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 Orl√©ans), 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.)