Saturday, January 7, 2012

Our strange taxonomies of ourselves

The story that I felt most insecure about writing was "Sweet Sixteen." Not because it was gut-wrenchingly personal, or because I expected it to cause controversy, or anything as interesting as that. No, I was worried about writing it because - never mind all of the chemistry and genetics and microbiology I took in college - I was convinced I didn't know enough about science to write science fiction. I know, I know it is wrong, but part of my brain still thinks that a story must have computers or robots or faster than light space travel in order for people to call it science fiction, and that wasn't what I was writing, nor was it what I ever had any desire to write. Hence, I wasn't a science fiction writer. (This is truth: the first question I asked my beta readers for this story to answer was, "Am I writing science fiction?")

And it is true, that when ideas spark in my brain, I do not often have the desire to explore them in an SFnal fashion. But that does not mean I am not, and cannot be, a science fiction writer.

I recently sent a draft of a new story off to beta readers. It was a story I had wrestled through three drafts already, each wildly variant to the one which came before. It was giving me such frustration that I hit "send" immediately upon typing "ends," which is something I never do (I almost always let the story sit for a day, and give it one more quick polish), but I couldn't bear to look at it any more.

Then something else happened, that has never before happened to a story of mine. The reactions that came back were identical: I had written the first third of a story, and then stopped.

As soon as I read those responses, I felt the chains of panic around my brain loosen. Yes. Yes. This was exactly right. This was why I had such a difficult time writing. And after reading their other suggestions, I knew what happened next, and what happened after that. So why had I stopped writing? Well, I had written about 1600 words, and most of my short fiction falls within the 1500-1900 word range. So I had this low-grade feeling that things needed to end, and I mistook the end of a scene for the end of a story.

If you write, you're very often asked to put labels on yourself and on your writing. You need to know enough about what you've written to know what kind of market to send it to, how to pitch your story, how to categorize yourself in a bio. And I don't think there's anything wrong with self-assessment when it helps you feel confident in what you do well, and be aware of what parts of your writing you should focus on improving. 

The problem comes when those labels turn into boxes that you write yourself into, their sides barriers that keep you pressed into one shape, walls high enough that you can't see ideas  over them. I don't want to write stories that are easily put into boxes, even if the boxes are my own.


  1. I don't want to write stories that are easily put into boxes, even if the boxes are my own.

    Because in the end that's self limiting to you as a writer. That makes sense.

  2. Boxes, no matter who created them, are limiting. I've written exactly two sci-fi stories, neither or which had robots or time travel; they're not something I'm used to writing, so I look at them as a learning tool. They are something I need, and want, to work out.

    As for this story, this entry made me happy. I love that your beta readers are so on point, and that their reflection have helped you. Is there anything that you always ask of your beta readers? Any specific questions that you want to know for every story. That's been tricky for me -- figuring out how to ask for critical feedback.

    Anyway, Kat -- great post. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Ali - You're welcome. And your question about beta readers is one I've been asked in similar forms a couple of times now, so I think it might be about time for me to put together a blog on the subject.

  4. Kat, I'm very much looking forward to that post. :-)