The Choice to Fly

I love flying. And this year, I went paragliding.

 

photo by Drew McNabb from Acroparagliding

Starting my annual birthday flying adventures is the best tradition I’ve established for myself. It’s a chance for me to step outside my day-to-day, to reflect on what I’ve accomplished and who I want to be and whether I’m on that path.

This year was hard, for a lot of reasons, and I have been pushing hard. On the writing front, I wrote another book’s worth of words in the course of revisions, and I have revised more–both in thoroughness and in quantity of time spent–this year than I’ve revised in my life. And amidst everything else, I wrote a new book (which you can read for free!), which was a new kind of challenge and adventure. But I’ve gotten so caught up in the minutiae of that daily work that I was desperately ready to fly.

For my birthday flying adventures, I’ve been skydiving, flown on trapezes, sped through the air on ziplines. There are spectacular views to be seen this way, but it’s ultimately not the external perspective I value. It’s the act of flying itself that I love, that I can never get enough of.

When I’m in the air, I don’t feel adrenaline rushes from fear or even thrill. It’s a quieter feeling, but it centers me: flying, I know who I am. I know what I can do, and what I will do.

Every time, I wonder if it will be hard to jump. This year, I wondered if I’d feel nervous running off the hill with so much air below me. I’m familiar with that feeling, standing at the edge of a cliff and making myself jump, and I was prepared to do it, to prove to myself that I could. But there was no doubt, no fear; just launching into the sky.

This year, though, something else struck me. Throughout the trip–doing the paperwork, riding the van up the mountain, strapping in amidst endless jokes to test whether I was going to panic (they, clearly, had not met me)–people kept asking, with some confusion, some disbelief, “you’re here alone?”

Like it was so rare not to need people to come along for moral support, or to witness me. Like I really was there just to fly.

And when I responded affirmatively, they just said, “Good for you.”

Good for me, for taking steps to pursue my own path. Good for me, for knowing when I am enough, for being enough, by myself.

But even though I came alone, I came to a community. People who joked, knew each other’s hopes and struggles, looked out for each other, expected the best. A community of people who have learned to carve a regular space for adventure into their everyday lives, as though flying above mountains is a normal part of everyday lives.

Because it can be.

And the other consistent refrain throughout the trip was when people asked me what I did, and I said I was a writer, and they all marveled.

At first I thought they were impressed by my ability to make ends meet as a writer, but after a couple interactions I realized they hadn’t considered that the challenging part. It was the fact that I write, and I write novels, and multiple, and fantasy, facts I always take as a matter of course, that was what wowed them.

Writing has become such an integral part of my everyday that I sometimes forget what an adventure it is, to pour my time and energy and thoughts and passion into creating stories with words, to throw myself off the cliff over and over and trust that I will fly.

When I fly, I remember I’m an adventurer.

photo by Jenny Scott

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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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Announcing: TEA PRINCESS CHRONICLES!

It’s finally time! I’ve been working on this in secret for a while, and I’m so excited (and, not gonna lie, a bit terrified) to announce I will be launching a free web serial next Thursday, June 8th, 2017.

(AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!!)

TEA PRINCESS CHRONICLES follows the shenanigans of Miyara, a princess who escapes her meaningless life and goes into hiding, finding her place in the world serving a struggling community by running a tea shop that sits on the edge of a magical disaster. I have three serial novels planned, but as this is something of an experiment for me the first will function as a stand-alone—we’ll see how it goes! =D

 

What do I mean when I say “web serial”?

Essentially, this means I’ll be posting a novel online in sections, each of which will be long enough and ideally have enough character/plot arc movement to feel like a satisfying read. Some serials do each released section episodically, more like a classic TV format where each episode can be watched in any order. The bulk of what I’ll be doing is putting up a chapter, about 3-4000 words apiece, of a book (and it will be fantasy book-length) weekly.

Up-front, I’ll post the first four chapters all at once to give people a sample of what they’re getting in for, and also because that’s the necessary introduction for people to enjoy the other side of this project: side scenes that can be read in any order about Miyara’s adventures running the tea shop, each of which will feature a different fantasy-ingredient tea blend. The novel portion is going to be freely available online, and I’ll write new side scenes as the Patreon I’ll be launching reaches new goals.

Basically, I’m going to give you a free book, and every Thursday you can read a little more of it!

 

Why am I writing a serial?

A lot of reasons! Ultimately, it’s a gift to myself.

First and foremost, it’s for my own sanity. In the months spent over the last year working on a serious and messy revision, having one day each week where I could work on something that was fun and easy reminded me why I do this—that it isn’t always awful, and that I’m actually pretty good at this writing thing in general, even if I happen to be working on something hard. That bright spot was a great motivator, because feeling more competent helps me actually be more competent. I need something easy and reliable that replenishes me creatively and doesn’t generate more work and expectations than I’m prepared to deal with right now, and this is what I came up with.

It’s also because I’ve put a lot of time and effort into writing, and I want to have work of mine available to point people towards! I’ve had enough feedback from professionals in the field to feel pretty confident that (while I certainly have growing to do and always will!) I’m writing at a high enough level to be traditionally published. But although I’ve written ten novels (a few of which, it must be said, aren’t worth editing, let alone publishing, and exist firmly in the “learning experiences” category), I don’t have any novels published yet. Even if I magically had a book deal tomorrow, it would be another year or two before the book was out, and I don’t write short stories to try to get published in the interim. A serial, at least the way I’m doing it, is what I like to call “novel-adjacent”—there’s enough overlap in craft skills I’ve already developed without interfering with an actual book launch down the road. Serialized fiction also has some added bonuses in terms of getting to interact with readers and what they care about, which I’m hoping to make the most of through Patreon!

And, I can’t lie, I do hope the Patreon I’ll be launching alongside the serial generates some money. It’s not my primary goal, but last year—between moving, surprise medical expenses, car accident, and sudden job collapse—was hard on my emergency fund. (And my car is 16 years old. While I hope it makes it out the year, I have Concerns.) I’m not in such dire financial straits I need to change my work situation, but if a similar conflation of expenses hit now I am not in a good position to address them. While my work arrangement is wonderful for many reasons, it’s not ideal for replenishing a savings account fast. And, again, even if I had a book deal tomorrow, publishing income is not steady or reliable, and it would great to have a more regular source of writing income. Backing the Patreon is absolutely not required to access the serial or for me to finish writing it, but I would be beyond thrilled to have any income from this craft I’ve worked so hard on.

 

Why am I terrified?

This is the first fictional work of mine that I’m making public. Like, ever. O_O I haven’t even posted fanfic, and soliciting beta reader feedback or submitting to workshops and critique groups isn’t at all the same.

It’s not edited. I’m posting my first work in public without any editing. I mean, I will certainly be proofreading, and I know how to spell and how semicolons work and such. But that’s not the same as a) other people’s eyes on the work or b) developmental editing.

No one has even read it. My wonderful critique partner Camille Griep commented on the first four chapters, but all the rest is going up without my having any idea what people will think of it. Maybe it will be bad! Maybe people will hate it! Maybe no one will read it at all! WE’LL SEE.

 

Why am I excited?

I’m having so much fun.

That’s it, really.

I worked really hard to set reasonable expectations on this project (I do not, as a rule, do reasonable expectations for myself >_>) for how much work I can put into this on a weekly basis and have it be rewarding and not draining, which is my primary goal. And it’s already paying dividends, because I’m snickering in glee every time I go to work.

I’m writing this for myself. I’m not asking anyone to pay for it, I’m not planning to traditionally publish it, I’m beholden to no one’s sensibilities but my own, and I can do whatever I want. This means if I want to write unreasonable amounts of dialogue and however little physical description I care about, NO ONE CAN STOP ME. I can write scenes that are totally silly even if their relation to the actual plot is slim just for the sake of fun. I can fill my world with all the magic and snark and female friendships, elevate tea to a sacred calling, make dragon and cat BFFs, and EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE GREAT.

The story is light, warm, and fun. I. And every time I sit down, it’s a joy to play with.

It’s the kind of story I’ve been craving to read, and maybe I’m not alone: maybe that’s what you need, too. I hope you enjoy it even half as much as I’ve been.

I’ll be back next week with links to the website and Patreon for anyone who wants to check it out =D. In the meantime, if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments!

Arthuriana and Fanfiction

Today my friend Tam asked whether fanfiction can exist without the original material, and this question, it turns out, is perfectly targeted Casey bait. After going on a lengthy Twitter tangent I decided it might be time to dust off the ol’ blog.

Hi friends! LET’S TALK ABOUT ARTHURIANA AND FANFICTION.

(I am so excited you guys. Buckle up; I’m going on the long side here. =D =D =D)

One of my favorite things in medieval Arthuriana is the trope of the “original” version of the King Arthur legend.

Note that I put “original” in quotation marks, because this is important: THERE IS NO ORIGINAL KING ARTHUR LEGEND.

(There’s no original, historical King Arthur, for one thing. But that is a whole other digression for another time when I don’t have important medieval fanfiction matters to talk about.)

Aside from references to King Arthur as early as the 6th century (Gildas), the oldest surviving story is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae, written around 1136—or, possibly, the Welsh Mabinogion; scholars are still arguing about the dates for that one. Both are so intertwined with mythology that it’s difficult to take either as the “authoritative” version in any real sense, or even to believe, given the prominence of oral tradition, they were the first or only stories.

But Monmouth does this thing where he starts out by claiming his source material is a mysteriously no longer extant ancient book, and he’s going to helpfully bring the story to the people of his time.

Monmouth, apparently, was a medieval trend-setter, and this became THE thing to do when taking on the Arthurian canon. Later writers made this into a trope of the genre, referencing an ur ancient record that DOES NOT EXIST.

I mean. It is technically possible that at one point such a record once existed, but, it’s not likely. And it’s especially unlikely someone like Sir Thomas Malory, whose work Le Morte D’Arthur, the earliest known print edition of which dates to 1475, is the basis for most of our contemporary Arthurian adaptations, had any knowledge of it whatsoever.

In other words, the thing to do was basically go, ‘oh, so inconvenient my source material is not accessible to the public, what a terrible shame, oh! but don’t worry guys, I happen to have studied it in detail before it mysteriously disintegrated and can tell you all the best DEFINITELY TRUE bits OMG IT’S SUCH A GOOD STORY ARE YOU GUYS READY’.

People made up, over and over, an original ur-Arthurian legend that never existed, referencing it for the sake of legitimacy to give them a kind of license to do whatever they wanted with the stories. And EVERYONE wanted to do their own thing with Arthurian legends:

Wace takes the HRB and translates it for an Anglo-Norman audience in 1155, expanding all the descriptions, and Laȝamon follows with his English Brut. Then in the late 12th century the French get a hold of the King Arthur legend, and with the adaptations of Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France the epic tradition transitions into the romance tradition.

Lancelot? One of the core figures of Arthurian myth? DID NOT EXIST until this time. Gawain had previously been the canonical Mightiest Knight, but medieval French romances demanded someone less surly and more shiny, apparently. So a couple hundred years after our earliest record, we have a new main character.

The Lancelot-Grail Cycle (French Vulgate) in the early 1200s explodes the Arthurian canon even further, giving rise to the Stanzaic Morte Arthure. In the 1300s the English language recaptures the genre with the Alliterative Morte Arthure, much more in the epic tradition, and Gawain and the Green Knight. There are many more medieval adaptations, but these are among the most prominent prior to Malory (who worked mainly with the French Vulgate).

But Casey, I thought we were talking about fanfiction, you didn’t ask, backing away slowly from my enthusiastic medieval literary history lecture.

Here’s the thing: authors took what they liked from the adaptations they read and left out the rest; they changed characters and plot or created their own original characters as they saw fit with no regard for “authenticity.” Or rather, claiming in fact to BE the authoritative version.

Look at the time periods there, the different countries, the different literary modes (history, epic, romance, etc.). Each writer adapted the Arthurian legend for their audience, for their cultural values, for their literary trends. And they did it so well that hundreds of years later, most people familiar with Arthurian legend at all have no idea that Lancelot was a fanciful late-addition OC.

Arthuriana is fanfiction. All of it, straight-up, fanfic.

This is already long, so I don’t want to go into too much detail right now about the modern valuing of originality in storytelling over the way a story is told (but DO I EVER want to go into it sometime). But to a medieval audience, there would have been no conflict of authenticity between The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, a 15th century poem, and Chaucer’s version in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”; both were re-tellings in a tradition of “loathly lady” tales.

Fanfiction, as a concept, is, accordingly, a pretty modern concept, and no one seems to agree on exactly where the line should be drawn. Today, if I were to write an Arthurian adaptation of my own, would it be fanfiction, or would it be original fiction? It depends on how you define “fanfiction,” of course, but I think it would be both.

At some level, all fiction is in conversation with other fiction. Art and scholarship are mimetic, using work that has been done before to create new ideas.

In this particular case, I think it’s useful (artistically; I’m not talking legal rights here) to think of fanfiction and fiction as more of a continuum rather than two separate boxes of art. In A Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon writes that the point of adaptation is to be “repetition but without replication, bringing together the comfort of ritual and recognition with the delight of surprise and novelty.” In that sense, fanfiction and fiction aren’t at odds; the main difference is the weight of the “comfort of ritual and recognition” is heavier in fanfiction. But fanfiction still brings novelty, and if fiction only brings novelty it’s not likely to resonate with a large audience.

The tropes of, say, grimdark fantasy can’t work without the tropes of high fantasy to subvert, but how many tropes can you steal before people start making accusations of being derivative? How much do you have to change? At one point does a trope become such a part of the cultural consciousness that you don’t have to do the same artistic work to either establish or distinguish it in the text? And it’s possible to write, read, and enjoy fanfiction without ever having engaged with an “original,” just with the fanfic “canon,” so do you even need the ur material to write fanfiction?

I think not, and I think Arthuriana is clear example of why not.

But depending on the execution, the fanfiction might ALSO be fiction.

Introvert’s New Year’s Eve

Christmas has always been an Event in my family with much to-do. As I get older the days surrounding Christmas involve increasing amounts of not just travel, but also socializing. Which I enjoy!

But I’m an introvert, and intense periods of socializing, for days on end, is the most exhausting thing ever. By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, I’m done in. I’ve been hiding, inhaling books, and clawing my way back to adequate brainpower for days now.

At this point I’m mostly caught up on to-do lists, but the prospect of seeing a group of actual humans makes me shy away into a dark corner and start hissing. Watching the ball drop and toasting with champagne aren’t traditions I’m personally attached to, so I don’t feel particularly concerned about missing out.

So this year, I’m opting out of New Year’s Eve festivities. It’s not the first time I’ve done this, and when I do, I mark the occasion in another way. My introvert’s New Year’s Eve tradition, after the occasion of Christmas, which is historically super disruptive to my writing work.

On New Year’s Eve, I take some time to recalibrate alone on what actually matters to me. And I begin the year the way I mean to go on with it: devoting my time to writing a novel I’m passionate about.

However you plan to celebrate tonight, I wish you all a happy new year. =)

Flexibility and Strength

I’ve been doing physical therapy for the last couple months. Long story short: I twisted my ankle a while back, and when it failed to heal as quickly as I thought it should, I mentioned it to my doctor. I explained how I used to twist my ankles on a regular basis during adolescence, which is why I had a metric for what recovery should be like, and she looked at me in horror and recommended me to a physical therapist.

So I made an appointment, and on the way to an examining room my new physical therapist confirmed that I was there about repeated ankle sprains. After about a whole minute in my company, she said, “We’ll do a couple tests, but just by looking at you I think I have a pretty good idea what the basic problem is.”

“What do you mean?” I asked from where I’d sat casually on the exam table, propped up on my hands.

She pointed at my arm. “Your elbows are hyperextended. Also, your wrists are bent past a ninety-degree angle. I’m guessing all your joints are unusually flexible.”

I glanced down at my arm askance, as it of course looked and felt perfectly normal to me. I’m a dancer, and I’m aware that my muscles are flexible. My joints, though — perfectly obvious in retrospect that they’re unusually flexible, too. But while my muscles are naturally flexible, I’d consciously worked to increase their flexibility to do things like the splits. Not so with my joints; they just came that way.

Further tests revealed, unsurprisingly, that my ankles have a much wider range of motion than normal human ankles really should.

As we worked through exercises, my physical therapist explained, “It’s not that your ankles are weak,” which is what I’d long thought. “It’s that because of their ridiculous flexibility, you need corresponding strength to control their movement. We have to work with the body you have. We can’t decrease your joint flexibility, so we need to increase your strength even further. ”

At any rate, I love my physical therapist (which is INCREDIBLY rare for me with doctors), and this process has been both a hilarious discovery of things I didn’t know about my body but also working.

But what occurred to me while I was doing my first set of PT exercises today is that there’s a loose analogy to the writing process — and life — here. (I know, I know, of course this is where I’m going with this. Bear with me?)

Greater flexibility necessitates greater control.

As my writing craft improves, I have more skill to do more things with words and stories. But what should I do? That’s the crux of the difficulty with receiving critique, especially when readers suggest solutions: plenty of people have good ideas for what I could do with a story, but they’re rarely in line with what the story needs.

In my experience, a lot of writers new to receiving feedback (myself included, back in the day) get caught up in the feedback from people who are excellent writers or editors in their own right and lose track of what their story needs. It’s easy to get blown off course. And sometimes you need to be to find the right course, but learning how to tell the difference is hard. Learning what your artistic instincts are even telling you is hard, let alone learning to trust them.

There are endless ways a story could go. What makes it my story is not just where I choose to go with it, but how I choose to go there, and that choice matters. As writers we learn what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we learn to work with what we have, the artistic cards we’re dealt, be it a natural gift for or tendency to rely too heavily on voice or story structure or one of the myriad other tools in the writing craft box, and we learn to improve what we can.

The more I level up, the greater narrative control I need, the stronger I need my vision to be for what my story really is at its core. There will always be people who wish for something different from a story. In the end, though, if I’m the author, the onus is on me to make sure I’m writing my story, the way I think is right. And the ability to do that is a skill, and also, I think, a form of artistic strength.

Now, back to the editing mines.

We’ll See Where We Land

Friends have been asking where I’m at with writing and editing at the moment, and it occurs to me that I’ve let my blog languish. An unexpected side effect of living with people again is that when I feel ranty or something noteworthy happens I just, you know, argue with a living human instead of blurting it out on the internet. Alas for the regularity of my posting here.

So an update on my current projects for anyone curious:

Recently I’ve been writing a new YA fantasy novel I’m calling Sealed, and I just finished the first draft last week! It’s a story with female friendship at its center, along with quests, underground monasteries, demon invasions, political machinations, undignified and vicious floof friends, and magic.

I’m tentatively (I am rarely sure of anything when I first finish a draft) pleased with how this one came out. It took me a while to get into it — I tried a lot of new things and was coming off a looooong stint of editing and not drafting, so that’s not shocking but was still frustrating — but I think it’s come out approximately book-shaped.

Normally I’d do a quick clean-up and send it straight to readers for feedback, but this time I need to do a more thorough edit pass first. I have a document full of notes I jotted down while drafting of things I already know I need to fix, so I’m going to address those first. My manuscript needs to be in the best shape I can get it in before I ask anyone to put their time into helping me make it better.

I’m taking a brief (possibly too brief?) break to do some beta reading myself before diving back in, letting my mental gears adjust a bit from the mode of CHURN OUT ALL THE WORDS (I was writing 6-8k/day towards the end there — I did eventually get into it) to a place with enough distance where I don’t get caught up and can edit more effectively.

On the beta reading note, I think I’m going to have to officially close to beta reads for a while. I just counted, and I have four full beta reads and three partials already this year. I love beta reading, and I always want to be available for writers who’ve beta read for me in the past, but at least through July I’m booked on that front.

Next on the agenda is finishing up the final round of edits for Afterstorms, the adult fantasy novel. I’m actually excited to edit it, so I know taking a break to write something new was the right choice for me. And I’m really excited to get it on submission — honestly while I’m invested in being published I’m not usually so enthusiastic about the prospect of querying — and the submission packet is almost in its final form. This book is ready to soar into the wild, and I can’t wait to see how it flies.

So, to recap, this is where I’m at.

recently: wrote a new book
now: beta reading
May: first round of edits on the YA fantasy
May and maybe June: last round of edits on the adult fantasy
by June: submitting the adult fantasy

Why the rush? In part because I’m anxious for these books to go on to their next steps. But also because I’m going to have travel commitments coming up at the end of June and early July — con, wedding, etc. — and I don’t want to be interrupted after getting into the flow.

And after those I won’t be able to just pick back up, because in June and July, construction disaster notwithstanding, I will be moving at long last. I will be moving into a new house and furnishing the whole thing, and I am reasonably sure that getting settled to my satisfaction is going to take all my creative energy for a few weeks at the minimum.

SO. It’s been a busy spring, and it’s shaping up to be a busy summer! After that, we’ll see where we land.