Tuesday, August 30, 2011

REM was right. It did, actually, start with an earthquake

It has been a week. First there was an earthquake! Not a big one, as these things go, but it went on long enough to knock down some books, a painting, and a sword, make me feel vaguely seasick, and seriously freak out my cat. My darling pug snored through it. I lived just outside of Seattle for ten years, never had an earthquake. But here...

Two days later, at 2:30 in the morning, my smoke detectors malfunctioned. Not in a "change the battery and you fix this" fashion. No, in a "they're wired into the house, and I don't know if they're also carbon monoxide detectors, and I don't have a direct line for my landlords, and also one of them is in my horror movie basement" fashion. Cats do not like being stuffed into a sack and evacuated. Sam I Am really wanted to ride the fire truck. The fire department was awesome, and extremely kind. And eventually, the landlords fixed the system so it stopped spontaneously going off. Also, I have all their phone numbers now. (I've lived here over a year.)

Then Hurricane Irene came. And dropped a tree on my car. All things considered, I got off lightly. Part of my town flooded. Most of the houses near me had trees on them. I have insurance, and I have a rental car now. Still, stressful. And exhausting.

Also, I did my undergrad at the University of Miami. We had hurricanes a couple of times. I don't remember ever losing a day of classes to a storm. First day of classes at Stony Brook was canceled yesterday.

It has been a week.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The relentless pursuit of perfection

One of my college fencing coaches - a man whose picture I am fairly certain is in the dictionary next to "dissolute" - used to tell me I needed to have a beer before I came to train. He would say this during the lessons when he didn't, in moments of great frustration, tell me I needed a good fuck before I came to train. 

See, I like to get things right. Not just right, but perfect. And I want to be perfect the first time, and I get extremely frustrated and short tempered.

An extremely frustrated and short tempered woman with a sword is not a safe person to be around. Neither, it seems, is an extremely frustrated and short tempered woman with a pen.

This lack of patience with myself makes it very hard to for me to write any fiction longer than a short story. Short stories are fine - I tend to write very short ones, and very nearly all of the ones that have been successful have been written in a kind of white heat. I sit at the notebook, and start writing, and basically only come up for air long enough to take the dog out until I am done. When I am writing a short story, I can outwrite the voice of my internal editor.

I cannot write a novel that fast. So there are days - and yes, I am having one right now, though I say that out of honesty, and not out of some desire for a bunch of reassurance that I will get through this - where all I can see are the flaws. My system of magic doesn't quite have the logic built into it yet. One of my characters is still more a set of characteristics than a person. The voice slips on occasion, and too many scenes are white roomed.

The reason I don't want reassurance is that I do know how to get through this. I have a list, and I write down the things that need fixing. My notebook is stuck all about with post-its. I am a good enough writer to see these things and know how to fix them. I am a professional enough writer to have a kick ass team of beta readers who will help me whip this into shape when I have a draft. I have an incredibly insightful agent, who even now has a set of some of these early pages.

I give great revision. 

But I still want to be perfect the first time.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Today is not that day

Last night at WorldCon, the winners of the Hugo and Campbell awards were announced. Congratulations to all the winners!

This morning, the complaining began. "Why didn't X win?" "How could Y even have been on the ballot?" "Author/ story/ film Z is so overrated. People must be idiots if that's what they vote for."

My response to this is: did you nominate? Did you vote? If not, kindly shut up.

I nominated, and voted. Like anything that involves voting, in some cases I am utterly delighted with the results, and in some cases, the winners differ from my choices. But I had my say, and I think it does little to no good to complain about any of it now.

But if you hated the results, if you feel they are a travesty, or a joke, or nothing but a popularity contest, or whatever has made you so grumpy that you do nothing but complain for paragraph after paragraph (yes, I've seen this. No, I'm not linking to it. The sad thing is, examples aren't hard to find) well, for fuck's sake, nominate and vote next year.

Anyone can nominate, anyone can vote. Yes, you need to have a supporting membership in that year's WorldCon, and yes, that costs money. The past few years, it's been at $50. I understand that isn't pocket change, but you also get the Hugo Voters' pack of the nominated material, which includes all the nominated novels. (You can also nominate and vote in the Locus awards for free.)

Let me say that again: Anyone. You don't need to be a writer, an editor, an agent, a critic, a publisher, a superfan. Just, you know, have read a work in a category.

If you're really upset about past results, advocate for different ones. When you read or watch something you find worthy of being nominated, say so. Say so loudly. Write a blog post, or comment on a book review, or just tweet something during the nomination period. If you don't know if something is eligible, ask the person who wrote it. Trust me - that person will know.

No day is an appropriate day to try and cast tarnish on the shiny rocketship trophies. But seriously, if you couldn't even bother to vote, today is really not that day. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Back to school

Last year, I posted the syllabi for my fall courses. People seemed to enjoy this activity, so I am doing it again. Due to a scheduling issue, I have only one class this fall, and the spring semester will be my heavy one. The course is full already, has had a waiting list for months, and is only available at Stony Brook. (I don't teach any online courses, as that's not part of the terms of my postdoc. I would if someone wanted to pay me to do so, however.)

This fall's course is The Fantastic as Place. As you might guess from the name, it focuses on the role of setting in works of the fantastic. Here's the booklist:

Welcome to Bordertown, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner (selections, not all of it)
War for the Oaks, Emma Bull
Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J. K. Rowling
Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
The City and the City, China MiƩville
The Magicians, Lev Grossman

Yes, that is in the order we'll be reading them. It's pretty close to the booklist for last fall. I added Bordertown, because I would have used it if it had been out last year, and War for the Oaks makes a great companion to it. Locke & Key is on there because after I taught some of Sandman in a different course last fall, I learned that only about 10% of my students had ever read a comic/ graphic novel, and I wanted to include one. (Also, because it's completely great.)

I dropped The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe because, even though I liked teaching it, our discussions were about many things, but not so much Narnia as setting. This meant that I also couldn't keep Laura Miller's brilliant The Magician's Book in the course. I love it (and highly recommend it), and the students loved it, but I can't assume people have read the Narnia books, so I can't teach it this time.

I'm looking forward to teaching the course. And I'll give extra credit to anyone who gets me a Stony Brook Quidditch t-shirt. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Birds, snakes, and aeroplanes

I say all the time that I write to know what happens next. It's true - the reason outlining doesn't work for me is that if I know how the story ends, I have no interest whatsoever in writing my way towards it.

This is not without its occasional frustrations, such as writing to the end of a scene and then realizing I have no clue what happens next: Exit, pursued by a bear? Enter, chewed by velociraptor? Rocks fall, everyone dies?

It's a mystery.

The frustrations, however, are outweighed by those brief moments of perfection, where the gears in my head click into place, and I know that I have found the exact piece the story wanted.

Eureka, baby.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Some people are going to the special Hell

I've been writing seriously (and in my own personal definition, that means with an eye to publishing and making money for my writing) for three years now. At one point in that three year time, after I had made my first two sales, I sold nothing for a year.

It was awful. I doubted myself. I doubted my choices. I wondered if my small success had been a fluke. 

But at the same time, I was lucky. A year, even a sucky one, isn't that long in the grand scheme of things. I had a network of friends who supported me, who talked me down from the bad days, and who, most relevantly to the current discussion at hand, knew things about the writing business. 

But not everyone knows things about writing as a business. I think it's probably safe to say that most beginning writers don't. They see that people in the field now each other, and instead of thinking that - like in any job - writers know their colleagues, they see it as a closed-door club, where one needs to know the password to get inside. They see ads promising publication without having to pay an agent, and don't realize that that's simply how business is done. Writing is their dream, and they'll do whatever they think is necessary to achieve it.

There are people out there who will take advantage of this. People like Publish America, who are right now promising to  - for a fee, of course - show your book to JK Rowling next week, while their delegation is in her hometown. They will even ask her to tell you what she thinks of your writing. (I linked on twitter. I'm not linking again.)

This is evil. It is a fraud, and it is cruel.

I am not normally a litigious person, but I hope Rowling accios her legal team and has them perform a variety of legal spells on Publish America. (Because I am positive she knows nothing about this plan, and that the only thing that will happen to any manuscripts that even get near her is that they will be recycled.) 

This makes me furious. Especially because I can see how this plays out. If you don't know how the business part of being a writer works, you might think that writers - especially someone who has sold as many books as Rowling - are the ones with the power. You might think that she might quite happily sit around reading slush and looking for books to pass on to her publisher. You might think $49 isn't so much, when it's a shot at everything you've ever wanted.

This isn't how it works. Publish America are behaving like Dementors.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Forget your perfect offering

If there was any piece of writing advice that I'd like to stab through the throat with my pen, it is "write what you know." Not least because I believe that the vast majority of novels about middle-aged humanities professors having affairs with their grad students and getting divorced (not necessarily in that order) can be directly traced back to this adage. 

I don't mean a responsible writer shouldn't do research or rely on a list of experts to help make sure that she knows what she is talking about, and conveys that knowledge in a manner useful to her reader. Research is a necessary part of good writing. Otherwise you have a reader who knows that vampires don't walk around in daylight wondering why the ones in your book can, and putting the book down when you don't provide a compelling explanation.

But too often, "write what you know" makes us cowards. We know what will sell, so we write to that instead of the book that lives in our secret heart. We know our strengths as writers, so we hide behind those, and never push ourselves to try new things. We know how putting certain truths in our work will make our parents, our friends, our lovers look at us, and so we don't write those, because we know that writing something else will be easier, and cleaner. We know what is safe to write, and we write that.

We write what we know when we want to be perfect, and I don't think perfection is what art is about. I think art is about truth.

I am not a good writer when I write safely. I'm an educated one - an advanced degree in Literature means I have plenty of practice thinking about the pieces that go into a story. I can give you theme and archetype, blood, love, and rhetoric, all wrapped up in a tidy bit of literary allusion. I'm good enough at language and the manipulation of words to turn a pithy - or pretty - phrase. I can paint the surface of the page with sparkle and shine. It's beautiful, but it's false at it's heart. At best, what I make when I do this will be mediocre.

I don't want to be mediocre. I would rather be a spectacular failure than be safe.

I was reading an interview with Amanda Palmer today, and in it (while talking about twitter) she says, "share things that make you uncomfortable." It's that piece of advice that I would replace "write what you know" with. Because I've found that when you acknowledge the existence of that discomfort - poke around in it a bit and think about why you don't want to write that scene, or that character, or that story - what comes out is better art. 

When I say this, I don't mean uncomfortable in terms of shock value. I mean it in terms of truth. I mean it in the way that if you think people will judge you, that they will look at you funny, or like you less, or wonder if you're a creep or a pervert or a weirdo or or or, for putting something in your art, then maybe that is exactly the thing your art needs.

I'm not going to lie, and say that's easy or fun, or that there haven't been times I've handed something in and thought "Dear God, I hope my Mom never reads that." And I don't succeed at being honest in my work all the time - possibly the most devastating critique I ever received was a single line: "Dear Kat, you know you have to write [redacted] if you want this to mean anything." It was devastating because I had known. I just wasn't brave enough to put it in that draft. And it was so obviously the missing piece of story.

So don't be satisfied to write what you know. Share what makes you uncomfortable. Write what terrifies you.

Write what's true.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Blue eyed dressed for every situation

Could we please have a moratorium on calling the things we like guilty pleasures? What we eat, what we read, what we watch, what we listen to - why can't we just say we like them? 

My name is Kat Howard and I have a serious fondness for 80s synth pop.

I mean, I get that a woman cannot live on Reeses Peanut Butter Cups alone (no matter how many times I have tried, during finals and deadlines), and maybe there is art that is somehow the functional equivalent of the Reeses. But what I don't get is why I should have to apologize for liking it. 

What I think it boils down to is image. But you know what? I'm much more impressed by the professor of Shakespeare who thinks that "Bad Romance" is a damn catchy tune than the one who insists that he doesn't listen to popular music because it simply has no artistic relevance. I'm also willing to lay money down that the former is a better and more imaginative scholar than the latter.

Because you know what? There is nothing wrong with a song that makes you want to get up and dance, or a book that guarantees you a happily ever after. It takes talent to create those things, and there's no guilt in enjoying them. Even if - maybe especially if - the rest of your life is serious business.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go perform the Safety Dance.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Crowd-sourcing the whole of human knowledge

Oh, wondrous messages from the internet! Well, not exactly like that. I do love the spam that I get that wants to help strengthen my sword. I always want to reply, "No, thank you. I already have one. It's very nice." (Visconti grip, German point. And yes, after hot-gluing myself to a blade while trying to act as my own armorer, I buy them prewired.)

Sorry. I digress. 

Sometimes the internet is wondrous, though. I started a short story the other night, and as I was writing, lines from "The Cruel Sister" kept running through my head. I know the ballad reasonably well (enough to know it's also "The Bonny Swans" and "The Twa Sisters" and Child 10), but I asked twitter for other versions. 

And people were amazing: they recommended versions I knew and loved, versions I'd forgotten I owned, and versions I'd never heard or heard of. One person recommended the English Folk Dance and Song Society Archives. This morning, @TheEFDSS got in touch with me on twitter - the person in their marketing department who runs their twitter feed had put together and collected a search for me, for all versions in their archives! And promised to put me in touch with a librarian if that wasn't enough.


So thank you @NaBean and @MaginifKat and @AnassaRH and @9andhennepin and @tembrooke and @TheEFDSS (and also everyone who passed my question along, whose names have been hidden from me by twitter). You lot are amazing. I will write you the best short story inspired by "The Cruel Sister" that I can.

Monday, August 1, 2011

That's not why I'm here

There's a post making the rounds today, that argues that writing a blog is a waste of time for fiction writers because (to paraphrase) even though blogging may help you meet other writers, network, and improve your craft, it will not help you sell books.

Author bloggers, she suggests, blog only as a means of self-promotion, but because they have tunnel vision and only blog about writing, they appeal only to other writers, and so do not reach an outside audience, sell no books because of their blog entries articulating the pain and terror of the revision process and on and on, until the internet becomes like unto a cat, devouring its own tail, and the world ends.

(I may have exaggerated for dramatic license at some point in that last paragraph.)

I have, you may have guessed, some thoughts on this. My first is that if you, as a fiction writer (the rules are different for nonfiction writers, who often have to demonstrate having an audience for their topic before they can get a contract) are doing anything social media related for the purpose of increasing sales, you are doing it wrong. And your readers and followers and friends can probably tell and are probably unfriending and unfollowing you so they can go read someone else.

You know what can help increase sales? A good story. If you write rubbish, the most snazzily designed and managed author platform (ugh) in the world isn't going to help you increase your sales or reach your target market or whatever the catchphrase is that we savvy writers on social media are supposed to use.

So if we're not watching the zeros on the royalty checks increase with every page view, why should writers blog? Well, I think "should" is the wrong word. And I can't speak to why other writers do so, but I do it because it gives me a way of connecting with people, or to a conversation. Do I talk about writing a lot? Well, yes. That is because what I do - a lot - is write. I have the following project files open - a novel, a book-length nonfiction project, a short story, an academic article, and a ballet. I am writing for two other websites right now. I am in the research process on a nonacademic article, and another novel (or possibly short series of novels.) That is, yea verily, a lot of writing. During the academic year, I teach literature, so, you know, more writing. 

Does that mean I only want to talk to writers? No, of course not. Does that mean I am limiting my blog audience from all the people in the world to the people who are interested in writing? Probably. But since recent search stats have shown that people who have found my blog have been looking for werewolves in New Hampshire, noseless Greek mathematicians, and the most beautiful girls in the world, I'm not too concerned.