Writing is Madness

There’s always a new article/post/thread calling people out for either being too sensitive or not sensitive enough, and, although of course I’m biased, I find it’s especially true in writing circles. We’ve all heard the advice to “develop a thick skin” to get by in this world and not let every little thing faze us on one hand, and on the other how important it is to listen to other people’s experiences and take them to heart. These two imperatives seem paradoxical, but in general–specific cases vary wildly–the crux of the problem is both matter.

And this is my theory for why people pursuing creative endeavors are often a bit bonkers, at least when it comes to their creation. (Well. One reason why, anyway.) I’m going to talk about writing, because it’s what I know, and it goes like this:

There is the story you want to tell, and there’s the story you do tell. There are the words on the page, and there’s the story readers glean from them.

Bad news: they don’t match perfectly.

Good news: that’s one of the beautiful things about art, that we all take different things from it. Reading the same book at different times in our lives can make for vastly different experiences.

But for the author, it’s complicating. Because you want them to match as closely as they can. The story in your head is the asymptote the words on the page get infinitely closer to but never fully reach.

Because no two readers have the same experience. But how much of that is because of what the reader is bringing to the text versus what the author has put into it? How do you know when you’ve gotten it right?

You can’t, because there’s no such thing as right. There’s better. There’s the best you can do. It’s craft, which means you work and whittle and hone your skills. But there’s no such thing as perfection, because it’s also art.

The fact is that no one else can tell your story. As the creator, you have the strongest vision of your own work and what you’re trying to do.

But you don’t have the strongest sense of how it’s working outside your head. You need feedback to tell you when something you did on purpose failed, or something you did on accident is Very Bad.

But readers disagree. Periodically I see the advice to get good readers, but I’m here to tell you that intelligent, experienced, skilled critique-ers don’t all agree either. They never will, because people want and need different things from books.

Which is great in the scheme of things! It means there are markets for lots of different kinds of stories, which is lovely, because it means we have an incredible variety to choose from.

But it also makes it hard to determine, for any given project, whether feedback has more to do with the one person’s read or with the words on the page.

So you get lots of critiques to make sure you’re not just revising to one person’s tastes–unless you are, which simplifies things–but then you really can’t take all the feedback you’re given even if you wanted to, because that would make the book incredibly disjointed. Maybe if lots of people agree you pay special attention to those notes and disregard that one person’s particular bugbear–but maybe that person also caught something incredibly important that everyone else happened to miss.

Some critiques you’ll read and be like, YIKES you are absolutely right I can’t believe I did that THANK YOU for bringing this up so I can fix it O_O. And some you’ll look at and go …woooow this is super off base, wtf?

You’re not always going to agree. Sometimes the crit is right anyway. Sometimes it’s not.

Which means the author, although they need feedback to make their books better, shouldn’t take all critique to heart. Taking every piece of criticism given can be just as bad as taking none of it.

It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Every change will make the story better for some people and worse for others. It’s choice after choice with no objectively correct answer. So how do you choose which change that’s hard should be taken to heart, and which discarded?

IT DEPENDS.

*jazz hands*

You have to be able to be open to readers’ experiences in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to close off and hold on to what you want for the story in order to make your book better.

And you have to be able to do both together, and this is why authors are bonkers.

 

(but at least we have help)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing Reads

A few weeks ago, I realized I didn’t want to read, which is a huge red flag for me. I’d had a stretch of books that either weren’t great or required more emotional bandwidth than I had handy. Since “not wanting to read” is pretty antithetical to who I am, it was time to employ emergency measures:

I picked a book to re-read. A book I already knew I loved, and a book I was sure would be exactly what I wanted.

A sad consequence of doing most of my reading on an e-reader is that I don’t re-read as often as I used to, because I can’t wander around my shelves and wait for a moment of yes, THAT’S what I need to read right now in quite the same way. But even scrolling through the e-reader library, I have that aha moment when I pass the right one, and it occurred to me that moment itself is telling.

I know there are people who never re-read, but it mystifies me. For me, choosing a given book to re-read says a lot about my mood, for one thing, and what my brain is working on—particular questions of identity, grappling anew with themes addressed in a work, a reflection of the mood I’m experiencing or feeling the lack of. And re-reading these books is a way of reaffirming myself, what matters to me and who I am, and I find re-reading to be an immensely clarifying, cleansing, and centering experience.

(Also I can skip to my favorite bits.)

In this case, the books I re-read (five novels and three novellas from Meljean Brook’s Guardians series, for the curious) underscored a trend not just in what I’ve been drawn to in re-reading, but also the kinds of books and writers I’ve been reaching for.

My to-read pile of books that are denser, require more time or thought, and especially ones that I know will require more emotional bandwidth (hello The Fifth Season, which I’ve started and is AMAZING and is also still waiting on my nightstand) are piling up. I’m in a state as, I think, many are, where I’m just about at my capacity to deal with all the awfulness going on around me. I have about as much challenge as I can stand, and I want more escapism.

Which is not to say I’m reading books that don’t deal with serious or complicated issues; I have perhaps less patience than ever for books with, for instance, unacknowledged sexism, or books that are fundamentally stupid or depend on me pretending to be. But one reason I realized I’ve been picking up book after book by Martha Wells is that I can trust I won’t be smacked in the face with unanticipated sexism when all I want was a transporting read.

These days the books I’m craving, the books I’m reaching for, aren’t just good, nor are they just thoughtful or inventive, as if those weren’t already rare. They’re comforting. They have optimistic outlooks and happy endings. They contain deep personal growth and beautiful friendships, adventure and exploration of worlds and ideas, and I don’t have to worry about being side-swiped by sexism, racism, queerphobia, ableism. They’re warm, welcoming, fun, and if not precisely light, then at least not grim. They’re hopeful, at a time when I could use more hope.

And they’re hard to find, because that’s a tall order. I’ve developed my own list of authors and books I trust, and no doubt yours won’t look the same, because we all pull different things from stories and need different things at any given time.

But, as I’m not just a reader but also a writer, it seems only logical that I should be writing the kind of stories I want to read, because maybe other people need them, too.

I’ve been vague-tweeting about a Secret Project for a few months now, but I’m nearly ready to share it with you all. So look for more details here next week… =D

Taking Editing Ranks

Oof, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? *waves hello*

My last few months have basically consisted of a combination of friends’ wedding events and editing. Much, much time in the editing trenches. Oh, and my YA space opera manuscript is DONE. =D

While I regret my silence around these parts, the good news is that I think I’ve leveled up in editing. I’ve found a process that works for me in terms of getting edits done in a timely fashion, figuring out what edits need to be made in the first place, and going about making them in a way that actually improves the manuscript.

It surprised me to learn that editing is emotionally harder for me than writing. While writing for sure has a hefty share of madness associated, the challenges are not the same.

The key difference is that when I’m writing a first draft, I know it doesn’t have to be perfect, because I can fix it later. But once I’m editing, the pressure is on: now I have to make it right. I have to figure out how, and I have to be able to do it, and if either of those were easy I’d have done it right the first time.

Now, the wonderful thing about beta readers is that they give me feedback on how a story is being perceived by people outside of my own head, so I can tell which parts are working and which aren’t. The problem is that not only do beta readers disagree with each other, they can be wrong — which has nothing at all to do with their reading or analysis and everything to do with the story I’m trying to tell. What different readers look for and react to in stories varies; the story they would tell with the same premise is different than the story I would tell, not just as a matter of content but also of style. I have had AMAZING beta readers, but in the end the story is mine to fix, not theirs.

Even with beta readers I trust, I can never take all of their feedback. From a relatively small reader sample, I have to weigh concerns. When beta readers disagree, it makes me especially aware that any change I make can improve the story for some readers and derail it for others. Obviously, I have to choose whichever changes are best for the story, but — well, if I could tell what changes the story needed that easily, I wouldn’t need beta readers.

Essentially: without outside feedback I can’t tell how the story is working, but the feedback doesn’t always clarify matters; sometimes it just gives me more to worry about. So not only do I feel pressured to get it right, when I’m editing it’s often hard to tell if I’m actually making the story better.

The final problem for me is with tracking progress. Part of how I motivate myself to write is with deadlines and word count quotas. The tracking is key, though, because I never feel like I’m doing enough; numbers and spreadsheets are how I prove to myself that I’m being productive, which in turn makes me feel productive, which then causes me to have an easier time producing.

I can still give myself deadlines for editing, and I absolutely do. But for me, tracking editing word count is nonsensical. I’m not necessarily striving to add or take away words. I could try and edit a certain number of words each day, but depending on the type of editing I’m doing (line edits, rewrites, structural overhauls…) some chapters can fly by, and some take hours or days. I could edit four chapters one day and half of one the next. Unlike writing, I don’t edit in chronological order. Some changes have to be made throughout the text, and sometimes I don’t know to fix something earlier until I’ve made a change later.

I’ve found a solution that works for me in terms of tracking progress — I won’t detail it here, but the main thing is that there is a list of daily tasks that I can cross off once accomplished or, like with word count goals, that roll over into the next day. They don’t go away if I don’t do them, but once I have, I have evidence that I have been useful. That makes the whole process easier, and anything that makes it easier matters. Then I can marathon the work and if I’m lucky collapse in a heap of books for a week or so afterwards, as one does.

Even after the book is drafted, the work doesn’t get easier. If I’m doing my job right, the story gets better, but editing is every bit as much of a skill as writing. All I can do is put my fingers to the keyboard and work on leveling my skills and my story up.

Lacking Mothers in Fantasy

The protagonist of the draft I just finished is a mother in her late 30s. She has a successful career and is also the sole parent of a teenager. When I first mentioned that I wanted to write a fantasy story driven by her, I got some skeptical looks from people unsure whether it could even work.

In fantasy, we have a preponderance of young protagonists with dead/absent/irresponsible parents. Archetypally, I understand why this works: you take a character who, being young, has a lot of growth potential, so it’s easy to challenge them and level them up over the course of the book until we reach the final climax and the hero finds themselves alone facing the Big Bad.

The first assumption is that it’s easier to do character development on a younger character because they know less about the world. The second is that if this child’s parents are not terrible, then they must have been forcibly removed to be allowing their child to face the Big Bad on their own and undefended.

Within YA, I am starting to see examples of parents that remain extant and aren’t terrible, though these narratives still center on the teens. Within fantasy, there have always been adult characters. In urban fantasy, we’ve seen a huge surge of young women actively pursuing careers. In high fantasy, we’ve seen teenage girls having adventures, and we’re getting more female characters who are fleshed out as side characters.

But within fantasy in general, I have an awful time finding mothers with agency. And I don’t just mean characters who have been mothers, if that makes sense — I love Ista dy Chalion in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, but by this point in her fictional life, her children are grown, out of the house, and no longer in need of regular parenting. Only after her children are gone does she get to have an adventure. In Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, the mother of Dresden’s child dies almost as soon as Dresden knows he has a child. I love Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, but once she becomes a mother the narratives have shifted to follow her children or others. I haven’t read the third Natural History of Dragons novel by Marie Brennan yet, but in the previous installment, Lady Trent has adventures at the cost of not also being able to raise her child simultaneously. In Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series, her protagonist adopts a teenage daughter early on, but I have an awful time thinking of many other examples.

It seems to me there’s a huge gap here: in our reality, women raise children and pursue careers every day. Although not a mother myself, as far as I can tell this is incredibly difficult. That seems like it should go naturally with stories, right? Stories thrive on conflict and protagonists having to make hard decisions. So why don’t we see women above a certain age driving stories? It’s rare enough in high fantasy for adult women to be the protagonist at all, but mothers are even harder to find.

I think that’s a problem. I think it implicitly sends a message to girls and women that once you’re an adult, and certainly if you choose to be a mother, you can’t have adventures anymore. That your time is over. That your stories are less valuable than stories focusing on men, or focusing on the next bright young thing. That your stories are not worth telling.

There are three contributing factors that meet to create this phenomenon: our culture valorizes youth and undervalues the work that goes into parenting and, of course, it undervalues women. Our fantasy doesn’t have to.

I’m certainly capable of empathizing and identifying with characters who are not like me. I can imagine and extrapolate. But as a relatively young woman, I wish I had more models of adult women in fantasy. I want at least my stories to show me that reaching adulthood is not the beginning of a downward trend. I want to see that women can still have adventures. I want to see that choosing a career or parenting or both is not a trap. We have enough space in fantasy to explore what it means to be an adult woman.

I couldn’t find the kind of story I wanted to read, so I wrote one. If you have recommendations for me, please send them my way! But I hope that in the future, I hope stories driven by adult women and mothers in particular are not as hard to find. I think we need them.

Critique and Target Audiences

I spent last weekend at Cascade Writers Workshop and had a blast. Thank you again to my critique group for being awesome and insightful. I have a solid idea of where to start editing not just in this section, but the broad strokes to keep in mind all through the novel and in other projects.

I love critiquing and reviewing, though the one should not be confused with the other. In critiquing, my goal is to help the author identify how they can edit to match their writing with the story they want to tell. Note, that is not the same as telling the author what they should or must do, nor is it fixing the story for them, nor is it recommending ways to change the story to one that I would like better.

In reviewing, my goal (and this differs greatly among reviewers) is to help readers find books they will like by promoting the novels, the particular aspects that worked for me or didn’t, and why. This is also not the same as writing what I think the author should have done or be doing with their story: it’s what works for me, and why.

That why is the critical bit. That’s what tells me what needs to change and how, if at all. For instance, if you don’t like the protagonist because they’re clearly a bad person, well, if that’s what the story needs I’m not going to change it. If you don’t like the protagonist because you don’t understand their motivations or stakes and thus don’t care about their character arc, that’s something I need to address.

In receiving feedback, it’s important for me to get multiple points of view, because often two people will totally disagree with each other’s assessments. If multiple people are pointing out problems in the same area, even if their “why”s are different, I know where to look for the bit that isn’t working properly.

For me, the very best kind of critique is when the reader is able to understand what I’m trying to do (without any direction from me outside of the text) and can tell me whether it worked. If they say, I see what you’re going for, but it’s not quite there, because of x reason, that is THE MOST HELPFUL THING. This is why I usually request feedback from fellow writers, to help me identify the “why”s when something is off with the craft.

My second-favorite kind of critique is from people who are not my target audience.

I get the impression that’s not common? And I understand that there are some forms of feedback that I’ll take with grains of salt from, for instance, non-genre readers, because it may be a trope or tone issue throwing them out that’s totally fine. But it might also be something that I haven’t explained sufficiently. It might be a world-building issue or plot hole that a genre reader will gloss over but that causes the non-genre reader to cease suspension of disbelief.

Target audience, though, can be complicated, because it goes beyond subgenre. In fact, writing with a group of other reviewers at Fantasy Book Critic has been an object lesson in target audiences for me. My reading tastes overlap with several of our reviewers: a few of us will often read the same epic and high fantasy, or the same urban fantasy, or the same YA books, even if our thoughts aren’t all posted on the site.

And yet the three of us can read the same book, write a joint review, and have COMPLETELY different opinions on why it worked or didn’t.

(This has actually come to be a recommendation marker for me: if two of us actually agree on a book, I tend to trust that assessment, because it’s very much not the default. Mihir and Liviu’s joint review got me to pick up The Thousand Names, for instance.)

Just because we’re readers of the same subgenre doesn’t mean we’re looking for the same things in our stories. Target audience is more complicated than whether someone wants or hates vampires in their stories. It’s about the kind of story and how it’s told.

It’s also why I think it’s important in reviewing to isolate that I’m talking about “why”s, because even within the genre reader tastes vary. Huge amounts of expository detail, for instance, are not my thing. There are only so many trees and hills you can describe before my eyes glaze over (I’m looking at you, Tolkien).

Some readers LIVE for that sort of detail, and that’s fabulous for them! But when I write my review, I will mention that for me it slowed pacing down, but I won’t call it a bad book, or say that the author doesn’t know how to write exposition. I don’t think my role is to judge; it’s to analyze and isolate parts that will help readers decide whether a book is a good fit.

And in critique, I will point out concerns, issues to consider, places that don’t work for me, and why, so the author can judge for themselves how much weight to assign to any piece of feedback. Awareness, for me, is the key. Maybe the author is dead, but their stories are alive in the hearts and minds of readers.

They’re different animals, reviewing and critiquing, but I love them both and I hope people find my feedback helpful. It makes me appreciate even more when people are willing to take the time to consider artistic work carefully and thoroughly, because I think it helps us all as a community to push ourselves to be better, to expect better. And especially, thank you again to all who have critiqued or given me beta feedback. You’re the best =).

Semi-coherent Reflections on Rainforest

Last week I attended the second session of Rainforest Writers Village Retreat in Lake Quinault, Washington. Going in, I was kind of worried.

A lot of that has to do with a recent flare of imposter syndrome. I’ve been struggling a lot to get this story out at all, let alone at the speed I would prefer. I was nervous everyone would already know each other and no one would talk to me and I would sit quietly in my introvert corner staring blankly at a screen unable to write more than a thousand or two words the whole time. I was worried I’d disappoint myself.

Happily, that’s not at all what happened.

As with Viable Paradise, I came away from this week with the feeling that I’ve found another branch of my tribe. Even when I awkwardly introverted, people were consistently welcoming, supportive, and wonderful. I went in nervous and left sad to part, empowered to go forward, and hopeful for the future. The best possible outcome.

And as for the time there, well. There is something very focusing about communal writing, and there is something about writing communities that almost promises music.

Afternoon Invasion of the Lodge

Afternoon Invasion of the Lodge

Much ukulele. Very singing. Such Jonathan Coulton. Many antimaths. Wow.

Much ukulele. Very singing. Such Jonathan Coulton. Many antimaths. Wow.

Photo credit to Andrew, who took some truly incredible photos over the course of the retreat. I also feel compelled to say that Rainforest is held in an absolutely gorgeous location, which was more relevant than I’d anticipated. This (just about the only photo in this post not taken by Andrew) was the view from the sitting room attached to the room I stayed in:

Lake View

In the days leading up to Rainforest, my worries drove me to outline next few chapters pretty extensively. By Friday night, I’d written so much that I ran out of outline. Saturday morning I hiked through the forest over waterfalls until I had enough to move forward again, and I actually got through all the chapters I’d wanted to write there.

In the course of the retreat, there were some excellent talks, but Fran Wilde’s about the care and keeping of deadlines was exactly the one I needed to hear. I really like deadlines and find them motivating, but when I’m overwhelmed, missing deadlines then becomes THE WORST THING. Because what I consider one of my strengths becomes the thing that is causing me to let people down in a cascading way. And I hate that.

My father has always been fond of saying that the first rule of holes is to stop digging. I’m working on it. Removing myself (literally and electronically — there was pretty much no connection of any kind functioning there) from dealing with other aspects of life at Rainforest helped me get a grip on one of my biggest stressors right now: the belief that I can write this book at all, and that it matters.

That probably sounds ridiculous — both that particular fear and that it’s been stressing me out to such a degree. In all seriousness, I love this story so much, but I feel like I’ve been slogging through this book on and off forever. It is gnawing at my brain. I’ve written and edited whole other novels in the time I haven’t finished this monster. It’s been the deadline I have pushed and pushed and pushed until I’ve driven myself crazy with my failure to actually finish the damn thing, because it feels like as long as I can’t finish this, this story that matters to me so much, I can’t finish, or do, anything.

And, come to think of it, I think maybe this is part of the reason I’ve been so anxious about writing this story. A major part of my protagonist’s character arc is coinciding perfectly with my life right now. Not in the fun way. Writing it is both cathartic and excruciating, but at least at Rainforest I made some serious headway.

So, um, yes. My fear about utter word count fail? Unfounded. Over four days, I wrote about 25,000 words. And they aren’t crap words, either. We had a bit of a competition going, and in the end I actually got first pick of prizes for writing the most of anyone in our session (though I’m reasonably convinced the Marks let me win).

First Choice

My prize — don't think I'm going to forget, Patrick =).

My prize — don’t think I’m going to forget, Patrick =).

I read the prologue of this novel aloud  a first for me  and got some very positive feedback, though I’m not terribly shocked to learn I need to speak more slowly.

I’m getting the next section organized now. I’ll keep pushing through. And best of all, I’m back at a mental place where that prospect excites me.

Adaptation Fail

A little while ago*, Nnedi Okorofor tweeted about someone who, although interested in adapting one of her novels (my guess was Akata Witch, but I’m not sure), wanted to change the race of the protagonist to white, with the reasoning that it wouldn’t be marketable otherwise. Nnedi recognized this as a Bad Idea, and the interested party purportedly reacted as though she was being unreasonably attached to something trivial for trivial reasons.

The whole idea of this is mind-boggling to me. Not just because it’s insulting in the extreme, clearly, but because it doesn’t even make sense.

Let’s start with the issue of race swapping in adaptations. Can it be done successfully? Sure.

(I’m not even going to touch on whether swapping to white is a good idea, because that is its own can of worms and not the point I’m getting at here.)

But not when race is an integral part of the character’s identity. One of the wonderful parts of Nnedi’s writing is that setting and world-building are so much a part of the story, and completely integral. Her stories don’t happen in just any place, they happen in a particular place, and that matters, and it shapes who the characters are, and their racial identity according to that place shapes who they are, and it’s all intertwined. Which is good storytelling. Changing the protagonist’s race in any one of Nnedi’s books that I’ve read would literally break the story. The stories flatly would not make any sense, at all, and there’s no getting around that. Adaptation is one thing, but changing her protagonist’s race would be rewriting the whole story. Which, I suppose, you can also do, but call a spade a spade.

That’s a specific problem in this particular instance, and while to me it says a lot about this person’s understanding of storytelling and of Nnedi’s story in particular, it’s somehow not the larger issue for me.

Where does this idea come from that people only want to read stories about people who look and act like them? I suppose it’s about audience investment and the idea that if the audience recognizes themselves in the character, they’re more likely to be invested in what happens to said character. But audiences are composed of many people who have different tastes and interests and thoughts, and making a character so bland as to allow anyone to project themselves onto it makes the character rather flimsy. It also must make the character male, because while women have no trouble investing in male characters, people still maintain the fiction that men are not likewise able to see parts of themselves in female characters.

Can I not identify with a character of a different race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation? Why on earth not? My experience of the world may be shaped differently, but between empathy and the ability to extrapolate and draw parallels, somehow this has not proved insurmountable to me. It’s not as though this requires super-powers; it’s about being human.

Still, however, this isn’t the whole of the issue, because why on earth can’t I invest in a character completely different than myself? I’m very character-driven in my reading taste, but that hardly means I have to like a character to care about them, and I certainly don’t have to bear any similarity. It was fascinating to read Camus or Dostoevsky, but identifying with their protagonists? No, not so much. Look at the popularity of sociopath TV shows in recent years: I’m pretty sure it’s not because the people who enjoy the shows are sociopaths and serial killers. It might, however, have something to do with the idea that being without empathy is so alien to most people who are not sociopaths that they find it fascinating.

Frankly, if all the media out there was only about other people like myself, it would get very tired, very quickly. There’s the old quotation from Fran Leibowitz, “A book is not supposed to be a mirror; it’s supposed to be a door,” which I don’t entirely agree with, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.

If all media were about people like myself, it would probably also go a long way towards making me more self-absorbed, which is what I think the root of the problem here. Making a character white (or male, or straight…) to market more easily? First, that implies that all stories can somehow be made better if turned white, which, while blatantly false, people will still unconsciously internalize. And so they have. It is also a huge cop out, and more than that, it gives the audience too little credit. Our minds are not so small that we can only care about people exactly like us, and even if they were, why would you reinforce that?!

A cynical someone might answer “money,” but that answer falls flat for me. Because, just think, how much richer would we all be if we were expected to enjoy more diverse stories?

*A month ago, maybe? The incident is not quite so recent now, but the boggle remains, and the blog is up and running, so.