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.

SFF-inflected vacationing

One of the strangest things about moving to Sweden so far is that my supervisor came to me a few weeks ago and informed me about the mandatory vacation. “It’s got to be at least five weeks,” she said, “but you don’t have to do it all at once. If you don’t want to.”

Once the culture shock wore off (you don’t realize how much American workaholic culture is ingrained until you aren’t there anymore…), I booked a bunch of delightful travel, which I am now in the middle of.

i.e. I spent last weekend at Fourth Street Fantasy, my absolute favorite SFF convention, in Minneapolis. It was such a good time. Fourth Street is single-track programming, high on analysis and exegetical rigor and enthusiasm, and usually involves a lot of sitting around in the hotel bar talking to wonderful, clever, warm members of the SFF community and getting really incredibly drunk. Also singing. The singing is important.

This year I:

  • led a critique workshop for the first time, which made me feel useful! and also was mildly terrifying, as apparently people think I know enough about storycraft to be useful
  • moderated a panel on justice in recent SFF
  • was on a panel about music and writing
  • did not overly heckle the other panelists in panels I wasn’t on
  • except for the time where I insisted that the Roman postal service was really deeply relevant to a discussion of communication modes in speculative fiction
  • got a bunch of bottles of wine, my darling friend Fade Manley, and some willing test subjects (thanks, Django and Max and everyone else!) and continued talking about justice all Symposium-style in the hotel atrium for several hours
  • ended up singing Wayfaring Stranger in the best impromptu Pride celebration mixed-voice choir I’ve ever had the pleasure and honor of being part of (a thousand heart-shapes to EBear for making that happen — it meant a lot, very vividly, very suddenly)
  • talked to so many of my VP17 classmates about such great things; also so many other people about so many other great things
  • never had enough time to talk to everyone I wanted to talk to, but that’s the way of cons, especially cons you love.

Now I’m back in NYC for a solo vacationish thing, for ten days. And then there’ll be Readercon in Boston and a trip to London to see a dear friend​ (& all the other England people I can manage!) on my way back to Sweden.

… also I got asked to give a talk in Denmark? On Byzantine-Armenian relations. And I sold a story to Lackington’s, which I’ve been wanting to do for ages.

Every so often I am extremely conscious of how right this moment I am having the life I want.

Of course, the life I want involves getting the next chapter of this novel written, so I should probably go work on that.

2014/retrospective & 2015/goals

It is a new year. In the first thirty-six hours of 2015 I have been to a lovely party full of SFF people and sold a story. This seems very positive as a way to begin. I have a lot of hope for my life as a writer this year. A lot of hope and a bunch of terrifying goals.

The chief amongst those goals is the following: in 2015 I will finish a complete draft of a novel. I declare this now, in public, as a sort of vow. I have never finished a novel. I have never even gotten close, unless you count collaborative projects — and I don’t, quite, as collaboration fixes all of my novel-writing psychological horrors, i.e. I refuse to let down my collaborators, and thus I do not run away from the novel, and also if I get hideously stuck I can ask the other person to fix the plot, which also prevents escape attempts. I have a horror of plot. Or possibly my plots are a horror. One or the other. Either way, this time I’m doing it alone, and it’s going to be hard, and I am terrified, and I will write a novel.

(The novel in question is a space opera about memory and cultural preservation. Also there’s a murder in it. I feel pretty good about the murder.)

other writing goals for 2015: Twelve new short stories, one for every month of the year, so as to keep this gorgeous bit of momentum I’ve got going.

2014 was a really great year for me — I am actually, as of this morning’s acceptance note, out of finished stories to send on submission — and it was the year where I got serious about being a SFF pro, as opposed to getting ready to be a SFF pro, which was sort of my pre-Viable Paradise state. I had one publication before VP, but I wasn’t actively and consistently writing and submitting. This last year, I was consistently writing and submitting, and making contacts with other writers and editors, and going to SFF cons, and being part of the community, and I am so very pleased with how it’s gone.

And, as is apparently traditional, statistics from 2014 (and one day of 2015):

submissions: 25 (24 fiction, 1 poetry)

acceptances: 5 (4 fiction, 1 poetry) – 2 published in 2014, 3 forthcoming 2015

rejections: 12 form, 9 personal

I’d like to get that submissions number up over 40 for 2015.

I need to write faster. That is also a goal this year.

Happy 2015, all of you.

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.

The problem with saying that you will write a blog post when you finish the story…

… is that you have to finish the story before you write the blog post. That took at least two weeks longer than I meant it to. (Extenuating circumstances include a deeply complex fight with Canadian immigration authorities, culminating in me citing NAFTA. I am a free trade good, it turns out. Also I’m moving this weekend. Forward momentum, etc etc.)

However: City of Salt, complete at 3750 words. High fantasy is a weird genre for me to work in. But I think I’m pleased with how it turned out. Next, a revision pass, annoying at least one friend for critique, and sending the thing out posthaste, since …

… I sold two pieces last week and need to fill out the rota again!

This is delightfully exciting. A poem to Strange Horizons (… first time’s the charm, apparently. Haven’t written poetry since I was a teenager, sent this one to one market, and they took it straight off; this might go to my head) and a short story to Ideomancer. Links when they’re actually out, naturally.

These are my first sales since Viable Paradise. I’m so pleased. And kind of encouraged.

Now I need to sell something to a SFWA-qualifying market. And figure out enough about the novel to keep writing it.

And, y’know, be a professor for the first time in my life. This year is rather exciting.