Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Thoughts on Tales from Outer Suburbia

I have a list of artists that I'd really like to work with someday. Maybe I'll write a graphic novel, or I'll be lucky enough to have a say in the cover art that gets done for my book. However it might happen, Shaun Tan is definitely on that list.

The Arrival, Tan's exquisite, and wordless, meditation on the immigrant experience, is one of the most extraordinary books that I've read, so I had high expectations for Tales from Outer Suburbia. I'm pleased to say that I wasn't disappointed. 

The illustrations are marvelous, of course. And the stories are, as well. Delightful bits of oddness that you wish would lie beneath the seeming normalcy of your neighborhood. Together, they mesh to make a book that is truly gorgeous, a reading experience that is well worth lingering over.

I like Tan best when there is a hint of poignance in his work, so my favorite pieces in the collection were the short story, "Undertow" and the poem, "Distant Rain," which in and of itself, makes the book worth buying.

Monday, March 30, 2009

At the intersection of life and art

I'm sick. I have a fever. This has done interesting things to my writing.

For example, I just picked up my dissertation chapter and discovered that instead of writing about the meaning of Julian of Norwich's vision of the Church through the wound in Christ's side, I wrote an extended conversation between Aislinn (the point of view character in my novel) and Joan of Arc (who is at least in the dissertation). They were discussing their swords.

No, I am not blogging that.

I believe that it's time to go back to bed.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The thing with writers is they write

I could feel it there, waiting, on the edges of my consciousness. The light was brighter, clearer, and I paid attention to details more. There was a pressure in my head, almost an ache. There was a story, lurking, waiting to be born. Or, to be more precise, the idea for one.

I don't feel comfortable when I'm not writing something creative. I mean, yes. I have this dissertation, which is a fairly large and complex writing project that comes with some very specific deadlines. It's in draft, and I'm revising.

And the novel is in draft, and is in the loving but harsh hands of my readers. (I have yet to print out my own copy and begin the reread. Perhaps this weekend.) And I know what the next novel is, and there are the plans for the collaborative epistolary novel with the lovely Megan. But the next novel requires Serious Research, and I want to be writing. I was beginning to feel fidgety because I wasn't. Revisions are good, research is necessary, but I needed to be actively writing something.

Finally, the first line sprang into my head, and I know what I will be working on next. It will probably be a longer short -- novella length, maybe? But I have something. I have taken pen in hand, and begun scrawling in my notebook. I feel like myself again.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Some completely unsolicited advice for Clarion 2009

First of all, congratulations to the 18 of you. I am delighted for you all.

I applied to Clarion last year mainly because I was sure I would never get in, and so had nothing to lose. I was just starting to think about taking my writing seriously, and, from my point of view, it was a dream faculty. So if I didn't get in, well, see the previous statements. 

When I got the email announcing my acceptance, I was so excited I burst into tears, and then couldn't sit down for half an hour. You are all, I am sure, much cooler than I am, and can laugh at my silliness.

I had no idea what to expect from the workshop. I had never workshopped a story before. I had barely written before. But here are some of the things that either I was told, and found useful, or that I wish I had known before I went.

You will find your family while you are there. I've talked about this before, but it's no less true. Those 17 other people sitting around the critique table with you? They are all wonderful people. Learn to trust them. All of them want you to be the best writer you can be. And take care of each other. Everyone is going to have a rough day, a hard critique. Be there for each other.

Your six instructors? Are awesome. They are there because they want to help you. Make this easy on them. Read at least one thing by all of them before you go. And read it with an eye to how you can learn from that person's writing. Go with questions to ask them during your conferences. And be ready to hear the sometimes difficult things they will ask you to do. You will be a better writer for it.

Say goodbye to sleep. Seriously. Also, if you are driving, and have room, bring cooking dishes. The food was a punishment from God. Squid patties. I am not even kidding. 

Go with ideas. And be prepared to abandon them. The story I am most proud of was one I never intended to write, and was a homework assignment from Neil Gaiman. 

Skip at least one thing. This was advice from Jim Kelly, who knows from Clarion, being the only person ever to attend twice. You won't want to. There will be exciting visitors, and lectures, and trips to Comic-Con, and if you are really lucky, mad dance parties that go on until 4 am. But take some time for yourself. Play hooky. 

For me, Clarion was a life-changing experience. I learned that I am a writer there. It was exhausting and overwhelming and the best thing I have ever done. I hope it is wonderful for you, too.


Monday, March 23, 2009

It's the little things that change your life

The latest breakthrough in my dissertation argument comes from a writer of YA spec fiction, Madeleine L'Engle. (And if you don't know who that is, stop reading this right now, and get to your local library or bookstore.) It's an idea that has been rolling about in my head for a little bit now, about time, and the different ways in which time runs, and how that changes our perspective on events. Or more precisely, whether we view an event as an event, or an event as part of an ongoing and eternal continuum. I'll spare you the specifics of the speculative theology, and of the dissertation chapter. 

I know that my first L'Engle book was A Wrinkle in Time. I think it was that one that my Mom's friend Gail gave to me. I know that one of my first L'Engle books was a gift from her. A beloved author, and the solution to a vexing academic conundrum, all in one gift, given twenty-odd years ago. 

Oh, and there is such a thing as a tesseract, my dears.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

With additional impractical poem

I am a graduate student of Medieval English Literature. This is not the sort of advanced degree that gives one a lot of practical life skills. I can read Beowulf in the original, and translate Middle French. Very little call for either of those on a daily basis. (NB: Dear Steven Moffat, Should you ever want to send the Doctor to meet Joan of Arc, I'm your girl.)

This weekend, I am using one of my few practical life skills, and repainting my kitchen. (Dining area? The place where I eat, not where I cook.) Lovely, warm shades of dusty rose. I am currently sore all over, covered in primer splotches, and full of a terrific feeling of accomplishment.

I have also been fiddling a bit with a poem that I think wants to be a sestina. (I may well be addicted to the damned things now. Someone is going to be in a lot of trouble over this.) For your reading enjoyment:

Your touch rewrites the lines of my desire.
I crave your words upon my skin and long
For secrets writ on flesh, inscribed in dream...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Not the sound of silence, then

I nearly always write to music. I have a playlist for any longer pieces of writing, key songs for the short ones. I can tell you what I heard in my head when I was writing a scene, and what my characters' favorite songs are. So while the threads of my brain are reweaving themselves, post finish, I'll tell you some of what I listened to while writing the novel.

1. "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (multiple versions) The working title of the novel is But I Linger On, Dear. 

2. "Who Killed Amanda Palmer" by the phenomenally talented Amanda Palmer. The entire album is amazing. You should buy it. And if you ever get the chance, go see her play live. She is perhaps the best live performer I have ever seen. (Also, in one of those odd things that I know about my characters that didn't appear in the book, the Dresden Dolls' "Half Jack" is Aislinn's favorite song. So that got played a lot when I needed to get into her head.)

3. "Take to the Sky (Russia)," "Little Earthquakes," "Cruel," and "Tear in Your Hand" by Tori Amos. Actually, there was a lot of Tori Amos involved in the writing of this novel, but those four were the most thematically important. "Take to the Sky (Russia)" in particular got listened to, due to the line "Here I stand with a sword in my hand."

4. "Dress Up In You" by Belle & Sebastian. Spoilers. Sorry.

5. "Spem in Alium" composed by Thomas Tallis, performed by the King's College Chapel Choir. Possibly the most beautiful piece of music I have ever heard. If I needed to write a difficult scene, I put this on for comfort. During the time at Clarion that I was writing the short story that eventually turned into this novel, this song was all I listened to, on constant repeat.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh

In honor of the day, this is, I believe, the definitive version of Danny Boy. Seriously, I cannot even tell you how happy that clip makes me. 

If you'd like something a bit more Irish, I point you towards the amazing poetry of Seamus Heaney. A gentleman and a scholar, he is my favorite living poet. You really can't go wrong with anything he's done, but for today I'll recommend two of his translations from the Irish, Sweeney Astray (Buile Suibhne) and The Midnight Verdict, which is a poetic blending of Brian Merriman's 18th c. poem, Cúirt an Mheán Oíche and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Mad Sweeney and mad women. It doesn't get better than that.


In other news, I finished the draft of the novel really bloody early this morning.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Talk amongst yourselves for a while

In the past forty-eight hours, I have finished revising my dissertation chapter, which I emailed to my advisor. I have also written over 3000 words of new fiction. And while The End is very much in sight, it may be at least that many words before I get there. My brain is not doing things that are not novel related right now, so I'll see you again when I am coherent. (Well, for a certain value of "coherent," anyway.) 

Introduce yourself to someone in the comments. Send me an encouraging message. Better yet, send chocolate.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Do my chromosomes excite you, baby?

In a recent post on her blog, the lovely Megan relates being asked where the women's literature section was at Kepler's. Not literature "for women" (whatever that might be) but literature written by women. I share the same two-fold reaction Megan had. First, that would be a really stupid way to organize a bookstore. And second, hmm, does the gender of the author matter when I'm reading?

My gut reaction was that it doesn't. I have never pressed a copy of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on someone because it was a great book by a woman, but because it is a great book. Likewise, I have never given someone a copy of Pat Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, because it was really well done for something written by a man. Just saying those phrases sounds ridiculous.

Except... I am writing my dissertation on the religious writing of late medieval and early modern holy women. And while the project was conceived as a way to do scholarship on Joan of Arc, and not as a specifically feminist project, the fact remains that for my dissertation, the fact that the writers I am studying are women matters. Their gender influenced what they wrote, the way they were treated, and the way they were and are read. And so I thought that maybe I only care about a writer's gender when I'm being a scholar. Except, the other scholarly project that I have been working on is a study of Shakespeare in Sandman. In terms of that project, I could really care less that Will Shakespeare and Neil Gaiman are both men. So that's no help.

And I'd like to say that it doesn't matter whose name is on the cover, only whether the words inside are good. When I go to the bookstore, the name of the author only matters to me if I am looking for a book by a friend,  by an author I have read before and loved, or for a new author who was recommended to me. I certainly don't choose a new book based on the author's gender. Except that people do. Hence, J. K. Rowling, rather than Joanne.

But just because an author might sell better if she wrote under a man's name wouldn't change the fact that, under the above categorization, she would still be writing women's literature. So I'll just stick to my first thought. It would be a really stupid way to organize a bookstore.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Turn and face the strange

When I was much younger, I thought that books appeared, fully-formed, in an author's head, and made it on to the page in much the same way: the writer would begin with the title, then the first line of chapter one, and then continue writing until the story was done. Like I said, much younger.

As I thought about the craft of writing more, I allowed for the possibility of drafts. But even then, the idea I had in my head of what went on in revising a draft was much like the kind of revisions I did on essays for school. The addition of a new paragraph, perhaps, but generally just tweaking the phrasing and word choices to be more felicitous. After all, these were Professional Writers. They would certainly know what they were doing.

I couldn't even type that last sentence with a straight face.

Maybe there are writers out there who begin with an outline, who have a cast of characters, and a list of scenes before they start writing. And maybe those characters and scenes remain the same on the page as they were in that writer's head. 

I am not that writer. Not even close. I usually start with an image. An angel, terrible and beautiful, with her head in her hands, weeping. Sometimes with a first line. "He wrote me into a story again." This novel? Started life as a short story, written in a mad three days without sleep, and was a response to a challenge, and a quote from Hamlet: "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." I didn't know the end when I started. I usually consider myself lucky to know the next line.

But today I do know the end. A battle-scarred young woman, sword in hand, walking out of a labyrinth, white wolfhound at her side, into the sun and melting snow. There are three scenes between here and there. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Decisions and revisions

Last night, I did something that I had been putting off for months. I highlighted a huge chunk of text, thousands of words, and hit "delete," finally admitting to myself that what I was doing was not actually revising the draft of the novel, but rewriting it.

One would have thought that I might have admitted this sooner. I mean, I changed an entire relationship, added a mythos, and completely upended the treatment of a character. I already have 10K more words in this unfinished draft than I did in the previous, "finished" version. Still, for whatever reason, part of me was insistent that all I was doing was revising.

Revision is what I am doing on the latest dissertation chapter, on Julian of Norwich, for those of you playing along at home. Revision is rearranging bits of what already exists in a manner that makes better sense, and adding the connective tissue that was obvious only to me the first time. Most of the work is already done.

Rewriting means admitting that I got things wrong the first time. That even though I wrote as well as I could, they weren't the right words. (A dear friend of mine, who often uses the words of Julian of Norwich and reassures me that "all manner of thing shall be well" when I complain to him about my writing, says that realizing that you've done it wrong the first time is one of the best bits of being a writer, because then you get to fix it.) I don't know about "best." 

But the quote is "Sinne is behovely, but alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and all maner of thinge shalle be wel." The error is necessary, and then things will be well. I believe that to be true, in life, as well as writing. Or rewriting, as the case may be.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Maybe I should stick to breadcrumb trails

My Dad has an amazing sense of direction. He is one of those people who, it seems, can tell you which way is North by sniffing the air. My Mom has fearsome map-reading skills. Perhaps because it was necessary to balance out the cosmic scales, I have a particular talent for getting lost. 

About a month ago, I made a map for my novel. Not the kind of map that you see in the beginning of an epic fantasy, but a list of things that needed to happen before I got to The End. I was pleased about this, and started checking things off as I worked through the scenes. Then I made a change, and the end of the book exploded in my face.

I don't normally outline when I write. I leave myself notes, which are probably indecipherable to anyone not an oracle or me. For example: "Call Liz -- exsanguination?" "THUNDER!" "Reread The White Devil" "Neil's bloody ravens" and "Eliot or Heaney" are the five most recent. Anyone care to speculate on what the book is about?

I have pieced the bits of story back together, and once again, The End is in sight. I find myself oddly compelled to make a story map, but I fear it would be tempting fate. For now, I think I will cling to the oracular post-its.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Security blankets of paper and ink

I read pretty voraciously. And I am always looking for something new -- the next installment in a series, a new book by a favorite author, a new favorite author. At the same time, I have what I call my security blanket books. The ones that I reread when I am having a bad day, or bring with me when I go someplace new because I need to have a familiar friend. Here are some of them:

1. The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner. I brought this with me to Clarion, to remind me of what I wanted to be able to do with my writing, and to remind myself that there was a world outside of short fiction. Katherine is one of my favorite characters, and the fencing in this book is so good it triggers my muscle memory.

2. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. This one has been with me since high school, and the wonderful Mr. Wilkinson. When I would have a rough day during law school, I would go home and read this. I pretty much have it memorized.

3. Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. "I learned ancient Greek because of your book!" That's what I babbled to Ms. Dean upon meeting her, much to the amusement of the gentleman making the introduction. (The picture of grace and dignity, I am.) And it was true. The book is that good.

4. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I am on my eighth copy of this book. A couple of those were because I lent it out, and it never came back. But most are because I am afraid of flying, and this is what I take on the plane, to distract me from my terror. And then in my relief at being alive, I leave the book behind. I should start buying it in bulk.

5. The 13 Clocks by James Thurber. It's wonderfully lovely. There are very few things that reading this book can't fix. It's the literary equivalent of hot chocolate and a hug.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Why I don't write science fiction

I love science. I really do. I took more science courses as an undergrad than humanities courses, and I was good at them. (Except for physics. Physics was the bane of my existence. I have rage against Sir Isaac Newton.) I even seriously considered attempting graduate research in microbiology.

Then I realized that I didn't have the ability to take the next step. I could understand the field as it was, but couldn't make the leap into asking what happens next, didn't have the crystal ball to predict the scientific future.

When I was in San Francisco recently, I went with some friends to Golden Gate Park. We saw the Yves Saint Laurent  exhibit, and walked through the sculpture garden. We walked to the conservatory. We walked very far from where we had parked. When it came time to go back to the car, Megan and I realized that we knew where the car was, and we knew where we were, but not how to get from one to the other.

I got an iPhone for Christmas. Standing on a path in the park, we called up this map. Then zoomed in until we could see the streets. There was a blinking blue dot that was us. As we started walking, we could watch the amazing blue dot track our progress toward our car, which we then found with no difficulty.

I have a fairly good imagination. But even having lived through that story, part of me still shakes my head in disbelief that such things are possible. We are living in a future more astounding than any I could ever write.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Miscellany

Progress on the dissertation and the novel proceeds apace. I have enough new material on both that I really need to sit down and transfer the handwritten stuff into the computer. Yes, yes. I draft by hand. With a fountain pen, usually. Onto lined paper for the academic stuff, in unlined moleskine notebooks otherwise.

In the spirit of "five random things make a post," here are five random things that have made me happy recently:

1. The new U2 album, No Line on the Horizon, is actually so much better than the silly lead single. I like sexy boots as much as the next girl, but building a song around them, not so much. Thankfully, the title track on its own makes up for this.

2. The panna gelato with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt at Beretta in San Francisco. Lauren took me to an extremely lovely dinner there while I was visiting. This dessert was so good, I dreamt about it last night. Also, the thé au chocolat from Lupicia is really quite delicious.

3. I was in Nordstrom the other day, using the novel that Megan and I are in the preliminary stages of planning as an excuse to sniff all the new perfume. The wonderful Heidi offered help, and was so excited when I explained what I was doing that she spent nearly an hour showing me various fragrances, talking to me about the history of the houses, and sharing her stories about the connection between scent and memory. Happenings like this are why I love being a writer.

4. The snow is melting. Soon, I will be able to run outside again.

5. I have a secret. A really, really good one. I'll tell you about it later.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I do not think it means what you think it means

And for ther is so gret diversite
In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge
So prey I God that non myswrite the, 
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.
(Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, 5.1793-1796)

Poor Geoffrey. So worried that some scribe was going to miscopy his poem. And the perils of popularity meant that the more people liked his writing, the more copies would be made, and the greater the chance that scribal error would get into the manuscript somewhere.

Scribal error is less of a concern for the modern writer. I mean, sure, you may well miss something while copy-editing. But it's not like we have to worry about a scriptorium of monks copying out our 250K word epic fantasies. Our concern is with interpretation.

All writing is a collaboration between an author and a reader. And so I wonder sometimes, about whether or not my meaning is getting through. Particularly as I begin to confront the reality of publication, I think about whether the people who read this will understand what I am trying to tell them? Will they know what it means, this thing I am writing, this part of me that I am sharing?

The answer, of course, is no. Not perfectly, anyway. Each reader brings something different, will see things in a different way. Maybe they will find things that I didn't know were there. Maybe they will interpret my writing in a way I think is wrong, completely unsupported by what's in the text. (I've taught freshmen enough to know this happens.) Maybe they will find things they think should never be written about.

I can't worry about this. If I do, I will never write. 

Which is what I am going to go do, as the writer's block has lifted, and the novel has very kindly let me know what needs to happen next.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Problems peculiar to the undead. And spec fic writers.

It was the first week of Clarion, still pretty early in that week. I think. (Time was pretty stretchy there. The first few weeks lasted for months, maybe years each. The last week was over in a breath.) We were in workshop, critiquing a story where the main characters were zombies. Not the trendy, shambly sort, who just want to eat your brains, but pretty much people who just also happened to be the walking dead. This is an important distinction, not only for the quality of the story (excellent), but also because, well, one of the characters had impregnated the other. While he was a zombie.

The question was raised as to whether or not a zombie might have the blood pressure to make this possible, or if that was the sort of occurrence that would throw a reader right out of a story. This point was discussed, quite seriously, around the table. I do not remember whether consensus was reached -- these were, after all non-traditional zombies.

What I do remember is the feeling that I was exactly where I was supposed to be at that moment.

I spent last weekend visiting Clarioinites. Marking the end of something, and celebrating new beginnings. And in between catching up on our lives, we pondered the zombie apocalypse, and whether that mangy pigeon in Union Square was its harbinger. We looked for Daleks in sculptures while talking through plot problems (well, lack of plot problems, mostly. One has to have a plot before one can have problems with it.) Made up odd stories about the tentacled plant in the conservatory. Half-fun, and full earnest. I realized how much I missed conversations about the sex lives of zombies, or how to block a fight scene that had tentacles in.

When I got into Clarion, one of the things Nnedi told me was that it was a place I would find my family. She was right. I mean, I got lucky with the family I was born into. Really lucky. And I've been lucky in the family I have been collecting for myself. But I found my writing family, seventeen other students, and six fabulous instructors, this past summer in San Diego. It was exactly where I was supposed to be, at that moment.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The long and... well, the short of it, anyway

Before applying to Clarion last year, I hadn't written a lot of short fiction. In fact, I pretty much started writing short fiction in order to be able to apply to Clarion last year. That worked out fairly well, actually. 

While at Clarion, I wrote a lot of short fiction. One short story for each of the six weeks (wrote six, workshopped five.) A piece of flash fiction for Jim Kelly's week. (This may still be my favorite thing that I have written. Zombies and bad '80s dance music.) Four even shorter pieces of flash inspired by Dave McKean postcards the week Neil Gaiman taught. Like I said, a lot of short fiction. 

This isn't unusual, incidentally. This is just what one does while at Clarion. What one does not do, in case you were wondering, is sleep.

But then I came back home, and the project I was most interested in working on was a novel. And I had a dissertation to finish. There weren't any short story ideas floating around in my brain, and that was fine. I had plenty of other things to keep me busy.

About a week ago, I flew out to San Francisco to visit friends from Clarion: the lovely Megan, Lauren, Emily, and Dana. On the flight out, I read a quote that I had seen countless times before. But this time, something in the back of my mind said, "there's a story there." I filed the idea away. I would work on it Later.

Maybe it was being in a group of Clarionites again. Maybe it was the fact that the novel became exceedingly recalcitrant, and I was advised to set it aside for a bit, think about something else. Whatever it was, I finished "A Life in Fictions" last night.

I'm pleased with it. It wasn't what I expected it to be when I began, but it is the right story. 

Now I just need to figure out where to try to sell it.