Thursday, April 28, 2011

Symphony Space

Last night's Selected Shorts event was amazing. Extraordinary. Magic.

Marin Ireland, the actress who read (and it seems to wrong to say read, because she did so much more - performed? illuminated?) "A Life in Fictions" was utterly perfect. What she did was make the story on stage sound like the one in my head. It was a kind of magic. I am so impressed by her talent. (Another particularly brilliant kind of magic happened during the reading of Neil Gaiman's "The Thing About Cassandra." Subscribe to the Selected Shorts podcast now, because you are not going to want to miss hearing that. Wow.)

And I met so many wonderful people, who were kind enough to say hello to me, and to offer kind  words about my story. If that was you, thank you. 

My Mom was there, and it was such a thrill to get to introduce her to some of the people I love, and for her to be able to see something I was so honored to be a part of.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The baking time for art, and the cost of the ingredients

The first really big writing project I ever undertook was my dissertation. When I transitioned from being in serious research mode to actually writing the thing, I gave myself the goal of writing half a page on it, every day. This is slightly more than it sounds like, because footnotes, quotations, and citations didn't count here. So really, it was half a page of my own analysis, every day. A good day, a day so good I would allow myself to stop writing if I wanted to, was a full page. About 300 words of my own. Maybe that doesn't seem like a lot, but if I had written every single word right the first time, I could have finished in about five months.

When I started writing fiction, I made 300 words a day my daily goal. (Well, approximately. One notebook page, based on the size of my pages and of my handwriting, is about 300 words. So technically, my goal was one page a day.) Again maybe that doesn't seem like a lot. And really, it isn't. But if you write 300 words a day, every day, then you've written 109,500 words in a year. Manuscript length for the kind of fiction I normally write is about 100K words. So 300 words a day is a book a year. You can even take 31 and 2/3 days off - be sick, take a vacation, write 300 of the wrong words one day - and still write a book a year.

And if you know what you want to write, the physical act of writing 300 words doesn't take very long at all. Well, so long as you get all the words down in the correct order. And you never have to go back and cut any words. And all the characters show up for work every day. And there aren't any holes in your plot that you need to go back and fix. And. And. And.

There, of course, is the difficulty. And the reason that once I realized I want to try to make writing fiction my career, why my daily page count is a lot more than one page a day. Well, that and the fact that I like to eat. And live in a house that has heat, and light, and water, and the internet. Right now, I sell short stories. I am not at a place in my career when the money comes before the work -  no advances - and sometimes, I do the work, and I don't get paid. Not because I'm selling stories to sketchy markets or anything like that, but not everything I write sells. Sometimes I have to trunk a story. But let's say I were to sell every word that I wrote. 300 words a day x $0.05 per word (professional rates) = $15/ day. $5475 a year. That does not keep me in a house with light and heat and water and food.

Oh, and for those who were wondering, that's actually pretty close to the median first novel advance.

So, like most artists, I work at a day job, too. I'm pretty lucky here - I like my day job, and it's close to what I do with my writing, and I only need to work one other job. When I write, I work on multiple projects at once, in the hopes of increasing the amount of money I can bring in with my writing.

But really, the above calculus - 300 words a day = a book a year = $15 dollars a day - is why I get grumpy with people sometimes. With people who think that art ought to take a certain amount of time to make, or else it isn't art. With people who think that because what I do is fun, or creative, or because I've chosen to do it, that I don't deserve to be paid for my work. That because I can, if I choose, do the work for my job as a writer from home, or in my pajamas, that my time isn't valuable, or that because I love it, it isn't a job.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Gaiman, Borges, and, er, me

You guys! Remember when I wrote about signing Very Excellent and Wonderful contracts?

They were for this!

Seriously, I think I forgot how to breathe when I got the email telling me. My story. In such company. Read by a real actor. In a theatre on Broadway. This is so many of my dreams coming true all at once that my hands are shaking as I type this.

I will be there, and I am bringing my Mom as my date, because I can hold her hand and cry from happiness.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A thing I thought would never happen

I can tell you where and when the story began. It began at WorldCon, in Montreal, in 2009, as I listened to Cat Valente read her wonderful short story, "A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica." 

(Go read it. It's extraordinary. I'll still be here when you're done.)

It was the structure I fell most in love with. The way the story was told in maps. I wanted to do something like that, too. So I needed a structure, something I could use to organize the story. Well, nineteen days after I got back from WorldCon, I defended my dissertation. The short version of which is, it was on the performative aspects of holiness in women's religious writing. Saints. I could use images of saints the way Cat used maps.

And so began "The Calendar of Saints."

The problem was, I had all these things I wanted the story to do, and it collapsed under the weight of my desires. I wasn't a good enough writer yet to be subtle, and I wasn't confident enough to make the changes I needed to in order to have a story, instead of an agenda. I finished it, because that is what I do, sent it to beta readers, realized they were right, and I didn't know how to fix what was wrong, and put it away. For over a year. 

Then about three months ago, I sat bolt upright in bed one morning, and knew how to fix it. And now I am incredibly happy to tell you that I sold "The Calendar of Saints" to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I am really proud of this story, not just for the work it took me to get it here, but because it's about things that really, really matter to me, like truth, and faith. And fencing.

Oh, and for those who are interested in this sort of trivia, this is the first story I've sold that is long enough that I could have used it to apply to Clarion. 3500 words, which, for me, is like an epic.

Monday, April 18, 2011

I hate myself for loving you

Okay, so now that we've established that people of all sorts (including women) love reading fiction of all sorts (including epic fantasy), can we talk about how loving something does not mean we have to be blind to its faults?

I mean, I get that this is an awkward thing to bring up. We talk about how the geeks have inherited the earth, but we still get called fanboys. We feel grumpy because "our" books and authors don't get the big reviews, or nominated for the big awards. When we write a book about Unicorn Sparkle Zombies it's dismissed as derivative genre fluff, but when some refugee from the litfic camp wants to have a little fun, and writes about Unicorn Sparkle Zombies, they get a huge marketing campaign and a book tour, and praised for their blistering metaphorical examination of society, even though they had obviously never read anything about Unicorn Sparkle Zombies ever, and everyone knows Unicorn Sparkle Zombies burst into flame when they smell roses, they don't live in gardens, and by all the unholy elder gods, do some research, please!


Or something like that.

My point is, we know our genre in all of its permutations gets picked on. We all of us have always been the kid sitting alone at the lunch table. So we don't like to shine light in the dark corners  or ask where that funny smell is coming from because it feels like everyone else is doing that for us already, and we're tired, so tired, of just trying to be taken seriously.

But I love my genre, and I love the people who write in it. And I think we can do better.

I love epic fantasy. I always have. I started reading it because I read fast, and I didn't want to run out of things to read before the next trip to the library, so a big enormous doorstop of a book was exactly my kind of thing. Even better if there was a multibook series. But can anyone tell me any work of epic fantasy where the main character is a woman? (Seriously, can you? I might like to read it.)

Okay, so maybe not the main character. But how about a work where the women are actual characters that do things, that aren't just there to be the sex object, or love interest, or object of the quest, or the evil, seducing sorceress? There are some, if we broaden things that much, but not many. And certainly not equal to the amount of epic fantasy novels where there just aren't any female characters at all. (Note to writers: you have not actually created a female character if you've just slapped a woman's name on a body.)

And I wish I could say that this phenomenon was just some kind of manifestation of Sturgeon's Law, that there are real, active, women characters - sometimes even two or three! - in the good books. But I can't tell you how many times I've picked up the latest highly praised and award-nominated great new thing, and found that it's the old boys' club, all over again.

But, but... it's epic fantasy, you say. With you know, wars and medieval settings. Women weren't in wars! They barely existed in the medieval period! I'm just following the history. People say this, you know.

For those of you who say that, I have three words. Joan. Of. Arc.

Her life is the arc of the fantasy epic - nobody from nowhere who becomes the chosen savior of her people. With War! And History! A magic sword, even! (No, really.) (Joan was, until the nineteenth century, the most documented person in history.)

And it isn't just Joan. Women did things in the medieval era and before, up to and including fighting in wars, and leading their countries. Sure, not every woman did, but not every man did, either. Sure, a woman who did was exceptional, but  we don't write about people who aren't - the person who has a normal life, to who nothing ever happens, who never even hears of anything out of the ordinary? - we don't tell their story.

Moreover, you are writing fantasy. If you are trying to tell me you can imagine a wizard, but cannot conceive that a woman might be one, maybe the problem isn't with the source material. Maybe the problem is with you.

Women read epic fantasy. We love it. It would be nice if our genre loved us back.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Boy fiction

Some of you may have heard about a new television show, "Game of Thrones?" I think some guy named George R. R. Martin wrote the book it is based on, but I can't be sure, because, apparently, that book is "boy fiction," and I've never been a boy.

No. Seriously. Read the New York Times review of the show. That's what it says. (I'm not linking due, not to paywall issues, as I like writers getting paid, but due to finding any review that manages to mention nary a scene, nor name even one character, doesn't deserve the name "review" in my book.)

And yes, I ranted about the idiocy of the review on twitter this morning, as have any number of other women who read and write fantasy.

But the thing that keeps bothering me is that term, "boy fiction." It bothers me beyond the obvious idiocies that we've all heard - "girls don't read comics" "men don't read, period" - because the idea that what people do, wear, read, enjoy, even the color they paint their toenails is still being used as some kind of shorthand for gender is kind of disgusting. As is the idea that things can, or should, only be enjoyed or experienced by one gender.

There is no such thing as "boy fiction." We talk about "chick lit," but that's a marketing category, not moral law. Gender and genre are not the same word.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A serious lack of umbrella drinks

So Spring Break is officially next week. However, since most of my students chose the "write a paper" option over the "present in class" option, I didn't need to hold class tomorrow, and so I cancelled it. Which means that theoretically, today was my first day of Spring Break.

In case you wanted to know what a vacation day looks like for me:

Up at 6:30 with Sam I Am, who can no longer sleep through the night, after last month's illness. I was actually so exhausted I physically hurt, so after we came back in, I stumbled back to bed for another hour, and slept in.

Morning internet triage. This was pretty exciting, because I got Very Excellent and Wonderful contracts, and also story notes from an editor. Signed contracts. Responded to editor. Filed email responses for Internet Project launching this summer.

Had appointment. Ran errands, some writing related.

Lunch at the computer, while doing fun internet things (email with friends, faffing about on twitter. You know, fun.)

Graded one-third of the Chaucer projects. This included eating one of the Chaucer-themed cupcakes my students backed, so that was pretty great. Also printed out Chaucer project essays that came in late and via email (bad!) (and also had a colossal fight with my printer, which was unable to tell that it had paper in it. Fixed printer.) and answered student questions about the next assignment, and next fall's class. 

Fed animals, and did associated animal chores.

Sanity break - read blogs, and other fun internet things.

Cooked dinner, fed me.

Gchat meeting with the excellent Megan Kurashige, with whom I am collaborating on a project I find both terrifying and exciting.

Final tweaks on a blog post for a friend's new site that's going up tomorrow.

Took an actual break, and watched last night's episode of The Good Wife. I love this show.

Typed about 2000 words from the notebook into the computer, editing as I typed.

Wrote this blog post.

It is now 16 hours after my day began. And I'm about to pick up my pen and make my word count.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The dark backwards and abysm of time

When I first started writing, the most useful thing for me about being in a workshop or in a group of regular beta readers was receiving feedback on my own work. Not because I'm some sort of mad egomaniac who believes the world and all that is in it was made for her convenience, but because of where my skill level was when it came to evaluating my own work.

I mean, I knew if something I wrote really, really sucked, in the sort of "burn it before it spreads" way, but otherwise, no clue. All through Clarion, for example, I honestly did not know if my fellow writers would praise my story to the heavens and suggest I be given the Campbell immediately and by divine fiat, or if they would tell me to pack up my pens and go home. So listening to people tell me where and how my story was broken, or, if not broken, where it could be polished, tightened, and generally made better, was incredibly valuable for me. At that point, listening to what other people thought was the most helpful thing I could do for myself as a writer.

Somewhere along the line, in the past two and a half years, that's changed. I still have beta readers, and I still rely on them for nearly everything I write. I am still utterly grateful every time someone takes time out of their life to help me with my stories. But at this point, I can almost always identify the weak spots in my own work. I can't always fix them on my own, but I can ask for a focused critique. 

Now, the thing that is most helpful for me is reading someone else's work. (NB: Dear people of the internets. I love you, lo, very. This is, however, not an open invitation to send me your work to read. I wish that I had that sort of free time, however, the sad reality is that I do not.) Beta reading for someone else, or looking back at a book or story that I've read before, and pulling it apart to see how the pieces fit, that's where I learn now. That's where I get my ideas for what I can do, and what I might try, and where I might aspire in the future.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, as I have a student doing a creatively focused independent study this semester, and I'm helping a small group of students that I've taught this year put together their own writers' group. And I just keep being reminded that while writing is (unless you are collaborating) an individual and generally solitary activity, being a writer is not something that is done in a vacuum. We do need voices other than ours in our heads, even if the speeches change.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Why we revise

From Draft Zero:

"I hope you learned something," Stasia said.

From the revision draft rewrite:

"I hope you learned enough to make that," Stasia gestured in the direction of Smith's now-stilled body, "worth it.

"Also, wipe your mouth. You still have his blood on your lips."

Friday, April 8, 2011

Read All the Things

There's a moment in Samuel R. Delany's About Writing, (and forgive me for paraphrasing, but I have lent my copy out) where, in speaking about the importance of reading, he says that the book you are currently writing will only ever be as smart as the smartest book you read while you are writing it.

While I'd tweak the timing a little (smartest book you've ever read, rather than smartest book you're currently reading), I agree completely with the sentiment.

I am, in case this is news to anyone reading this blog, a bit of a process junkie. I love to read about writing - books, blogs, interviews with people. I like to learn about things, and I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so when I started writing, I started reading All the Things related to writing. The one piece of advice that I've seen consistently given, is read. Read All the Things. The more I write myself, the more important I think this very simple piece of advice is.

And when I say "all," I mean ALL. That's where things get tricky.

Most of us who write are readers. Voracious readers, the kind who are never without books, the kind who read the ingredients on the cereal box growing up until we were allowed to bring books to the breakfast table. And most of us have favorite kinds of things to read. Which means that the first sorts of things we write are going to look a lot like our favorite books - lesser versions of Tolkien, or Conan Doyle pastiche (or if you're me, when you are at Clarion, Neil will sit you down, and very seriously say, "Kat. No more Shakespeare.")

While we're not bound by "write what you know" we will write like what we know. In a way, that's fine: we all stand on the shoulders of giants. We just can't speak with their voices.

I've found the best way of finding my own voice is to read outside of my comfort zone (well, to live outside of it, really, but that's another post for another day.) To read in different genres, and to specifically seek out things that I've dismissed in the past as being, for whatever reason, not my sort of thing. To read things where I have to focus on what I'm reading, where reading is work, and a challenge. 

It's helped me on multiple levels. On the most practical, it lets me avoid the problem that sometimes happens when someone who obviously has never read anything in Genre X decides to write something in Genre X.

But the best way that reading promiscuously has helped me is that it helps me think differently. Thinking outside my comfort zone is the best random idea generator I've ever found. It reshapes the pathways in my brain, and helps me see and connect things differently. I write better when I'm reading things that actively engage and challenge and frustrate my brain.

That's not to say I don't believe in reading for entertainment or comfort, or that I think those forms of storytelling are any less important or less worthy. That's also not me saying that a smart book can't provide comfort, or a comfort book can't be smart. But what I am saying is that if you want to keep improving your writing, keep looking for the smartest book.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Yelling "fire!" on a crowded internet

They tell you to yell "fire!"

If you are a woman, and you take a self-defense class, your instructor will tell you to yell "fire!" if you are being assaulted. When you ask why, when you ask why you should not yell "rape!" or "help!" even, you will be told that if you do, no one will come. Rape, you see, only affects the victim, and a fire, well, that might affect other people, so if you yell fire, someone might actually decide to help you.

Let me repeat that, just to be clear: If you are a woman, being assaulted, and you yell "rape," no one will come, because they will think what is happening to you affects only you.

Do you know what it means for a population to be decimated? It's a word we use when we mean "really a lot" or "a terribly huge, unthinkable number." It means one in ten is affected. That is a huge number - think of the effect on a population if something terrible, something life-altering, were to happen to one in ten.

One in six American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Our population has been more than decimated.

Still, they tell us to yell fire, because what happens to us doesn't affect anyone else.

Those of us who survive are at increased risk for depression, PTSD, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide. (Not to mention sexually transmitted diseases.)

But yell fire, because rape only affects the victim.

We live in a culture where, when an eleven year old child is gang-raped, blame is placed on her for how she dressed, where police officers still tell women that we can avoid being raped by how we dress.

But really, yell fire.

My friend Jim Hines is running a fundraiser to help raise money for rape crisis centers. I'll be making my donation to RAINN, because when I was ready to whisper and ask for help, that's who I called. Even if you can't donate, please spread the word. 

And please, think of what it means, that to get attention, we're told to yell fire.

Monday, April 4, 2011

"Choose Your Own Adventure"

I am very excited: "Choose Your Own Adventure" is up today at Fantasy Magazine! It looks so beautiful there, like a real grown-up story. And there is even a podcast of it! This is the first time I have ever heard someone read something I have written. That was an amazing feeling. 

And if you loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books as much as I did, you will definitely want to read Molly Tanzer's nonfiction piece in this issue. It's such a smart, interesting essay.