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.


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


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?