don't think I'd want to live the kind of life where I didn't.


It turns out, as birthdays go, this was a good one. The people I love called and emailed and visited and tweeted and posted and sent cards and gifts and love. I felt connected, and blessed. Contracts came in the mail, for a short story that's going in an anthology that I am thrilled to be part of. This was not a surprise, as the check arrived a few days ago, but I liked receiving a tangible symbol of what I want from my life on a day where I was thinking about my life, and what it looked like. I taught a class, on a subject I loved, and had great conversations with my students. And as the day turns over, I will be writing.


So that is the shape of my life today. And I no longer feel weird about this day. I feel grateful for it. Thank you for sharing it with me.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The sound of the story

Earlier this year, I got to be part of something amazing. One of my stories, "A Life in Fictions," was part of Symphony Space's Selected Shorts series. The program was called "Magical Realism: The World of Marvelous Stories with Neil Gaiman." 


I was so flabbergastedly honored to be a part of that event, and I have many wonderful memories of that evening. But one of my best memories was listening to the talented actress Marin Ireland perform "A Life in Fictions." She was so good - she sounded exactly like I heard the story in my head, and honestly, if there is even an audiobook made of my work and I have any say in who the reader is, she will be at the top of my list.


So I am extremely happy to say that the show will be broadcast, one month from today, 13 October. Selected Shorts is splitting the four stories into two performances, and "A Life in Fictions" will be part of the show entitled "Love in Real Life." This will include the performance of Neil Gaiman's "The Thing About Cassandra," which honestly gave me chills when I heard it. Neil talks a bit about the program, and when you can hear the other two stories, here.


I hope you'll listen.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Does Bonetti's defense exist, and is it fitting, given the rocky terrain

This weekend I was working on an article about fencing, and partially about how fencing in real life differs from fencing on page or stage. I asked if writers had any questions they particularly wanted answered, and I was surprised by how many people wanted to know how to avoid making mistakes when they wrote about it.


Ask questions. Do research.


This is, of course, as true for anything you want to write about that you don't have personal knowledge of, as it is for fencing. If you don't know, ask. And if you don't know what you don't know, say that, too.


You are a writer. It is your job to know how to tell a story, and all the bits and pieces that go with that. It is not your job to know how to parry a fleche - unless you are writing a story that features swordplay at the level where that sort of attack is likely.


The first thing to do is decide what level of expert advice your story needs. If you're writing something where the hero is being pursued through an old and creepy manor house, and he grabs a rusting decorative sword off the wall and swings about wildly with it to defend himself, well, you probably don't need that much. No one reading your work is going to expect anything beyond "the pointy end goes in the other guy." But if your hero has been a competitive fencer for most of her life, and was really good at the sport, you'll need to know not only the difference between a beat attack and a remise, but how spending time in the sport has changed her way of thinking.


Online research is a great place to start. And it may even point you in the direction of people you can ask questions of, or ask to read your manuscript and check the technical details. 


And yes, Rocco Bonetti was a real fencing master. It is historically probable that he would have given fencing instruction to someone who referenced "sword" 437 times in his literary canon: William Shakespeare. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"But I have that within which passes show"

I am not my characters. Even the ones that contain large pieces of me, even the ones where I write as "I" rather than from some degree of literary distance. We are different, they and I. I have not lived their lives, and in most cases, I would not want to.


In some cases, I do not like my characters. I understand them, I know what they want, how to write them, but I would not, if given the option, bring them to life and have them over for dinner. With some of my characters, there is a very real chance I would not survive that experience. Some of them say things I do not believe, or behave in ways I find morally abhorrent. 


Except. Like Prospero, these things of darkness, I acknowledge mine. I wrote them. They live because of me. And I write what I do because I want it to have an effect on readers. They will think certain things about me because of what I write.


Still, it's a tricksy thing, to try to divine an author from her writings. Maybe what you think you know about a writer is wrong. It is, for example, possible for a writer who is not a serial killer - and has no desire to be one - to write a compelling and terrifying murderer, or for an asexual person to write a truly hot sex scene. We are, after all, writing fiction, and if we cannot imagine people outside of ourselves and the worlds they contain, well, we are in the wrong job. The text is the key to understanding the text, but it is not the hidden cypher needed to unencrypt the author's psyche.


But on occasion, a piece of an author's life will show up, and it will alter the way we see the author's work. Reading "The Wife of Bath's Tale," with the reformed rapist knight as hero, is a different experience when Cecily Champaign's deed of release, releasing Chaucer from "all manner of actions such as they relate to my rape or any other thing or cause" (omnimodas acciones tam de raptu meo tam de aliqua alia tam de causa), is taken into consideration. This document changes my relationship to Chaucer, much as my certainty that Spenser would have hated Irish, Catholic, female me, changes my ability to come to The Faerie Queene with open heart.


What we know about artists changes our relationship to their art. The degree to how it does, and in what way it effects us will vary, from person to person, and from one piece of art to the next. We are not our creations, but they are very much ours.



Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Survivable first drafts

I was recently asked some questions about writing first drafts. Ah, first drafts, what with their delights and terrors, their agonies and ecstasies, their hard-bracketed reminders to [insert plot] or [perhaps a monster?] or [ffs, make this sound like actual dialogue]. But first drafts, are supposed to be shitty, right? We've talked about this before - the draft zero is just about getting enough stuff down on the page that you can go back and figure out what the story is really about, and then clean it up and make it shiny.


But how much is enough? What is the difference between survivably bad first draft, and one so catastrophically horrid that you are unable to continue writing?


Well, like just about every part of the craft of writing, this is going to be one of those answers that varies from writer to writer, and even from project to project. The short answer is, a first draft is too bad when the holes in it are either so big or so annoying that you are unable to continue writing. For example, I actually can't leave hard brackets to fill in later. I will write a fake title, or a bad scene, or rubbish dialogue that's the bare minimum of good enough to move the plot forward, and then tag it to fix, but I am unable to write the next scene if all I have is [she does not get eaten by eels at this time.] I need to know at least a little bit of how things happen, not just what things happen, in order to figure out what comes next. But I know plenty of writers for whom brackets are a fine placeholder.


Do I stop to research when I draft? Well, I love research. Love it, love it, love it. (When I wrote my dissertation, it took three years. The entire first year was wholly given over to research.) But my love of research means a lot of the things I like writing about are things I've been looking into on my own for years. So sometimes I have enough knowledge in the corners of my brain to just write, but other times I don't. When I don't, I research before I write, because I want to have a good idea of all the possibilities in a topic before writing with it. Knowing what I'm working with gives me a bigger page to write on.


Do I let myself care about things like sentence level craft? The thing is, I have the ability to construct a competent (generally readable and grammatically correct, if not quite lapidary Jamesian prose) sentence without having to think about it. In the places where I goof that, whether through mistyping or carelessness, I figure I'll catch it on the revision. And if I don't, that's what a copy edit is for. (This is also why I specifically tell my beta readers not to read for things like spelling and grammar. I would rather they tell me that a paragraph doesn't advance the plot, instead of telling me there's a comma splice in the middle of it.)


But if it's sentence level craft that concerns word choice, or character voice, things change. This tends to be one of those things I don't notice as much at the beginning of a draft, when I'm still getting my feet under me. But by the end, when I know the characters, and know the voice of the story, and of the world, then I do notice, and it does stop me. I need to get it reasonably close to right before I can move on.


Which brings me to the most important of the questions I was asked - is ignoring any of these things a recipe for failure? I'll respond by asking again: can you continue writing if you ignore them? "You" is the important word in that sentence, because your writing process doesn't need to look like my writing process to be a success. Some writers excel at turning of the internal editor, some perfect every sentence before committing it to the page, even in the first draft. Most fall somewhere in between the two. A finished draft, no matter how ugly, is not a failure.

Friday, September 2, 2011

An elaboration

Discussion continues over this year's response to the Hugo Awards. I think this is a good thing, especially when it is done in a thoughtful and incisive manner. But since I'm being used as a pull quote in the debate, I thought I would elaborate a bit on my thoughts on criticism and awards.


First, I want to be clear that I'm not taking back what I wrote - I do believe that ex post facto criticism of the winners as winners is the most unhelpful response to the Hugo Awards. (Or indeed any awards.) Complaining about other people's choices once the votes are in changes nothing.


Now, if you're complaining for the sake of complaining, well, you've picked your poison and I wish you joy of it. But if you're complaining for the sake of the awards, or the genre, there are other, more effective, ways to do things.


Because - and here's the elaboration - I don't think that  the awards are or ought to be immune from criticism, and I certainly don't think works of literature (and for "works of literature" please include any of the other categories and forms of media) in the field are or ought to be immune from criticism. Vigorous discussion of whether certain categories should exist, or whether they should be better defined, helps the field by asking it to think seriously about what should be rewarded. Well-articulated discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of published works - both those nominated for awards and those that aren't - helps the field define what it values.


The Hugos, as they stand, are a popular vote for "best." The pool of voters varies from year to year, is self-selecting, and required only to pay a membership fee. "Best" is undefined - it can mean "sold the most copies" or "got the best reviews" or "was written by my favorite author" or "represents the direction I think the field should be going in" or "well, it's better than the rest of this crap." I don't think a popular vote on best is ever going to make everyone happy, and I think that's fine. I don't think best can be objectively defined, nor do I think it is possible (or a good idea) to set a minimum standard for education in the field for voters.


But I do think we come closer to seeing what is worth rewarding if people feel free to engage critically with the field. I think we ought to publicly speak about the strengths and weaknesses of what we are reading. I think it's good, and important, to point out when a book gets its research wrong, or is racist, or has no women characters, or no women characters who aren't there for the hero to have sex with. Even, and maybe especially, when these sorts of things happen in books that are big in the field. Because if we can't point out our own flaws, who will believe us when we sing our own praises? More important, if we can't point out our own flaws, how will we ever become better?