Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Day of the Dead, when the year too dies

All Hallows' Eve. All Saints' Day. All Souls' Day. 

31 October to 2 November. The turning of the month, and, in the Celtic calendar, the turning of the year.

Three days, which is the acceptable length of time for death to turn into resurrection.

I understand the need for the December celebrations, for the marking of the return of the sun, and the pulling back from darkness into light. But I have watched the year die this month. Watched at the trees turned from a blaze-fire of red and gold into skeletons, dark against the sky. I have watched as the stalls at the Farmers' Market shade from deep greens and red tomatos into squash orange, and frost-apple red, and then empty. The progression will continue: to grey, to brown, to frozen white.

The year dies, and these days that we hallow and make scared, they mark that. We remember what is gone, and who is lost. We think about what it means that one day, we too will be marked on the feast of All Souls.

Life is change, and the wheel is turning, and with it turns the year. May your memories be merciful, and your ghosts be kind.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Miles to go before

Snow fell today. Not much, just the first flakes, the beginning of the inevitable winter. 

Snow fell today, and I am watching my cat sleep, and I am thinking about death.

My cat, Stella is dying. Not in the "no one gets out of this alive, life is a guaranteed fatal condition" way that we all are. She has cancer. It's untreatable. I am watching her sleep and wanting to cry because while yesterday was a good day, today is not. And the things that the vet told me would happen, the ways I would know this is getting worse, they have been happening this past week.

I know it's the pathetic fallacy, I know it is. An editor would make me change this for the heavy-handedness of it. But it seems like as this year turns and dies, there have been endings everywhere. Too many people I know are saying goodbye.

I could fix this, if it were fiction. There are archetypes and patterns, the seasons turn. There is rebirth and resurrection. Hell, even rock songs wonder if "maybe everything that dies, comes back some day."

I cannot fix life. It is heartbreaking, and is incurable. And beautiful and glorious and the sorrows do not erase the joys at all. 

But the snow fell, and it is cold, and my cat is sleeping.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The birds and the bees and the pens and the pages

It was the most terrifying piece of feedback I have ever received from a beta reader: "They need to fuck."

I don't normally bother to get worked up over other people's writing advice. Writing is an individual sort of thing, and what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for the next. Hell, what works for one book doesn't necessarily work for the next. So, I don't outline, but I'm not going to pinch my lips and shake my head when I see other people praising the technique.

But sometimes I see writing advice that doesn't just strike me as not useful for me, but as actually bad. And this post, which suggests that writers should never write about sex, is bad advice.

It's bad advice because basically what it comes down to is "you shouldn't write about sex because writing about sex is hard."

Well, yeah. So is writing a convincing fight scene, a character whose life has been vastly different to your own, and a sestina. Doesn't mean you shouldn't write those things.

Look, stories are made up of people, and people - sit down and get out your smelling salts, please - have sex. They have sex for a lot of different reasons, and in a variety of circumstances and combinations (combinations far beyond that post's stated "long (let's be generous) things entering round holes." - which, yes, is dreadfully unsexy sounding.) They have sex with people they love, and people they hate, and people they shouldn't. Sometimes it's hot. Sometimes it's horrid. 

Sometimes, it's in your story.

And yes, when the characters in your story have sex, sometimes there are compelling reasons for it to be off-page. (The fade to black.) Maybe you're writing in first person, and your pov character wouldn't actually share those details. Maybe you're writing in a genre that requires the fade to black. But there are also reasons to put the sex on the page. 

It can tell the readers something about the characters, or about the situation. It can move the story along. Maybe it is ridiculous, because maybe your characters are ridiculous people, or  because sometimes sex itself is ridiculous. But just because something is ridiculous is no reason not to write it.

Just because something is hard to write well is no excuse not to learn to write it.

I don't find writing sex scenes easy. I mean, I like sex, both in theory and in practice. I like to read a well-done sex scene (and yes, contrary to that article, those things do exist.) I have even read books because I was pretty sure there would be hot sex in them. But it is, for me, hard to write. The invisible judging nuns are in the back of my head.

I mean, even when I'm writing in first person, if I write, say, a particularly brutal murder, most readers are not going to assume that I'm speaking from experience. If I write about something sexy, well, maybe I am.  (And oh, my God, my grandparents read everything I write. They really do.)

The thing is, sometimes your characters need to fuck. (Or screw. Or make love.)

And sometimes you need to write it down.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Weeping, and knowing why

I can cry, when it comes to art. I can sit, in a darkened theatre, and let tears stream down my face in reaction to whatever terrible beauty I am witnessing. I will wipe tears from my eyes as I read, or in the car, if the right song comes on the radio. It's a tribute to the transcendence of the art, a tithe I have no qualms about paying.

I don't cry well, when it comes to life. 

There was a medieval woman, Margery Kempe. God afflicted her with the gift of holy tears. She would weep, well, it seemed like at anything, really. A baby, because it reminded her of the Christ child. A handsome man, because he reminded her of Jesus grown. The consecration of the Eucharist. Her great sadness for her sins. Her delight in God's mercy. Margery wept, and wept, and wept. Those she went on pilgrimage with abandoned her. Priests asked her not to come to church services. She was a cataclysm of emotion.

It is hard, when you read her book, to see this weeping as a gift. It seems more like a penance, or some dreadful fairy tale curse.

The hardest part for me when I write is to put my own emotion on the page. I am good at words, and some of being good at words is confidence that you can make them do things. If all I wanted to do was make you weep, I could. But there's a difference between making you weep, and making you feel. 

To make a reader feel, the writer must put her own emotion on the page, must write in blood or in tears, must pull back the obscuring curtains and stand naked. It is a difficult thing. It would be easier, if I did not have to.

When it is for myself, my own hurt, my own heart, I hate to cry. I hate more to let people see it. 

I am reading Cheryl Strayed's book, Tiny Beautiful Things right now. It is a collection of letters that she has written as Dear Sugar, the advice columnist for The Rumpus. It strikes me that this is a book about being naked, about weeping so loudly in church that they send you out, about turning to a friend with tears in your eyes. It is about being harrowed by your own emotions. It is a book that makes you understand that tears can indeed be sacred, because they mean that you feel. That you are honest with yourself. That you give your friends the gift of that trust.

Tears are a tribute, a tithe we pay to the transcendence and glory  and awful sorrow of life. To trust someone enough to stand before them, naked in our emotions, is a gift that we give not a burden we are inflicting.

Better to weep in an excess of love, than stand, dry-eyed in the desert of its lack.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reading the mysteries

Yesterday on twitter, I mentioned that I had just sent a manuscript off to my agent and beta readers. This prompted a flurry of interest in beta reading, with the most common question being some variation on "how do I get to read for you?" with some "what is a beta reader?" mixed in. Since the answers to both are a little more involved that 140 characters, I am answering them here.

The normal disclaimers apply: this is my process, the way it looks right now. This is not the only way to do things. This is not even the only way I've done things.

First, if you asked about reading for me, thank you. I really appreciate it. It was incredibly kind of you. But unless I know you, really really well, I'm going to say no thank you.

Here's why.

Beta readers are the people who see your work when it first wakes up in the morning. It hasn't had its coffee. It has morning breath, and bed head, and may well not be wearing pants. Your betas are the people who you trust as a writer to pick apart all the things about your prose that aren't working, that didn't quite make it all the way on to the page, that maybe are just plain bad, so that you can fix all of those things before sending the work out in the world to find a home.

In other words, your beta readers are people you trust.

What I need in a beta reader is someone that I can trust to tell me when my story is broken, and to give me useful suggestions for fixing it - someone who will put the needs of the story ahead of my writerly ego, and ahead of their readerly desires.

Nearly everything I've published has been beta read. "A Life in Fictions" wasn't because the offer for the story came in before it went to my betas, and "The Speaking Bone" wasn't because I knew it was ready to go out when I had finished my edits of it (and yes, I do at least one round of edits before anyone else sees things.)

I tend to ask writers to beta read for me, because they are people who have spent a great deal of time thinking about the mechanics of story, and that is the place where I'm looking for help. In fact, when it comes to short fiction, unless I have a specific need for an expert in something, the only people I send it to any more are writers. I do send novel-length works to nonwriter friends (civilians? normal people?) because I want responses on the readability of the story, and because most people who would read published novel-length fiction are (I hope) nonwriters.

I tend to send my work to people who are interested in doing the same things in fiction as I am, largely because those people tend to give critiques that are the most useful. I have many talented writer friends that I never ask to read my work because our fictional preoccupations and priorities are so different that having them read my raw work would be unhelpful. I ask people to read for me if I know they will push me to fix things. Like I said before, this part isn't about my ego. I don't want readers who will say, "Oh, that's so amazing. Best thing ever. Will win all the Hugos for sure." I want readers who will say "you started in the wrong place" or "you forgot the b-plot" or "you ended halfway through the story" or "stop hiding and write the things that matter." All of which, incidentally, are things I've been told, and I am grateful for.

I don't have magic number of readers. I tend to give short fiction to fewer people, and want more readers for novel-length fiction. I do have a group that I tend to go back to all the time, though if I know someone is particularly busy, I will refrain from asking them. I do not always take all of their advice, but I always listen and consider all the feedback I've been given. I always say thank you.

If you still have questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Knowing where to put your feet

"What you need to do," she said, "is move your back foot to the left, just a bit."


About a month ago, I started fencing again. It had been a little more than two years since I had trained at all, and a little more than three that I had trained with any real degree of rigor. I'd been injured, I'd been busy, I'd been in a place where getting to a good club was a huge hassel. But I had missed it, a lot. And there's something about seeing people that you've trained with, seeing your coach at the Olympics and on the medal podium that makes you think.

I'm better than I was a month ago - in better shape, starting to be able to remember what to do without having to think about it, but in the grand scheme of things, I still have a lot of catching up to do. And I want to compete, so last night I started taking private lessons again.

It was basic stuff. Building blocks. Judging distance and lengthening my lunge. Making the action of my blade smaller when I parried or disengaged. Lessons were always tricky for me, because I'm a perfectionist who is very self-critical, so even though this is the place where you get to make mistakes, I used to not react well to doing so. I'd get tense, which is not helpful when you're trying to move with any degree of fluidity. I'd get so angry with my failings that I couldn't learn. But last night, I didn't. I could put my brain into the mode of "what do I do to fix this" rather than "Oh, God, I fucked up again. They'll think I'm an idiot. I'll never be good." It was a good lesson.

It became a great lesson, at the end, when Kate told me to adjust my feet. I'd been dropping the tip of my blade all night. I was landing on target, I'd adjust my hand position after, but the position of my weapon meant that I my effective distance was shorter. I'm a tall woman, but not a tall fencer. I don't need to give away distance. I adjusted my footwork, and suddenly my lunge was stronger, and faster. My blade did what it was supposed to. I ended my lesson feeling strong and competent.


Part of the reason that I love to fence is that it helps my writing. First of all, it's doing something that reminds me that I have a body, and not just a brain. Aside from the exercise benefits, it's good, I think, for writers to fully inhabit their skin. But it also makes me be clearer, more precise.

I think last night was the first time I realized that my writing has helped my fencing, too. I'm more confident, which helps me cope with mistakes. And it's become easier to think of practice as a draft, my coaches like beta readers. A mistake doesn't mean failure. And even though you have the skills, the best thing in the world is someone who can show you how to use them better.