Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A day in the life

The last time I was working simultaneously on multiple large writing projects at once was when I was finishing my dissertation and drafting the novel that eventually became The Sword Between. And by simultaneously, I mean working on both projects every day so that my brain had to toggle back and forth between the two. It was easier then.

Partially because the writing styles were so different. Writing academic nonfiction is like writing speculative fiction only in that the component parts for both are words, and I say that as someone whose academic interests have always overlapped heavily with her creative ones. So switching from arguments and footnotes and translating dead languages in the morning to characters and fight scenes and, okay, sometimes translating dead languages again, in the evening was a pretty clear mental switch. Sure, there were frustrations - I sometimes felt like I might never finish anything, and would simply write and write into some verbal event horizon, but I coped with that by writing a lot of flash fiction. (If you want to read it, it's all on this blog. Search "free fiction.") The power of typing *ENDS* got me through a lot.

It also helped that writing the dissertation was my day job. None of the things I am actively writing (versus doing research on) right now are part of my day job. Yet even though classes are not in session, I spent about two hours yesterday dealing with day job things. Summer vacation simply means not teaching. It does not mean not working.

So this is the part of the learning to be a writer process where I learn to work on multiple creative projects at once. It's tricky. I made my page count on my revision yesterday (this is the thing I work on first, because it has the most pressing deadline), but it was work. Not so much because I was working on any terribly difficult scenes (I should hit the worst of those this weekend), but because writing is a job. And like any job, sometimes your brain would rather go walk on the beach than sit at the desk. And even at the desk, it would rather play Plants vs. Zombies than figure out the emotional beats for the secondary character.

And the work for the day isn't done when the page count is made. Because there's the rewrite on the next book, or the next scene for the ballet I am writing with my wonderful friend, Megan. And I cannot just let them sit off to the side, neglected, because then I will lose the thread of the story, or stop being able to suspend my own disbelief in the speculative elements, or the nasty voice of doubt inside my head will grow to loud to be drowned out by my own excitement about doing something new and different.

Maybe this sounds like I'm complaining. I'm not. Yes, the work is hard, and sometimes frustrating. But I am lucky - I am doing work I love, on projects I love, with people I love. I will say it again: I am lucky.

But I talk here a lot about how writing is awesome and wonderful, and how excited I am that this is the thing I am doing. All of that is still true, and it hasn't changed, and I hope it doesn't. But sometimes I feel like I am painting a disingenuous picture, that by not talking about the days where my job as a writer really feels like a job, by only celebrating the acceptances and not mentioning that I still get rejection letters (just last week, in fact), by not talking about the days where I am full of doubt, that I'm not actually being honest.

And I say these things now not because I'm trolling for hugs, or pats on the back, or remarks in the comments about how awesome I am, but just as a reminder that I am a working writer. I'm at the beginning of my career, and so there's still a learning curve. I'm still figuring things out. And this is what that looks like.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Progress report

Status of the revision: on schedule
Casualties so far: one porch light
Amount of coffee consumed: no more than normal

I spent the first two days of this revision going very carefully through all of the notes on my manuscript, both the ones my agent gave me, and the ones I generated in response to the things I needed to think about. I printed out and marked up the manuscript, and also wrote about three pages worth of things that needed to be altered as I revised. Then I counted pages, and divided by days before my deadline, and made myself a schedule.

It's a schedule that's designed to 1. not kill me, and 2. get me finished before the deadline. Partially, this is for practical reasons - I handwrite my edits, like I do everything else, so I'll need to type once I'm finished. But also this is for "life happens" reasons. I woke up Saturday morning with mild food poisoning, and then found out that a family dog had died in her sleep the night before. These are not things that make it easier to write. I really hope not to need to take time off for sad reasons again, but I also want to have room to take time off for fun reasons - to see friends, or walk on the beach, or do something lovely to clear my head and refresh my soul.

It's also a schedule that gives me time to think. Just because I know I have to fix [redacted] doesn't mean I know how. And once I figure out how, well, then there's actually translating that on to the page. Which sometimes means reblocking a fight scene, which explains the porch light casualty reference above. I killed it with my sword. Writing is hardcore and merciless.


Speaking of writing, paying to attend writers' workshops can be hardcore and merciless, too. Clarion is currently holding its Write-a-thon, designed to help fund the workshop. The more funding it gets, the easier it will be for writers to afford to go. I am not participating (due to not being able to figure out how to make my deadlines match up in any reasonable way with the timing of the Write-a-thon, and saying, "well, I'll be writing a lot" to potential sponsors seemed very nebulous to me), but at least two of my classmates are, Ferrett Steinmetz, and Keffy Kehrli. So you could sponsor them, or any of the other participating writers, and if you did, I would think you were awesome.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Glamour and poise

Earlier this week, I met with my agent, and got some great feedback and revision notes for The Sword Between. I'm really excited about working through them and making my manuscript all shiny and gorgeous. (Well, you know me. It's more like upping the weird and the bodycount rather than making with the shiny, but it's the same sort of thing, right?)

So I bought lo, many post-it notes (SO. MANY. 3M should sponsor my writing, that's how many.) and pens of exciting colors of ink, and also highlighters in shades other than annoying neon yellow and orange. (The colors, they burn us when we touch them.) And now I am in the process of making notes and highlighting pages and scribbling on post-its and sticking them on things.

Things, which apparently include me. 

I went outside to get my new running shoes from the UPS guy, and he laughed so hard he nearly fell down the stairs. Stuck to my rear was a post-it reading "Think about your monsters!"

Believe me, I am.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The sound of things

And lo! It is time for Revision 2.0. Or something like that. I always start out with Draft Zero, and the the combined stress of counting plus nomenclature, plus, y'know actually doing the writing short circuits my brain when it comes time to name any of the subsequent iterations.

But things are progressing very well (says the woman about to engage in the writerly equivalent of a cold reboot). I have a better working title - Flawed Magic. New characters! An actual setting!

And the fun part of revision is the reworking of the playlist. So here's what I'm writing to now:

"Cruel" - Tori Amos
"Is Your Love Strong Enough" - Bryan Ferry
"In My Veins" - Andrew Belle (feat. Erin McCarley)
"Keep the Streets Empty for Me"  - Fever Ray
"Never Fall Out" - Peter Murphy
"Cosmic Love" - Florence + the Machine
"Lily" - Kate Bush
"Ooh Child" - Beth Orton
"Paradise Circus" - Massive Attack (feat. Hope Sandoval. Gui Boratto remix)
"Set the Fire to the Third Bar" - Snow Patrol (feat. Martha Wainwright)
"Slave to Love" - Bryan Ferry
"Civilian" - Wye Oak
"Make This Go On Forever" - Snow Patrol
"Any Other World" - Mika
"The Prince and Old Lady Shade" - Peter Murphy
"Mercy Street" - Fever Ray
"My Body is a Cage" - Peter Gabriel
"Sweet Surrender" - Sarah McLachlan (Live)
"St. Teresa" - Joan Osborne
"Song to the Siren" - Bryan Ferry
"Poison & Wine"  - The Civil Wars

And yes, this is probably pretty final. All the main characters have theme songs, as does the book. And no, I'm not telling you which those are.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An open letter to a creep

Dear Sir:

Perhaps you meant to be clever and insouciant, to show me your lighthearted fun side, by pulling up next to me in your truck and beginning our acquaintance with a proposal of marriage. And while I do not have much experience in the proposing-to of ladies myself, I would have thought that a response of "No, thank you" and a return to cleaning up after the dog would have been an adequate damper on any passion.

But perhaps you have a fetish for redheaded ladies carrying bags of canine excrement, because you continued your pursuit by driving after me, and suggesting that, in lieu of marriage, I might like to engage in a variety of carnal pursuits with you. As I was not interested in any of those activities, I declined to reply.

Confident of your own charisma and charm, you continued to pursue my small dog and myself in your vehicle, shouting speculation about my sexual preferences, enthusiasms, and proclivities. I am not quite sure why you were so hostile to my suggestion that I might call the authorities and describe to them your so-charming behavior, but I remain grateful that the presence of a phone in my pocket ended our far too lengthy conversation.

I devoutly hope never to see you again, 


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Plucking out the heart of the mystery

When I started this blog, I wrote a fair amount of book reviews here. Partially, this is because it was a pretty easy way to generate content. I'm always reading, always thinking about books, so putting my thoughts into semi-coherent form and slapping them up on screen was a natural thing to do. But it's also because I like books, and I like helping people find new things to read.

I had a policy about book reviews, too: If I didn't like the book, I didn't review it. Not for any inimical reason - I wasn't afraid that a well-reasoned and articulate negative review would ruin my chances to find an agent or be published. Nor was I trying to spare the feelings of my writer-friends, or build up some kind of trade off, where they would feel obligated to review my stuff positively one day, since I had already done them that favor.

No, it was because life is short, and when I'm reading solely for pleasure, if I don't like a book, I don't finish it. And if I don't finish something, I don't believe I'm qualified to shout on the internet, or anywhere else, about how bad it is. This is a personal blog, not a book blog, so I wasn't going to make myself finish a book I wasn't enjoying just so I could then write a review to say how much I didn't enjoy it.

I don't do reviews as much here anymore, because generally, if I like a book, I can say so in 140 characters or less on Twitter, and since the purpose of the reviews I was writing was to tell people about books I liked, well, there are more of you hanging out over there, and that means I can tell more people about the books that I think are great.

So why, then, am I nattering on about all this now? Well, because I am reviewing in a more professional capacity over at Fantasy Matters. And because people have been wondering what a good review ought to do

I think it's a good discussion to have. I generally use reviews as tools to help me decide whether or not I'm going to buy a book. But also, I use them to see what the conversation is around a certain kind of literature, or to see what's new in the field, or to find new authors, or... hmmm. I seem to use them more than I thought I did.

But the place where I don't use reviews is thinking about the state of the field as a whole - what are the ideas with which we are engaging? how are we succeeding and failing? how can we push ourselves and each other as writers to be better? how can we make the stories that we tell mean more?

And maybe that isn't the kind of thing a review is designed to do. And it's hard to talk about the ways that a book that we love fails, because we don't want to give the impression that it was a bad book. It can be almost as hard to talk about the ways that books we dislike succeed, especially if we dislike them for reasons unrelated to quality of writing. (I'll be a coward, and use Heart of Darkness as an example - a book that I think is brilliantly written, should absolutely be read and taught, and yet I hate the experience of reading it.)

But I want my field to take itself seriously enough to examine its imperfections. As a writer, I would rather (as much as it may sting to read something other than OMG BEST THING I EVER READ EVAR!!1!) see a thoughtful review that truly engages with the flawed text I have written (and we all know that the book is never really done, the writing never perfect) than something that falsely proclaims genius in a surplus of glowing adjectives.

So I'm challenging myself to become a better reviewer - to really push on and examine my own reactions to the books I read and talk about, to ask myself the hard questions and to honestly articulate those answers.  And if you have examples of critics and reviewers you think I ought to read, I'd love it if you'd drop their names in the comments for me.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hurting the ones you love

I have my favorite stories. Favorite ones to read, and favorite kinds of ones to write. Writerly preoccupations, literary kinks, bright copper kettles and warm wooly mittens. There are things I am always going to find fascinating, new favorites that will get added to the list, old preoccupations that will fall away when I have finally said what I needed to say about them.

These things are fun (for values of fun that include "compulsion" and "agony") for me to write about - there is a need I have, to tell these kinds of stories about these kinds of things. The problem comes, for me as a writer, instead of just a person with a consuming interest, is when I love one of these favorite things too much.

The problem is that characters can't be both perfect and real, and a story in which nothing new happens is not particularly interesting to read. The problem is, when I love something or someone, I don't want to look for the places that aren't perfect, and to write about them, I need to. When I love a story, or a character, I don't want to do violence to it, to cause pain, to write the sadder and better ending.

But that's the thing. Sometimes perfection and happy endings are lies, and it's my job as a writer to tell a kind of truth. It's more important for me to tell the story, and to tell it right, than to maintain that false image of perfection in my head.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The PhD and the Sparkly Vampire Books

Apparently, there's some discussion going on about whether or not professors of literature (of which I am one) should read the Twilight books.

And really, there's the potential for so much wtfery in even thinking about why that's an issue or how to address that, I'm not sure where to begin. But (as you can tell from the fact that I am here, writing this blog post), I'll try.

I am a literature professor. Should I read Twilight? Well, first, let's realize that this isn't actually about the Twilight books as such. It's about the idea of someone who is supposed to be an intellectual example standing up in front of a classroom and calling something - about which he admits he has no personal knowledge - crap. Or, excuse me, "low forms of literature." Let me here and now promulgate the radical idea that if you're going to call something crap, you ought to have some basis for doing so other than "lots of other people say it is." I mean, maybe it was just in my program, but I thought part of earning a PhD was learning how to form your own scholarly opinions.

It is my considered intellectual opinion that low forms of literature are crap. Do I need to read Twilight? Well, again. Here's the thing. If you haven't read it, how do you know it is a low form of literature? Because it is about vampires? But see: Dracula. Because it has werewolves? But see: Bisclaveret. Because it is popular? But see: the sales figures of any number of the classics of the literary canon. Because it was written by a woman? But see: A list of names I am not even going to begin because I would never be able to quit typing.

But I don't wanna. Fine. Then don't. Because for most classes that are currently taught in the lit departments at universities, there's no reason why Twilight ought to be added to your reading in the field. I work on modern speculative fiction, I teach course in the area, and so yes, I've read them. But if I were only teaching as a medievalist, or a Victorianist, or a specialist in early American poetry, there would be no reason. Unless, of course, every time I needed a shorthand for "fiction that is crap," I referenced Twilight.

Intellectual snobbery is perfidious and foul, and has no place in the classroom. Our job when we stand there is to open minds, not close our own.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Fantasy Matters

In November of 2007, I co-organized a conference. My partners in crime were two of the most excellent people it has ever been my pleasure to work with, Jennifer Miller and Lindsay Craig. It was called Fantasy Matters, and was held at the University of Minnesota.

Helping to organize a conference is one of those quixotic and mad activities that you decide to do because you do not realize how much work it actually is. (This is where I take off all my hats, and salute anyone who has ever served on a ConCom. You lot are my heros.) But somehow - through luck, and hard work, and did I mention the amazingness of Jen and Lindsay? - we pulled it off. Our keynote speakers were Neil Gaiman and Jack Zipes. Other writers in attendance included Nnedi Okorafor, Jim Hines, David Anthony Durham, Theodora Goss, Caitlin Kittredge, Jackie Kessler, and Patrick Rothfuss, all of whom are fabulous. Scholars came from as far away as Turkey. It was an extraordinary experience.

Our goal in organizing the conference was to create a space where everyone who loved fantasy literature (defined as broadly as possible - so for these purposes, assume a scifi video game is fantasy literature) could come together and talk about what they loved, and why that thing they loved was important - to make, to think critically about, to enjoy. I can't speak for any of the other attendees, but the conversations I had that weekend are still informing my academic work today. And I would not have begun seriously writing creatively without that conference.

Since we had such a positive experience, we immediately made plans to host another conference. And then the economy exploded. Grad students (which we all were at the time) were told to finish their dissertations quick, fast, and in a hurry before their funding ran out. The university no longer had money to offer for conferences like ours. And then the realities of the job market meant that the three of us were living and working in three separate states.

But we still believe that fantasy matters, and that there should be a place where we can all talk about why and how it does. So we turned the conference into a website, (Those of you who know my history with technology will be very glad to see that Adam Miller has joined this endeavour in the role of Internet and Tech Support Genius.) We'll be bringing in a number of fabulous staff writers, whose columns I cannot wait to share with you. I hope you'll stop by.