Friday, June 28, 2013

I don't take my sword to work

The SFF internet pretty much exploded this morning, after Elise Matthesen was brave enough to speak out about her experience of being sexually harassed by editor James Frenkel at the most recent WisCon. Here's the link to the post at Whatever. (It appears at many of the larger SFF blogs.) Elise originally did not name Frenkel, but it was later announced elsewhere, and she confirmed that he was the person being spoken about.

Like many of the women in my field, I talked about my experiences with harassment at cons on twitter. I haven't been to a con yet where I haven't been harassed, either by fans, or by other professionals in my field. It's a thing. It happens. It happens everywhere. I originally wasn't going to blog, because I didn't want to distract from Elise's post. But then an entire conversation grew, and Cherie Priest and Maria Dahvana Headley wrote about their experiences as well.

So I'm writing to say that my experience is much like theirs  - the hand that slides down to the ass during a group photo, but now is when we're supposed to be smiling. The person who decides we're not done having a conversation, so he follows me into the women's bathroom (I stood in the doorway, shaking, speaking as loud as I could. I've taken off one of my high heel shoes, and am holding it like a weapon. Thankfully, another pro on his way to the men's room interrupted.) The person who follows me onto the elevator, and follows me off. The guy who pulls the top of my dress off my shoulder so he could read my tattoo. The guy who attempts a quid pro quo - he'll get me published, if...

The first time I got a verbal list of "don't be alone with these guys" was at Clarion. And by "these guys" I mean other professionals. When I go to cons now, my friends and I have hand signals, code words, that will let our friends know we need rescuing. Because here is one of the truths about cons - when I attend, I attend as a writer. I often have panels, readings, sometimes signings. I am there to be accessible to fans, to editors who might want to commission a story. I am there to be nice. 

Nice ladies don't stomp on the foot of someone whose hand has "slipped" onto their ass during a group photo. Bitches do. If we rescue ourselves, we do so with the knowledge that there might be trouble.

I smile a lot. I make conversation with people. I dress up, and wear makeup. I've been told all those things are invitations, coming from a pretty girl.

It becomes a danger on two levels - if I tell him no and leave, will he follow me and make things worse? If I tell him no and leave, have I messed up part of my career? Five years in, the second question worries me less than it did in the beginning, but the fact that it lingers is a problem.

The other reason that I'm writing is because a couple of the responses I got to my comments on twitter included suggestions that maybe I (or other women writers) should just bring swords to cons. I'm KatWithSword there, so it's not a completely out of the blue response, I'm sure it was mostly a way of adding levity to a tense discussion, and I don't mean to call anyone out. But it is not my job to defend myself from harassment. I shouldn't have to carry a weapon to feel safe when I go to work. None of us should.

NB: You lot are generally great. But I have work to do, so I'm closing the comments.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Five Years

I never did take those trapeze lessons.

It's not even a regret, not really. I had all these outside plans, things I was going to do during my free time at Clarion. One of them was take trapeze lessons. My friend Sarah was reasonably local to the area (I stayed with her for a few days before the workshop started), and she took a trapeze class, and it sounded fun. (Also, it sounded terrifying, but so did pretty much everything else I was going to do that summer - drive halfway across the country to live with 17 people I'd never met and learn how to write.)


It's been five years. If we were traditionalists, we'd give each other wood. The modern gift is silverware. I'm not sure quite how five years of giving each other stories fits with either, but that's what we've done. Stories and plays and poems and dances and five years of making lives art. 


I applied to Clarion because my life basically exploded. All of a sudden, I didn't know who I was, or what I was doing. If I had actually thought I had a chance, I wouldn't have tried. (I know. My logic could use some work.) Thinking back, I'm still not quite sure what I was expecting. Probably that it would be something like school. It wasn't. 

But I got to Clarion, and while I was there, I learned how to write. And how to rewrite. How to pick stories apart, exquisite corpses on anatomists' tables, and how to reanimate them. How to kill darlings and when to close doors and at least ten stupid plot tricks. I learned that even a seagull will not eat a squid patty, and that, at some point, everyone will write a story with tentacles in.

I remember the first time a writer I admired told me I could write. I remember the first time a writer I admired told me I could write better, and that that was the moment I knew I was a writer.


I often think about my writing process as working without  a net. Like, if I just fling myself through space hard enough, with enough belief, I can keep myself up through sheer force of will.

I remember a conference, with one of my instructors, where I said that. And said that I was scared. Scared of falling. And being scared of falling had made my writing tentative, had made it less. I knew that.

The hardest thing I do is open the page and jump. And I never did take trapeze lessons. Still, somehow, I learned to fly.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A manifesto to myself

Be braver.

Think about the art that inspires you. Words, music, movement, sculpture, images. It's not safe. It's not ordinary. It pushes right up against the edge of disaster. 

Do that.

The people who make the art that matters to you, they get criticized. They are not perfect. Sometimes they are not even likable. Worry less about being liked. Worry more about failing, because you were worried about being liked. If no one says you're doing it wrong, you're not doing anything that matters.


Matter to yourself. 

Dream bigger.

Scare yourself. If you're not afraid of what you're doing, pick a different project. 

Fail. Fail better.

Make art.

Be braver.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Ocean, at the end.

There's a thing I do, when people ask me which Neil Gaiman book they should read first. I start running through the catalogue in my head. If I don't know them at all, I recommend one of the short story collections, Smoke and Mirrors, or Fragile Things. I talk about how Neverwhere has some of my favorite characters and a huge heart, but American Gods is more technically impressive. The Graveyard Book is flat out lovely, but not everyone can get past the scary opening. Stardust for the people who need the magic but can't handle the scary bits. And, well, Sandman is this great and astounding thing, but there are people who will not read graphic novels.

Not that it's a problem, to have a wide and varied list of works to recommend, but with The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil has written his best book yet, one I'll happily recommend to everyone.

[Much in the way that Aslan is not a tame sort of lion, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a safe sort of book. But this is a safe sort of review. No spoilers.]

Ocean is being marketed as a book for adults, but it has a child protagonist. And one of the things the book is very much about is the power of childhood. I don't mean that in the twee, fetishization of ignorance and innocence way that means drawing a sepia-toned veil over the difficult bits. I mean that Ocean engages with the idea that being a child is a different sort of thing - you see the world differently than your parents do. Perhaps for the first time you are having a world outside of that of your parents, with things you do that they don't know about, and that there is a power in that. Time moves differently - it stretches and condensces around events. The barrier between what actually happened and what you imagined, or what could have happened, becomes thin. Permeable. Things can pass between. In Ocean, what passes between is the mythic, the numinous, and as you might guess, things like that are not always nice.

There are difficult bits in Ocean, and there is no veil drawn over them. They are faced head on, by the child at the heart of the story who wants to see, and wants to know, who asks the questions when an adult might turn away because it is easier not to look.

It can be a heartless, monstrous thing to be a child. It can be a heartless, monstrous thing to be an adult, as well, and Ocean asks us to look at both, to live in the spaces between and on the margins, and think about those different kinds of monsters, the ones we live with, and the ones we make. It is an acknowledgement that as much as childhood is a kind of power, it is not an absolute one, and adulthood is a kind of tyranny. Sometimes it is a benevolent one. Other times, it is not.

The other tyranny at play is that of memory. Ocean opens with the child narrator as an adult, and as the story goes on, it becomes clear that he has misremembered some key things that happened to him as a child, key things associated with the three Hempstock women, who live at the end of the lane, one of whom, Lettie, was his best friend when he was a child. Memory shifts and changes. Story, so Ocean tells us, is true. Even when it seems impossible. It's in the impossible where we discover who we really are.

When I was a child, I lived in stories. Stories I told myself, or stories other people had written. It was the best sort of magic, and in some ways truer than the things that actually happened. I think that, as adults, it becomes harder for us to find stories that we can live in. Some of us keep looking for that magic. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane - a book I first read a year ago, and that I have lived in since - Neil Gaiman has found it.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

When bad things happen to good characters

There was a thing that happened on a television show this weekend. No, I'm not going into specific detail (though, really, how you can cry spoilers when the book that the show is based on was published 13 years ago is a thing I do not undertand, and also, Romeo and Juliet die at the end), but yes, I am talking about Game of Thrones, and yes, people died in a violent and perhaps unexpected and unfair manner.

The reactions to this event, both those of the "OMFG what just happened?! GRRM is a murderous rat bastard!!1!" and the "what does this mean about the craft of fiction" were very interesting to me, especially as someone who bounced off the second book in the series twice and has never seen the show, and so had no emotional involvement in any of the specific characters affected.

To understand why bad things happen in fiction, we first have to understand the idea of stakes. No, not the vampire-slaying kind. But the idea that if there is no possibility that something can go wrong, it won't matter when something goes right. Now, the something that can go wrong doesn't need to be violent death. It can be the threat of being grounded for sneaking out of the house, or a souffle that falls at a key dinner, or the circumstances that thwart true love. But at some point, there needs to be the very real chance that your characters don't get what they want. They need to have something at risk, and it needs to be something that matters.

I point this out because often when a writer talks about doing something bad to her characters (sometimes killing them), the response is, well why did you do it, then? You're the writer, just don't write the scene. Even Martin, in this interview (don't click the link if you don't want to be spoiled on the specifics of a scene that was published 13 years ago) has said it was the hardest scene he ever had to write, that he loved those characters too. But if the characters we love are immune from potential consequences, then those story-lines have no (or lesser) stakes. 

There is also the idea of whether or not the consequences are earned in the world of the story - are the stakes appropriate? Does the bad thing that happened to the character resonate? The death of the character, the frustration of their desires, has to matter. It has to serve the story.

In the same interview linked in the above paragraph, Martin talks about how part of the reason he does kill off the characters he does, is to subvert the expectations of the reader. Stories often follow patterns - we know, for example, if what we're reading is a romance, or a revenge tragedy. So he kills characters to break that pattern. Which, I actually think is an earned consequence. Subverting the expectation of the reader, telling them that they are not in the kind of story that they think they are can be a very powerful storytelling technique.

What I wonder is, is what happens when the subversions become their own expectations? I mean, the snark is out there - GRRM can't use twitter because he's killed all 140 characters. Joss Whedon will find the character you love best, and kill them  for sport. So it's not that readers (or viewers) know the story pattern, and are surprised when it is subverted, but that they know a particular writer's story pattern, and the subversion travels full circle to become the expected.

Again in the above-linked interview, Martin says that when a character is killed, the reader should grieve, should care. And we should - the writer should grieve her character, the reader grieve the loss. And this is where we are back to stakes. If we never worry that something bad can happen to a character, we will never worry on their behalf, no matter what kind of physical or emotional jeopardy it seems they are in. We stop caring, because we know everything will be fine. The flip side of that is, of course, that if bad things happen all the time, and to all the characters, we become numb, we become immune to the grief and the loss, because we never risked getting attached in the first place.

Monday, June 3, 2013

"There was blood on the stage."

The summer issue of Subterranean is out, and I am very pleased that my story, "Stage Blood," is in it. It's my story about what might happen if Bluebeard were a magician, and bits and pieces of it have been floating around in my head since a particularly magical dinner at the 2011 World Fantasy Convention.

It was somewhat tricky to write - this is the first time I have ever finished a draft, got feedback, then closed the file and started again from a blank page. It was also my fastest sale ever - about 20 minutes from hitting send to getting a contract. Stories are weird.

For those of you interested in this sort of thing, I listened to Amanda Palmer's "The Killing Type" somewhat obsessively on repeat while writing this. I would also recommend her song,  "The Assistant," as an eerily apt soundtrack.

Thanks for reading. I hope you like it.