Category Archives: Musings

You can’t have history without violence

amazing art by John Jennings

Let’s talk about “historical accuracy”.

A few days ago I saw some stuff on Twitter by Long Hidden co-editor Rose Fox about someone upset/offended to find violence in the anthology. Rose noted that it’s possible the person in question just couldn’t handle violence/horror, which is okay and to be respected, but Rose thought and I agree that it’s a strange thing to not go into an collection of stories like this ready to see.

Marginalized history is violent history. Marginalization is itself a form of violence. If you’re going to tell these stories, each one will, in its way, be a story of violence.

“Historical accuracy” is so often employed by writers as a defense against people pointing out that stories that use rape to add shock value or to motivate male characters or as the sole defining feature of the characters hurt in that way, or that stories that focus on primarily white cisgender straight ablebodied male characters are ignoring a huge proportion of the population of the entire world and are sorta kinda racist/cissexist/homophobic/ableist/sexist (also fucking lazy, dig?). THESE THINGS HAPPENED IN OLDEN TIMES OR WHATEVER, they cry, or THESE THINGS HAPPEN WHEN THERE’S WAR AND STUFF, or IN MY INVENTED UNIVERSE ONLY THIS ONE GROUP OF PEOPLE IS IMPORTANT SO IT’S NOT MY FAULT. As if these are objective facts of some history – whether of the past or future – instead of real choices being made by an author with total control over the shape and content of their story.

And then there are voices clamoring for authors to not be “forced” to make their stories “artificially” diverse, as if it was some kind of hardship, as if it would make the story bad instead of richer and more interesting.

When used in this way, “historical accuracy” is an excuse for not writing well. And it’s one that – I think and hope – fewer and fewer people are accepting as legitimate.

But historical accuracy requires violence.

The history of humanity is a history of violence. It’s a history of oppression, of subjugation, of mass-murder, of the erasure of voices and stories and cultures and entire peoples. Violence is woven through history like a blood-soaked thread, staining everything it touches. History shapes the present and the future; everything it means is inextricably bound to the world in which we live and move. Stories of marginalized people, forgotten people, are necessarily violent. They must be violent, if they’re going to be true.

Those of us in the category of the oppressor, whether or not we want to be there, can either face that violence or turn away. And if we don’t want to be there, if we don’t want to hurt anyone anymore, we can’t turn away. We can’t afford to. This is the truth.

If you can’t take violence of the kind I think this person meant, that is, again, something that has to be respected. People need to be able to make safe spaces for themselves. But one shouldn’t go into Long Hidden expecting to see anything but violence. These stories are true in the way that the best fiction is. They’re “historically accurate” in a way that is not a defense and needs no defense.

And it’s the kind of historical accuracy we actually need.

One more thing about publishing and fandom in general

Because I think it’s important, and it actually has only a limited amount to do with Interlude Press specifically. This is a point that’s far more general, and it’s been bugging me for a while.

Yesterday I listed some of my initial concerns about a fandom-focused publisher, but it wasn’t until I was getting in bed last night that I realized what really troubled me about this whole thing. It’s very small, it’s not the most extreme instance of it that I’ve ever seen, but it’s there and I want to mention it specifically.

In their intro and in their FAQ both, Interlude mentions a particular justification (or rather two related but slightly conflicting justifications) for why they exist:

We believe, deeply, that authors exist in the fan world who deserve a chance to be published. These are authors who might otherwise be ignored by the traditional publishing industry, and who would likely be discouraged from acknowledging their fan fiction roots and receive little marketing support were they ever to sign a contract with a big name publishing house.

Unlike publishers who have recently begun to “recruit” authors of fan fiction, only to discourage them from acknowledging their roots, Interlude Press was developed to honor both the creators of fan works as well as the gift culture they represent.

I just.

Okay, look. One of the things I often have to work especially hard to get my Sociology intro students to understand is that an n of you is not a representative sample of the population, and while your anecdote can serve as a datapoint, it’s by no means one upon which you should lean very heavily. That said: I’ve been active in various fandoms way longer than I’ve been getting paid to tell stories. My fandom identity and my writer identity enjoy a very slim separation, if any at all. I still write fic, and I’m very open about it. I’ve sold five novels, two novellas, and somewhere between 40 and 50 short stories. I’m a member of SFWA at the Active level. I’m very comfortable calling myself a professional writer.

Never in my own experience have I found my fandom affiliations  to be harmful or to block my way, nor has anyone else I know, at least not my knowledge. I’ve heard of publishers “recruiting” from fandom, though I don’t think that word really accurately describes those situations, and as far as I know it still happens rarely enough to be the exception rather than the rule, and if being “ignored” equates to not being “recruited” and that’s the problem at hand, guess what: would that being “recruited” happened to any of us. And there is an increasingly long list of successful authors who write original stuff and are very, very open about where they come from, as well as continuing to be active.

I’m not saying fandom getting in the way doesn’t happen. I’m saying that if it was a common thing, a trend that generally held true, I have to think I would have noticed by now.

This is not the first time I’ve seen a publishing house say something like this, and it’s never good when one does. They may very well be sincere in what they’re saying, but as far as my knowledge goes they’re also sincerely wrong, and this is not the first time I’ve run into this kind of misinformation being slung around regarding what’s involved in actually selling your book. It’s that misinformation that I want to focus on now.

People say “you need the right connections.” They say “you need the right profile.” And people also say that if you’re active in fandom, the mean prejudicial gatekeepers will lock you out, unless you write the next Fifty Shades, in which case come on in, but pretend it wasn’t fic before or something. Interlude is – though their language is not particularly strong – implying this, that the authors they’re working with would be largely unable to sell books elsewhere, despite their talent, because fandom.

People, I have some hard truth for you. If you’re in fandom and you’re shopping around a book, trying to break into the business, and people keep shutting doors on you, it’s not that you don’t have the right connections, it’s not that there’s some super secret publishing code word that you’re missing, and it’s almost certainly not that you’re in fandom. It’s that they don’t want what you’re selling.

I need to emphasize this: There is no big secret to getting published. There is no shadowy cabal of industry gatekeepers locking out the undesirables. If you want to become a professional writer, write good stories and submit them. If you write a great book, fandom will not hold you back. If you write a bad book – or at least, a book that publishers don’t think they can sell – no power in the ‘verse will help you. You also need to be clear on what sector of the industry you’re willing to count as “breaking in”; if you’re content with small presses, there are so damn many options that, if what you have is good, you can often find a publisher relatively quickly (say within a year or so). If you want to get picked up by one of the big NYC houses, guess what: It’s fucking hard for everyone.

You do not need one specific boutique publisher to realize your dream, and if that boutique publisher is suggesting that they’re one of the very few – if not the only – avenues that talented fandom authors have to professional publication, I would be highly skeptical of that claim.

I’m not suggesting that Interlude is lying. I am suggesting that they’re misrepresenting how publishing works. I’m not saying they’re doing that intentionally, but in my opinion that’s what they’re doing.

I realize that at this point it might seem like I’m going on and on about something that really isn’t a big deal, but Interlude represents something that I think we’ll be seeing more and more of, and even where fandom isn’t concerned, I’ve seen these claims floating around, and I don’t like it when authors buy into them, because all too often it results in them getting screwed over, by themselves or someone else or a combination of the two.

If you want to work with a publisher that’s specifically fandom-friendly, it sounds like Interlude might be a great fit for you, so I’d say follow your bliss, man (though I would seriously hold off to see if they’re for real). But if you’re convinced that you’ll never get published elsewhere because of fandom stigma or whatever and therefore have no other good options… Basically don’t think that way because by and large it just ain’t true.

The secret to getting published is to write a good book and submit it. That’s all. It’s not rocket magic. So do it however you want, but do not ever buy into the idea that there’s only one way.

Write angry for the daughters of Hope

Okay, motherfucker, I’m enough. You know what? I’m enough. I’m the baddest bitch around, there’s razorwire in my blood, I can clap my hands and summon an army of ravenous corpses from the cracks in the pavement, I can throw my tennis shoes over the telephone wires and turn them into a murder of hungry crows. I can spread my hands and break the world open, release one hundred thousand-eyed seraphs to see your soul to ruins. I have a wolf’s bite; I have a pack at my heels. My mothers were harpies and furies, my sisters were the Morrigan, my daughter will be fucking Kali. My grandmothers burned but saw me to birth in centuries of ash, and it doesn’t matter that I always run away and it doesn’t matter that I’m trying to drive a devil’s bargain with a grunting, sweating fifth grader, and it doesn’t matter that you made me cry all those times before, because you think I’m not enough? You piece of shit? I can roll up my sleeves and tear off my skin and make you fucking *cease to exist.*

That could have happened. It could have.

I’m telling you this so you know.

 Not too long ago, I wrote about something I’m determined to do more of this year, namely: I’m going to write about what hurts. I talked about how hard this is for me, about how I feel like it takes courage that not everyone has, but how it’s necessary for good work, or at least I think it is. And included this quote from Anne Lamott:

[Y]ou can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in – then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.

I was focusing on pain and grief, but I think we do need to give equal space to anger, anger in writing, the rage that comes out of the pain that we go through. I’ve been thinking especially about the rage of marginalized voices, the voices of women and queer people and people of color and people with disabilities and all intersections of all marginalized identities. In my experience, our stories are often sorrowful and full of pain, but they can also be so angry, and I feel like being angry in that position is much less socially acceptable.

I think a lot of us are taught that writing can be about pain, but writing can’t or shouldn’t be vengeance – which isn’t actually that separate from justice. We’re taught not to write angry. We’re taught that lashing out is unseemly, heavy-handed, blunt, and just plain rude.

And that’s all just bullshit designed to make us shut up and sit down and behave.

So I’m trying to get comfortable with writing angry. Because I think we need to. It’s like squeezing poison out of a wound, but it’s more than that: it’s squeezing poison onto the system that poisoned you and burning some of it away. Maybe only a little bit of it, but it’s something. It’s resistance. Acknowledging anger and the legitimacy of anger is liberation.

The passage at the top of the page is from a short story called “Singing With All My Skin and Bone”, which will be appearing in Nightmare at some point this year. I wrote it angry, profoundly angry. The majority of it is hugely autobiographical, and I had to dig down into some buried rage to get it out. It took me years to really be okay with being angry about a lot of the things that happened to me when I was a kid. My most recent story, “So Sharp That Blood Must Flow” – in Lightspeed – is angry (Lois Tilton over at Locus called it “cruel”, which made me so happy). It was written in response to a lot of what was happening in the SF&F community in the last year; I was angry and had nothing really to do with it, but I found a thematic frame for it and spun my Little Mermaid some bloody revenge.

She’s singing as she begins to cut off his legs with the blade. It is very sharp. The witch gave it magic. He can’t scream, of course, as his blood pools on the deck and drips through the slats, but she can feel his cries echoing in her own throat and she turns them into music. To this music, she thinks, she’d dance on knives.

She’d dance and she’d laugh, her teeth glistening like rubies in her mouth.

Anger can be beautiful. Anger can be graceful. Augustine of Hippo said that Hope has two beautiful daughters, Anger and Courage: “Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” Anger is necessary. Anger is righteous. Anger is change. We need to find anger and make our stories out of it. But if Anger and Courage are sisters, then they also need each other – we need courage to be angry, and we need anger to be courageous.

So do it. Get with the daughters of Hope. Write angry. Make it words, put it out there into the world, and let it shine.

This is what we believe

I’m putting together a teaching portfolio – whee, fun – and I’m going through whatever I can stick in there to make me look attractive. I’m including this essay I wrote for The Sociological Cinema (amazing resource) and I had forgotten most of it – and the last couple of paragraphs are still poignant for me. As I’m thinking more and more about why I write and what I really want to get out of it and why I think it’s important, I’m seeing more and more ways in which those things connect to the rest of what I do.

Writing is teaching and writing is learning. It’s a toolkit and the tools are incredibly versatile. We ignore this to our detriment.

Fiction in general – and speculative fiction in particular – is not merely escapism. It’s conceptual voyaging. It’s pushing beyond what we know into what we can grow to understand. Myths and legends are all-too-often dismissed as untrue; what this attitude fails to recognize is that the deepest, most foundational stories are persistent precisely because the best of them are vectors for the most profound elements of who we are, of how we understand ourselves to be, of where we imagine we might go. These things may be harmful, they may reproduce things that we find undesirable, but we need to understand them on their own terms before we can act.

In my course, I characterize most forms of social inequality to be based on myth – on origin stories. We’re better than these other people. This thing is bad. This is what it means to live a good life. This is what justice looks like. And when we find the worlds these myths create to be undesirable, we depend on the ability to imagine the alternatives to work toward those alternatives.

Sometimes understanding these alternatives involves spaceships and robots. Or it can. And sometimes it’s better when it does.

Screw MFAs; we need to tell richer stories.

by Kendra Phillips

badass image by Kendra Phillips

Rahul Kanakia has written an awesome post over on his blog about the tyranny of privilege inherent in the creative writing industry, especially the bits of it centered in academia. Go read that first. I’ll wait.

Back? Great. There isn’t much that I can materially add to this besides a huge PREACH but I like to talk about things that bother me, so allow me to go into some detail regarding why this bothers me so much. It’s not just that it’s obnoxious, all this whining about how hard being a creative type is, and it’s not just that I’ll probably never get a creative writing job in academia since all my published work is lowly genre fiction ( a. why would I even want to be around creative writing people anyway given that I’ve actually met some, and b. I’m also already in academia and I’m starting to keep an eye open for exit strategies). It’s not just that it’s monstrously unfair, this system that privileges a certain way of being a Writer that certain demographics find waaaaaaaay easier to adopt than others.

It’s that it results in a literary culture that is massively impoverished.

The stories we tell describe us as a people, as a collection of people, as a collection of cultures and beliefs and identities. But as a society we’re persistently bound to hierarchy, to systems of power and privilege that benefit some at the enormous expense of others. That means that our stories are bound to the same – the stories of some are privileged and the stories of others are lost in the shuffle. Stories by poorer people, by less formally educated people, by women and People of Color and queer people of all kinds, by people with disabilities and people who are neuroatypical and anyone who exists on the margins. Those stories, if they’re told at all, reach few. Those creative voices aren’t heard. Still.

And our genres are hierarchically valued. There’s literary fiction – inherently worthwhile, true, beautiful, valuable, possessing tremendous cultural capital. It’s a great thing to be seen to be a reader of literary fiction; it’s an even better thing to be a writer of literary fiction and get to whine about how hard it is. Genre fiction is low, unrefined, and the territory of the proles.

Those of us in SF&F know that it’s had its share of major problems with inclusivity. Even now we’re struggling to deal with the under-representation of anyone who isn’t white/straight/cisgendered/male, and the genre’s environment is still often hostile to people at the intersections of marginalized identities. But romance, which often seems to have it even worse than SF&F in terms of general disparagement, is overwhelmingly written and consumed by women and extremely popular, two things that don’t work in its favor.

And horror? How can horror writers ever produce great fiction?

So genre is frequently locked out of the academy. But again, this isn’t even just about genre, but about who can afford the luxury of being heard, of doing what it takes to be heard. If MFAs are a requirement in the academy’s gateways into the creative writing industry, that has some very problematic implications, as Rahul points out:

[T]he fact that MFAs are used as such a gatekeeper in the literary world adds several major biases into the whole pool of literary writers. It excludes all kinds of people can’t really afford to leave their lives for two years to get even a very well-funded MFA: people who have kids, people who have careers, people who discover writing late in life, people with disabilities.

Those people all have stories that deserve to be told. That need to be told.

This isn’t just about writing, even. This is a problem in any academic field, in any discipline, and it’s been a problem since the beginning of those disciplines: Who is producing our knowledge? What assumptions are they operating on? What standpoint are they working from? My field is sociology; what use is our research on race and class and gender and identity if the people doing that research don’t come from a multiplicity of lived experiences? How can we work to overturn power structures if our own institutional structure maintains the status quo of social power?

But this is about stories.

I love stories because they’re fun, because they’re escapist, because they’re beautiful, because  they’re joyful even when they’re crushingly sad, because they give me glimpses of what might be, because they teach me about who I am, because they teach me about who others are, because they have the potential to be uniquely revolutionary.

Stories change things.

But if stories are going to change anything, they need to be vital. They need to be alive. They need infusions of new blood and new knowledge and new ways of producing that knowledge. I don’t see how that’s likely in the world Rahul is describing. When you’re dealing with a system of gatekeeping that produces the same kinds of work from the same kinds of people over and over, then you have a literary world that’s impoverished. You won’t find the truly interesting things there. The people doing the interesting things are, as usual, on the margins, but they don’t get to complain about how hard the Life of a Writer is. There’s no romance in what they’re doing. And if they’re genre writers, even successful ones, no cushy academic job for them, unless – like me – they’re privileged enough to get into the academy another way (and cushy jobs ain’t looking too good there anyway at the moment).

So no, white middle class MFA student – with whom I share at least two things in common – my sympathy is not with you. And I think maybe you need to step aside and let someone else’s story get told.

Especially if that story is about cyborg dragons in love.

(Please allow a plug for a couple of antidotes to this kind of thing: We See a Different Frontier, a collection of post-colonial spec-fic that both I and Rahul have stories in – his is amazing – and the forthcoming Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. I also have a story in that but that’s not why you should check it out. Look at that ToC. Look at it.)

What I’ve learned so far in 2014

Yesterday I finished doing something I’d never done before: Scrapping 95% of a book and rewriting it from scratch.

Initially I was committed to not doing so at all. I wanted to tell myself that it was about principle – dammit, it was the story I told and it was the story it was going to be – but I now recognize that stance as being augmented with a  jengahealthy amount of terror, as well as a lot of ego. Because it is terrifying, looking back on something you’ve spent weeks and even months on, recognizing that it needs a major overhaul, and diving in. In some ways I think it’s much less terrifying – or at least it was and still is for me – to start something entirely new. Extensive rewriting feels almost like a sadistic game of Jenga, wherein you’re shifting pieces around, stacking and restacking, and one wrong move will bring the whole thing down. Which isn’t true, of course – nothing you can do can collapse a story beyond repair, unless the foundations of the thing itself are just no good – but it still felt like that when I started out, and I wasn’t sure I could really pull it off.

But I was determined to try.

I finished the first version of Fall and Rising (Line and Orbit 2: Electric Boogaloo) last year, and it was a very different book from its predecessor. It was focused on different characters, and it was nastier,  more emotionally brutal, and possessed of some potentially uncomfortable politics. When it was done, I was very adamant that it wasn’t going to get toned down or lightened up – but then I had trouble selling it. And after a couple of rounds of that, I realized that I had to admit to myself that the problem was not necessarily the publisher – as in finding the right one – but instead the book. It was a good story – I still believe that – but it wasn’t the right story. It wasn’t the right successor. It needed to be something different.

It was really, really hard to admit that to myself. But it was liberating when I did, and that feeling of liberation did a lot to blunt the fear when I went back and hacked it to pieces. It remained as I started rebuilding, and it carried me through until I truly began to feel like I was working well inside the world of the book. It was like giving myself permission to take all the work I did and all the time I put into it and declare to myself that none of that mattered.

What mattered was writing the right story.

I didn’t have to hold onto the book just because I worked hard. I didn’t have to hold onto it because of all the time I spent. I sure as hell didn’t have to hold onto it because of some stubborn, misguided idea of what my art should look like. I didn’t have to hold onto it at all. I could let it go and just start (mostly) fresh. It was okay. I was okay.

So yesterday I finished it. For those who care about length at all, it’s about 115k words long, close to the length of Line and Orbit and in fact a good bit longer than Fall and Rising’s initial version. But way more important: I think it’s a better book, and it’s one that wouldn’t have been written if I hadn’t sucked it up and murdered my darlings.

I’d been thinking that the whole murder your darlings thing applied to small sentences and passages and turns of phrase. It does, and I suspect a lot of why I thought that has to do with the fact that I’m still more experienced with short stories than I am with novels. But it also applies on a macro scale. It applies to books, and to massive chunks of books. It would be difficult to overstate how major that was to realize.

What else has this process taught me? Marketability is not a dirty word. Changing something up in order to be able to sell it more easily is not (necessarily) a dirty thing. I didn’t initially start thinking seriously about a rewrite for artistic reasons, I did it because I wanted to sell the damn book and get paid. That line of thinking led me to the realization that I could make the book better, but I might not have gotten there if money weren’t also a concern. I’m in this game because I love it, but also because I want to someday be able to make (at least most of) a living off of it. That’s not something I need to be ashamed of. I’m embarrassed by how long it’s taken me to internalize that, and I’m still working on it.

So mostly what I’ve learned so far in 2014 is that I don’t need to be afraid of those things. I shouldn’t let them stop me from getting shit done. I shouldn’t let my own ego get in the way of producing good work that people want to pay for. I need to continue to work on getting out of my own way.

None of that is exactly new. But I think it’s all good stuff to start the year on.

So let’s check in with my mental health problems.

I have a tendency to get compulsive about things. I think writing is becoming one of those.

I’m sitting here, facing the possibility of a lazy Sunday ahead of me where I just play games and sit on the couch and knit, and the possibility of not writing is terrifying to me.

shutterstock_337528542-250x167Okay, should be no big deal, right? Spend half an hour or so on writing something or other, call it a day. Except even that won’t work, because a) once I’m really into it, it’s difficult to stop, and b) I’m also going through a period of profound self-doubt and anxiety regarding my ability to do this well. Which I thought I was over, but ever since a bunch of awesome things happened I’m looking ahead to 2014 not as something that I can and should enjoy but as something that must meet and surpass the standard of 2013. I’m not allowed to have dry spells. I’m not allowed to pull back and take it easy. I always have to be better, and the better I am, the better I have to be, all the time.

It’s exhausting.

This is why I’ve written over and over about how “if you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.” It’s not a platitude or a way to sound superior but a painful fucking reality. This is something I know intellectually but don’t seem able to grasp viscerally. I can’t just be a good writer, I have to be the best writer possible and I can’t relax that standard for a second.

I realize that many people would kill to have this problem, so this probably sounds a little like self-indulgent whining. But please believe me when I say this: It. HURTS.

In some ways I think this constant, relentless drive to be better is part of what’s gotten me to where I am now. Some of it is talent, but a lot of it is simply the determination to trample over the bodies of my past selves to reach some ever-receding goal. It gets you further, yes, but then what do you have, if you can’t enjoy the successes you’ve earned? And how do you cope with failure? Because you will fail. Self, you will.

In 2014, my goal is to find a way to maintain my motivation while abandoning the unhealthy sides of it. Also, finding a way to transfer some of that motivation into things that I’m technically supposed to be focusing on, like my doctoral dissertation.

But now I’m going to write. Because apparently, right now, I can’t not.

So for me, and for those of you who experience anything like this, or simply terror and anxiety regarding writing at all, let’s repeat this all together: You don’t have to be the best. You don’t have to win all the awards. Your emotional and mental health is more important than your number of acceptances and publications. If you don’t take care of you, it won’t matter how good you are. You’re a human being, not a word-machine.

And as a bonus, here’s a writerly “Neopro Writer’s Bill of Rights” that Robert Dawson, a fellow Codexian, put together. It’s therapy. For anyone who isn’t specifically SFnal, here’s a more generic version.

So hey let’s talk about romance for a sec

Because I think it’s appropriate at this juncture.

Warning: This might be whiny, though I’m also trying to talk about what I see as a persistent and troubling issue in how genres are marketed and how Feelings in SF are seen by some. Skip if none of that sounds appealing.

A day or so on Tumblr I saw a post making the rounds wherein someone was begging for reqs for non-romance genre fiction that nevertheless had a romantic sub-plot (queer in nature). Like any good self-serving author I was tempted to jump in with HEY I HAVE THIS BOOK CALLED LINE AND ORBIT THAT FITS THE BILL MAYBE YOU MIGHT WANT TO CHECK IT OUT OKAY PEACE

I didn’t, partly because it seemed like it might be obnoxious, but also because Line and Orbit is a science fantasy/space opera novel that is both categorized and marketed as gay romance, and it would look like I was effing lying.

I find myself in this position a lot when it comes to trying to get more mainstream SF-crowd attention for this book, the position of feeling like I need to say LOOK IT’S NOT ACTUALLY ROMANCE DON’T GET SCARED WAIT WHERE ARE YOU GOING COME BACK. I hate the idea of saying that, partly because, while the romantic relationship between Adam Yuga and Lochlan d’Bideshi is not really the primary focus of the book, it is nevertheless very, very important, and it probably is fair to categorize it as SF romance. But I also hate saying it because it makes me feel like I’m complicit in the disparaging of romance as a genre, which – let’s face it – tends to be misogynist in a really gross way as well as being silly and baseless, especially coming from SF&F, a genre wherein no one should be putting on airs.

But either way, I do feel like – I could be completely wrong about this – I’m fighting a general probable reaction of “oh, romance, that just doesn’t sound like it’s for me.”

I also feel like I’m fighting a less general but nevertheless very existent reaction of EW LADYFEELINGS IN MY SF but you know what basically fuck those people. They aren’t my audience and I don’t want them. There’s plenty of stuff out there for them.

The thing is, I’ve read books recently that were every bit as heavy on the romance as Line and Orbit, but were marketed as SF, and I do feel like those books have an easier time of it in terms of attracting attention from that crowd. Which, duh, marketing counts for a lot and ends up meaning that certain things are on people’s radar and certain things just aren’t, and that’s mostly fine. I’m also aware that sometimes people just don’t like a book, and that’s fine too; I do not mean to suggest that I think that PEOPLE AREN’T READING MY THING BECAUSE SEXISM. But at the end of the day, I still feel like I’m in an uncomfortable authorial position brought about by relationships within genre that are intensely problematic and also unlikely to change anytime soon.

This is all to say: I wish lines between genres weren’t so damn robust sometimes. I wish it didn’t get really, really sexist. I wish I was less clumsy at promotion. I wish I had a million dollars and a pile of kittens.

But I do hope that writing these kinds of books might, in a tiny little way, help. There should be a place for romance in science fiction and fantasy (and also vice versa, because I also get the sense that a lot of romance readers – rightly – feel very unwelcome in SF and don’t tend to go there), and really I think the two are natural partners – it’s there already. There should be absolutely no shame in it. And people shouldn’t be afraid of writing it or talking about it or liking it or just checking it out sometimes.

On the completion of large things

I’m never sure what to do with myself after I finish a book. There used to be this huge sense of accomplishment and GO ME I’M AWESOME and I still do get sorta cocky about it because I wrote a book and it’s a thing I get to do, but mostly my internal sense is one of well thank Christ THAT’S over. This is true even if I’ve really been enjoying myself. I don’t know if I’m jaded or what, but that’s what seems to happen now.

So with Labyrinthian. I finished the primary editing pass yesterday and I think it’s pretty much ready to go off to the publisher, and I really love it as a book, but I look back over the 88k+ words I wrote and I just feel sort of tired, more than anything. Maybe it also comes from the now-distant discovery that finishing a novel isn’t the ticket to writerly success that I think a lot of us sort of subconsciously think it might be, even if we intellectually know it isn’t. You finish a novel and then… You have a novel. You have a bunch of words. Whoop-de-doo.

I’ve written stuff along these lines before, about how the anxiety and self-doubt don’t appear to go away regardless of how much you publish in however many great places – though it’s also true that I’m pretty much finished doubting my own raw ability – but this isn’t even anxiety and self-doubt so much as it is a crushing ennui. I feel sort of disengaged from a lot of things. I’m getting back on the horse regarding a lot of other things I neglected over the course of this whole process, and that’s great, but in terms of creative stuff, I feel so blah.

And of course I have another two books to write in the next few months. So there’s that.

Gatekeeping, “professional” writing, and are you kidding me with this

lolcatears

Moving is done. I am moved. For the moment I am no longer moving. If you want to see pictures of what the new place looks like, I posted some over here.

It’s a good place. It feels good. I am by no means in a position where I can select a space in which to live purely on the basis of how I think it’ll affect my creative productivity, but if I were, I think this might be the kind of place I’d choose. It’s roomy but not too roomy, which is great since I’m largely responsible for cleaning it. It’s bright and there are lots of windows. It’s secluded, far back from the road and not really very visible. It has a vaguely cottagey feel.

I’ve been giving myself a bit of a writing break – which means that I’ve cut my minimum wordcount back to 1000 a day, and not always every day – given that it turns out that moving is one of those Traumatic Life Events that gives you headaches and wibbly muscles and bad skin. As of right now I’m working on Ravenblood (the Crowflight sequel), and a short story, which feels like a light workload for me. What else am I doing? Reading. Listening to audiobooks. That sort of idle, meditative cleaning that can be so good for restorative inactivity. Napping. Watching movies. Poking at my dissertation. Gearing up to teach again in the fall.

Something else has happened, which looks sort of unimportant on paper but which has turned out to have some emotional repercussions: I gave myself permission to skip ASA this year.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a PhD candidate in sociology and ASA is my discipline’s gigantic annual meeting, sort of Worldcon for sociologists except nowhere near as fun (you may note that I’m not going to Worldcon either). ASA is professionally important – though I’m starting to think it may not be as important as they want you to think – not just because of the panels and the networking but because it’s a feature of one’s professional identity. You’re a sociologist? You go to ASA. It’s one of the ways you know you’re a sociologist. Or so it’s been sold to me.

So I’m not at ASA this weekend, and that nasty little jerkbrain voice – the one that insists that I only passed research statistics and my comprehensive exams because it was too much trouble to fail me – is hissing you are not a real sociologist you fucking fakey faker HOBBYIST

My own brain is enough of a jerk to engage in professional gatekeeping of the most abusive kind. I can’t escape the suspicion that this is because it’s been trained to do so by others.

In the past, I’ve made no secret of how unimpressed I am by gatekeeping of most kinds. There’s the good kind, the kind that ensures actual quality of a product and makes it easier to locate good things, but then there’s the kind that’s purely ego-based, that exists to keep the riffraff out so those of us on the inside can feel better about ourselves. The classic example of this is the carefully policed boundary between “literary” and “genre” fiction, but there are others. There are others that have little or nothing to do with fiction. The most destructive forms of it are the kind that betray the people who buy into them, that set them up to fail in their own eyes. This is one of the reasons why academia has become so rife with abuse, both of grad students and non-tenure track faculty: our identity as academics is so important that many of us find it difficult to leave, even when our conditions are horrible: crippling overwork, awful pay, no benefits, no real opportunity for advancement. We don’t want to be “fake” or “hobbyists”. As long as we remain in the academy, we can be “real” academicians. In fact, suffering through awful conditions can become part of how we know we’re “real”.

I am unimpressed by the very idea of “real”, for the most part. It hurts people. It makes them doubt themselves. It makes people more concerned with ticking little identity boxes than actually doing what they need to be doing. And it makes people more inclined to look down on others, to maintain outmoded and outdated – and often racist, sexist, and homophobic – borders and boundaries. It makes people unkind. Women can’t be “real” scientists or “real” science fiction writers. SF with feelings or romance is not “real” SF.

Enter Lisa Morton’s piece on “real” professional writers.

I’m late to the party, and the article has been rebutted handily elsewhere. John Scalzi’s take is good. Brian Keene’s take is excellent. But as usual, especially given the direction of my own thoughts lately, I wanted to toss my two cents into the pond.

Essentially, Lisa Morton offers an unhealthily stringent, privilege-soaked, rigid picture of what a “professional writer” looks like and what it takes to be one. Apparently writing is the single most important thing to a professional writer. Apparently a professional writer sets aside everything that is not writing. Apparently a professional writer has no time for restorative inactivity or recreation (re-creation, people, there’s a reason why it’s called that; we need it to be whole). A professional writer never steps away, never rests, never calls it quits. If you can’t adhere to these standards, you’re not a professional writer but a “hobbyist”. Doesn’t matter whether or not you get paid. Doesn’t matter whether or not you can support yourself/your family writing sans day job – a truly awful measure, since very few of us are fortunate enough to be able to do that, no matter how hard we work. Doesn’t matter. You goddamn hobbyist.

It’s entirely possible that Morton didn’t mean all of this the way it comes off. How she comes off is profoundly dickish, but I’m willing to bet she’s actually a lovely person. But I don’t know her as a person, so all I can talk about with any authority is what she’s written, and what she’s written is dickish. It’s also hurtful. The kind of lifestyle she’s advocating – not only advocating but presenting as ideal – is not only wrong-headed but, as I said above, probably deeply unhealthy for most people. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t want to do it. No one I know could do it or would want to.

So in the interest of really plumbing the depths of the thing, let’s take her quiz.

1. Is your home/work place messy because that time you’d put into cleaning it is better spent writing? No. Like I said above, having a clean, attractive workspace is an important component of the mental and emotional state that allows me to be productive. I can’t work in squalor or disorder because I’m not comfortable in squalor or disorder. Also I like cleaning.

2. Do you routinely turn down evenings out with friends because you need to be home writing instead? When I turn down evenings with friends, it’s because I’m feeling fragile enough that being social feels overwhelming. Even then, I try not to. Interacting with people makes me mentally healthier, generally. Being mentally healthy helps me to be more productive. I like having friends. Friends are important.

3. Do you turn off the television in order to write? I can’t write with the TV on, so I guess yeah, I do, but I also like TV shows. I watch TV shows. You bet your ass I’ll be watching Breaking Bad tonight. When Supernatural and American Horror Story start back up again, I’ll be setting aside time to watch those too. Yesterday I spent the evening on Frontiere(s), which I’d been wanting to see forever, and it was a blast. It’s also worth pointing out that consuming stories helps one to write stories, and TV/movies are not exempt from that.

4. Would you rather receive useful criticism than praise? I recognize that useful crit is usually more valuable. But praise is valuable too. Feeling like you’re making people happy and doing something right is a huge motivator. Of course I want praise. Of course sometimes I’d rather get praise. I’m not a robot.

5. Do you plan vacations around writing opportunites (either research or networking potential)? My vacations – the few real ones I ever get to take – are vacations. I don’t write during them, or I try not to. I don’t work at all. I vacation. Again – and I can’t emphasize this enough – doing so helps me to be more productive when I get back to work.

6. Would you rather be chatting about the business of writing with another writer than exchanging small talk with a good friend? No. Why would anyone feel this way? I mean, your mileage may vary and everyone is different, but seriously.

7. Have you ever taken a day job that paid less money because it would give you more time/energy/material to write? This is one I might say yes to, because when I’m just absolutely fed up with grad school and being poor and feeling like I’m in professional limbo, the fact that it allows me abundant flexible free time in which to write keeps me where I am. I recognize how lucky I am in that. I intend to take full advantage. But I don’t want to do that forever.

8. Are you willing to give up the nice home you know you could have if you devoted that time you spend writing to a more lucrative career? See above. Also see above in that I actually have a nice home. Again, my privilege.

9. Have you done all these things for at least five years? I’ve only been getting paid to write consistently for four years. Thanks for introducing a completely arbitrary time threshold. That’s very helpful.

10. Are you willing to live knowing that you will likely never meet your ambitions, but you hold to those ambitions nonetheless? Honestly? Yeah. I know I’ll probably never write as well as, say, Cat Valente, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to try. But I think that’s true for most people with a dream. That’s sort of what a dream is. I’m not sure it has a whole lot to do with the rest of these measure of professionalism.

This is bullshit. There’s an addendum at the bottom of the piece that suggests that Morton didn’t intend to include people who have to work day jobs to support themselves, but I think that’s kind of bullshit as well; the whole thing reads – to me – like Morton is including all writers, and then declaring the vast majority of them, for whom this is all basically impossible and entirely undesirable – not real professional writers for not wanting/not being able to perform to her standards.

I don’t know what to call that other than bullshit.

“If you’ve already glanced at these questions and scoffed, you are a hobbyist. And that’s okay, as long as you don’t call yourself a professional. At least around irritable me.

Okay, Lisa. Sure. Hi, I’m Sunny, and I’m a hobbyist.

I wrote a post that sort of dealt with this topic a while ago. I said that a writer makes sacrifices in order to find time to write, but that’s not all a writer does. A writer reads, goes out and experiences life, does whatever they need to do in order to be able to write, including things that are not writing. Do you get paid for your words? Congratulations: you are a professional writer. Now get back to work. Even if “work” for you right now consists of TV or staring into space.

I’m going to end this with a quote from Brian Keene’s rebuttal, which I think gets to the heart of it.

A professional writer is not deemed so by how much they get paid per word, or how many words they produce, or how many awards they’ve won, or what position they hold in a writer’s organization, or how much networking they do at conventions. A professional writer does one thing — they treat their writing professionally. They produce. They edit. They constantly strive to get better. They sit their ass down in a chair and put their fingers on a keyboard and they type.

A professional writer spends more time writing than they do talking about writing.