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Aug. 8th, 2011

Forget your perfect offering

 If there was any piece of writing advice that I'd like to stab through the throat with my pen, it is "write what you know." Not least because I believe that the vast majority of novels about middle-aged humanities professors having affairs with their grad students and getting divorced (not necessarily in that order) can be directly traced back to this adage.

I don't mean a responsible writer shouldn't do research or rely on a list of experts to help make sure that she knows what she is talking about, and conveys that knowledge in a manner useful to her reader. Research is a necessary part of good writing. Otherwise you have a reader who knows that vampires don't walk around in daylight wondering why the ones in your book can, and putting the book down when you don't provide a compelling explanation.

But too often, "write what you know" makes us cowards. We know what will sell, so we write to that instead of the book that lives in our secret heart. We know our strengths as writers, so we hide behind those, and never push ourselves to try new things. We know how putting certain truths in our work will make our parents, our friends, our lovers look at us, and so we don't write those, because we know that writing something else will be easier, and cleaner. We know what is safe to write, and we write that.

We write what we know when we want to be perfect, and I don't think perfection is what art is about. I think art is about truth.

I am not a good writer when I write safely. I'm an educated one - an advanced degree in Literature means I have plenty of practice thinking about the pieces that go into a story. I can give you theme and archetype, blood, love, and rhetoric, all wrapped up in a tidy bit of literary allusion. I'm good enough at language and the manipulation of words to turn a pithy - or pretty - phrase. I can paint the surface of the page with sparkle and shine. It's beautiful, but it's false at it's heart. At best, what I make when I do this will be mediocre.

I don't want to be mediocre. I would rather be a spectacular failure than be safe.

I was reading an interview with Amanda Palmer today, and in it (while talking about twitter) she says, "share things that make you uncomfortable." It's that piece of advice that I would replace "write what you know" with. Because I've found that when you acknowledge the existence of that discomfort - poke around in it a bit and think about why you don't want to write that scene, or that character, or that story - what comes out is better art.

When I say this, I don't mean uncomfortable in terms of shock value. I mean it in terms of truth. I mean it in the way that if you think people will judge you, that they will look at you funny, or like you less, or wonder if you're a creep or a pervert or a weirdo or or or, for putting something in your art, then maybe that is exactly the thing your art needs.

I'm not going to lie, and say that's easy or fun, or that there haven't been times I've handed something in and thought "Dear God, I hope my Mom never reads that." And I don't succeed at being honest in my work all the time - possibly the most devastating critique I ever received was a single line: "Dear Kat, you know you have to write [redacted] if you want this to mean anything." It was devastating because I had known. I just wasn't brave enough to put it in that draft. And it was so obviously the missing piece of story.

So don't be satisfied to write what you know. Share what makes you uncomfortable. Write what terrifies you.

Write what's true.

Aug. 1st, 2011

That's not why I'm here

 There's a post making the rounds today, that argues that writing a blog is a waste of time for fiction writers because (to paraphrase) even though blogging may help you meet other writers, network, and improve your craft, it will not help you sell books.

Author bloggers, she suggests, blog only as a means of self-promotion, but because they have tunnel vision and only blog about writing, they appeal only to other writers, and so do not reach an outside audience, sell no books because of their blog entries articulating the pain and terror of the revision process and on and on, until the internet becomes like unto a cat, devouring its own tail, and the world ends.

(I may have exaggerated for dramatic license at some point in that last paragraph.)

I have, you may have guessed, some thoughts on this. My first is that if you, as a fiction writer (the rules are different for nonfiction writers, who often have to demonstrate having an audience for their topic before they can get a contract) are doing anything social media related for the purpose of increasing sales, you are doing it wrong. And your readers and followers and friends can probably tell and are probably unfriending and unfollowing you so they can go read someone else.

You know what can help increase sales? A good story. If you write rubbish, the most snazzily designed and managed author platform (ugh) in the world isn't going to help you increase your sales or reach your target market or whatever the catchphrase is that we savvy writers on social media are supposed to use.

So if we're not watching the zeros on the royalty checks increase with every page view, why should writers blog? Well, I think "should" is the wrong word. And I can't speak to why other writers do so, but I do it because it gives me a way of connecting with people, or to a conversation. Do I talk about writing a lot? Well, yes. That is because what I do - a lot - is write. I have the following project files open - a novel, a book-length nonfiction project, a short story, an academic article, and a ballet. I am writing for two other websites right now. I am in the research process on a nonacademic article, and another novel (or possibly short series of novels.) That is, yea verily, a lot of writing. During the academic year, I teach literature, so, you know, more writing.

Does that mean I only want to talk to writers? No, of course not. Does that mean I am limiting my blog audience from all the people in the world to the people who are interested in writing? Probably. But since recent search stats have shown that people who have found my blog have been looking for werewolves in New Hampshire, noseless Greek mathematicians, and the most beautiful girls in the world, I'm not too concerned.

Jul. 19th, 2011

"Sweet Sixteen"

 I don't really think of myself as a science fiction writer. I don't think of myself as not one, specifically, but that type of story usually isn't one my brain turns to.

But when I sold "Choose Your Own Adventure" to John Joseph Adams at Fantasy Magazine, he said, "you know, if you ever write science fiction, you should send me a story for Lightspeed." I had been playing with the idea of writing sf, and his comment was enough to make my brain open up to the possibility of a story, and I wrote "Sweet Sixteen." John bought it for Lightspeed, and it's out today.

I hope you like it.

Jul. 18th, 2011

Night and sky

 Petrichor. Velvet blue sky, exploded with candleflicker sparks of fireflies. The air slicks across your skin like wet silk, and the voice cries out again.

The voice that echoed through your head, drawing you out of the safety of walls, of lights, of familiar places. A haunting, or a temptation, and does the name for it even matter, because here you are, in the aftermath of the storm, searching your way through the destruction.

A voice, and the return of thunder. Burnt ozone of lightning-struck air, and a copper-electric taste in your mouth, and you walk anyway. Past the comfort of landscaped lawns and paved roads. Into a place where everything is not quite, is slantwise and canted, where ghosts of possibilities raise the hair on your skin and crawl across your flesh.

A call, and an answer, and you shed your skin, and follow the storm.

Jul. 17th, 2011

So come out of your cave walking on your hands

 Since I've been working my way through common questions recently, I thought I'd try to give my answer to another. (As with any of these, my answer is my answer. Based on my experience, and part of what works for me, and keeps me, if not sane exactly, able to counterfeit it well enough. There are lots of ways to become a writer and please don't think that if what works for you contradicts what works for me that you're doing it wrong.)

So. How do you know when a story is ready to be sent out on submission? I get this one a lot, often in some version of "how can I make sure this story will sell?" I'm going to combine the oracular answer to the former with the more practical answer to the latter.

A story is ready to go out on submission when it is the best story you can write at that moment in time. Unless an editor sees enough potential in the story to ask for a rewrite, you only get one chance per market per story. So revise your story before you send it out. Give it to your writers' group, your beta readers, your friend who respects your work enough to tell you where the flaws are. Remember that revision does not just mean correcting spelling errors, although of course it includes that as well. Then think about your story - do you still see places where it doesn't work? If so, hang on to the story until you can fix them.

Does this mean that I expect you to write and rewrite until your story is perfect? No. Your story will never be perfect. And writing, like every other skill, has a learning curve - you will get better the more you do it. But unless you want to spend your entire career polishing the same piece of prose, there comes a time when you say this is the best I can make it right now, and you put it out in the world.

How can you guarantee your story will sell? You can't. Sorry. But there are some things you can do to make the submissions process less intimidating and less fraught. First, before you start sending your story out, familiarize yourself with the short fiction market. Learn what markets buy what type of fiction - no matter how good your hard SF story is, a magazine that specializes in epic fantasy is not going to buy it - and what they pay. Before you start submitting, decide what pay and prestige scale you are willing to accept for your work - pro only? semipro if the magazine gets reviewed or if the stories are often included in year's best volumes? token so long as you see your name in print? nothing if it's in a venue you really love? a venue you despise, but they pay lots and lots of money? - and stick to that decision. Stick to that decision even in the face of rejection letters.

Read the submissions guidelines for each market. Follow them. To the letter. The only thing that should stand out is the quality of your writing. If the submissions guidelines go beyond "please submit a .doc file in standard manuscript format," read those, too - if an editor is telling you that lusty pirate stories are a hard sell for her, take that seriously. Then go to your list of markets, and start out with your dream market, because it is not your job to reject your own work.

And realize the likeliest outcome is still rejection. Markets receive hundreds of stories a month, and tend to buy in the single digits. Your story may be good, and still get rejected if it was not to the editor's taste. Your story may be salable, and still get rejected - I have sold rejected stories. Many writers have. It doesn't mean that we sold to bad or second rate markets, it just means editors are people too, and like people, they have varying tastes.

And yes, the submission process can be nerve-wracking - I still get sick to my stomach every time I press "send." And yes, rejection sucks. It sucks every time, and on some days worse than others. Sending your work out takes guts, and I'm proud of each and every one of us who does it.

Jul. 12th, 2011

The universe (which others call the to be read list)

 A couple days ago, I mentioned on twitter that there was a new Kelly Link short story available. And there is! (It's part of a spectacular YA issue of Subterranean Online, edited by Gwenda Bond.) I said that anyone who hadn't read Link's short fiction really ought to do so.

This comment was apparently a stressful one, as I received a response from someone who said he was already struggling with Neil Gaiman's advice to read the entire field (SF, the respondent added, was a pretty big field) and here I was, adding someone else to the reading list. My response, I said, was too big to condense to 140 character bits, so I promised a blog.

So, if you're going to be a writer, do you need to read your entire field?

Well, here's the thing. Scholars like to argue about the date of Beowulf, but I believe that we're saying it's an eighth century poem right now. Which means the field of speculative fiction in English has existed for a little more than 1200 years. Even if, like the Cumaean Sibyl, you possessed as many years as grains of sand, you could never read the entire field. Because not only is it already full of 1200 years of literature, people keep writing in it! (Seriously. There were 430 Hugo-nominated short stories this year alone. That doesn't mean published. That means those were the ones people thought were good enough to put on a Hugo ballot. The field is growing.)

So no, you don't need to read your entire field. You will never write anything if you try. But I don't think that Neil meant read the entire field (or the version of this he told us at Clarion, which was "read everything!"). I think what he meant was pay attention to it. Educate yourself as to what the field looks like today - who is selling lots of copies, who is getting good reviews, who is included on best of lists and is long- and short-listed for awards. Read those things.

Know the history of your field - what were the major texts and authors? Which of those still have an impact? Read those as well. Then, read outside of your field (this is where "read everything" comes into play) because otherwise you'll get tunnel vision. Know the weaknesses in your own writing, and read to correct those. If you want to write a certain kind of book, or one that has specific elements in it, read to find out how other people have handled those elements - both well, and poorly (because it is useful not only to have goals that you are writing towards but ideas that you are writing against).

If this sounds like you will be reading constantly, well, you will. And you should, as a writer - you learn to write by writing, yes, but you also learn to write by reading and by thinking about what you have read, by pulling the skin off the stories to see how their skeletons articulate. Reading is part of your job. You will also probably read books that you dislike, and this is also good, because you will learn exactly what it is about those books that bothers you, and you will also learn that just because you dislike something does not mean it is a bad book.

And you will also learn to let go. There will be books you never read, names and titles that slide through your consciousness because time is finite, days when you are better served by rereading the book that made you want to be a writer in the first place than picking up the new LOLCatPunk! anthology. Because while you should read everything, you do not need to read everything.

Jul. 10th, 2011

Really, the truest definition of a novel

 In case you have somehow missed my weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth on the subject, I am finishing up revisions for The Sword Between. And the process has been this sort of exhausting emotional whiplash, penduluming between, "Hey, that's pretty good." and "Oh, dear God, I wrote what?!"

At the same time, I have been getting the opening of the next book into some sort of organized shape, which has triggered an emotional roller coaster of similar patterns: "I love this story! I love these characters! This is so much fun to write!" and then five minutes later "Oh, Kat, why did you ever think this was a good idea? What a cliché! How very overdone, and oh, look, you've managed to make necromancy boring. Good show indeed!"

I usually read something not mine as a mental palate cleanser between the two projects - I don't want the voice from one to contaminate the other, and I need to reboot my brain. Today, I picked up the Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods, and read this bit in Neil's Introduction:

"I finished it, eventually, and I handed it in, taking a certain amount of comfort in the old saying that a novel can best be defined as a long piece of prose with something wrong with it, and I was fairly sure that I'd written one of those."

I feel much better.

Jul. 9th, 2011

Pen and ink

 I talk a lot here about my process of writing. Partially because I'm still early career, and so I'm still figuring out exactly what my process is (or at least what it is right now), and partially as a way of sharing those experiences with other people starting out in the field - writing can feel less lonely when you have proof that you're not the only one who can get multiple rejection letters in a week, or who has days where it seems like the only words you write are the wrong ones. And usually when I talk about process, I talk about how I survive those things, and then pick up my pen the next day.

But since it has been a question very frequently asked of late, today I am going to talk about the fact that when I say "pick up my pen the next day" I mean that literally.

Yes, gentle reader, I write by hand. Preferably onto a moleskine notebook (soft cover, largest size, unlined) very nearly always with a fountain pen (I have a couple of different kinds, and since I have minuscule handwriting, fine nib.) I write my first drafts by hand - even of my dissertation and my other academic writing. When it comes time to revise, I print out a copy, and make my revisions by hand.

Why, in this age of technological ease and the wonder of Scrivener do I do this? I do it for the only reason a writer ought to adhere to any part of her process: this is what works best for me.

Writing by hand helps me think - I hear the characters' voices better, and I have a better feel for the shape of the story. I cannot explain why this is, I only know that it is true. In fact, the very few (seriously, count on one hand and have fingers left over few) times I have ever drafted onto the computer have been stories or scenes that I knew I'd back down from writing if I thought about them too much in the initial draft.

I use a fountain pen generally because I like the feel of the physical act of writing with one, and because I have a weird thing about using particular colors of ink for particular projects. Fountain pens offer the greatest variety of colors (I particularly love J. Herbin ink) and when I'm using a regular pen I like the Sakura gelly rolls for the same reasons - I like the feel of writing with it, and there's a good range of colors.

First drafts (what I tend to call draft zero) go in notebooks, and only on one side of the page - I leave the opposite blank in case I need to insert text, or so I have a place to stick the post its on which I write notes to myself about things I need to think about or change when I revise. The writing doesn't go into the computer until I have a complete draft (short story) or until I've changed enough of what I've written that I need to reorganize and check in with my story before I can move forward (usually about 1/3 of the way into the zero draft of a novel). Then I revise on the print outs.

Usually when I talk about handwriting, I get the "wouldn't it be easier to just do it on the computer the first time?" question, quickly followed by "how do you save your data?" Well, no, it wouldn't be easier, not for me, to compose on the computer. I've tried, particularly after the shoulder injury that meant choosing between my fencing career and my writing one. And the transfer between notebook and computer also serves as my first edit, so I'm not really adding an extra step for myself. As for saving data, well, yes, if my house catches on fire before I get the story out of the notebook and into the computer, then I have some problems. But otherwise, it's pretty safe.

And I'll close like I always do: my process is mine. It works for me. If it didn't, I would change it, because the how I write is much less important than the actually getting the words on the page.

Jul. 6th, 2011

That was known as Camelot

 If I had to pick just one story, just one great, enormous, archetypal story to submerse myself in, it would probably be that of King Arthur. Still, there are so very many versions of the King Arthur story, it seems a little disingenuous to call that "a" story. Still, story, story group, whatever you want to call it, it is my favorite.

So I was thrilled to get the chance to write about one of my best beloved bits of Arthuriana - T.H. White's The Once and Future King - for the Interstitial Arts Foundation's rolling anthology, Interfictions 0. I was even more thrilled when I saw the illustration that had been commissioned to go with the essay, a mind-blowingly gorgeous piece by M.W. Kaluta. So please go! Look! And when you're done drooling over the art, feel free to read my essay, too.

Jul. 5th, 2011

Won't you please please

 This weekend, someone who was planning on buying Stories wrote to me on twitter asking which format - hardcover or e-reader - to buy it in. He wanted to support my writing, and so he wanted to buy the version that would benefit me most.

In my head, my reaction was "Oh, lovely twitter man! You have now said nice things about my writing twice in one day. You are already supporting me!" But what I said was, "Either!"

Look, I know why he was asking. I've seen them too - the posts that seem to be popping up with increasing regularity on how to support writers whose work you like. And I'm not completely naive: I know that royalties can and often do vary across formats. I know that when and where the book is bought can matter, in terms of best seller lists. I've given the stern "I don't care if you don't want to read the whole series until it's done - if you don't buy book one there might never be a book three" lecture to my friends. I'm not going to pretend to false modesty here: I would love to make enough money from my writing that being a writer can be my only job. I would love to be on the best seller lists. These are goals I am writing towards.

It is not the responsibility of the people who read my writing to get me there.

They don't owe me anything. I owe them. I owe them my best writing, to make them want to pick up whatever I've written and read it in the first place. I owe them stories that will make them want to keep turning pages. I owe them my gratitude, because they have given their time and their money to something I have created.

What they definitely don't owe me is some attempt to navigate some arcane hierarchy of "buy this in this format at this type of store on this date and on this date only and then review it in these places as soon as possible or omg WOE will be unto me." Buying a book shouldn't be like taking the One Ring to Mordor.

So if you want to help me?

Don't steal what I've written. Physical copy or e-version. Just don't. Thank you.

Buy the book (or the story, or the magazine, or the podcast, or whatever form things come out in) if you can afford to. In whatever format you prefer. If you can't afford to buy, check out a copy from the library. Libraries are awesome. Borrow the book from a friend.

If you really like it, tell people. Tell your friend that also likes to read what you like. Take 140 characters and tell twitter. If you really, really like it, take the time to review it on your blog, or wherever else you put stuff on the internet. Don't worry about when, or where, or how. Because what you are doing by telling people is giving me a gift, and that is a lovely thing, kind and generous. I will love you if you do any of these things. I will love you even if you don't, because you took the time to read my story. Because you saw value in something I had created, and decided it was worth your support.

Thank you.

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