Monday, February 27, 2012

The mysterious and certainly fantastic powers of frosted baked goods

I am an absent-minded sort of a person. I know this. It's always been true. So I take steps to make sure that my absent-mindedness does not mess with my personal and professional lives.  I make notes to myself. I carry small notebooks with me always in case I need to write something down. I keep a calendar. I have a variety of post-it notes and notepads on the desk, configured in an arcane and alchemical system of organization that makes sense only to me.

And sometimes not even then.

"Cupcake blog" is scrawled in green ink on the lower right-hand corner of the list of things I need not to forget about but do not need to give immediate attention to. Cupcake blog.

You guys, I don't even know. I mean, I like cupcakes. I love dessert, and cheery frosted baked goods, well, they're an excellent thing. And I do tend to bake when I'm stressed because it lets me do a task which is easily completed, so I get to feel proud that I have finished something, and then I get to eat the delicious cupcakes. And I have been (and am) pretty stressed, recently. It is a time of crazypants business at my day job, and also the hard reality that in three months, I will not have a day job, and the likelihood that a school is out there who wants to hire a medievalist who can also teach Shakespeare and fantasy literature and creative writing for the upcoming academic year is getting increasingly small. And also, I am writing a lot of things. So, stress.

But I have not been looking at cupcake recipes, and this is not a baking blog. I don't have any cupcake posts in my file of links to send to Jen for Fantastically Fun Fridays over at Fantasy Matters. I have absolutely no earthly idea why I wrote that note to myself. (Maybe it was a suggestion that I should write a blog asking people to send me cupcakes? Yes. That must be it. I will also accept gifts of chocolate.)

I am afraid the secrets of the universe are baked into red velvet somewhere, and I cannot find them.

Friday, February 24, 2012

When obviously, we're all mad here

First of all, I want to thank everyone for their responses to yesterday's post. Thank you for your comments, here and on twitter, and via email. Thank you for being - as you always are - kind, and thoughtful.

The idea of what it means to live semi-publicly, to balance the need or desire to speak with the need or desire to silence, the question of whether I have a responsibility to speak, is going to be one that I have an ongoing relationship with. I think that's good - I think it's important to be thoughtful when you know you don't have the answers. And I don't.

But a couple of things I will say: There are a lot more imperfect people on the internet than you think there are. Most of us here, in fact. Just because someone chooses not to speak about their imperfections or their suffering, doesn't mean those things don't exist. So you - and I - well, we're not as alone as we think we are.

Please, try to remember that the people on the internet are people. That a persona may be just that, and that just because someone does not share their bad days doesn't mean they don't have them. For a thing that connects us, the internet often obscures communication - sarcasm doesn't translate, cruelty becomes easier. Remember that the people on the internet are people, and that you are too, and let's try to be decent to one another.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The person behind the pixels

So one of my friends has started a tumblr where she talks about the ongoing process of unfucking her life. It's not that her life is an exploded disaster area, it's just unsustainable, at least when health and happiness are considered. (This is not me being judgmental, this is me paraphrasing her first entry.) So she's trying to make changes. (And since one of her entries suggests that she's at least making a gesture towards anonymity with this, I am not outing her, so please forgive the pronouns on my part.)

And let me tell you, I read these entries, and I spent a good chunk of yesterday crying like a child. Because I felt like I wasn't alone. Because it was such a relief to see that someone I know and love and respect made mistakes and honestly, was human, like I am. Because the unfuck your life project? Is also something I am undertaking.

And we sent each other emails that were basically like, "OMG, you too? You seem so competent and together!"

Well, yes.

Here's the thing about the internet: it's public, and it's permanent. And if you are a professional, and you interact with other people on the internet, you need to do your best to remember those things always.

As of right now, there are 2,115 people following me on Twitter. Compared to some people I know, this is not very many. But it is ten times the number of people that were in the entire (K-8) elementary school I graduated from. It is over twice the number of people that were in my high school. Even if we assume that half of that number is made up of people who are bot accounts of some sort, that is still a lot of people who pay attention to the 140-character slices of my life and interests that I choose to share. People read this blog, and people read what I write over at Fantasy Matters. People do these things in numbers that, quite frankly, astound me.

And I am always, always aware that people can see me when I write something on the internet, even if it is an @ message to a friend. We've all seen what happens when someone forgets: the author who loses her shit over a bad review, or the one who writes something that is a form of RaceFail or GenderFail or CompassionFail, and then when this is pointed out, doesn't man up and apologize, and say "I'm sorry I said what I did. I was ignorant. I hurt people. Thank you for pointing that out, and I promise to do better in the future," but who goes on a rant about how he is being oppressed. These things happen so often they have their own memes. 

So I behave like I know that people are watching me, and most of the time that's fine. But sometimes I wonder what we lose by being so conscious all the time that people are watching, and we need to act like professionals. I remember about this time last year, when I'd made my third pro sale, and so was eligible to join SFWA, and calling my Mom to tell her, and making some throwaway remark about how that made up for the day earlier that month where I had gotten three rejections in one day (an event that, let me assure you, devastated my self-confidence). "Why didn't you tell me?" she asked. Well, we're professionals. We don't talk about the rejections. Everybody knows they happen, but we don't say so. And I'd ingrained that to the point where I didn't talk to anyone about it.

I don't talk about the bad days, personally or professionally, where people can see me, because I don't want to be perceived as whiny, or as a failure, but I wonder how much gets lost, with this perception that pros don't have bad days. 

I'm a survivor of sexual violence. Ending rape culture, and supporting other survivors are both critically important to me, but I don't talk about those issues nearly as often as I'd like to, because I don't want to be the girl who won't shut up about rape. I mean, come on - who wants to read about that all the time?

And I don't mean to whine and complain that "Oh, poor me, I can't put my pain on the internet." Because like the poisonous snake, I knew what it was when I picked it up. But I think of the relief I feel, when someone like my friend publicly says, "hey, my life? not so perfect as you might think." And I think of the rules that make us bind our imperfections so tightly down that we don't even dare show them to the people who love us, and I wonder if it's not just the public that we need to remind that there are people behind our avatars. I wonder if it is also ourselves that need those reminders.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

List any publishing credits you might have

Yesterday, I wrote about how there is no secret handshake or silver bullet that will allow people to break into publishing. The only way in is to write, and write more, and write better, and submit your work until someone buys it.

Here is the colder side of that cold truth: that first sale guarantees nothing. It makes no promise that you ever sell anything else. The list of publishing credits on your cv is a list of past success, and surely something to feel proud of, but it shows only what you have been capable of in the past.

My friend Ferrett was just nominated for a Nebula for his novelette, "Sauerkraut Station." Because my friends are awesome, talented people, this is not the first time I have looked at an awards ballot and seen familiar names and done a dance of happiness on their behalf. But Ferrett is my Clarionmate, someone who feels like a writerly peer (like we went to the same, weird scifi high school or something). He's also someone I have seen work his ass off since Clarion - always writing, always revising, always sending stories out, and - most important - always trying to write better, so this one gets its own kind of happiness. And he talks about this weird realization that he had, after the glee of the nomination sunk in, that, as awesome as "Nebula-nominated writer" is to put on your bio, at the end of the day, it's just another line on your bio. 

Sure, a big nomination like that is the kind of credit that people pay attention to. I've never read slush, but I imagine it is the kind of credit on your bio that gets your story read faster, or perhaps moves you on to the EIC's desk (or e-reader) directly. But it doesn't guarantee a sale. Nothing does. (Okay, maybe a letter that starts out, "Dear editors, My name is Jo Rowling." Maybe.) Even book contracts don't guarantee sales - ask any writer whose series has been cancelled partway through.

Which is a long and rambling way of saying that getting your foot in the door doesn't mean the door stays open. Past achievements should be celebrated, absolutely. Because it is awesome to make a sale, or to get a good review from a tough critic, or to be selected for a Year's Best, or to be nominated for or win an award. Those things are huge, and important, and things to be proud of, always. Always. But the way you sell the next piece isn't by resting on your laurels. It's by writing a kick-ass next story. 

Write. Write more. Write better. Always.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's that easy

A student came in to my office hours last week to talk to me about being a writer. He'd had classes with me before, taken the creative option on a couple of the papers, and done well enough he wanted to write as a career.

Let me start by saying, that I am pretty much always happy to have this conversation. I like it when people get brave enough to make art, to choose to do something creative. It delights me that people see the world and want to put something unique into it. I understand that talent levels vary, as do desire and dedication, and that most people who try will not actually achieve the kind of success they have in their dreams the first time they say, "I want to be a writer." But you know what? It's not my place to discourage them.

So he sat down, and I talked about submissions guidelines, and query letters, and duotrope. I recommended some of my favorite books on writing, and talked about how I cope with rejection letters. I mentioned that many writers never give up their day job, because they can't afford to, or they like having things like health insurance. I've been giving some version of this talk fairly regularly each semester, so I had the high points ready to go.

This was not the talk, it turned out, he wanted to hear. "So, you just write? And send stuff out? And someone buys it? It's that easy?"

And I sat there blinking for a couple of seconds, because I had never heard that particular question before. Easy? I must have missed some important point in my normal speech.

I mean, I get that I'm not physically laboring in a mine, or a sweatshop, or any number of other truly appalling working conditions. I get that sitting at my notebook or at my computer making things up is a damn good job. And in a way, of course, he was exactly right - you write. You send stuff out. Someone buys it. It's that easy.

He continued, though, and that was where his puzzlement became clear. He didn't know anyone in the field - no editors or agents, no other writers. Where was the part where I introduced him to someone, helped him get his foot in the door and make the connections he needed to publish. Who had done that for me?

Well, I applied to a workshop, I said. To Clarion. It was taught by pros, and they are still accepting applications. This year's faculty is great, I said.

But what if he didn't get in?

Apply again, I said. Or send out your application stories, see if a market will buy them. Keep writing. Keep sending things out.

I think I failed. I don't think I ever convinced him that there wasn't some kind of secret word, or key to the clubhouse that - if I would just share it with him - would bring him success, the kind of success that means never getting rejection letters, that means selling everything you write. That the way you break in to being a writer is you write.

It's that easy.

And that hard.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love and some verses

Over on Fantasy Matters this week, we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of A Wrinkle in Time, and honoring the works of Madeleine L'Engle. I love her work, so much, but as I was thinking about what I would write as part of this week's post, I remembered a Valentine's Day, in grade school. We had read Wrinkle, and one of the boys in my class sent me a Valentine, addressed to IT, the unfeeling, unloving, giant brain that is the villain of the book. It was meant to hurt, and oh, it did.

I have been single on Valentine's Day, and I have been in a relationship. I have also spent Valentine's Day in a flurry of last minute negotiations of a divorce settlement, trying desperately to make the deadline, so as not to put my marriage on public trial. So thoughts? On Valentine's Day? I have had them. I have had the gamut.

But you know what? I like love.

And sure, I know that Valentine's Day doesn't celebrate love. I mean, it kind of never did. It showed up in modern consciousness because of Chaucer, who set his poem "The Parliament of Fowls," on Valentine's Day, as they day when every bird chose their mate. Which sounds sort of sweet and romantic until you learn that birds were a symbol of immense lust at the time, not romantic love. Yes, there is a reason that the lustful souls in the Inferno are blown about in a constant wind, like birds in the air.

So we go from lustful birds to regulation chocolates and flowers and lingerie so complicated it needs instructions to put on and scissors to remove. And no, that's not love. Oh, sometimes  - even on Valentine's Day - those things can be given in love, and that is beautiful, as anything given in love is. But too often the symbols become replacements - someone gives an expensive piece of jewelry and thinks that is the same as saying "I love you," as behaving in a manner that shows the other person that they are loved. It is not the same, not at all.

But I like love. I like the kind of love that trips your pulse when you see another person, and gives you delicious thoughts about getting naked with them. I like the kind of love where your day gets better because of the name attached to an email in your inbox. I like the kind of love that picks up the phone, or sends a letter, or gives a hug to help alleviate loneliness, or that dances around your house with you in celebration. I like the kind of love that is a warm cat on your lap, a snoring dog at your feet, a trusting child in your arms. I like the kind of love that giggles with you over shared wine, and that holds your hand when the bottom falls out of your world.

So today, I celebrate love, and all the people in my life with whom I am lucky enough to share it. And that includes you, because I love that you take time from your day to read my ramblings here, and to talk to me. So if you need someone to say it, because sometimes we do, on this day so overloaded with expectations, I will. Happy Valentine's Day. 

I love you.

Monday, February 6, 2012

It's comedy that's hard

Last night I wanted to read something that was fun. Light-hearted. Possibly even comic. It had been kind of a rough week, and I had worked a lot, and I was tired. My normal comfort books were out, as I tend to be the kind of reader who uses comfort books as a way to allow myself a good, cleansing weep.

I looked at my shelves, and realized there was a big gaping hole - there were no light-hearted, fun books to read, nothing that would make me laugh. (I do have some Christopher Moore, and Terry Pratchett, but I've read them, and I wasn't in a rereading mood.)

So here's where I ask you to help me out - what are some good comedic, fun books to read? They don't need to be genre - I enjoy reading any number of kinds of things. I'm not looking for joke books, and light-hearted need not mean light. Just the kind of thing that I can read after a long day, or a rough week, and not weep for the tragedy of it all. Thanks.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Words of Power

There are six post-it notes, stuck to my desk, right above where my keyboard is, the keyboard that I move to the side when I put down my notebook and write my initial drafts. On each of the post-it notes is a quote, a phrase that helps me remember why I am doing what I'm doing, that inspires me to write, that gets me through the times when the words won't come, or when the only ones that do are rubbish.

On of them is from a dear friend, and those words, as much as I love you all, are just for me. But here are the rest:

"The dark thought, the shame, the malice/ meet them at the door laughing and invite them in." - Rumi

"We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us." - E. M. Forster

"I have to finish it in order to know whether it deserves to survive." - Leonard Cohen

"Aim high and don't cower." - Jennifer Egan

"Hold tight, and pretend it's a plan." - Steven Moffat, Doctor Who

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Month of Letters

I love getting real, proper mail. Letters and packages that just show up, as if by magic, and there they are, tangible proof that someone was thinking about you. It's kind of glorious.

I also love sending cards and letters and things in the post, even though I am a very absentminded sort of pen pal. I love selecting cards or stationery, the right color of ink, wax and seals and stamps - all the little rituals of communication.

And of course I understand that there are other ways to communicate - email, text, phone, twitter, blog - that are easier, less expensive, more instantaneous, than letters sent in the mail. And really, what matters is the communication, not the format. But still, I love real physical letters in the mailbox.

So this month, I am participating in (wonderfully talented writer) Mary Robinette Kowal's beautiful idea, A Month of Letters. Every day that there is mail this month, I will send something to someone. I think it will be a little bit magic.