There was a day, a few years ago, when I was walking Emily, the household dog, across the overpass that spans the highway near our house. We were on the far side, starting down the ramp to the sidewalk, when I observed a middle-aged woman on the street below us. She was walking her dogs, two affable looking German shepherds. When one of them stopped to do what a dog stops to do, the woman picked up the leavings in a plastic bag, as one does. And then she did something curious: she went over to a large SUV and tidily tucked the plastic bag under the windshield wiper. Then she walked away.
October 17, 2011
October 3, 2011
There are two kinds of people in the world: the people who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the people who don’t. (**Rimshot**) Among the many binary categorizations of humans, one that I run into a lot is: people who want to figure out why a story works, and people who don’t. And these two kinds of people can really get up each other’s nose. From my perspective, there I am, having a swell discussion about why the film we just saw worked (or didn’t), when someone says “Why do you have to ruin it by chewing it to death?”
Ruin it? But that’s half the fun. For me. Because I’m one of those people.
September 26, 2011
This year’s biggest accomplishment may be that I found a job. A 9-5 gig. After 14 years away from the “salaried workforce” (it isn’t like I haven’t been working for all those years, just that I was freelancing). There were persuasive economic and personal reasons to do this (and to the person in my social circle who seemed to believe that by taking a job I was somehow either betraying My Art or giving in to The Man–chill. Really). And in fact I can confidently say, after four whole days of employment, that I’m enjoying it a lot, and learning new things every day. I had missed having a community of colleagues, not spread all over the internet but right across the way. I had missed the sense of getting thing-after-thing-after-thing done, like knocking over dominoes. And I had missed the structure that helps make me feel productive.
Or rather, I had missed not having to impose that structure on myself. As a freelancer, every morning you get up and say “Now today we’re going to get the following things done,” and you make yourself stick to it–but that takes energy that could be as usefully applied to the getting of the things done. If you follow me. (more…)
September 19, 2011
I had a perfectly splendid time last weekend, making cake for Tachyon Publication’s 16th birthday party (it was a Sweet Sixteen cake. With a rhinoceros. In a tiara) and attending the party. And as a nice add-on, I wound up getting to hang out with writers Nancy Kress, Jack Skillingstead, Pat Murphy, and Ellen Klages, all of whom are really smart people, funny, and know lots of stuff. At dinner, apropos of something or other, Nancy said despairingly that in her writing classes she often had students who want to be writers, but admitted that they don’t read a whole lot.
Aside from all the craft-related reasons to read–research, inspiration, scoping out new trends and (let’s be honest) the competition–how do you come to want to be a writer if you don’t read? If the acquisition of story isn’t a kind of fuel for you? To me that’s like being a chef who doesn’t much like to eat; yeah, you can do it, but why? It’s not like there are not more remunerative jobs, jobs with higher status. So why? And how? Why would you think of writing fiction if you never touch the stuff?
I guess there are reasons. I guess. My own writing is so firmly rooted in my need for story, my impulse to play make-believe, inspired by the writing of other people, that I can’t really wrap my brain around the idea of a writer who doesn’t read. Okay, so writing-wise I am an auto-didact: I learned to tell stories by reading stories. In fact, I’m a little suspicious of writing classes and writing books, because writers can hide behind prescriptions to the detriment of their work (“but look, I made it a classic 5-beat plot! And I gave the heroine backstory with telling details! and there’s lots of visual detail in the scene! and…”). But that is just me: there really is no wrong way to do this writing thing, if it works for you. Except not reading? It just doesn’t seem like a negotiable to me.
You don’t have to read fiction: many writers I know read more non-fiction than fiction simply because it’s research, or a springboard of ideas. You can read poetry, plays, magazines, shampoo bottles, but you have to read. If for no other reason than to see how other writers use language and work their ways around technical writing problems.
So why would a non-reader want to be a writer? Why would a non-reader assume that other people would want to do the very thing he/she scorns? Fame? It could happen, but it’s not something you can depend upon. Fortune? Again, it could happen, but statistically it’s unlikely. The wish to use a skill, be your own boss, work a solitary job? There are better ways to do it than write. It’s like being a cook who doesn’t like food, or an historian who thinks the past is boring.
I don’t get it. Do you?
September 5, 2011
Once Upon a Time, I worked with a man who did not believe in fiction. He admitted its existence, he just didn’t get it. In every other particular, Justin was a lovely man: charming and funny, sharp as a tack, and very successful. He was visually handicapped but a huge consumer of the written word. But what he liked to read were how-to books, essays, commentaries on real estate law, history–things factual. “Fiction is a lie,” he said. “Why do you want to read things about people who don’t exist?” And I got the impression he felt there was something immature, stunted, about people over the age of ten who read fiction. That fiction readers were hiding out from the hard, real facts of life.
Now, I am as close to a fiction addict as you will find this side of a twelve-step meeting, and I didn’t relish being told my passion for story was babyish. This led to discussions, friendly but unresolved. In truth, it was as if we were beings from two different species trying to reach detente. I’m afraid I didn’t know enough then to explain, or defend what I found so necessary about story. Twenty-five years later, with a lot more experience, I’m still thinking about the question; only now I have more ammunition. (more…)
August 29, 2011
I am just back from Renovation, this year’s World Science Fiction Convention. It was a perfectly excellent six days; I saw people I don’t see often enough; met people I hadn’t known before; got to do improv (at 11pm, when by rights my brain should not have been working–but panic and good improv-mates pulled me through). I was on two panels, had a kaffeesklatch, and did a reading from The Sleeping Partner. Also ate a lot of good food, talked about long and deep about writing, publishing, and the state of the world, slept too little, and clocked many miles just getting from one end of the convention center to the other.
The public notion of an SF convention, lovingly lampooned in Galaxy Quest, is of a bunch of people in media-tie-in themed costumes, behaving like extras on The Big Bang Theory (not that there’s anything wrong with that), obsessing over minutia of Star Trek or Star Wars. And there is some of that. But an SF con–especially a Worldcon–contains multitudes: many costumes are made to professional standards, and rather than being copies of Queen Amidala’s wardrobe in Star Wars Episode II, are often interpretations of literary characters or scenes. The panel discussions range from academic tracks to scientific topics to the business of writing to appreciations and examination of the work of writers past and present. At the same time that those of us from the book side of the Force are talking books, there are gamers gaming, anime fans watching and talking anime, costumers (the ones making those costumes) discussing technique and history; and fans discussing the history of fandom.
What’s the point of all this for a writer, specifically? There are many upsides to going to a convention–although going to a Worldcon as your first convention is pretty much jumping into the pool at the deep end. But conventions are a place to meet colleagues (after a couple of decades of writing and of going to conventions my interior fangirl still squees with amazement when someone whose work I admire sits down and strikes up a conversation with me) and renew friendships. Despite all the current noise about “brand building” and “getting your name known,” I still believe that the best thing you can do at a convention is make friends, be amusing and entertaining.
Worldcon, in particular, has dozens of things going on at any given time, including readings, sewing demonstrations, anime or film viewings, filk concerts, and panels on everything from Vampire Semiotics to urban planning in world-building to the business of finding an agent. And everything in between. If you plan to go to a convention and want to be on a panel, contact programming well in advance and–even if you are unknown in the field–tell them what you are best suited to speak about. Just because you haven’t written your SF novel doesn’t mean you don’t know a lot about things that people want to hear about–but remember that they may have other experts in the field, and be gracious if they can’t find a spot for you. If you are on a panel, mention your work as part of your credentials (“I’m the author of sixteen books featuring a vampire slayer who’s also a professor of Philology…”) but don’t go on a “Well, in my book” rampage. Even better, mention works by other authors that are germane to the subject; I always come home from a convention with a long list of new “must read” books. Remember that you are on a panel to enlighten and entertain, not to build your brand. Or rather (and this is important): You Build Your Brand By Being Enlightening and Entertaining. Apparently, after seeing me on one of my two panels at Worldcon, a woman stormed the dealer’s room looking for one of my books. That’s the kind of brand-building I want.
It’s easy for people not on the inside to make fun of the insiders: romance writers and readers are all swathed in pink chiffon and airy salaciousness; SF writers and readers are unsocialized geeks; technothriller writers and readers are gun-happy Libertarians; mystery writers and readers are… You get the idea. In fact, all of these genres contain multitudes, and any get together of genre-readers and writers will contain multitudes too. What links all of them is a love for some aspect of the genre and its craft. And you can’t go wrong getting more exposure to craft and the people who love it.
August 15, 2011
There are all sorts of promises a storyteller can make to her audience, but one of the cardinal ones is, I think, “I won’t come between you and the entertainment.” By which I mean, during a dramatic moment I won’t break the tension with silliness; I won’t ask you to believe six impossible things before you know who the characters are; I won’t present my story as intelligent and undercut it with dumb; I won’t drag you through fascinating-to-me-alone arcana and forget where I was going in telling the tale. Coming between the audience and the story is guaranteed to lose you the audience’s goodwill, and sooner or later in the course of your story you’re going to need that goodwill. (more…)
August 8, 2011
I have been derelict, for which I apologize. And I really ought to write a post for SarahTolerance.com first, but I’m mulling something over there, after several posts about Regency sewing (!) and here I can talk about less, um, historical things. Like cats. And old boyfriends.
I no longer have cats because we’re all allergic to them. While it was just me, and I was acclimated to my late cat Alexis, this didn’t matter. Then I got married and had a kid and, sixteen months into the kid’s life, my husband spent a week in the ICU because of allergies and severe asthma, and I had to reevaluate. Alexis lived the rest of his feline life with a former roommate of mine who bravely took him on when I had to send him away.
I no longer have the boyfriend because, well: married someone else.
But cat and boyfriend intersected in my single days in a, well, singular way. (more…)
July 20, 2011
I did not post on Monday because I was in Massachusetts, at Readercon, which was just splendid. What is a Readercon, some might ask? It’s an annual convention of readers and writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy; unlike many such, Readercon doesn’t contain programming about anything but books, which makes it a very fun place for the reader. Generally, an SF/F convention is not just a collection of loony people in Spock ears (despite local media’s occasional “Oh, Look, the Crazy People Are In Town” tone). They’re get togethers for both the readers and writers of SF/F to talk about the issues raised in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and about writing, and about specific books and authors. It’s an opportunity for the audience to meet writers they admire, and for writers to talk to their actual consumers. Sometimes business is done. Sometimes you wind up in the bar talking with other writers, friends you may have known for years or friends you’ve just met.
Many conventions have programming about film and TV, music, costuming, and the culture of fandom itself. Readercon, as I said above, is all about the books. I was on five (!) panels–a fit of generosity on the part of the programming committee that I attribute to my willingness to moderate panels, and to the fact that I hadn’t been there in ten years (so they were making up for lost time, or wanted to store up enough Madeleine Robins to last another 10). My first panel was on “Writing Within Constraints,” where the panelists–all writers–talked about writing to fit genre conventions, writing within a canon (as with licensed media tie-ins and comic books), and using constraints as a way to challenge yourself as a writer. The second panel was on Jo Walton’s lovely fantasy Among Others, and was enlivened by the fact that Jo’s husband was in the front row (although at no time did he pull a Marshall-McLuhan in-Annie Hall and announce “You Know Nothing About Her Work!”). And in the early evening I moderated a panel called “The Quest and the Rest,” which was really about the necessity for rooting fantasy in reality (the example the program description gave was Tolkein’s assertion that Sam and Rosie’s romance was absolutely essential to the plot of Lord of the Rings, but there were certainly examples aplenty). On Saturday (yes, that was all Friday!) I had a panel on Location as Character, a subject near and dear to my heart; one of the great things about such discussions is that you come away with a list of books you simply must read Right Now. And on Sunday morning bright and early, I had my last panel, discussing the permeable borders between fan-fiction, parody, “referential fiction”, pastiche, and straight fiction. That one was fun, and worth a post on its own.
In addition to all that, I did a reading from The Sleeping Partner, and a workshop called “Walking Through Mayhem,” about using stage combat techniques (among other things) to create fight scenes. I went into the workshop thinking I had about 45 minutes of material; it seems to me I used that all up in about 20 minutes, and vamped the rest of the time, but the audience seemed pleased. Also one of my old fight buddies, Duncan Eagleson, was there, and played Crash Test Dummy. That was not only swell, but recalled to me that certain physical memories don’t go away, they just go dormant: with a few cues we were falling into a sort of “okay, you do this and I do that and we’ll make it look good” rhythm that was very satisfying.
After the convention I made my way down to Norwich, CT, within spitting distance of Connecticut College, my alma mater. I’d been invited to do a reading-and-sword-demo at the Otis Library, which turned out to be great fun. The organizer had borrowed some short swords; another friend came up and was my Crash Test Dummy, and the audience seemed entertained. And they laughed at the right places during the reading, which is very pleasing indeed.
Then home again, jiggity-jig. And back to writing.
July 11, 2011
Oscar Wilde said “a poet can survive everything but a missprint.” I suspect that that’s a slight overstatement. And yet, there’s no denying that a typo can really mess with the rhythm, the weight, the meaning of your words. And sometimes it can really stick in your craw.
Mumblety years ago Althea, my first Regency, was published. In the fullness of time my editor called and said, do you want to write more? And I said “yes please,” and wrote My Dear Jenny. Reading Jenny now pleases me because I can see that my writing improved between book one and book two. And I’m delighted that the ebook of Jenny joins Althea on the virtual sales shelves of Book View Café this week. But along with the general delight of seeing the book made available again, there’s a very specific pleasure of fixing something that’s been annoying me for years.
When I wrote Jenny I used one of the tropes of Romance: the heroine who does not realize her own worth, but whose worth is recognized by the hero. Miss Iphegenia Prydd is a poor relation, not as poor, plain, obscure and friendless as Jane Eyre, but destined in her own mind to be a worthy spinster aunt. But of course the book, and I, and eventually the hero, have other ideas. The thing is, somewhere close to the end of the book there is a sentence that read “He was, she felt, rather above her touch.” Meaning, of course, that he was too good for her.
Only, see, when I got the galleys from my editor, there on page 187 or whatever it was, the pronouns had been flopped by the typesetter: “She was, she felt, rather above his touch.” Suddenly she’s too good for him! So I circled this, marked the error, and in my cover letter to my editor implored her please to fix it. Six pages set upside down or in Pashto would at least not look as if I had suddenly lost track of my characters and my story. So I sent the corrected galleys back to my editor, certain that the error would be fixed.
You can see where this is going. When I got the book I turned to page 187 and there, once again, poor Jenny Prydd thinks she’s too good for the hero. As tactfully as possible I pointed out to my editor that this repair had not been made, and she patted and soothed me (telephonically, as I was in Boston and she was in New York) and told me that when it was reprinted they would fix the error, no problem. Only, of course, Jenny never was reprinted. And for several decades the typo has niggled at me.
Thus, the first thing I did, when I had scanned the book in and fixed all the input errors, was to restore Jenny to her sense of inadequacy. So that the hero can explain her error to her, and they can live happily ever after. I cannot tell you how very satisfying it is to have that typo fixed!