I think I was 13 when I discovered, more or less all at once, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Jane Aiken Hodge, and “romantic suspense,” a broad category that included different sorts of books but generally featured a woman in a diaphanous gown, framed against a brooding manse. There might not even be a brooding manse in the book, but on the cover… (at the same period, SF often had a rocket ship on the cover regardless of actual rocketry in the book). Gradually I fell away from romantic suspense, and from the less able of Heyer’s imitators (I think I was 15 by the time I could tell whether a writer had done their research solely by reading Heyer). But among the other things I found in those books was a fondness for a certain kind of world building that involved manners and rules; societies in which knowing the rules meant you could survive or even game the system.
June 16, 2015
June 3, 2015
I am eleven chapters, give or take, into the WIP. Since my books tend to work out to about 20 chapters it is fair to say that I’m half way through the book. And ever since somewhere in chapter eight, I have found myself in a piece of writing real estate that is familiar, if not beloved, to me: the Gooey Center. Also called the Slough of Despond, Did I Suddenly Become Stupid?, or, sometimes, Why Did I Think I Could Do This?
What is the Gooey Center? It’s the point somewhere in the middle of the manuscript where it becomes really, really difficult to move forward. I have always likened my writing process to a journey: I know where I start out, and I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going, and the process is in getting from point A to point B. The Gooey Center is that point when I suddenly find myself hip deep in mud on a cloudy day, unable to figure out which direction to proceed, making false start after false start, some of them entertaining enough that it takes me a while to realize that they won’t take me anywhere near where I meant to be going.
The first time this happened, I thought there was something wrong with me, that I would never be able to finish this book. My writing career over before it had fully started! And then, somehow, I found my way out of the bog, got my sense of direction back, and reached the end of the book. And with hindsight and editing, I realized that the middle was no where near as soggy and impassable as I had imagined when I was up to my hips in it.
I’m on my twelfth novel. This has happened to me ten times (it didn’t with my first book, because I had no idea I was actually going to finish it, nor that what I was doing was unlikely at best, and impossible at worse; it didn’t happen with my Marvel tie-in novel because I had to outline the thing so tightly that my hair curled). The Gooey Center appears to come with a soupçon of amnesia, too, because I don’t generally recognize that I’m in the middle of it for some time, which leads me to despair. When I do recognize it for what it is… well, I feel a little less despairing, but deeply impatient. I look for tactics to shorten my time wading through the Gooey Center, but they generally avail naught. The only solution I have found was to 1) remember that I’ve been here before, and I will get out of it, and 2) just keep writing.
I once mentioned this problem to my then-editor. “Ah,” he said sagely. “You’ve spent the first number of pages opening up doors, leaving yourself terrific stuff to work with, making all sorts of choices possible. And now you have to narrow down your field of vision and select which doors, what choices. Of course it’s daunting to have to do that.”
So that’s my mantra, which I share it with you: When you find yourself bogging down, take a look at all the interesting options you’ve left your characters. Me, I’m wondering if all my entertaining false starts could be knit together into something resembling a story.
May 20, 2015
Because my husband works in the film industry, we sometimes get to see early screenings–or screenings that are remarkable because the director is there, or we’re in the company of other film tech people, or just because it’s a great theatre. Last week we got to see Tomorrowland.
There’s a song by Aimee Mann called “Fifty Years After the Fair,” about the 1939 World’s Fair, which includes the line “How beautiful was tomorrow…” And Tomorrowland starts out at the 1964 World’s Fair, and evokes it beautifully: the landscape that looks like the cover of a 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the crowds, the rampant product placement… As a kid I went to the fair a handful of times, and believe me, they got it just right.
And then things move to the now, and aside from a dearth of flying cars and soaring spindly architecture and the gosh-wow of future tech we were promised (personal jet packs! video phones!) we all know what now looks like. And by the standards of 1964, it doesn’t look so hopeful, what with climate change and political unrest and overpopulation and… heck, the UN just suggested that if we want to keep the human race a going concern, we should all become vegan, like, right now.
Tomorrowland is, in fact, a fable about hope and despair.
My fabulous 19-year-old came to the screening too. And she laughed and hooted and cried at the right places, but it also opened a whole closet full of anxieties and outrage for her, which both recalled my own 19-year-old self and reproached my somewhat older, current-model self. The protagonist in Tomorrowland–the one who comes down firmly on the “how do we fix it” side of the equation–is a girl of my daughter’s age. What my daughter came away with, among other things, is that my generation and the ones that followed it have not only not fixed the problems we found when we reached adult-hood, but have left things worse than we found it, and now it’s up to her to fix it. Her and her cohort.
I remember this. The threats are not the same, but the song is. When I was 19 the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real; civil rights was an ongoing struggle (and the term referred only to African-Americans–other ethnicities, and the complex web of stuff that is gender in our society, was barely on the radar); we were just beginning to understand the havoc human presence was wreaking on our ecosystem; and–oh yeah, as a younger acquaintance said to me some years later, “you had that war.” I am not an activist by nature, but I felt the weight of my generation’s responsibility to fix all the stuff that was wrong. Being a science fiction reader and writer, I was perhaps a little more ready to see the human race poised on the edge of “if this goes on…” So I do all the non-activist things I can: recycle and compost and use public transportation and try to be mindful about, well, everything.
I’m not convinced it makes a difference, but I keep trying. I remember knowing that it was up to me and my peers to fix the mess the world was in. And some things have, in fact, improved (I could make an argument that the current crop of know-nothingism and racism and sexism is a sign of progress, a reaction those improvements by people who just can’t stand leaving the old ways behind–but we’re down to a lot of wires, and there’s too much to do to spend time indulging those fears).
I didn’t want to leave the people who come after (emphatically including my kids) a mess to clean up. She’s much more of an activist than I am, but that spirit of activism is being dinged by the seeming impossibility of the tasks before her generation. Yes, this sounds familiar. I suspect every generation coming up has felt something of the same thing. All I can do, aside from telling her that her feelings are real and valid (but not an excuse for doing nothing) is to promise that, as long as I’m here, I will do my best to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her.
May 6, 2015
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I spend my time–not least because I was downsized out of my last job last August, and am spending a good part of each day working to find a new one. Unless you are pathologically social (I am not) or really brilliant at networking (I am not) this is hard work. Unpaid, hard work. It is disagreeable to me (and, I suspect, for many other people) for the same reason that book promotion is hard for me: I get creeped out by the notion of viewing people I come in contact with as potential buyers (or in the case of job-hunting, the source of connections to a new job). And since my skill set, while useful, is hard to categorize, and it’s hard therefore to search for a job where I could be a godsend to the company, this means that by the end of my job-seeking day I’m a little wrung out.
That’s when I start doing some writing, as a palate cleanser. Sometimes the cleansing works–I can put down the corporate research and the LinkedIn profiles and enter in to one of the projects I’m working on. Except that sometimes the irritation or frustration from the job-search work spills over into the writing, and I’m too stupid or grumpy to do actually figure out what comes next or–heaven help us–how to describe it. I have a number of tactics for dealing with this: take my notebook and write longhand, somewhere far away from everything else; give myself a writing prompt (the weirder the better–“Shrimps in Space” was fun) just to make sure that the writing muscles don’t atrophy; go a couple of pages (or chapters) in and start editing, which often lets me find stuff that isn’t working, or new words, or gets me to a pitch of enthusiasm where I can continue writing from where I last left off.
Sadly, sometimes none of these tactics avail, and I find myself wanting to throw my shoe and my book, or the dog.
That’s when the Life part of the balancing act takes over. I’ve been beading, as I said, and even started an Etsy store to handle the outflow of my neurotic beading habit. I love to bake, and have had a number of good excuses to make yummy things. I like to make stuff I’ve never made before, even if I’ll never make it again (I’m process-driven about cooking; I wouldn’t want to have to make croissants every day, but I enjoy making them once or twice a year). This has led, in the last couple of months, to me making bacon jam (I’m still tweaking the recipe, so every batch is like a new process) and bread, and arancini (out of leftover risotto).
Right now I have a partner in culinary crime: my younger daughter is home from college. She’s the sort of kid who watches Chopped and Master Chef Junior obsessively–how did I get through college without Netflix?) and keeps sending me cool new recipes we should really try. It’s going to be a fattening summer.
The only problem with all of this that when I’m job seeking I want to be writing. When I’m writing I know I should be job hunting. And when I’m doing anything else–baking, beading, what have you–I am totally sure that I really ought to be cleaning the house. Or exercising. Or walking the dog.
April 22, 2015
Note: I chose this painting because I liked it. It was only after I’d typed in the painter’s name (Louis Comfort Tiffany) that I realized I’d doubled up on the entendres. Pure serendipity.
With a to-be-read pile that stacks up to the sky and threatens my continued survival (it’s on my bedside table, and in an earthquake it would surely topple over and mash me flat) it perhaps makes no sense that I sometimes have to stop what I’m doing and start comfort reading. And it’s not always because I need comforting, in the “world is too much with me, gimme my blankie and my thumb and I’ll be in the corner” sense. So why?
Sometimes my mind is too full of Other Stuff™ to be able to fit in someone else’s new worlds and ideas. Sometimes there’s something in that much-read work that I recognize will help me unpick a writing problem of my own. Sometimes it’s just been a Day, and I want something reliably cheery, or chewy, or full of whatever quality I think I want in that moment. I was thinking about what books make my comfort reading list, and which, over the years, have slipped off it. (more…)
April 8, 2015
This weekend my husband and I went to the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio. We’d been meaning to for a while, and though we missed the exhibit of Walt’s massive train set (my husband has a 7-year-old boy’s love for trains) the rest of the museum was pretty cool. Lots of tech stuff, lots of original art, lots of “making of” information and displays. Because my husband is a recording guy, he ate it up with a spoon. And because I’m a story guy, if you will, I ate it up with a spoon too.
And it reminded me of raising the kids. We have two daughters. And I told them approximately 2,763,421 bedtime stories (some nights I had to tell more than one), many of them based on fairy tales.
We had a lot of books of fairy tales–my extremely foxed, beat up copies of Andrew Lang’s Red, Blue, Yellow, and… Olive? Fairy Books; Hans Christian Andersen’s stories; individual picture books of Cinderella and Rapunzel, and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and Rumplestiltskin, and… let my husband read No Fighting, No Biting for the 1476th time. I was the go-to parent for fairy tales. And we inherited from my sister-in-law a bunch of the books made from Disney fairy tale movies: Cinderella and Pinocchioand Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
The thing is, in reading Lang, or the Disney versions, I noticed each time that they are sometimes a little, um, regressive. What’s a mother to do?
I made a policy for myself, fairly early on, that if I was reading Cinderella I would not sugar-coat. I read the version where the sisters cut off body parts. Why? Because frequently this would lead to discussions about what body parts one might be willing to cut off in order to marry a prince. I suggested I might be willing to cut off my nose, but my older daughter nixed that. “What will hold your glasses up? And besides,” sternly: “You can’t marry a prince. You’re married to Daddy.” And my daughter announced that she was not going to cut off any body parts at all, thank you very much, prince or no prince. That’s the spirit, kid.
And we got into conversations about why the sisters were so desperate to marry the prince, and whether Cinderella was equally desperate–there’s almost nowhere you can’t go, discussion-wise, with a smart five-year-old girl who is trying to put off lights-out. This led to discussions about what Rumplestiltskin was planning to do with the baby he was taking in trade for all that gold he spun, and why the witch in Rapunzel wanted the baby rather than, say, a suitcase full of gold.* When we read The Twelve Dancing Princesses we noticed that in one version the hero takes the youngest princess to wife as his reward (while the illustrations in our edition made it clear the eldest was expecting to be the prize). “Of course,” my daughter noted. “The youngest one is the nice one. The older ones were mean.” Even in princesses, manners count.
With my younger daughter, many of the same questions arose. But because she is a very different person from her big sister, she was always most interested in whoever in the story had the hero role. She did not, she assured me, want to be a boy. She just wanted to be the boss of the adventure. So we read Mulan and Aladdin and The Lion King, and she would tell me what she would have done if she were there–depending on her mood, she would either enact bloody vengeance or explain things to the bad guys until they surrendered in self-defense. Younger girl was more interested in being part of the action than in being a princess.
And of course they watched all the movies. But because there’s a five year gap between the two girls, they didn’t necessarily watch them at the same time. When older girl was about eleven, she wandered through the living room where her sister was watching Cinderella. “This is kinda a stupid story,” she announced to no one in particular. “He wants to marry her because she’s beautiful, and she wants to marry him because he’s a prince. What are they gonna talk about?”
And I, listening in from the kitchen, raised my hands to the heavens in a gesture of YES!
* These discussions led to my writing Sold for Endless Rue, an historical novel mapped on the Rapunzel tale, because I really did wonder why the witch wanted the baby.
March 25, 2015
There are all sorts of resources available for writers who want them: workshops, classes, beta readers, bars, books, peers, and people who just love to have you bounce ideas off them. They all have their virtues. Yet for some of us, it’s very hard to show what you’re working on to another person until you’re done and ready to send it off to be accepted, rejected, edited, published… Yes, I’m one of those people.
Not entirely. I discovered early-ish in my writing career, when I was making the leap from Regency romances to Science Fiction, that a writing workshop could be a really, really, really useful thing. I have been part of a number of them over the years. I went to the Clarion Writers Workshop when it was still in East Lansing, Michigan, and it was a life-changing experience. But when it comes to the other stuff it’s harder–it’s really hard–for me to let go and accept another person into my process. When I talk to writers who make full use of all those resources, I start to feel a little defensive. What’s wrong with me that I don’t have beta readers? There are a number of people who have offered and would, I’m sure, have a terrific effect on the work. and yet I have this weird reluctance, almost a skin-crawling aversion to the idea.
What’s up with that? (more…)
March 12, 2015
So I’m writing this book, set in England in 1812. And somehow a group of the people sometimes referred to as Gypsies, or Travelers, or Tinkers, has appeared and is playing a role in the story. And the research, and the ramifications, and the competing needs to be accurate in both my depiction of these people, and my depiction of the attitudes of the society around them, is making me a little crazy.
Let me just say: I am one of those people who gets a little testy when I encounter historical fiction where the attitudes of the past are retconned to accommodate our current, more enlightened (we hope) viewpoints. Many of people in the Olden Days™ held views regarding women, people of color, people of classes other than their own, etc. which are downright abhorrent to the modern reader. Pretending this is not so, or softening those views so that they seem less awful, or attributing those views only to the Bad People, is false in a way that no amount of carefully researched set-dressing can disguise. As a writer I find the opportunity to put an awful comment in the mouth of an otherwise sympathetic character (one for whom the comment would be in character) to be almost irresistible. It’s what she would have said, given her upbringing and the mores of the society she lived in, so–say it, right? Show how widespread the attitude was.
And yet. (more…)
January 14, 2015
I’ve been thinking about killing people.
In books. Killing characters, great and small. First, why kill a character? Is it something as mechanical as “because the plot needed someone to die there?” Why kill a particular character, then? What does it do for the story? For the other characters in the story? Yeah, this is where I get a little woo-woo and fuzzy, because I’m a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl, and often I don’t know why I kill someone off until I finish the work. (more…)
January 1, 2015
Last night my husband and I found ourselves watching The Transporter the way you do after a major holiday: flopped on the couch, too tired to move, watching The Thing That’s On because where’s the remote?). It’s a fun-dumb movie, lighter fare than I had expected, very violent but curiously… well, light. Almost sweet. The film was made in 2002, which means it’s now moving into the realm of Elder-Statesmovie, and its star, Jason Statham, looks curiously young and blind-puppyish. And he spends a lot of time with his shirt off.
I kept being reminded of the comment Sir Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) makes about Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) in Galaxy Quest: “I see you’ve managed to get your shirt off.” Tim Allen on his best day is not in Statham’s league, shirtless-viewing-wise, but he clearly had been working out to put his best chest forward, as it were, and Galaxy Quest had a good time making fun of the Golly, I’m Virile trope that shirtlessness implies. (more…)