Friday, May 31, 2013

Hamlet days

"Oh God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable,
Seems to me all the uses of this world!"

     Hamlet, I.ii.134-36

Today I am having a day where writing is hard. I know exactly the scene I need to be writing, and writing it is like pulling teeth.

I just looked at that sentence and hated it, by the way. Cliché, and an uninteresting one. Boring verbs. It is indeed that sort of day.

I've written. I'm pretty much doing a full-out cheerleading routine for myself after each sentence, but there are more words on the page now than there were this morning, and there will be more before I go to bed tonight, and probably most of them won't be crossed out, and when I type the draft into the computer, I probably won't even remember how hard it was to get those words down.

Bad days happen. Days where it feels like you can't write, or that everything you write sucks, or that it's boring, and been done before. Someone on twitter asked what do I do when that happens, hence my posting this blog.

So. What do I do on the days writing is hard?

First, I try to work through it. Here's the thing. I am fortunate enough to have the problem of deadlines. Not everything I write is commissioned, but much is. So in many cases, someone is waiting for the thing I am writing. I believe in meeting my deadlines (some of which are also contractual obligations) because I believe that is the professional thing to do, and also because that is how I get paid. Sometimes working through the suck means turning to another project temporarily, and letting my mind clear that way. Sometimes it means reminding myself that what I am writing is a draft, and thus, it is okay to suck - expected even! - and that I will fix things in revisions. I'd say 80% of the time this works. It doesn't mean that the writing suddenly becomes fun - the day is usually still a slog, but I get done what I needed to do.

If I can't work through it, I look around for something I can do that's necessary work, but isn't writing - cleaning the house, going to the grocery store. Baking. (Okay, maybe that one's not necessary.) Going for a run. Sometimes just the mental break from the project is enough to let me come back to it with fresh eyes, plus there's the bonus that I did something I needed to do. I'd say this gets me through about another 10% of the crap.

The remaining 10%, the days where I can't shake the demons and doubts, where I feel that I'm untalented and that every sale and decent review has been a fluke, and will never be repeated, I give myself permission to take the day off and wallow. To put on my sweats, and eat the brownies I just baked, and read comfort books or marathon my favorite episodes of Doctor Who. I embrace the terrible, horrible, no good, very-bad day. Oddly enough, it helps.

The other thing that helps is realizing that everyone has bad days, days when the writing is hard, when we have cases of the doubts and donwannas. Everyone. Even your very favorite writer. Even when they were writing their very best book. So know that it's okay to have a hard day, to have doubts, to be certain all your words are wrong. Maybe you will cross them out. You will write the better ones later.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Don't do anything I wouldn't do

Writers are not their characters.

Not unless they are writing autobiography, and by autobiography I mean a story that explicitly in words presents itself as autobiography. Even then, what you are likely to get is a version of the writer on the page, not the truth entire.

We are not our characters. They are not us.

Oh, sure. We've written them. They wouldn't exist without us, and they would exist differently if written by someone else. There are pieces of each of us inside all of the characters we've written, and pieces of other people, too. We steal from everywhere. But we are not our characters, even if we share a name, a hair color, a gender with the person on the page. Even if we are writing in first person.

I had a conversation recently about my story, "The Face of Heaven So Fine." "I don't know if I could have written that story in first person. I mean, the sex and the cutting." "You get that it's fiction, right?" "Yes, but it's you."

No, but it's not.

I write in first person a lot, though not exclusively, and I nearly always write with female leads. Which means this isn't the first time that I've had a variation on this conversation. I would have thought that the fact I write fantasy would have exempted me from it, (I mean, my first published story was about a woman who disappears into the books her lover writes, which, if that had been autobiographical, I think would have made a paradox that would have prevented me from ever writing it) but no. Especially when I write "I," the assumption is that I'm the one in the story.

I recently wrote a story about a serial killer. In first person. That's not me, either.

I get the desire to find writers in their works - I come from literary academia, where sometimes, that's the entire focus. What do we know about the writer and her life, and where do we see that manifest in her fiction? And we all know that piece of writing advice: "Write what you know." So we assume all fiction is drawn from life, and if all fiction is drawn from life, then clearly the writer must be in there.

And clearly we are. But just as clearly, we are not. Shakespeare was never a teenage girl. King is not a murderous clown. Rowling is not... well, actually she might be a wizard. But I hope you see my point. If all we put on the page is miniaturized versions of ourselves, we will very quickly run out of stories to tell. If we've done our jobs, our characters are more than their creators. Let them be.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Letting the days go by

I've been watching, from a strange sort of time-stuttered distance, over the course of visits to their house, as the son of two of my dear friends has learned to crawl, and as he is getting ready to walk. The most interesting thing for me has been to watch the expressions on his face, these looks of deep concentration, as he tries to tell his body what to do, and frustration, when sometimes it doesn't, quite. And then the big, still mostly toothless, grin of utter delight when everything works.

When I first started keeping this blog, one of the things I talked a lot about was writing. It made sense - I started blogging not too long after I started writing seriously, and, like any other new skill, I was really excited about the things I was learning. Also, one of the things that was so helpful to me when I began writing was the blogs of other writers. They were places to go to learn about things like beta readers and word count and what to do on the days you realized that you needed to cut 30,000 words from your book because you took a wrong turn.

Reading about writing not only was one of the ways I taught myself to be a better writer, it was one of the ways I felt like I had a community - these other people, people with actual publication credits and books on shelves - we did the same things, we had the same kind of bad days, we celebrated the same kind of victories. So when I figured something out, figured it out in a way that I could articulate it enough to write about it, posting it on my blog felt, in some weird way, like I was participating in that writerly community, like I was maybe leaving a path of pebbles for the next set of people.

It's been about five years since I started writing seriously. (I attended Clarion five years ago next month, so that's where I count from.) I'm not sure what I am now, but I'm not a newbie anymore. I am sure that I'm a better writer than I was then. And I talk about writing much less.

Part of that is my own reluctance to talk about ongoing projects. Oh, sure, I'll rant about a bad writing day or exalt when I've figured something out on twitter, but I'm much less comfortable posting extended thoughts on works in progress. I think because I've learned how much projects can shift and change, and I don't want the memory of someone saying "Oh, that sounds cool" to make me reluctant to cut a part that really needs to come out.

But also because writing has become more muscle memory for me. I don't mean to say that it's easy. It's not. Nor am I always convinced that what I am doing is OMGTheBestEVER. (Honestly, I don't think I've ever been convinced of that, even when I am proud of the finished project.) But I have a much better idea of how the pieces of stories ought to work, and how to make characters that breathe, and how to incorporate tone and voice. My brain knows how to do those things now, so I have to think less about how to do them. I feel like maybe I've learned to walk.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Circles of Literary Hell

"But, you don't actually think that's good, do you?"

It was usually Harry Potter they were asking about. It's the kind of question you get asked when you're a writer, and the kind of question you get asked even more when you're a literature professor.

I always watched to see if they were surprised or disappointed when I said yes, not only did I like the Harry Potter books (and I do - I usually reread the series once a year), but that I also thought they were good. I've taught the books at two different universities. 

(We all understand that there is a difference between liking a book and thinking it is good, right? And that we can acknowledge a book is good without liking it, and that just because we don't like it doesn't mean it's not good? We get all that, right? Excellent.)

Though now that I'm not teaching, the question takes on an expectation of professional jealousy. Like, what do I think about E.L. James, or Stephenie Meyer, and doesn't it bother me that they sell all those copies when "good" writers don't?

I use the scare quotes for a reason.

You may have noticed that Dan Brown has a new book out, and so the literati are yet again having convulsions over the fact that he is going to sell eleventy million copies, and make approximately a bazillion dollars, and that this is clearly horrid, because he can't actually write, and really, wouldn't it be better if someone actually good made those sales and that money.

Look, Dan Brown is not my kind of writer. I don't like his prose on the sentence-level (and sentence-level prose is something that matters to me as a reader) and if you ever want to see me go into a wild-eyed and snarly-haired rant, do ask me about the portrayal of medieval history and theology in The DaVinci Code. But the fact that he (or James, or Meyer, or fill in the name of whatever writer we're collectively grumpy about this week) is going to sell all those copies doesn't bother me in the least. In fact, as a writer, I find it very interesting, because clearly he is doing something in his writing that a lot of people respond to. 

When we read, we read for any number of reasons. Maybe we read for beautiful prose, or for hot sex, or to watch clever people solve mysteries, or to educate ourselves, or to scare ourselves silly, or because of great characters, or a fast-moving plot. Maybe we look for a combination of those things. And writers tend to have different things that they are interested in doing in their writing, sometimes even from book to book. There isn't a magic formula for success - either critical or financial. If there were, we'd get the checklist with our editorial notes.

And I have a real problem with this idea that only what is "good" deserves financial success, or that something is off when what is "not good" sells eleventy billion copies.  Because I think there is a judgment implied there that carries over to the reader - like, we can dismiss the thoughts of Twilight fans, because we've already decided we can dismiss Twilight.

One of the best undergraduate papers I ever received was a comparison of lycanthropy in Twilight and in the lais of Marie de France. It is - and I know this is going to shock some of you - possible to like to read a wide variety of books from a wide variety of writers. People read for all sorts of reasons.

I'm not saying that I think writers and books should be immune to criticism, that we cannot rigorously discuss the flaws in a work. I absolutely think we should have those discussions. But I think they should be discussions based on the actual works, not our perceptions of what they will be, or must be. And that we should be very careful in our evaluation of a book (or of anything else), not to imply that there is a right way to respond to it, that there is something lacking in a reader who actually thinks it's good.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The end. And where we start from.

I keep thinking about what I want to come here to say. I used to blog fairly regularly. Never every day, but a few times a week. And then this year, it's been almost not at all. Nearly a month since I posted last, and only two posts all of last month.

And some of that is the feeling that I'm on the internet all the time, babbling away on twitter and posting things on tumblr and what do I have left over to say, anyway? Like, maybe I shouldn't be talking here unless there's something important, which is kind of ridiculous, because this is my blog, and I'm the person who decides what gets said here (or not) and when. But there you go.

And some of it was finishing a book which was written in a voice that is very different to the tone of the blog, and when I was finishing it, it felt like that was the only voice left in my head. I could barely even talk to my friends, because all the words I could think of were words for the book.

And some of it was, my God, this was a tough winter. Maybe you don't understand why I'm saying that now, now when it's May, and quite thoroughly spring, but let me tell you that it was snowing last week. Even here, that doesn't happen, and there was this sense of being out of time and elsewhere, and a longing for green and warmth and light. And it was a tough winter personally, and for people I loved. And those aren't the sort of things we are supposed to talk about, you know? No one wants to read about your troubles. Don't whine.

I am so envious (speaking of thoughts and feelings we're not supposed to discuss) of the people who seem (because it is always seem, there is always a filter) able to say anything anywhere. To speak, without worrying about what people will think, and say. Or to worry about it, and have the ability to say, fuck you, and speak anyway.

And so here I am. And it's spring, I think. And I've started a new book, and one of the things that matters very much in it is who gets to speak, and about what, and how seriously are they taken when they do.

So maybe I'll stop worrying so much, and talk. Or maybe I'll keep silent, but the silence will be mine.