Love Your Work

One of my creative writing professors in college had a mantra of sorts: “Alcoholism, depression, suicide….” It was supposed to be a joke. He’d say it after discussing one of the more challenging aspects of writing, and we would laugh. It did seem funny at the time. That’s the cliche, right? Fitzgerald drank himself to death before 50, Hemingway and Sylvia Plath killed themselves, the Brontes were famously unhappy, and Emily Dickinson was a recluse who never showed her work to anyone.

You’re supposed to be miserable, the story goes. You’re supposed to think you’re worthless. You’re supposed to be the worst, toughest critic of your own work.

But anyone can do that. Really, anyone can be miserable, anyone can hate what they create. It’s harder by far to find what you like in what you do, and harder still to build your own confidence in yourself, especially when the story goes that you shouldn’t. You can even find yourself clinging to bad habits like being hard on yourself just because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. It’s not cool to like what you do. Besides, if you’re not twisting with the internal agonies of trying to create the perfectly formed sentence, then maybe what you do isn’t worthy of the word “work” at all.

And believe me, I’ve done the writhing in agony thing. It’s not fun and it sure isn’t pretty. Once, in college, I came home from a critique and tore up the drafts of my story and tossed them in the recycling bin–not because the critiques were wrong, but because I was convinced my story was so awful. There were at least two occasions when I said “I quit!” to the whole thing, and the second of those times lasted the better part of a year.

But recently I’ve been feeling something else. I’ve written stories and liked them. I’ve written a novel that I well and truly like, that I feel proud of. Instead of feeling wholly inadequate I’ve been able to look at my own stuff and think, “You know, you can really do this…”

And damn if it isn’t a hundred thousand times better than wallowing in my own misery. But it’s weird, because that’s not part of the myth. The story goes we’re supposed to hate our work, so when you find yourself admiring your own sentences you start to panic, think you’re getting egotistical. As if there’s no middle ground between self-degradation and narcissism.

A couple weeks ago Daniel Jose Older, author of the ghost-noir collection Salsa Nocturna, sent out a series of tweets giving writers permission to like their own work. It was maybe the first time I ever saw anyone suggesting it’s okay to love your work. There are tons of posts out there about how to handle self doubt, but almost none about how you can and should cultivate actual love for your work. I think there’s a belief out there that a writer’s loathing for her own work is what helps her edit that work to perfection, but Older suggests that love is what gives us the ability to critique our own stuff. And you know, I think he’s right. The stuff I’ve written in the past that I hated? I could hardly stand to work on them long enough to edit them. But the stuff I love? The novel I’ve been trying to write for over ten years? Those are the ones I can accurately and correctly critique. Those are the ones I see clearest. It’s a labor of love, so why not own it?

Kate Elliott, author of the excellent Spiritwalker Triology, responded to Older’s tweets by asking folks to tell her at least one thing they like about their writing. One thing they’re confident they do well. (I would link, but I lost the tweet…)

I like the idea of doing that. So I’m going to do it. It’s kind of scary — somehow it’s easier to confess what we’re bad at, rather than what we like, because at least if we say we’re bad and we’re not we’re being modest. If you say you like something and it’s done poorly, what then?

But if we can’t find something to like in our writing, why should anyone else? If we can’t like what we do, why do we do it? So, here goes.

I’ve got an ear for language. I’m pretty good at writing prose that’s highly readable but still beautiful. (I balked at “beautiful” at first, almost wrote “interesting,” but what is that?) And I’m good at characterization. Sometimes my plots leave a little to be desired, but at the very least I’ll have some interesting folks running through my stories, folks that I and others end up caring about.

Owning your work means more than just admitting to your flaws. You’ve got to own your skills too. So tell me: What are you good at? What do you love about your own work?

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Post-Novel Writing Ennui

I hate this part of writing. Hate it. But it’s as inevitable as rain in spring: you’re going to write your book, and when you finish you will be briefly elated, and then you will kick around and flail and stare at your computer like it’s suddenly transformed into some strange alien object. Words? Characters? Story? What?

I never know what to do with myself after I finish writing a book. I tell myself that I’m going to write a gazillion short stories and maybe a poem or two, plus of course 900 blog posts of splintering brilliance — but I never account for weariness, and instead of all that I maybe edit a story and write the opening paragraphs to half a dozen others. It suddenly seems like so much work, and I have just finished a lot of work, and I’m ready for something easy now. But writing isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be. I suppose it could be if I were capable of writing something goofy just for shits and giggles, but every time I start it turns serious and becomes work again. And then I stop, because I want to write but I don’t want to work.

Eventually it sorts itself out. Either I finally find a project and stick with it — start working — or enough time has passed that I can turn around and edit the novel I just finished. I suppose both solutions are about letting time pass so my head can clear itself out and the work can start to look fun again. I love writing, so I can’t stand it when I don’t love it. Does that make sense? Some people write to have written, but I’m very much in love with the process. I’d almost rather be neck deep in a novel forever than have to go about the process of finishing it.

Now I’ve written that, it doesn’t really make sense. Or it does, but it seems like it shouldn’t. That could be a tag line for all of writing in general: Makes sense, but it shouldn’t. This is a weird thing we do, folks, a very wonderful but a very strange thing. And I wouldn’t give it up for anything, even right now when it’s driving me a little crazy.

Readercon 24

I was lucky enough to spend this past weekend hanging out with a bunch of nerdy, smart, brilliant speculative fiction writers at Readercon 24, an annual SFF convention in the Boston area. It’s a unique SFF con in that there’s no costuming, no gaming, very little reference to films or TV: It’s just about the books and the authors and the people who love them. It is quite literally three straight days of people talking about books.

Fan-freaking-tastic.

I’m still trying to process everything. I and two friends from my critique group split a hotel room for the weekend, so except for two excursions outside for meals I spent the three days entirely enclosed in a relatively small event space crammed full of authors, editors, bloggers, and so forth. Only minutes after I arrived on Friday I managed to nearly walk into one of my favorite authors, and later I bought a book in the dealers room only moments before the author of said book walked up to the same table. It was both weird and exhilarating to be surrounded by so many people whose names and faces and writing I recognized and knew.

I had very little sleep and somehow kept myself to spending only $30 in the dealers room, divided evenly between ChiZine Publications and Small Beer Press. There were hundreds more dollars worth of books I wanted to buy, itched to buy, if only my wallet had been a little bigger. One of the first things I did when I got home (after eating and unpacking and lying on the sofa for a bit) was add books to my to-read list on Goodreads: Salsa Nocturna by Daniel Jose Older, Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston, In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss, Hammered by Elizabeth Bear…. There are more, many more, including at least one book that’s not even published yet. And as awesome as it is to meet these writers in person, the fact that I now get to “meet” new writers in the pages of their books is in some ways even more exciting.

I went to as many panels and readings as I could handle, and took a few breaks when I couldn’t take any more. Half these breaks ended up being more discussion of books in smaller groups and quieter places. I met a lot of new people, at least of half of whose names I’ve already forgotten (and they me, I’m sure). I lurked a little, listening far more than speaking, but drinking up the positive energy exuding from nearly everyone in every room. Readercon — like all large gatherings of like-minded, passionate individuals — was equally exhausting and energizing, and I think at the end of the day that’s the primary benefit of attending in the first place. You go, you get excited, you meet new people and find new authors to read, and you come home feeling tired but charged, ready to write the next great novel — once you’ve had a few solid hours of sleep.

The Fear You Feel at the Bottom of a Cliff

The pits of the internet must be paved with defunct, discarded, forgotten blogs. Some of them are probably awful — livejournal entries of teenage angst, or first attempts by non-writers to be writers — and some are probably brilliant, but they’re all there together. I imagine them lying in a sort of cluttered heap, all these miscellaneous ramblings and writings echoing on and on with no one to see or listen to them.

Whenever I leave my blog for too long — which is really more the normal state of things than otherwise — I always start asking myself why I think I want to blog in the first place. It’s not because I have any particular thing to say. If anything, it’s because I wish I did have a particular thing to say, and sitting here trying to say it might bring some much-needed clarity to the matter.

The blogs I like the best are the ones that aren’t afraid of getting personal. And of course I try to do the same, with one major difference: I am at least a little afraid of getting personal. It’s not the details that matter, but the threat of letting slip a little too much. It’s the same fear that we all share, that makes it so hard to show any of our work to anyone: fear of rejection, not of the piece itself but of ourselves. Every time I start a new blog post the same thing always happens: I get about halfway or two-thirds of the way done and the idea shrinks suddenly, squeezed to tiny insignificance by my own fears. I’ve got to stop doing that, both here and elsewhere in my writing. I should try to be braver.

That reminds me of a post I saw a little while ago, by Kat Howard. It’s titled “A manifesto to myself” and it says what I’m saying here (or trying to say here) in a lot fewer words.

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

I think I’ve known for a while now that I do my best writing when there’s that edge of fear running alongside, propelling me almost — not fear in the sense of horror (though sometimes there’s that) but the fear that comes when you’re on the cusp of a difficult transition or change. The fear before the plunge. The fear you feel at the bottom of a cliff, neck craned to look up. Am I going there? And sometimes the answer is yes. Lately, though, the answer has been yes only to a point, at which point I flail (creatively and sometimes literally) and stew around and then give up. I stop. In fact the problem I have now, the problem I’ve been having for a while, is that I haven’t finished anything in so long I’ve forgotten how to do it. And it’s mostly (or at least partly) because I’ve given in to the fear instead of letting it propel me forward.

So I’m going to try to stop doing that, obviously. I’m going to remind myself that fear is often an indicator that I’m on the right track, and I’m not going to let it stop me. In fact I’ll try to revel in it — easy enough to do at the beginning, but harder and harder as the pages pile up behind me, messy and unedited and disastrously imperfect. Still, I’ll relearn how to push through, how to finish things. I’ll start with this blog post, because the small steps matter. When I finish and press Publish, I’ll have this one minor victory behind me, this one moment when I didn’t let my silly fears lock me in silence.

The Next Big Thing: Title Fail Edition

I’m sure you’ve seen this meme by now, but in case not the “Next Big Thing” is a list of questions about a current WIP. I was tagged by Annie Neugebauer, who has an awesome-sounding literary post-apocalyptic horror novel in the works. Definitely check that out if you haven’t already!

Also keep an eye out for Wistfully Linda’s Next Big Thing post coming soon. While waiting, you can always check out her informative and thought-provoking posts on Asian-American Fantasy (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).

Without further ado, here are the questions:

What is the working title of your book?

Ah. Ugh. Titles. I am…very bad with titles. Very very bad. The act of finding a title is longer and harder, for me, than writing the book or story itself. And in fact the only time I’ve had a title I really liked the story itself actually paled in comparison, so…

Seriously, though, this book has its own folder on my computer, wittily named “Untitled Fantasy.” It sits right above another folder called “Untitled Post-Apocalyptic.” Because titles are the worst.

Where did the idea come from for this book?

The idea for this book actually came from another book I’d written a long time ago, which was rife with some awful cliches and terrible plot holes and boring worldbuilding. But the idea (a group of people form a cautious, troubled union in order to overthrow an oppressive regime) and some of the characters wouldn’t go away.

What genre does your book fall under?

The book — or books, rather, since it’s either a duology or a trilogy — is a non-traditional epic fantasy (though I am not completely pleased with that classification). The setting is more American Southwest than medieval Europe, and the plot is more sociopolitical than a MacGuffin-finding quest.

How long did it take to write the first draft?

It took about three months of actual writing, from first sentence to last. But there was some brainstorming before that, and as I mentioned above the whole thing is a redo of something I’d been working on off and on for years. So, I don’t know, is “forever” a viable answer?

What actors would you use for a movie rendition of your book?

I…wouldn’t? I write books, not movies, and I am always very cautious about movie adaptations of books I’ve loved (The Golden Compass, anyone?). I’m honestly not sure I would even want to see a movie made from my book, because I feel like it would do weird things to my heart and my head. However, I would buy the movie soundtrack if it was any good. And if I could pick, I’d probably choose James Newton Howard to compose the score, because he basically already wrote the soundtrack to this novel, here and here, for example.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Decades after the Gildor armies defeated Evarra’s people and stole their cities, she decides to ally herself with former enemies in order to overthrow the empire.

Will it be self published or represented by an agency?

If all goes according to plan, I’ll be seeking representation sometime in 2013.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

As I mentioned above, it’s an old idea in new clothes, so the inspiration is a little hard to parse. A trip to New Mexico provided no small amount of inspiration for the setting, which is no real surprise. But it’s hard to go to New Mexico and not also start thinking about the effects of colonization, because they’re all still there, glaring the casual visitor in the face. It’s not like that on the east coast, even here in a state named for the original inhabitants.

Anyway, it got me thinking, which inevitably leads to writing. Also, I read a lot of awesome, unique, thought-provoking, beautiful, mind-blowing books and short stories this year, and really expanded my mental map of what books, and especially genre books, are capable of. I wanted to write something that pushed me into a new realm of storytelling — bigger, bolder, and therefore scarier (to me, as the writer). And to some extent it must have succeeded: I intentionally went for a story that didn’t have any easy answers, then got flustered partway through by the fact that there were no easy answers.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The book is a lot like Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World, Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Isles of the Forsaken, and Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker Trilogy. All of these are epic-ish fantasies with themes of revolution and social upheaval/culture clash, and also take place outside the usual medieval Europe milieu. The Half-Made World in particular is very similar, as it’s also inspired by the American West.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There are four main characters: the daughter of an exiled queen, an awkward ex-prisoner, a young mother who wants to be a mage, and a quiet student-turned-propagandist. I fell in love with all of them while writing, but I didn’t let that stop me from putting them all through hell.

Which does mean it’s pretty dark. I always tend to write dark stories, not usually intentionally, but this one veered darker than I expected. What can I say? I do like reading horror, and maybe a bit of that crept into some of the scenes just before the climax…

I Don’t Need to Know the Color of Your Heroine’s Underwear: A Rant

Recently I picked up and attempted to read a literary horror novel called The Reapers are the Angelswritten by Alden Bell. The title is swoonworthy; so is the opening: “God is a slick God. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.” I mean, based on those two things alone (and the zombies, can’t forget those) I didn’t think I would have to put much effort into enjoying this one.

And the beginning of the book is pretty good. Early on, Temple evinces her toughness by dispatching three zombies at once in a dark basement with only one long knife — a scene that, although a tad disappointing in its relentless look-how-tough-this-girl-is! vibewas no real struggle to get through. (Some people like the superhuman character. Usually I find these characters offputting and distant, their badassery so extreme they seem alien.) Not long after dispatching the zombies she runs into some people, a group of men, and it takes about two seconds for one of the guys to start creeping on her.

This was probably when the disappointment started to appear. At this point, clearly there was going to be rape (or attempted rape). My disappointment had a couple of levels to it, ranging from “Good lord another story about the rapeability of women” to “seriously, this is the most creative thing you could come up with?” Maybe I just haven’t yet recovered from George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows or Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the recent furor over the updated Tomb Raider game — but it does seem to me that the world has a lot of stories about tough ladies coming under the threat of rape. And I’m at the point now where I’m ready to read slightly more positive images of women characters, without this constant reminder: “You are a woman, therefore you can be raped!” I mean, women have other stories too, guys. There are even ways to create deep, interesting female characters without resorting to backstories of sexual abuse or rape. This shit happens enough in real life; wouldn’t it be nice if our literature didn’t completely normalize the behavior?

Still, I realize that rape does happen and is an important subject to address in fiction, so although disappointing this isn’t a deal-breaker. I still fully intended to give the book a fair chance, until the character-looks-in-a-mirror scene came along and ruined everything:

Blond hair, lean face with long eyelashes framing two bright blue eyes. She could be pretty. She tries to look more like a girl, holding herself in the way she’s seen girls do, pouting out her lips and lowering her chin and raising her eyebrows. Her little breasts aren’t much of anything, and her bottom is flat — but she has seen glamorous women in magazines with bodies like hers, so she supposes it’s all right.

She dresses again with the new underpants Ruby got for her. They are cotton with roses all over them. Ruby also got her a brassiere, but she doesn’t put that on.

Okay. First, let’s keep in mind that this is how fifteen-year-old Temple is seeing herself in the mirror — it’s third person, but everything up to now has hewed closely to Temple’s perspective. This is her seeing herself in a weird sexualized way, and it also happens to be the first description of her appearance for the reader as well. First we see her kick ass, then we get to know her breast size. Okay.

Second, Temple has just arrived at a “fortress” full of strangers, one of whom is a creeper. Her response to the gross, possessive way the man behaved toward her is to go look in a mirror and wonder if her breasts are large enough. Color me disturbed.

And what is this “tries to look more like a girl” nonsense? She’s already blond, already has really long eyelashes, already has bright blue eyes. She already looks like glamorous girls she’s seen in old magazines. The only thing I get from this description is that she is emphatically a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl with the body of a skinny model. I’m also left wondering how, exactly, do girls hold themselves? And — the pièce de résistance — why the hell does she want or feel a need to pout? (Like a magazine model I hope, not because the author thinks all girls pout, right?) Unless it’s to emphasize her femininity, lest we think someone would soon attempt to rape an unfeminine woman, or lest we think she didn’t somehow bring it on herself? At the very least, am I the only one who thinks it’s really gross/creepy/disturbing to build up a character’s sexuality shortly before the rape scene we all know is coming? Especially a character who is only fifteen?

And then we get to see what her underwear looks like, because that’s normal. And guys in books constantly note the color and pattern of their boxers, right? Just like they flex in the mirror all the time. And speaking of underwear, of course she doesn’t wear a bra. After all the rest of that passage, it’s hard not to be suspicious of that little detail.

Anyway, naturally Temple must continue to prove her (sexy) toughness, so she goes to hang out with the tough guys (again, almost implying she brings this on herself, in a way). She gambles with them and wins with brassy aplomb (“Any moron can turn a card.”). She’s so Tough with a capital T that one of the guys tells her he thinks she might be “more dangerous than what’s out there,” i.e., the zombies. (I’m still mystified by that exchange, actually.)

In the very next scene she fends off her attacker, him drunk and her reeling from the influence of an Ambien. She wins — she, a fifteen-year-old, against a grown man with a knife. Have your cake (sexy!) and eat it too (she wins!), I guess. It didn’t matter for me by then — I read a little farther but only through sheer dogged unwillingness to let go of my high hopes for this book. In truth I was already lost, back at the mirror scene, when I was thrust out of the story and into a slow-simmering boil of anger.

The rest of the book might be awesome. I’m not going to read it — Bell lost me as a reader, maybe permanently. There are plenty of books out there I can read without getting ranty, so why try reading through my anger and disappointment? Frankly this year has seen enough crap hurled toward women, thanks, and I think I’ll turn my attention elsewhere.

But I had to write this critical, snarky post. I actually never thought I’d write a negative review here — some kind of uneasiness about writing negatively as someone who isn’t really anyone in the literary world. But even as recently as a year ago I might not have noticed that anything was amiss in the mirror scene. I might not have thought how strange it was to note the color and pattern of her underwear. I might not have gotten angry at all — and that’s ultimately why I wrote this. The male gaze, rape culture, and the fallacy of these rape-revenge fantasies are so integrated in mainstream culture that it’s hard to notice them for what they are. I missed out on the feminist theory courses in college; it wasn’t until I dove into the internet and the blogosphere that I began to understand how pronounced and insidious these issues were. I read what other people said they saw in a work of fiction, and now I’ve learned to see it myself. And I can’t un-see it.

Those blog posts helped me to see things that were wrong with my own fiction, bits and pieces of internalized misogyny and the male gaze and rape culture. That’s probably the real reason this pissed me off so much — it was too familiar, too close to what I’d thought was okay as recently as a year ago. It’s not okay to build up the sexuality of a character before someone tries to rape them. It’s weird and wrong, and sends weird and wrong messages. Sex is sex, but rape is not sex. It’s violence. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too.

Ten Long Years and I’m Still Messing Up

I realized this week that I’ve been writing for ten years. Ten years! I’m young enough that that’s a significant portion of my life. I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, when I started writing my first novel. My parents had just gotten a new computer so they passed the old one on to me, ostensibly so I could do my homework more easily; but I had just discovered Lord of the Rings and the fantasy genre as a whole, and one day I opened MS Word and wrote a sentence that had popped into my head apropos of nothing. I don’t remember the sentence, but I do remember the thrill of it, and the whole blank page ahead of me.

And that was it, I guess. I fell hard with the writing bug, hard enough that I finished that novel and started on another. Maybe it helped that it had never occurred to me, at age fourteen, that I might not be able to write a novel. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

I still don’t think my parents have grasped the fact that that computer changed my life. Plus one for technology, I guess. Sometimes I think it’s unromantic, as if writing my first novel longhand on six different notepads with a set of special novel-writing gel pens would have been more appropriate or romantic, but that’s not how it happened. I became a writer because my parents gave me a computer, a clunky, beastly Gateway running Windows 95. A lot of programs crapped out on me over the years, but MS Word was not one of them.

It might also be worth noting that this was 2002, a mere few months after the 9/11 attacks, a full year before the Iraq War began: In other words, a time in which no one knew what the hell was going on. I was fourteen, naive and confused, trying to make sense of a world that was changing before I even had a chance to understand it. A lot of teenagers have to grapple with their understanding of the world, and I did so be writing. I learned who I was through my writing; I learned what I thought about things through my writing; I learned who I wanted to be through my writing.

Ten years later I have more skill and less confidence; I mess up less egregiously but I feel it more. And, somehow, I’m still trying to figure out the world and myself by writing.

Also this week, I decided to accept that the novel I’m currently working on has problems I can’t just push through. Not that the story isn’t salvageable, because I do think it is and I would still like to write it, but maybe all along I’ve been writing the wrong story. I have zero angst over the thought of rewriting — I happen to think rewriting is one of the more exquisite pleasures of the writing process. But still, to not even be able to finish the draft? I always finish my drafts. I’m a compulsive draft-finisher, charging to the end and leaving a path of gaping plot holes and inconsistencies in my wake. That’s just what I do.

Which is why I’m not doing it this time. Sometimes change is good. This time I’m taking a break. Time to reassess, make sense of all of this again. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the entire rest of my life appears to be in flux too. When it rains, it pours…)

They say (I’m not even sure who “they” are) that mastery over a skill only comes after a person devotes at least 10,000 hours to honing that skill. I used to be discouraged by that oft-repeated statistic, but not anymore. It’s more encouraging than anything else. You wrote the wrong story? That’s just a blip, it still counts toward your 10,000 hours. You still put in your time. You still have the characters; you can find the right story and tell it. And maybe you’ll master it this time — or the next, or the one after that.