Monthly Archives: March 2014

I finished A Thing

The mostly-from-scratch rewrite of my fantasy novel Wordsinger is done, at just over 93k words. I think I may add a wee bit more in my editing pass but probably not much if anything; it feels pretty complete to me. Complete enough, anyway, until an proper external editor gets their claws into it.

This remains my Get An Agent Book. We’ll see what happens there.

I seriously need a break.

In the Roots: being privileged and writing problematic

Note: I waffled a good bit about writing this. Then I waffled a bit about posting it. The general rule of thumb is to not engage with reviews beyond a polite “thank you”. That said, I think there’s some stuff here that deserves consideration and discussion, and that I want to address.

Yesterday Dear Author reviewed Line and Orbit. I think it’s a great review – thoughtful, fair, and full of that which ideally all authors want: useful, constructive feedback. Sunita liked some stuff, didn’t like other stuff, and it’s all good. But there’s something she said that bothered me deeply at the time, and is still bothering me a lot: That the Bideshi, my nomadic space-faring magic-users, align at least somewhat with the problematic-and-tired “noble savage” trope.

It didn’t bother me because I thought she was wrong. It bothers me because I think she’s right.

Let’s rewind a bit. I’ve said more than once that when you’re a white, privileged Westerner – which I am – and you’re writing about things like race and colonialism, you’re going to get stuff wrong. It’s just a matter of time. It’s very easy to say that, easy to recognize that it’s true. It’s much harder, when the time comes, to admit to your own fuck-up. It’s harder still to take it and try to learn from it, to grow.

Line and Orbit was a debut novel written by two white people, five years ago. I say this to provide context, because it was written at a time when I was just starting out in my sociology PhD program, when I was getting my first serious exposure to critical race theory and intersectionality and postcolonialism, when I was first reading people like Franz Fanon and Achille Mbembe and Arturo Escobar. I was just self-aware enough to realize that this stuff was changing me, that was stuff that, if I was going to take my own writing seriously, I had to write about. But self-awareness is not an event. It’s a process. And when you’re coming from a position of privilege, even when you’re undergoing that process, there are things you won’t be able to see. There will be things you miss. There will be things you get wrong. This is in no way an excuse; it’s a warning that I wish I could go back five years and deliver to myself and my co-author.

As we were writing Line and Orbit, I was becoming aware of the noble savage trope, of how not-good it is, and also of how pervasive it is, of how it touches a more profoundly culturally ingrained story that white Westerners like to tell ourselves and have been telling ourselves since we started ruining other continents. It’s one of those deep stories, those folktales that show up everywhere. It’s the Hero’s Journey of white colonialism.

So I was at least sort of aware of it. To some degree, I was conscious of the alignment to it in the book. I hoped to subvert it in some ways – Adam is not much in the way of a super-Bideshi, he doesn’t do everything they do but much better, but that’s not all there is to the trope, and now, looking back on it, I have to concede that if we were trying to subvert it, we weren’t entirely successful. It’s there, and it’s not being questioned particularly hard, if at all.

Are you ready for the irony? I hate that trope. I fucking hate it. True fact: Avatar came out halfway through writing the book, and I think my exact words were “oh, fuck no.”

And yet it’s there. I love the Bideshi so much, I love those characters and that world, they’re so dear to my heart, but I’m looking at it, and… Yep.

This is the great irony of subtle racism and the colonialism that is its ugly sibling. Even if you hate it, even if you want to end it, it works its way in there. It’s insidious. It’s a cultural disease, a miasma in the air that we – that I – have been breathing since I was born. And if you’re privileged, especially if you’re white, it’s deep in you, so deep – so in the roots, as Ixchel would say – that it can take a lifetime to dig it out, and before you can do that you have to see all of it, which is nearly impossible.

But you have to try. If you don’t, you don’t grow. We only grow with friction. We only evolve when someone or something comes along and makes us do so.

So now I’m faced with a choice. I can ignore that it’s there and carry on as before, or I can look harder, try harder, grow.

I can also just not write about this stuff anymore, run no risks, not tell the stories that I feel like I need to tell. But that doesn’t seem like a solution to me. I think my initial impulse five years ago was a good one. Running away from this kind of thing seems like cowardice. I want to keep writing about race, about class and gender and disability, and the marginalized, the oppressed, the voiceless. Doing so when you’re someone like me is fraught with problems and peril, but I think turning away is the wrong move, because then I never have to confront anything. I never have to grow. There will be deeply uncomfortable moments like this… and I think I have to be okay with that. I think I have to learn how to be.

So I appreciate this. I appreciate the opportunity. I hope I’ll do better. I hope you’ll all come with me, and help me understand when I’m less than successful.

Otherwise I don’t think there’s much point to this wacky journey at all.

Part of a Thing I Love: Twofer edition

Here are two short stories that I’ve majorly dug recently. Both are, in their own way, quite horrifying, and both deal in horror that’s fundamentally about loss and powerlessness in loss – which is really the kind of horror that I find most powerful at this point in my life. The first one especially deals with the loss of loved ones, and not only their loss but the horror of watching them fall apart in front of you and not being able to do anything but be there with them.

Both stories also deal with injury and sickness, the destruction of the body – which is something else that resonates very strongly with me, given how much I’ve been writing about it lately.

Anyway, here we go:

Glen Hirshberg – “I Am Coming to Live in Your Mouth” (Nightmare Magazine, Feb 2014)

She was moving his hand against the inside of one of her wrists, now. Feeling the paper-thin membrane against her smoothness, right where the sleeve of her robe ended. Dazed, she moved his hand to her cheek. Held it there. Stroked once, so gently, down. Back up. Down again. Then she slid Joe’s hand to her neck. Down farther, into the V of her robe to brush one nipple. The other. How long had it been now? Two years? Three? They’d had such sweet touching in the eighteen months before what they’d always known was coming—or, coming back—arrived for good. Such patient touching, as though they’d had all the time in the world. Now his skin—what there was of it—just felt scratchy and hard, like a dried-out loofa.

I am coming to live in your mouth.

Damien Angelica Walters – “Green is for Silence, Blue is for Voice, Red is for Whole, Black is for Choice” (Daily Science Fiction)

Leda sleeps within a nightskin.

From the outside, it appears featureless, a chrysalis connected to the machinery below with tubes and wires. When the stitches dissolve, she knows it’s time to emerge. A week? A month? She doesn’t know. Time slips while inside the nightskin. Slips and falls away.

She wakes in stages. First, there is a subtle awareness, a shift in the light perhaps, as the stitches begin to give way and the skin loosens around her. The synthetic framework holding her muscles and tendons in place acknowledges the new space. Her limbs stretch out, pushing the gap open. The nightskin falls open; Leda within, like a peeled grape.

Book news (spoiler alert: there will be one)

I’ve been wanting to share this news officially for a few days, and now I can: my queer science fiction romance novel Labyrinthian, which some of you may recall me talking about before, is going to be released (probably) in December actually now it looks like later in January by Samhain Publishing.

Yay.

A little bit about it, for those just joining us: A few years ago I got it into my head that it might be fun to write about the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, only in the distant future in space. It seemed like a cool idea, but I wasn’t equipped to do anything with it at the time, so it went on the back-burner. Years later, I found myself with some downtime between writing the sequel to Crowflight and rewriting the sequel to Line and Orbit, and I wanted to do something lighter and more fun than I had up to that point.

So I reached back into my dusty idea filing cabinets and pulled that one out. Less than two months later, it was a complete book draft.

(One of the morals of this story, by the way, is try to never completely abandon an idea. If you can’t make it work at one point in time, that doesn’t mean it won’t work at some other point. A good idea now will probably still be a good idea five years from now. )

So what’s Labyrinthian? Per above, it’s an SFnal retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur, where the Minotaur is a genetically engineered supersoldier on the run from his creators and Theseus is the bounty hunter hired to capture him. Predictably, everything goes sideways, and running and shooting and makeouts ensue. Along the way they pick up Theseus’s ex-girlfriend Phae, who doesn’t think all that much of Theseus but has a weakness for hard luck stories and is good with a gun.

It’s set in the same universe as Line and Orbit, concurrent to the few weeks between that book and its sequel. The characters are not the same, and it takes place on the galactic frontier, so the actual setting is also quite different in some ways. The content itself is also different: it’s much more of a straight-up (haha) romance-adventure than Line and Orbit was, and it’s much less epic. Like I said, I wanted to have fun and do some lighter fare, so for the most part that’s what it is. That said, there are some deeper themes – guilt, self-acceptance, and the power of family being a few.

I think it’s a fun book. If you pick it up, I hope you enjoy.

Watch for more news as more news occurs.

Bird by bird: the fine art of rewriting

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I was having a conversation with some other writers on Twitter today about the business of rewriting, and it came up that while there’s initial drafting advice in spades, knowing how to rewrite seems to be a skill that’s harder to come by. I said that I’m actually still afraid of it in a lot of respects, and I am – I just scrapped two novels (in fairness, I now think that was a necessary move in both cases) in order to start from scratch because working through it in a more piece-oriented way was too scary an idea.

But like all aspects of the craft, it’s something at which I’m really trying to get better. So here, if it’s at all helpful, are what I think are some good general tips for rewriting something.

(I should note that, like all writing advice, none of this will work for everyone all the time. Writing is such an individual activity – everyone has their own approach, and every project is at least slightly different, which means they have different requirements. So take or leave any of this as it’s useful or not.)

So.

  • Write. Pretty basic, but sometimes surprisingly hard – I’ve heard others say and have experienced myself that fear of having to rewrite can actually keep one from writing at all. You can’t edit something that doesn’t exist. So you have to get that something out there on the table first.
  • Don’t panic. Again, basic, but sometimes very hard. It’s so easy to look at a writing project that needs a lot of work – especially something the length of a novel – and feel utterly overwhelmed. That’s a natural way to feel, but it’s also your enemy. Fear is the mindkiller. Along those lines:
  • Take it bird by bird. I keep name-dropping Anne Lamott and there’s a reason for that: she’s right about a lot. Here’s one of my favorite passages from her, from which she draws the title of her “instructions on writing and life”:

    Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

  • That said, don’t be afraid to throw it all out. Because sometimes that really is necessary. Like I said, in the last year I had to confront that not one but two novels – novels that I loved, that I worked so hard on – just didn’t work. As they were, they didn’t do what they needed to do. Tweaking here and there wouldn’t get the job done, at least not done enough. 90% of them needed to go. So I did that, and it turns out to have been the right move. That’s rewriting so extensive that you actually end up circling back around to point #1, and I don’t always recommend it, but sometimes it really is what needs to be done.
  • Don’t get intimidated by structure. One of the things that makes rewriting so intimidating for me is that I don’t think about plots in very structural ways. I usually work from only very rough outlines, and my plots develop organically. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, if that’s how you write best, but it does mean that the entire thing can end up feeling like a Jenga tower – you didn’t go through with a very clear top-down sense of how it was all working, because you were immersed much more in the way a reader might be, so it can be scary to imagine pulling out the blocks and putting them in new places. But your book is not a Jenga tower. It’s a book. No change you make is necessarily permanent. If you do something and it doesn’t work, you can go back to an earlier version (provided you save multiple versions throughout the editing process, which you should really do). You cannot destroy your book. There is nothing you can possibly do to it that is irreparable. For all intents and purposes, though you can make detrimental changes, the thing itself is indestructible.
  • Solicit feedback and listen to it. That’s not to say that you should always agree. I once walked away from a book contract because the changes that I was going to be required to make were not good changes and would not have made the book better. I have no doubt to this day that doing so was the right decision, though it was extremely hard. But if someone tells you something and you do disagree, take some very serious inventory regarding the source of your disagreement. Is it because you really believe it would be a bad change? Or is it because it would be a lot of work, or it bruises your ego? I have disregarded feedback for both (bad) reasons, and it’s something I’ve had to learn to recognize in myself.
  • Don’t put it off. This is a hugely important point for any large project. Because the longer you put off doing something, the more you forget what it actually looks like, and that’s when it starts to take on monstrous proportions in your head. Your imagining of a project is always orders of magnitude more intimidating than it actually is. The more time away from it you spend, the more intimidating it will get, and the more you’ll avoid it. Start editing early, and work at it consistently. Keep yourself familiar with your project. Keep yourself on task. But:
  • Give yourself a little distance. There should ideally be a break between the first and second drafts. I generally try to keep mine to at least a week. This is simply because by the time you’re done with a big thing, you’re too close to see it clearly. You need to come back to it with fresh eyes. This break period is also a good time to cast around for people you trust to give you feedback. Just don’t let the break turn into avoidance.
  • Set deadlines and stick to them – which means don’t come in too far under or too far over. This will help you with avoidance. It will also help you pace yourself and keep from feeling crushed under the weight of what you have to do. Give yourself enough time that you can work at it steadily a bit at a time rather than trying to tackle it all at once. I struggle with this, and with the ensuing burnout. Take it bird by bird.
  • Try to remember why you wanted to write it in the first place. There’s nothing that kills enthusiasm for a project like a huge amount of time spent working on it. Again, this is true for so many things besides writing. I think everyone who writes a novel goes through at least a brief period where they just hate the thing. In the rewriting phase, try to find the things you love, not just the things that need work. Focus on the elements of it that are strong, and build the edits around that. Take pleasure in what you’ve created, and in how much better you can make it.

I think this last is probably the most important. Inspiration is never something on which you should depend in order to complete something the size of a novel, but the love of what you’re doing that accompanies inspiration can be a powerful motivator, and it can carry you through hard times. In fact, in my experience, loving a book is sort of like loving a person. There’s the first flush of infatuation, where everything is intense and wonderful. Then things cool off, and you really get to know them, which involves seeing their flaws and the less than lovely things about them, but which also gives you a deeper appreciation for everything you loved about them in the first place, and often reveals new and beautiful aspects of who they are as people. If all goes well, if you’re really a good match, you love the person and then you love the person. I usually find that getting to the end of a book is the same. I may be impatient, frustrated, infuriated, and we might have to have some difficult conversations. We may fight. But at the end of it, I really love it, and I know it so well. That love can carry you through a relationship, and it can carry you through a book.

Be kind to your book. Be kind to you. Go and write.

No more princesses, no more castles

Note: Here follow major spoilers.

I’m not sure when, in the course of playing The Last of Us: Left Behind, I actually started laughing aloud in delight. It couldn’t have been all that early on. When I think about it, I think it might actually have been the minigames – and I can’t even bear to call them minigames because they weren’t that at all. They were games, yes, but they were games that I was playing with my friend, and they were games that I was helping Ellie play with her friend, and the two blended together and the “minigames” became a desperately joyful grab for the last vestiges of childhood. Throwing bricks at car windows. Messing around in a photo booth. Playing in an arcade. Trying on Halloween masks. These didn’t feel like tacked-on activities designed to bloat the content. They felt real, vital. I was laughing as I played them, and for a few minutes, laughing, I managed to forget about the end I knew was coming.

~

One of the worst ideas to come along in gaming is that we somehow need to make games for “girls”. As if anyone who isn’t a (usually white) straight, cisgendered man needs something carefully and prettily packaged and handed over with such delicacy, so that neither it nor the recipient breaks. Here, here is your game. The rest of us will go on with ours.

What a poisonous fucking concept. Honestly.

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