Monday, November 28, 2011

Because fairy godmothers are real

It is neither exaggeration nor hyperbole to say that without Terri Windling, I would not be a writer.

I'll start with the obvious - she helped create and edit Bordertown. She has, with Ellen Datlow, edited a number of volumes of excellent, fairy-tale inflected, short fiction. Her own novel, The Wood Wife, is one I have turned to again and again, when I needed thoughtful magic. So her work has, in a number of ways, shaped my literary DNA.

But she also gave refuge and sanctuary to my soul. She took me on as a reviewer for the Endicott Studio of Mythic Arts, and she and Midori Snyder were unfailingly kind and encouraging to me while I was there. I needed that place - a place to feel that these stories that l loved were important, and mattered, and that it was okay to think seriously about them. I felt part of a community there.

And it was there, on the reference pages of the Endicott website, that I first discovered how to apply to Clarion, and when I said that I was going to, Terri wished me well. Even now, I cannot write what it meant to me, to have someone whose work I so admired, someone who I looked up to in that fashion, say good luck, and you can do this thing. It gave me courage, and strength.

We still haven't met in person, but Terri Windling is my fairy godmother, and someone I love deeply.

Right now, Terri has had to deal with a number of ongoing legal and health issues. She needs help. Here, at Magick 4 Terri, is a place you can do that. It's an auction full of beautiful and fantastical things.

Thank you.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

One more star, to hang in the heavens

If you had told me yesterday that I would cry at the news of Anne McCaffrey's death, I would have been surprised.

I read her, of course. Didn't we all? It seems to me that anyone in my generation who read any science fiction or fantasy read Anne McCaffrey. And some of her books I truly loved - I read Dragonsong quite literally to pieces, and loved the rest of the Harper Hall trilogy, as well. Menolly is still on my list of favorite heroines. And I have a particular fondness for Black Horses for the King, which lives on the shelf of my comfort books downstairs. 

I read her, I loved her, but I outgrew her. Sometimes we do - we cannot always take the pieces of our childhood with us into adulthood. It does not mean they meant any less to us, then.

But the world has been hard, lately, and cold. Still, as the news of McCaffrey's death spread tonight, I watched as all of us who read her mourned, and shared their memories of what they loved best. In the sadness of the loss, the world became a little smaller, a little more connected. And so I cried, because I didn't realize until now that not only had Anne McCaffrey given us stories, she had given us each other as well, one more tremendous gift in the wake of her passing.

So thank you, Anne McCaffrey. Thank you. The harpers will always sing your name.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

This is dedicated to the one I

The other day on twitter, someone asked if I had a specific person in mind when I wrote, someone to whom I was writing. He had written something for his son, and having that audience in his head helped him.

I started to answer with a "No, absolutely not. That's the sort of thing that would paralyze me." and then realized the reason behind my answer was actually a good deal more complicated, so I'm giving it here.    

So let's step back in time to the summer of 2008, when I was at Clarion. It's probably no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers. He was also my week 4 instructor. And the way Clarion works is that the instructors run the critique sessions of the stories that get workshopped that week, and then also have a one-on-one conference with the writers. So, you know, no big deal, only someone whose writing I thought was brilliant going to be reading and picking apart something I wrote, and then meeting with me in person to tell me  exactly what he thought. No pressure, right?

Let me just say that if I ever take up a career in burglary, the first thing I am stealing is the copy of my week 4 story out of the Clarion archives. It is, perhaps, the worst thing I have ever written. And it is that level of disaster because I focused on the audience, and forgot about the thing I had come there to do: tell a story.

Thankfully, Neil is as kind as he is talented, so when it came time for our conference, instead of rehashing the horribleness of what I had written, he said, "I watched you during the critique, so I know you know what's wrong with the story. Let's talk about your writing, instead. Tea?"

And so we had tea, and talked, and one of the things we talked about was fear. Fear that people would think things about me, because of what I had written. That they would judge me. The fear that made me focus on the audience, and not on the story. The fear that would suffocate any talent that I had, unless I told it to go fuck itself, and wrote what I needed to write.

I'd like to tell you that happened all at once, that I am always and ever brave whenever I sit down and open a notebook. But it's hard - my grandmother reads everything I publish, you guys. I have scenes that I hide from, things it takes me multiple drafts to get the emotion right in, because it hurts, it makes me sick to my stomach to put those things on paper. I still can't write a sex scene without blushing, even when I don't remind myself that one of my regular readers is a Jesuit.

And I am always aware that I am not writing solely for myself. If I were, I would not be seeking publication. I want people to read what I write. Sometimes, I even know what people will be reading it - I have had editors ask for stories, and I have, on occasion, written things as gifts. But that is an awareness I push aside when I am writing, because I need to fill my head with story until there is no longer any room for fear.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A meditation on the nature of time

I finished Stephen King's 11/22/63 last night. This isn't meant to be a review of it (though I liked it, very much, and while it seems odd to say the words "cross-over appeal" about someone who has as many readers as King does, I do think this is a book that can be read and loved by people who don't normally gravitate toward his writing.) Rather, I want to talk about the way the book handled the problem of time.

As you might expect from a book that has a date for a title, time is a huge presence in 11/22/63. It is not quite a character, but it is the monster in the closet, the shadow at morning striding behind you, and at evening rising to meet you. And for most of the book, time moves at what seems an achingly slow pace. Oh, not that the pace of the book is slow - it isn't (unless you compare it with the careen of Under the Dome), but time cannot seem to move normally when history stands in front of it. Jake has to get to 1963 by way of 1958, and the ticking clock of the past echos louder and louder as we read towards the unanswered question. That tick tock becomes amplified almost unbearably when we arrive in late November of 1963, and King's text begins counting down the days. Trust me when I say that six numbers can make you shudder.

And yes, what King is interested in doing is exploring the idea of time travel, not alternate history, so I give away nothing (or at least nothing more than the fact that portal to the past opens in 1958 does) by saying that the titular date arrives very near to the end of the book. After Jake Epping has learned, time and again, that the past is obdurate. After entire flocks of butterflies have flapped their wings. It might seem obvious in a novel about time travel, but in 11/22/63 time is a force that cannot be ignored. I would say that it is the organizing force of the story, but then, isn't it always, when we begin with "Once upon a time" and end with "happily ever after?"

One of my favorite television shows is about a time-traveling mad man in a box, and one of the most quoted lines of this season was that "time can be rewritten." On my desk right now is Sean Carroll's From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. I am writing an alternate history and wrestling in my own way with obduracies of time. Plot is made of people, you see, and while changing history can be accomplished with a sweep of my pen, the people inside it are surprisingly resistant to being altered for all that they've been dead for 400 years now. And they keep trying to put the pieces of history that I have broken back together. 

Time is a thread, a layer, a piece of a coordinate in spacetime. Time is a bubble on the side of a multiverse. Time is the crack of a bullet, the flutter of wings, the inexorable ticking of a clock creeping in its petty pace. It is the beginning and end, and all of the pieces in between, no matter how often they are rewritten. It is all we have, and it is never long enough.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It seems I am hopelessly naive. I thought these words actually meant something.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Standing on someone else's soapbox

I sent out my first query letter (the letter that a writer sends to an agent, looking for representation) at the end of 2009. As I was getting ready to do so, I did what any sensible person does - I consulted the internet. 

Oh, not just for research on which agents might be a good fit for me, and what a query letter was, and how one wrote a synopsis without descent into madness and despair, but also for some sort of clue as to how I might survive the process - the process of being a new writer who was querying, and writing other things, and trying to figure out the business, and all the assorted angst and wankery (wankstery?) that goes with it. 

Reader, I found The Rejectionist. She was, at the time, an agent's assistant. But she didn't just write about the rejectionist part of things. She wrote about books and feminism and fashion and discovering who you are and the perils of nostalgia. And she wrote about them in a smart, snarky, insightful way that I loved. It became one of my favorite blogs, and it still is.

So I am so excited to tell you that I am guest-blogging for The Rejectionist today, as part of Feminist Speculative Fiction Week. I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Frailty, thy name is

I was faffing about on twitter the other day, as one does when one is between scenes and needs a break, and I saw that an online writing group was getting ready to have a public chat. While it's not a group I participate in, it's a fairly large one, and they often have guest visits from professionals. The topic? How to Write Flawed Heroines.

My first thought was, oh, they're not really doing this, are they? (Actually, that's a lie. My first thought was a great deal shorter and more profane.) And then the chat started, and I started to see things get retweeted, and the first two posts I saw were that heroines in particular needed to have noticeable imperfections and that women readers will forgive an arrogantly perfect male hero just about anything if he's hot enough.

This isn't the first time I've been grumpy on this subject. And I should point out that the title and the subject of the chat wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest if it had been something like "How to Write Imperfect People" or "How to Write Characters With Depth" or "How to Write Characters Who Actually Resemble Real, Flawed, Human Beings." Because let's face it. None of us are perfect. It's one of those inherent-in-being-a-person commonalities. And writing perfect characters is boring, and bad writing, and - I've taught Milton enough to know - makes for boring reading. 

But what I don't understand is the insistence that female characters need to be more flawed, or the perception that a male character can be a hot alpha hero who has all the skills, lets everyone know he knows best, and makes sexytimes with all the ladies and women readers will love him, but if the hero is a heroine who does these things that then she's a pushy bitch and a slut.

And it really pisses me off that a writers' group would decide that teaching people how to write acceptably weak women is a better use of its time than teaching people how to write interesting, believable, complex characters. And maybe it did - maybe someone pointed out that heros should be flawed as well, or that readers read to find strong women, as well as weak ones - and the discussion changed. I hope it did.

Because I don't believe it's true that the only way to write a believable female character is to emphasize her flaws, any more than I would believe that's the only way to write a believable male character. We can, and we should, write better.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Reflections on the turning of the year

So here is the obligatory post-Convention write-up post. Though I'm never sure why these things are obligatory - to remember what happened, perhaps? I am as likely to forget the enormous hug by my collective Clarion class as I am to forget the early morning phone call from my most excellent pet-sitter, saying the police were in the yard because the insurance company forgot (!) to tow the hurricane-smashed PugBug as I am to forget being chatted up with my excellent friend Maria Dahvana Headley by the Jagermeister Spokesstrippers as I am to forget opening weeping while Neil Gaiman read "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury" or gasping with laughter as Nalo Hopkinson read from her forthcoming YA novel, The Chaos.

That was pretty much my World Fantasy Convention. I saw the people I loved, never for long enough. I met new friends, and heard some excellent stories (I strongly prefer to go to readings over panels, as I love being read to.) I had dinner with my agency, and realized how very lucky I am to be part of such a terrific and talented collective of people. Throughout the weekend, I felt like a professional writer, not just in my own eyes, but in those of others.

And while I was gone, the seasons shifted. The last gasps of summer well and truly became fall, with pieces of winter sneaking through. These are the days of the dead, of saints and souls and turnings of the year. Endings and beginnings, and I cannot settle back in. I feel stretched too thin, and I cannot say why. Not lost, because I know where it is I need to be going, but off-kilter. 

I cannot say if the two things are related, if I am still disoriented from travel, from flinging myself at a place and people and dreams, or if it is simply the time of year, which has always felt like a haunted one for me. Or if it is simply that, like the time of year, there is so much that is almost ready to happen, and I need to lay the ghosts before I can reap the harvest.