theferrett: (Meazel)

Yesterday morning, I put up this pegboard. I did not do a good job.

Untitled

Now, this pegboard is a surprisingly large deal, as it’s the first time I’ve physically altered my environment with my own hands. This was the first time I ever went, “This thing is insufficient,” then went, “So why not change that?” and then ripped down part of a wall and put up another part.  In terms of worldview, it’s quite the large change.

In terms of actual work?  Shoddy.

If you look closely at the picture, you’ll notice that I cut the pegboards wrong.  There are two boards, and one juts out a little to the left, creating an unsightly gap.  If I’d done a better job, I would have noticed this before I started screwing things in.  I would have cut the boards to fit, measured them in advance properly. It’s something I’ll probably be deeply embarrassed by, when I get to be good at this.

Yet I can still take pride.

I’m lucky enough to hold those contradictory thoughts of “This could use improvement” and “I’m glad I made this.”  And when I look at the pegboard I’ll neither be tempted to rip it all down in disgust, nor wander away thinking this flawed work is brilliant.  I can be content that I’ve done something I’ve never been able to pull off before, yet make notes for future betterment.

Which is the way I write: I’m highly critical of my stories.  I can show you the soft points in every story I’ve published, even the ones I’ve been paid hundreds of dollars for; they’re riddled with errors I just couldn’t fix properly.  But at the same time, those flaws don’t negate the work put into it.  Like the peg board, it’s enough to hang some tools on.  Like the peg board, it’s taught me something about how to do this.  Like the peg board, ultimately it’s useful.

When you write.  When you work wood.  When you create.  Note your errors, fix what you can this time around, vow to do better the next time. Yet be proud; you did a fuck of a lot more than the people who created nothing, and you’ve leveled up in some small way.

You don’t have to be perfect. You shouldn’t be casual.  And you should never, ever stop.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Non-writers think the idea is the unit of writing – as in, “Hey, I got this great idea, I’ll sell it to you, and you make a million bucks!”

Problem is, the idea is actually one of the least important bits of writing.  I mean, yes, you need an idea to start a story, but an idea is like selling someone an acorn for a hundred bucks, because hey, man, this could be some serious lumber.

No.  Stories are all about the execution – the characters who exist in that idea, the emotional journey they take, the reader’s investment in the story.  Without that, the idea pretty much counts for nil – and the shows that brought it home to me last night were Hell’s Kitchen and Master Chef.

Both of them are reality cooking shows, hosted by the same guy.  The structure is basically the same – throw sixteen cooks into a pressure cooker, have them do small-scale challenges (each cooks a dish with a certain number of ingredients), and large-scale (they split into teams to cook for huge numbers of people).  Every week, one of the less-talented chefs is tossed off the line, leading to the One True Chef.

That’s the idea.

Now, the execution is in how the shows present the chefs.  Because I find Hell’s Kitchen exhausting and sad, vastly preferring Master Chef – as Gini accurately observed, “I never want to cook anything after watching Hell’s Kitchen, but Master Chef makes me want to get out there and create.”  And that’s because the challenges are presented entirely differently.

In Master Chef, when a chef beats a particularly difficult challenge, there’s a loving circle of the camera on the food that they worked so hard to create.  There’s swelling, triumphant music.  There are long shots of the flushed victor’s face, of the other teammates clapping for him (perhaps with a brief, ominous cut to The One Jerk conspicuously not clapping), and an acknowledgement that this chef has, at least in this moment, faced the abyss and pulled through.

In Hell’s Kitchen, you have the exact same moment – at least as far as the chef is concerned – but we cut away to the other teammates, each bitching about how they could have done better or how the chef got lucky. The food is barely shown. The emphasis is all on the competition, personalities, the toll this high-pressure situation takes on its teammates.  There’s a reason Hell’s Kitchen spends so much time in the after rooms, showing the competitors bitching and romancing and cutting each other down, whereas the Master Chef contestants might as well be sealed in vaccuform until they’re trotted out to perform.

And it’s not like some members of Master Chef don’t hate each other.  Clearly, if you watch last night’s episode, Krissi and Jordan are perfectly willing to insult their fellow teammates.  They could get that footage.  Likewise, there’d be nothing stopping Hell’s Kitchen from presenting the food as if it was the singular accomplishment of a chef and displaying their well-earned pride.  But one reality show is structured to show the challenges in a much more sympathetic light, and the other showcases the challenges as personal insults to the other team members.

Now, some would argue that this is only natural: after all, Master Chef is the “amateur” show, and Hell’s Kitchen is the “professional” show.  But no.  It’d be just as easy to argue that the professional chefs would be kind and courteous to each other, having competed with other chefs all their lives, and the amateurs would be flailing and unstructured.  The truth is, one show chose to make the chefs sympathetic in order to differentiate itself, and that’s the only reason.

The fact is, I suspect both shows are very similar underneath the hood.  You’re placing people in a weeks-long competition that stretches them to their limits, forcing them to live together, separated from their families, knowing their whole future is (ostensibly) on the line.  There will be good moments of surprising friendships, and bad moments of egotistical self-destruction. All of those scenes are on the plate, like ingredients, like idea, a messy gathering of disparate concepts waiting to be pulled up and edited into a Story.

One’s a nice, heartwarming story.  The other’s a cold, mean story of chefs yelling at each other.  They’re both the same thing, at their heart; FOX just had to put a lot of work into them to turn them into a hit TV show.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

My Seasonal Affective Disorder this year manifests itself in terms of a perfectly normal life, then getting knocked akimbo by unexpected events. A fight with a sweetie of mine pretty much paralyzed me for an entire day.  And an accusation from a friend has kept me up all night, when normally I’d shrug it off.

In this case, though, his concern was something that worries me: he accused me of being a “quid pro quo” writer, only helping others when I had something to get in exchange from it.  (Specifically, critiquing only to get critiques, though my fear cuts deeper than that.)  And I think part of that was me getting overwhelmed and having to call amnesty from critting for a while last year, for which I felt terribly guilty, but…

…I don’t know.  I feel a deep responsibility to the writing community, which is why I write posts on the lessons I’ve learned in writing.  They’re by far my least-popular, least-discussed, and least-linked essays, and they take three times as long to write as me tossing off yet another essay on polyamory or depression… but I do it anyway, because I spent so many years wandering lost, trying to figure out what doesn’t work with my fiction, that I’m forever trying to save someone else.  I do the Clarion blog-a-thon because I think that, too, is important for writers.  I hang around forums – not as often as I should, as I’m terrible about forums, but I weigh in because I believe that I’m helping.

And I crit stories when asked, or try to.  I have the memory of a sieve, and there’s probably a handful of stories I didn’t crit in the last year out of forgetfulness… but never out of intent.  If someone asks me, “Hey, Ferrett, would you take a look at this?” then dammit I try to.

But I am forgetful.  Maybe those number of lost crits is larger than I’d like to believe (and I know from experience how much a forgotten crit can sting a writer’s fragile ego).  I don’t go to my local writing group as often as I’d like because it’s on Sundays, and Sundays are often terrible for me.  I haven’t been seeking out short stories to crit because I’ve been head-first in writing a novel, which is so much more consuming than writing short stories, I could never have believed it before I started this time around.  I don’t interact on other people’s blogs as much as I should.  I don’t pimp as many of my friends’ projects as I should.

And then there’s that inevitable factor that comes in everywhere for me: My primary method of interfacing with the Internet is my blog.  I often feel like a lazy turtle, too afraid or unmotivated to crawl out of my shell, just posting and commenting here and expecting the world to drop by.  Is that selfish?  How bad is that?

I don’t know.  It could well be my depression speaking, but there’s that nagging feeling that maybe I’m a drain on the community more than a boon to it, and maybe my advice is foolish and ill-considered (which would explain the low interest).  I want to help.  I know what it’s like to burn to get that first publication, to have that first time someone who’s not your friend loves a story, to feel that vast chasm between “Where you are now” and “Where you need to be” and feeling that despair of being completely unable to know how to cross it.

I want to help, I do.  And every day, when I wake up, I ask, “How can I help more?”  And I try but I know I could be doing better, and if I can then please tell me how to do it.  I’ll listen.  If I fail, it’s not because of interest.  And I apologize, profusely, if I’ve slighted you in any way.

(EDIT: And you can tell it’s my depression, because of the uniquely head-in-ass way I’ve phrased this: if I was in a better headstate, I’d probably raise it more as a global question, as in “What do we as writers owe to the community?”  Alas, it’s a personal question for me right now, so it came out this way.  Again, apologies.  Stupid SAD.)

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Eventually, if you’re trying to make it as a writer, you’re going to despair.  You can’t write well enough. This story will never sell.  If you do sell it, it’ll never be popular.

This terrible feeling like you’re just wasting your time and nobody cares happens, absurdly enough, to very popular writers.  It happens to nobodys.  It happens to writers, period.  If you’re putting words down and trying to get people to read them, there will be times you’ll want to take everything you wrote, set it on fire, and then fling yourself in to burn with it.

Here is what you do when those down days come: you write more.

Took a nasty rejection straight to the sternum?  Write more.

Had a confidence-shredding bad review?  Write more.

This grand story in your head is completely beyond your ability to commit it to the page?  Write more.

This terrible book you’re reading made millions, and your better work can’t find a home?  Write more.

Feel like you’re a fraud who’s somehow lucked out when better writers languish behind you?  Write more.

Your favorite author just told you he abhorred what you wrote? Write more.

The thing about writing is that so much of it comes down to tenacity.  The most popular writers in the world can all tell you about this fellow they knew when they were starting out, a colleague who could write stories that would charm the petals from a rose… and yet these natural geniuses didn’t stick with it.  They either let life swamp them, or couldn’t stand the rejections, or didn’t feel like it.  And these magnificently talented people never became Writers, because for whatever reason they never pushed through.

It’s not that they weren’t very good.  It’s just that they stopped knocking on doors.  While the writer you’ve heard of kept ringing doorbells until she got an answer.

So pushing through is what you need to do.  Write when you’re sad.  Write when you’re busy.  Write when you’re uninspired.  Write when you’re utterly consumed with the idea that you cannot do this.  Learn to take all of that despondence and to transform it into beauty, for writing in the throes of despair will do two things: when you are writing sad scenes, you will have so many more emotions to cram into it, and when you are writing happy scenes, you will be forced to emulate joy. One will make for better writing, the other will elevate your mood.

The truth is, though I’ve written in both despair and elation, I can’t really tell which mood I was in when I go back to revise.  You must learn to write without hope.  Keep creating through those dry spells, keep sending out stories during the rejections; decouple your personal contentment from your creative muse and make that bitch dance for you.  She’ll be clumsy at first, foolish… but with time, you can make her do the most elaborate pirouettes when you’re barely able to move off the couch.

In fiction, there’s often a plot sequence: Try/fail, try/fail, try/succeed.  In real life, there may be a hundred try/fails before you get to that succeed.  But you’ll never know unless you stay in that execution loop.

Write.

Write more.

And then write more still.

(Inspired by Catherine Schaff-Stump’s Writers and Despair.)

 

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

It’s official as of last night: the first draft of my novel The Flex and the Flux is complete.  102k words of drug-dealing magicians.

So let’s talk about what I discovered this time around.

I have written a lot of novels: eight of them, if I bothered to count.  Six were before I restarted my writing career at the Clarion Sci-Fi and Fantasy Workshop, so I don’t count them.  I’ve written two as what I’d tentatively call a “mature” writer – as in, “Ferrett is now aware of his flaws, knows his writing process well enough to squeeze the best work possibly out of himself, and has accepted that he requires heavy revisions to function.”  (There are people impressed by the mere fact of finishing a novel, but remember: my strength as a writer is tenacity.  I could spew out words at will, and regularly did.  For me, the trick was learning how to spew out the correct words.)

So.  Two novels.

…I don’t want to talk about the failed novel in between, but alas, I must.

If you followed me over the summer of 2012, you’d see me discussing my novel Sorry I Killed Your Boyfriend, which was pitched as “Pre-powers Buffy discovers her best friend is dating Edward.”  I spent about eight months wrestling with that idea, because it was such an insanely great idea to me – not from a marketing perspective, but from the clash of emotions that’d result when two best friends were separated by what was, in many ways, an attempted murder.  And I did my research: I read Twilight, re-watched some Buffy, found the town in Oregon this was set in, checked some medical tomes on ophthalmologic disasters (since one character was missing an eye).  There was a lot that went into that novel.

And yet no matter how I approached this rich trove of emotion, I couldn’t find its soul.

I probably should have been tipped off by Cat Valente’s reaction to the fact that I wasn’t keen on Labyrinth, when she expressed astonishment and I replied, “The husk of a dead thirteen-year-old girl rests inside my withered heart.”  Am I well-positioned to write about the travails of two adolescent teenaged girls, especially modern ones (for I hate books that act like AIM and texts and Facebook never existed, simply because the author wasn’t around when those were part and parcel of high school), one going through a flighty, Twilighty romance?

I wasn’t.  But it wasn’t because they were girls that I was repelled: it was the Twilight, inextricably wrapped around the core idea.

I coined the term Philosophical Allergy to discuss how I felt, reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.  In many ways, Lev’s book is a gorgeously written adult take on Harry Potter, meticulously characterized, with many sharp and imaginative twists.  But the central core of The Magicians is alienation – the characters are all genius outcasts who, rather than band together in the face of loneliness, devise better excuses to create class divisions and emotional distance.  They’re all very real people, acting in very realistic ways; having grown up in rich Connecticut, I’ve known these people intimately, sometimes literally so.

I just loathed all of them.

And so, while reading it, I found myself rejecting some of the core tenets, and finishing the book became kind of a hair shirt for me.  It was a very good book on some levels, but on another, I’d found someone chronicling the precise opposite of what I hoped one day to write.  I could read it, but I could not ingest it.  I vomited out what it was attempting to do, even as I admired its technique.

So it was with Twilight.  (Which, if you’ll recall, I think is a very effective book at what it does.)  They say that much good writing is a dialogue, where one short story inspires another, and I believe that’s true.  A lot of my tales are me reading someone’s story and going, “Oh, that’s not how people react in a situation, let me show you how it goes.”  And for me, trying to hew close to the idea that one of the characters was having a Twilight romance with a vampire, I found myself ridiculing the idea.  Vampires are killers.  This adolescent love of Edward she has is compelling, even universal, but if you’re smart you get over that and walk away… and if you don’t, you find yourself constantly chasing new relationship energy, trying to build a love out of that first transitory rush.  The more I thought about the question, “Why would a century-old vampire find any seventeen-year-old girl appealing?” the creepier the answer became.

And I’m very clever, and very tenacious, so I spent a lot of time devising ideas why this could all hold together.  The problem is, those reasons weren’t convincing to me.  I was writing by the numbers, not invested in the characters to the depth I had to be to follow them through four hundred pages of adventures – and when I realized that I couldn’t justify the very things that needed to exist to make this novel tick, I immediately ragequit.

That was eight months of my life gone.  And so I was a little terrified to start a new novel.  I had all that tentative fear that a man gets on his first date after the divorce: am I really fit for this?  Especially since this new novel was inspired, once again, by another television show: what if Breaking Bad dealt with not drugs, but magic?

Yet this novel is successful.  Very successful, I think.  So what’s the difference?

In a way, the collapse of Sorry I Killed Your Boyfriend made me sensitive to what I needed to learn for this novel.  After all, if I wasn’t a big fan of The Magicians, then a novel based on Breaking Bad is probably not going to be warm and fuzzy.  Breaking Bad is about a chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-dealer – and it’s blacky funny in the beginning, when Walter is still learning his trade, but with each season Walter gets more efficient and less lovable.  The stated goal of the show is to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface, and though the show isn’t quite done yet, they’ve very much succeeded.

So considering that I like to write about love and friendship, how do I reconcile that with the source material?

What I wrote was indeed about drug dealers, and a violent lifestyle, and a ‘mancy system that only springs from functionally-incapable, crazed-cat-lady-level obsessions. But even drug dealers feel affection towards each other, and drug usage has that lovely romance period where you’re both taking this drug, it’s awesome, the world is full of possibilities.  And this time, I treated the core of the idea that gestated this work as a mere suggestion, not a rail.  Whenever any of it conflicted with what I loved, what I loved thoroughly won.

In other words, I didn’t let someone else’s philosophy drive me.  I let mine.  And so, what in the hands of someone else would have been, well, Breaking Bad, instead turns into an extended musing on fatherhood (for the Walter-analogue here has a young daughter, who unlike in Breaking Bad features prominently), and how you deal with life-destroying trauma.  It’s a surprisingly warm and fuzzy book about outcasts who wreck the world with their reality-warping psychoses.

If I’d been smarter, dealing with my collapsed book, I would have realized soon on that the Edward-Bella love thing is really a philosophical allergy, and I would have not simply tried to adapt it, but I would have transformed it.  I wouldn’t have asked, “So why are they in love?”  I would have asked, “So what would I fear about that love?  What would I have been attracted to?”  And rather than constantly trying to wedge them into the plot that I’d devised, I would have found my own voice to respond to Stephenie Meyer’s take on NRE, treating it not as this thing to be transplanted into my novel, but rather my own relationships reflected in fiction.

My error was treating the idea as if I could respond to it by copying it.  You can’t do that.  You respond to another work of fiction by breathing it all in, then breathing it out as something so completely you that it’s no one else.  There are adolescent romances that I could write about – for, as has been noted, in many ways I move in constant tides of crushes, falling in love with strangers at the drop of a hat – but I’d have to write about the kind of vampire that I’d fall for, and not Stephenie Meyers and all her kin would.  And would that idea survive the first contact with my other concept of a Buffy-analogue wanting to kill the Edward?

I don’t know.  But now I’d be wise enough to understand that if it wouldn’t fit, then that darling should be the first to go.

Anyway, I’m rambling.  The point is that what I learned this time around is the most obvious point, which is really what writers do: we find the obvious advice everyone bandies about, and find the way to internalize it.  The point here is that novels – that fiction – is about your fears, your deepest desires, your internal kinks that pull you along… and anything that leads you away from that is blunting the strongest thing in your fiction, which is to say your passion and voice.

I lost mine.  I got it back.  And now I’ll spend the next several months re-passing this novel, deepening the themes and tuning the characters and making those emotional beats resonate.  Which I’m able to do because at some point, I went beyond just filing off the serial numbers and actually adopted it as all my own.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So at 7:41 pm tonight, I beat National Novel Writing Month in the way that mattered to me; I completed Act II of my novel in progress.  57,286 words committed to paper; actually, it’s 61,396 words if you count the deleted scenes I always shove to the end of the manuscript, but still.

I’m proud and tired.

There are those who thought I was against National Novel Writing Month, which I’m not.  I’m for anything that gets people writing.  I think NaNo is often a great encouragement.  I think it’s equally often a discouragement after a week or so in, as potentially-competent-but-slow writers see that they’re not going to be able to churn out the requisite word count and give up on what might otherwise be promising novels.  Yes, it’s good at getting asses in chairs, but for every person I see going, “ZOMG I FINISHED!” I know two people who, come November 10th, have abandoned their work because the goal line is too far away.

Sadly, given the way many so-called writers bash NaNo, a lot of folks have a bunker mentality where “It’s nice to get people started, but the focus on production often intimidates people out of finishing” reads to them as “HE HATES THE NANO.”  I do not.  I think it’s like every writing exercise – useful for some, deadly for others.  The trick as a writer is to know what suits you.

…that’s neither here nor there.  I’m tired. The real news is that I wrote at a hectic pace, not letting my inner critic stifle me, and got through Act II.  I missed a lot of dates so I could do this, working ten-hour days and then writing for three more to ensure I stayed on topic.  I think that I’m going to probably continue this crazy pace through December, just to polish off Act III.  But it’s been a grueling process, and I feel exhausted.  I have no idea how Cassie Alexander does this three times a year.

Then comes the rewriting.  There’s a lot to fix.  It took me 50,000 words to figure out who my lead character was.  There are worldbuilding problems – hey, how common is magic? – that literally switch 20,000 words in.  I’ll need to slip back into scenes and quietly place Chekov’s guns on the mantle. And the prose is so flabby, I’ll probably cut 20% out of it before I’m done (that’s a lot of blubber to flense) and replace a metric fuckton of cliches with writing that’s actually fresh and new.

That’s all good, though.  It’s been an experience, writing at this clip; I’m usually a very sedate writer, lucky to hit 800 words a day.  Doubling that was an effort in letting go, and I honestly don’t know if this is any good or not.  I’ll take the weekend off, pondering what happens in Act III, and then start to furiously scribble to get to, say, 90,000 words by the time I’m done. When it’s done, we’ll see whether I write better at a furious gallop.

It may be a dribbling turd of a thing, or trapped lightning. No way of knowing until the end.

But for now, I did it.  Almost 60,000 words, almost 2,000 words a day.

I’m going to have a drink, and maybe cry a little.

(And no, I don’t know why I’m calling NaNoWriMo “Sarah.”  Could be “Steven,” I guess.  I’m punchy, allow an old tired man some oddness.)

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So as mentioned, I’m doing National Novel-Writing Month, and the words are pouring out.  Whether they are coming out as liquid silver or pea-choked vomit remain to be seen, but I am 34,700 words into this draft already, cruising quickly into the second act.

The void is killing me.

I think that’s why I like short stories; I write 6,000 words at most, and when I’m done, I hand them to a crit group, and within two weeks I know how well I did!  Anybody can get through a short story.  It doesn’t matter whether the feedback is bad or good; I just like to know how much work I have to do.

But this novel, man…. I used to make Gini read my novels chapter-by-chapter as I wrote them, but then I realized that no human ever reads a novel like that.  (Here, read a novel over the course of four months, in erratic drabs that have nothing to do with your interest in it.)  So instead, I let her read my larger works in larger pieces – I usually try to get to the end of it, but what’s happened is that I get to a point where I’m not certain what happens next, and I can’t bounce ideas off of Gini until she knows what’s going on, so she winds up reading the first third of the novel so I can figure out how to get to the second third.

Gini, however, is involved in a crushing project.  She will not be available until mid-December.  By which point I will have hopefully finished up Act II, and be well on to Act III.  I may even be completely finished by the time I make her sit down for a weekend and read it.

In other words, I’m writing this whole novel without knowing whether it’s any good at all.  And I’ve sort of abandoned the idea of writing a salable novel, but I would like to know whether the novel I am speedily plopping onto the page is going to require seventy rewrites or just a touch-up.  Are my characters likeable?  Does the plot have too many whafucks?  Is it interesting?

I am driving blind down a foggy path at seventy MPH.  I hope I’m on the right path.  But there’s no markers to tell, and eventually I’m going to coast to a stop and discover whether I’m at my destination, or stuck axle-deep in a boggy marsh.

That’s kiiiiinda scary.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

After graduating Clarion, I wrote short stories for four years.  I did this because short stories were easier to write; I could take drastic differences in tone and approach, attacking a different problem with each story, and get it all done in 5,000 words.

I got published in a few venues, and then I got my first professional publication, which set me on my way.  What would happen next was predictable: I’d sell more short stories to a mix of markets, until eventually I got my third pro sale (which was my entry to the Science Fiction Writers of America), and I’d sell more stories until my name was out there.  Then maybe I’d get nominated for a major award.  Then I’d write a novel, and I’d get an agent to sell it, and that novel would get good reviews.  And I’d keep writing novels until I made a name for myself, and then I’d be a Real Writer….

Except that didn’t happen.  My finished novel is circulating among agents, and has gotten some interest, but has not been an automatic sale.  In the meantime, I started work on another Very Salable Novel, which imploded after six months of writes and rewrites, and I eventually determined that I couldn’t write it at all.

Now I’ve got a third novel I’m planning, and my so-called career is a weight around my ankles.

I’ve literally been unable to get out of bed in the morning, harried by thoughts that OMG I don’t want to start it, because what if I fail?  If I don’t get it published, then I’ve wasted time.  My career is supposed to move smoothly from “well thought-of short stories” to “starred review first novel,” and if that doesn’t happen then who am I?  I’m certainly not a Real Writer.  I’m just some fraud, throwing out words but not moving down the correct path.

Plus, as I’ve gotten desperate to push this stalled career along, I’ve started thinking in terms of commercialism.  “People like happy endings,” I think.  “Maybe I should write happy endings.  People liked Sauerkraut Station, what lessons can I learn from that?  Sauerkraut Station was a Little House on the Prairie riff, what else can I emulate?”

The problem?  Sauerkraut Station wasn’t a goddamned commercial fiction.  It was this unwieldy, horrible novella I was convinced I’d never sell, let alone get any acclaim for; I liked it, and for the longest time I was the only one who did.  My best stories, as always, are the ones I write for myself.

What I’ve come to realize is that my writing career needs to get fucked.  All it ever does is make me compare myself to other writers, wondering where I’m ahead or behind on the curve, bringing unwarranted feelings of envy for people who write delightful stuff.  All it ever does is make me feel like shit for not hitting arbitrary goals.  All it ever does it is make me feel as though there will be some point in my life when I’ll feel so confident about writing that I’ll know how to do things… and the truth is, writing’s complicated.  I’m going to be taking huge chances all the time.  If I ever did get to the point where I knew how to toss off a bestselling novel, I’d start experimenting on the side with the things I didn’t understand.

I am never going to feel comfortable with this.

So fuck my writing career.  I’m still going to write, of course.  I’ve got this novel I’m excited about right now.  But when I write it, I’m not going to think of the agent who’d want it, or whether it’ll fit in this market, or what will happen if I don’t get it published.  I’m just going to put the words on the fucking paper, and make it the kind of thing that is as good as I can get it, and everything else will happen in its time.

I called a mulligan on my writing career, once.  I’m doing it again.  From today forward, I have no plan aside from my fingers, on these keys.  Writing.

Maybe someone will even like it.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Hey, guys!  The Clarion Blog-A-Thon starts today – and with it, my attempt to outline my novel live, in a members-only community, as an advanced seminar in plotting, theme, and character!  A $10 donation and an email to theferrett@theferrett.com with your LJ name will get you access – and also help one of the greatest writing workshops in history.

How good is Clarion?  In twenty pre-Clarion years, I had three sales.  In three post-Clarion years, I had twenty sales.  That’s how much you learn.  And the Clarion Echo, where I’m doing all of this plotting, is designed to be a little taste of Clarion.  I’m certainly teaching you everything I learned.  So I’ll ask you to donate, both for a good cause and some entertaining tutorials.

So what am I writing today?  It’s an essay on what benchmarks make for a good scene, and it starts like this:

To plot this novel during the Blog-a-Thon, I’m going to have to break everything down into scenes. That’s tricky for me, because I’m an exploratory writer — I usually don’t know what’s going to happen until the words hit the page.

Now, in a lot of cases, I get to a point where I don’t know what’s going to happen next. That’s when my writing theory skills come in handy.

See, all that writing advice you’ve ever gotten? You never need it when a story is working. You only need to reach into that bag of tricks when a scene’s falling flat, or an ending is nowhere in sight, or when that character is relentlessly limp.

Now, for me, when I hit that terrifying blank page, I fall on my old standbys for What To Do When You Don’t Know What Happens Next. Neil Gaiman told me that every story is really about what a character needs — and so I think, “What life lesson could this character use most in this moment, and how can I teach it to her?” James Patrick Kelly taught me that if I couldn’t figure out what happened next, come up with ten terrible endings and think about why they’re terrible… And lo, elucidating the reasons I hate this awful, cheesy, and obvious ending makes me realize what I want to have happen. And I have my own custom advice, which is, “If you were the GM in a game, how would you plot this?”

All utterly unneeded when things are going well. But when instinct fails, theory’s what gets you back on track.

So for me, in unfamiliar territory, I thought about what would make a good scene for this novel, so I’d have a clear-cut set of tests to apply during plotting.  I read probably four or five books dealing with novel-writing and outlining, to try to devise a set of “acid tests” to see if something was up to snuff.  Which is important in novels; a short story is usually about one or two ideas, and if your writing is compelling or your ideas dazzling, you can kind of tapdance around that rotten hole in the stage.  But for novels, you need to have an underlying structure that works… and without actually writing the scene, something I’ve always done before, I need something else as a sanity check for this novel.

Note those words: for this novel. I’m writing what hopefully will be a very cinematic, simple script — other novels may have different scene requirements. For example, some novels may need breather scenes where the character sits back and thinks. That’s not the effect I’m going for here, so I’m going to try not to have those.

So what will my sanity checks for this novel, as we plot it out together, you and I?  I made a list.  And that list contains both generically good scene advice, and advice specific for this novel….

The rest of the entry can be found here, but you can only read it if you donate.  It’s $10.  That’s not a huge amount, it will get you entry to fabulous prizes from twelve amazing authors, and I’ll consider it a personal favor.  So why not donate?

 

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So without going into details, I just got a rejection on the novel I’m currently trying to sell.  It said, as others have said, that there’s too much focus on worldbuilding, and not enough honest emotion.

The thing is, I spent about fourteen months working on that novel, getting it to be the best it could be.  I’ve polished it to the absolute best of my ability, and if there are ways to fix it at this point, it will involve a complete rewrite from scratch.  Which will be another fourteen months invested, because my first drafts suck.  I’m pretty much curled into a ball right now, suckin’ back tears because I put everything I had into this goddamned novel, and here’s a data point suggesting that my end product may not be good enough.

You know what my options are now?

1)  Quit writing.
2)  Write a better novel.

That’s it.  That’s the writer’s creed.  Maybe this story can’t sell.  Maybe your talents aren’t good enough.

Keep trying.

And it sucks.  I mean, that’s a year of my life invested that I may have to throw away.  I got good critiques on it from my fellow writers, professionals told me they didn’t think I’d have problems selling it, the friends I handed it to largely liked it.  I used every bit of technique I have to make it sing.  Yet here we are, racking up a very kind “No thanks.”

Now, keep in mind that this is a transitory emotion.  My novel may find a home, because maybe it’s just quirky and needs to find the right place to nourish its baby-bird delicacy.  Or it just may not be very good.  But this is what happens when you’re a writer.  You spend weeks pouring your heart’s blood into a golden chalice for someone, only to be told hey, this Bud Lite over here is way tastier.  And what do you do then?

1)  Quit writing.
2)  Write a better story.

I’m not dicking around here.  There was a time when I racked up form letters from Asimov’s.  Eventually, I got in to my favorite magazine, fighting against the best in the business for my well-earned slot in one of the most prestigious magazines in sci-fi.  Then I did it again.  And again.  Why?  Because I looked at my choices.

1)  Quit writing.
2)  Write a better story.

I kept writing.  Eventually, I wrote a better story.  As you can, if you stick with it.

This entry is written from the heart of rejection, that stinging kick to the teeth where you feel like this rejection is proof you don’t deserve a seat at the big-boy table.  That you’re a fraud, masquerading as a writer – which is an emotion, I think, every writer faces.  That fear that maybe you can’t do this.  But I’m sharing this pain because the difference between you and the people who didn’t make it is going to boil down to perseverance.  You’re going to send that story around until hell won’t have it, and your next story will knock their socks off.

I don’t know if I can sell this.  I may not be able to.  But I do know that my next novel will be better.  And, if necessary, the one after that will be even better.  I’ve taken my gut punch for today, but I’m gonna stumble back into the damn ring, because the other option involves flinging a bloody towel at the feet of the refs.  And when I do that, the game is over.

Option #1′s a little easier on the ego.  Option #2 will get me there.  I hope.  Some day.  And so I tell you:

Write a better story.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So I’m 30,000 words into a new novel, and this weekend I realized that I have to throw out everything except for the first 600 words.  The last two months of work?  Completely erased.  Hit “Delete” and kiss that effort goodbye.

Normally there’s something to be scavenged from a manuscript collapse, but this is a total implosion.  My protagonist used to be a harried, frightened nerd, prone to punching when cornered; in this new novel she will become a nerd-king, the kind of super-popular high-school kid that has yet to realize that she’s peaking and that things have already begun to slope downwards.  The villain in my old book was a charming, well-meaning rogue; now he’s a sneering killer who’s only masquerading as human.  I’m reducing everything to such rubble that there’s nothing I can retain.

Such an exciting failure.

Failing is a good thing in writing; it means you’re taking risks.  But furthermore, it indicates you’re skilled enough to recognize that you’re writing something flawed.  Which is a sign of growth to be cherished.

A few years back, I would have looked at the scenes I’d written and said, “But those are good scenes!”  And indeed, they are; some of them are touching and beautiful and honest in a way that I’d never been capable of before.  There’s a scene where my protagonist faces down her reclusive, immature father to have to justify her expulsion from school – which was one of the subtlest and truest things I’ve ever written.  There was a lot of good stuff in that 30k, personal high-water marks.

Yet the novel as a whole wasn’t up to snuff, with character largely revealed through interminable interior monologues and backstory instead of action.  The fact that I recognized that was a sign of how far I’d come.  And figuring out how to fix it involved a combination of using every tool I’d developed as a writer and having the boldness to go, “No, this can’t be massaged back into position.”

Now, I’m trying a new technique: I’ve never outlined a novel before.  I’ve only written the scene that comes next, hoping my internal searchlight would find the correct path.  But in outlining, I’m having to use all sorts of techniques stolen from the theater – the three-act structure, internal versus external challenges, ensuring that character is revealed through action, explicitly raising the stakes with every chapter – and that’s a sweaty workout.

I’m learning so many new things that I feel revitalized.  This novel doesn’t feel like a slog any more, but a mountain to be climbed.  It’s tough, but there’s a certain masochistic satisfaction I’m deriving, a brisk slap to the face.

To which I say to you, dear readers, is that there are mundane failures and exciting ones.  The mundane failures you can’t learn from, you just did the same thing all over again.  But the exciting ones are the ones where you can break yourself and then reforge your shattered forearms into adamantium claw-laden superpowers.

What I encourage you to do is to fail big.  Write to the edge of your limits.  And when you realize you can’t pull off this tricky story you’re halfway through, don’t get depressed; take it as a sign that you’re recognizing flaws even if you don’t know how to correct them yet.  Writing’s full of invisible pitfalls where you think it’s brilliant, but your readers are unsatisfied.  Just understanding that something doesn’t work is a major accomplishment, one you should congratulate yourself for.

What’s important is not this story.  It’s your overall skill level.  And a failed story can teach you far more than that easy sale.

Today, I’m taking the first step in spending at least a month outlining my novel chapter by chapter.  Maybe it won’t work.  But I’ll learn, and if this collapses then it’ll be such a glorious failure that I’ll be harvesting new talent from the ruins.  Celebrate with me, people.  Go blast a story of your own.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Whenever I saw the Oscar losers saying “It’s an honor to be nominated,” I always envisioned gritted teeth and gut-roiling fury.  I mean, you just had your chance at the brass ring, and you came that close!  How could you be cheerful?

Yet I was grinning like a damn fool when I lost to Geoff Ryman.  As were all the other losers I talked to.  We had our pins, and our certificates, and our name immortalized in history, and the experience of being catapulted onto a much larger stage.

Who the hell could be upset?  There’s now one word that’s guaranteed to be in our obituary, and that word is “Nebula.”  We’ve made it.

It’s cool.

And it’s a weird bond; I spent the weekend hanging with my fellow nominees Jake Kerr, Rachel Swirsky, Katherine Sparrow, and Geoff Ryman – and there wasn’t an ounce of competition in there. It felt like an odd sort of club, one that contained only six people in the whole world, a once-in-a-lifetime bond: 2012 Novelette Nebula Nominee.  No one else will ever know what this is like.  We did lunch, we chatted in bars, we appeared on panels, we discussed our chances, and not once was there a bit of snark or anger.

(I met other nominee Charlie Jane Anders briefly after the ceremony, who seemed absolutely wonderful, but alas we got no time to hang and chill.  I hope to rectify this at a future event.)

I felt blessed to be in the company of such beautiful people.  I’d have been happy for any of them to have won.  And the man I was rooting the most for, my wonderful and compassionate
Clarion teacher Geoff Ryman, who had me sobbing on the airplane on the way to Clarion because his book Was is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever read?  Well, he won.  And when he walked back to his seat, I leapt out of mine to shake his hand and grin and pump the fist for him.  Because if there’s a man who possesses a cool grace and an ability to write straight to the vulnerable centers of the heart, it’s Geoff.

The weekend itself was a helter-skelter of events, and I’ll probably be posting anecdotes for the rest of the week, but here’s the ones I remember in a sleepy Monday muddle.

This Is The Panel That Never Ends…. It Just Goes On And On, My Friends….
Yes, there’s the irony of a panel on pacing going forty minutes overtime.  But there was no panel following us – and when you have such a fascinating topic as “How to get the rhythm of a story right,” and such fascinating panelists as Tom Crosshill, Rachel Swirsky, and Nancy Fulda (Nebula nominees all!), moderated by the vivacious radio host and Big Damn Author Ellen Kushner, you get a ton of feedback.

This panel was so good the audience didn’t leave.  It was like Writing 301, a bunch of advanced techniques we all used to figure out how to get the pacing of a story right – and our approaches were all so different, there was a lot of varying discussion as to how to nail it.  So we talked, and talked, and when at 2:15 we finally called the panel to a halt, half the audience walked up and kept the ball rolling.  Rachel Swirsky had to leave, but thankfully noted childrens’ author R.J. Anderson took her place, and next thing you know we had a long discussion on how to handle critiques.

It was really amazing.  My friend Ruby took a video of the “official” panel on her smartphone, and I hope it’s usable.  I’d love for you to see it.

Meet My Signing Buddy, Franny
The author signing was a first for me, since as an author of short stories I’ve never had anything I could expect anyone to sign.  You can buy books in the dealers’ room…. but if you want me to sign your copy of Asimov’s, you need to remember to bring it with you.  And frankly, I’m not that big.

But thankfully, Nancy Fulda created a Nebula Awards Weekend book with one of my stories in it, and so people could buy a book to sign.  So I sat at a small table.

Next to me was someone I didn’t know, so we introduced ourselves, and it was a woman called Franny Billingsley – who was remarkably fun to talk to!  She was a children’s author but it was her first sci-fi con, so I explained what this “Clarion workshop” was and she told me about what YA conventions were like, and it was a remarkably warm way of passing the time.

Even better, since I knew more people here, when they came to see me, I could go, “And do you know Franny?” and then all of us got into a discussion together.  So by the time I went to wander the floor and get my book signed, I left a merry discussion of writers.

Which was oddly convivial.  For now and forevermore, Franny will be my book-signing buddy, the two of us at the table as readers sporadically came up, book in hand, to ask for signatures.

And only later did I discover that Franny was so modest she didn’t even note that she was up, you know, for the National Book Award.

What a wonderful person.

The Night Before
There was a Nebula nominees reception the night before, where we were to be honored.  I didn’t quite know what that meant, but hey!  This would only happen once.  So I went.

What they didn’t tell us (which was a shame, because several of the nominees – including Charlie Jane – had wandered off) was that the reception was where John Scalzi would present you with your official Nebula nominee certificate and your pin, and then you’d be taken off for photos.

That’s when it became real.

Up until then, a part of my mind had been going, “Oh, no, this will be a mistake, they’ll probably take it away from you.”  But as I walked up to the podium and Scalzi handed me the blue folder with the silver stars, I opened it up and saw my name.  This was no dream.  This was my life, my blessed life.

I couldn’t stop smiling.

The Night Of
So for the Nebulas, I had to dress up.  And my lovely wife Gini helped me into my monkey suit:

Me at Nebulas!

Note the Nebula pin – which is a lot thinner and more losable than I’d have thought – and my Star Wars tie.  I kept telling people all evening that it was my TIE fighter.

Nobody laughed.

My wife, however, looked fucking stellar.  She kept joking that her job at the Nebulas was to be my arm candy, and oh boy was she:

My Nebula arm candy, Gini.

When I got there, I was happily surprised to see Neil Gaiman, who was a last-minute addition.  And Neil, who’d been with me during my reformatary stages at Clarion, drew me into a warm hug that went on for longer than I thought and said, “Bubbeleh!”  He’s surprisingly, endearingly, proud of me.

When he said “Bubbeleh,” it felt like I was being welcomed to the next level.  That all of this hard work I’ve put into writing – the hours wandering in the garden figuring out the next scene, the endless rejections, the workshops and cons I travelled to – had finally paid off.  And that was a lovely thing to see.

Some pros told me, serenely, “You’ll be back.”  I don’t share their confidence.  For me, I struck lightning once.  But the fact that I made it once is enough, and that won’t stop me.  Because you know what real writing fucking is?

Jon Walter Williams held a three-hour intensive lecture on plotting and structure.  And when I looked around the room of twenty people, at least four of us had been nominated for a Nebula.  Here we were, being given one of the biggest honors in the field… and all of us had said, “No, there’s so much more work to do.”

That’s how you get to a Nebula.  I got here.  You can, too.  Because Neil told me, “You just need to write.”  And that’s what I did.

Now you.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I will be attending the Nebula Awards this weekend, where I will be the happiest loser in the world.  When they say it’s an honor just to be nominated… boy, they’re not kidding.

In any case, if you happen to be in Washington DC this weekend and would like to see a weasel, there are several places at which you can catch me:

I’ll be at the Mass Autograph Signing from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., signing copies of my latest book.  What’s that, Ferrett? you ask.  You don’t have a book yet, you exclaim.  Oh, but I do, thanks to fellow nominee Nancy Fulda, who has created the Awards Weekend Collector’s Edition, which features works by eleven authors who will be at the Nebula weekend.  I’ll have it, I can sign it, and if you’re quite lucky you can get a full run and have all eleven authors put their name on it.

(My story in there is “As Below, So Above,” my generational tale told from the perspective of the monsters in a mad scientist’s moat.  Read it in advance, and I’ll even draw a squid for you.)

(And while you’re at it, read Nancy’s Nebula- and Hugo-nominated story “Movement,” a tale of future autism that is a fascinating exercise in tone.  I nominated it, and am glad to see my tastes vindicated.)

(And while you’re extra at-it, note that I am currently in search of an agent for my book, so if you’re interested… call me!)

At 1:00 on Saturday, I’ll be on the “Watch That Step!” panel with Tom Crosshill, Nancy Fulda, Ellen Kushner, and Rachel Swirsky, where I’ll be discussing pacing in stories.  This oughtta be interesting, because my pacing is usually pretty reflexive – you kind of develop a sense of fast and slow after writing blog entries for, I dunno, a decade.  So discussions will be had.

And if you feel like hanging out and you’re a press type, I’ll be available for interviews at 3:00 on Friday.  I suspect strongly I’ll be hanging out in an empty room twiddling my thumbs, but should a reporter show up I will perk up nicely and answer all available questions on squids and space stations that I can.

Also, if we’ve met before, feel free to text me – or email me at theferrett@theferrett.com to get my phone number so we can coordinate drinks.  We shall see what happens.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

The book was published in 2010, and purported to be about the distant future.  And yet its opening chapter was based on a premise that wouldn’t have flown in 1995.

The book was about an antiques dealer, sitting at his desk, when a customer came in with some effects from a dead celebrity.  The antiques dealer had not heard of said celebrity, and as such told the woman that these items weren’t worth much.  As it turns out, the dealer “doesn’t get out much,” and the celebrity was in fact very big news in certain circles, and was later called upon the carpet by his boss.

Note what did not happen in this crazy future-world: not one fucking Google search.

Back when I was editing for StarCityGames, I’d get articles by people I’d never heard of.  And even as scattershot as SCG’s editorial focus was back then, I Yahoo-searched every name to make sure they hadn’t won a Pro Tour or something.  Sometimes they had, and that saved me much embarrassment.

So what we have is someone presented as a competent employee, who doesn’t think to type a name into a goddamned computer.  Which is a social failure on the part of the author, who also references a lot of old-school printouts and books hanging around in a future rife with AIs that can talk and evolve.  Won’t e-books and bookmarks have consumed those wholesale by then?

I don’t think that it’s that she’s bad at writing (the book’s quite fun otherwise!), but that she’s so busy envisioning a future where black holes and time travel matter that she’s accidentally skimming over the very changes to society that technology has wrought right now.

As a science fiction author, that vexes me.  I think it’s our job to look at how technology changes people, and part of that has to be looking at the society that we’re becoming.  Facebook is causing all sorts of havoc in the college field, because you have some sleazy hookup with someone, and wham!  Tomorrow, an embarrassing friends’ request.  That person’s now connected with you, a part of your life in a way you didn’t necessarily want but would now be a dick to refuse.

Things teenagers say are now amplified in weird ways.  Drama spirals out of control so much quicker when it’s all in the public arena, dogpiles of crazy waiting to happen.  Dumb photographs you took when you were fifteen now lurks in your Facebook archives, waiting to be revealed by employers at the worst possible moments.  And always, always there’s the possibility of your idiocy going viral, where in the blink of an eye your fun weekend project becomes the next Rebecca Black.

As people who are looking at the future, we need to examine that, and extrapolate, and figure out where all of this enmeshing of society goes.  Maybe that’s a part of my history, because at the age of 25 I started writing crazy sex stories that opened up my personal life, and twenty years later that’s such a part of my identity I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be a blogger.  But the choices I made when I was young, dumb, and full of cum are still influencing my life years later in massive ways I could not have anticipated…

…and that’s the future.  This having every word on the record.  This me, changing the details of the book so I’m not calling out another author in public, because I don’t want to start a flame war with someone whose book I think is otherwise quite good.

This is the new society we live in, where all information is just a touch away, and I think as authors we need to examine that warp and weft of our fabric more closely.  To figure out how our culture will either adjust to this craziness, or to figure out how we’ll start to bend the rules so that it becomes healthier for everyone.

Either’s okay.  My first pro-published story, Camera Obscured, is all about a boy trapped in the web of social media.  Sauerkraut Station is about a lonely girl who’s too far from the social networks, but note that there’s at least a nod to the expense of sending emails.  I’m not saying they’re works of genius, but they’re at least making concessions to the future that’s spinning off of today’s headlines.

I think the singularity is coming, but it’s not what you think.  I think it’s going to be a hideous snarl of concentration-shattering advertising and reptile-brain attention grabs and selfishness ego-shouting, and when it comes it’s going to shred us apart because the corporations will have learned how to pander to our worst desires out to three significant digits.

That’s my vision.  Yours will be different.  But please.  Apply a little thought to what’s going on now, and don’t just have the next generation of people be just like us.  They will have a lot of similarities.  But they’re growing up in science fiction now, so honor that by viewing it through a lens that is flexing and distorting as you read these words.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

My friend Kat Howard had an excellent post yesterday on why she doesn’t self-publish, in which I had to admire the way that she avoided the usual self-publishing nuttery.  Usually, most self-publishing arguments boil down to “ZOMG I DO IT AND SO EVERYONE SHOULD” or “ZOMG I HATE IT AND SO EVERYONE SHOULD,” and Kat – as she is wont to do – admitted that self-publishing works very well for some authors, but not for her.

Part of it is that she doesn’t want to burn her writer-energy on things like formatting manuscripts and copy editing and finding good cover art.  But the other part is notable:

“…Which leads me to the other reason that, right now, I’m not looking into self-publishing as an option: audience. The problem with the fact that it’s so easy to self-publish means that a lot of people do so, and it’s very hard to find the signal in the noise. Books get lost. And again, I understand that this doesn’t always happen, and that traditionally published books can get lost in the crowd, too.”

Now, I do have an audience, and I’m pretty sure I could use my blogging as a platform to sell my stories profitably.  I’ve had my publishers note that when I point people at my stories, there’s a notable uptick in traffic.  So why don’t I skip the middleman?  And there’s a very good answer:

I write better for publishers.

I’m inherently lazy, and I’m pretty sure if I was just writing for people who already liked me, I’d do two or three drafts and call it a day.  I’m not in competition with anyone but myself, and revising is a real pain in the ass, so without that pressure I’m pretty sure I’d slack off.

When I’m submitting a story to Asimov’s or Lightspeed, however, I know my story has to compete with, quite literally, the best authors in the business.  These are people with quantifiably more talent, bigger audiences, better storytelling.  And so before I send it on there, I sweat every line, revising five or six times, getting more crits, getting more feedback…

…and what emerges is a better story.  Some people don’t revise well, but I’m not one of them.  I get stronger with each draft (as you’ll see from my notes on the first draft of my Nebul-nominated story “Sauerkraut Station”).  And I hate revising so much that unless I’m really driven to it, I won’t.

My novel that I’m flogging around now?  Was exhausting.  I’m pretty sure if there wasn’t a big ol’ toll-taker sitting at the gate, demanding my very best work, I would have said, “That’s good” after three drafts and called it a day.  As it was, I did six drafts, and I’ll probably do two more before I can call it a day.  And revising 105,000 words takes weeks, man.

Now, this is a highly personal opinion, because I’m sure there are self-publishers who can treat it like a job and do the seventy necessary revisions, and there are of course writers who polish off two drafts and it’s as good as it’s gonna be.

But me?  I have a reasonably large audience which I could sell my stuff to… And what I give to them can’t be substandard.  That’s the contract I have with them.  My blog posts are as good as I can make them, and my stories – which are far harder to write – need to be even better.  Because I’m a blogger who’s becoming a writer, and I’d say my audience at this point is now roughly 65% “I like what Ferrett says in his blog” and 35% “He’s a good fiction writer.”

To get those percentages to keep tilting to the fiction end, I need to be driven.  The idea of the gatekeeper may be old and inefficient, but damn if it doesn’t light a fire under my ass.

And that’s why I don’t self-publish.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

The greatest gift the Clarion workshop gave me is that it made me feel like A Real Writer for six weeks straight.  That was the longest continuous period of feeling like a Real Writer I’ve ever had.

I say this today because of an absolutely beautiful post by Justine Larbalestier, which lists all the times when Justine knows she will have made it as a writer.  Which is wonderful, heartbreaking, and true.

Truth is, I don’t feel much like a writer these days.  Yes, I have this lovely Nebula nomination… but I also haven’t had a story accepted in four months despite having eleven stories darting from market to market.  I haven’t written that much, because I’m mentally planning a novel and even though I’m creating characters in my head I’m not actually knocking words on the page.  And my novel is still waiting, precipitously, for near-certain rejection by agents.

Yet I’m still doing pretty well.  It’s just I have to look for evidence to remind myself of my Real Writerhood when I’m mapping out my next novel and realizing it’s too much for me and oh God I’m not sure I can do this.  (And I think, honestly, that’s every novel for almost everyone.)

The thing that Justine’s post highlights so well is that it’s hard for many of us to feel like Real Writers because even the best writers keep getting evidence that we’re not Real.  All those rejections and bad reviews hurt… And that’s part of the deal you took with this crazy career.  Four months without a story sale?  Heck, I’ve had nine-month dry periods.  Jay Lake had ten years, for Chrissakes.  We all have our deserts to cross.

The truth about being a Real Writer is that it’s not about paying attention to the external factors, which will never really set you free.  You’re a Real Writer when you apply ass to seat, write, finish, and send it off for someone who might publish it.  (Or if you’re a self-publisher, to a lot of people who might purchase it.)

All those other hallmarks Justine mentions?  They’re temporary highs, fleeting triumphs that will make you feel confident and strong for a day or two.  Then it fades.  And you know why?  If you’re a good writer, you’re always stretching, writing off more than you can chew because you know the only way to get better is to do new things.  Constantly.  And that means you don’t really have many moments where you go, “Yeah, I got this” because you’re always reaching out for greater emotional depth, better prose, more entanglement.  You don’t feel confident because you’re brave enough to move beyond where you know and to boldly set out for What You Could Do If You Tried.

Then you send that new-as-scabs talent out for someone to potentially ignore, reject, and even hate.  This is a brave thing.  This is what makes you Real, even if you may not necessarily feel that Realness thrumming along your heartstrings.

But hey.  If you’re writing regularly, and doing your best to get it out to an audience, I will tell you true: you’re a Real Writer.  Take pride in that.

Now get back to work.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

My friend was very excited, because his new novel featured a first for him: a female protagonist.  He was looking forward to the challenge of writing something long-form that had a different viewpoint character than his other, male-centered, novels.  And he was so concerned with getting it right that he’d asked a bunch of us to talk it over wih him.

Unfortunately, he made an error that I think a lot of male writers do.  And that error arrived with this statement:

“Okay,” he said.  “At this point, she’s been brought to a foreign land, and I need to raise the stakes so that she wants to stay here and fight for this culture.  So I think she needs to get pregnant.”

Cue groans from the women in the session.

Now, I’ve observed before in that in fiction, women have one of two roles: to get raped, or get pregnant.  And I think, watching my very well-intentioned friend go at it, I’ve finally understood the reason why men do this.

See, in his excitement to write a woman, he got caught up on the differences between men and women.  If women can get pregnant, and I’m writing a woman, well, I should immediately start with this biological difference!  That’ll be a plot that only a woman can have!

Except it’s a plot that almost any woman can have.  In attempting to differentiate your character, you’ve just made her like 95% of other women in fiction.

Plus, pregnancy is just one of a thousand different motivations that can get a woman to do things.  If you had a male character, would you define his sole reason for staying as being biologically-based?  Of course not.  You’d look at all the myriads of motivations that could drive humanity to fight for a cause – love, justice, revenge, obligation, pride, the challenge of starting over again, survival, redemption, hatred – and choose one that was not based on a man’s unique ability to squirt sperm.

So why do you narrow it to pregnancy?  Why?  To write a woman’s plot?  Then what you’re saying, whether you mean to or not, is that women have one role… and I gotta tell you, from the groans of protest I heard from the women, they’re getting pretty tired of that crap.

Pregnancy is just one aspect of a female character.  Look at all the emotions that might motivate a woman, and allow that pregnancy is also an option, but let it be just one option among many.  Then choose the one that fits this character.

As someone wisely said during the session, “A woman’s character is not formed from biological imperatives.  It’s formed from a difference in experience, and that experience is often societally driven.  If women think differently, it’s because people treat them differently – but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel all the same emotions that men do.”

And those emotions run the gamut to “not wanting to be pregnant.”  Yes, protecting your baby is noble – but as others noted, assuming that I was whisked away to a foreign land consumed by war, my instinct would not be to double down on fighting for this land, but to get my kid to a nice safe hospital back in the States. Pregnancy is a specific event for a woman, yes, but there are lots of abortions and lots of neglectful mothers, and not every character is going to react in the “traditional” way to the news of impending progeny.

In fact, is “traditional” even what you want?  I mean, when you’re writing a male character, do you want someone who reacts in the way that men are inevitably supposed to react?  Isn’t the point of characterization to give us something surprising?  Don’t you want something a little better than the stock-in-trade reactions that have been seen a thousand times before?

So why make pregnancy, that traditional “This is where the woman gets strong” moment, the crux of your novel?

The good news is that my friend listened to the feedback given, and hopefully changed all this stuff before he started.  As a guy, that’s the best start you can have – talking to women you trust, and listening to what you get wrong.  I sympathize.  I’m about to start a novel involving two teenaged girls, and as a guy I assure you I’m going to get it wildly wrong.  The female experience is complicated, female adolescence doubly so.  The best I can do is to write honestly, and keep listening to actual female feedback to keep me on track.

But when I write women protagonists (which I have in Sauerkraut Station, In The Garden of Rust and Salt, My Father’s Wounds, and The Backdated Romance, among others, each of which features wildly differing characters) I’ve always tried to ensure that their motivations are more than biology.  I think that’s the baseline with which to start.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So the SFWA politics are reflecting mainstream politics, which irritates me.

Here’s the background, for those of you who aren’t SFWA members: John Scalzi is running unopposed for President again, which is fine because he’s done a good job.  Mary Robinette Kowal, however, has stepped down from her position as VP, leaving two people to run: Rachel Swirsky and Lou Antonelli.

Lou posted a blog entry announcing his candidacy, and in his personal bio he said: “Louis and Patricia have two adopted Canine-American children, Millie and Sugar Antonelli.” Author Nisi Shawl (who literally wrote the book on writing about other cultures respectfully) took offense at this characterization, saying, “I, too, am a dog-lover, but I struggle for the words to tell you exactly how and why your flippant trivialization of the ethnic identity movement with this phrasing revolted me.”

Lou replied, perhaps unwisely, “I have no damn idea what your problem is. If I offended some esoteric aspect of political correctness, I don’t care… If this some way of saying your genes are more important than your citizenship, then it’s bullshit…. You obviously take yourself way too seriously.”

…at which point a heated discussion broke out on Twitter and in his comments (and in Jim Hines’ blog) about how a man who responded so angrily to a complaint from a SFWA member wasn’t fit to be Vice President.  (Most of the people I saw referencing it fell into the category of “Weren’t bothered by the Canine-American silliness at first blush, but the response was so full of swearing and tone-deaf dismissal that I don’t think this man has what it takes to represent a diverse organization.”)

These discussions brought all sorts of additional scrutiny to his biography – which claims that Lou would bring “diversity” to SFWA by being an older white Baptist.  (Which, to be fair, may be a minority among SFWA members, but still.)  And many decided not to vote for Lou based on the mini-scandal brought by his blog post.

All valid points.  You know, if a fairly prominent SFWA member comes to you with concerns about your tone, swearing at her is not a smart political move.  Do we want to elect a guy who can’t Google “Nisi Shawl” and then “Ethnic identity movement” before responding?

But.

But.

This is politics in a nutshell once again, with personality trumping policy. Because the real bombshell was buried in Lou’s goals for SFWA, were he elected:

“I would like to see an amendment to the criteria for a professional short story publication, going back to the three cents a word standard (which I believe was the pay rate over a decade ago).”

In other words, Lou’s main platform is “I would like to lower the minimum pay rate for authors to be considered professional.”  Which is a nice way of saying “I’d like authors to earn less money,” because the “pro rate” of five cents a word is what lower-tier magazines struggle to make in order to be called “professional.”  They make triumphant blog posts when they do make it.  SFWA sets the standard for payment.  The second you lower that rate, the marketplace will adjust to three cents a word.

How fucked up is that?  For the record, I had three professional short story sales in 2011 - more than most members, I’d wager.  And for those three sales, I made a sum total of about $600, two from online markets who were quite proud about finally hitting the “pro” rate.  Not exactly a princely sum, you see.

Under the Lou three-cents-a-word program, there’s a better-than-even chance I’d have made $440 instead.

So why would I vote for this guy?  His argument is that we’ll get more SFWA members with a lower rate – which is great for SFWA’s coffers, but actually actively terrible for me as a writer.  Five cents a word wasn’t really livable back in 1990, and after two decades of inflation we’re going to roll it back?

Seriously.  What the fuck?

To my mind, that’s the real scandal.  Not to dismiss Nisi’s complaints (though I should note she later accepted Lou’s apology, an apology I think was genuine), but what the blog-o-sphere should have reacted to was the cockamamie proposal on the table, one that would have made the economic realities of struggling authors patently worse.

Once again, we have the real world at work.  In a just place, Lou would have been dismissed out of hand for bad policy long before we even thought about writing him off for any political missteps.  But because policy is boring and insults exciting, we have the shitstorm raised by personal error, with the policy being raised only once the blog-o-sphere erupted in anger over something Lou did wrong.  (And I’m not immune – I didn’t notice the three-cents policy until Keffy pointed it out to me.)  I think Lou’s probably well-intentioned overall, not a bad man by any means, but that policy…. oof.

That vexes me.  I wish more people paid attention to platforms and got as angry about them as they did the scandals of personal misconduct – me included.  But we don’t.  Even in the small world of SFWA.

In other news, Rachel Swirsky is a wonderful human being and a very competent woman who has my wholehearted vote for SFWA vice president.  She had it before, doubly so now.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

The Novel of Doom: Vanquished.

The heap you see here is the last pages of the fifth and final edit of my Novel of Doom. It is now complete and ready for me to start shopping it.

If you were kind enough to come with me on last Summer’s Clarion Write-A-Thon, where I live-wrote the first draft, you may note that this is now the fifth draft.  About a third of the scenes have been rewritten, with completely new ones put in.  Characterization has been improved.  More description to make it more visual has been stuffed in.  A few additional subplots have been added. If you read the first draft, I think you’ll find it quite edifying to see the difference between first and final.

And in the past three weeks, I’ve gone through and yanked 15% of the words out, bringing it down to a lean, mean 89.5k.

(I’ve suffered from the Death Flu, but by happy coincidence I did most of the heavy lifting scribbling on pages, noting what emotional notes to add to what scenes, overviews of new dialog, and so forth.  So when I’ve been stuck in my house muzzy and stupid, I simply followed the directions I’d given myself one page at a time, flinging it to the other side of the couch when done, and then 10% Solutioned it a chapter at a time.)

So, barring some last-minute proofreadings provided by my helpful assistant jenphalian, this is the finalized novel.  I have to take a break, now, and then start reading up on query letters and Synopses That Sell! and all the other crap that comes with finding an agent.  Which is going to be a scary process, made a little scarier by some other factors I can’t get into now but will probably end up helping.

But right now?  That’s a full novel.  Sixteen months of effort.  And it is done.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

There is a lot of magic in the art of storytelling – the writer sits down, furrows his or her brow, and a world spills from their fingers.  People emerge who’d never been there before, and begin to have adventures.  It’s a mysterious, unfathomable Process that cannot be fully explained to mere mortals.

Or so writers would tell you.

Look, I’ve done a fair amount of writing in my time, and yes, sometimes you wake up and the faeries have sprinkled dust in your ears and lo, a story springs onto the page.

But most of the time I’m sitting down to the keys after eight hours of work, tired but ready, and today I’m going to fix the awkward dialogue in this scene, and rework the characterization so that Penelope The Heroine doesn’t come off like a complete idiot.  Most days I write not because my head is buzzing like a beehive with Ideas, but because I’m 3,500 words in and one more scene means I can call it a day.

A lot of writing doesn’t spring from pure inspiration, but factual and rather mundane problem-solving, using your skills to fix gaps.  It’s grunge work, occasionally tedious and often plain.

Yet there’s this Mystique about writing, usually perpetuated by chain-smoking young folks at coffee shops, that writing is unto a channel to the Gods, inexplicable to mere mortals, a form of Jedi magic that only the specially chosen can follow.

What’s that?  You have that special power of Creativity, too?  Oh my God, we should totally have sex.

Now, I’m not denying that there’s a value in learning to feed your creative beast properly, but there’s a deeply cynical part of me that says, “A writers’ job is to make things – even boring things – sound interesting.  So of course we’ve made our own profession sound like oracles.”

And a deeper cynic in me says that if all writers were janitors, there would be endless paeans as to how the janitorial process requires this zen-like beauty of analying the unwanted things of the world and ushering them to a final resting place.  And janitors could pick up chicks like that.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

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