Wednesday, July 31, 2013

On This Day

On this day seventeen years ago, I did something that changed my life. I started writing a novel.

It wasn't my first novel. Wasn't even my second. I'd written some silly stuff in high school, and had filled up plenty of notebooks with short stories and bad poetry. But on July 31, 1996, during the summer before I started college, my friends were reading me perverted X-Men fanfiction on the Internet and howling with laughter, unaware that they were inspiring me to go write something myself.

If you're wondering what that has to do with fanfiction, well, I was feeling grumpy about how people were taking existing characters and making them do things they wouldn't actually do, and found myself thinking they should just write characters who would do those things if that's what they wanted to write. For the record, I do think it's fine to write fanfiction, for a lot of reasons, and I will probably write about that someday soon. However, at that point in my life I didn't see the positives as clearly, and it irritated me that people would take characters they apparently loved and change them by grafting desires and opinions onto them that they don't hold in canon. I figured hey, some of these people could probably do a great job inventing their own characters if they wanted to. So, after listening to that, I decided I was in the mood to write some very original characters. Just to see what would happen.

On July 31, 1996, I started writing about a character named Ivy. (That was also my nickname, so it was sort of my intentional attempt to put a piece of me in the book, but she showed me pretty quickly that she was nothing like me.) Ivy was a teenager with a hot temper, no patience, a highly developed sense of mischief, and a rather compelling superpower: her telekinetic powers let her fly and beat up anyone she didn't like, but she wasn't a superhero. She just liked running around doing stuff and living life. And I wrote about her doing that.

Her story wasn't anything special, but I thought she was. And even though I struggled with plot (and kind of do, to this day), having the character driving the action through her complex emotions and attempts at personal growth was a new experience for me. I wanted to see what would happen to her, and I wanted to keep experiencing the world through her eyes. This novel was my first experience with desperately pounding out page after page like something was chasing me. I finished it in two weeks. It was handwritten, but after I typed it into the computer later, I ended up with a 155,000-word novel.

I spent a while putting off starting the next one, but I knew it was brewing. Then I couldn't stand it anymore and wrote Book 2, then a third book and a fourth book. They were long and full of horrible indulgent rambling--tons of dialogue, internal monologue, philosophical meandering, pointless "fun" scenes, and repetitive weirdness. And of course, as always, there were the little shining moments of awesomeness where it was clear that I was learning.

I continued to write novels and eventually I branched out into something that wasn't the Ivy books. The first thing that came out was the original first draft of Bad Fairy. The difference in quality between that one and the first Ivy book was depressing--meaning I could no longer look at my older work and maintain any delusion that it was publishable. And it wasn't just a matter of rewriting; the story just wasn't salvageable. The characters were so important to me, but their story wasn't a mainstream thing. I decided to develop it as a webcomic, but I've talked about that here before. Mostly I just did it because I didn't want to "lose touch" with these people, but I didn't want to warp them by trying to press them into a mainstream mold. You can be pretty unconventional in webcomics. So if I want to have walls of text and plots that meander, I can do that there. And I do.

But on July 31, 1996, something happened to my writing, to my process, to my experience as a writer. I think that was the first day I truly understood how and why I would be doing this for the rest of my life. It wasn't a sort of fanciful idea of "one day I'll be an author" anymore. Even though I wasn't turning out publishable work, I'd gotten serious. I'd switched on somehow. I'd established that I could do it, and that I loved doing it.

Those books were my life. Every book I've written since then has been the same. And that's why, on July 31 every year, I do something to celebrate being a writer. I jokingly refer to it as Ivy's birthday--and it's actually her birthday in the canon of the story, because why not?--but it's really sort of my birthday too. It's my writer birthday. So every year on this day, I tell this story somewhere, to someone, and I do something to remind me of what that metaphorical birth was like. I'll re-read favorite parts of the stories, or write something new, or doodle characters, or make myself a cake. I'll spend some time with my past and think about my future.

And I'll think about how lucky I am to be one of the few people who found what she wanted to do with her life, so early and so confidently, and how I've never doubted for a second that I'm where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

It only gets better from here. Maybe in the future some other writing milestone will join this one and maybe even eclipse its significance, but I'll never forget where I came from, and why it was so important for where I'm going.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Character art: Bad Fairy

I love to doodle but I'm no artist. Consequently, even the best drawings I've done of my characters were more like cartoons: fun to look at, and useful for fixing characters' visual aspects in mind, but ultimately nothing amazing. So when an actual artist thanked me for my work on Tumblr by making this digital painting of Delia, my Bad Fairy protagonist, I pretty much melted.

Look at this awesomeness.

Click the drawing to see full size.

Stuff I'm totally jazzed about:

  • Wow, this artist did an excellent job capturing that mix of cuteness and creepiness Delia would have in real life.
  • They managed to present her as very slim (accurate to the story) without sacrificing her youthfulness, and that's quite a trick!
  • I love that it's got a fairy-tale feel because of the textures and contrasts. That's really perfect for the book.
  • Just in general wow this is an amazing digital painting!

Stuff that's wrong with this:

  • No really. As the artist mentioned in their comments on the post, in the name of artistic license they decided to pull back on the "dramatic" eyelashes fairies have in the books so it would be easier to make her look younger. The decorations like the hair ornaments, the beads, the birds, and the type of hand mirror are just artistic choices, not based on the book.

Information about the artist and the piece:

  • The artist is soapybacon on Tumblr. This is where they originally posted it.
  • This is an earlier version before it was completed, and though the eyes are darker and there are a few unfinished details, I really like this one too.
  • The face and hands were painted in Photoshop using a Wacom tablet, using a brush with a low opacity and the "liquify" tool for adjusting proportions. The hair and the kingfishers were created in Illustrator because the artist wanted a smooth, flat appearance to contrast with the detailed face. And textures were overlaid on the moon, hair, mirror, and background.

I've received some pretty neat character art over the years but this is pretty exciting. :) 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Metrocon Saturday

I'm a pretty big fan of anime, science fiction, and fantasy, so this year I ended up getting invited to Metrocon and decided to accept. Metrocon is a really big anime convention that happens in Florida every year. I went with my friends Michael and Victor. V and I dressed up as anime characters from an extremely silly anime called Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt.

I'm Panty. He's Garterbelt.
I'm not a huge fan of the anime itself--kind of silly and a bit vulgar while lacking a whole heck of a lot of the things I usually like about anime--but there are very few large black men in anime and Victor was looking for a character he could be well suited to play, so I was happy to go along since my costume would be easy.

The only thing that was sort of a bummer was that Panty's angel partner Stocking is a big part of the show and we didn't have anyone to dress as her, so it was kind of an incomplete trio, you know?

Victor was saying "Well, maybe we'll find a Stocking at the convention!" And what's funny was . . . WE DID. We found MULTIPLE Stockings. Some of them took pictures with us.

And we even found these folks doing their own version of our trio:

The girls are wearing their angel clothes.
Everyone kept telling Victor that he was a fantastic Garterbelt and kept calling after him for pics. Most people didn't realize I was part of the cosplay because my plain red dress and lack of anime goofiness made it difficult to tell, though sometimes people figured it out when I was next to him. To be honest I thought people wouldn't recognize us and I had no idea the show was as popular as it is.

As for popular costumes, though, there was of course a lot of Bleach, a lot of One Piece, a lot of Final Fantasy and Sailor Moon and all the old favorites as well as new ones. But there was a ton of non-anime cosplay too. I saw a lot of people dressed as Disney characters (including an excellent Ursula the Sea Witch), Dr. Who characters (including some scary Weeping Angels), Marvel characters, humanized versions of My Little Pony characters, Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra characters, and a crapton of Adventure Time characters (especially people dressed as Fionna, Marceline, or Bubblegum). But by far the biggest non-anime costume at the convention had to be people dressed as Homestuck characters.

If you don't know, Homestuck is an American webcomic. I am on Tumblr and some people are kind of obsessed with it in my circles, so I keep hearing about it and have checked it out, but I had trouble getting into it and didn't even ever get to the part of the story where the popular characters (the trolls) have entered yet. Maybe one day I will. But I was floored by how many gray-skinned people with candy-corn-like horns of various varieties were walking around this convention. There had to be hundreds. I don't know if there's ever been something like this that gets this popular from a webcomic.  I wonder if Andrew Hussie had any idea his comic would become such a huge thing.

I think that's got to be one of the most rewarding and amazing things to happen to a writer. Having people enthusiastically consume your content, write about it on the Internet, and dress up as your characters at conventions.

Besides costume silliness, Victor and Michael and I went through the Artists' Alley and the dealer room, and we saw some panels--caught the end of one on fanfiction and saw the entirety of "What Are You Reading?" (That had been my only mandatory panel of the day: I really wanted to go to a panel about books.) We also saw the AMV contest--that's anime music videos. There were some good ones and we watched some people get awards for their projects. I think the only crappy thing about the convention was that food was too expensive (of course), we had trouble finding places to sit down, and having to get in line to be let into the AMV room and stand there forever when we could have been shopping or sightseeing was a bummer. (Especially since there was way more than enough room in that auditorium for everyone who wanted to watch; it's not like there was even NEED for a line, but we thought we'd get bad seats if we didn't wait. GRR.)

Going back tomorrow because we have weekend passes, but this time we won't be in costume.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Short story publishing quest

I am not very good at writing short stories, but I've written a lot of them.

The short fiction art form does not come easily to me. As a long-winded writer who even has trouble keeping novel-length fiction at a reasonable word count, I'm out of my element when it comes to writing short stories. I seem to find myself writing a short story when I have a concept to hit, and I write a novel when it's the characters who call to me. I'm not sure why that is. Ideally, of course, it'd be better if I had a solid short story concept that could be executed in few words AND contained compelling characters. But it seems like I usually end up with one or the other.

I've submitted quite a lot of short stories to magazines and haven't gotten accepted yet. I'm kind of irritated about that, because my nonfiction is always well received and my long fiction is being considered by major publishers through a literary agent, so it's weird that short stories just don't seem to be hitting that pocket. I'm not sure what to do about it. Here are some of my options:

1. Lower my standards and try to submit to some magazines that don't pay. (I have yet to do that.)
2. Just keep submitting existing short stories.
3. Write some new and better short stories and keep submitting.

Reasons these ideas kinda suck:

1. Submitting to magazines that don't pay does very little for my publishing credentials, nor do magazines that don't pay usually have much of a readership.
2. Submitting existing short stories just doesn't seem to be working very well, so maybe I should just face that short stories aren't my thing.
3. I have some new short story ideas and some ideas on how to redevelop older ones, but I hate the idea of "giving up" on older ones that may have merit.


Possibly publishable existing short stories:
  • "Baby Talk" is about a baby who wants to play with the telephone cord but her mom thinks she wants to talk. It's very short (650 words) and holds your attention. Probably just need to find the right magazine.
  • "The Curse" has a really neat idea behind it, but I think it needs a complete rewrite. If I rewire it so I'm not spending the entire time flipping between philosophical ramblings about mankind and an actual adventure for the protagonist, people might connect to it more easily and let me wow them with the climax of the story, which otherwise seems to be getting lost in what people think is exposition.
  • "In Love With Love" is about a woman with an atypical experience of love in the world. She's afraid she's damaged because she feels she doesn't love her son, and the story spotlights a therapy session with flashbacks to how she experiences different kinds of love. It's my most recent short story as of this writing and I think it might find a home someday.
  • "Just Like Stephen" is a science fiction story that may make it somewhere but I think people are not really connecting to the story since most of it is told in flashbacks and happens almost entirely in the protagonist's head. He doesn't even take any real action until the final pages of the book, and watching him write letters isn't very exciting.
  • "On the Inside" needs rewriting and I have to figure out what perspective to use (either switching to third person or hitting it from another person's perspective), but I think this one has potential. The experience of a transgender girl in a society with strict gender roles is kind of compelling and the elemental magic in the society is something I want to keep around in a living story.
  • "Protector Cat" is short and experimental and probably one of my weirdest stories to date, but I think it will find a home as long as I can find some more magazines that don't mind curse words.
  • "Uncle Avery's Garden" is one I'm on the fence about. The inspirational message is a bit saccharine to me, but it's heartfelt, and it's short enough that I might be able to place it with someone who likes, I don't know, Chicken Soup for the Soul type stories.
  • "Wind" is too long as is and probably spends too much time in Thomas's head, but I think a more experimental zine might like it, and it's got good character development.
Unpublishable existing short stories:
  • "Bad Fairy" is the short story version of my novel. The short story came first. Obviously I will not pursue publication for a weird old version of the book I'm trying to get published.
  • "Clouds" is just children rambling in sort of stilted prose while staring at the sky and discussing cloud shapes. It doesn't go anywhere or say much of anything.
  • "Dear God" is just a pretend letter from a middle school kid about wanting God to help him get a date and be good at football. It's kind of preachy and silly.
  • "Derika & Emily" features two girls who grew up in the church and one who is leaving because she disagrees with Christian principles and is now doubting religion and exploring lesbianism. Emily is kind of a hollow, flailing type of knee-jerk Christian who doesn't have any likability, and Derika is coming from an interesting place but her thoughts aren't very well expressed.
  • "The Escape" might be better than I think, but since it's 80% autobiographical and just makes its philosophical ramble-point before coasting to a stop, I don't think anyone would publish it.
  • "Final Verses" tries too hard to convey its revelations. I don't think anyone will be surprised by it.
  • "Glass Dawn" involves a child who talks to her reflection as though it's a different person, and her glass double is angry at her for growing up. The dialogue is pretty preachy and has a sort of silly be-yourself/define-maturity-your-own-way theme going.
  • "Goodbye" isn't going to blow anyone's socks off. I think about half the people reading it figure out the ending before I reveal it.
  • "Grace" isn't anything special as-is, though I have a soft spot in my heart for the nameless mother who can't speak for no apparent reason and how she guides her daughter through a coming-of-age ritual, expecting her to choose a boy as her first partner but ending up pleasantly surprised to see her paired with a girl. Maybe I'll take this idea and make it something else one day.
  • "Modern Goddess" and "Modern Goddess 2" are weird blasphemous rants I wrote in college and entertained the poetry jam with. They're not good stories. They're just funny and sort of stupid.
  • "Moonlight" is my first serious novella-length story, written in high school. It's got a premise for which it is difficult to suspend disbelief, and depicts a teenage girl who has lived underground by herself for most of her life. It's about her choice to return to that life after having a chance at a more normal one.
  • "The Mother" is a story about connection to one's roots (depicting a Wiccan woman on a different planet longing for her "Mother" the Earth and a drifting space traveling miner longing for his dead family and his living mother). I used to think it was publishable but I think it's just too much philosophical rambling and publishing people don't like that.
  • "Mother's Day" is about clones in the future and also has a really silly premise, though I liked the protagonist's quest for connection to his identity and family and his way of forging a bond with the musician he was named for. It just doesn't do much but present Hendrix's situation and show him meeting his sister for the first time.
  • "No Longer Junior" doesn't really do a great job with the mentality of an eldest son with a father off to war, I think, and again it's just thoughts, no action.
  • "Problem Recipe." Anna is a bad poet, a bad cook, and a bad daughter. So people in her life would have you believe. The way she resolves these issues isn't really very slick, but people seem to like reading the story. I just don't really believe in it.
Short stories I will probably make into novels one day:
  • "Bloom" is a novella-length short story about a girl coming of age in a sort of Amish-like Goddess culture amidst a modern world. I think I can turn it into a science fiction book for young adults if I set it on another planet, give protagonist Kamber more of a back story, and include a certain conflict within her family and a light romantic sub-plot.
  • "Brady" is a short story about an angry high school girl named Megan with a troubled home life. She struggled with unwelcome advances from boys when she was an early bloomer and became very withdrawn, focusing mostly on her art for satisfaction. Attention from popular Brady (and unexpectedly sharing the art interest with him) leaves Megan conflicted because she does not like him romantically. I think I could write her as aromantic and possibly asexual, which would be a cool second thread for self-discovery.
New short story ideas:
  • I plan to write a short story about a bisexual man engaged to an asexual woman. He gets injured very close to their wedding because of a chance crossing of paths with a strange girl on a bike. The bike girl and everyone else in his life starts trying to convince him that this was a message not to get married and that the bike girl and he were meant to be together, partially motivated by their underlying beliefs that a bisexual man shouldn't marry an asexual girl because he'll be unhappy in his sex life. It'll be an interesting story to write, though I anticipate a lot of dialogue and him spending most of it stuck in a hospital bed.
  • I plan to write a short story about a trans guy in middle or high school who is seeing a counselor because he cut off his hair to be less feminine and people are still insisting on seeing him as a girl who's being self-destructive. (He recently moved and people think he's upset about that.) There will be reflections on his childhood games and his previous close group of friends, who were three girls who were willing to treat him as a boy during their games. It also involves him going to an ice cream shop. I hope to write it soon.
And that's it for now. :) Would really like to get some short story publishing news on this blog. Maybe I'll hit some more submissions once I'm not so busy.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Not an Autobiography

Thought I'd have a little fun discussing how my protagonists are not me.

A lot of people who are not authors assume that our characters are avatars of us. Unless we are writing our autobiography, our characters should really not be us if we're decent writers, though of course we pull elements from our own lives to influence how we express their experiences. However, it occurs to me that I rarely create characters who are "into" what I'm into--I mean, I've never even made a character who writes novels!--so I thought I'd do a short examination of my protagonists' interests, influences, and situations, and how they compare to mine. I'll start with the most recent and go to the oldest.

Nick, from Stupid Questions: Nick spends most of the story trying to get the mysterious minor celebrity Summer to be his girlfriend, and spends the rest of the story trying to figure out unusual aspects of himself.
  • How We're the Same: We both have "outsider experiences" and can be very perceptive, and we both kind of have a similar strong sense of justice and apathy toward organized religion. And we do both like coffee, though he's kind of obsessed with it.
  • How We're Different: He's really into movies and film (though it's not explored much in the book), and he went to college for screenwriting but ended up going into camerawork and now works as a cameraman for the news, while I'm not interested in that in the slightest. He's sexually and romantically interested in women, and has a long history of bad relationships, while I am not and don't. He wants to get married and have kids, while I don't. He was raised by a single dad and has no siblings, while I was raised by married parents and have sisters. He likes to drink and sometimes uses it as a crutch, while I don't drink at all. He likes going out to clubs and I hate them.
Cassandra, from Finding Mulligan: Cassie spends most of her time wishing she was someone else: specifically, she wishes she was her dream-world alter-ego, Dia. In her dream world, Dia falls in love with Mulligan, and Cassie in the waking world chases clues to find out who Mulligan is in her world. In the process, she tries to transform her waking self into a person who's more like Dia. It gets weird.
  • How We're the Same: We were both good in school, we both have a good memory, we both like to bake, and we both have a younger sister. (Well, I have two.) And we're both decent at sketching and singing, and though neither of us is trained in visual art, I'm trained in singing and she isn't.
  • How We're Different: Pretty much every other way. Cassie wants to be someone else and I never did. Cassie is very romantically obsessed with a couple different boys and obviously I am not interested in boys. Cassie is very good at math and physics. Let's just say I'm not. Cassie's sister is chronically ill and none of my family members were. Cassie, as a brown-eyed brunette, romanticizes blue-eyed blondeness as some kind of classical beauty standard, while I always thought it was kind of boring (I guess the grass is always greener?).
Delia, from Bad Fairy: Delia is a fairy from a fairy tale retelling so her world is obviously pretty removed from mine. During her first book, Delia pursues excellence in her magick classes and tries to balance mastery of her craft with the social stresses of being a prodigy. She makes enemies and friends and sets the stage for her role as a fairy tale villain.
  • How We're the Same: We're both cerebral, both found our education mostly unchallenging, and both accomplished things we weren't "supposed" to do at our age. (Delia experienced her magickal manifestation at age two when the earliest previous record was a five-year-old child, while I was tested for reading in kindergarten and was close to a fifth grade level so they just didn't bother assigning me to a reading group and sent me to the labs with the fifth graders during reading.) We both had some social issues as children. We were both kind of misunderstood, but loved by our mothers, and enjoy pushing ourselves. We both rise to the challenge if we are attacked. And we both have long hair.
  • How We're Different: Delia is very serious and dramatic, while I'm really not. Delia alienates people easily because of her sort of creepy obsessions with death and mystery, and I'm not a "dark" person at all. Delia has much bigger problems with self-centered and egotistical behavior than I ever did, though maybe sometimes I can be interpreted that way if somebody sets me off. Delia likes teaching others, and I hated teaching. Delia is a below-average singer and I am an above-average singer. And though Delia is a child in Book 1, she does mature into a heterosexual woman, so she desires relationships with men. I don't.
Bay, from Joint Custody: This introspective little boy from my unfinished probably-MG novel is a child of divorced parents and very insecure about it. His story is about the search for a sense of home and his relationship with a neighborhood girl named Marz.
  • How We're the Same: We're both vegetarian. We both think too much. We both like documenting things. We both didn't have a lot of friends in school.
  • How We're Different: He LOVES animals. LOVES them. I don't ever want to have pets. He likes photography, and I'm not into it. He goes along with whatever his friends want to do and is a lot more susceptible to peer pressure than I ever was. He sometimes manipulates his parents and other adults and I never did that. My parents were not divorced when I was a kid.

Those are the main characters of the stories I'm currently considering my "active" long fiction, but I've written a lot of other stories and I'll jump into my analyses of protagonists from my teen years next.

Ivy, from The House That Ivy Built: This series, written during my college years, is just the formless adventures of a telekinetic teenager who doesn't really want to do anything special except live her life. It's about her relationships and her everyday existence, and sometimes explores the issues of trying to fit in or stand out.
  • How We're the Same: We have both used the chosen name Ivy, and were both given different names at birth. (We did it for different reasons; I used it as a nickname my best friend gave me incorporated into an online handle, and she used it as given to her by a guardian who didn't know her name.) We both have long blonde hair. We both like singing and are good at it. We both have a bit of a reputation in some circles for others not wanting to piss us off. We are both uninterested in sexual relationships with others, though for different reasons.
  • How We're Different: She has an extremely short attention span and an extremely short fuse. I'm extremely patient. She is a poor speller and I'm an excellent one. She's very tall and skinny and I'm very short and just kind of on the slim side. She's very good with directions and distance and spatial calculations, while I'm terrible at finding my way anywhere. She has a jealousy problem and I don't. She likes basketball and gymnastics and I don't. She's got superpowers and I don't. (Haha.)
Skyler, from "Skyler Stories": My incomplete second novel with no real title, written in high school, was about a telepathic middle school girl who didn't really do much except try to find allies and eventually she had to deal with trying to protect her sister from sexual assault.
  • How We're the Same: Same thing with the "outsider experience" and perceptiveness I mentioned with my entry for Nick above. We both had a pretty crappy middle school experience. We're both long-haired blondes.
  • How We're Different: She's the youngest of five siblings; I'm the oldest of three. She was raised by a single mom; I was raised by two married parents. I'm a positive person, while she has a consistently negative attitude and lives in a cloud of pessimism for some reason--my writing for her always seemed to be coated in negativity and sarcasm. She fixates on finding a boyfriend. I never cared about that. Her family is Christian. Mine isn't.
Cristabel, from Double Vision: This terrible science fiction book was my first completed novel, and it featured Crissi and her twin brother Ben getting sent off to a special private school where the teachers are secretly experimenting on them because they and a bunch of other twin pairs were conceived with an experimental drug and now have dormant superpowers. Hooray! It's about them discovering this silliness and escaping from the school.
  • How We're the Same: We both did a lot of squabbling with our siblings. We both like children. We both don't mind taking risks to uncover the truth. (Okay, that's cheesy.)
  • How We're Different: She has a brother (and a twin), and I don't. She likes music that I don't like. She's from a Christian family and I'm not. She hates dressing like her sibling and I kind of liked doing that. 
So, to wrap this up, even though sometimes there are some pretty obvious similarities between me and my characters, the things we have in common always manifest differently through the different lenses and voices of these characters. In some cases, I really enjoy reading about and writing about the people in my books but I think we're not similar people and probably wouldn't be friends. They are never just mouthpieces for my life experiences or my points of view, and if they happen to agree with me on something, well . . . I think that's natural. I think it's super important to write characters who aren't you, and to be aware of what makes them fundamentally different from just writing about what you would personally do in their situation.

That's it!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Real-Life Characters

Let's face it. As writers, we sometimes pull from life for our inspiration.

I've been asked "where I get my ideas" and I don't really have a good answer to that. Sometimes I quote Katherine Anne Porter and say "Now and again thousands of memories converge, harmonize, arrange themselves around a central idea in a coherent form and I write a story." Other times I might do something like this:

But honestly, writers all answer this question differently, and some will be very conscious of where they're getting their inspiration, while others will be clearly influenced by stuff they've experienced and may not realize it themselves. Some writers even deliberately expose themselves to experiences or environments or people hoping to become inspired, intentionally gathering essential nuggets from their activities.

A couple years ago:
Grandma's 80th birthday

This weekend I visited my grandmother in a nursing home. (My out of town trip and events leading up to it is part of the reason I did not blog for like a week.) The visit did not go well. This is the first time since she's been installed in the home that I have gotten to see my grandmother, and she's dramatically less aware of what's going on than the last time I saw her. The first half of the visit went pretty well (though it was a little depressing because my grandmother clearly wasn't with it); my family was there, with my grandfather, my dad, my dad's partner, my aunt, and my sister, just all chatting in a comfortable little room. The second half of the visit is something I won't go into out of respect for my family, but I'll just say that for unknown reasons my grandmother got agitated and was yelling about things that weren't really happening, and she wanted us to leave her alone, so we did. It was very hard to watch and very emotional to experience. But here's the relevant part of this story: very interesting characters kept moving about the facility.

A woman with a walker that had tennis balls on the ends was consistently walking up and down the hall, apparently going nowhere in particular but looking alert. Another woman who stays in the same room as my grandmother was hanging about my chair, frequently touching my shoulder and asking me incomprehensible questions. My dad's partner managed to figure out that she wanted to go into the next room but did not want to operate the door herself or go alone. And another woman wandered through and told us all in a breathy voice that she hoped we would have a blessed day.

My aunt got my attention when all this was going on and said something like, "I can just tell you're going to use some of this in your books."

That hadn't occurred to me. I'm certainly not planning on grabbing real-life experiences and sewing them into my book, and I can't trace the origin of any of my book ideas to any event that's happened to me. (Considering most of them are science fiction and fantasy, that's probably fortunate.) I'm not, as a result of this visit, planning any nursing home scenes populated with colorful gray-haired women sprinkling blessings on visitors or timid dementia patients asking for help getting through the door.

But I'm sure that if I ever do decide to write anything about this time in someone's life, or about a person whose relative is in this situation, or even about people who don't have all their marbles in other contexts, these experiences might flavor my prose in ways I may or may not notice. More likely than not, they'll just mix with some other things I've seen and done and come out unrecognizable, but maybe make me think of my grandma anyway.

I'm going to discuss to what extent authors' own experiences inform their writing in another post sometime. I have a lot of thoughts on that. Until next time. . . .

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Editing

So you wrote your book and then you ran the spell-checking program. Now you’re done! Right?

There’s that laugh I needed.

One popular misconception among writers is that spelling, grammar, punctuation, and all the little language-correctness tidbits aren’t really all that important because surely real professionals can look past inoffensive mistakes and recognize a wonderful story when they see it. Right? Well, no.

I’m not even going to touch the importance of test readers for story, character, and concept purposes right now. I’m going to pick on the nuts and bolts and explain why proofreading is super important. Why should you have a near-perfect manuscript before you even think of trying to submit a book to an agent or publisher?

Because thinking those things aren’t an important part of the writing craft is about as unprofessional as you can get.

If you think correct spelling, usage, punctuation, phrasing, and grammar are afterthoughts a professional can put together for you after the fact, you’re sorely mistaken. Just like an English professor can’t necessarily tell a good story no matter how perfect her language is, you can’t bring a good story to your readers eloquently if some of the basics of language use aren’t there. I’m saying that those pesky tense shifts and word confusions and spelling mistakes actually do get between your story and your reader’s mind, and they hamper your ability to tell a good story just as much as not having a good story to tell would.

If you have difficulty with certain technical aspects of the writing craft, all is not lost. Editors can help you if you let them. But some time back, I had a conversation with a wannabe writer who spilled constant basic mistakes every time she put her fingers on the keyboard, and when I tentatively told her she has some fundamental language lessons to learn before she’ll be taken seriously, she responded indignantly that she did not think such things were important. In her opinion, writing conventions were outdated; those who insist on enforcing such rules were squashing True Art; and she believed the only thing that mattered was whether people could read her writing and get the message.

Poorly constructed sentences do happen to muddle the message more often than not, but let’s not even go there.

This represents a basic misunderstanding of what being a “good writer” is. A good writer is the full package. A good writer brings her manuscript to a state of perfection to the best of her ability, and does not isolate one aspect of the craft that “doesn’t matter” (and presumably should be cleaned up by others). Well, editors are not your literary janitors, and we do not want to clean up after you. Publisher’s editors certainly won’t. You won’t get to a publisher’s editor if you don’t demonstrate the ability to use your language well, and that includes all aspects of it.

A few typos won’t kill you. A consistent tendency to misuse language will. And a belief that no one important thinks it matters will get you laughed out of the building. Or at least out of the slush pile.

If you have a language-related disability, are writing in a language you’re not very fluent in, or just aren’t good at the technical aspects of the craft, please just accept that if you want to bring your words to the masses, you’ll be doing yourself a wonderful favor if you contact an editor, get a friendly proofreader, or have someone transcribe your stories. Your stuff can still get out there even if you have a reason that prevents you from rendering the language yourself. It still needs to be done, even if you need help to do it. Please don’t write it off as an unimportant part of the craft.

If you haven’t tried to make all aspects of your manuscript perfect, you’re suggesting that polishing your book is not your job. If an agent or publisher is going to have to go above and beyond the normal amount of work to get your book ready for the masses, do you really think they’re going to take a chance on you? When it’s already so hard to get a publisher to think you’re worth a shot?

As a long-suffering editor as well as a writer myself, I will now level with you. Most of the people reading this who are also writers have probably been nodding along, acknowledging that of course basic language competence is important. Many of you roll your eyes when you see “their” and “there” get mixed up; you cluck in disapproval when someone uses comma splices, and you’d never dream of making a noun plural using apostrophe + S. But guess what? You probably still need an editor. Because there are a whole mess of mistakes way beyond the basics that I’ve seen in published books—mistakes I’ve seen actual English geeks make (even though they should know better). So I’m going to share those with you right now.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Jaded Touch by Nola Sarina

Hi people,

Today I'm doing something a little different: Helping out with a cover reveal for one of my agency siblings at Inklings Literary! Nola Sarina and I are both clients of Michelle Johnson, and her Vesper series is on submission to publishers. Meanwhile, she's releasing novellas! We don't write the same kind of fantasy at all, but I'm always happy to help my Inklings family where I can, so without further ado, here is Nola's lovely cover for Jaded Touch!

Three is tormented by the branding scars on her back, broken memories of her fallen creator, and the looming consequences of her secret friendship with Sychar - a male of her kind - a high crime in her world of serpentine guardians. 
Then along comes Jack - the human train engineer she saves in an explosion. His touch weakens both her knees and her sense of duty. Now Three must choose between her immortal duties, her forbidden friendship, and her human lover.
With every choice comes a cost, but not every cost is hers to pay... 
JADED TOUCH - the second Vesper Novella - comes out August 6th in Kindle and Paperback! It is the standalone sequel to GILDED DESTINY and features new characters, steamy romance, and the dark atmosphere of the Vesper series.
If you haven't checked out Gilded Destiny yet, it's available on Amazon here:
Add JADED TOUCH to your to-read shelf on Goodreads and stay up-to-date with what everyone is saying about Jack and Three! Also, please stalk the author on Twitter @NolaSarina and follow her on Facebook at to hear all about the launch week Giveaway basket with some cool autographed prizes for all Vesper readers!
Hope any of my readers who enjoy this genre will check out Nola and give her some love. :)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Not a parent

I don't have anything writerly to write about right now, so I am going to show you pictures of this cute little boy.

Benjamin is five years old. He is the son of my best girl friend Meggie, and she and I have known each other since we were teens. She named her daughter, Katelyn Julie, after me, and I introduced her to Benjamin's father, so this little munchkin partially exists because of me.

He NEVER stands still. Never, unless he's sleeping.
Mommy Meggie loves watching her baby play.
I'm not a parent, and unless something really weird happens I'm not going to be one. I take a lot of pleasure in playing with other people's children, and I'm really kind of bizarrely obsessed with babies.

I had so much fun squishing him when he was a baby.
And I love playing auntie with his sister. Who's now way bigger than I am. (This is when she was 10. She's 15 now.)
I was almost a teacher. I got a degree in elementary education, but learned while getting the degree that I wasn't cut out for it. You have to love teaching to do it, because you sure as hell aren't there for the money. I love children, but I don't love teaching, and I don't think I'm particularly good at it. I also don't think I'd be able to write the same way I do now if I were a parent, with the same dedication, if my kids always had to come first. I think I'd resent giving up my time, even though I would want to at the same time. I don't think I'd be good at balancing the parenting life with the writing life, even though I know quite a few people who manage to do it.
And that's one of the reasons I love these little poops so much.
I get to borrow my friend's kids and enjoy the hell out of playing with them, loving them, watching them grow up into oddly mature beings, but I don't have to deal with the day-to-day issues of parenting anyone. Some would of course say that this is in no way a win/win situation because I don't get the joys of parenting either. To that I say, of course I don't! There is no way I could say my experience with Meggie's kids has let me have all the perks of kidlets without the sacrifices--especially since sometimes the sacrifices enhance the enjoyment in a way. But I've made the choices I think are the best match with my inclinations, my desired lifestyle, and the health of my own babies--namely, my books.

You see this little bugger getting in the pool?
Ben screamed about wanting to get in the pool. Mommy Meggie said no, we're not going in the pool. But then he got very sandy, and we decided to try to wash his feet off with the shower attached to the pool. Naturally, Ben decided that meant he was going in the pool. Meggie just sighed and said he could go in and get his feet wet, but not to get his clothes wet. A few minutes later he was paddling around in his clothes, completely soaked. So much for "don't get your clothes wet."

In that way I think parenting is a lot like writing. These little weirdos may have come out of you, but they don't really listen, and they have agency, and they aren't really "yours" anymore even though you continue to take care of them and nurture them. To tell you the truth I think there are a lot of parallels between having kids and writing books. I've got to say, though, that I don't think I could personally do both at the same time--not effectively, and not with the way my personality works. If I were a parent, the child would come first. Always. Because the child will suffer if you don't pay attention to them, while your writing won't notice. (You will, though. And your writing might suffer as a result, sure, but IT won't know it.) Since I have a choice and I don't HAVE to balance these two super important things, I am grateful that I still get the perks of being around these great kids sometimes because of my friends who are parents, and that I still mostly get to devote my "parenting" time to the care and feeding of my characters.

But man, aren't kids great? ^___^

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Writing and pitching contests

Friday, July 12 is a Twitter pitch contest. It's a follow-up to the main event on the PitchMas blog, and it's one of those deals where agents are peeking at the Twitter feed (hashtag #PitchMAS) throughout the day. You can get the details and rules on that blog link I posted there. (And get some Twitter-friendly pitches ready to pitch if you're an agent-seeking author with a completed manuscript!)

I have a friend who's planning to do the contest. Maybe a few other people I know are planning to do it and haven't told me. I just wanted to reflect on my experience with these sorts of contests, even though I will not be participating in this one (obviously).

I've been in a few writing contests. My first was probably the First Chapters contest on Gather. It was a complete fiasco; we were supposed to share a first chapter, and it would be voted upon. Not only could OTHER PARTICIPANTS vote on each other's work (!!!!), but we could SEE whose entries were topping the charts, which caused every single one of them to get downvoted by people who were trying to make the chances better for their own. The top entries had scores like 4/10 because of that crap. And then when the 20 people chosen to go to the next round were announced, one of them had semi-regularly written for Gather's site and been compensated for it, which was basically like giving the award to an employee. I was pretty disgusted and disillusioned by that, especially since the next round continued with the same rules despite the outcry.

Beyond that, I've entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest three times. I've never entered with the manuscript that's represented by my agent Michelle, and maybe it sounds sort of snooty, but the reason for that is that I believed Bad Fairy was my strongest manuscript and that it didn't "need" a contest. Guess I was right, huh? ^___^ Anyway, I entered my YA (which I'm now categorizing as NA) twice and made the quarter-finals both years, but Publishers Weekly hated my book both times and gave me a pretty bad review, so I never made it to the semis. And then this year I entered my science fiction romance and I didn't even make it to the quarter-finals. (Which is okay with me because I actually didn't want to win the prize; I hadn't realized until after I'd committed to the contest that the publishing contract winners get was being offered by Amazon, not by Penguin as in years past. I'm not really all that hot on an Amazon contract, even though it was going to be an imprint with mainstream distribution.)

And I've entered The Writer's Voice. That was the only blog-based contest I entered, though I saw them around here and there. I entered The Writer's Voice with my YA Finding Mulligan, and my pitch/first 250 was not chosen by any of the four hosts for their team. (The contest was run so that each would pick a team and then they'd help their contestants prepare for the next round, judged by agents who would request chapters or full manuscripts.) So I didn't even get to be on a team, and later one of the judges e-mailed me and told me how much she'd actually liked my idea but didn't pick it because she'd imagined it was too similar to a TV show I'd never heard of and she thought I might be mistaken for ripping it off so agents probably wouldn't choose me. (I looked the show up and the one similarity between my book and this TV show didn't seem at all damning to me, since they're only similar in one very vague way. So I think she was wrong, but I was glad to know I wasn't left in the dust because there was something wrong with my story or my pitching technique.)

Like PitchMas, The Writer's Voice had a follow-up Twitter pitch session. I got eight pitches together, tried them out on my friends, and attended the pitch party, tweeting with the #WVTP hashtag using the pitches that were highest voted. The silence was pretty deafening. No agents were bidding on my stuff. And then I just threw caution to the wind and tweeted the pitch that had been the LEAST popular among my friends:

"Can’t a gal and her other self have a good old-fashioned reality-crossing romance anymore?"

And I got this reply from an agent:

Eh. If she'd been seeing it all day, I wonder what kept her from requesting it? Maybe she was just on the fence. Oh well. So I got a request. Made the day worth it, at least. Goes to show you that my friends' taste is the opposite of agents' taste? I guess?

Though this agent rejected my book based on my first 50 pages some time later. Meh.

I got signed for a different book just a few months later. And shortly after getting signed I ran into a contest that needed judges--run by one of the same people who'd hosted The Writer's Voice--and they were looking for a few agented authors (first-round judges) who wrote ADULT material since they had so many YA authors in the judging panel. I volunteered and ended up getting to pick my own "team" for Come and Get It.

Seeing the other side of the fence was interesting. Out of the ten entries assigned to me, I had to pick four to go on to the next round for agent bidding. It was difficult, but oddly enough, I actually only really liked three of the four I sent through, and the fourth was just because I was supposed to pick another one, so I picked the one with the strongest writing in the sample even though the query was not up to snuff in my opinion. (I won't say which. You can see my discussion and links to my specific feedback for my first five here and my second five here, on my main website.)

Some of the pitches needed a lot of help and I was left wondering why a book this rough was being pitched to agents. Some of the pitches looked great. I ended up connecting with one of the ladies I put through to the next round and after some fun e-mails we critiqued each other's writing. We're still in touch nearly a year after the contest now. And of course there was also the unpleasant situation where an enthusiastic writer who knew I was her judge followed me on Twitter and was tweeting at me excitedly about receiving her feedback, only to silently unfollow me without comment when she saw the feedback I left her. At least that's better than getting yelled at. ^___^ One of my picks got multiple agent requests, but the others got none. Them's the breaks.

I've now helped quite a few people prepare for these sorts of contests, and I think they're a cool alternate way to get your stuff in front of agents--especially since they are the ones who choose to participate if they are looking for clients, so THEY are asking YOU for your stuff--seeking it out rather than getting queried. It's a pretty neat dynamic and I know of a few people who got signed this way. I may have ultimately secured agency representation through good old-fashioned querying, but if the cards had fallen differently, I think a contest like this could have worked out for me too if I'd been in the query trenches longer than I was.

Social media is really changing the game up. My agent recently found an editor to pitch my book to using the manuscript wish list (#MSWL) hashtag on Twitter, and I got a positive response from that (meaning the editor did request my full manuscript). I've probably only scratched the surface here, but it seems like there are tons of ways people are sharing writing with industry professionals and making connections in ways that didn't used to be possible. I think these contests are a lot of fun . . . and I hope one day I get to judge another one. :)

Monday, July 8, 2013

What You Love

I love writing!


This one dude at my old job used to ask me why I do my webcomic if I don't get paid. I told him I loved doing it and he immediately began giving me suggestions on what I could do to make my readers pay for the comic. I didn't bother to explain to him that I have no desire to make money off the comic and there are few enough people reading it in the first place without me completely stamping out my entire audience by asking them to pay for it. That's just kinda how it is for webcomics, and though you can sell related merchandise and sometimes people will buy it, very few people will continue to read a comic that is behind a paywall.

I do intend to write for a living, but the money isn't why I'm doing it. Just like with my webcomic, I absolutely would keep doing it even if nobody ever paid me for it. It's not negotiable. I will do it. I'll do it if I don't have time. I'll do it if I don't feel good. I'll do it if nobody reads it. I'll do it if EVERYBODY reads it. And I'd like to do it for money, but that's only because I'd certainly get to do more of it if it were my only job.

There's a weird stigma in this society that you're supposed to get your fulfillment from your career. You're supposed to get invested in a job that satisfies your sense of purpose and makes you part of something bigger. And it's discouraged in this society to just settle, to be satisfied with a job that does nothing for you personally, intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. It's as if money is what makes something become a legitimately worthwhile thing to do; if I'm making big bucks as an author, that's fantastic, but as soon as I'm writing stories that aren't raking in the cash and aren't even being read by anyone but me and a small group of followers on the Internet, well that's just silly and pointless, isn't it? (Spoiler: NO.)

I have a job I like. I'm an administrative assistant at a transportation engineering consulting firm. I type, I make coffee, I make copies, I help the engineers with their computers, I order supplies, I do some light accounting and coordination, I do business development, I edit documents (quite a lot of editing documents). I like my co-workers and I think my boss is great (seriously). They pay me generously. My work environment is very comfortable. And, obviously, I wouldn't keep doing it if they didn't pay me. I am not emotionally invested in the job, because it is a support position for others' careers, not something I do to gain fulfillment for myself. I do it to keep a roof over my head, food on the table, and the electricity going to power my computer so I can write more stories.

People assume I must be dying to quit my job and write full time. No, I'm not. I absolutely don't mind being in a support position at my job. Most authors need a day job, even if they're fairly successful and their books sell. The job allows me to have exactly what I want: the opportunity to write while comfortable. I don't believe I need to derive my life's purpose from the same thing I do for money. In an ideal situation, sure, it would be nice if we could all be paid for the thing we love to do (and would do without being paid), but not all passions are equally likely to be lucrative, and some things that need to be done aren't anybody's passion.

We shouldn't be shaming people for failing to create a livelihood out of what inspires them or for not pursuing payment (or living wages) in exchange for their passion. It's just weird and puts unnecessary pressure on people to find satisfaction in ways that are unlikely to yield it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Got pets?

I am not an animal person. Never have been.

I'm not sure why I was different from pretty much everyone I knew in this respect, even my own family. I grew up with dogs, and we had a cat, a bunny, and an iguana. My dad has two dogs. My sister has two dogs. My mom once had three dogs all at the same time (but had to find them new homes when she moved). My best girl friend has cats and a dog. Most of my friends have cats or dogs and sometimes more exotic pets. But I've never had a pet of my own. And I'd like to keep it that way.

I didn't even want to ride the ponies. Look at my face!
Similarly, I didn't care for entertainment that featured animals. Talking animals usually put me off pretty solidly. I didn't get why people were into My Little Pony or Pound Puppies, and my toys were usually dolls and mythical creatures (human-looking ones, like mermaids and fairies--not so much the unicorns or dragons). And I didn't relate to reading material that involved talking animals, characters with animal companions, or animal-centric plots. (There were exceptions, though. I loved Where the Red Fern Grows and Watership Down.)

However, I live in this world and I understand that people do the animal thing pretty consistently. I love the book series His Dark Materials by Pullman, and I think one of the big reasons so many people found it intrinsically appealing was the inclusion of dæmons in the book. (People in this book series have their souls represented as a physical, tangible animal companion called a dæmon. It can shapeshift into different creatures until it "settles down" into one form sometime during a child's transition into an adult.) The thought of a constant animal companion that was a person's best friend and literally part of their very selves was a powerful element to a lot of people. I didn't really care about that aspect of the book, though I did think it was inventive. I wouldn't have any desire to have an animal companion hovering around me all the time, even in a fantasy world.

Coming from this, I guess it's not surprising that most of my characters weren't really pet people either. When I set out to write a middle-grade novel, I wanted to make sure my protagonist was relatable and multifaceted, and so one of the challenges I undertook (besides writing from a male perspective) was developing the character as an animal lover and trying to make it seem authentic.

I think I was partly able to do this because I tapped into what is, for me, a purely theoretical love of animals. I don't love being around them. I generally don't want to touch them, though I'm not afraid of them. But I care about them and sometimes find them visually appealing (my family thinks it's weird that I'm the person who posts the most cute animals and silly dog videos on Facebook). I donate to animal charities. I am a vegetarian for anti-cruelty reasons. (Sometimes I joke that I don't like animals, even on my plate.) So I took those "in theory" aspects of loving animals and tried to apply them to my character so he'd demonstrate an active love of animals.

So Bay has two pets. He has a dog at his dad's house and a bunny at his mom's. He has a weird sentimental attachment to animals that have been killed on the road--to the point where one of his projects is giving them a proper burial after photographing their "murder scenes," and giving them names in his journal. He's a secret vegetarian because he thinks his parents won't let him stop eating meat if he tells them he wants to. He keeps a tiger stuffed animal in his backpack and he imagines that it is observing him and recording his life. But I haven't yet shown any active scenes of Bay taking care of his pets or engaging in something more than theoretical appreciation of them.

So if I ever pick that project back up again (and I hope to, one day), I think that's one of the things I'll have to work on.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Books I Love: Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler was one of the first woman science fiction writers I discovered. I started reading her work when I was in high school and really enjoyed the fact that this was honest-to-goodness science fiction . . . not just romance or family drama that happened to involve living in the future or on another planet like most of the speculative fiction that was aimed at girls during my young life. Octavia Butler was one of those rare authors who could not only examine the human condition, but do it from inside and from outside, and from perspectives the reader wouldn't necessarily expect.

I read one of her short story collections, and while the stories themselves were disturbing and awesome and fabulous, I think her personal commentary, included with each story, was the most memorable and interesting part of the book. I knew, as a girl science fiction/fantasy writer who would one day be a woman science fiction/fantasy writer, that there weren't many of us and that we were meddling in what was perceived to be a boys' club. Hearing Ms. Butler's commentary on being not only a woman writer but being a black woman writer was very eye-opening for me. I knew about the crap I received for being female and writing these kinds of stories, but I'd never thought about the double whammy black women would have to deal with in the same situation. Ms. Butler wrote about how her fellow black female authors would literally ask her to write about something else, and they would imply that she was wasting her talents writing about other worlds and distant futures where the characters' race was not their defining characteristic even though it was still part of them. (Many of her leads were also black.) They wanted her writing on social issues, using her words to battle racism and sexism and inequality directly. She chose to fight them more indirectly. Part of that fight was liberating herself and writing what she wanted to write. Which was science fiction that was almost always absolutely excellent.

One of the first Octavia Butler books I read was Parable of the Sower. It now has a sequel entitled Parable of the Talents. These books are set in the near future at a time when society is rapidly collapsing--and in this depressing dystopia, we meet our protagonist, Lauren Olamina. She is a headstrong teenage girl who suffers from a congenital condition caused by her mother's use of an experimental drug, and it causes a psychological echo effect called hyperempathy; she experiences what she imagines to be other people's pleasure and pain. This makes it very difficult to hurt anyone (or see anyone hurt) in a rather violent world, so poor Lauren feels pretty vulnerable.

The story starts when Hell breaks loose in her own "safe" neighborhood, and Lauren and her family have to become strong and venture off to safety in search of a place for herself and her kin to replant themselves. She keeps a journal of little revelations which include her life philosophy, including what she has planned for humanity's future among the stars. The sequel, Parable of the Talents, is about Lauren's daughter, and what happens during a religious backlash after society has seriously started going down the toilet. Lauren Olamina and her Earthseed community are pretty much considered heretics and aren't allowed to practice their lifestyle of fostering change toward mankind's growth, and we get to follow the story of her people.

The rather disturbing Patternist series (beginning with Wild Seed) is the story of Doro, an immortal person who "breeds" people with special talents until a large percentage of humans begin making telepathic connections and forming their own society. The series covers the early "seeds" of the people Doro bred (Wild Seed), the early days of the society's first formation (Mind of My Mind), a novel set far in the future where the Patternists are the main society (Patternmaster), and even a novel in which an alternate non-Patternist society emerges (Clay's Ark). The writing is very character-oriented and compelling. You can get a collection of three of the novels in the book Seed to Harvest.

The Xenogenesis series (beginning with Dawn) is about a race of aliens who survive and grow by breeding with other races, and humans are next. It takes us from the beginning of their "invasion" through the peaceful integration and the resistance of some humans. We see the beginning of their appropriation of humans (Dawn), the story of life from the point of view of a part-human/part-alien boy (Adulthood Rites), and another perspective from a mixed-breed member of the aliens' strange third sex (Imago). The whole thing creeps me out a little to tell you the truth, but I think that's what's so good about this author--she makes it gritty and not all nice-nice, because after all it makes sense that integrating an alien species into humanity would get a bit, erm, messy. You can get the whole series in one volume by picking up Lilith's Brood.

I love that so many of her stories include the voices of women of color, and that her books can make your stomach hurt with the heavy issues and dilemmas her characters face. She didn't forget the fear and the sacrifice that people who defy authority have to deal with, and none of her characters' extraordinary situations have their advantages presented without making their disadvantages really felt. It's heartbreaking that Octavia Butler died so young (at age 58); it's hard to believe that those works of hers currently existing in the world are all we'll ever hear from her.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Writing and Your Religion

Sometimes I see authors getting criticized for including in their fiction religious or spiritual messages that reflect their personal beliefs. A good example would be Twilight, for which Stephenie Meyer sometimes gets trashed for supposedly pushing Mormon ideals (I guess the "abstinence until marriage" one?), though I have not read the books and don't know how overt it is. I think this sort of thing can be problematic, but only if it becomes preachy or begins to take center stage at the expense of the story. If I start feeling more like you're trying to "send me a message" than tell me a story, you're overdoing it.

That said, I think it's natural for authors to include perspectives from their own spiritual or religious world view, and I thought I'd reflect a little on how I've done this in my novels.

So first off: What are my beliefs? It probably comes as a surprise to very few people who know me, but I identify as Pagan. Ta-da!

I was not raised in a Christian family (though I lived in the Bible Belt for some of my youth, and being the only kid who didn't celebrate Christmas--insisting on drawing Old Man Winter instead of Santa for arts & crafts--did cause me some issues). Cognizant of how mainstream Christianity was in my culture, and being aware from an early age that I shouldn't make my protagonists simply avatars of myself, the first two main characters I invented actually were Christian. But I didn't really know what that meant. In the novel I wrote when I was fourteen, the only sign that Cristabel was Christian was that she listened to Amy Grant. (Haha.) And in the second novel I wrote, Skyler's family went to church. (There was even a scene that happened in church.) I had been inside a church like twice at that point for weddings, so I didn't really know if I was doing it right, but I guess I just wanted to prove that my characters weren't me. They also both had brothers while I had sisters.

In college I didn't write any novels except for a series featuring a character who didn't have a religion. Ivy was doing her own thing pretty much outside of society in many ways, so it's not surprising that she didn't really identify with any religion, but there was some religious discussion here and there in the books. She babysat for Jewish kids and discussed their religion with them. She talked with her best friend about his nature-worship religion and has a couple of New Age pals, one of whom believes in predestination. One of her friends is strongly Christian, but it comes through as a little bit over the top because she's afraid of witchcraft or something. She's really got no concept of mainstream religion, and at one point she asked someone, "So Jesus is the guy who invented Christmas?" She doesn't really know what she believes.

And then from that point onward, it seems like every novel I wrote includes pretty overt Pagan undertones. Finding Mulligan features quite a few casual references to spellcraft, especially when Cassie is trying to cast spells she learned in her dreams. Joint Custody (my unfinished Middle Grade book) features a Pagan character, though her religion hasn't really shown up yet in the part I've written. (The protagonist is Christian--and I only know this because he got a rabbit for Easter--but he has been in the Pagan character's house and doesn't know what it means when they walked though the family's workroom and it contained "weird artifacts" and "smelled like someone had been trying to cook flowers in there.") My novel Stupid Questions features the protagonist's love interest trying to explore her relationship with religion after religious extremists harassed her because they believed she was in league with the devil, and she ends up finding some attitudes she can relate to at a Unitarian Universal church. And Bad Fairy is loaded with Pagan symbolism. The fairies' nature rituals are full of stuff that would seem very familiar to most Neo-Pagans, and their magick school lessons encompass herbal symbolism, lore associated with wands, deity attributes, elemental studies, and even circle-casting techniques.

Some of my short stories include religious themes as well. My short story "Bloom" (which I want to turn into a novel one day) features a nature-based religion with a Goddess culture. My short story "Derika and Emily" actually involves a character being upset that her best friend has left the church and has become both a Pagan and a lesbian. (The story tells both their sides.)  My short story "Goodbye" includes an atheist perspective. "Grace" is set in a culture that uses elemental magic and unconventional mating practices. "Modern Goddess" is a pretty horrible little story about a religious prophet of sorts who commits blasphemy. "The Mother" is explicitly about a Wiccan woman who lives on another planet and misses her "Mother," the Earth. "On the Inside" involves more elemental magic and a Goddess-oriented culture (though it's polytheistic).

Very rarely did I write with a specific intent to comment on or advocate/criticize a religion, and if the characters did it in the context of their stories, it wasn't presented as a message to the audience about what they should accept. I think there's no reason authors should leave their spiritual or religious perspectives at the door when they write, because these elements of our lives are part of who we are and we can't expect everything we write to leave them out in the interest of not alienating anyone, but I would recommend that unless you are explicitly writing a frame story designed to introduce a philosophy or spiritual message, you should avoid actual preaching in your stories.

Anyone want to share perspectives on how they use religion in their stories?