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.

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“Adjuva” at Lakeside Circus

“Adjuva”, my short story about Crusading, medieval theology, and revenants, is up at Lakeside Circus! This one is quite special to me; it’s one of the few stories which I’ve written that I could not have even conceptualized without being a Byzantinist — without being a historian, which in some ways is a thing that talks to the dead. I am very happy that this story found a home so that I can share it.

“ADJUVA”

He wakes up parched, his mouth full of desert dust, spilling out the corners of lips too chapped to bleed.

He spits.

It doesn’t in the slightest help.

Outside, it is raining, sheets of droplets puckering the surface of the Bosporus. There is no way save providence or deviltry that Michel is still alive; by the looks of the city beyond the window it is the year of our Lord two-thousand-something-with-skyscrapers, approximately enough, and he remembers being a man already thirty when first the pilgrim knights came into the desert that is Jerusalem.


A few story notes:

I wrote a version of this at white-heat in the deep winter of January 2012, in the University of Chicago library; it was the second story I wrote after I decided that I was going to be serious about writing, that I would send my work to magazines, that I didn’t need a co-writer or a shared world to hide behind, that I was not only good enough but goddamnit I was going to have fun — and then I spat out 2500 words of some of the most personal, emotional, high-concept, requires-a-goddamn-Masters-in-Crusade-Studies-to-read stunt-writing fantasy I apparently was capable of producing.

I used to call this thing “Vladimir and Estragon Go On Crusade”, seriously. It is my love-letter to Crusader chansons and the Gesta Francorum and the first trip I ever took to Turkey and all the unhallowed dead.

Then I proceeded to not sell it to 11 magazines. Somewhere around magazine #8 I knew it was broken, and even knew why, thanks to an astute editor and a kind personal rejection, but was flat-out unable to fix it. By that point I had sold my first story, and was thinking of applying to Viable Paradise. And what was wrong with this story wasn’t a technical skill problem (I could, and did, fix those) but a problem of emotional payoff; I needed there to be an ending to this story which showed progression and change, and yet it was a story about the doom of repetition, and the nature of sin.

It was a theological problem, and up until early 2014 I very truly could not solve it because I could not bring myself to write an ending where surrender was not only permitted but correct.

This is a very Catholic story — I’m a very Jewish person, for all that I don’t practice as much as I could — and sometimes I felt like I was wrestling with God, trying to find a way to let Michel have a way out that did not strike me as ethically monstrous.

I had to be a different person, in a different part of my life — in 2014 I finished my dissertation, I had a romantic relationship which wasn’t innately fraught, my life became a little psychologically more gentle — I felt less in need of god-wrestling, in short. I will likely take up the practice again when it’s the right time. But having a part of my life which contained un-disastrous serenity did give me a chance to find an ending to this story which admitted to some kind of grace.


… well. Personal theological confession time over, have the thematic soundtrack for “Adjuva”: “Hebrews 11:40”, by The Mountain Goats. I’m going to get my perfect body back someday / if not by faith then by the sword / I’m going to be restored —

January wrap-up

I spent most of January a) not getting a job I wanted and thus applying to a lot more jobs; b) being really really ill, twice; c) starting the new semester (it’s a great semester: I’m teaching Medieval Islamic World, Medieval History Survey Part II, and I have grabbed a bunch of kids and conned them into thinking about Byzantine imperialism for a term — plus I’ve started a Greek workshop for baby medievalists!). So it’s been busy. And I haven’t yet made real progress on The Novel.

I did, however, do one of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Short Story Weekend Intensives, which was a very interesting experience. Mostly really fun! I wrote some things I liked! I took some interesting risks (I could write a post just on the reactions people had to my choice to casually use the singular ‘they’ as one of my character’s pronoun-of-choice)! And I learned a bunch of editing tricks and some interesting plot exercises. Plot continues to be desperately, painfully difficult for me, especially coming up with plot quickly. The plot homework nearly made me cry. I say this with all fondness. It’s kind of good for me to be deeply upset about my inability to do something and then do it anyway. And despite writing miserable emails to MRK at six in the morning, I did in fact do the plot homework, and had four workable plot sketches in an hour (and one disaster). So I can do it, at least.

I don’t think the workshop has solved my Plot Issues. At this point, I need to own up to the fact that nothing is going to fix my Plot Issues, there is no magic bullet, the problem I have with getting from concept + theme to events in sequence is just — a problem I have, it won’t get better in any way aside from me brute-forcing my way through enough times that it becomes more habitual. And one of the nice things I did get out of the workshop was proof that I can come up with coherent events-in-sequence if I absolutely have to. (Nothing like public failure to make one commit to practicing. Honestly it felt a bit like a lower-stakes version of my exams at Oxford for my Master’s degree. Possibly I am overly neurotic.)

I also got an entire short story! Starting from one of the plot sketches we workshopped, I’ve written “How The God Auzh-Aravik Brought Order To The World Outside The World”, complete in draft as of this morning at 2750 words.

Which puts me on schedule for one new short story a month in 2015.

Not bad at all, for a start.

Goals for February: revise “Auzh-Aravik” and send it out; finish “Delusions of Reference”, the film buff cyberpunk story; write 5000 words of The Novel; and, write at least 250 words every day of the month.

Let’s see if I can do that while giving public talks, teaching, writing an academic article on mediated experiences of Byzantine warfare, and going to Boskone. Forward momentum. 🙂

a sale! and thoughts on revision.

I seem to be having a spectacular month. I am a little terrified and a lot happy. That is to say: my story “Ekphrasis” will appear in Rose Lemberg’s ALPHABET OF EMBERS anthology sometime next year. I am incredibly excited about this; I get to share a ToC with a bunch of people I admire. (It is also the first time I’ve sold something to an anthology, which is one other little milestone to check off the list.)

I am so pleased about this sale that this blog post is not going to be the blog post about how I don’t know how to write a novel and it’s scary and hard and I suck at it. You’ll probably get that one later. Instead: some thoughts on revision!

When I first started submitting stories seriously about two years ago (– and y’know, I think I’ve never thanked Taz Muir (go read her webcomic Apothecia!) publicly for getting me to take the plunge, so thanks Taz, I wouldn’t be doing this without you –) I gleaned by collective osmosis that the revise/resubmit request was an extremely rare beast. Submissions were as a rule either rejected or accepted. Revise/resubmit was not something that one should ever expect to happen.

I’ve now sold four stories. And have received three revise/resubmit requests, including on the most recent sale.

As far as I know, this is still not common. I could be wrong. I did get this impression of the general dearth of revise/resubmit through that mysterious General Sense Of How Things Go. But if it is as rare as I think it is — and Duotrope would confirm my bias, there are very few revise/resubmits that show up there — then I am really interested in why it keeps happening to me. Especially because of the kind of revision requests I get.

I seem to be succeeding on: voice, prose, character, setting, and surface plot comprehensibility (go me)

And I seem to be failing on: incluing the not-surface plot. I know a lot of whys about what is happening in my story, but editor after editor is not seeing them. Because editors are awesome, all three of the ones I have worked with have pointed out that this was the problem they were having with my story, all in different ways. Once, I even inadvertently inclued something else entirely from what I meant.

So clearly I’m not hooking up my deep plot with my surface plot, and not noticing I’m failing to do so.

This is when I confess that I write 1.5 drafts of everything at most. And that I think maybe I need to start adding at least another 0.5 of a draft to that total.

I’m terrible at drafting. Honestly, I’m terrible at writing, as a process. (… but I said this wasn’t going to be the post about how I am failing to write a novel.) Essentially I am one of those people who writes extremely clean first drafts, quite slowly. Most of the good lines in a story that I get are there on the first round. And then there’s the problem that I’m completely made of bravado and fuck it why not do the thing impulsiveness, and thus have a tendency to, well. Submit just-finished-yesterday stories to Clarkesworld. (This may be why I have never yet sold to Clarkesworld.) Over the past couple of years I have gotten to the point where I can let a draft sit for a day, so I can read it for clunky language errors and get them out. But I am hideously bad at doing Second Drafts, the real ones where you shore up all the hanging threads and, y’know, make sure your incluing works. I’m bad at seeing second drafts. At seeing what needs to be done.

I think I need to get better. Especially if I want to keep this sales momentum going.

But it’s hard to get past that blissful bubble-moment of I finished it! It’s gorgeous! Everyone will buy it! Let’s SEND IT OUT! which is honestly how I manage to not hate my work in the immediate aftermath of having written it.

Mph. Process. But I’m learning.

Publication & sale & blogging news

First: my poem, “Cloud Wall”, is out today in Strange Horizons as part of their Fund Drive Special Issue. Go read, and then go donate. Strange Horizons means a lot to me — it’s how I got back into reading short fiction a couple of years ago — and I’ve found authors I love and reviewers whose minds I’m envious of there. I am so very proud to have a piece with them; even more pleased to help them raise money for another year of SFF. (Besides, if you donate, eventually there’ll be new Ann Leckie and new Alex MacFarlane and a whole bunch of other awesome things in the rest of the Fund Drive issue!)

Second: sold a story! “When The Fall Is All That’s Left”, to Jason Sizemore at Apex, for publication mid-2015. (First pro-rate fiction sale. This is a really good week. I am very happy. And eligible to join SFWA. Which is awesome.)

Third: The brilliant JY Yang — who is one of those authors I found via Strange Horizons, by the way! — dared me on Twitter, or I dared her on Twitter, or we mutually Made A Pact or something, anyway, it was about the fact that there aren’t enough places that review short fiction, and that we like short fiction A LOT, and have thoughts about it, and should blog about it. And then October happened, and October ate my life (my grandmother died, I spent a lot of time traveling, I am teaching three courses and spend most Wednesdays, when I have all three in a row, praying for swift oblivion), and I forgot about it. … and then she went and publicly stated on her blog that she was about to start doing so, and oh, was I reminded. So here’s my public statement that I’m going to try to write about some of the amazing short fiction I read.

Fourth: Did I mention that October ate my life? October ate my life. I am applying to jobs and doing this job and not really writing very much and it’s dreadful and I’m tired of it, so I’m going to write more. And next week I’m going to Istanbul, and if I can’t write a story on a cross-Atlantic flight to one of my favorite places in the world, I can’t write a story anywhere.

new things! Uncanny! academia! trying to hit three end-of-September submission deadlines!

Exciting news! I have become a Slush Unicorn! i.e. I am a Submissions Editor for Uncanny Magazine (send us your stories!). I am very excited about getting to work on this project, and am eagerly awaiting my first batch of slush. I think I’m going to learn a lot (about editing! and about writing!), and I can’t wait basically.

In terms of my own work, currently I’m kit-bashing a new story together; this one is not behaving itself, and I have reworked the opening four times now, switching POVs each time. I think I may have settled now. Maybe. I might hate it again tomorrow. (You’d think a weird semi-plotless vignette about interstellar poetry and distributed intelligences would be something I’d knock out in a day, but no, apparently not.)

Writing is Not Being Easy right now. That might be because of the New Job, which has commenced in earnest now that the semester is actually a thing that is happening. My, having a real job takes up a lot of time. I am both really enjoying myself — I am working damn hard at learning how to teach about history to university students in better, cleverer, more engaging ways, and I like what I’m teaching a great deal (medieval history! the early Islamic world! the first half of Intro World History!) — and am completely exhausted all the time. I have not settled into this kind of sustained effort yet. I have been getting home and quite literally falling down on the couch and sleeping for two hours before I can get up and do basic tasks, like ‘feed myself’ and ‘write the next day’s lectures’. I have somehow managed to keep up a little bit with my own work during this — the EU grant is finished and sent off (fingers crossed for next year in Denmark), the book proposal for the Book Of The Dissertation is also finished and sent off, to wait in an editorial mailbox until the editor comes back from vacation. Next I really ought to punch out a couple of articles.

But I want to be doing more fiction, and in light of that, I’m going to try a truly pathetically small version of the Writing Streak Task: write every day; a day in which you hit 50 words counts; fanfic counts if you show it to someone else. If I can do this for two weeks that’d be really, really nice. I might actually manage to hit these call-for-stories deadlines if I do.