Monday, May 30, 2011

In memoriam

One of the people who has had a profound and lasting impact on my life is someone I have never met. In one of the extant letters of hers, she signed her name as Jehanne, and she was burned at the stake as a heretic 580 years ago today in a square in Rouen. Better known as Joan of Arc, she was nineteen years old when she was martyred.

Not, of course, that "martyred" is the word we are supposed to use to describe what happened to her. When the Church finally got around to canonizing Joan in 1920, (the process nearly being derailed a number of times, including by a rather vigorous advocatus diaboli who was rather concerned over whether Joan's squire might have seen her naked breasts when he was arming her, or treating the wounds she suffered in battle) she was entered into the calendar of saints as "virgin" not as "martyr" (the only two paths to sainthood for women.)

It was the Church, you see, that burned her.

Joan has been my favorite saint for as long as I can remember. Brave, articulate, and fierce, she was a girl with a sword who got things done - the kind of girl I wanted to be. But her story was one I knew so well that the details ran together. Then, at the beginning of my career in legal academia, I wrote an article called "Lex and the City" (pseudonymously as Gil Grantmore, and yes, for those of you bored completists out there, I'm sure you can find it on the internet) about the first amendment right to freedom of speech inherent in personal dress. It was then I discovered that the heresy that Joan had been burned for was wearing men's clothing.

Seriously. After a trial that went on for months, wherein Joan was assaulted, poisoned, threatened with more explicit torture, was forced - illegally - to act as her own advocate while being questioned by upwards of 50 members of the Church hierarchy at once, the only heresy they could find her guilty of was that of wearing pants. I didn't realize it at the time, but my dissertation was born in that moment.

Once I began researching her more seriously, spending months, and then years reading the transcripts of all of her trials - The Trial of Condemnation, the Trial of Rehabilitation (which cleared her of all charges, twenty-three years too late), and the Trial of Canonization - I became more and more impressed with her bravery and grace. And I understood, more and more, why this young women - articulate, intelligent, a girl with a sword who got things done - struck such terror in those in power.

So much terror that when the English captured her, the French abandoned her to death, rather than paying a ransom, such as was commonly done for prisoners of war of her status. So much terror that, aside from housing her in a men's military prison, rather than in a women's ecclesiastical one, her interrogators, theoretically men of the Church, asked her if she might lose her powers if she lost her virginity. Rape was a weapon, even then. So much terror that they burned her alive.

If you want to read more about her, I highly recommend Joan of Arc: Her Story by Regine Pernoud, one of the greats of Jehannine scholarship. Or George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. All of the best lines truly are hers.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The fine art of rejectomancy

We say it all the time. I've said it, many times here on this blog: if you're going to be a writer, you need to learn how to deal with rejection. Here's why: it happens to all of us. I don't think there is a writer anywhere who has never gotten a rejection letter.

Even after you start selling things, you still get rejection letters. My Clarionmate, Ferrett, who has enough professional sales in his bibliography to be a SFWA member, blogs today about his 29-minute rejection letter. One day, both the first and last emails in my inbox were rejections. Even people with multiple books on the shelf have to deal with contract options that aren't picked up, proposals that are passed on, short stories that are "good, but not right for us." Rejection happens. To all of us. At all stages of our careers. (Okay, maybe if your career goes JK Rowling-style supernova you don't get rejection letters anymore. Maybe.)

But if you read carefully (as carefully as you read submission guidelines, thereby doing what you can to minimize your chance of rejection), you'll notice I said "deal with" not "like." Find a coping strategy that gets you through someone saying no. And then have a back up plan.

Because one day, you're going to get that one rejection letter too many. Or too quickly. Or after too long. Or when thirty-nine other things have already gone wrong that day. Or it will be for your favorite story, the one you feel might be your best work, and editor after editor says "this is beautiful, but not for us" and you just want to break down and cry, and beg, and say "How about I pay you to publish it?"

Have a back up plan, so the frustration stays in your head, and off of your blog. So that you don't actually hit "send" on that scathingly worded reply to the editor. So that you keep writing.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Writing's full of tough choices, innit?

This post started as a response to a comment left on yesterday's post, where I was going to agree that knowing that the book is about (as opposed to what happens in the book) is a map through the second draft. And then I started thinking about how very much I agree with that idea, and also, the specific ways in which I agree with that idea (said vigorous agreement cemented by a realization about a piece of the current book in progress.)

Stories, especially novel-length ones, are full of choices. Some of them, the ones my characters make, I want to be visible. I want the reader to see my character stand at the crossroads, throw the bones, read the entrails, and decide. I want the reader to feel the agony of a choice when there is no good option, only a variety of less bad ones. If I don't make those choices visible, with actual consequences, the story seems to be on rails, with the eventual outcome predestined from the beginning. Those, I can usually make up as I go along. (I know, I know. The magic, let me show you it.)

But there are other, more difficult choices, ones I want to keep hidden so that they seem as if they were always part of the book. These, I can't fully make until I know what the book is about.

For example, I have a friend who, whenever we talk about my writing says, "Did [spoiler] actually have to happen to [Redacted]?" Then she says, "I know, I know. It did. But I liked [Redacted] and I wished [alternate possibility]." And I make a sad face, and agree with her, and say, "I'm sorry, I couldn't do anything else."

Of course, I am a liar.

Plot-wise, I could have done something else. Or fixed things. Both could have been made to feel fully integrated with the other events of the book. No miracles, no deus, with or without machina, would have been required. But I would have been telling a different story then. Not just in terms of plot, but in terms of what the story meant.

Knowing who the villain is, and why he or she is villainous, knowing who gets out alive, and who gets out unscathed, knowing the right ending - the haunting one, not the happy one - these are things I don't know until I know what the book is about. Knowing what the book is about gives me the foundation I need to make the hard choices - to do the things that will break the hearts of my readers, or cause people to wonder what exactly goes on in that head of mine, that this is the sort of thing that I write. It gives me the ability to keep those things hidden, to make it seem as if of course those things needed to happen, the signs were all there, even if it hurt to read them.

If I don't know what the story is about, then I get tempted to listen to the weeping of my beta readers, who wonder why I'm so mean to them, and to my characters. I get tempted to make people happy - because who doesn't like happy people - rather than telling the right story. My job is to tell the right story, and I write until I know what it is.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

And let yourself let go

Writing a novel is hard. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever done so (or if you have, and this is a surprise to you, please do not tell me of the ease with which your prose lept upon the page. My poor, fragile ego will not stand it.). I like a good challenge, me, so I like to throw additional difficulties into the process.

I'm currently - if you are a very generous person - revising. Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird talks about the need to write a shitty first draft. Let me tell you: I got that one right. Basically, I threw tens of thousands of words at a notebook and checked to see what would stick. Characters changed their names, their professions, died, and resurrected. (In at least one instance, I didn't notice that I'd brought someone back from the dead until I reread the draft.) And those aren't even the biggest changes I'm making. 

Because I write by my headlights, because I believe that outlines are Satan's traps for the unwary, I don't know what is going to happen in the book until I need it to happen. And I'm fine with that generally, because plot is the last thing I care about in a book. What happens? Meh. But to whom does it happen? and what does it mean that it did? Those, those things I care about.

For me, the "to whom does it happen?" is the question that begins the book. I need a character I care enough about to begin writing. "What does it mean that it did?"  - the thematic question - is the question that organizes the book, that is the reason why I am writing it. Unfortunately, I sometimes (as in this case) need to get to the end of a draft and have the general idea of what happened, before I can find the thematic and emotional through lines that carry the story. 

The problem is, without that thematic through line, without some idea of why I am writing this book, what the larger purpose of the story is (and yes, I know that sounds like such an English professory sort of thing to say, but I am an English professor, and one who knows what kind of story she wants to read, and what kind of a story she wants to write) it is very easy for me to stop writing. It's easy to feel like the book isn't working. Because it isn't, not yet. I'm writing without having all the pieces.

For me, right now, that's the hardest part - to keep writing, without all the pieces. To trust myself enough to know that I am leaving a breadcrumb trail and that the ravens won't eat all of them before I find my way back. To let the shitty first draft be a map - one that marks the edge of the world, and says "Here there be dragons" but has compass rose and key all the same.

Friday, May 20, 2011

And your chicks for free

"I want," said the student sitting across the desk from me, "to write books that will sell. How do I do that?"

Honestly, I was kerflummoxed by the question. (Avoid writing books in which the words kerflummoxed and fisticuffs appear. Make sure your prose is not in shimmering alexandrines.) I read a wide variety of books, in a wide variety of genres, in styles ranging from the transparent to the baroque. Many of them are books I love. All the ones I've finished are books I like, and I try to buy books if at all possible, because, as someone who hopes to receive money from writing books one day, I like to support the people who are writing them now. Which is a long and involved way of saying that my first response wanted to be "All sorts of books sell." (Write a good one.)

But I was pretty sure what I was being asked wasn't "How do I write a book that will cause an agent to agree to represent me, and an editor to buy they book, and then various people, many of whom I have never met, to exchange money for the work of my brain?" (Write. Revise. Don't give up when it's hard.) I was pretty sure I was being asked "How do I write books that are going to become huge bestsellers, causing me to accrue wealth beyond my wildest dreams and to become the subject of the lust of attractive people?" (Elevator pitch: Attractive vampire with a conscience joins Navy SEAL anti-terrorism team. Finds true love.)

Dude. I do not know. Sacrifice a goat at the dark of the moon? Run around your writing desk thrice widdershins, cursing the Oxford comma all the while?

All sorts of books sell, and as far as I can tell, there isn't a magic formula to predict what is going to sell eleventy billion copies and what is going to get quietly remaindered. Harry Potter got double digit rejection letters, guys. No one knows.

And even if there were a magic formula (take three parts peril, mix with two parts romance, add one dash strangeness and stir), even if I knew it, I wouldn't share. Not because I'm selfish, and don't want to see other people succeed. I want everyone who decides to be brave enough to create something to succeed. But because I think a variety of creation is good. I think looking out and seeing shelves full of different stories is amazing.

I don't remember exactly what I said, but I wish it had been this: "Writing is hard, and it's a profession in which there are no guarantees. Write the thing that only you can write, and put enough of yourself in that book to make the writing of it mean something to you, so on the days that are hard you have a reason to keep going, and on the days that go well, you have a reason to celebrate." I don't know if that will be a book that will sell, but it will be a book worth writing.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

What I want to do on my summer vacation

The grading will be done tomorrow, which means I'll have my grades calculated and in to the registrar by Tuesday. And thus, the semester will end. Summer vacation, hurrah!

Unlike the halcyon days of my youth, where summer vacation meant reading, the scent of sunscreen, reading, slumber parties with friends, reading, swim practice outside, and reading, summer vacation right now just means I don't have to work my day job.

I have a lot of plans for this summer, and most of them revolve around some kind of writing work.  (Though I really am looking forward to at least pretending like I will catch up on my reading.) I have a lot of projects. And I'm thrilled about that - I haven't said yes to anything I'm not excited about. But there are a lot of projects.

So my goal this summer is to learn to work smarter. Because right now I am really good at the "get up in the morning and work all day until you are so exhausted you have to sleep, with occasional breaks to feed myself and the fuzzy residents of the house" plan. Lather, rinse, repeat, until the day comes (usually about once every seven to ten days) where my brain is so burnt out it stops functioning, and I get no work done, and I am racked with guilt at my failure.

Yeah, not really a long-term sustainable plan. For a number of reasons. So I need to learn how to take down time, at least once a day, and have it actually be guilt-free down time. I need to learn how to schedule my days in a manner that keeps me busy, but not exhausted. And I need to find a way of doing these things that I like, that feels organic with how I function, because if it feels forced, I'll never stick to it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A moment of celebration

The grading is going well so far - the thing I've loved best about this semester's Chaucer class is that they've taken the coursework so seriously. Not every class does, and it's a treat to watch a group of people enthusiastically try to wrap their brains around something. And the semester-long theme of Chaucer and modernity has made for some really smart, outside of the traditional scholarly box, final papers. They couldn't have given me a better present.

But that's not the thing I'm talking about in the title of this post.

When I got back from Clarion, I had two big writerly goals. One was to successfully finish and defend my dissertation (sure, it's not speculative fiction, but it was speculative theology, and it was book length. Besides, what self-respecting geek doesn't want to be the Doctor?) I did that a year later, in 2009. The other, was to take my week 5 story, what Geoff Ryman told me was a novel I had tried to cram into 2500 words, and actually turn it into a novel. And have that be the novel I successfully queried agents with.

I am so, so happy to tell you that I am now represented by Joe Monti(And yes, that is the exciting personal development that I was secrety about in the last post.)

I wish I could hug all of you right now. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I write these apologies for me, really

I hate not blogging regularly. I like talking to you guys. It's fun. We have good conversations. So I really try not to let too many days go by without a post.

But the thing is, it's that time of the semester. The end. Where the students are all freaking out because they have to write their final papers, and I am buying up the local supply of coffee and chocolatey desserts because I am going to have to grade them.

And I have some exciting news - an interview and an essay that will be online soon! a web project that will launch next month! an incredibly exciting development that I will tell you about as soon as I can! - but nothing I can be specific about, and I don't want to write Kat Howard and the Blog of Secrets.

So hello. I'm here. Not dead. Things are good. And I'll be back with a brain no crazier than usual when I've finished grading 125K words on Chaucer.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Letter to a young writer

Shimmer Magazine, which publishes lovely short fiction, and has a great blog, has a "Letter to a Young Writer" post up today. I really like the post, and as you might be able to guess from the title of this entry, have decided to steal the idea, and use it for my own.

Although it is weird, just a bit, to write this. There were so many years where I didn't write at all, not fiction anyway, certain that being a writer really wasn't a possibility for me. So I'm not sure at what age I am writing to myself at. Though who knows - perhaps through some TARDIS-like magic, this message got to my past self at exactly the moment I needed it to.


Dear younger Kat, who wasn't yet called Kat, except in her secret heart.

You were very young when you first started writing stories, and it was easy for you then. It was easy, and you got praise and recognition for it. Those are things you will always want, though, thankfully, there will come a point where you will no longer let their lack stop you from trying.

For a while, writing will continue to be easy. You will win Young Authors' contests, and essay competitions, and the English Scholarship to your high school. You will become so used to this, people telling you that you have a talent for writing will no longer surprise you. You will also stop thinking of writing as a talent you have, you will just think of it as something you are supposed to be good at. Winning an award will feel like the thing you are expected to do, and any result other than winning will feel like abject failure.

This is bad, because you are going to fail a lot. I mean, really a lot. You will never publish anything in your high school literary magazine. You will try, every year, with the maximum number of poems and short stories. And every year, they will all be returned to you. Your teachers will tell you you should submit something, and ask why you didn't, and you will smile, and say thank you, and say "Maybe I will next year." 

You will never publish anything in your college literary magazine, either. And this is the place where you do stop trying, because you will get a note, scrawled across the top of a page: "No one wants to read this kind of thing." You believe it, because it is obviously true.

You try to write again in law school. You are told you are wasting your time, and so you slide the project into a drawer. But then your academic writing will start to win awards. This will help you make the decision to leave the law for literature. This will be one of the smarter goodbyes you ever say in your life. 

You will find friends, and fairy godmothers, and people who believe in you enough that you will begin to believe in yourself again. You will pick up your pen, and stories will come out of it. You will get in to Clarion, and while you are there, you will begin to suspect that people do, indeed, want to read the kind of thing you write. You will also decide that no one is ever going to stop you from writing again.

You will write. You will publish. You will sell enough stories to qualify as a professional in the eyes of your peers. 

And one night, you will be standing in line for the bathroom in a theatre on Broadway, where you've just heard a story of yours be read. A woman will walk up to you, her face wet, tears still in her eyes. She will give you a hug, and say, "Thank you," and walk away.

Pick up your pen. You are writing for her, too.



Monday, May 2, 2011

Writing in the shadows

"Your Grandma is worried about you," Mom said.


"Well, she read "The Speaking Bone," and it really disturbed her. She just wanted to be sure you were okay."

It's not the first time someone in my family has expressed concern over what I write. Or had pieces that I thought were maybe a hair on the dark or weird side be described as disturbing, or as horror. And I get that my authorial intent stops being important the moment I give the story to someone else.

"I'm fine. Tell Grandma thanks, and I'm sorry I worried her."

"Why do you write stuff like that, anyway?"

Why do I write stuff like that, anyway? Well, for the most part, because that's the kind of story I like. I go through occasional binges on romance novels - witty banter, hot sex, and a guaranteed happy ending is my literary recipe for stress relief. (I'll even skip the hot sex if the banter is hot too, as well as very witty, which is probably more personal of a revelation than I mean it to be, but we can have that discussion another time.)


My point is, I don't generally read for the happy ending, and I don't write for it, either. I like to write about the moments when something strange happens. My favorite kind of character is someone who is interestingly broken, and who wants to put herself and her life back together. My literary kinks require bad things to happen in my writing. My purpose in writing isn't to give my grandmother nightmares, but it also isn't to hand out a fuzzy blanket and a cup of tea with each story.

I want what I've written to stick in your head. And if it lives in the shadows and the dark places, well, I'm fine with that. Even darkness needs a home. Even shadows tell a story.