Monday, January 30, 2012

"my prayers are the prayers of earth's own clumsily striving"

It was in high school, when I stopped saying prayers, and started saying poems. Not that I gave up my religion, or my faith, but that I began asking questions. I began choosing to believe what I did based on my own desire to connect with the numinous, not simply because my parents piled us all in the car to go to church every Sunday.

And about the time I really began to think about what it meant to believe, to have faith, is about the time that I began to really dislike the idea of praying using the memorized prayers of my childhood. I didn't need to think about the words, they were just there. That didn't seem like prayer to me - I wanted to think. But at the same time, there were times that I wanted more of a focus for my thinking than simply talking to God. So I used poems.

I had my favorites, ones which spoke to my need to rejoice, to ask questions, to search for beauty, or to find support. But there were others, that I would read, and then stop and read again with intent. Some were overtly religious, but often they weren't. They were just ways to pause, to reflect, and to feel connected to something larger and more glorious than I was.

I was reminded of this last night when I read this blog from Amanda Palmer, where she talks about Rocky Horror being a kind of church. It's a metaphor that struck me as exactly right. Not just because of the ritual aspect of both (special clothing, singing, unison responses from those in attendance, and I'm stopping this list now because I can't tell if I sound like an academic or a heretic.) but that I think art is like what church ought to be.

I think art, the experience of it, stretches us outside of ourselves. It makes us dance, and rejoice, and ask questions. It makes us weep. It makes us feel connected, even if we don't know to what, or to whom. Art can show us that there is more than this moment, this now, but that by whatever we deem holy, we need to live in this moment, this now. Art helps us build our own churches, carefully, around the strange shapes of our souls.

And I don't say that because I think that church no longer does those things, or to mock people who believe, who have faith. But I say that because I am a person who sometimes has to read poetry, in order to pray.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ordinary magic

It's easy to recognize magic when it comes with words and wands, with smoke and mirrors, with a spotlight shown on an illusion so marvelous you stop looking for how the trick gets done. It's a glorious thing, when something happens and it's so large that you cannot help but stop and wonder. We need magic like that, that's flashy and obvious.

But there are also the smaller magics: a friend who really listens, a letter in the post on a day when hearing "I love you" matters, a hand extended in welcome or comfort. Things that are quiet, and real, and no less magical for that.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

When the darkness has robbed you of all of your sight

Yesterday on twitter, my friend Joe asked people to share their Mulder Score -  a number from zero to twenty, calculated by whether you believed in any of the following ten things: Horoscopes, Auras, Ghosts, Telekensis, Telepathy, Fortune-Telling, Bigfoot, Nessie, UFOs, Souls. You got two points for definite belief, one for maybe, and zero for things you didn't believe in. (It got hashtagged as #mulderscore for any of you who want to read back through the feed.)

I scored six: belief in souls and ghosts, and maybe-belief in telepathy and fortune-telling (if we define fortune telling broadly as any divinatory practice.) And honestly, the fact that my number wasn't higher makes me a little sad.

Not that I want to be gullible (though there are some, I am sure, that would look at that small list of beliefs and tell me I am), but that I wish there were more things I could believe in. I remember believing in Nessie and Bigfoot (hell, I remember believing in the Bun-biter Snakes my Dad told me lived in the overgrown section of our backyard.) I tried very hard to set things on fire using only the power of my brain. I was certain there were unicorns, and elves, and fairies, and wizards. There were so many wonders that seemed possible.

I appreciate logic and reason and knowledge, and I am grateful for modern science and technology. But I long for wonders, for the miraculous, for the bright flash of magic.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A miscellany of reasons

We could start with the obvious reasons why you should apply to Clarion. Every year, there are six of them, and every year they are the faculty. Six professional writers, all talented, all respected in the field. Often, they are also award winners and best-sellers. You will work with each of them, both in the workshop room, and one on one. Sometimes in the common room at 2 am when you are still reading for the next day's that morning's critiques. Some of them will become your friends and mentors. They will give you the respect of taking you, and your writing, seriously.

Here are another six reasons: six weeks. Six weeks in which you can make your writing your absolute priority. Is it hard to step away from the life you've known for that long of a time? Yes. Emotionally and financially, it is a sacrifice. But - and please forgive my bluntness - if you think that the life of a writer is not full of emotional and financial sacrifices, you are wrong. Even if you cannot go now, it is worth saving and planning for.

Here are eighteen reasons - yourself, and your classmates. You will meet amazing, wonderful, challenging people. Some of these people will become part of your chosen family. Some you will do crazy and impossible projects with - I am writing a ballet with one of my Clarionmates right now. Let me assure that this is something that had never crossed my mind to do before I went to Clarion.

And that is the other thing, the beginning of the less-obvious reasons that you should attend - you will learn so much about yourself. Perhaps one of the things that you will learn is that you are not a writer, or not someone who wants to write professionally, or at least not then. Believe me when I say that is a good thing to learn, and better to learn it in six weeks than in six months, or six years. But perhaps you will learn that you are. I did, when I was there. 

Clarion is a difficult experience, sometimes. It gets called "boot camp for writers" and I think the description is apt. It can also be a trial by fire, and many other clich├ęs. It will, in all likelihood, change the way you write, and change the way you think about writing. I applied four years ago, and applying was one of the scariest things I had ever done, until I attended. 

I've written a post like this every year since I attended. I still look back and say that going to Clarion was the single best thing I have ever done for myself as a writer, and one of the best things that I've done for myself, full stop. If you want to write, I highly encourage you to apply.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Turn a bunny (or a camel, or a goat) into a story critique

Every so often, I am reminded that my friends are really cool people, people who do marvelous wonderful things, who make the world better in all sorts of intangible ways. And once a year, for the past few years, I have been reminded that my friend Pat Rothfuss does something really cool that helps make the world better in a very tangible way. He runs the Worldbuilders fundraiser, a massive fundraising effort to benefit Heifer International.

Worldbuilders is really great - if you donate through that page, you get entered to win all sorts of really great books and other literary swag. Some of these things are signed, or rare, or both. Auctions are another part of the fundraiser, and this year, I donated a critique, that is being auctioned off even now. The specific details, and the link to bid are over at Pat's blog, but the short version is I'll critique a short story, or the opening chunk of a novel, up to 10,000 words. It would make me really happy to see this help raise a lot of money for Heifer, so please bid and bid generously, and tell your writerly friends.

And if a critique isn't what you need, you should definitely check out the other things you can win, and make a donation.

Oh, and Pat is totally exaggerating. The SUV was barely on fire when I pulled it off of him.

Friday, January 13, 2012

[write this when you know what the hell you are doing]

I make notes to myself as I write. I write by hand, in notebooks, only on the right-hand side (recto, if we are going to be scrupulously correct) of the page. The verso side I leave as a blank canvas. Sometimes it remains that way. Other times, it gets covered in scribbles and post-it notes, all of the marginalia of creation.

These notes range from a good song for a particular character or scene, or a reminder to check details before the finished draft, or notes to myself to add more detail. Sometimes they are silly - I found one last night that read, "No, you cannot title a chapter "Panic (On the Streets of London)"" (It would have made me so happy to do so, but completely inappropriate for an alt-history set in the 16th century. Even if there is an earthquake, and the associated fires, and thus, panic, on the streets of London, in that chapter.)

But sometimes the marginal notes are more philosophical in nature. This usually happens when the writing isn't going well, or is frustrating. I mean, I don't leave myself notes that read "this scene is awesome!" Last night, I came across one that read "write this when you know what the hell you are doing."

It wasn't exactly the most uplifting thing to read, to be honest. The reason I was reading over my marginal notes was because - after a few days of false starts, of writing scenes only to cross them out the next day, of the book's stubborn refusal to let me write forward - I had realized I was writing in the wrong direction. I typed up all my pages, printed them out, backtracked to the last part that I knew was right. And realized that a minor plot thread needed to be yanked out - it was an interesting story that was in the wrong book - and that I really, really needed a new character and subplot to go with, to balance out the structure of the book. And that the new character would be important enough that I couldn't just write forward as if he had always been there, I needed to go back and rewrite, a thing I hate doing, because that loss of forward momentum can be enough to let the doubts creep in.

Write this when you know what the hell you are doing.

I do, sort of. I know enough of what I am doing to know, at least for now, what needs to be fixed. To trust myself to fix on revision the things I don't know now. To listen honestly to the feedback that I will get on the drafts of this book when I send it out to my readers.

But I also don't know what I am doing. This book is something different than anything I've written before, so it has new challenges. Some I was aware of going in, and others I've discovered along the way. I often feel like I don't know what I am doing, and I hate that. I hate not feeling competent - it makes me feel small inside, too small to write a book that feels so large in my head.

And the truth is, I can't wait. I can't wait because if I wait to write something until I think I know what I am doing, I will write very little, and most of what I write will be pale copies of what I've done before. Because the only way to get better is to keep writing, and, as Theodore Roethke wrote, to learn by going where I have to go.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

No really. Tell me what's wrong with my story

In my last post, I mentioned sending a draft of a story off to beta readers, and being full of gratitude for their pointing out a flaw in the story that had never occurred to me. In the comments, Ali asked if there was a certain specific question that I always asked of my beta readers, some kind of feedback that I always wanted. The answer was long enough, I thought, for its own post. 

Which is odd, considering that I could easily answer the question, "No." No, there isn't one single question that I always ask my beta readers, other than the implied, "tell me where this sucks." But she wanted to know about how to get useful critical feedback, and that is a longer answer.

The most important thing about beta readers is that they are people you can trust to tell you where you are going wrong in your story, and to tell you that in a way that is useful to you as you go about revising and fixing it. If everyone you give your drafts to always says "Oh my God, this is amazing. Publish it now so it can will all the Hugos," well, I hate to break it to you, but you need new betas. 

But beyond that, you should ask the questions you want to have answered. If, as you are rereading your draft, you notice that the opening is weak, or you're not sure if the ending is earned, or if the murder in the second act is adequately set up, ask your readers to pay attention to those things. If you're writing outside of your comfort zone - a genre you've never written in, or a character of a gender or race or sexuality different to your own - ask your readers to comment on those things. If you know you wanted your story to address a particular theme, ask if it did. 

Have different readers for different types of stories - don't ask someone unfamiliar with the tropes of romance to read your satire of romantic tropes. When I'm working on a novel-length project, I always ask friends who aren't writers to beta read for me, because I want the reactions of people who are going to read like readers - like what I hope most of the people who read the final product will be.

Don't waste your beta readers' time. It's one thing to send out a story and say, "I've looked at this over and over and I know something is wrong with it and I don't know what that is, please help," and another to fling an unread hot mess of a draft at people and expect them to do your work for you. Make your story (or chapter or novel) as good as you can before asking people to seek out its flaws. Tell them thank you when they get back to you, even if it turns out their feedback is not immediately useful. Especially tell them thank you if they have critiqued a novel-length project for you. Don't be afraid to ask questions if you don't understand why they gave the feedback they did. Don't expect to be graded on your effort - beta readers act in the service of the story, not your ego. Don't feel that you have to take all of the suggestions given to you - often enough, they will be directly contradictory, and then you quite literally can't - but do consider each of them seriously, and remember that you write in the service of the story, not your ego.

Don't be surprised if you get answers to questions you never asked, and those were the most helpful of all.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Our strange taxonomies of ourselves

The story that I felt most insecure about writing was "Sweet Sixteen." Not because it was gut-wrenchingly personal, or because I expected it to cause controversy, or anything as interesting as that. No, I was worried about writing it because - never mind all of the chemistry and genetics and microbiology I took in college - I was convinced I didn't know enough about science to write science fiction. I know, I know it is wrong, but part of my brain still thinks that a story must have computers or robots or faster than light space travel in order for people to call it science fiction, and that wasn't what I was writing, nor was it what I ever had any desire to write. Hence, I wasn't a science fiction writer. (This is truth: the first question I asked my beta readers for this story to answer was, "Am I writing science fiction?")

And it is true, that when ideas spark in my brain, I do not often have the desire to explore them in an SFnal fashion. But that does not mean I am not, and cannot be, a science fiction writer.

I recently sent a draft of a new story off to beta readers. It was a story I had wrestled through three drafts already, each wildly variant to the one which came before. It was giving me such frustration that I hit "send" immediately upon typing "ends," which is something I never do (I almost always let the story sit for a day, and give it one more quick polish), but I couldn't bear to look at it any more.

Then something else happened, that has never before happened to a story of mine. The reactions that came back were identical: I had written the first third of a story, and then stopped.

As soon as I read those responses, I felt the chains of panic around my brain loosen. Yes. Yes. This was exactly right. This was why I had such a difficult time writing. And after reading their other suggestions, I knew what happened next, and what happened after that. So why had I stopped writing? Well, I had written about 1600 words, and most of my short fiction falls within the 1500-1900 word range. So I had this low-grade feeling that things needed to end, and I mistook the end of a scene for the end of a story.

If you write, you're very often asked to put labels on yourself and on your writing. You need to know enough about what you've written to know what kind of market to send it to, how to pitch your story, how to categorize yourself in a bio. And I don't think there's anything wrong with self-assessment when it helps you feel confident in what you do well, and be aware of what parts of your writing you should focus on improving. 

The problem comes when those labels turn into boxes that you write yourself into, their sides barriers that keep you pressed into one shape, walls high enough that you can't see ideas  over them. I don't want to write stories that are easily put into boxes, even if the boxes are my own.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Eligible works, 2011

Hugo and Nebula nominations are open, so now begins that time of year when thou mayest behold writers, artists, and other parties making lists of works eligible for consideration. I like these lists: years are long and my brain is sometimes not the best at remembering all of the amazing things I have read and seen in the past year. So here I am, making a list.

Here is the fine print: Only members of SFWA can nominate for the Nebulas (nominations close 15 Feb.). Anyone can nominate for the Hugos, but to do so, you must either have been a member of the 2011 WorldCon, or purchase a membership to the 2012 WorldCon before 31 Jan. A supporting membership, which allows you to nominate and then to vote, is $50. This is, I know, not a trivial sum. However, in the past - and I see no reason it would be different this year - that will also give you access to the Hugo Voters pack, which generally includes almost all of the nominated works, including the Best Novel nominees. So you don't get your money back, exactly, but you do get value for it.

If it is available online, I have linked to the work. I have also listed the venue the story appeared in, and the editor. Stories do not just happen. If you liked something I wrote, and especially if you liked it enough to consider nominating it, I respectfully request that you also consider nominating the people and places that helped make those stories happen.

Short Stories:

"The Speaking Bone" in Apex, edited by Catherynne M. Valente 

"Choose Your Own Adventure," in Fantasy Magazine, edited by John Joseph Adams (this story was selected for Rich Horton's Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2012)

"Sweet Sixteen," in Lightspeed, edited by John Joseph Adams

"The Calendar of Saints," in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, edited by Scott H. Andrews

I am also eligible for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and I am in my second and final year of eligibility for that award.

This also seems like a good time to say thank you: thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read my words. It means so very much to me.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"The Least of the Deathly Arts"

I started writing "The Least of the Deathly Arts" in August of 2008. It was the story I workshopped during week 6 of Clarion.

It didn't have an ending when I workshopped it. I was tired, I was under deadline, and I didn't have the faintest clue how the thing should finish. So I just sort of stopped writing, and turned it in. (Er, sorry fellow Clarionites.)

It actually looks very different now, slightly more than three years later, than it did then. It turned out, as you see, that figuring out the ending was the key to all the bits in the middle. 

I have such a love for this story. I loved writing it at Clarion. I loved doing all the research: funeral customs! medieval academic treatises on vampires! exsanguination! poetry! I love Noir, and I'm beginning to think she might have more stories for me to tell.

And I particularly love that it appears in Subterranean, which has long been one of my favorite publishers. 

So here is the story, and I hope you love it, too.

Monday, January 2, 2012

No apologies

I was taking a break from writing last night, and posted a link on twitter to The Black Hours, a medieval manuscript that is in my current novel-in-progress. Someone responded that the manuscript seemed like a very Kat sort of a thing, that what I was writing sounded like a very Kat sort of a book. Concerned that the character-restrictions of twitter would make what was absolute sincerity on my part seem like snark, I agreed, and then said that I didn't really see the point of writing something if it wasn't a very me sort of a thing to write.

The timing was interesting, or perhaps serendipitous, as I had just read this post from Nova Ren Suma, talking about how 2012 was going to be a year where she wrote solely for herself, and made no apologies for doing so - to be the writer who she is, rather than the writer that anyone else thinks she ought to be.

It's a powerful statement, and one that echoes a lot of the New Year's goals that I've read in the past couple of days. I think there are a lot of us who want to write our stories, and more, to not feel as if we ought to apologize for doing so.

Writing is hard, and it doesn't come with promises. One sale is not a guarantee of the next. No one owes it to us to like our stories, our books, or even to read them. We hear all the time what readers or editors do or don't want (sometimes these things are the same, just to make the craziness complete). We hear more specifically what people do or don't like about our work. (Trust me, even if you try to avoid reviews, people will send them to you. Even the critical ones. Especially the critical ones.) Well-meaning people will suggest what they feel are easier kinds of books to write, guaranteed best-sellers, the one change you should have made to that last thing you published that would have made it perfect. Well-meaning people will tell you these things until you want to curl up in an ink-stained puddle and cry into your manuscript.

But there are no promises. There are no guarantees, no magic words or perfect plots. And writing is hard. Writing is hard, and sometimes the only thing you can do is write your own story. Even if all you've heard is that "King Arthur, Sparkly Zombie" is the most overdone concept in the history of literature. Even if it's in Anglo-Saxon alliterative prose, and everyone has told you you'd be a runaway success if you only wrote accessible stories. Even if it's in first person pov, and your lead is a woman, and everyone knows those don't sell. Writing is hard, and what is the point of doing it, if not to tell your story?

Write your own story. And apologize to no one for doing so.