Friday, December 31, 2010

One headlight

There are things I don't do when I write. One thing, something I will never do, is make an outline. Never is a long word, but I think I can say it here, being that I've never outlined anything. I didn't even outline my dissertation. (Um, this may be why one of my chapters went through 13 drafts. Or why, when I had approved drafts of all four chapters, and four months left to put the project together, I decided I needed to completely rewrite three of those chapters because I had finally realized what my project was actually about. Insanity may also explain the latter.)

This is probably where I ought to reiterate that my process is just that: my process. It's the way to write that works for me, right now. It may not be your process, and you shouldn't change yours to fit mine.

The reason that I don't outline my fiction is that if I know how the story ends, I have no interest in writing the story. But writing by my headlights means that I usually have significant revisions to do at the end of something. (Not always. "A Life in Fictions" had two word changes from the time I set down the pen to the time it was published.)

Which leads me to the other thing I don't do when I write: revise as I go along. I make notes to myself, stuff my notebook full of post-its and marginal scrawls, keep a running list of things I'll need to fix on the next draft, but I almost never actually stop and go back over what I've written. I need the forward momentum so that I can outrace the doubt.

The clever readers among you will have noticed the "almost" preceding the "never" in the previous paragraph.

Sometimes what I'm writing goes through a big enough transformation from what I have written to what I'm going to write that I need to stop and revise. This happened once, about a quarter of the way into The Novel Formerly Known as Linger, when I realized that a major subplot was causing me to tell a story I didn't want to tell (and, more importantly, that my character didn't want to be in). I stopped, typed it out, sent it to approximately all of my beta readers, and had a frantic phone conference with a friend in order to be reassured. Once I got through that, I kept writing until I had a finished Bad Draft.

Yesterday, I realized that was where I was at with Stronger Than Death. The shift in the story is good. It will add depth, and be more my kind of story, and I'm far enough into it that the terror of stopping to type all the words and then slash enormous amounts of them out is balanced by the excitement of the kind of book this is going to be when I'm finished.

I will make notes, signposts for myself, and mark the places where the path is rocky, and the bridge is out. I will not, however, draw a map. Can't read 'em, anyway.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Tipsy Cherry Fudge

Apparently, if you mention on twitter that you're drowning cherries in rum, people get very excited about the recipe you're making. It was a new recipe I was trying, so I wanted to make sure it turned out before I shared it. It did, so here you go. (Also, I have provided helpful commentary.)

Tipsy Cherry Fudge (This is a bit of a misnomer. The cherries are not tipsy. The cherries are drunk.)

Soak 8 oz. of dried cherries in your choice of liquor overnight. (Rum, brandy, bourbon, whiskey were all suggested. I used rum. Also, the cherries will plump up as they soak, so be sure to use enough to account for this.) When you're ready to make the fudge, drain and save the liquid, and pat the cherries dry.

The original recipe said to butter a 9- or 10-inch pan, and then layer the ingredients so that when the fudge is set, you can turn the pan upside down and have the nuts and cherries on top. I used an 8x10 inch pan, and then required the assistance of my Ironman brother who has an engineering degree to remove the fudge. If I were to make the recipe again, I would line the pan with wax paper to make removal easy, omit the nuts (because I'm not a fan of nuts in fudge) and mix the cherries into the chocolate. But, if you want to be a traditionalist, toast 6 oz. of chopped pecans, and spread them in the bottom of the pan. Then layer the cherries on top of the nuts.

Melt together one bag semisweet chocolate chips, one bag butterscotch chips, and one can sweetened condensed milk. Stir in one teaspoon of the reserved liquor from the cherries. Pour the chocolate mixture over the nuts and cherries (The recipe said pour. I would have used the verb "smooth." What you have is not of a loose enough consistency to pour.)

Refrigerate until set, and then cut into whatever size pieces you like. 

Please note that you are not cooking the alcohol off. In other words, if you eat too many pieces at one sitting, it may not just be the cherries that are tipsy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The gift was ours to borrow

I know. I haven't been blogging. Either as often as I ideally would, or even as often as I have in the past. And this time, I'm not going to apologize. I'll just explain.

In my usual form, with a number of digressions and parentheticals.

There are any number of small explanations, but the big one is this: for the first time in far too long, I am making a comfortable amount of progress on a book. A new book, not a revision. A book of fiction, not a research project. And I'm not really going to say what it's about, because I've gotten very superstitious about talking about my works in progress. I'll give you the working title - Stronger Than Death - but that's about all I feel comfortable sharing.

Or can share, really. I have no idea how long it is right now, because I'm not letting myself think about the writing even long enough to type the words from the notebook into the computer. (My friends who watched me turn into a babbling madwoman, who wouldn't go anywhere without her notebook as I was finishing the Draft Zero of The Novel Formerly Known as Linger have some idea of what this is going to turn into, and I'm sure they are glad that multiple states now separate us.) I'm refining and discovering as I go, which means the revision on this book is going to be fairly mind-boggling in scope.

I kind of don't care, because having something to revise will mean I finished something. And more, because writing feels normal again. Not easy, or like I am communing with the Muse or channeling the collective unconscious or whatever other blather people go on about in relation to the creative process. But right. The thing I am supposed to be doing.

Except, here's the thing. My biggest fear about my writing is that it's a limited time offer. Not that I'll run out of ideas, but that I'll run out of ways to express them. That my talent will plateau, or grow stale. That my words will be ordinary, my story commonplace.

So I am reluctant right now to sit at the desk and write anything other than Stronger Than Death. Being able to write this story, as messy and disorganized and flawed as this draft is, is a gift, one I don't want to be ungrateful for. One I really don't want to have to give back.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Great expectations

The first time I wrote a draft of a novel, it was only as difficult as I expected it to be. It took about four months, and it was a terrible draft. Seriously: my cat peed on it when it was finished, and, in retrospect, that was an appropriate response. But a year after that, it was much better. Good enough, in fact, to query agents with.

I haven't finished a draft of a novel since then. 

It's hard to say that, here, in public. Most of me wants to point very loudly to the other things I've done since then, and all of the things that have happened in my life, or at the very least to point out the proximity in time between finishing that first, terrible draft that grew up to be a book I am proud of and now. But at a very real level, none of that matters. I need something tangible, and I don't have it. I haven't met the goals I've set for myself.

We have all these terms we use, to take the pressure off: draft zero, the shitty first draft, the discovery draft. I'm sure there are others. What I wasn't doing, as my wonderful friend and Clarionmate Steffi suggested, was actually taking the pressure off when I wrote. When I wrote what was supposed to be the bad draft, the fixable object, all I could see was the flaws, and the knowledge that there was so much wrong became paralyzing. Instead of asking for help from beta readers, or leaving myself notes, or just ignoring the crap and moving on, I stopped writing. I always picked up something else, but I stopped writing.

And part of that was because I am a better writer now. So it is easier for me to see the flaws, and to know what needs fixing. This is one of those things that is obviously a blessing and a curse, and, quite frankly, I am still waiting for the blessing part of it to make itself clear. Leveling up your craft isn't one of those things you expect to have to work around.

I went back, and I looked that the major drafts of that novel. I looked at the emails I sent friends, and the blog entries I wrote, and I made myself remember how very fixable something so obviously imperfect was. And right now, I am writing a Very Bad Draft. Characters have different names than they did 20 pages ago. Ninety percent of what I have on the page is dialogue. I'd say it was all white-roomed, but that would assume there's enough setting to make a room. My notebook is covered with post-its, reminding me to research [redacted] or translate [redacted]. And one other post-it is attached to the drawer of my desk where my pens live, where I have written down a reassurance from a friend, given the day the cat peed on my manuscript. It reads: "The point of words in notebooks is that they are anything from the words of the story, to yogurt starter, to palimpsest." It is a reminder to myself that words are not perfection, but possibility.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Final examinations

Today was the last day of my classes at Stony Brook. This means that posting here may be light, or nonexistent, or truly bizarre because I have 90 final papers to grade, and then 90 final grades to calculate.

It was, from my point of view, a dream semester. I got to teach classes I designed myself (the syllabi are here, if you're interested), on material I was really excited about, to students who were smart and enthusiastic. Oh, and the Department fully supported me, both in my academic work on genre literature, and in my creative writing of it.

This was a huge change for me - the school where I earned my PhD had no patience with speculative fiction. I remember being told, by a tenured faculty member, that Shakespeare - who, you may recall, wrote plays full of witches and ghosts and fairies and wizards - did not write fantasy, because he was good. This same person also informed me that Beowulf was not in the tradition of the fantastic, because "medieval people actually believed in those sorts of things. They expected them." "So, what you're saying is William the Conquerer expected Grendel?" "Yes." 


(My friend Jen, who is now teaching at Valparaiso University, and is one of the most intelligent scholars I know, actually pulled off writing a dissertation on the fantastic in this atmosphere. I am completely in awe of this.)

So I've taken being at a university that allowed me to teach a course in "The Fantastic as Place" and has requested that I teach it again, that is letting me teach "Medieval Monsters, Magic, and Ghosts" wherein we will discuss how the presence of a dragon in that poem was as exciting in the 10th century as it is in the 21st, as a huge gift.

I also take as a gift that the question most asked at the end of the semester (that was not related to the final papers) was "where can I read more books like these?" That's the sort of thing that makes grading 90 papers bearable.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


As there so often is, there is a meme going around twitter today. This one, tagged #WhyIRead, was quite popular with the bookish crowd I hang out with on that part of the internet. I gave a couple of different answers, but one maybe deserves a longer meditation.

I said, "Because I wouldn't recognize myself if I didn't." I joke, quite often, that if you were to cut me open, what would come out wouldn't be blood, it would be coffee. But really, the thing that flows through my veins is words, stories. I don't actually remember a time before I could read. I have been told that I was one of those verbally precocious children who completely skipped the normal baby babble, and ran headlong into speaking in full sentences, that one night I took The Cat in the Hat from my Dad, and read the whole thing to him. (I'm actually kind of sad that was the end of bedtime stories. I love being read to. Yes, still.)

I always had a book in my hand. I read under the covers or tucked into the closet at night, under the desk in class, and whenever I could get away with it, I stayed in to read instead of going out to recess. At a family reunion, when the rest of the cousins got in trouble for play with Grandpa's pool table, I got in trouble for reading his rare edition of Moby Dick. I was six. I still haven't finished it.

When the worst things happened, even the very worst, I got through them by reading. Two books saved my life after that: Robin McKinley's Deerskin and Andrew Greeley's Lord of the Dance. There's a great quote from G.K. Chesterton, "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." Books are where I learned to beat the dragons, and when I couldn't, how to climb on their backs, and fly.

I know better who I am when I'm reading. One of my friends mentioned that reading makes him clearer in his head, and I think that's a good way to describe the sensation. I see the shapes of my world more truly, and feel more present, more real. I am creature made up of bone and skin and stories, and I read to know who I am, and who I'm going to be.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Adeste fidelis

I studied Latin in grad school. My specialty is medieval literature - the assumption of the various powers was that I would not only study Latin, but study a rather great deal of Latin, and perhaps woo attractive people of both genders at cocktail parties by demonstrating my felicity with the ablative.

My decision to certify fluency for in Russian and French caused not only a great deal of consternation, but also three separate memos. (Memoranda. See what I did there?)

The thing is, I wrote my dissertation on medieval women's religious writing. Not really a topic full of Latinate texts. Okay, yes, there was a moment in Joan of Arc's trial transcript where the Middle French text was corrupt, and I read some of Aquinas, but women spoke in the vulgar tongue.

So what have I used my Latin for? Well, I did some translation for a friend's comic, I'm working out a system of magic in the new novel, and Greek is too liquid for the sound I want (Latin is totally the JS Bach of the language world) and... Oh! Christmas carols. I'm awesome at Christmas carols.

No education is ever wasted.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The most wonderful time of the year

One of my students stopped by my office hours today. "I've been looking at the Clarion website," he said. "Do you think I should apply?"

It was very easy for me to tell him yes. He's a talented writer already, and someone who is serious about the idea of writing.

But since the application period opened yesterday (1 Dec.- 1 March) it seemed like a good time for me to go into some depth about why I think applying to Clarion is a good idea.

I attended Clarion (sometimes called Clarion East or Clarion UCSD) in 2008. For six weeks, seventeen people who became my family and I studied writing with Kelly Link, James Patrick Kelly, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Neil Gaiman, Nalo Hopkinson, and Geoff Ryman. It was one of the most challenging, terrifying, and wonderful things I've ever done in my life. There may come a time when I no longer consider attending Clarion as the best thing I've ever done for my writing, but I don't see that happening any time soon.

Was it difficult? Yes. Clarion gets called boot camp for writers, and while that's an amusing description, it's also an accurate one. Someone did the math, and figured out that we were reading about 20-25K words of fiction a night in order to prep for the next day's critiques (and usually reading them twice.) At the same time, we were writing our own stories. Sleep was very far down on the priority list. I'm pretty sure everyone had one really bad crit, that made them rethink whether or not they belonged there, or should keep writing, or even if they knew how to write in the first place. I know I did.

Is it expensive? Yes. Education is. And attending Clarion is an education in being a writer. I don't just mean how to write a better story, although you will certainly learn that, but when you live like a writer for six weeks, you can start to think about whether or not this is something you want to continue. And while I realize this is the kind of phrase that can start shouty matches on the internet, I believe attending Clarion is the useful equivalent of an MFA. That puts the tuition in perspective. There is also financial aid.

Is it the only way to become a writer? No. Obviously not. I know many people, good, great, and brilliant writers who didn't go to Clarion. Would I be a writer if I hadn't gotten in? Yes. Would I be a writer if I hadn't applied? Well, now, that's a trickier question.

I've said before that the only reason I got up the guts to apply was that I was sure I would never get in. That way, I didn't have to worry about how I would afford it, or who would take care of my animals, or the effect running off to San Diego for six weeks to write fiction would have on finishing my dissertation, or my ability to survive an increasingly ugly divorce. And I'd never really tried writing short fiction before. (When you apply, you do so with a portfolio of two short stories, both between 2500-6000 words. This word length is still a problem for me. Nothing I've sold is long enough to be part of an application portfolio.)

But the act of sitting down, and working on fiction, of letting myself take the crazy ideas in my head seriously, that's what made me a writer.

So yes. I think you should apply to Clarion. I wish you the best of luck, and I hope you get in.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Haunted by my past selves

I went home for Thanksgiving. Perhaps that doesn't seem like a noteworthy thing - people do it all the time, I know. But for me, well, it had been since undergrad.

I don't particularly like Thanksgiving. I love the idea of being grateful, and I try to be so every day. I love food (if not turkey and stuffing so much) and I am fortunate enough to get along with the family I was born into. Still, I was planning on spending Thanksgiving with a dear friend. 

Because the thing is, I think Thanksgiving is sort of a cursed holiday for my family (or maybe just for me.) Because I don't remember ever having a good one, growing up. I remember fights, and stress, and being glad to be back in the dorm. I remember being relieved, when the law school finals schedule meant it was impossible to both study and fly home. I remember the year spent in shock, curled on the kitchen floor, when I realized "over" wasn't a big enough word for what had just happened to my marriage. I didn't want to go home, not for Thanksgiving.

But family called, so I went. It was, oddly, good. I still don't like stuffing, but there was pie. Which I also had for breakfast. There weren't any big fights, or drama, and I listened to family stories I'd never heard before. My Dad and I had a contest to see how many languages we could each curse in, and I fell of my chair laughing when I realized it was his Mom, my Grandma, who taught him how to say "Kiss my ass" in Irish.

But even with the joy, it was strange. The house my parents live in now is not any of the houses in which I grew up. I stay in a guest room when I visit. It's the one I always stay in, and the one they just bought a desk for, so I can write in privacy when I visit, but it's not my room. There are pictures of me in it, from high school. 

I don't really recognize that girl, even though who I am right now is probably the closest I've ever been to the secret dreams she held at her heart of who she wanted to be when she grew up. And I thought a lot about my past, there in that room that wasn't mine, and about the choices and changes and victories and mistakes that have gone into the making of who I am right now. I have no desire to lay the ghosts of my past. I have become used to being haunted.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Only mostly dead

It seems that I'm doing a lot of apologizing lately for radio silence here. I could make up an interesting excuse (it was the zombie apocalypse!) but really, the fact is I was too busy to make up interesting posts, and there wasn't really anything more serious I was ready to talk about.

So. Here's your State of the Kat update: It's almost the end of the semester. It's been great. I've been teaching two classes that I love to amazing students. It has also been a lot more work than I anticipated. So I am really looking forward to the long winter break and then only having one class next semester. (Chaucer. We're going to have such fun.)

Writing-wise, I am still struggling with my relationship with my internal perfectionist. So in November, I tried something new: I wasn't allowed to abandon a story. I wrote some really crap first drafts, but now I have revisable prose. It was an interesting experiment, and a useful one for me. I'm also trying to read more (I'm always trying to read more) and read more widely, so as to make my brain go explody, and thus generate interesting story ideas. And once classes end and I get my grading done, I'm going to experiment with putting myself on a slightly more structured schedule. 

I am also going to try to get back into regular blogging habits. I miss you guys.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Yes. This.

"Here's something else I believe: if you're going into a very dark place ... then you should take a bright light, and shine it on everything. If you don't want to see, why in God's name would you dare the dark at all?"
                          -- Stephen King, "Afterword," Full Dark, No Stars

Seriously, you know it's a good book when the Afterword alone is worth the price of admission.

And though I truly believe that we are in the End Times indeed if you need me to tell you that Stephen King can write a damn good story, I will go ahead and say that aside from having the best title I've seen in a long time, and an afterword that is like candy for a writer, Full Dark, No Stars also has four marvelously dark stories that will remind you just how good King is. They'll keep you from sleep while you're reading, and stick in your brain after you've finished.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Learning by going

I've been thinking a lot about writing process lately. Well, I think a lot about writing process all the time, to be honest. I'm fascinated by it - I read other writers' blogs, and books on writing, and that type of thing on a regular basis. 

I started doing that when I first began writing fiction seriously, sort of like an independent study project. It was my attempt to do an apprenticeship, to figure out what worked for people who succeeded in the field. What I learned wasn't so much a method (I write with pen, usually fountain pen, because there are very specific colors of ink I like) or a style (I'd been writing academically for years, and won awards, and felt pretty confident in my ability to turn a sentence), but that while there were similarities (pretty much everyone seems to have a moment where the book turns on them) the most important thing was to just sit down and write.

I've said this before, and I'll say it again, but that's because at some level it's the only thing to say: the only necessary part of being a writer is that you write.

It's what puts the words on the page, and what teaches you the best way for you to write (this is, I've learned, a thing that may change over time. It certainly has for me.) Right now, I am the kind of person who needs to write every day. There are people who spend months thinking about a book, and then sit down and write it all in one explosive burst. Thinking looks like thinking, for them. For me, thinking looks like writing. This means that I've had to get used to not knowing when a new character is going to show up, when there will be an obstacle to deal with, or even what happens in the next scene. It also means I've had to get really comfortable with the fact of revision, and that I may wind up cutting huge swathes of text. It's not that I didn't need to write them, I did. They just don't need to be in the story.

At least on the zero draft, I need to start at the beginning, and write straight through. I can't write scenes out of order, or start in the middle and work back.

I don't outline. For me, outlines are the devil. They fool my brain into thinking I've already written what I've only sketched out, I become too preoccupied with what needs to happen instead of how it needs to happen, and I honestly don't see the point in telling a story I already know the end to. But for some people, an outline is a support system, not a cage.

But that's me. And that's me right now. I want, for example, to write a procedural in the next book or two, which means I am going to have to get much more comfortable with the idea of plot than I currently am. And really, the reason that I'm fascinated by process is because I'm constantly trying to become more aware of what I need to do when I write so I can help myself show less of that process on the page, so that I can get out of my own way, and all that's left is story.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The earth-shattering Ka-Boom

Last night on twitter (and yes, every time I write that, I hear the tv recap voice in my head. You know: "Previously, on Alias...." I digress. And I still want to be Sydney Bristow when I grow up.) I asked for people to recommend things that would make my head explode. Although I wasn't specific, all the suggestions were things to read. (I'm actually not surprised by that - I'm a writer, many of the people I follow are writers, many of the people who follow me are writers. It's the way of things.)

I'm excited about this list, and the possibility of an exploding head. Er, the figurative possibility. Because when something blows the top off my brain, creates new pathways in there for the information to run through, makes me see things in a different light, and connect them in different shapes, well, my writing gets better.

Yet even though I know this is what happens, that a sure way to born new ideas in my fevered brain is to listen to something weird, or read something outside of my comfort zone, when the writing (or my life) is being difficult, I retreat to the literary equivalent of flannel pajamas. My comfort books are well-worn.

I'm ready to challenge myself. To experience something new and different, that will thunder through me like Beethoven's Ninth. Tell me, where should I start?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Knowledge and belief

I've gone longer than I like to without posting. But I wanted to wait until I could write this post and have it sound reflective, rather than whiny.

Here's the thing: writing-wise, October sucked. And the worst part, the thing that made it nearly unbearable for me, is that there was no good reason. Okay, yeah, I got sick, and I was crazy busy. But you know what? I teach at a university. October is midterms. Everyone is sick and crazy busy in October. And sure, there were various and sundry other annoyances and stresses, and even through all that, I was getting writing done. Pretty good wordcounts, pretty much every day.

Most of which, I trashed. Trunked. Since we're being reflective, we'll use the euphemism. Most of which I trunked.

And from the distance of having my legs back underneath me, I can tell you what went wrong. 

On Thursday of last week, I was fortunate enough to host the fierce and intelligent Cat Valente as a guest speaker in my class. One of the students asked a process related question, and Cat mentioned her "How to Write a Novel in 30 Days" post. The first rule is, "You are a genius."

I stopped believing I was a genius. For me, this was worse than turning on my internal editor and giving her a megaphone, because it infected all the parts of my writing life. For example, a personal rejection letter - with a request to see my next story - from a dream market wasn't cause for celebration, but for more thoughts of "Dammit, I still can't get it right." Nothing was beautiful, and everything hurt, and even the tricks I had used in the past couldn't shake my belief that everything I would write would turn to ashes. (That's not me being poetic there. Fire was beginning to seem like the appropriate option.)

And the worst part, the keen edge on the blade, was that my office hours last month averaged 1.5 students per day who wanted to talk to me about writing as a profession. So as I was speaking to them about what I see as the pluses and minuses of NaNoWriMo, about how to submit to markets, about why beta readers are necessary and MFAs aren't, all I could think about was how much of a fraud I felt like. Who was I, to be telling anyone else how to be a writer, when I couldn't get my own shit together?

Except, of course, that I do know all those things. I know the importance of building good habits, and finding a supportive community, and learning how to work through the bad patches, because everyone has them. It's part of the job. And if you know all those things, one day, you will wake up and believe you are a genius.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The dead, the saints, the souls

Happy New Year, if you are a Celt, a Wiccan, or just someone who feels that this time of year is more evocative of endings and beginnings than 1 January. 

I've never really seen the transition from December to January as very new beginning-ish. It is still dark, still cold, still more the thing that was than the thing that is to come. Part of this, I'm sure, is that for nearly all of my life, I have been on an academic calendar, and so the year never runs from January to December. Part of this is because, in the calendar of my religion, these days are the Days of the Dead, the Feasts of All Saints, and All Souls, and this time of remembrance, and saying goodbye, seems to me like what one does at the close of the year. The year should die on the Day of the Dead.

And because, as J.E. Flecker wrote in "The Bridge of Fire," "the wheels of time are turning, turning, turning," this is not just an end but a beginning. Resurrection follows death, and the year begins anew.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

And the winner is...

The All Hallow's Read book giveaway is possibly the most fun thing I've done on this blog. I loved reading all of the stories that you shared (and collected a few more books for my to-be-read list. Also, ideas. Like Wendy's, for having a slice of pie with my horror.) I encourage you all to go back and read the comments on the original post, because they are full of awesome.

They were so awesome that I really wished I could give away more books. Maybe in the future, because I will definitely be doing this again. Hallowe'en is already one of my best-loved holidays, and the addition of giving books just makes it even better. But I did have to pick a winner.

Maybe it was because of the description of the dorm as being just past the seventh circle of Hell. Maybe it was because It was another book that had a powerful effect on me. Or maybe it was because of the absolute delight you took in being scared, but I am delighted to inform the Ms. Educated Bostonian that you have won the scary book of your choice, which was Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Please send me an email using the "contact me" button on my profile page, and include your address and I will send you your book.

And to all of you, thanks again for your scary book stories. Happy Hallowe'en, and Scary Reading.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A small Hallowe'en gift

I wrote you a zombie story. I hope you enjoy it.


Zombie Girl in a Pale Red Dress Dancing With Me Missed Connections:

Zombie girl in a pale red dress dancing with me Halloween, 2010:

I can’t believe I’m doing this. Maybe this isn’t the place to get so personal. I mean, I know who reads these things. If I were a smart guy… Forget it. If I were a smart guy I wouldn’t be in this situation.

And where else am I supposed to say this? It’s not like I get out much. I mean, I had my shots, like we all did once they realized what was going on. I just should have had mine sooner. Anyway. I don’t meet a lot of people, not anymore. You left an impression.

Look, I still have a heart, okay?


We met at the Downtown Zombie Crawl. The bar on the corner of Fremont and Romero.

You were the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. The kind of beautiful that people would have noticed even before, well, before everything. By some miracle, you asked me to dance. The only reason I can think of for that is you must have thought I was wearing makeup.

And yeah, I wish I had been. That way you’d think I was cool and subversive, like you. The kind of guy who could laugh at the worst viral outbreak ever, use it as an excuse to party, not just some idiot who went to the doctor one day too late.

That’s not the point. The point is, you asked me to dance. You held my hand through all the classics: “Dead Man’s Party,” “Living Dead Girl,” even “Thriller.” I was so happy, I would have smiled, but my bottom lip is starting to rot. As it is, the last joint of my pinkie fell off while we were dancing. I hope you didn’t notice.

I didn’t care. I mean, a girl like you, dancing with me.

I can’t even remember the last time I touched someone.

You had on this dress. Red. Like that cheesy song. It kind of twirled when you spun around. When you were close to me, all I could smell was flowers, not even a trace of rot, so you must have gotten your shots on time.

Your makeup was really good. When I first saw you, I thought you were like me.

I know you’re not, and you probably won’t answer this. You probably won’t even read it, because why would a girl like you need to read the Missed Connections section of a zombie dating service?

And I know zombie isn’t the politically correct term, but I know what I am. It’s why I only leave my house one night a year, and why I didn’t give you my number, even when you asked for it. Well, that, and the necrosis is getting worse. I’m not going to be able to talk soon.

So I guess I have to say something now, if I’m ever going to. Not because I’m trying to find you, I’m not. My brain still works, and I know this is a horror story, not a fairy tale.

But you were beautiful, and you asked me to dance, and you made me remember that, for now, I still have a heart.

Thank you.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Some musings on NaNoWriMo

Since I've been asked at least once a day for the past week whether or not I'm doing NaNoWriMo, it seemed like as good of time as any to post on it. I posted on this topic last year, and I still encourage you to remember that there are alternatives if you want an activity that will challenge you as a writer.

Here's the short answer: I'm not doing NaNo. Mainly because my daily minimum word count is pretty close to the 1667 words per day NaNo requires already. I am a writer. Writing things is my job. I don't get paid if I don't write the words. (And since I'm a writer at the early part of my career, the ratio of words I write but don't get paid for to words I do get paid for is still fairly high. Certainly high enough that I'm not about to start another project without a better reason than "all the cool kids are doing it.")

But since at least some of the people who have asked me if I am doing NaNo are actually asking whether I think it's a good idea for them to do so, here is my longer answer, in the form of musings.

I think anything that challenges people to try something new, something they thought was maybe too hard, or maybe a little bit scary is a good thing. If you want to write a novel, and participating in NaNo is the boost (or the kick in the ass) you need in order to do that, well, why are you asking me what I think? Sign up, and write. Make your word count. Finish, and be proud of yourself.

The other thing I like about NaNo is the word count requirement is a good way to help people turn off their internal editor. It vaccinates against writeritis. There just isn't time to think, not if you want 50,000 words in 30 days. Sometimes it's necessary to stop worrying about the writing, and just tell the story.

Here's what I don't like about NaNo: 50,000 words is not, in most genres, a publishable novel. In fantasy, the genre I write in, 50,000 words is approximately half a novel (standard manuscript length is 100K, plus or minus ten percent.) Maybe you already know this - I didn't, when I started writing - and are planning to use November to get the skeleton of your story down, and then hang muscle and skin on the bones later. Maybe you don't care about professionally publishing, and just want to have the experience of telling a story. 

But if you do have professional publication as a goal, you will have to add in those 50,000 or so words before that becomes an option. You will have to seriously revise the 50,000 or so words you did write during NaNo, because turning off the internal editor might result in the completed skeleton of a story, but it can also result in some really rubbish prose. You'll need to do these things before you query agents, because once an agent has turned down a project, even if it's just because your word count was too low, you don't get to query that agent with that project again.

Still, if you really want to write a novel, don't ask me if you're ready. Don't ask that question of anyone but yourself. When the answer is yes, and you're wondering how to do it, well, do whatever it takes to put your pen in your hand or your fingers on the keyboard every day, and write. And good luck.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Love Song for a Vampire

I have been cured of my sadness over the general state of vampires.

The cure happened, as do all truly magic things, in three parts. The first of these was a gift from my incredibly wonderful friend Michelle. You know Bullseye, the Target dog? She sent me a Bullseye dressed as Dracula. He is even wearing the satin cape. I have named him Dogula, and he sits on my desk to help me write.

Dogula's influence is a powerful one, as the second part of the cure is my figuring out the vampire story I want to write. I don't want to say too much about it right now, other than the working title is Perfect.

Part three, the final nail in the coffin lid, if you will, is the brilliant and dark American Vampire. The first volume is written by Scott Snyder and Stephen King, and Rafael Albuquerque provides pitch-perfect art. Skinner Sweet could kick all of Team Edward's asses, and I'm a little in love with Pearl. These are the vampires I've been looking for.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The giving of the books

Neil Gaiman had what I think is a truly wonderful idea: we celebrate Hallowe'en by giving each other scary books. I pretty much like any excuse to share my favorite books with people, and I am exceedingly fond of occasions whereon books are given to me. And I love Hallowe'en. 

So I am going to celebrate this confluence of wondrous things by giving away a book. And there's going to be a contest.

Perhaps some of you remember when I wrote this post, wondering about whether what I was writing was horror (I decided that what I write generally falls in the dark/ creepy/ weird spectrum, and I'd let the reader decide precisely where, and I would stop worrying about what sort of thing I was writing, and just write it) and I mentioned the time I almost killed my sister with a fireplace poker as a result of reading Pet Sematary.

Here's the story: I was babysitting for my brothers, and my sister was, I thought, spending the night at a friend's. I was finishing Pet Sematary. Honestly, this is not the sort of book I recommend reading at night when everyone else in the house is in bed, but I'd gotten far enough along that even though I was literally shaking as I read, I had to finish. Finishing would put the worst of the terror to rest.

I turned the last page, and set the book down. And there was a thud at the front door. Then a rattle, like someone trying to get in.

In that moment, I did not think, "call the police" I thought, "holy shit! Dead things!" so I grabbed the fireplace poker, and ran to the front door. I raised the poker over my head so I could brain whatever was on the porch, and opened the door. 

And nearly brained my sister. I screamed, she screamed, and the friend's mom who had given her a ride home from gymnastics peeled out of the driveway as if she had just seen a demon. At which point Liz and I stopped screaming, and stared after her. "Who leaves a kid to be killed by the poker-wielding crazy person?" I asked.

So that's my best story about a scary book.

Here's the contest: You tell me yours. The best story you have that involves reading a scary book. Leave it in the comments. Also, in the comments, tell me the scary book that you want me to send you if you win. On Hallowe'en, I'll pick my favorite story (yes, that's highly objective and unscientific) and I will send the winner the requested scary book (in print, paperback or e-format, because seriously, I am a writer, not an independently wealthy book collector). If you win, and want me to pick a book for you, I will, although you should tell me the level of terror you wish to experience, otherwise you risk my sending you Heart-Shaped Box, aka, The Scariest Book Ever.

Regardless of whether you participate, I highly encourage you to give someone a scary book for Hallowe'en.  Because giving people books is awesome, and if enough people are encouraged to do this, maybe someone will send me one.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Work in progress

I knew this year (and by year, I mean academic one) would be a series of transitions for me. New job, new state, new writing projects. And all of those things have been good so far. Challenges, but the kind of challenges that stretch my thinking and make my life more interesting and full. I've taken on some new projects that I hadn't even thought about three months ago, and I'm excited by all of it, and happy to be working so hard at things that I love.

Sometimes this work and these projects mean that I shift my priorities, and that's why I haven't been blogging as often as I have in the past. I have no plans to stop - I love having a place to talk about things that I'm interested in and issues that matter to me, and I particularly love the opportunity to interact with those of you who read these posts and leave comments. And the last couple of weeks were lighter than I would have liked, even for the new and improved Schedule of Kat's life (it was the confluence of having to grade 90 papers in a reasonably timely fashion, getting hideously sick, and the ongoing saga of No Heat in the House). 

This isn't an apology, because the things I am working on, well they're really cool, and I don't feel bad about spending time with them. It's just an explanation, and a reassurance I haven't forgotten you.

Monday, October 18, 2010

And the cruelest of those was love

"Let there be light." It is not, after all, so different, beginning a world and beginning a story. Both begin with a word, both are acts of illumination. There is an illumination of a particular kind in The Habitation of the Blessed, the extraordinary new novel by Catherynne M. Valente. It is the illumination of the transience, the corruptibility of stories. Even the stories that last. Even the ones that begin "Once upon a time" or "In the beginning" - the ones we all know to be true.

The Habitation of the Blessed is a story of Prester John, the fabled Christian ruler of a magnificent land in the East, containing the Gates of Alexander and the Fountain of Youth, bounded by the Earthly Paradise. In the twelfth century, a wonder tale in letter form began circulating throughout Europe, telling of this King and his Land, a tale so believable Pope Alexander III replied to Prester John. For half a millenium, tales of Prester John affected the course of European history, inspiring in particular explorers and missionaries.

It is the missionary aspect of the story that gave me such a troubled relationship to Prester John when I would read about him in medieval texts such as Mandeville's Travels, and that is one part of the story that Valente foregrounds in The Habitation of the Blessed. Her John believes that he is called to act as a missionary, to follow in the footsteps of St. Thomas the Apostle, Thomas the Doubter, Thomas the Twin. It is in the nature of a missionary to believe that his story is true, is Truth. But in a world full of marvels, there are many truths, and Valente asks her characters, and her readers, what it means when those truths face each other and converse.

The Habitation of the Blessed is a book that requires its reader to think. To consider what it means to tell a story, to present that story as true, when the slip of a pen changes slippers of fur to slippers of glass, or a disciple's name from Julia to Julius. When a gryphon or a sciopod or a blemmy is transformed from a being to a symbol. When the text has lacunae, whether through a conscious choice on the part of a scribe, or because the pages, plucked like fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of Texts, begin to disintegrate as soon as they are touched.

What does it mean to be so sure your story is true, that you seek to rewrite the stories of others? What does it mean when you are rewritten by pride, by faith, or by the cruelest word of all, love? Valente's book wrestles with these questions, and does not offer facile or easy answers. I highly recommend it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Such flesh as texts are writ on

When I decided to get a tattoo, my only question was which words it would be. I even considered getting Hamlet's line, "Words, words, words," inked somewhere on my skin, as did Stephanie Anderson of Brooklyn, p. 147 of The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide, the new book from Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor. I went with a different Shakespearean line: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on" on my right shoulder blade.

Words are one of the most important things in my life. Even before I was a writer, I defined myself by the act of reading, and words last. So I found The Word Made Flesh an incredibly interesting book. I understand the impetus to pay tribute to a text by offering skin as parchment, but more than that, I loved seeing what texts were meaningful to other people. The lines they chose, the places on their bodies where the words were written, the pictures they were sometimes adorned with - a literary tattoo is a constant act of interpretation. 

In these pages, I learned about what is perhaps the coolest short story ever, Shelley Jackson's "Skin." There were pictures of five words from the story, one "here," on author Rick Moody. That was the other really interesting part of this book for me: seeing the pictures of writers with literary tattoos (Jonathan Lethem has "Ubik", for example.) The Word Made Flesh is a beautiful, interesting book, and I definitely recommend reading it.


For purposes of FCC disclosure, I was sent this book by the publisher.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Because the world will break you, if it can

It was a conversation with my Mom, a fairly recent one. I had said how one of my favorite things about being part of the science fiction/ fantasy community was how much of a community it was. People care about each other, and support each other. Whenever I have turned to someone and asked for help, I have always been met with an outstretched hand. I suggested that maybe part of this was because so many of us had been ostracized as kids, had been the nerd in the back of the room.

"But you did well in school. You were fine. You had a boyfriend, you went to the dances."

And high school, yes, actually, high school was pretty okay. I wasn't part of the popular crowd, but there were enough people like me, who wore black, and fenced, and read Douglas Adams, that I had a group. More importantly, by that point, I had gotten good at hiding things.

I did well in school, I was polite to teachers, and everyone assumed I was fine. I remember complaining about things once, trying to convey how utterly miserable I was, and was told that school was for learning, not making friends. That was when I learned not to complain.

I learned to tell half-truths: the broken elbow? Sure, I got it playing dodgeball. When all the balls were thrown at me at once, and I was hurled into the side of a building. And it is possible to crack your kneecap jumping rope if the rope is pulled up to trip you. I learned to lie, and fake being sick so I could stay in from recess, or to volunteer to be the one who helped out in the classroom. I didn't tell her about the time in seventh grade, when we read A Wrinkle in Time, and the son of one of her good friends made sure everyone called me "IT" for a month. Or about all the times I was told I was ugly - too skinny, too freckled, flat-chested.  I didn't tell her about trying to wedge the blade out of her safety razor so I could use it to open my wrists.

High school was better. High school was survivable, and that things that nearly weren't had nothing to do with being bullied. And I, too, find it strange and difficult to look back at elementary school and say that bullying was what was happening. It's so much easier to just say, oh, I wasn't popular. Who was?

But there are so many voices. And maybe we're okay enough now to extend a hand in help, or to speak up so someone else who is suffering might hear, but who made the rules that said childhood is an ordeal that must be endured?

Because here's the thing that scares me: if someone could have found that girl, sitting in the bathtub, shredding her fingertips with metal and plastic, and said, "you will get through this, you will grow up, you will be happy, just hang on" I think she would have said: I don't care.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Uncanny Beauty

I am exceedingly pleased to announce that Issue #356 of Weird Tales, Uncanny Beauty, is officially out. And I have a story in it. A very short story, "Beauty and Disappearance." It's about disappearing statues and, well, you decide what else. It's one of my favorite things I've written, and I hope you like it.

My happiness is not only because I have a story I'm proud of in a market I love, but because of who else is in the issue. There is an essay by Theodora Goss, whose scholarship is so erudite and elegant, and a story by Catherynne M. Valente, whose fiercely brilliant writing makes her one of my literary heroes. I'm thrilled to be sharing pages with them, and with everyone else.

Monday, October 11, 2010

One of Us

A few years ago, my high school made me incredibly proud. It announced the formation of a group dedicated to the support of its LGBT students. The first thing I did, when I saw the alumni bulletin, was email the principal, one of the founding members of the group, and thank him, and tell him how proud I was of my alma mater. 

Then I cried.

My high school, it's Catholic. Unfortunately, we live in a world where not only Catholics, but people who call themselves Christians from all denominations continually fail the LGBT community. We fail to act with love, with support, with any kind of behavior that might reasonably be recognized as Christian. This has to stop.

Because if you consider yourself to be a Christian, you don't need to ask whether or not God is one of us. You already have your answer: Genesis tells us that everyone, male and female, was created in the image and likeness of God. Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, tells us that whatsoever we have done to another, we have done to him. We are called to accept that God is in everyone, that the way we treat other people is the way we treat God.

We are called to love one another. And I'm sorry, but that doesn't mean the hateful actions that fall under the category of "love the sinner, hate the sin." I call shenanigans on that rubbish. Love one another means exactly that. So on this Coming Out Day, I challenge all of us to come out as Christians, and to hold all of our brothers and sisters securely in love.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Vita of St. Endellion

In the spring of last year, when I was madly (and, oh, that word is consciously chosen) trying to finish both the Draft Zero of The Novel Formerly Known as Linger and my dissertation, I wrote a lot of flash fiction, and posted it here. (Do a search under the label "free fiction," if you want to read them.) Mostly because I needed to write something that could be finished for my own sanity, but also because I liked to think about people reading my stories. I mean, if I didn't care about that, I'd never type them up and send them around, I'd just let them live, creatures of ink and paper, slumbering in my notebooks.

Some people have been nice, or foolish enough, to ask when I'm going to do that again. It wasn't so much that I chose to stop, but that I've been writing things at longer lengths, things that don't lend themselves well to excerpting here. But I do have a piece that's an excerpt now, that will be a longer thing sometime, that I'm happy to share.

And I normally don't do an explanatory "my inspiration, let me show you it" sort of thing, but there really was a Saint Endellion, and she really was King Arthur's goddaughter.


                        The Vita of St. Endellion (var. Endelient), Patron of Cornwall
                                    MS British Library Cotton Vitellius A.xv

            This unlikely vita is said to be written in the saint’s own hand. This claim, plus the events related, make clear this is a document of far greater interest to fabulists than scholars of either history or religion.

            I was seven the first time I picked up a sword. Picked it up, and leveled it at the throat of my cousin, Mordred, who had pulled the tail of my godfather’s dog one too many times that day. This was deemed a remarkable action only because I was a girl.
            Well, not only.
            It was my godfather’s sword I held. My godfather, Arthur. His sword, Excalibur.
            Those watching said it was a miracle, that I could hold that blade, wrought of star-iron and story, and not perish in flame. I was seven. It was a miracle that I could hold that blade, which was near as tall as I was, at all.
            Someone, Bors or Cei maybe, moved to take it from me. “Let the child be brave,” Arthur said. “Besides, I can think of no better use for my sword than to defend a friend.”
            Craven Mordred turned and ran. That evening, I would find my sheets smeared with privy filth. He was a snake in the dark even then.
Arthur smiled at me, and the smile strengthened my aching shoulders and trembling wrists. I knelt to my king as I had seen his knights do – Excalibur’s lower end on the ground, my hands on the sword’s quillion, forehead bowed to rest on the langet. By his own hand, Arthur raised me up, and from that day I served as his p[…]

The manuscript becomes illegible here. It is unclear if the damage is from the Ashburnham House fire, or some other source.

[…]nt Arthur, in a rage, slew the man.
I do not claim to understand what happened next. Arthur’s actions were justified. The cow was the only source of food in the village. The tales of the miraculous cow whose milk sustained an entire town came, as Christmas miracle, to Camelot. Fast on their heels rode the tales of the bandit lords who harassed the town, in hopes of claiming the cow for their own. Arthur gathered a small company of knights, and we rode out to protect the marvel, and the village blessed by its presence. The Lord of Trenteny had gone against all laws of man and God when he slaughtered the beast.
It was the cow I knelt down next to, laid my hands on, not the man. Not thinking of resurrection, just of compassion for the poor, dumb creature, who had lived and died a miracle, and knew it not.
But it was the man who stood, whole and hale, blinking in the light like Lazarus upon emerging from the cave.
He prostrated himself before Arthur, begged forgiveness, swore allegiance. Arthur gave the welfare of the village into his keeping, as penance.
I left Camelot, after that. Not because Arthur asked. Indeed, he was one of the few who did not draw their garments back from me in the hall, or make the sign against evil as I passed. I had bewitched Arthur, they said, into making me a knight, and now I would raise up all his enemies, create an army of the rightfully slain to stand against Camelot.
I heard Mordred’s voice in the whispers.
I asked my king, my godfather, to release me from his service, which he did. I asked him to reclaim the sword he had put into my keeping the day he gave me my knighthood. He did not. The day I took my leave of him, Arthur gave me one more thing to take with me to my hermitage, which was to be as far from Camelot as two oxen could walk in a day. A blessing most precious, the gift of a friend.
I saw my godfather again but once[…]

The remainder of the manuscript has been overwritten. On the third recto page of the palimpsest is a small drawing. It does not appear to be St. Endellion, who is, in the few extant images of her, depicted with her miraculous cow. Rather, it is of a woman in armour, with a sword in her right hand, and a large white dog standing at her left side. Her hand is on the dog’s head. This iconography is unknown outside of this manuscript, and there is no scholarly consensus as to whom this woman represents.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

For the blood is the life

Okay, so this is embarrassing. 

Guys, I... I think, maybe, well. Okay. I'll just say it.

I want to write a vampire story.

I know.

But, I used to love them. Ever since I read this book. I love Dracula. And I really love Carmilla. For years, vampires were my go-to supernatural thing, my default Hallowe'en costume, my very favorite terror.

And I know they're overdone. And I know the craving for blood has been turned into a sort of extreme form of restricted diet, sort of the counterbalance to the raw food vegan movement. They're no longer immortal predators, but the benevolent and sparkly guardians of chaste womanhood, who like to attend high school. Or they're ravening superweapons, the victims of government bio-manipulation. 

And those things are fine, they all have their place, but those are not my vampires. They are not subtle, or strange, or cold, or any of the things I loved about them. They do not prickle my skin, and quicken my pulse.

I think if I want my vampires back, I'll have to write them myself.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Baba Yaga in Manhattan

I was walking through the Upper East Side, enjoying the shadows of the evening city. A woman called out, "Vasilisa!" I know the name, so I glanced over my shoulder. She looked straight at me, and called again, "Vasilisa!"

No, I told her, my name is Kat. 

She looked at me, then said, in Russian, "You could have been her."

No, no thank you, Grandmother. I know too well how that story ends.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Preludes and Nocturnes: The Sound of Her Wings

I am blogging my reread of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Here's the first post, which explains some things.

Dream has collected all of his things, and is celebrating by engaging in a world-class brood. And feeding the pigeons. He is interrupted by a cry of "Hey! Mister!" and a soccer ball which nearly brains him. It's an excellent visual metaphor for Dream's situation: something is coming right at him, and he's not paying attention. This time, he puts up a hand, catches the ball, averts the injury. He won't always be able to.

He is joined by his older sister, Death, who explains the film Mary Poppins, and the meaning of "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" to him. The brightness of Death's personality, the ease of her speech is in direct contrast to the black hole of Dream's mood. She tells him moping isn't like him, and he almost agrees that "perhaps" it isn't. It's a hint that Dream has changed. How much is a question that will be answered over the course of the run.

Death asks him what is wrong, and Dream tells her, relating the events of the previous issues in a manner as empty as he currently feels. The moment when he finishes is the moment I fell in love with this comic. Death, who loves her little brother very much, tells him he is "utterly the stupidest, most self-centered, appallingest excuse for an anthropomorphic personification on this or any other plane!" and bounces half a baguette off his head. It is the concerned, big-sisterly equivalent of "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and the moment the comic found its heart.

It's also the moment it found one of its main themes, and sources of conflict: family.

Dream spends the day going on rounds with Death. As she fills the role of her office, he hears the sound of wings, and the sound recalls him to himself. He remembers his responsibilities (and that he must be reminded shows us how much Dream has changed over the course of his imprisonment), and as he as, she has given him much to think about. That is what family does, she tells him. But not everyone in Dream's family would agree.

On the last page, Dream conjures a handful of sand, and throws it, saturating the page with yellow and gold, and hears the sound of wings. It's a scnen that has, every time I've read this, conjured the last line of "God's Grandeur," by Gerard Manley Hopkins, in my head. A beautiful image, and one that, on its surface, seems joyful.

But every other instance of the sound of wings has been a harbinger of death.

(There are a couple of great visual moments: a panel where Dream and Death stand in front of a graffitied wall that reads "No one here gets out alive!" which no one does, and another scrawl that tells us "Dreams make no promises" but he does, and that becomes his undoing.)