Monday, August 30, 2010

And they all lived.

I love a good romance. When my day or life has turned to absolute shite, the books I am most likely to pick up are romances. In fact, the author most represented on my shelves is a romance writer, Nora Roberts, who I love both in her incarnation as herself, and as JD Robb. (When things are really, really, bad, I reread the entire In Death series. Eve Dallas is one of my favorite characters in all of literature.)

Even in a book that is not primarily a romance, I have no problem reading about love, or lust, or SuperHawt SexyTimes. I'm not a prude, and sometimes I want a happy ending. (Minds. Gutter. Out.)

And, dear fellow authors, I understand that while a coming of age novel where the protagonist is a boy who becomes a man can end with him forging "in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race," or whatever, a coming of age novel where the protagonist is a girl who becomes a woman must end with Marriage (or at least an engagement) (and, okay, no, I don't really understand why this must be so, but ranting against this rule is another post for another day), there is one thing that drives me bats.

Having the heroine fall in love with an asshole ruins her credibility as a heroine.

I am reading this book right now, and I am not going to tell you what it is because in all other ways, it is a really great book. It is taking a different, and interesting, look at a trope I normally find boring and overdone. It has incredible worldbuilding. The prose is really smart.


There is a forced marriage. To a guy who is an absolute ass. (Although I gather we are supposed to at least suspect he is a gentleman, since he does not forcefully claim his marriage rights from a woman he obviously believes to be his inferior in every possible way. But since Not Being a Rapist appears to be his only redeeming quality, I'm not sure I buy the "gentleman" label.) He is emotionally cruel, and verbally abusive. At about the halfway point, he attempts to murder the heroine. This is about when she starts to think he's hot.

What. The. Fuck.

The worst part is, this is not a book that needed a romance subplot. There was so much else that was interesting going on, that the inclusion of this subplot seems forced. Like maybe someone told the author, "oh, hey, you're writing a story about a girl, so could you please add in a love interest so we can make Team Not a Rapist t-shirts." And let me let you in on a little secret: I really liked the female lead up until she decided the guy who just stabbed her was cute, and started fantasizing about running her fingers along the line of his jaw. She was smart, capable, fierce, and had dignity. She was an awesome woman. Now, she's just another silly girl with a crush on a wrong guy.

We are creative writers. We can do better.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Night Bookmobile

The Night Bookmobile, the new graphic novel written and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger, is extraordinary. It is one of those stories that will haunt me for a very long time. It is also very hard for me to talk about precisely why here, without giving away a part of the story which I would have been very upset if I knew before reading it. So the first thing I want to say, is please, quick, some of you lot go read this amazing book so we can talk about it, okay? (There's a "contact me" link in my profile. I'm not kidding. I really need to talk about this book.)

Part of the reason this book is so amazing, the reason I bought it in the first place, is that this book is about libraries. If I had to choose an inherently magical place, someplace in the real world where I halfway expect magic to happen every time I go there, it would be a library. Libraries have always struck me as pocket universes - they are full of so many things that they are bigger on the inside. You can be in them and elsewhere simultaneously. 

The Night Bookmobile of the title is a personal library, containing all the things ever read by an individual, in this case, a young woman named Alexandra. It is open only from dusk to dawn, and is not the sort of place a reader can find with any regularity, no matter how much she wishes to. It is the story of what it means to be a reader, and to live inside a world of books, and to long, unbearably deeply, for the worlds they contain.

It is possible that reading this book will break your heart. I prefer books that do that. But it may not break you in the way you expect. And that is why I am haunted by this story, and why I want you to read it, and to share my ghosts.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

About this time last year, I was feeling a little disconnected and strange because, for the first time since kindergarten, I wasn't going back to school in some form or other in the fall. For the first time that I could remember, fall simply felt like the death of the old year, not the beginning of a new one.

This year, it is getting ready for back to school that feels just a little strange. Mostly, I'm excited. I am beyond lucky in so many ways: having a job. In academia. In my field. Where I get to teach the classes I want, with the support of the department, rather than filling in the gaps for people who are on sabbatical. At a place that's excited about the creative writing I do (at a recent faculty dinner, I was introduced as "the one with the story in Weird Tales.") Maybe this is just the way it is at a school where the mascot is a mythological creature. Maybe I'm just lucky.

But I also feel nervous. I think because there's so much new, so much transition. New place to live. My first really grown-up job. (Okay, yes. I taught as an adjunct at the law school I graduated from for a couple of years directly after graduation. I suppose if someone is calling you "professor," it qualifies as a grown-up job. But the circumstances didn't really feel like that was an accurate description.) The first time trying to balance having a full time day job with being a writer. I want to do everything right, and I'm not precisely sure what the definition of "right" is yet.

But this sort of strangeness is better than last year's. Because right now I get to feel transitional and uncertain and that's fine because it means things are happening. I'm not watching a bus go by through the window and wishing I was on it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Four years prostrate to the higher mind

There have been requests from hither and yon that I post the syllabi for the courses I'll be teaching this fall. I've decided not to post those directly, because I figure most of you could really care less when the final paper is due, or how many unexcused absences you're allowed before I fail you. I'm guessing what people actually want are reading lists, and those, I'm happy to share. So here's what I'm teaching this fall, in the order that I'm teaching it. 

The Fantastic as Place:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, JK Rowling
The City and the City, China Miéville
Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente
The Magician's Book, Laura Miller
The Magicians, Lev Grossman

The Dream as Literary Form

Selections from the Bible - the dreams of Joseph, who had the coat of many colors, and Joseph, the husband of Mary (Douay-Rheims translation)
Selections from Book XV "Prophetic Acts and Visionary Dreams" of Ovid's Metamorphoses (Martin translation)
Book 19 of the Odyssey (Fagles translation)
Two chapters - "Dreambooks and their Audiences" and "Dreams and Fiction" - from Steven Kruger's Dreaming in the Middle Ages
The Book of the Duchess, Chaucer
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare
Hopefully, Seamus Heaney's The Midnight Verdict, if they can find me the copies. Otherwise, Cúirt an Mhéan Oíche, Brian Merriman (in translation, obvs.)
Watch: the Wizard of Oz
Memory and Dream, Charles de Lint
The Dream Hunters, Neil Gaiman

Saturday, August 21, 2010

I got a really good heart, I just can't catch a break

Yes, I've definitely hit the "things fall apart" section of the book. Where the writing actually becomes work, and I'm hit fairly regularly with the urge to light my manuscript on fire, because at least then it would serve some useful purpose. This happens, I know how to cope with it, and I won't actually light the manuscript on fire. Probably.

And while I would have preferred to keep writing at the pace I began at, this is about the best possible time for the book to start being tricksy, because classes start next week and I have to get ready to corrupt young minds educate our future.

So it seemed like as good of time as any to put together the first playlist for The Language of the Angels, which is a book that is full of music so there will be many playlists throughout the course of the writing. It's also early enough in the writing process that sometimes I don't know why the song sounds like the story, it just does.

"Down to Nowhere," Thea Gilmore. This book wouldn't exist without this song. When I was writing the short story that this began as, I contacted Thea to find out if I could use lyrics, and to get some information about when and where she had performed the song. She was utterly lovely, and very helpful, and I listened to this on obsessive repeat while writing.

"Spem in Alium," King's College Chapel Choir. Yes, the song that shows up on every playlist shows up again. But it's also featured in a key scene in the book.

"I Will Follow You Into the Dark," Amanda Palmer. Hits the emotional beats I need for the story.

"Come As You Are," Nirvana. Sometimes I need to be in high school head space. This song puts me there.

"Electric Feel," MGMT. "she's got the power in her hands to shock you like you won't believe"

"Personal Jesus," Depeche Mode.

"If I Should Fall From Grace With God," the Pogues.

"The Host of Seraphim," Dead Can Dance.

"Sympathy for the Devil," Natalie Merchant.  Not that I have anything against Mick and the boys, but I needed a bit more subtlety.

"Angels Never Call," 'Til Tuesday.

"Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole," Martha Wainwright. "I will not pretend, I will not put on a smile, I will not say I'm all right for you"

"Amazing Grace," Blind Boys of Alabama.

"High and Dry," Amanda Palmer. A friend described this song as being like prayer. Yeah.

"Hallelujah," Jeff Buckley.  Appears in a key scene in the story, a cold and broken hallelujah.

"Two," Ryan Adams. "I'm fractured from the fall, and I wanna go home"

"She Will Have Her Way," Neil Finn. "deathly silence and especially the dark"

Friday, August 20, 2010

An excerpt

I'm in the writerly equivalent of an armed truce with the work in progress right now. I think I'm rapidly approaching the "things fall apart" section of the writing process, and knowing I'll get through it doesn't make it any easier to walk into it.

But I kind of like this bit. (Which, yes, pretty much guarantees that it will get cut in revision, but I figured I'd share it with you now.)

From The Language of the Angels:

"At the beginning of the sound was a void, and the sound moved through it, and into darkness. And sound became song, and the song rang out over the darkness, filling it with chant and antiphon, with aria and polyphony, with the music of the spheres, and the language of the angels."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The thing about keys is, they open

I don't normally find myself in perfect sympathy with a seven-year-old boy. (Okay, my eating habits aside. What? French fries are totally a meal.) But I remember moving to yet another new school in fourth grade, and using the word "precocious" when introducing myself. Even worse, defining it in detailed and correct fashion when Sr. Nathalie assured me I didn't know what that word meant, thus condemning myself to years of direst nerddom. When I led the march of Birnam Wood at recess, with the convent standing in for Dunsinane, my Mom got the first of a number of communications about her weird daughter, who really needed to try harder to fit in. (Bless Mom, her response was something along the lines of, "My ten-year-old is reading Shakespeare. I fail to see where the problem is.")

So when I opened the latest issue of Locke & Key, "Sparrow" (words: Joe Hill, art: Gabriel Rodriguez, #1 in the Keys to the Kingdom arc), and saw Bode Locke's Mom in conversation with his teacher about how he had just a bit of a problem relating to the other kids, and did things like drop "befoul" into casual conversation, well, dear reader, my happiness was unbounded.

Remember when I told you that I didn't know if I could know you any more if you weren't reading this comic? And maybe you thought that was just revision-induced madness talking? No. Not kidding. You really, really need to be reading this. The latest arc is going to be all stand-alone issues. All three previous arcs are out in trade collections. You are completely out of excuses, unless your excuse is that you actually hate smart words and gorgeous pictures (I mean, really gorgeous. Gabriel Rodriguez is on the short list of people I would give a less-necessary organ to work with. And this last issue... just, wow.)

Because here's the thing about this series: it's true. Not true in the sense of these things happened, but true in the sense that it's full of real characters, who are complex, and honest, and actual. Bad things, sometimes horrible things, happen in this universe. Trust me - if you are the sort of person who cries over the fall of a sparrow, you are going to be undone. (My copy, it has dents in, from where my fingers gripped.) And there are moments of quiet grace and loveliness, snarky lines, a bad guy who was on the fencing team, and an issue with a production of The Tempest in. (I know. Is it any wonder I love this comic?) Things get broken that can't be fixed, and when maybe they can, that's even worse. 

I have a necklace that is nothing more than an antique key strung on a chain. Recently, when I was wearing it, a guy asked if it was for Phi Beta Kappa. No, I said, I just like keys. "Why?" "Because they open." He didn't understand. Locke & Key does. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Spiritual Exercises

People ask, on a fairly regular basis, why I'm still Catholic. I don't make any secret of the fact that many of the things said and done by the hierarchy of my Church break my heart. The pedophilia scandal never should have happened, and for the Pope to compare the idea of the ordination of women to such a grave and systemic sin is appalling and morally wrong. I'm also pretty sure that Mary Magdalene, the Apostola Apostolorum, has some words for him on the ordination of women issue. The Church is wrong on its policy toward homosexuality, and it seems to have forgotten the words of Jesus - "render unto Caesar" - when denying Communion to politicians who uphold laws that contradict Church teaching. 

Of course, I'm divorced, and I still go to Communion, and I think God's okay with that, so what do I know.

Except I do know why I'm still Catholic, and it has a lot to with what I learned about God at my high school, Bellarmine Prep, and from the Jesuits in residence there. Fr. Webber, Fr. Dan, Fr. Gerry, and Br. Paul. Especially Br. Paul.

Br. Paul is now at a Jesuit school in Maryland. I'm pretty sure this school has the best library ever, because he was, and is an utterly voracious reader, who has a particular love for speculative fiction. It was in his world history class I first read "The Nine Billion Names of God." We read Heinlein and Pohl, and when, in a particularly smart-assed moment of desperation on an exam, I wrote "42" as my answer, he gave me half credit. One of the best moments of my life was when he asked if I would sign and send him a copy of Stories for the school library. He was so proud to have a former student in the same book as his favorite writer. (Neil Gaiman. Br. Paul was one of the people I knew who read Sandman when I was in high school.)

He was the best Prospero I've ever seen.

A lot of my teaching style comes from what I learned from him. He cared about his students, and we cared back. He dressed up as a zombie (with Fr. Webber) for I honestly don't even remember what for a friend's French class, and the summer we refilmed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he was God. 

Once, in class, we stood on our desks and cried out "Oh captain, my captain!" I'm pretty sure this was soon after he made us give Barbaric Yawps while running our cross country warm up.

He has always, and still does, referred to God as She, because "God is too large to be one thing or the other. Everyone else calls Her He, so I'm balancing it out." Just today, I got an email from him discussing the need for our Church to be more "open-hearted, unparochial, liberal, tolerant, and magnanimous."

That is why I am still Catholic.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A review: Everything Is Going to Be Great

On the first page of the introduction to Rachel Shukert's memoir, Everything Is Going to Be Great, she suggests that, in dire need, the pages of the book could be used as makeshift sanitary napkins. Four pages later, I learned how to say "penis" in Polish. If this is the sort of thing that is going to make you clutch your pearls and despair over the state of literature, or culture, or young womanhood, by all means, skip this book. But if your sense of humor is intact, and you are looking for a smart, insightful, and yes, hysterically funny, book, I definitely recommend Everything Is Going to Be Great.

Shukert's voice is brilliant. Reading the stories of her "underfunded and overexposed" European adventures is like sitting down to drinks with your best bawdy girlfriend. But what makes Everything Is Going to Be Great more than just a pleasant new entry in the "young women behaving like young men badly" category of memoirs is her brutal honesty about her life. At times, I wanted to step into the book and shake Rachel, to ask her "you're a smart woman - can't you see how badly this will end ?" But the thing is, even smart women make mistakes, and do things even though they know exactly how badly things will end. What makes Shukert's book so good is that she pokes at and exposes the wounds of her past, showing them in all their ridiculous - and sometimes self-inflicted - glory, rather than trying to cover them over. This lets us appreciate the great at the end even more.


For purposes of FCC disclosure: I received this book from the publisher.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Learning what the world is when you're building it from scratch

One of the things I love best about being a writer is that it's an excuse to learn a lot of things. Because when you're building a world, especially a world where six impossible things regularly happen before breakfast, you don't want to throw the reader out of the story on a mundane detail (or the application of that mundane detail to a weird-world situation, like the Great Zombie Erection Debate of Clarion 2008. And yes, the mind reels at the potential search string that will bring traffic to my blog. Sorry guys, no immediate plans for zombie porn here.)

Er, moving on.

I like learning things. I went to grad school not so much because I wanted to collect fancy strings of letters after my name, but because I wanted to learn things, and continuing to get degrees seemed like the best way to do that at the time. (Being a writer is better. No one makes you learn the Rule Against Perpetuities. I cannot remember exactly which of our text books a friend's husband shot after our first year, but I really hope it was property law.)

My point. Oh, that I had a point, and might someday get to it... My point is get the details right. Sometimes, of course, you can't. My research for the current book involves Milton and Aquinas and Augustine and Teilhard de Chardin and John Chrysostom and Oliver Sacks and some musicians and calling my medically trained sister to ask her questions like "what do you know about brains?" (I think she liked that better than the last book, when I asked her questions like how long it took for someone to bleed out, and where to stab someone if you just want their arm to stop working for a little while.) I'm going to get things wrong, and there will be unanswerable questions (Like the one I asked on Twitter earlier because I need to deal with the order versus chaos problem in this book, and it was making my brain hurt to think about it all by myself.) 

Because you have to believe in your world enough to bring it forth from the void of the white page, and the best key to belief is knowledge.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The gifts of the fairy godmothers

Over on twitter today, there's a #womeninpublishing meme going around. It's kind of amazing to watch people praise all of the talented, generous, helpful women in the publishing industry, and it's made me want to say some thank yous of my own.

When I was, oh, somewhere around middle school age, I decided I was too cool to read fantasy books any more. Now, let me assure you that in no possible definition of the word was I cool, and trading Susan Cooper and Madeleine L'Engle for Sweet Valley High and The Babysitters Club didn't help. Thankfully, the phase was a brief one.

I remember the book that got me back into reading fantasy: Jane Yolen's harrowing and lovely Briar Rose. Inside the book, there was a list of other fairy tales, put together by Terri Windling. That was it. The beginning of a continuing quest to read all of those stories. I've read every Windling-Datlow anthology in existence, looked for every book they've mentioned, and I owe them so many of my favorite authors and stories. I owe them so much of what I've become.

Inside those books, there was often the mention of a magical place: The Endicott Studio. It seemed as wonderful and impossible as Narnia. In 2006, my life was falling apart in a number of significant ways. I was at a conference, and I was speaking with a woman named Helen Pilinovsky, who was part of the Endicott staff. Terri and Midori were looking for another reviewer. She would pass my information along. I wrote three audition reviews, and I cried when I got the email from Terri saying I could write for them. It sounds cliched to say that changed my life. The simple reality is it did.

That was where I first heard about Clarion, as well. Terri and Midori were the first people I told that I was applying. Good luck, they said, they had faith in me. I am a writer. I should know words that would express how much that faith meant. I don't have them. Simply saying thank you cannot possibly be enough.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Right in time

"You're starting the story in the wrong place." It's a fairly common criticism, in writers' groups, in slush piles. We all know to begin in medias res rather than ab ovo, but choosing the proper middle is a tricky thing. Because the middle you begin with, that's the key to what the story is about. So of course the Iliad begins with rage, and Hamlet with a question of identity. When you think about it, Sandman cannot begin with anything other than "Wake up sir, we're here."

But the middle, that place where the story begins, it has to move as well. It needs to reach out and grab the reader. "Who's there?" is the opening line of what is perhaps the greatest work of literature in the English language because the "who" is potentially a ghost. Of a dead - murdered! by his brother! who is now sleeping with his wife! - king. This is exciting, and the reader is in. Otherwise, "who's there?" is the second line of a knock-knock joke.

We learn, when we learn to write, how to do this. Write a fabulous opening line. Put the ghostpigs right at the beginning. If you've written a prologue, delete it before you send your manuscript out. 

But sometimes, you know exactly where the middle is. The Devil is waiting, contract in hand, in a woman's office. And still, you write, and rewrite, and throw out, thousands of words, because you do not, as yet, have the the key, even though the door to the story stands in front of you. Because what kind of story is this? The kind where she throws him out because the Devil is Bad? The kind where she doesn't believe in Devils, or devils, and he's cute, so what the heck? Or the kind where she, too, commits the sin of pride, and signs the contract?

It's the last one, by the way. I wrote the opening chapter yesterday.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

That looks on tempests, and is never shaken

This is one of my favorite memories of my youngest brother. He is a lot younger than I am (I am the oldest of four, there are ten years between us), and aside from that, he was what you would call "young for his age" at the time. 

We were talking about dancing at my ill-fated wedding, and my Mom mentioned to him that there were gay couples going to be there, that he might see men dancing with each other, and that was fine, because everyone should get to dance with the person they love.

My brother thought about it for a moment, then said "And if they need to, they can dance with me. No one should have to dance alone."

"Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license." Perry v. Schwarzenegger

Monday, August 2, 2010

That'll put marzipan in your pie plate, bingo!

Yeah, that's about the level my brain is functioning at today.

I held off the post-novel crash as long as I could, mainly because handing my parents a to-do list as they drove off the ferry and telling them I was going to go take a nap for the weekend was not actually a workable option. But the fuzzy brain won at about 8:30 last night.

Possibly it won before, like when I discovered that in my writing and rewriting process, Linger had somehow acquired three chapter nines. At least they were all different.

Theoretically, I'm awake right now.

I'm slightly more than halfway through the process of typing the rewrite of Linger into the computer. I've been keeping a loose total of word count cut from the last draft, and if things continue as they have been, I will have cut and redone about 35K words of an 80K manuscript. So, you know, a lot. Barring my shoulder completely quitting on me, I'll be finished in the next couple of days, and the manuscript will be out to those who are waiting for it by the end of the week.

Which means it's time to be thinking about the next book.

I'm putting on my big girl pants, and writing The Language of the Angels

It was originally one of my Clarion application stories. For the past two years, I've pulled it out, and scribbled away at it, and then put it back in the box. Not because the story wasn't there, because I wasn't good enough to write it yet. I don't know if I am right now, but I know I'm not giving myself the excuse not to work on it anymore.

And yes, I'm a little scared to work on this now - it's a big story: the War in Heaven, and discontent in Hell. The nature of love and of sacrifice. What does it mean to have faith, to be chosen?

Maybe the novel winds up crashing and burning, and taking me with it, but I'd rather fail while trying than fail because I never wrote it.