No More Room At the Inn: How I Became a Kindle Convert

my kindle paperwhite, purchased November 2012

my kindle paperwhite, purchased November 2012

My family and I moved from Ypsilanti, Michigan to Denver, Colorado in the summer of 2012. It was a hell of a move, and we had to ditch a ton of stuff, but the worst of it, by far, was the books. We had to get rid of so many books. I had just finished graduate school, and part of the ritual of graduate school is the accumulation of books. Around then I had also started writing fiction seriously, and part of the ritual of writing seriously is reading seriously, and for me that also required the accumulation of books. At the time we were set to move, we had a basement lined with bookshelves. We had to get rid of easily 80% of those books.

Jon and I were allowed two boxes of books apiece to take with us. My other partner, Sam, only had a single box of books to start with. Unlike me and Jon, she is a Library Person. You know them: voracious readers, inconstant, non-possessive sorts. Jon and I are Book Owners, which meant we had tough decisions to make. I came up with a list of criteria books had to pass to make it to the Rocky Mountains. Had I read it? Was I going to actually read it if I hadn’t (be honest)? If I had read it, would I reread it? Did it have sentimental value? If it was a holdover from grad school, would it be useful in my new job? If the book didn’t fall into any of those buckets, I gave it into the greedy, waiting hands of my ravenous grad school friends. I whittled my books down to two cardboard boxes, and the rest scattered to the wind. Getting rid of the books was actually harder on my partner, Jon, than it was on me. Jon fretted and wept, but eventually he got his down to the requisite two boxes, too, and off we went to Denver.

We landed in a smaller house in Colorado than we had in Michigan. Perfectly reasonably sized, but with less room to hide things away. When we moved into the new house, Sam instituted a new rule: the amount of books must stabilize. If a new book comes in, an old book must leave. We just didn’t have the room to start mounting up piles of random books again, she said. And she was right. We only had two book shelves to work with in our new house, and living with a toddler meant that functionally speaking they weren’t even complete bookshelves. The bottom shelves were off-limits–anything in them was getting plucked off by our kid and hidden around the house or covered in peanut butter. So, really, we only had one and a half book shelves to work with.

one of our two packed-to-the-brim bookshelves

one of our two packed-to-the-brim bookshelves

I had long been a physical book holdout up until then, but I cracked like an eggshell when Sam put her foot down. I saved up, and within months, I bought a Kindle. I had to feed my habit, man! It was a perfect compromise–an e-reader meant I could buy all the books I wanted without running into physical space constraints. I could have my cake and eat it, too!

I thought the switch from a physical book to an ebook would be a transition, but it wasn’t. I thought I would miss the feel of turning pages, but I didn’t. I found I liked the size and feel of the Kindle, and I liked that I could read it in bed without the light on. I liked that if I finished a book on the bus I could immediately start reading a new one. I liked that I could still highlight and annotate my books1. It surprised me how little switching back and forth between formats changed my reading habits and style.

We still have Sam’s rule in the house these days. She’s appended caveats to it, because I can’t help myself, and I sneak in books anyway. There are little piles of contraband books stacked in the corners of my bedroom because they don’t fit on our bookshelves. New physical books are only allowed in the house if:

  • another book leaves subsequently
  • if I am the only one interested in the book, the new book is unavailable in ebook format OR the book is likely to be read by Sam or Jon2
  • Buying the book supports diversity in literature (the book either features diverse characters, was written by a diverse author, or both)

Honestly, if Sam knew how many books are not coming into our house because I bought the ebook instead, she’d throw a party. Or she’d get mad because she thought I was spending way less money on books. It’s hard to tell. In any case, the kindle has been a major space saver.

~

1I have always been one to annotate/defile physical copies of books.

2Neither of them have jumped on the ebook train like I have. They’ll do it if they have to, but they don’t like to. I got away with buying Shadowshaper in hardcopy because Sam is interested in reading it AND it features diverse characters/was written by an author of color. So far I haven’t gotten rid of anything to make space for it. Don’t tell Sam.


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Advice to New Writers: Remember To Add Conflict!

click through for source

click through for source

The Garden of Eden only got interesting when Eve at that apple.

The Awl recently ran an lovely piece interrogating why utopian novels are, by and large, not all that readable. Noah Berlatsky cites a number of reasons in his analysis, but really it comes down to this: narratives need conflict, and utopias, by definition, don’t have substantial enough conflicts to keep us interested as readers. There are no real problems in these worlds; there is nothing to overcome. And, therefore, there is nothing for the reader to root for or relate to. It’s purely aspirational.

Utopias also echo a common weakness in the stories of new writers. Here’s an example from my own writing: I wrote a story1 where the beats were largely as follows:

  • boy and best friend go to a bar
  • boy watches best friend make his rounds; boy winds up playing bartender
  • boy gets hit on and gently passes on another boy
  • boy goes home alone, feeling fine with his life choices

Ok, in retrospect, that’s…not actually an interesting story. It’s not even a story. There were some nice moments in it, and some good turns of phrase, but on rereading it a year or so later I kept waiting for something to happen. For anything to happen. Like, why was I writing this night of this kid’s life? It was just a night, any night, a purely unremarkable night. There was no conflict. There was nothing driving the story.

This doesn’t mean that your protagonist has to Go On A Quest for there to be conflict. Conflict can be mined from everyday interactions. Here’s another story of mine2, written around the same time, featuring the same character, which actually does have a conflict and a resolution and this is an actual story:

  • girl and boy start hanging out
  • girl likes boy, doesn’t know if boy likes her back
  • girl kisses this boy. He giggles like a mad man. She is embarrassed.
  • boy gets his shit together and writes her a poem because he does actually like her back
  • girl and boy are happily for now

See? It’s not a grand, sweeping, world-altering conflict, but it’s a conflict! She is unsure! She took a risk! She doesn’t know what will happen! There is uncertainty! those are all signs of a conflict.

The truth is that if your story doesn’t have a conflict driving its characters forward, no matter how pretty your language is, your reader will probably disengage. A story without a conflict is essentially a story without a plot.

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1This story will probably never see the light of day, and we’re all better for it, trust me.

2While this story is marginally better than The One With No Conflict, you really don’t want to read this one either.

Measuring Success

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Thanks, Lithub. I know.* (click for article)

One thing that writers always get asked in interviews, and that I’ve now gotten asked myself, is why we write. Embedded in this question is a question of success: what are you trying to achieve with your writing? How will you know when you have achieved it?

I write because I like to write. And I still like to write–so I am successful on that front.

I write because we need diverse books. I want to contribute to a body of literature that gives voice and life to positive representations of queer characters, women characters, trans* and gender variant characters, characters with disabilities, characters of color, characters in poverty and characters who live at the intersections of all of these axes. I try my hardest to do this.

I publish in case the stories I create resonate with others. It’s not that literally no one will read my book. It’s that just a few people will read my books. Look, who reads book about queer elves? Queer nerds. My own people. I’m not writing for everyone. I’m a queer nerd writing books for other queer nerds. So it’s all right by my if almost literally no one reads my books, because for most people my books probably aren’t really going to resonate. Otherwise I would just write my books and let them hang out on my computer.

Am I successful with publishing these stories and books? There is definitely room to grow. Building a readership is a slow business. But it’s happening. Story by story, book by books it’s happening. Reviews trickle in, I get periodic emails from people I’ve never met who have stumbled across my work, who are moved enough to reach out to me because something I wrote resonated. Because they saw themselves in the queerness of my writing. Which is why I wrote it, and why I shoved it out there in the great glutted marketplace of stories all vying for attention in the first place: in case it made someone marginalized by society feel a little more validated.

I write to validate myself. I publish what I write to validate others like me.

Support diverse literature.
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*For further reading about the insularity and false-famousness of the literary world, read this fascinating interview with Nell Zink.

Dissecting ARIAH’s Opening Paragraph

Every couple of months, a new listicle pops up on my Facebook or Twitter feed rounding up the greatest opening lines in literature. Or there’s pitchmases. Or there are improve-your-writing articles about landing an agent by sharpening your opening sentences. Obviously the start of a story is important. I think, on that, we can all agree. Today I thought I’d walk you through the evolution of some of my opening lines.

This is the opening paragraph of my second novel, Ariah, which was released last week:

There are times I still have nightmares about that first day in Rabatha. I’d come from Ardijan, which is a small place built around the river and the factories. It’s a town that is mostly inhabited by the elves who work the factories with a smattering of Qin foremen and administrators. We outnumber them there. We’re still poor and overworked, we still get hassled, but there is a comfort in numbers. It was a comfort so deeply bred in me that stepping off the train in Rabatha was a harrowing experience. The train, a loud, violent thing that cloaked half the city in steam, plowed right into the center of the city and dropped me off only three streets away from the palace. Even with all the steam, I could see its spires and domes. Even with all the commotion, I could hear the barked orders and vicious slurs of the Qin enforcement agents.

In order to craft successful opening lines, you may need to take a step back and consider what you want them to do. This is your first interaction with your reader. These sentences have to set your tone, kick off your plot, introduce your setting and your characters—any number of things. Choose wisely. In the case of Ariah, I really needed to emphasize:

  • The story is told in retrospect
  • Ariah’s deep emotional sensitivity (he still has nightmares)
  • Ariah is an elf, which is an oppressed class in this world (there are slurs thrown at him when he arrives)
  • Create a sense of urgency and chaos in the reader

Ok, compare that to the opening of the first draft of Ariah*:

I honestly had no idea what to expect that day. I suppose that’s how most feel, though, when they first meet those who are supposed to take them on as apprentices. Then again, usually it’s already someone you know – someone from your town, someone that runs in the same circles with your parents. The kind of person whose children you played with growing up. So most probably at least knew what they were getting into. I didn’t. I was shipped off to the capital, a strange bustling city I’d never been to before, and told to go see someone whose name I’d only ever seen on the spines of books in my mother’s study. All I really knew was that I was terribly nervous. What if he didn’t like me? Would it be worse if he took me on as a pupil anyway or refused my parents’ request? What if I didn’t like him?

Clearly I rewrote this, which means I don’t think it’s that strong. I think this opening lacks urgency—it’s meandering where it should be gripping. It’s thoughtful where it should have some force to it. It’s more focused on Ariah’s unnamed mentor than on Ariah himself. It’s shot through with telling instead of showing: he says he’s nervous, but we, as readers, don’t feel that nervousness. We are not immersed in a situation that makes us feel nervous with him.

Most of my openings start like this in the first draft—bland, telling without the showing. They usually drastically improve in revisions. Often, simply because in the second draft I actually know the story I’m telling. For example, one reason the first draft opening is written about the mentor is because the story was originally supposed to be about the mentor. Ariah was only supposed to be a viewpoint character reflecting on the mentor, but then Ariah took on a life of his own and took over the narrative. He went rogue, and the opening lines became an artifact of a story that was never actually written.

In my writing, the opening lines of first drafts get written first—sloppily—simply because you have to write something. You have to start somewhere. The rest of the draft comes together, the writing tightens up as it does, you find your voice somewhere in the middle and get a cadence. By the end of the first draft you finally have figured out what the story is about. Then, you start rewriting. You fiddle with the first part, and you rewrite, and you rewrite, but those opening lines are actually the last thing to get seriously tweaked and polished precisely because they are the first thing everyone will actually see. Those lines are high-stakes, which makes them intimidating as shit, so you hold them off and perfect everything else, then you perfect them.

I am generally not a critical self-editor, except when it comes to the first paragraph and the last paragraph, these make-or-break-a-book lines. These are the ones that have to be just right. These are also the ones, though, that can be killed by too much fussing. You have to let them breathe; you have to resist the urge to over-write them. You have to trust your gut that you’ve finished them and done them as well as you have it in you to do them. You have to stop yourself from fiddling with them forever to stave off the terror of putting your work out there.

*Oh, man, showing you parts of a first draft is like showing you my messy bedroom. I know everyone has one, but it doesn’t make it any less embarrassing.

Flexing New Muscles

and by new muscles I mean that weird arm which recently grew out of my book

and by new muscles I mean that weird arm which recently grew out of my book

In the month of January 2014, I wrote a bunch of things, and really none of them were in what I’ve always considered to be my comfort zone. Over the last few years, as my identity as a writer has slowly solidified, I’ve come to view myself as a novelist who works in one very expansive secondary universe (Aerdh). Until last year, I never really pushed myself to write short stories. Until recently, I hadn’t pushed myself to stretch past my primary universe.

In January, I wrote two nonfiction pieces. I rarely write personal essays, though it’s something I’d like to do more of. I tend to let my lived experiences creep in and color my fiction rather than relating them frankly and explicitly. So, that was a stretch.

I also completed three short stories and started a fourth in January. Only one of those was set in Aerdh. One of the stories is a contemporary fantasy based on Celtic myth. One of the stories is a historical lesbian mad scientist bit of speculative fiction. The one I have yet to finish is my first piece of straight up science fiction.

A year ago, I had only just started writing short stories, and I’d only written one single piece outside the universe of Aerdh. I sort of thought I wouldn’t be able to write anything but novels set in Aerdh; I thought of myself as a one-trick pony, I guess. It happened pretty organically—I’d been meaning to stretch myself by writing outside of Aerdh for some time, and I hit a bit of a block with the (Aerdh) novel I’ve been working on, The Incoming Tide, so I poked around the internet for calls for submission. Each of the pieces I wrote last month was specifically written for a call which outlined a theme or concept. Just that little external nudge and I found myself writing things I would never have guessed I had it in me to write.

Every time I feel like I’ve hit my stride as a writer, I either stumble or I inadvertently leap forward. It’s funny that growth happens that way, in these pitfalls and great jumps. I always assume growth will be this smooth, steady transition, but it never is. It hops and skips, and one month you’re struggling and the next month you’ve gone and impressed yourself.

Epiphany Time: I’m Never Going to Leave My Day Job

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my kiddo says you can pry my day job from my cold dead hands

I’m Officially Published now, not once but twice over. I now have Professional Fiction Writing Credits. That is amazing and wonderful and I am so proud of myself. It’s also set me thinking about what role writing plays in my life, both professionally and personally.

The ubiquitous dream of aspiring writers like myself is to make enough from your writing to live off of. A measure of whether or not a writer has “made it” is if they’ve been able to quit their day job. The thought of having all day to write at a leisurely pace, of taking an hour out of your day here and there to grant a fawning interview, yes that sounds divine. I think I just assumed that’s what I wanted, too. But I don’t really think it is.

To date I have made a sweet $23.00 off my writerly pursuits—shit, you guys, that’s a whole pizza! Obviously right now I have to keep my day job. I have spent more money on contest entries than I have earned back in sales. But here’s a thought experiment: let’s say one of my books really takes off. Like, it gets Harry Potter huge. What about then? It feels nigh-heretical to me, but I…think I want to keep my day job. I think I need to keep my day job for my own sanity.

Let me lay it out for you. I am the primary breadwinner of a family of four, and one of those four people is a toddler who depends on me for literally everything. I have two partners, both of whom do part-time or piecemeal work. Of the three of us, I am best positioned to get a solidly middle-class salaried position that can keep us afloat both by virtue of social/educational capital and by way of comfort working an office job. I am cool with it, and they are cool with it, too. If I were to tell my partners “hey, y’all, I think I want to give this writing-full-time thing a go, and I’m quitting my day job to do that” I have no doubt at all that they would support me. But life would be a scramble, and it would mean forcing one or both of them into positions where I get to pursue this at the expense of their quality of life. And most of all, it would be unstable.

I grew up in a financially unstable household. I grew up with bill collectors calling and the phone lines getting cut off; the whole nine yards. It is decidedly Not Fun. In my adult life, I have never paid my rent late, not one time, not ever. I am ridiculously conscientious with my family’s finances because I quite literally cannot go back to that kind of financial instability. I would lose my mind. These days, even the thought of not being the one in charge of paying the family bills and making the family budget lands me in a cold sweat. And if I wasn’t the breadwinner, would I have to give up that level of economic control within the family? I would think so. To manage the finances so closely otherwise would feel like overstepping a boundary.

I have an anxiety disorder, and it cozies up to the occasional major depressive episode. One thing that makes my anxiety flare up is financial instability. A couple of years ago, I finished my Ph.D. and went on the non-academic job market looking for a new gig. It was a nightmare. It was hellish. I could barely see straight I was so anxious. I was in danger of bursting into tears at any given moment. I couldn’t sleep. And I had a job while I was looking, which is the best case scenario since it meant I still had an income rolling in. But all those unknowns—what if I get fired if I go to this job interview? If I get that job, where will we live? Should we renew the lease? Should I be looking for jobs in a different area of the country?—those unknowns tore my brain to pieces. In many ways, the process of looking for a new job post-grad school was a time of pure psychological violence for me. Thanks capitalism.

With writing full time, there are no guarantees. There is no salary, no steady and reliable income. There are certainly no health care benefits (and as the only salaried full-time employee in the household, guess where the health care for my spouse and child comes from). Psychologically, I don’t have what it takes to be a starving artist. I crave the routine and stability of a day job. When I was on the job market? I hardly ever wrote fiction. Like most people, I can’t write for shit when I’m too anxious to handle making a sandwich. If I were to quit my job, I would be so obsessed with all the uncertainty of living off my writing that I ironically would probably not actually be able to write. Socially, it’s not really an option either. I have dependents. Starving artists just scraping by should not be doing so with children in tow. That’s selfish. It’s bad parenting.

I also need the balance of doing something other than writing. I need the contact with the outside world going to a job every day gives me. I get all weird when left alone too long. Weird and hermit-y and all Alan Moore-ish. Which, that’s fine for Alan Moore, but I do feel like there is value in being able to competently interface with society at large. I’d like to keep those skills sharpened, and introvert that I am, I am likely to let them go dull and unused without something to prod me to leave my house on the regular.

Besides that, I work in public education, which is something I am as passionate about as I am my writing. I really do need the balance; I love writing, and I fully believe that the act of writing can be radical and transformative and revolutionary. But it’s not the only way to effect change. I like to write my radical and revolutionary fictions and I like to push the education system hard from the inside. I want to have my cake and eat it, too.

My family makes ample space for me to write. I have a working routine, and I produce a lot of content while working full time. I would love to have a bestseller! Shit, it would be pretty sweet to scoop up the Nobel Prize for Literature. Or any prize for literature. But the mercurial and unpredictable life of a full-time writer is not something for which I am cut out. Which begs the question: if success for me is not financial, then what would success look like?