Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Deathless

I decided to learn Russian because of a story. A story of a woman named Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the lost Duchess Anastasia. I was fascinated with the story, wanted desperately for it to be true - the darkness, the tragedy, the romance of it all. And when I read the books, read obsessively the story of the execution of the Romanov family, in the city with which I shared a name, (in Russian, you see, my name is Ekaterina. Katya, if you and I are friends. Katyusha, if we are very good friends.) well. There are stories that stick with us, that write themselves on our hearts. That became one for me.


So when it came time to choose a foreign language in high school, I chose Russian.


I had a bad moment, the first day of class, when the word for "hello" - seventeen letters long - was written across most of the blackboard. But by the end of that first class period, I knew the alphabet like a friend, and the words for hedgehog and for fuck.


Did I mention I had a rather extraordinary teacher? Bill Garrison. In Russian, Vasily Vasilitch. We called him Bolshoi Bill. Big Bill. Over six and a half feet tall, a giant of a man, and not just physically. He was one of those teachers that stay with you, that change your life. I met some incredible people because of him, including Zoya Zarubina, Stalin's translator at Yalta. She told me I spoke like a native. It was one of the best compliments I will ever receive.


It was also because of Bolshoi Bill that I met Koschei the Deathless. He told us stories of Koschei, and Grandfather Frost, and Baba Yaga. I met a whole world of fairy tales I had never known before because of him. And I wish, I wish so hard today that I could give him a book, Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente, which is a story of Koschei the Deathless. Which, even though I have just begun it, I know is a magic book, the kind of book Mr. Garrison would have loved.


But people, unlike stories, and unlike the emerald-hearted Koschei, are not deathless, and Bolshoi Bill, Vasily Vasilitch, Mr. Garrison, died of bone cancer my first year of law school. And I miss him always, and Cat's book makes me miss him even more, even as I remember him so well as I read it.


Deathless is a magic book. It is the kind of story that will write itself upon your heart.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Oh well the devil makes us sin

My friend and Clarionmate Damien G. Walter has asked those of us who scribble for fun and profit to address the question of "Why do you write?"

Okay. I'll play.


I write because when I was a kid, authors were my heros. I thought anyone who could tell stories was some sort of rockstar wizard. I would like someday to be a rockstar wizard.


I write because someone once told me I couldn't. And even though he will never read anything I write, and unless I become staggeringly successful, he will probably never know I was even published, every time I write *ENDS*, every time I get an acceptance, every time I see my name in print, it is a reminder that I knew myself better than he did.


I write because even on the days it sucks so much that I want to burn my manuscripts and hide my pens from myself, being a writer is still the best job I've ever had.


I write because it is a way to connect. I've met people and made friends that I never would have known if I hadn't written something that they read. And the times when people have told me that something I wrote meant something to them - those are extraordinary moments, and ones I will never stop being grateful for.


I write because there are stories that need to be written.


I write because doing so helps me know myself more fully, helps me be a better person, gives me the courage to speak truth.


I write because I do not want to be forgotten.


I write because words have power, and I refuse to be powerless.


I write because I want to show you the beauty in the darkness, the hope that comes after terror, the joy of survival. I write to fill the gaps in the world with words.


I write because I love it. I can imagine a lot of things, but even when writing is hard, and lonely, and the most uncertain and terrifying career choice ever, I cannot imagine doing anything else.



Thursday, March 24, 2011

This is, of course, why we can't have nice things

I had a conversation this morning that really clarified a lot of things for me. I was getting out of my car in the SBU parking lot, when a gorgeous Boxer got out of the next car over, and came visiting, asking for pets. "Pretty dog," I said to the guy on the end of the leash.


"Being able to hide my dog in my office is one of the perks of being a grad student. One of the only perks."


"Yeah, I know how that can go."


"Are you a grad student?"


"No, a postdoc in the English Department."


"The English Department has postdocs? What kind of research could you possibly be doing?"


"Well, my areas of focus are medieval and speculative literature, so - "


"Wait, so you don't even mean literature, then, do you? You mean popular books. That must be easy."


"Just because something is popular, doesn't mean it's not literature."


"Of course it does. Anyone can write popular fiction. You don't even need to think, you just tell a story everyone likes. I can't believe they let you work on that stuff."


Yeah. I think I'll put that on my business card: "I teach popular books. The kind that anyone can write."


Honestly.


But I guess that's why I keep seeing two conversations take place. One, about how the humanities aren't necessary - our research, which looks like reading and writing, rather than lab coats and test tubes and Large Hadron Colliders, doesn't look like research, and so why should my department be funded, why should the library get money for books or journals. The other, about how all ebooks should be priced crazy-low, $0.99, because anyone can write popular fiction. And I can't even really respond to these conversations, because thinking about them makes me tired. 


Please don't mistake me. I know that my research does not look like the research of the people on campus who are trying to cure cancer. But you know what? Most research in the sciences doesn't look like that either. I don't have a problem with the seeking of knowledge for it's own sake - wanting to know things, to understand them, for the sake of increasing knowledge and understanding - well, I think that's kind of wonderful, and I'm all for it. But what I'm not all for is this idea that all our striving for answers has to look one way. It's as ridiculous an idea as the one that says that all our art must be paid for (barely) on the same scale.


Because to me, just in case this wasn't clear from my choice of professions, I think that stories are one of the most important things in the world. Stories are what makes us human. They are a language that connects us. I believe that the people who write stories, and the people who think seriously about what stories mean, deserve to be paid for their work, because their - our - work is important, and it is hard, and it is not something that anyone and everyone can do. They are the way we fight against silence, and despair, and even entropy. And that has worth.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

And also, coffee spoons

When I was at Clarion, we talked a lot about time. (Also: tentacles. But that was more an effect of the Lovecraftian horror of the squid patty, helpfully offered as "food" by the kitchen staff, than anything else.) We talked about how at the beginning, time stretched out, made the weeks seem to last so much longer, as if we had fallen into Faerie and we would wake to find that years had passed when we left UCSD. Then, sometime around week 5, time cycled through normal for about a day, and then passed in a blur, and suddenly it was our last night there. Then we woke,  alone, on the cold hillside, and went home.


When I think about my writing career, I mark its time in relation to Clarion. Applying was the first time I tried seriously to write, being there was the first time I'd really spent around people who defined themselves as writers. So I notice the places in the year - applications open, applications closed, acceptances announced, the beginning and end of the workshop - that match up with those marks.


And somehow three years have passed since getting the email telling me I had gotten in. And a couple of things have happened, that serve as nice markers of that time. The first is something tangible. My story in Apex, "The Speaking Bone," was given a recommended review ("the good story award!") by Lois Tilton for Locus. You guys. I am so excited about this it makes me a little dizzy. The other thing is less tangible, less the sort of thing that I want to print out and put up on my refrigerator, but still important.


Yesterday, I started the rewrite on my book-in-progress (working title still Stronger Than Death, but I'm starting to suspect that might change). And yes, to comfort my ego I'd rather call what I'm doing to the manuscript a revision, but this is for posterity, so I'm going to be honest. The thing that is happening is a rewrite. And as I started the rewrite, I did something with the first scene that not only would I not have been able to do three years ago, it wouldn't have occurred to me to try.


And I guess that's the thing about marking anniversaries like this, about keeping time. That it's a way of remembering who I was, as much as knowing who I am, and thinking about who I want to be. It's about watching this time stretch and condense and give me days where I can see myself getting better, and when, as I read the manuscript that I began in November, I also have the markers of the days when things were worse. When writing was pain and doubt and tentacles, and somehow, stories were born out of that, too.

Friday, March 18, 2011

On not getting in

It's that time. Right around that time in March when people are finding out whether they got in to Clarion or not. Maybe you did get in. If so, congratulations! But, numbers being what they are, it's much more likely that you didn't. Possibly you are feeling disappointed. Maybe you are wondering whether it's worth it to keep writing. So I'll say this first:


I'm proud of you for applying. 


Seriously. Not to be all Hallmark-card about it, but what you did was brave. It took guts, and a willingness to take yourself, and your art, seriously. So I'm proud of you.


As for the "am I a writer?" "should I keep writing?" type questions that might be rolling around your head right now, well, you're really the only person who can answer them. But here's what I think.


The only thing not getting in means is that you didn't get in. It doesn't mean you aren't a writer, or that you won't be a successful writer. Pat Rothfuss? New book debuted at #1 on the NYT list? Not a Clarion grad. He seems to be doing just fine without that line on his CV. As are plenty of other writers I know, whose work and careers I respect. There were multiple people in my class who had applied and been rejected before. If you didn't get in, it's not some sort of judgement on your talent, or your potential. If you want to write, write. If you want to go to Clarion, apply again.


Rejection always sucks. Anyone who tells you differently is lying. Or a sociopath. I've had far more rejections than I've had sales, and every one of them has sucked. 


Rejection is, however, part of writing. Sorry. I mean, maybe there is some magic person out there who has sold everything she has written from the moment she sent out her first piece, but my guess is probably not. Even people who look like overnight successes had stories that didn't sell, agents that passed on manuscripts, editors who didn't buy books. Sometimes you will write something, and you won't even let it get as far as letting someone else reject it - you will know that the story is flat, and you will slide the piece into a file, put the notebook in a drawer, and trunk it.


If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to deal with rejection, because it is going to happen to you. If having someone pass on your story is too much for you to bear, if it renders you unable to pick up your pen and write the next sentence, well, it's best to know that now.


But, but... I have talent. You know what, you probably do. I could be wrong, but I'd be willing to bet that people don't get so far as applying to a writers' workshop that costs a nontrivial amount of time and money to attend without some piece of outside evidence that they do not completely fail at this whole writing stories thing. You know what, you're still in good company. I know writers who are talented who have careers that are very shiny, who applied and didn't get in. A rejection letter - from Clarion or from anywhere else - is not a referendum on your talent. It's just a rejection letter. 


And while talent, at least some, is a necessary requirement for success as a writer, it's not a sufficient one. You need a work ethic, and a willingness to make sacrifices, financial and otherwise. You need the ability to deal with rejection. You need the belief that what you're doing is important enough to keep doing it, even when it's hard. Rejection sucks, but writing matters.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The time warp. Again.

One of the things I am working on right now is an article about the visual in modern horror fiction. This will be a scholarly article, the sort of thing that will have footnotes and secondary sources, and all of that sort of thing. (Yes, "that sort of thing" is a scholarly term. Why do you ask?)


The book I am using as my lens text for the project is Stephen King's IT. The reason for this, other than the obvious cool-factor of reading King for my day job, it that it does exactly the things I want as a framework for the way I am thinking about this issue. (I know. The great specificity, let me show you it. But I tend to work from the outside in, and while I know how the article will go in my head, I couldn't articulate a thesis for you right now if my life depended on it.) And also, all of this is tangential to the point.


The first time I read IT I was almost twelve. The summer of 1988. I remember, because I noticed how close in age I was to the kids in the book. I remember it was summer because I remember the skin on the backs of my legs sticking to the kitchen chair as I read. My Mom had finally given in, after a summer of watching me read true-crime and serial killer books with no obvious ill effects (er, other than my wanting to be a lawyer when I grew up), and let me buy Grown Up Books from the horror section. She was worried, a little, because reading 'Salem's Lot had scared her so badly she still won't read any more King, so she bribed me to read IT downstairs in the kitchen, in the daylight, where there were people around. The heat made the colors of the peanut M&M's bleed onto my fingers, but I kept reading.


I wasn't scared.


That's a lie.


I was scared, but not of the things you might expect. The only thing that really frightened me, reading back then, a few months before my twelfth birthday, were the relationships between Bev Marsh, and the men in her life - her dad, and her husband. That was a terror that was possible enough to be real to me. But otherwise, no. The story was so good, I couldn't be scared. (I mean, I had a healthy dislike of storm drains, but nothing bad enough to keep me from walking close to the one on the corner of my street, and peering in it, some small idiot part of me almost hoping to see a silver-eyed clown in the shadows. I had good friends, too, you see. And I knew we could beat It.)


I've reread the book a number of times since then. It's an extraordinary piece of literature, one of the few things I always packed when I lived in the dorms, and had precious little shelf space for books. IT, I knew, would be good enough to justify its place on the shelf.


But right now, I'm rereading it in 2011. One year away from when that 27 year cycle is due to start up again in Derry. And again, I'm almost the age of the characters in the book, only this time it's their adult age, the age where belief in fear is larger than belief in magic. I feel like I'm reading in an ill-fitting pair of glasses, ones that keep sliding off to show the eyes of my child-self. I think if I didn't know the story so well, I wouldn't just be scared reading it, I would be terrified. The magic shouldn't work.


Except that it does. I think that is the thing that I've always loved about this book, beyond Bev Marsh also having red hair, beyond Bill Denbrough yelling "Hi-Yo Silver, Away!" when he rode his bike to beat the devil (I yelled the same thing, before I read this book even), beyond any of the small bits that stuck in my head, is that the magic worked. There are rules for magic, there always are: sacred numbers that must be present and words that must be said and rituals that must be performed, and consequences, horrible ones, if those things are missing. But sometimes, there is just magic.



Sunday, March 13, 2011

Writing on psychic paper

I've been thinking a lot about the way stories work. This sounds like it's maybe a new area of thought for me, but it isn't - I'm a writer, whose other professional training is in literary analysis. I think about the way stories work pretty much all the time. 


But this semester, I'm supervising an independent study that's a "Writers on Writing" sort of course, for a student who writes. So not only have I been thinking about the way stories work, but I've had to articulate all the man-behind-the-curtain bits. 


Then yesterday, a writer friend of mine was kind enough to drop me an email, saying some nice things about a couple of my stories. In doing so, he described them in a way I had never consciously thought about them, though once I saw the description, I knew it was true.


There are always going to be things we don't see in our own work. No story is complete until someone reads it. Every story is different for every reader, and perhaps every time it is read.


I mean, I know things about my work: Most of my short stories fall in the 1600-1900 word range. I'm fascinated with dreams and death, blood and bone, darkness and saints. I tend to write things that are heavily allusive, and full of women who are broken, and putting themselves back together. My first instinct is to name all of these women either Viola or Jehanne. I overuse the words roil, rife, and skittering to the point where I run a search for them at the end of each draft, and take most back out. If I have been watching Doctor Who, all of the awesome things are described as being "bigger on the inside." "Bored now" is my favorite line from Buffy, and if I used it as much as I wanted to, it would also be a description of how the person reading my story would feel about its dialogue.


Maybe that seems like a lot of things to know. But every time I get drafts back from beta readers, they tell me things I didn't know were there. I'm glad of that mystery, of that lack of knowledge. Because I think it's there - in the space between tale and teller, in the space between the reader and the story, that things happen. That space is where the magic of the story lives. 


And that's why I don't ever want to fully see the writer behind the curtain, or to pluck out the heart of my own mystery. Because as much as I understand stories, I still want them to be magic.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Weird science

There is a line on the Lightspeed submission page, talking about things that should go in a cover letter. It says something like, "and if your story is about black hole clusters, and that's what you wrote your doctoral dissertation on, tell us." My dissertation was totally not about black hole clusters.


Somehow, I managed to sell a story to Lightspeed anyway. I am so excited to tell you that "Sweet Sixteen" will be appearing there in the near future. It does not have black hole clusters in. I hope you will like it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

[insert coherent excited words here]

For my level of excitement to make sense, I need to start by saying that I think Ellen Datlow is the literary equivalent of a rock star. You could fill shelves with the number of anthologies I own that she has edited (I'd take pictures, but 1. I'm convinced if I tried to put a picture up here, I'd break the internet; and 2. my shelves are not, shall we say, organized.) Most of my current favorite authors are people I found in her anthologies, especially the ones she has edited with Terri Windling. I buy everything that has her name on the cover. Rock. Star.


So you can imagine my joy at discovering that "A Life in Fictions" made it onto her full list of honorable mentions for Best Horror of the Year #3. (Here is part 1 and part 2 of the list. You should look them over  - I guarantee you will find many wonderful new things to read.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A hit! A very palpable hit!

"There's a lot of fencing in the last two issues," Joe said.


Most of me did a quick version of the dance of joy. One of the things I have always loved about Locke & Key is the fact that Dodge is a fencer. My sport, it's a weird little sport, and I'm always happy when it gets some attention. But part of my brain said, "Oh, shit. Something is going to go wrong, and you're going to have to pick between your favorite sport and your favorite comic."


I mean, I trusted Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. Locke & Key has been consistently brilliant. I think it is the best comic being written right now, one of the bests ever. But writing fencing is hard. When I did it, I blocked all the scenes myself (leading to a delightful moment when the local gaggle of little girls decided I must be a pirate, because who else has a sword), and then I gave the MS to my coach to tech read for me. Then we fenced all the fight scenes, just to make sure they were possible. And I've been fencing for a very long time. 


But, you guys, they did it. (I pretty much knew we were going to be okay at the middle panel on page 10, when Dodge's body language is exactly like someone whose blade is an extension of his will, and poor Manugian stands there like someone who is about to get bageled. Which he does.)


And the thing is, the best thing, is the fencing isn't stunt writing, or stunt drawing. The issue itself has the beats of a bout. Let me explain.


Foil, unlike epee, does not allow for simultaneous scoring. If both fencers hit at the same time, the judge reads the phrase: she describes the action between "allez" and "halt" to determine who was in control, whether the actions were in time with each other. The fencer controlling the action is awarded the touch. Strategy matters.


Throughout the issue, things like timing and strategy matter. At key moments, the panels, and the characters in them, are arranged in a way that echoes the profile of opponents on a fencing strip. Characters feint, pull distance, parry and riposte, and not just with blades. This was my sport, put on the page. I loved it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Not a review of The Wise Man's Fear

I am a writer who is trained as a literary academic. This means that the default way I read involves analysis - close attention to the shape of the text, the use of language, the deployment of theme. I analyze a work of literature not because I don't love and respect the telling of stories, but because I do. I want to learn to be a better writer. I want to show other people why stories are beautiful, why I love the texts I love. 


But the hazard of these occupations is that it has become increasingly hard for me to read as a reader. To just sit down and let a story wash over me, and carry me somewhere outside of myself. That doesn't mean that I don't still find stories and books that make me gasp in wonder or appreciation, that make me weep from the tragedy, it just means that I experience the magic differently than I used to. So the times when I pick up a short story or a novel and can just read it, well, those are gifts and I do not take them lightly. 


Those moments have nothing, it seems, to do with how much I love an author, or how good I think the work is. Stephen King's IT is a book that is very firmly in my top ten list of all time. And I am very happily dissecting it right now for an article on the visual in modern horror fiction. One of the things I love about it is how smart the book is, and I'm quite enjoying poking at the man behind the curtain. But his short story, "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" - I felt drunk for a good half an hour after reading that. Magic. A gift. And it broke my heart a little to dig into my response to the story deeply enough to teach it.


So that's why I'm not going to review Pat Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear. Because for a thousand pages - a thousand pages - there was just the magic of a story. "Just." As if that is a light thing, or a small one, for a writer to do. I will just say that it is brilliant, that I loved it, that I am proud of Pat for taking the time to write the best book he could. I will just say that it is magic.





Monday, March 7, 2011

"The Speaking Bone"

When I moved to Stony Brook this past summer, I was fortunate enough to spend the first six weeks of my time here house-sitting for one of my new colleagues. The house was beautiful (the office? Is my platonic ideal of a writer's office), there were two excellent cats for me to hang out with, and the house was in walking distance of the beach.


One of the things I had missed most during my exile time in Minnesota was a large body of salt water. I had lived in Miami, and near Seattle before Minneapolis, and I strongly suspect that there might be selkie in my genetics somewhere. So living in a house like that meant that I walked the beach at least once every day.


The waves carry the most interesting things. One of those things was my story, "The Speaking Bone," out today in this month's Apex.


I hope you like it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Confess your love, your love as well as your folly

I am officially in the Dreaded Middle of the book. I know this because I figured out last night what has to happen to end the story, and because I put my pov character into the place where she will make the choice that will set her irrevocably onto the path where those things do happen. I know I am in the Dreaded Middle because I have stopped adding complications (Dear God, please I have stopped adding complications, because right now this manuscript is the literary equivalent of a terrible garbage bagel) and I'm beginning to tie off the threads of the story.


I also know I am in the Dreaded Middle because about one day in three I am sorely tempted to lock the notebook in a drawer, and start a new book. This is the point where my internal editor gets loud. I'm no longer in the first, blissful stages where I happily stay up all night with the story, and not quite at the point where the ending is so loud in my head I can barely stand to leave the desk, much less my house. No, this is the point where that nasty voice in the back of my head tells me that this kind of story has been done before. That I'm not saying anything new. That the manuscript is such a mess that I'll never be able to make sense of it. Over and over and over. 


(Honestly, I am a bit worried about the last one. I kind of feel like my working title is secretly Cthulhu's Gordian Knot: The Hydra Strategy).


I have strategies to deal with those days. I don't allow myself to delete a scene until the next morning. I remind myself that in the last book, I temporarily had an Unfortunate Romantic Subplot. That I didn't know who Character X was until I had finished the zero draft, and didn't know who the Bad Guy was until 3/4 of the way through the first rewrite. That revision does not mean failure, it means I put on my big girl pants and wrote even when it hurt. On the long dark nights of the writerly soul when none of those things work, I make myself write one more sentence, and then I close the notebook and do something else.


Because I have characters that I love, and I owe it to them to tell their story. Because from here, in the slough of the Dreaded Middle, I can see the beginning of the end.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The next story

The next story will be perfect. It will have vibrant characters, and lapidary prose. It will not turn on me in mid-paragraph, like some kind of Medusa with sentences for hair.


The next story will have a fucking plot.


The next story will be brilliant, will rend hearts and change minds. It will be nominated for all the things, win me an agent, a book tour, and a movie deal. People will tattoo it on their bodies and graffiti it on walls. It will be taught in universities and popularly praised.


The next story will absolutely, positively, certainly not be full of adverbs. It will contain no mixed metaphors, or infelicitous phrases. By the time I write the next story, I will have figured out how to spell maintenance by some method other than trial and error.


When the next story is published, it will contain no typos.


The next story will be easy to write. Every sentence will do at least two things. The pace will never flag, my language will be both poetic and transparent, and my theme will have mythic resonance. 


The next story will be emotionally real, and yet contain nothing that will cause people to make inappropriate guesses as to my past traumas or current desires.


The next story is ready, waiting, on the tip of my brain, and in the ink of my pen.


I just need to finish this one.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The latest in an ongoing series

So. Tired. 


So very tired.


And I haven't been posting, and I'm sorry, 'cause I miss you guys when I'm not here. (And also because I feel like a hypocrite when I click through the list of blogs I regularly read, and there aren't new entries from my favorite people, and I feel grumpy because no one is entertaining me, and here I am, not holding up my end of the "Here we are, now. Entertain us." bargain.)


I spent last week running around like a fiend trying to clear up some of the ambient chaos, because one of my dearest friends in the world was supposed to come out on Friday and visit for the weekend. Then we had crazy-mad wind, and her flight got canceled. Bad. Then my nearly-13-year-old-pug, Sam I Am, got sick. Then he got sicker. He just got home, after spending three days in the hospital. He is even more tired than I am, although thankfully, is much better now than he was.


So that is why I have not been posting, and why I may not have the energy to make my brain do anything creative here for the next couple of days. But you know what? Pat Rothfuss and Seanan McGuire have new books out today. The next issue of Locke & Key comes out tomorrow. I'm pretty sure you'll be able to distract yourself with all of that awesome until I return.