Monday, January 27, 2014

"Underground, the story continued."

When I was a kid, I lived in books. I don't just mean that I was constantly reading, that I always had a book in my bag for the car, that I perfected the art of reading under the desk during the boring parts of class without alerting the teacher, that I read every night by flashlight in bed, evading the notice of my parents with varying degrees of success. 

I mean that I lived in books. When I found favorites, I'd reread them again and again. I'd make my stuffed animals or my dolls reenact my favorite scenes. I'd make my friends reenact my favorite scenes with me - we used to play Birnam Wood at recess. (NB to future nerds: do not tell Sister Nathalie that the convent is Dunsinane when she asks what you're doing carrying around sticks. It won't go well.) I'd put myself in those scenes - I was always my favorite character, and I'd retell the story.

If I had known, at that age, what fan fiction was, I probably would have written it. Not to change the story or make sure that everything worked out okay for my favorite ships, but to have my favorite bits, those moments of reading that exploded my heart, on a constant repeating loop. To make them last forever. To live in the story.

I think about reading like that, and those are the books that made me. Sacred Texts. Books like the Prydain Chronicles, and the Dark is Rising series (especially The Grey King) and A Wrinkle in Time. I think the last book that I really read like that was Tam Lin. After a while, there was too much else taking up room in my head. I still read voraciously, but I lost the ability to truly immerse myself in a story.

Every so often, I find books that I know, if I had read them earlier, would have joined that list of Sacred Texts: When You Reach Me, The Last Unicorn, All Our Pretty Songs. There's something about them that speaks to the part of me that makes me who I am, that moment of recognition of a truth that goes beyond what is fact or real to simply be what is.

I didn't read Watership Down when I was younger. I remember seeing the movie, and remember being heartbroken by it, and so when I realized it was a book, too, my reaction was pretty much no. Why break my heart again on purpose? I thought about picking it up a few years ago, when Stories came out, and I realized I shared a table of contents with Richard Adams, but at that point I figured I was too old to really appreciate talking animal stories.

But then one of my friends, whose opinion I trust when it comes to books, raved about Watership Down. And later that week, I came across a good used copy, so I picked it up. Last week I read it, and I wish I had done so before. It was the closest thing to reading with that same sense of wonder that I did when I was younger. I know if I had read it then I would have made my friends play rabbits, and I would have been Hazel. (Though I know, now, for good or ill I'm much more Fiver.) It would have been a book that made me who I was. 

Even now, I know I'll go back and reread it. Partially because it's beautiful, but also, for the writerly moments. The way the mythology of the rabbits works. The primroses. For the reminder that the right story is always a gift, no matter when it is read.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Majoring in writing

I got a question on twitter yesterday, asking if I thought that studying philosophy in college would be good for a writer. I realized that my answer was a lot longer than 140 characters, and so I asked if I could respond in a blog.

And so, I am.

Here is the thing about being a writer: there is no one true path. Some people major in Creative Writing and then get MFAs. Some people go to workshops. Some people just sit down and start writing. It is possible to choose any of these, or a variety of combinations of them, and become published, even to become successful.

Because there's no one true path, on one level, it's easy for me to say that yes, studying philosophy in college is a good choice for a writer. It teaches you to think and to think rigorously, and to be articulate, and all of those things are good skill sets for writers to have. But that's also an incomplete answer.

Writing is unlikely to bring you immediate financial success. Even if you are fortunate enough to be the rare person where the first book you write is the first book that sells and it sells really well and it never goes out of print and there are foreign rights sales and movie deals and all of that shiny sparkly stuff, it is still going to take you time to write and revise that book. You need to be doing something while you are writing that will keep a roof over your head and food on your table. 

So, my answer to whether a writer in college should major in philosophy is tempered by the reality of most writers needing to have a day job at some time in their writing career. My advice would be to pick a major that will help you get a day job in a field that you would be interested in working in. Maybe that is a philosophy major, maybe it is something else. And then to also take as many classes as possible in areas that you love, or are curious about, or you think will help you write your books. Suck up as much knowledge as you can, and file it away in your writer brain.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Critique and Mentoring Services

I currently have openings for critique and mentoring clients. What does that mean, you ask? I'm so glad you did - I will tell you.

Critique services are where you send me a finished piece of work, from short story to novel length, and I read it with a critical eye. I make notes about what works and what doesn't, and I make these notes in a rigorous fashion - not "You suck! You can't write! Those words aren't even a sentence, omg!!1!" - but I am not going to lie and tell you that your writing is awesome if it is not. I will pay your writing the respect of taking it seriously. Note: this does not include line edits or copy edits.

Mentoring services are for people who want to work on a specific thing, or a specific project, with close assistance. I know this sounds vague, but really, I work with the requesting writer to come up with something that will be useful. This can be a short term or long term relationship, and again, I will work with you on anything from short fiction to novels.

To head off some potential questions:

Yes, I charge for these services. Rates vary based on project length and turn-around time.

No, you don't need to be an experienced writer - I am happy to work with any writer at any level of expertise.

I tend to publish in the SFF genres, but I am open to working with writers in other areas.

Here is a link to one of my current clients, Martin Cahill, who has some very kind words about working together.

If you think you might be interested, or would like further information, including about rates, please email me at KatWithSword@gmail.com

Friday, January 10, 2014

Like a Girl

Masculine: Of, relating to, or suited to men or boys

Feminine: Of, relating to, or suited to women or girls

(Both definitions taken from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary)

I used to love the show Revenge. I watched the first season after seeing Stephen King recommend it in an issue of Entertainment Weekly. I was planning on watching one episode at a time, stretched out over a couple of weeks, and ended up marathoning it until I was caught up and had to deal with the agony of watching in real time.

On of the things that I loved about Revenge was that Emily Thorne was not a Nice Girl. She was focused and cruel and didn't care who she hurt as long as she got her revenge. She used people. She ruined lives. And she didn't care - or if she did, she didn't let that stop her -no matter who they were. I was so excited to see a show that let a female character be like that.

And then they turned her into a Nice Girl. She started worrying about hurting people. She got a boyfriend, and he started helping her with her revenge. Worse still, she needed him to - all the skills that she had in the first season somehow disappeared. She was no longer a Fury, she was the princess who needed saving. Because, you know, girl.

It sounds like I'm angry that they made a female character act like a girl. I'm not. Emily Thorne acted like a girl from day one, because that's what she is. I'm angry that they took an interesting complex female character and turned her into a helpless stereotype. There's a difference.

You throw like a girl. You hit like a girl. That was such a pussy move. You're such a little bitch.

I write stories that tend to have a lot of women and girls in them. I don't usually consciously think about femininity when I write them. My goal is to write characters that are complex and interesting. Some of those characters that are women are going to engage in traditional ways with traditional markers of femininity at some times. Some aren't. 

But at the same time, I do think about the prejudices that are associated with the feminine a lot when I write. It's the inverse of what Chuck Wendig is talking about when he says this:

"Once you say: “THIS is masculine,” it’s hard not to say, “THAT is feminine.”

That can get toxic pretty quick. Particularly for those folks — a lot of us, really — who don’t fit really nicely into one slot or the other. Fiction can teach us things and if it teaches us that masculinity is XYZ and we’re a man who fits X but maybe not Y and Z, where does that leave us?

How should we feel?"


(Go here for the full entry on Chuck's blog. It's a really thought-provoking piece.)

In a vacuum, there's no problem with the terms masculine and feminine. The problem is when we start hanging values on the ideas associated with them.

I'm so glad his parents finally cut his hair. That kid was really starting to look like a girl.

Buffy was supposed to fix everything. She's the Chosen One, that's what they do, right? The cute blonde cheerleader who wanted a boyfriend, and to wear a pretty dress at prom, and who could kill the monsters in that pretty dress and heels. She was the Strong Female Character who still looked and acted like a girl.  
And so people started writing stories about Strong Female Characters who were Just! Like! Buffy! They could kick ass, too! And punch things! They were as good at the guys! Because punching! Except, as Neil Gaiman points out, that's sort of a willful misdefinition  of strength in those circumstances:

"It's worth pointing out that people, unfortunately, misunderstand the phrase 'strong women,'" Gaiman said. "The glory of Buffy is it was filled with strong women. Only one of those strong women had supernatural strength and an awful lot of sharpened stakes. And people sort of go 'Well yes, of course Buffy was a strong woman. She could kick her way through a door.' And you go 'No, that's not actually what makes her a strong woman! You're missing the point.'"

(from here)

We are taught, as writers, to make our characters into real people. To write them as well-rounded, with flaws and failings as well as strengths and abilities. And as readers, we know when a writer has failed, when they have written a stereotype, instead of a person.

But we need to be careful, as both readers and writers, to understand the difference between "this character does not read like a well-rounded person" and "this character does not fit my ideas of how a man or woman should be." We cannot let our ideas of traditional femininity and masculinity get in the way of seeing people as people, no matter how they are written. No matter how they are.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

My 2013 publications, and others I loved

For those of you who are interested in this sort of thing (either for awards nominations, or simply out of curiosity), here is a list of what I've published in 2013.

Novelette

"Painted Birds and Shivered Bones" Subterranean, Spring 2013. I am particularly proud of this story - it is probably my favorite thing that I have written.

Short Story

"The Face of Heaven So Fine" Apex 45

"Stage Blood" Subterranean, Summer 2013

"A Tornado of Dorothys" in Oz Reimagined, edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen

"With Her Hundred Miles to Hell" in Glitter and Mayhem, edited byJohn Klima, Lynne M. Thomas, and Michael Damian Thomas

"Haruspicy and Other Amatory Divinations" Apex 55


Things I loved from other people:

I am appallingly behind on my short fiction reading this year. But a few things that I particularly loved were:

"The Manticore, the Mermaid, and Me" by Megan Kurashige in Unnatural Creatures, edited by Neil Gaiman and Maria Dahvana Headley

"Ilse, Who Saw Clearly" by E. Lily Yu in Apex 48

"The Traditional" by Maria Dahvana Headley in Lightspeed May 2013

"This is a Ghost Story" by Keffy R.M. Kehrli in Apex 54



Sunday, January 5, 2014

Wincing from the knife

About three weeks ago, I cut my thumb open badly. I was slicing a hard cheese - Drunken Goat, actually, which is excellent - and doing it a lazy way, and the knife didn't stop cutting until it hit bone. My bone.

I had this weird reaction that split almost evenly between "oh, this isn't good and please God don't let me pass out" and "whoa, the inside of my finger is cool, and I need to remember what this feels like." Writeritis in its end stages, I suppose.

(No, I didn't go to the hospital. Yes, I would have if I hadn't gotten the bleeding under control.)

That's not actually the point. The point is, I was making dinner tonight. Soup. It involved lots of chopping - fennel, onion, garlic, kale. And because I spent the holidays away from home, this was the first time since that accident that I've held that knife.

I flinched, when I held it.

I was being more thoughtful this time, less careless, but my hand remembered the pain, and tried to avoid it. The problem with that is, it made me clumsy. More likely to get hurt again. I was thinking too much instead of trusting myself.

It's hard, once you've been hurt, to go back to the way you were before. To be fearless, to feel immortal. You remember the knife, even if you don't want to. Even if you're mostly healed, just the scar showing. You remember that you bled, and that you can again. That it happens in an instant.

That you have to learn again how to trust yourself.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

And the known unknowns

I didn't blog a lot in 2013. I was busy, yes. So there was always an excuse, always a reason not to.

But really, 2013 was hard. And it was hard throughout the year. There were good things, but I can't remember a time when I was so happy to see the clock turn over. Symbol or not, I need the fresh start.

I don't like posting when things are hard. I don't feel comfortable talking about that - I feel like I should be quiet, I shouldn't whine, I should cope. Be strong. It's weird to type those words and direct them at myself, because I can't remember ever hearing someone else talk about things being hard and thinking, "Oh, they should just be quiet and cope." But it's easy to talk about ourselves in the ways we would never let anyone talk about our friends.

I don't want to make any grand resolutions. I'm not going to promise to post three times a week (posting here has a different weight in my head than being chatty on twitter. I feel like I should have something to say when I write it here) or to share everything always. I don't wear emotional nudity comfortably. Not yet.

But I don't like the idea of closing down the blog. So maybe what I'll do, is I'll let myself talk, when I need to, about what I need to. When I work with new writers, one of the things I tell them is "Don't reject yourself." Know the markets, sure - don't send your hard sf to someplace that specializes in horror. But beyond that, if you've done your best work, don't think up reasons why you shouldn't send it in. Let the editor decide. Let the audience decide. 

So I'll talk. And I'll stop writing posts and deleting them for all the wrong reasons. And we'll see what happens.