Friday, December 28, 2012

My favorite reads

I know, the year's not quite over yet. Who knows what sort of change could come in the next three days? But I made this list anyway, of the things that I read and loved in 2012. It's not meant to be a Best Of list, though I did mostly stick to things actually published in 2012. If you're interested, it's here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"There was blood on the stage"

Over the weekend, I sold a short story, "Stage Blood," to Subterranean Press. I'm very happy about this.

I'm particularly happy, because wow, was this a tricky one to write. I'd been wanting to write a story about a magician for a little over a year, ever since a particularly memorable dinner at World Fantasy 2011. But the pieces never quite fit. Once they did, I wrote a draft that was just spectacularly wrong. I mean, so wrong that my revision consisted of starting over from scratch. (Thank goodness for beta readers who tell you, in the kindest way possible, that you have completely fucked up.)

The nice thing about a revision where you throw the story away and start over from the beginning is that it makes you decide whether you really have a story worth telling. I did, and I'm glad I finally got it right. (And I'm very grateful to the people who helped me get it there.) I can't wait for you to read it.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Verity and Joan

In all likelihood, if you ever took a literature course anywhere in the United States educational system, you read the literature of war. Maybe it was the Iliad, or the Aeneid. A Farewell to Arms. A Separate Peace. Maybe you read "The Charge of the Light Brigade" or poetry by Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke or one of the other War Poets. Maybe you talked about the Lost Generation, and its effect on the arts. Perhaps you were asked to memorize the Saint Crispin's Day speech. 

Yesterday, I finished reading a great book, one of the best books I have read, and easily the best war novel I have ever read. It was Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity. It's the kind of book that rewards an unspoiled reading, so I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about it, but it is set during World War II, and is unflinching, strongly written, very well-researched, and I recommend it to everyone.

And - while I would love to be wrong about this - I don't expect to ever see it canonized in the classroom, as one of those great novels (that just happens to also be a war novel) that speaks to the human experience (although it does) because the two main characters are both young women. They're not nurses, or the brave girls back home. They are characters who are active in the conflict, in ways that are historically accurate. But when it comes to war, those are just not the stories that we are supposed to tell. Think about the list above. Think about the war literature you were taught in school. (Ask yourself if it was even presented as war literature, or if it was just part of the canon of great works.)

I wrote part of my dissertation on Joan of Arc. Joan did not wish to directly kill anyone, so instead of her sword, she carried the standard when she rode into battle. But she was part of the strategic planning for the assaults she lead (including the successful raising of the Siege of Orléans), and testimony from her contemporaries said that she was a gifted military strategist. She was injured twice in battle, and was captured during a failed assault. Yet there is a small and vocal minority of people who are dedicated to proving that Joan was nothing but a figurehead - the medieval equivalent of a cheerleader for the French army - and that all of the evidence to the contrary is false. Why? Because she was a woman and "everyone knows" women weren't allowed to do the things she did. 

There has been a lot written recently about sexism in historical writing (and other important conversations as well, including the problems of racism in historical writing, and of treatment of LGBT characters and relationships. ) The flip side of these inaccuracies is that when women (or people of color, or LGBT people) do show up in history, or in historical fiction, they are treated as myths, as falsities, as things that couldn't possibly happen because "everyone knows" that the truth is otherwise.

The truth isn't otherwise. It's complicated, and complex, and is influenced heavily by the person writing the story. Everyone has an agenda when they write, even historians. But we owe it to ourselves to look for the truth even when it seems strange or impossible, and to question the verity of the truths we have been told. More, we owe it to our stories.

Monday, December 3, 2012

And it never goes out

I recently heard from a former student of mine. She tried doing NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month, where people attempt to write 50,000 words in November. She hadn't made the word count. She lost, and she was feeling really discouraged by this.

Here's the thing, though. If you attempted to but did not write 50,000 words in November, then yes, you lost NaNo. That doesn't mean you're not a writer, or that you can't finish a book. The only thing that proves you can't finish a book is not ever finishing one.

Starting a book is great. It's one of the best feelings ever. Here you are, with your shiny new idea, and your awesome characters and you know how this begins and you sit down and writing is just So. Much. Fun.

At some point, it won't be. At some point, you will wonder if perhaps your characters are in a different book than you are. At some point, you will be convinced that every single idea you have is flat, stale, weary, and unprofitable, and then you will hate yourself even more for phrasing it in those words because Shakespeare already expressed despair perfectly and why are you even trying, why? At some point, you will not know what happens next. You will tell yourself your book is irredeemably flawed. Perhaps you will stop writing.

That is how you lose.

At least if you want to be a writer. (Maybe you learn that you don't want to be a writer. That's not losing. That's increasing your own self-awareness. That's good.) But if you want to be a writer, the sort of writer that publishes things, you cannot just write the first third of a novel, and then put it away when things get tough. Things are always going to get tough. Welcome to the Dreaded Middle, my friends. It's not a nice place. Even the Fire Swamp is more fun. But the only way out is to write.

You can always fix a flawed book once it is written. You can't fix what doesn't exist. 

So maybe you didn't write 50,000 words last month. That's fine. Unless you're under contract, no one cares when you get your book finished. Keep writing. Finish it. Otherwise, you never know what you could have done.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Oh my love don't forsake me

As of yesterday, I completed the first pass revision of my book in progress. This in no way implies that there is a revised book - I have a list of scenes that need to be written, and I have to go through a nontrivial number of reference books and steal things from history and mythology to fill out the pieces in the story. (That is the fun part.)

No good revision happens without a playlist, so here's what's going to be playing on a pretty constant loop as I work (for comparative purposes, here's the playlist for the earlier draft):

"Seven Devils" - Florence + the Machine
"Sorrow" - The National
"Who Knows Where the Time Goes" - Nina Simone
"9 Crimes" - Damien Rice
"Take Me Home" - Concrete Blonde
"Plague" - Crystal Castles
"Stranger Than Fiction" - Deluka
"Draw Your Swords" - Angus and Julia Stone
"Elephant Gun" - Beirut
"Laura" - Bat for Lashes
"Harder Than Easy" - Jack Savoretti
"Afraid of Summer" - Lost Lander
"Come Back Home" - Chris Pureka
"Beyond This Moment" - Patrick O'Hearn
"Paradise Circus (Gui Boratto Remix)" - Massive Attack feat. Hope Sandoval
"Snowfall" - Ingrid Michaelson
"Change of Time" - Josh Ritter
"You Said Something" - PJ Harvey
"Broken Crown" - Mumford & Sons
"Winter Fields" - Bat for Lashes
"White Winter Hymnal" - Fleet Foxes
"What the Water Gave Me" - Florence + the Machine

(Some of this is crowd-sourced - thanks to everyone on twitter who offered suggestions.)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Faeth Fiada

Today is the anniversary of Madeleine L'Engle's birth.

It is hard to say exactly how much her writing means to me, but when I think of the times when I really needed a book, her writing was always there. The Arm of the Starfish got me through one of the worst times in my own life. A Ring of Endless Light gave me strength when my sister was diagnosed with cancer (it was the only thing I read, over and over and over again, from the time of her diagnosis until she came home from her surgery). 

I've written before (here and here) about the ways in which her writing influenced me. Her  writing was also the place where I got my love of foreign languages, of the poetry of Robert Frost and Henry Vaughan, of the music of Thomas Tallis.

There's a long prayer in Irish, the Faeth Fiada, (The Deer's Cry), which is sometimes also called St. Patrick's Lorica, or St. Patrick's Breastplate. It is an authentic medieval Irish poem, though the earliest extant version post-dates the historical Patrick by about three hundred years. Here's the relevant section:

"I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun
Brilliance of moon
Splendor of fire
Speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind
Depth of sea
Stability of earth
Firmness of rock.

I summon today all these powers to stand between me and all evils."

If you've read A Swiftly Tilting Planet, you will be familiar with Patrick's Rune:

"At Tara in this fateful hour
I call on all Heaven with its power
And the sun with its brightness
And the snow with its whiteness
And the fire with all the strength it hath
And the lightning with its rapid wrath
And the winds with their swiftness along their path
And the sea with its deepness
And the rocks with their steepness
And the earth with its starkness.
All these I place
By God's almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness."

In L'Engle's book, the prayer is literally magic words. It summons the unicorn Gaudior. It was one of the first pieces of literature I consciously memorized - I mean, I believed in God, but a prayer that could summon a unicorn was obviously the best prayer ever. 

It was also one of the first places where I genuinely understood that words have power. You hear it all the time as a kid - "say the magic word" - and that's usually meant to be please, but there: you say a word, and something happens. A magician says "abracadabra" and then the rabbit pops out of the hat. We say our wedding vows, our oaths of office. When saying something makes it so, that is a strong and true kind of magic. It is a magic that the best sort of books have.

I still recite Patrick's Rune, though not to call a unicorn, not any more.

And so Happy Birthday, Madeleine L'Engle, and thank you. Thank you for making me the kind of writer I am today, but thank you even more for the times when your words were the grace that stood between me, and the powers of darkness.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


She was the scruffiest looking little cat when I first met her, in the adoption cages at Petsmart. She had a bald spot on her head, and wheezed so badly that the shelter had named her Darth Vader. She chirped at me through the bars, and pressed herself against them so I could pet her. 

I went home. We already had cats and dogs in a number best described as many. But I couldn't get her out of my head, and drove back to Petsmart that day. This time, I came home with a tiny black kitten. 

I was working on a major project on Dante's Purgatorio at the time, and that poem is full of stars, so I named that black kitten, who had one white star on her throat, Stella. And she was a star. She got healthy, and she got beautiful. A supermodel of cats.

She was smart. Scary smart. She could open doors, and cupboards, and closets, and would put my cat, Sandman, into time-out in my closet on a regular basis. She liked to sleep in cashmere, and would open my sweater boxes and make herself a bed. She liked music, and would turn on my iTunes when I had turned it off.

She loved catnip. And oatmeal.

She slept every night in my arms.

She was very suspicious of people who weren't me, especially in the early part of her life. She did not at all approve of my cat sitters when I went to Clarion, so she broke into the unfinished basement, and moved into the ceiling. I told one of my friends, and he said, "Only you, Kat, would have a cat who thinks she is actually Ceiling Cat." I laughed, but really, it wasn't me. It was just Stella.

She was a loving cat. She adored my pug, Sam I Am. He couldn't see well, so she would walk next to him, like a seeing eye cat. He got very sick once, and spent three days in the hospital. When he came home, she brought him all her favorite toys.

She got sick this summer, and a month ago, I learned it was cancer. Untreatable. On Monday, she took a turn for the worse. Her kidneys were failing. Yesterday, it we clear that things were at an end, that anything else I tried would only make me feel better at the expense of her pain.

My friend Jen drove us to the vet. She sang Stella a lullaby, and stayed with us both. My vet and the entire staff gave us the utmost in compassion and kindness. And yesterday morning, Stella died in my arms.

I want to say thank you to everyone who reached out to me yesterday with kindness. So many of you did, and it meant, it means, so much to me. Please forgive me if I do not respond  individually to you. It doesn't mean I didn't notice. I did, and I am deeply grateful.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A book in the door

I've recently received a rash of emails asking me if I would please pass manuscripts along to my agent, or make an e-introduction so the person could query him, or just "put in a good word." No. Sorry. I won't. I don't read random things that show up, unasked for, in my inbox from people I don't know. But here's the thing: you don't need me to do this.

I am represented by Joe Monti. My agency is Barry Goldblatt Literary. And yes, I am very happy with that situation - Joe is not only a terrific agent, he's a terrific person, and the extended BGL family are among my favorite people. 

There was no secret path that opened up for me in my agent search. When I queried Joe, I went through the slush pile - no introductions, no passing along of manuscripts, no "hey, would you put in a good word." All I had was a manuscript, the best I could make it. I followed the submission guidelines, which, in this instance, meant a query letter, a synopsis, and my first five pages. That's all anyone needs. And not just to query Joe, but to query any agent.

Let me say it again: all you need is your book. It should be finished, and revised and edited, and made as polished and good as you can make it at that point in time, because you usually cannot query twice with the same project. But you don't need a letter of introduction or a secret handshake or a code word. Clients do not act as screening devices for agents. We aren't the ones who read slush. You don't need to know someone at the agency to get your book in the door.

So no. I won't pass along your manuscript for you. But you don't need me to do that anyway.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Soundtrack, part 1

I am officially in Revision Mode for my current novel in progress. Which I am not going to talk about in too much detail, because I am superstitious about such things. But I will tell you the working title, and list what served as the soundtrack during the writing of the zero draft (some of these will be in the next playlist too. Some won't. I have a better idea of what the story sounds like, now.)

Time's Covenant:

"Seven Devils" - Florence + the Machine
"Future Starts Slow" - The Kills
"In Your Nature" - Zola Jesus
"Gun" - Emilíana Torrini
"Cosmic Love" - Florence + the Machine
"Desire" - Anna Calvi
"Hurricane" - Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories
"Heads Will Roll" - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
"Your Ghost" - Kristin Hersh
"Is Your Love Strong Enough" - How to Destroy Angels
"Devotion" - Hurts, feat. Kylie Minogue
"Never Let Me Go" - Florence + the Machine
"Beat and the Pulse" - Austra
"Abraham's Daughter" - Arcade Fire
"Remain Nameless" - Florence + the Machine
"Poison and Wine" - The Civil Wars
"Seven Days" - Azure Ray
"Civilian" - Wye Oak
"The Impossible Girl (Remix)"  - Kim Boekbinder
"Ceremony" - Unwoman
"Kiss Them For Me" - School of Seven Bells
"Song to the Siren" - This Mortal Coil
"I Wrote in Blood" -  Still Corners
"Breath of Life" - Florence + the Machine
"Magic" - Ladyhawke

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Day of the Dead, when the year too dies

All Hallows' Eve. All Saints' Day. All Souls' Day. 

31 October to 2 November. The turning of the month, and, in the Celtic calendar, the turning of the year.

Three days, which is the acceptable length of time for death to turn into resurrection.

I understand the need for the December celebrations, for the marking of the return of the sun, and the pulling back from darkness into light. But I have watched the year die this month. Watched at the trees turned from a blaze-fire of red and gold into skeletons, dark against the sky. I have watched as the stalls at the Farmers' Market shade from deep greens and red tomatos into squash orange, and frost-apple red, and then empty. The progression will continue: to grey, to brown, to frozen white.

The year dies, and these days that we hallow and make scared, they mark that. We remember what is gone, and who is lost. We think about what it means that one day, we too will be marked on the feast of All Souls.

Life is change, and the wheel is turning, and with it turns the year. May your memories be merciful, and your ghosts be kind.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Miles to go before

Snow fell today. Not much, just the first flakes, the beginning of the inevitable winter. 

Snow fell today, and I am watching my cat sleep, and I am thinking about death.

My cat, Stella is dying. Not in the "no one gets out of this alive, life is a guaranteed fatal condition" way that we all are. She has cancer. It's untreatable. I am watching her sleep and wanting to cry because while yesterday was a good day, today is not. And the things that the vet told me would happen, the ways I would know this is getting worse, they have been happening this past week.

I know it's the pathetic fallacy, I know it is. An editor would make me change this for the heavy-handedness of it. But it seems like as this year turns and dies, there have been endings everywhere. Too many people I know are saying goodbye.

I could fix this, if it were fiction. There are archetypes and patterns, the seasons turn. There is rebirth and resurrection. Hell, even rock songs wonder if "maybe everything that dies, comes back some day."

I cannot fix life. It is heartbreaking, and is incurable. And beautiful and glorious and the sorrows do not erase the joys at all. 

But the snow fell, and it is cold, and my cat is sleeping.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The birds and the bees and the pens and the pages

It was the most terrifying piece of feedback I have ever received from a beta reader: "They need to fuck."

I don't normally bother to get worked up over other people's writing advice. Writing is an individual sort of thing, and what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for the next. Hell, what works for one book doesn't necessarily work for the next. So, I don't outline, but I'm not going to pinch my lips and shake my head when I see other people praising the technique.

But sometimes I see writing advice that doesn't just strike me as not useful for me, but as actually bad. And this post, which suggests that writers should never write about sex, is bad advice.

It's bad advice because basically what it comes down to is "you shouldn't write about sex because writing about sex is hard."

Well, yeah. So is writing a convincing fight scene, a character whose life has been vastly different to your own, and a sestina. Doesn't mean you shouldn't write those things.

Look, stories are made up of people, and people - sit down and get out your smelling salts, please - have sex. They have sex for a lot of different reasons, and in a variety of circumstances and combinations (combinations far beyond that post's stated "long (let's be generous) things entering round holes." - which, yes, is dreadfully unsexy sounding.) They have sex with people they love, and people they hate, and people they shouldn't. Sometimes it's hot. Sometimes it's horrid. 

Sometimes, it's in your story.

And yes, when the characters in your story have sex, sometimes there are compelling reasons for it to be off-page. (The fade to black.) Maybe you're writing in first person, and your pov character wouldn't actually share those details. Maybe you're writing in a genre that requires the fade to black. But there are also reasons to put the sex on the page. 

It can tell the readers something about the characters, or about the situation. It can move the story along. Maybe it is ridiculous, because maybe your characters are ridiculous people, or  because sometimes sex itself is ridiculous. But just because something is ridiculous is no reason not to write it.

Just because something is hard to write well is no excuse not to learn to write it.

I don't find writing sex scenes easy. I mean, I like sex, both in theory and in practice. I like to read a well-done sex scene (and yes, contrary to that article, those things do exist.) I have even read books because I was pretty sure there would be hot sex in them. But it is, for me, hard to write. The invisible judging nuns are in the back of my head.

I mean, even when I'm writing in first person, if I write, say, a particularly brutal murder, most readers are not going to assume that I'm speaking from experience. If I write about something sexy, well, maybe I am.  (And oh, my God, my grandparents read everything I write. They really do.)

The thing is, sometimes your characters need to fuck. (Or screw. Or make love.)

And sometimes you need to write it down.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Weeping, and knowing why

I can cry, when it comes to art. I can sit, in a darkened theatre, and let tears stream down my face in reaction to whatever terrible beauty I am witnessing. I will wipe tears from my eyes as I read, or in the car, if the right song comes on the radio. It's a tribute to the transcendence of the art, a tithe I have no qualms about paying.

I don't cry well, when it comes to life. 

There was a medieval woman, Margery Kempe. God afflicted her with the gift of holy tears. She would weep, well, it seemed like at anything, really. A baby, because it reminded her of the Christ child. A handsome man, because he reminded her of Jesus grown. The consecration of the Eucharist. Her great sadness for her sins. Her delight in God's mercy. Margery wept, and wept, and wept. Those she went on pilgrimage with abandoned her. Priests asked her not to come to church services. She was a cataclysm of emotion.

It is hard, when you read her book, to see this weeping as a gift. It seems more like a penance, or some dreadful fairy tale curse.

The hardest part for me when I write is to put my own emotion on the page. I am good at words, and some of being good at words is confidence that you can make them do things. If all I wanted to do was make you weep, I could. But there's a difference between making you weep, and making you feel. 

To make a reader feel, the writer must put her own emotion on the page, must write in blood or in tears, must pull back the obscuring curtains and stand naked. It is a difficult thing. It would be easier, if I did not have to.

When it is for myself, my own hurt, my own heart, I hate to cry. I hate more to let people see it. 

I am reading Cheryl Strayed's book, Tiny Beautiful Things right now. It is a collection of letters that she has written as Dear Sugar, the advice columnist for The Rumpus. It strikes me that this is a book about being naked, about weeping so loudly in church that they send you out, about turning to a friend with tears in your eyes. It is about being harrowed by your own emotions. It is a book that makes you understand that tears can indeed be sacred, because they mean that you feel. That you are honest with yourself. That you give your friends the gift of that trust.

Tears are a tribute, a tithe we pay to the transcendence and glory  and awful sorrow of life. To trust someone enough to stand before them, naked in our emotions, is a gift that we give not a burden we are inflicting.

Better to weep in an excess of love, than stand, dry-eyed in the desert of its lack.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reading the mysteries

Yesterday on twitter, I mentioned that I had just sent a manuscript off to my agent and beta readers. This prompted a flurry of interest in beta reading, with the most common question being some variation on "how do I get to read for you?" with some "what is a beta reader?" mixed in. Since the answers to both are a little more involved that 140 characters, I am answering them here.

The normal disclaimers apply: this is my process, the way it looks right now. This is not the only way to do things. This is not even the only way I've done things.

First, if you asked about reading for me, thank you. I really appreciate it. It was incredibly kind of you. But unless I know you, really really well, I'm going to say no thank you.

Here's why.

Beta readers are the people who see your work when it first wakes up in the morning. It hasn't had its coffee. It has morning breath, and bed head, and may well not be wearing pants. Your betas are the people who you trust as a writer to pick apart all the things about your prose that aren't working, that didn't quite make it all the way on to the page, that maybe are just plain bad, so that you can fix all of those things before sending the work out in the world to find a home.

In other words, your beta readers are people you trust.

What I need in a beta reader is someone that I can trust to tell me when my story is broken, and to give me useful suggestions for fixing it - someone who will put the needs of the story ahead of my writerly ego, and ahead of their readerly desires.

Nearly everything I've published has been beta read. "A Life in Fictions" wasn't because the offer for the story came in before it went to my betas, and "The Speaking Bone" wasn't because I knew it was ready to go out when I had finished my edits of it (and yes, I do at least one round of edits before anyone else sees things.)

I tend to ask writers to beta read for me, because they are people who have spent a great deal of time thinking about the mechanics of story, and that is the place where I'm looking for help. In fact, when it comes to short fiction, unless I have a specific need for an expert in something, the only people I send it to any more are writers. I do send novel-length works to nonwriter friends (civilians? normal people?) because I want responses on the readability of the story, and because most people who would read published novel-length fiction are (I hope) nonwriters.

I tend to send my work to people who are interested in doing the same things in fiction as I am, largely because those people tend to give critiques that are the most useful. I have many talented writer friends that I never ask to read my work because our fictional preoccupations and priorities are so different that having them read my raw work would be unhelpful. I ask people to read for me if I know they will push me to fix things. Like I said before, this part isn't about my ego. I don't want readers who will say, "Oh, that's so amazing. Best thing ever. Will win all the Hugos for sure." I want readers who will say "you started in the wrong place" or "you forgot the b-plot" or "you ended halfway through the story" or "stop hiding and write the things that matter." All of which, incidentally, are things I've been told, and I am grateful for.

I don't have magic number of readers. I tend to give short fiction to fewer people, and want more readers for novel-length fiction. I do have a group that I tend to go back to all the time, though if I know someone is particularly busy, I will refrain from asking them. I do not always take all of their advice, but I always listen and consider all the feedback I've been given. I always say thank you.

If you still have questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Knowing where to put your feet

"What you need to do," she said, "is move your back foot to the left, just a bit."


About a month ago, I started fencing again. It had been a little more than two years since I had trained at all, and a little more than three that I had trained with any real degree of rigor. I'd been injured, I'd been busy, I'd been in a place where getting to a good club was a huge hassel. But I had missed it, a lot. And there's something about seeing people that you've trained with, seeing your coach at the Olympics and on the medal podium that makes you think.

I'm better than I was a month ago - in better shape, starting to be able to remember what to do without having to think about it, but in the grand scheme of things, I still have a lot of catching up to do. And I want to compete, so last night I started taking private lessons again.

It was basic stuff. Building blocks. Judging distance and lengthening my lunge. Making the action of my blade smaller when I parried or disengaged. Lessons were always tricky for me, because I'm a perfectionist who is very self-critical, so even though this is the place where you get to make mistakes, I used to not react well to doing so. I'd get tense, which is not helpful when you're trying to move with any degree of fluidity. I'd get so angry with my failings that I couldn't learn. But last night, I didn't. I could put my brain into the mode of "what do I do to fix this" rather than "Oh, God, I fucked up again. They'll think I'm an idiot. I'll never be good." It was a good lesson.

It became a great lesson, at the end, when Kate told me to adjust my feet. I'd been dropping the tip of my blade all night. I was landing on target, I'd adjust my hand position after, but the position of my weapon meant that I my effective distance was shorter. I'm a tall woman, but not a tall fencer. I don't need to give away distance. I adjusted my footwork, and suddenly my lunge was stronger, and faster. My blade did what it was supposed to. I ended my lesson feeling strong and competent.


Part of the reason that I love to fence is that it helps my writing. First of all, it's doing something that reminds me that I have a body, and not just a brain. Aside from the exercise benefits, it's good, I think, for writers to fully inhabit their skin. But it also makes me be clearer, more precise.

I think last night was the first time I realized that my writing has helped my fencing, too. I'm more confident, which helps me cope with mistakes. And it's become easier to think of practice as a draft, my coaches like beta readers. A mistake doesn't mean failure. And even though you have the skills, the best thing in the world is someone who can show you how to use them better.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fifty Favorite Books

I love a good list. I love a good list, and I've got a draft to finish by the end of the month, so of course when my friend Joe Hill made a list of his Fifty Favorite Books I decided to take a break from the draft and make a list of my own.

There were going to be rules to this – no comics/ graphic novels, no poetry collections, plays are fine, no non-fiction, nothing that hadn’t been published. Some of those I kept, some I didn’t. It turned into a  “will I feel like a liar for leaving this off the list?” test. It's best not to lie when it comes to books.

I listed them in alphabetical order, because I would still be resorting if I were trying to do this in order of love.

Same caveat applies – favorite does not equal best. These are not the fifty books I think are the best in the history of literature, although there would be some crossover. Nor are they the fifty books that have influenced me the most, although again, the overlap is there. They're just my favorites.

Lloyd Alexander – The Chronicles of Prydain

Anonymous – Beowulf (the Heaney translation)

WH Auden – The Sea and the Mirror

Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice

Peter S. Beagle – The Last Unicorn

Ray Bradbury – From the Dust Returned

AS Byatt - Possession

Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Susan Cooper – The Dark is Rising series

Pamela Dean – Tam Lin

Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol

EM Forster – A Room With a View

Tana French – In the Woods

Christopher Fry – The Lady’s Not for Burning

Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book
            The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Lauren Groff – The Monsters of Templeton

Lev Grossman – The Magician King

Elizabeth Hand – Mortal Love
            Waking the Moon

Seamus Heaney – The Cure at Troy

Joe Hill – 20th Century Ghosts

Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

Diana Wynne Jones – Fire and Hemlock

Guy Gavriel Kay – The Lions of Al-Rassan
            A Song for Arbonne

Stephen King – The Eyes of the Dragon

Ellen Kushner – The Privilege of the Sword

Madeleine L’Engle – The Arm of the Starfish
            A Wrinkle in Time

Kelly Link – Stranger Things Happen

Penelope Lively – Moon Tiger

China Miéville - UnLunDun

Erin Morgenstern – The Night Circus

Garth Nix - Sabriel

Arthur Phillips – The Song is You

JK Rowling – The Harry Potter series

Karen Russell – St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Mary Doria Russell – Doc
            The Sparrow

William Shakespeare – The Tempest
            Twelfth Night

Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle

Patti Smith – Just Kids

Bram Stoker - Dracula

Tom Stoppard – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Donna Tartt – The Secret History

James Thurber – The 13 Clocks

Friday, September 14, 2012


I am writing this so I will remember.

Today was a really good day. I heard from the people I love, and even from people I haven't met in person yet. It's nice to be reminded that some days the internet can be as warm and loving as it can also be cold and harsh. I got flowers and books and other lovely things. I'll spend about a week going to meals and drinks with friends. I took myself out for a fancy pedicure, and now I have red sparkly toes.

I felt really loved.

And happy.

I worried a lot about my age when I was younger - like, there were certain things that needed to happen by certain years, certain numbers that would be old. I didn't have that worry this year. I like my life. I am doing things that make me happy, that make me feel like I am using my talents in a good direction, that I am challenging myself. I am blessed in friends.

It was a good day.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Who gets to be the sympathetic character

There is a thing that happens, when there is a high-profile crime and then the accused is found not guilty in a court of law. There is talk - about whether there was a rush to justice, about whether the DA was too quick to prosecute, about whether having lots of money and/ or fame and/ or a good lawyer means you can get away with that crime, about whether the law should be changed to prevent someone from getting away with similar crimes in the future.

Here is the kind of talk that doesn't happen - no one says, "oh, she must have worn something that meant she wanted to be shot. There was consent." No one says, "Oh, maybe he just gave away all his money to that guy on the subway, and now he regrets it, so he's lying about being robbed to make himself feel better." No one casts doubt on whether or not a crime occurred in the first place.

Unless of course the crime is rape or harassment. Then the narrative is all about how that slut just wanted to make trouble for that nice guy. Then the talk is all about how well, if the guy isn't guilty, then obviously the crime didn't happen.

These are the things that ran through my head after reading this post by Genevieve Valentine about the fallout from her reporting her experience of sexual harassment by Rene Walling at this year's ReaderCon. While Walling claims to have regret, he does not deny his actions - this is not a case where the harasser has been found not guilty. But read all the way to the end of Valentine's post, please, and you will see that the narrative has changed here, too. This is what Valentine writes:

"Some people’s primary concern, in the wake of Worldcon, is the reputation and fannish future of the harasser. They are, they say, very worried.

The harasser, they say, has been getting criticism and scrutiny online; they worry about the toll this is taking on him."

In other words, there are people who think the one who we all ought to be concerned about is the harasser. His feelings might be hurt, now that people are calling him what he really is.

Here is some more talk that happens: "That's a big thing to accuse someone of. Are you sure you want to ruin a guy's reputation like that? How sure are you about what happened?"

Acts of sexual violence and sexual harassment are under-reported. In other words, many more people are raped, assaulted, and harassed than ever actually report. But even if the statistic were "just" that twenty percent, "only" that 1 in 5, let's think for a bit about what that really means. If one out of every five woman has experienced sexual violence, how many men have committed it? Why do we still insist on a narrative of the only rapists, the only harassers, being the guys who "can't get any" any other way? That a guy who is handsome, or famous, or powerful, or rich, or an athlete, or nice, or someone we've had drinks with, doesn't "need" to rape anyone, doesn't "need" to harass a woman to get attention.

Do you know how many men need to rape or harass women? None. Zero percent. Not one. And those who choose to? It's not their feelings I'm worried about.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A delicate balance

I have always been a big reader. Most of us who become writers are, I think. But the way I started reading changed when I started writing - as I became more interested in the wizardry that went on behind the curtain, I lost my ability to read from the front of the stage. I started reading like a writer, instead of like a reader.

It's hard to explain exactly how this works. When we're taught to read in school, once we get to the point of actually being able to perform the alchemy that turns the marks on the page into comprehensible words, we're taught to read for plot - what happens in the story. Then, we read for character - who were the people in the story, and what kind of people were they. Later, we learn words like alliteration and onomatopoeia, and we read for those things as well. We learn about simile and metaphor, theme and archetype. We learn those things well enough to answer questions about them on our Lit 101 finals, but usually, it stops there. And for most of us - and I include myself in this "most of us" - when we read for fun, we didn't do so with the same analytical rigor as we read when we were reading for class.

When I started writing, I started wanting to know how things worked. Not just the alchemy of turning marks on the page into comprehensible words, but how to turn words into a comprehensible story. And once I became competent at telling a story that looked like a story, I wanted to learn how to use metaphor and simile, and character and dialogue, and language and even plot. The best way I found to do this was to pay attention in a different way as I read - to ask myself why I liked the dialogue or the character, or if I hated the ending, whether it was because I didn't get what I wanted, or because the ending hadn't been true to the story.

Becoming a writer has made me a lot less forgiving of a reader, and some days that makes me sad. I remember distinctly one day, reading a book by an author that I had read regularly, someone who wasn't a favorite, but who had always been a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and noticing three uses of the same adverb within one paragraph. Reader, I broke up with her. But beyond that, there are very few times any more where I can turn off the gears in my head, and just lose myself in a book. Comprehension matters, of course, it does, and so does the need to see how the clever trick worked.

But so, I think, does that moment of delight when story is just story, when it is wonder on the page, and we can allow ourselves to be caught up in it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

An update of sorts, and a story

The purpose of this blog was never meant to be strictly self-promotion. That's no fun for me to write, and - I feel certain - less fun for you to read. But I've had three short stories come out in the last three weeks: "Murdered Sleep" in Apex, "The Heart of the Story" in Fireside, and today, "Breaking the Frame" in Lightspeed. So if you want to read some of the fiction I've written in the past few months, you have a variety of choices.

And I haven't been around the blog much because I've been busy writing elsewhere, and not the sort of things I can talk about, at least not yet. Okay, the novel I can talk about, but I don't want to, because I am superstitious about talking too much about things before I have finished writing them. I didn't really want to write a series of entries that were as redacted as government documents. (If you really want to know how things are going on a day by day basis, you can always finding me on Twitter.)

But I'm writing, and I'm writing a lot, and even on the days when the work is hard - and believe me, there are those days - I'm still happy about the work that I am doing. See you soon.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Murdered Sleep

Last year, I went with my friend Shana to a performance of Sleep No More. Sleep No More is an immersive theatre production of a film noir version of Macbeth, staged in New York's McKittrick Hotel. It is the most extraordinary work of art I have ever witnessed, and it reshaped the way I think about stories. I could not have worked on A Thousand Natural Shocks had I not gone to Sleep No More. 

Earlier this year, my friend Erin made a comment on twitter about a traveling party. That comment turned my thoughts back to the world of immersive theatre, and I wondered about a party where everyone wore masks.

That was the seed of "Murdered Sleep," out today at Apex Magazine. I am so proud to be appearing in the pages of Apex again, and I think it's a wonderful home for my story about masks and murder, the Hounds of Hell, a ghost octopus, and dreams.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Nice and Accurate Reviews of Critic X

My internet was full of cognitive dissonance this weekend. On one side, people were wondering whether Twitter has made book reviews too nice. On the other, we were being reassured that aggressive reviewing was here to stay, and we should all learn to live with it. In a way, I think both sides are true.

I love to read. I always have. Books are one of my favorite things, and I genuinely love introducing people to new books and new writers that become favorites. I have reviewed books here on this blog in the past. Usually now, when I review a book, the review is posted at Fantasy Matters, where I am the content editor, which means that I have a say in both what gets reviewed, and who on our staff writes the review. Neither of those things is a paying job. I also have been know to rave on twitter about books that I am reading, and I don't get paid for that either. Last summer, I did a series of rereads of the Bordertown series for, and I did get paid for those posts. However, because it was freelance work, I could have said no, and I would have, if I had thought that my reviews of those books were going to be hatchet jobs.

I mention that I don't get paid to talk about books in order to help make clear that when I talk about books it is something I do on my own time. Time is a precious commodity for me. My to-be-read pile is in the double digits, so if I start reading a book and I don't like it, my usual response is to just stop reading, and spend my time on something I'm going to enjoy more. Writing reviews takes time, and mental energy, and I am not going to spend either talking about a book that was resoundingly fine. So it isn't so much that I have crazy enthusiasm for every book I read, it's just that I'm not going to tell you about the books I'm reading unless I have crazy enthusiasm for them. I do not have the time. Five hundred words on a book that was both enjoyable and forgettable is five hundred words I didn't write on my own book that day. 

Things would be different if I were a professional critic. In that instance, I would most likely have less discretion to choose what books I spoke about, and a different duty in the framing of my responses. And even though I currently choose not to write them, I absolutely believe that there is a necessary place for  honestly negative reviews of books and stories, for speaking about what isn't working as well as what is in a piece of literature.

Most of us talking about books on the internet are not professional critics. Most of us are people who like books, and so we react with enthusiasm. And yes, the picture becomes muddied because some of us who get very excited on the internet about the books we're reading also write books, or know people who do, and so it looks like there's this giant mutual admiration society of people trading hearts and exclamation points and congratulations for other people's saccharine enthusiasm.

Maybe some of that is true. I know that I am inclined to be more generous when reading work by someone that I know and like - I am less inclined to ascribe problematic thoughts or motives to someone who is a genuine friend. I tend to have overlapping interests in fiction as well as in life with people who are my friends, and so I am more likely to fit in the intended audience for their writing. And even when it is a friend whose writing is not necessarily my thing, I am still enthusiastic for their achievement - I will cheer their publication, their good reviews, their award nominations, because that is what you do for your friends - you support them. 

But the thing about the internet is that it doesn't just make it easier to see the enthusiasm and support. If you know someone's Twitter handle, you can make sure that they are tagged when you review their work. Most writers have either a contact form on their website, or a public email address. Many writers have some form of alerts activated that will tell them when their name or the title of their work is mentioned.

Which means if you want to be sure that someone knows you hated their writing, it's very easy to send that hatred to them directly. It also means that if you are a reviewer who believes in reviewing the author as well as the work, it's very easy for you to make sure that writer finds out that you believe they should die in a fire or get burned with acid or get raped for what they wrote. Yes, those are all things that I have read in reviews. No, I don't think comments like that belong in reviews. Yes, I do think they ought to be taken seriously as threats. No, I don't think that sort of "reviewing" is going away any time soon. It certainly gets attention.

So when it comes down to wondering if we've all become too nice, too friendly to each other here on this series of tubes, my response is to laugh and say no. No, we haven't even come close. But if I had to trade, then yes, I would rather live in a community of cheerleaders and enthusiasts than one ruled by hate.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Feather Child

Feather Child 1 - Lucy Glendinning

                                                            "Feather Child"

He promised that it wouldn’t hurt.

I said yes. Of course I did. What mother wouldn’t want to give her child wings?

There had been flaws in the process before. Wax was a lightweight medium, and a sacred one, but prone, too prone to melting. You know the story of the boy who fell from the sky.

That would not be my son, I swore it.

Has there ever been a mortal who swore anything, who did not hear the gods laugh as the vow was made?

Feathers do not grow from underneath the skin of human children, nor do wings burst through their back. Feathers must be placed in their new home, anchored in skin, fed by the blood that runs beneath.

He promised that it wouldn’t hurt.

But I heard my son, my child, weep as the feathers were set in place. Not with wax, but with words. Fiat. Made flesh. I hardened my heart, because this is what was must do, if we want our children to fly. We must be hard. We must hear them weep, and not dry their tears.

Becoming hurts. Growth does not come without pain. Still, I am weak, and I turned away. I did not watch.

When it was finished, the inventor called me back in. Something had gone wrong, he said. Not with the process, no, that had worked perfectly. My son was covered with feathers. He was beautiful. He was dead.

Curled in against himself as he had been when I carried him, this was a birth that had gone still. There would be no flight. Forever earthbound, he would not go any nearer the sun. There is only even one ending to this.

He promised that it wouldn’t hurt.