what I’m “working on”: writing as specific practice

First, some good sales news!

I’ve sold my nanite clonepeople 2nd-person short, “All the Colors You Thought Were Kings”, to Elise Catherine Tobler at Shimmer, which I am extremely happy about! (I’ve been trying to crack Shimmer since I started submitting stories. Delightful to have managed it.) I’ve also — last month, but I don’t think I announced it formally here — sold a SFnal saint’s life( gnostics! in! space!), “Contra Gravitatem (Vita Geneveivis)”, to Ranylt Richildis at Lackington’s, for their “ARCHITECTURES” issue. Another market I love and am so happy to be part of! I think both of these stories will be out in January 2016, approximately.

Otherwise, I’ve been writing this novel. Interminably, and slowly. I am not good at it: the writing a novel part of writing it. The story itself, at least according to my first readers, seems to be fairly decent. I’m not displeased with it. (I am actually disgustingly fond of it, vilely in love with my imaginary people and their terrible political problems. I am that obnoxious writer, the one who likes her own work.) What I do not like is writing it, and in a slightly different way than my general dislike of writing in general. (I am also one of those possibly-less-obnoxious people who don’t like writing, they like having written. Having written is my favorite state in the universe. It is worth doing all the writing for.) I don’t like writing the novel because — well, because it’s so HUGE. I don’t have instincts for the pacing of it; I don’t have stamina for having gotten through 18k of a story and being only about one-fifth done. It just keeps GOING. And I am constantly in a state of awareness of this being the first time I’ve done this. I don’t have the reassurance of skill telling me that I can do this, I’ve done it before. It’s not even a great leap into the unknown: it’s a slow trudge into the unknown. Every step seems to require an individual act of self-propellment.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about how what I’m “working on”, right now, as a writer who thinks about writing as a practice the way language-learning is a practice, or yoga, or rock-climbing. Something done consistently over time, that becomes a sequential and evolving exploration. Because clearly I am working on how to write a novel. That’s the part of my practice which I’m actively trying to push into, to stretch myself at.

A lot of this way of thinking, about “working on” applying not only to stories but to skills in writing, came out of a discussion at Fourth Street, which was about “how to draw the cards you aren’t dealt”. The metaphor is: everyone gets a few cards in their initial writing-skills hand. Some people get character (my friend Fade Manley is one of them); some absurdly lucky people get plot (my VP classmate Devin Singer); I drew setting, for my sins, and also theme, which is why all my early work is evocative-yet-overdescribed symbolic worldbuilding. (I got better.) This year at Fourth Street there was a panel which expanded the metaphor to consider how one learns to do the things you can’t do initially: i.e. drawing more cards from the deck. It was a great conversation — I particularly loved hearing about how Steve Brust taught himself structure in the Dragaera books by imposing strict formalist rules on his chapters — but the point which stuck out for me was the idea of deliberately trying to “work on” something you don’t do easily. To construct a story in such a way that the story failed or succeeded on the thing that you want to be better at, and then working until you figured out how to make that thing effective.

Later this spilled over onto Twitter. I tweeted something along the lines of “someday I will write a protagonist who isn’t a poet-diplomat” (and I swear, someday I will), and got into a lovely conversation with Max Gladstone about character types and templates. I came away from that conversation thinking that the next thing I really wanted to work on was, of course, character, really stretch myself to write new and different kinds of people with individual and diverse experiences —

— and then had the crushing realization that I absolutely couldn’t do that right now on this novel. Because I was already working at the very edge of my skill level.

(This is not to say there aren’t people with diverse experiences in this novel! I really hope there are. It’s profoundly important to me to write people who are different from me, on racial and gender and sexual-orientation axes! But all the people in this novel — even the ones who are pretty far from my identity-experience — are people I have some idea how to write. I’m not stretching. Not this time.)

The edge of my skill level on this project is in fact writing a novel. I am, I think, capable of doing it now in a way I wasn’t five years ago — which was the last time I tried — or two years ago, which was when I got serious about writing professionally. But I’m just barely capable. I’m in that active learning-by-doing phase of acquiring a skill. It makes me make some interesting and slightly conservative — conservative in the sense of not taking risks — choices while writing it. For instance, I am working in a cultural context I feel very capable and comfortable writing (inspired by middle-period Byzantine literati culture — never think the dayjob isn’t useful! especially if you put it IN SPACE) with character types I know I can write well (those damn poet-diplomats) and thematic concerns that I find deeply energizing and pleasurable to explore (memory preservation, imperialism and the colonized mind, uniqueness of individual identity). I’m letting myself pick things to put in this book that aren’t hard for me, because the act of writing a novel itself is so hard for me.

I think it’s going to be a good book.

But oh my god will I be glad when the part of my practice I’m working on isn’t how the fuck do you string one hundred thousand words together.

thoughts on second person.

The most unloved of all POV choices! The bastion of choose-your-own-adventure novels and self-insertion! The one that is reserved so firmly for terrible juvenile mistakes or one-off stunts that no one even warns you off writing in it, like they warn you off writing in first.

Here’s my confession of the day, internet: second person is my favorite POV to write in. It is the POV I have to school myself out of. Almost every story I start has a hesitation-mark version where it is in second person. Usually I immediately get over myself and my fascination, because second is not the best tool for every job — it is a specialist POV, certainly, I am not going to argue that we should throw over the cleaner, stabler classics of third and first in favor of a new order where all stories are addressed to you — but I’ve spent a lot of time with it, and I think it’s a tool with more uses than we tend to acknowledge. Some of those uses are interestingly subtle and worth unpacking.

I’m thinking about this right now because I am working simultaneously on two pieces which are both in second. There’s a bit of fanfic I’m writing for sheer self-indulgent fun, whose protagonist and POV character is habitually in second; and then there’s the revision of one of the stories I applied to Viable Paradise with, All The Colors You Thought Were Kings. I sent that story to VP for two reasons: I thought it was good, and I thought that it would prove that I was good. Good at writing. Because I had written a 6000-word story in second person and I had pulled it off. If I convinced the VP staff to take me on, after making them read 6000 second-person words? Well. Clearly I was a clever creature, with actual talent. I couldn’t fool anyone if I was stacking the deck so high against myself as to have transgressed the functional norms of short-story writing by putting a fairly standard bit of space opera political romance in second person for no good goddamn reason.

Except to see if I could. (And one other reason, which I’ll get to in a minute.)

Spoilers: they took me.

More spoilers: My god did that story get mixed reviews.

Some of the less-pleased reactions were of the usual kind that second person gets: a frustration with being addressed, as a reader, with you. A sense of disconnect between the reader (you, direct address), and the POV character, who clearly is not doing what the reader is doing. I remember one of my classmates put it quite succinctly: “But I didn’t do that,” she said. “The character did.”

What an utterly clear argument against second person. No, you didn’t do it. The character did. So why on earth did I tell you that you did it?

The trick is, I didn’t tell you. I told him. Well. The narrator told him. The narrator told the POV character, you did this. (And, to complicate this entire situation further, in the case of All The Colors, the narrator and the POV character are the same person.) And here’s where second gets interesting, because there are actually three kinds. At least. Three that I’ve figured out names for. I’m going to call them audience-oriented, coersive, and transparent.

Audience-oriented is the kind that my classmate was expecting. It’s the choose-your-own-adventure second, where the narrator is in fact addressing the reader with you. It’s got a couple of assumptions built into it which are not immediately apparent on first glance but which might be why people who expect audience-oriented second person get so annoyed with second-person narratives in general. The biggest of these is the idea that the reader is in fact intimately involved with the process of the progression and resolution of the story. The reader’s reactions have an effect on how the story functions: you are the protagonist, you turn to page 25, you move your avatar through Norrath (– and there I go showing the last time I was seriously involved in MMORPGs, ha), you are Shepard making choices in Mass Effect. There’s a collapse of narrative space between character and reader.

No wonder people who either don’t want to be responsible for the movement or the story or (more commonly) feel that they have been promised a level of control over the narrative by the POV and then are denied this degree of influence by the actual progression of events feel that second person is incredibly irritating.

But collapsing space between character and reader is not the only thing second person can do.

It can also collapse space between narrator and character and between narrative and character.

I strongly believe that the spatial collapse inherent to second person is the same thing that’s going on in epistolary literature, where author and reader, separated by space (at least) and time (usually) are brought into intimate contact by a medium of written communication which addresses the reader with the intimate you. Letter-writing is about spatial collapse. That’s why people do it. It closes gaps. And now I’m getting into the subject of my academic work — we’ll avoid the detour about Byzantine epistolary topoi and how they’re almost always concerned with exile and ameliorating its effects — but I think that a good number of the weirdnesses inherent in our expectations of what second person can do come from the conceptual intimacy which is associated with letter-writing. Letters are a kind of telepathy; they bring the I-writer/narrator to the presence of the you-receiver/reader; the letter itself is an image of the soul, to quote one of my Byzantines (Michael Psellos, epistula 11). When a writer uses ‘you’, there’s an expectation of having the speaker right here, at least to our trained Western reading minds.

So, the other two kinds of second person.

Coercive. This is a second person where the speaker of the ‘you’ is the protagonist or visible narrator in a story, and the addressee of the ‘you’ is another character in the story, explicitly. This second person is engaged in telling the You what is going on in the story, dictating the actions, feelings, and sometimes the internal life of the You, but the You is also fictional and wholly contained within the story.

Okay, let me show you an example. Here is some fanfic I wrote for Welcome to Night Vale (which is in general a great example of coercive second being exquisitely mixed up with audience-address second: great recipe for horror.)

Behind Cecil’s even white teeth his mouth is black and tongueless, the same featureless obsidian as each of his eyes, like the sigil of a microphone. Beatific, he waves at you from the other side of the recording-booth glass. It is very natural to wave back, with the hand that isn’t clutching your clipboard and your materials detector, which is going off like gangbusters. Your nerves and – perhaps, oh, perhaps even this early – your heart are also going off, a jangle of electrochemical impulses, exquisite and overwhelmingly loud. Naturally you feel fear. Fear is the common heritage of all citizens of Night Vale. And you are a citizen now – you’ve been a citizen since you called a town meeting! If not since slightly before.

During a commercial break, Cecil invites you inside the booth so that you can test his equipment. He says this slightly off-color phrase with an entirely straight face, which he hopes you find endearing, or at least respectful of your personal space. You clench your strong jaw, nervous. While you detect, bringing your blinking box close to the microphone and its tangle of wires which descend into the dark void beneath the desk, Cecil’s voice tells you about the silent apparitions of the traffic and the new Pinkberry. Cecil’s voice emerges from the radio without the benefit of Cecil opening his mouth. This is probably due to the magic of pre-recording, but you cannot be sure. Your materials detector screams like a thousandfold flight of baby birds, each one falling into that vast void into which the wires flow. This concerns you somewhat.

Cecil, in deference to your concern and to the perfection of you, dearest Carlos, does not point out that he is, as ever, unsure if the wires of his microphone are connected to anything at all.

All right. Protagonist and narrator here is Cecil (who is not exactly human) but POV character is Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend. Cecil is telling Carlos how Carlos felt, behaved, and experienced; yet we-the-reader are consistently aware that the narrative voice belongs to someone who is inside the story. Cecil is manipulating Carlos or describing Cecil’s idea of what Carlos is thinking.

Coercive second is a party trick. It’s a really fun party trick, but it is pretty narrowly useful: it’s good for conveying that a narrator is supernatural (like Cecil here), it’s good for conveying that psychological fuckery is going on inside the POV character’s head (or at least that there is something peculiar happening in terms of the POV character’s relationship to their own perceptions), and it’s good for a kind of internal direct address, a nearly epistolary form, where Narrator A addresses POV Character B, you.

I actually think coercive second (and its weird child, which I guess I’ll call epistolary second) is a case of using a POV to accomplish a particular task. It is not neutral at all; it’s stunt writing, as the inimitable Elizabeth Bear would say. But it’s damn useful for that task, which is to remove distance between narrator and POV character.

But what if the distance you’re trying to collapse, as a writer, is between the narrative and the POV character? Well, you could go with bog-standard first person — but that means that your POV character is also your narrator. What if you wanted to have a POV character who is so close to the narrative that they can’t tell they’re unreliable, but you want a narrator who has a different agenda than that POV character?

Transparent second.

Third kind is the weirdest, and also the one that I love best. Charles Stross’s Halting State is written in this, and so is the story I sent to VP, All The Colors — and so is a surprising amount of fanfic lately, for which I blame, entirely and completely, Andrew Hussie’s epic webcomic Homestuck, which is written in audience-address second person — much in the style. However, somewhere in the transition between source material and fanfic, the fanfic writers who started writing Homestuck fic skipped the audience address part of the second person and started writing a kind of incredibly tight, internal POV which just … happens to be in second.

It looks like this. (Here’s the first paragraph of All The Colors, in its current unedited state.)

Moonrise glitters dull on the sides of the ship that’s gonna take you away. She’s been down by the water half the afternoon, belly kissing the sand and skinny landing-legs all stuck out like a spider’s. Fucking gorgeous ship, strange as anything you’ve ever seen. You and Tamar watched her come down, stayed up half the night to do it like you were kids staring at your first meteor storm, peeking over the railings of her balcony and marveling at how the falling star-glimmer lit up the lights under your skins like an echo. You two’ve been full up with starstuff for nearly as long as you’ve been old enough to go outside the crèche by your ownselves. Now you’re almost home.

There is perhaps no good reason for this to be in second, except for the fact that it immediately makes the reader aware of the fact that the POV character is being told a story about how they are in the world, and that they are not conscious that this story is not entirely true. It doesn’t have the design of first person — a first person narrator makes choices about what they tell the audience, and the audience is aware of them making those choices.

Here, I’ll do that paragraph in first.

Moonrise glitters dull on the sides of the ship that’s gonna take me away. She’s been down by the water half the afternoon, belly kissing the sand and skinny landing-legs all stuck out like a spider’s. Fucking gorgeous ship, strange as anything I’ve ever seen. Tamar and I watched her come down. We stayed up half the night to do it,  like we were kids staring at our first meteor storm, peeking over the railings of her balcony and marveling at how the falling star-glimmer lit up the lights under our skins like an echo. We two’ve been full up with starstuff for nearly as long as we’ve been old enough to go outside the crèche by our ownselves. Now we’re almost home.

This narrator is a hell of a lot more confident about all of the things they’re claiming. They sound — to me, anyhow — younger and more arrogant. My hypothetical reader is more inclined to think that they’re an ambitious asshole and an unsympathetic one.

Not that Elias, the POV character here, is not an ambitious asshole. He is. But in transparent second, the audience gets to doubt that. To wonder about it. To wonder why the narrative doesn’t belong to the POV character and yet there is no space between them.

Transparent second hints at the possibility of the POV character being wrong and not knowing that they’re telling the wrong story.

The problem with it is, audiences react to it with a general sense of what the fuck, why did you do that. It’s not so clearly purposeful as coercive second. It’s totally weird, in fact. I kind of wish it wasn’t an intensely natural voice for me.

The revision of this story is staying in second. But it’s going to be a more coercive second than the first draft … which is already having plot repercussions.

Someday I’m going to figure out how to write a story in transparent second which can’t possibly be in any other POV.

emotional weight

I’m about 3/4ths of the way through the draft of this short story, and I am quietly having a panic attack over how much it is all about FEELINGS.

I mean. This is the story I described on Twitter this afternoon as having an emotional arc of “you left our boyfriend and you didn’t call me for twenty years and FUCK YOU (also I’m a demonic city now and you can’t fix it, you idiot)”.

Which honestly is a story I want to read — I wouldn’t be writing it if I didn’t want to read it, and tell it, and it’s actually an emotional dynamic I’ve been playing around with for years, and I’m really pleased to have found a story it actually fits in — but I am nevertheless kind of freaked out about how much it is feelings.

People having feelings at each other.

See, I came from fanfic. And I love fanfic. Fanfic taught me how to write, and I still love it, and I still do it. Fanfic is what I use to give my friends presents, to play with shared worlds and aesthetic pleasures, it’s where I go when I want a hit of emotional catharsis. It’s no-stops-on writing. It’s id-driven, even when it’s highly technical (and I’ve written some highly technical fanfic which I am damn proud of), but it comes from a place of desire for me (whether or not this is an erotic desire is another blog post entirely; this anxiety over fanfic is not anxiety about sex in fiction). When I write fanfic I write what I want.

This shouldn’t make me feel like when I write original work, I oughn’t write what I want, but somehow it does. I look at this story and I see that same emotional catharsis: two people and the dregs of their relationship and what betrayal means to them — and I think, I am getting visceral aesthetic pleasure out of writing this, surely it can’t be serious work. Surely it is too much like fanfic. No one will ever take me seriously as a writer unless I get these squishy, over-the-top emotions out of my fiction.

(The last time I felt this way I ripped the end of a story out and wrote a kind of overwrought poem about bridges, because in poetry you’re allowed, right? Right. Poetry is all rawness on the page.)

And yet. I want the emotional weight. My favorite stories that other people write make me feel the same shaky horrifying feelings that I’m looking to produce here. So I’m not stopping. But goddamn, I meant to be done with this draft today and instead I am looking at the argument between my two POV characters and wondering if I should tone down the part where they shout at each other. Even if I really like it.

darling du jour: “Sogcha,” Ammar said, and I stilled. “I came back for what can be salvaged.”

you know. like that.

needling at the plot problem.

Metrics: 765 words novelthing (got to the dead body, learned that my protagonist will use being a barbaros as an attack mechanism when threatened); insufficient but extant words academia (book proposal); one film ingested (The Edge of Tomorrow; verdict: nope, not buying it, Mr. Cruise, needed more Angel of Verdun); three episodes of Persona 4: the Anime (NAOTO-KUN <3~);

… and one (1) excruciating walk in the 110-degree heat trying to figure out why I can’t operate the Plot Machine, which is a device I imagine as being somewhat like a slot machine in a slick casino, and which has a lever which, when other people pull it, they get a Thing That Happens, and which, when I pull it, I get a mysterious clunking noise and it eats my money.

So you get a blog post. (I have missed having a blog. Tumblr’s shiny, but it is not the same. I suspect this blog is going to feel a bit like I’ve come from the wild lands of Livejournal circa 2007, when people blogged about Process and Progress Metrics, and occasionally wrote essays.) I think this is going to be a whiny blog post, which feels a little disingenuous, as I managed to write today — when I opened this window, I was worried I was going to get no words at all — but I am needling at this problem and I am very stuck on it and I have little to no idea how to unstick myself.

The inestimable Elizabeth Bear & various other people who are cleverer than me have this thing they say about the tricks a writer gets in the box for free. Everyone gets something. Character, or prose rhythm, or pacing. Or the instructions to the Plot Machine. I, for my sins, got setting — which isn’t the worst thing to have as a SFF writer, mind you, you want your weird shit evocatively and coherently described, I have got acres of weird shit to sell you, here is a city made of salt, here is a panopticon police state, here is the first Crusade outside of Acre — and I’ve picked up a halfway decent set of prose and character tools along the way.

To the point where I am really, really getting good at the first 750 words of a short story. And also getting good at getting stuck right there.

Setting + SFnal idea + a fair command of prose will get you 750 words. Sometimes I also get a decent concept of what the end is, and therefore the thematic weight of what I’m trying to do.

After those 750 words, something has to happen. And yes, I know that plot is character + situation + problem, and that I’ve usually got Situation and Character and if I chew on it enough I can get Problem, and then I can tell you what the story is about and how it ends. But not what happens. There is some kind of hideous glass wall in my head about turning Problem into Events, especially at the short-story length. (I may have gotten around it in the novel, because the novel is big enough that I can literally throw ideas at the wall for thousands of words. Also I’m cheating: my plot is a hideous mashup of a whodunnit mystery and some shit that went down in the Bagratuni Kingdom of Armenia in 1044 CE. If I get stuck I can go read Matthew of Edessa.) But at the short-story length? Where each event has to carry thematic weight and punch?

I am stuck like an ungainly thing in a tar pit.

… reading this, I suspect that what I ought to do is steal more plots. (Stolen plots are complicated, I whine. Stolen plots have multiple moving parts. I want something clean and jewellike and gutpunchy. I am not realistic in my desires.)

Anyway, this is my Plot Problem. Trying to get from this is why this happened to this is what happened.

Sometimes I think I may have developed this problem because I learned to write by producing reams of fanfiction. And I was never a ‘write fic to assuage the needs of my id’ person, I was a ‘write fic to elucidate a point about the source canon’ person. This produces a lot of vignettes and set-pieces, and work where I just used the plot that the source canon gave me and did something different with it. And not a lot of practice in creating a machine that produces events, rather than one that comments on theme.

Possibly I need to start thinking of short stories as arguments, not as commentary. Prooftext, not catena marginalia.

Well. At least there were words today.