Writing Tip: Figure Out Your Comfort Zone And Go From There

comfortzones1

Three domains for awesome reading: good characters, good plot, good prose.

I would contend that truly stellar writing excels in three domains: it has excellent characterization, the plot keeps you coming back for more, and the prose itself is to die for.1

I would also contend that generally writers tend to have a comfort zone–one of these three domains is easier to write and comes more naturally than the others.

When I was just starting to write, I got really hung up on trying to nail all three domains right out of the gate every single time. Because that’s what it took, right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, that what it takes for a finished piece of writing to succeed. But that will pretty much make it impossible for me, personally, to get through a first draft of anything. So, in order to have something to polish, something to finish in the first place, I had to stop overthinking it. I had to get that first draft done, get it out, on paper, all the way through.

The way I see it, you’re not going to get to what I call “optimal writing,” or that primo grade-A book-hangover read-until-way-past-your-bedtime stuff until the polished final draft anyway. By then, you already know what kind of book you’re writing. See how in that graphic up there the optimal writing is buried deep in the center? That’s because it’s hard to get to. You have to chart a path.

My advice is this: in the first draft, play to you strengths and write fast by starting in your comfort zone. In the second draft, when you have a better idea of what you’re actually doing with the piece, fill in the gaps with the thing you’re second best at. Save the hardest for last. That’s the the part you wait until the endgame for. That’s the polish. You do that third, very hard thing while you’ve really nailed down the other two. By then you know the book like the back of your hand. You’ve got the rhythm down, the themes laid out. You know what you’re doing with it. Your writing isn’t exploratory anymore, so with this last piece it’s more targeted revisions.

An Example: How I Wrote Ariah

Start with characters, take a sharp right at plots, just barly squeak into good writing. BAM! That's how I wrote ARIAH.

The B R Sanders: Start with characters, take a sharp right at plots, just barely squeak into good writing. BAM! That’s how I wrote ARIAH.

I’m a very character-driven writer. Virtually all my narratives start first with an idea of a character, then with a complication in the form of a relationship. The cast forms, radiating out from one or two key characters who I understand in minute, intricate detail. I often don’t even have notes about these central characters. I just know them. Ariah, Sorcha, Shayat–I never had to write anything down, or plan anything out, or keep anything straight. I just, weirdly, knew them.

But all the other characters in Ariah had dossiers as I started drafting the book, because they were fuzzier and needed filling in. They were less organically alive, less vibrant (which is maybe why it wasn’t their story) so I made those notes.

I didn’t really get the plot of Ariah right until the second draft. I didn’t really know what the book was about until then, but I sure as hell knew who was in it. I wrote it, let it sit for a while, and re-read it. I made notes to myself on the re-read about plot stuff. Again, it happened naturally–I think of the three domains plot building is my second best. And I outlined a better, stronger plot for the book, which I followed almost to the letter in the revisions.

And then there was description. Not my strong suit. I…punted. I do not consider myself a stylist. I would say I have a sturdy, workable prose style. I tend to read my own writing for grammar and comprehension. I do not fiddle with my sentence. That way, for me, lies madness. They will never be perfect enough. So, I made sure the draft was coherent (in that the action seemed descriptive enough, and the dialogue was easy to follow, as it had tags that told you who was speaking–things that my first draft lacked in places), and subbed the book. My truly excellent editor was wonderful at pointing out which places needed more description and which needed a little less. Where my writing hit the Optimal Writing Zone instead of lingering in the murky green good characterization/satisfying plot wilderness, she probably had a hand in.

Ok, So What Does This Mean For You?

The Raymond Chandler: You start with the plot (a wicked detailed outline, mayhaps?), then branch out into characters. Polish up that prose, then head straight to the promised land.

The Raymond Chandler: You start with the plot (a wicked detailed outline, mayhaps?), then branch out into characters. Polish up that prose, then head straight to the promised land.

But lo! That is just one way to get to the Optimal Writing Promised Land. Your route might be different. The technique–start where it’s easy, and push through to where it’s hardest–might be the same, but your starting point and ending point are likely different than mine. I’ve come up with a couple of alternatives in the graphics here, but really, the possibilities are endless.

The beauty of writing–of any art–is that there’s no one way to do it. There’s as many ways to get the art done as there are artists. But getting started is always hard. Writing a book is a daunting process. Breaking it down into those general steps–First Draft, Second Draft, Polish–makes it more manageable for me. And assigning a general skill to each one to focus on and get right in the draft–Characters, Plot, Description–helps make it even more manageable.

Ar you Anne Rice? You write very long descriptions of furniture before venturing into Prairie of Plot. You edge into Optimal Writing picking up characterization almost by accident.

The Anne Rice: You write very long descriptions of furniture before venturing into Prairie of Plot. You edge into Optimal Writing picking up characterization almost by accident.

It’s made me a better writer in the long run. I trust my characterization more with each first draft I crank out. I know, with certainty, that’s my great strength as a writer. I know I’m getting better at plotting: it’s easier to manage every time I do it. And I’m growing as a stylist, too. I’m getting a knack for knowing what to include and what not to include. I am sometimes impressed by my turns of phrase when I read my own first drafts. The reason I’m improving is because this system helps me write more–get to the finish line and cross it. It exercises all three skills, which means everything gets a little better every time.

~

1Your mileage may vary as to what each of these actually consists of, but good writing generally has all three present for it to work.


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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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Debrief: “The Scaper’s Muse”

I’m starting a new series of posts that I’m calling “debriefs.” In these posts, I’m going to provide some behind-the-scenes insight into how a piece of fiction got published: where did the idea come from? When was it written? How many times did I sub it before it saw the light of day? That kind of thing.

Partly, I’m starting this series of posts because I keep these records for myself anyway. Partly, I’m doing it because I believe radical transparency in publishing is good for all parties involved. Partly, I’m doing it because I’m always fascinated when I read these kinds of things by other authors.


“The Scaper’s Muse” is included in Glitterwolf #9: The Gender Issue

Through bad luck and circumstance, Gavin Camayo is very politely exiled to an alien planet. But Stahvi is a fascinating place, and his stipend keeps coming from the corporation back home, so Gavin doesn’t mind the exile so much. There’s plenty of strange wonders around to keep him amused. But what happens when a familiar wonder—the person who lands him in exile in the first place—appears on Stahvi, too? “The Scaper’s Muse” is a science fiction short story about the interplay between identity and vanity set in an alien landscape.

Publication date: 7/30/2015

Completion date:
12/13/2013

Number of times subbed: Six. The story was rejected five times, with one of those being a very near miss and one of those actually being from Glitterwolf #8: Identity1. The story also received no response from one market2 before being accepted and published in Glitterwolf #9.

The story of the story:
Like many of my short stories, “The Scaper’s Muse” was written in response to a call for submissions. It was an especially vague call, one requiring only that the work to be tied to a flavor of quark (up or down, strange or charming, top or bottom). I chose strange or charming, and that gave me enough direction to start somewhere. I figured, honestly, strange/charming was the spec-ficcy of the three.

I had, for a couple of years, had half a seed of a story niggling around in my brain for some sort of spec-fic updated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight3 thingamob. This is where most of my short fiction comes from: a weird alchemy of prompts from calls I stumble across and these little unsprung seeds my brain has hidden away. Something about the strange/charming prompt sprouted the Gawain and the Green Knight update, and I was off.

So, there you have it: “The Scaper’s Muse” is, essentially, a sci-fi queer interrogation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, all in under three thousand words!

Placing the story:
It was not an easy story to place. It’s odd. It’s mannerpunkish? And queer. And trans*. And sci-fi, but somehow very lit-sci-fi. I remembered as it took shape wondering if it was maybe to literary (not sci-fi enough) for spec markets and if it would be to genre (not literary enough) for lit markets. But definitely super-duper queer, so it would have to be a queer market no matter what

When the place that issued the call didn’t pan out, I ended up subbing to two place I’d subbed to before on the rationale that they’d seen my stuff and liked my stuff before–that’s how odd this little thing was. Usually I strike out into foreign territory because I am unknown with few ready leads, but this time I went to known quantities not once but twice. One of them was Glitterwolf, which ended up being an ideal fit. Look at that cover! Exactly the aesthetic of the piece.


1I subbed to Glitterwolf only once with a note that “The Scaper’s Muse” would be a good fit for either issue 8 or 9, and the editor at Glitterwolf sent me back a single note that did the double duty of rejecting the story for 8 and accepting the story for 9. That’s why the sub count is listed at six although there are technically seven outcomes. I used to teach stats and am an analysis in my day job I am compelled to be this pedantic please bear with me.

2This was the first place I subbed to, and the place that issued the initial call for which the piece was originally written. I don’t think the issue ever came together. Sadly, I think this magazine one up one of the tragic one-issue-wonder lit mags out there.

3The Pearl Poet: some real old school speculative fiction.


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Thanks for the ships, Melville!

click through for source

click through for source

Despite my landlubber life, I’ve always had a fascination with books about the sea. Maybe that’s part of why I love Melville so much.

It’s not surprising, then, that one of the earliest inventions of the world of Aerdh were the pirates. I’m certainly not the first person to write about a spec fic pirate  society, and I won’t be the last. The pirates of Aerdh figure heavily in the plot of The Search, the follow-up to Ariah that I’m currently writing.

For someone who loves worldbuilding, pirates are inherently fascinating. What does it mean to create a society that is inherently a society of outcasts? What sort of mores do they hold? For a society to survive, it has to last more than a generation, which means that children must be born and raised into it. What are the people indigenous to that way of life like? How do they see the world? How do they justify that their culture is, by definition, parasitic–for them to prosper, they must prey on other cultures. And what about the economies that spring up in the pirates’ wake? What are the moral grey zones there?

I’ve written about the pirates before, most notably in Cargo. One of the major secondary characters in The Search is a pirate king–defining the scope of his influence and how he wields it is enlightening. The Search is building out pirate culture above and beyond what was seen in Cargo, and I’m having a wonderful time exploring it.

Beyond the idea of the pirates themselves, with their potential for outlaw justice and redemptive arcs and sanctuary for marginalized individuals, there are the ships. Melville, in his books, used the microcosm that is life on a ship to great effect. I think I was always taken with that, with the way that ship life pens you in with a very limited number of people in a very proscribed amount of space. Ships are truly tiny little worlds of their own drifting through the maw of pure natural force.

Such a strange thing, and such a raw thing, and how could you not then forge such deep relationships with your crew? How could they not become your family? No one ever has neutral feelings about family. You only ever love them dearly or hate the sight of your family. Imagine spending all that time working a ship with someone you can’t stand, who annoys the shit out of you, but you know your life is basically in their hands. It’s maddening. The psychology of ships is insane. So, I keep coming back to them in my writing.

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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.

Sex as Worldbuilding

A couple of days ago, I read Karin Kross’s recap of the Sex and Science Fiction panel that happened at SDCC. From Karin’s recap, it sounds like the panel was equal parts thoughtful1 and irritating2. In any case, the recap got me thinking about the role sex plays in my own writing.

Just narrowing the scope of this post to sex, the act itself, and how that has occurred in my fiction, I’ve tried to explore it in ways that mirror the way sex is used Ariah_FrontCoverOnlyin the real world. Which, yes, often sex is an expression of love. Or desire. But many times, sex is divorced from both of those things: it can be used as a weapon (either literallyy or figuratively). It can be used transactionally, economically. Sometimes these uses blend together, and you can’t separate one from another.

Sex for love and desire happens often in my writing; my characters tend to be sexually and romantically agentic people. Yay for them! That’s why Ariah was classified as a romance, after all3. But here are some other ways sex has appeared in my fiction:

Matters of Scale coverMatters of Scale” touches obliquely on the issue of sexual addiction. Both “Matters of Scale” and Ariah explore the intersection of sex and magic with regard to shapers, for whom sex is complicated—consent is tricky because they essentially black out4. Some shapers self-medicate with sex to escape the constant noise of their magical abilities, just like some real-life people use sex to keep anxiety or depression or other demons at bay.

Cargo is one of the very few places I’ve written about sexual violence. It’s a topic I write about infrequently, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s triggering and it’s often written about flippantly and inappropriately. But it does happen.

Cargo also introduced the Aerdh-pirate concept of tethers, or captain’s concubines. CargoMy current work-in-progress, The Search, is exploring the nuance and nature of tetherdom in greater detail. This is sex as transaction, or at the very least implied sex as transaction, but it’s not coercive. The Search is going further, too: what would a brothel that is not coercive and exploitative look like? What would a sex worker-run brothel look like?

All of these elements were as plot-driven and plot-driving as the romantic and lusty bits. All of these elements, I think, were also key to include from a worldbuilding perspective, as well. It’s false to think of sex one way. It has always been a flexible part of human nature, used and abused and traded in a hundred different ways. Hopefully one day we won’t abuse it anymore, but I think we’ll continue to trade it (hopefully ethically—because I think we can trade it ethically). At the very least, unless you’re writing in a utopia, your world needs to include all the permutations of how sex occurs.


1Wesley Chu

2Nick Cole

3Ariah was published by Love, Sex & Merlot, the Romance imprint of the Zharmae Publishing Press, not its fantasy imprint (Luthando Couer).

4I am coming to realize there is likely a whole separate post in this.

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.
________________
*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.

On Finishing THE INCOMING TIDE

TheIncomingTide_wordle

According to my meticulously kept daily writing records, I started planning out The Incoming Tide last October two days after finishing Extraction. The records show fairly steady work on it, interrupted now and again for a burst of short stories or focused edits on other projects further down the publishing pipeline. Still, I didn’t finish the first draft of The Incoming Tide until May 22nd. It clocked in at 70k words, which is on the slim side for a novel. It took me seven months to crank out 70k words. Maybe that’s not slow, but it certainly felt slow to me—Ariah is a hefty 128k words and I wrote it in a little under three months. Ariah is nearly twice as long and took half the time, so what gives?

The Incoming Tide was an altogether different beast. Ariah was a second draft. It was a substantively rewritten second draft, but still it was a second draft. I knew the characters. I knew the shape and color of the narrative. I knew, in short, what I was writing. So there’s that: first drafts feel different, and for me, they often take a little more time to get out. And, actually, referring once again to my copious records, The Incoming Tide is the only first draft of a novel I’ve written since I started trying to get my work out there. Everything else had been rewrites. Extraction, the volume preceding Tide in the Tale of Rebellion series, is on its fourth draft.

But it was more than that. Tide felt sometimes hard to write. I felt a weird pressure while living in that book. Drafting and redrafting and redrafting Extraction meant that I could never quite move past it. Tide was like a light at the end of that tunnel. Tide was the promised land. It’s strange, you know, getting finally to that blinding light. It takes awhile for your eyes to adjust. It took me some time to find the rhythm of Tide, to find the style and voice of it.

Of course as soon as I finished Tide I started planning the follow-up book, The King and His Makers. Of course I did. But I’ve taken a couple of weeks off from it to queue up blog posts, to work on edits for Ariah, to ponder life. A little bit of space, I think, will take the edge off and make the first draft of King a little less scary.

Book Review: HOW TO SUPPRESS WOMEN’S WRITING

I cannot tell you how much I love this cover.

I cannot tell you how much I love this cover.

For reasons both good and bad, How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ reads like it could have been written yesterday. Actually, the book is older than me—published in 1983—but Russ’ smirking, clear-eyed perspective is still relevant.

How To Suppress Women’s Writing investigates historical and social reasons that may have kept whole generations of women from writing in the first place (things like differential rates of literacy, disparate access to education, women’s historical lack of leisure time and position as wife as a second work shift). She also interrogates how it is that when women somehow do manage to write that women’s writing is ignored, slandered or undercut. The book was published by the University of Texas Press, which puts it squarely in the realm of academic works, but the writing is colloquial and accessible throughout. You do not need to be steeped in literary criticism or feminist theory to read and understand Russ’ arguments here, which is a great strength*.

She argues that what is considered “good” or “worthy” literature (and by extension, that which is taught and thus survives across generations) is designated as such by privileged groups who have a vested interest in keeping themselves privileged. The ways in which they limit entrance or access to literature are by mental acrobatics such as assuming women writers didn’t really write their works, or that it doesn’t matter if they wrote it because it’s the wrong kind of work, or that maybe they wrote it and maybe it’s good but it’s the only good thing she ever wrote. Some of this is deliberate, but just as much is unconscious bias. Each chapter is broken into one tactic that has been used to suppress women’s writing, and Russ packs her chapters full of anecdotes, survey results, and historical examples to support her claims. And, somehow, she does it with a wry and witty voice that makes the writing lively.

Still, the book is not a perfect one. It’s centered very squarely on white middle class women’s experiences. Russ occasionally throws in an anecdote about her friend and colleague, Samuel Delany, a Black scifi writer, but he himself is tokenized in the doing. Clearly throughout the text she attempts to draw parallels between gendered exclusions in literary circles and race-based exclusions, but Delany pops up over and over again as if he is the only Black writer she knows (and as if Black writers are the only voices who can counterpart the voices of white writers). White lesbian authors pop up far more frequently than writers of color, and women writers of color are virtually never mentioned in the main body of the text. This lack of intersectional focus irked me while I read it—it’s such a good book, and also such a clear example of the failings of second wave feminism. Russ uses the Afterword to acknowledge her failing here, directly addressing her unfamiliarity with and inability to capture the struggles of women writers of color. She talks about stumbling across a beautiful, rich treasure trove of writing by women of color—a parallel canon, as it were—which unintentional struck me as fetishizing and exoticizing of women of color’s experiences.

That said, her idea of a parallel literary tradition is what resonated with me most. The book is predicated on the idea that the established canon should include more women, which yes, it should. But underlying that idea is an assumption that women writers should want to be part of that canon, which I’m not entirely sure is the case for all women writers, or all marginalized writers more broadly. This, again, strikes me as a distinctly white middle class second-wave feminist reaction: when barred entry break through the bars. Personally, when I am turned away from something I return to my community and make a safe space there (be that along class lines, lines of gender or lines of sexuality). I am more interested in creating and participating in alternative literary traditions, exploring what the limits of queer or working class or trans* writing can be, than gaining approval of wealthy cis straight white men. I’m pretty much done trying to impress wealthy cis straight white men.

But (always there’s a but) not everyone has that option. I am not trying to make a living from my writing, but other marginalized people are. And, frankly, to make a living off your writing you still have to impress wealthy cis straight white men to do it because they hold the keys to the kingdom. A quick google search shows that women’s writing is still suppressed a full thirty years after Russ wrote her book:

Unfortunately, the following passage is just as true today as it was when she first published this book:

Women’s lives are the buried truth about men’s lives.

 

The lives of people of color are the buried truth about white lives.

 

The buried truth about the rich is who they take their money from and how.

 

The buried truth about “normal” sexuality is how one kind of sexual expression has been made privileged, and what kinds of unearned virtues and terrors this distinction serves.

 

4/5 stars

*Russ points out in the book that “women always write in the vernacular” and that this difference in language is one way that women’s writing has been historically devalued. The same can be said of the less-educated and working class—a consistent criticism I have and have heard about academia is that it uses language as a barrier to entry and as a membership check. That is, academia trains you to use words like reify and polemic and semiotic and in the doing makes your work utterly unintelligible to people without higher degrees. As someone whose work in graduate school was explicitly focused on class identity, this was a tension I ran into over and over again: how to communicate with the groups I want to communicate with given the resources I suddenly received without speaking “too low” to my adviser and “too school” for my friends and family.