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.

Advice to New Writers: First, You Have To Finish It

keep-calm-and-finish-it-5In my interview with Prism Book Alliance, I was asked to give new and aspiring writers a piece of advice. The advice I gave was this:

Finish things. When you’re starting to write, it’s really easy to get insecure and to hate your writing and to psych yourself out. It’s really easy to start things but not finish things. But you have to finish things. If you don’t finish the things you start, then you won’t learn how to craft a narrative. You won’t learn how to push through that crappy first draft and turn off that critical editor voice until the second draft. Remember, you can’t publish something that isn’t finished. You have to learn to finish things.

I thought I’d take today’s post to expand on this advice. The funny thing about the way I got into writing fiction is that I started writing to help someone else finish what they started. Basically everything set in the universe of Aerdh–from “The Other Side of Town” to Ariah–can be traced back to that. My partner, Jon, was dabbling in fiction, and I liked what he was writing, but he wasn’t finishing it. So I stepped in to help. I became the finisher. And over time, I ended up doing all the writing.

Not finishing what you start is a form of self-rejection. It’s a way of letting your fear that you’r not a good writer prevent you from doing the work that will actually make you a good writer. The truth of the matter is that when you’re just starting out it probably isn’t good. And that’s ok. The trick is to finish it anyway. You won’t ever get better unless you keep at it. It’s a matter of practice, of building skills. And one of the main skills you need to build is learning to craft a complete story: a beginning, a middle, and an end. But if you never finish anything, how will you learn to craft an ending?

Many of my friends who have dabbled in fiction but who have not really made a go of it suffer from starting-but-not-finishing syndrome. Either they start a handful of things when inspiration strikes and bail on the stories at the first sign of trouble, or they have been fastidiously tinkering with the same novel year in and year out.

In the first case, this won’t lead to growth as a writer because there’s no diligence. Writing is a craft, and should be treated as such. It’s a set of skills, and if you really want to grow as a writer, you should approach it as a set of tools you want to sharpen and hone. The myth of the muse dropping into your lap, hypnotizing you into feverishly churning out an opus is just that: a myth. This is a way of trying to avoid that there’s the actual work of writing in being a writer. Forcing yourself to finish things, even when it’s a slog, will give you the grit needed to get the work done.

In the second case, you’re not growing as a writer because you’re trying to write and edit at the same time. Do one, then the other. Stop trying to fine tune your first draft before you’ve finished writing it. But that can be hard to do when you’ve tinkered with it for years! By then, you’ve invested so much time and energy that finishing it feels huge and overwhelming. Take the finishing part in pieces. Maybe write the ending and work backwards. But finish it first, then start tweaking it again. Otherwise, you’re just stalling, which is another form of self-rejection. Better yet, finish it, send it to a beta reader, then tweak it per the beta reader’s feedback. But finishing it is key.

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

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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.

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.

Stuck in Rewrite Mode

It’s hard to write the second half of a story when you’ve only ever written the first half. Extraction is done, and I’m working on its sequel, which I’ve tentatively titled The Incoming Tide. Drafting The Incoming Tide is a completely different experience than rewriting Extraction—as I mentioned in this post , Extraction brewed for years and was the fourth completely overhauled draft of the book. Extraction was a matter of writing the same story over and over; I knew what its themes were, and I knew where it needed to go before I ever sat down at the keyboard this time around.

The thing about The Incoming Tide is that it’s only ever existed as sketched-out worldbuilding notes. Because I’ve written past this moment in Aerdh’s history (notably in Ariah and sections of Sound and Song) I know how the story ends. And I have a fairly detailed outline worked out already. I know what I’m writing, but writing it the first time and writing it the fourth time are different experiences.

Since The Incoming Tide is yet in its infancy, it’s a strangely reflective process. According to my writing log*, I started The Incoming Tide on Halloween, which means I’ve been working on it for about three weeks. And I’ve made progress:

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16k words in three weeks is not bad at all. Three chapters in as many weeks is nothing to smirk at. So, the writing is clipping right along. The thing about it is that I’m trying to work how how to write the story right along with what the story actually is. This two-headed discovery process characterizes first drafts for me, and sometimes it’s thrilling and sometimes it’s unnerving. This time, for whatever reason, it’s unnerving. I’m second-guessing everything—are these the right viewpoint characters? Is the pacing alright? I think I have to many plot threads going already and need to scale back; Extraction really crystallized as a book when I pared it down. Right now, the draft has two storylines working in parallel, and I think they could feasibly be split into separate books. But I like writing the characters in both! Argh.

The solution is simple, but it’s not all that easy: just keep writing. Just write it all and sort it out in the rewrite. Just write and write and write some more and get some fresh eyes on it to get it where it needs to be. Something about moving from a final iterative draft of Extraction to this completely new initial draft of The Incoming Tide has me doing something I haven’t done in years—it’s got me trying to approach a first draft like it’s the final draft. 16k words in and I’m still struggling to change my internal frame of reference.

*Spreadsheets for everything! It even has aggregation formulae and shit embedded in it!

Writing in seclusion

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a rustic tea-fueled two-person writing retreat

I’m on vacation right now, which I very much needed. I am on vacation visiting a friend whose taste in books is very nearly completely compatible with mine, and who is as much of an introvert as me. Being with her is sublimely restful. She had been considering a trip to a remote cabin in the woods, and I sort of gently invited myself along, which (it turned out) she was sort of hoping I would do. So, I flew out to Chicago, and we rented a little red car, and I drove us to the Wisconsin woods next to the Mississippi River. The cabin was twenty miles away from any cell phone reception and had electricity adequate to power my laptop but no distracting internet connection. We returned to civilization yesterday and are now in a re-entry to society day where we’re pleasantly sitting in her apartment with her cat and watching Foyle’s War and eating oreos. Tomorrow I return to Denver and my family and my job, and I’ll return restored and replenished and feeling more like myself than I have in weeks.

We didn’t do much in the cabin. We sat around drinking coffee and tea with vegan marshmallows in our hot, caffeinated beverages and talked a lot about feelings and parenthood and Supreme Court decisions and The Iliad. At one point we ventured outside to meander up a dry creek bed, but we were both stoned and neither of us navigated the rocks there with any sort of competence, so our excursion was short-lived. Really nothing happened but the tea drinking and the talking and reading and watching fireflies and some writing, but that was perfect, and the Wisconsin woods was a prefect place to be doing that particular kind of nothing.

And the writing–travelling, for some reason, brings a focus to me and makes it extremely easy to write. I rarely find it difficult to write, but there’s something about the solitude of travelling alone and the distance from the every day grind that lets my mind drift into that little writing pocket with virtually no effort. I wrote 2,349 words on the plane on the way to Chicago. I wrote another 8,772 words in the cabin itself. It was effortless writing, and it was an ideal time for some effortless writing because I managed to establish the voices of my POV characters. My friend doesn’t read my writing. She’s generally interested and we talk about writing in the abstract, and we read the same books at the same time(ish) quite frequently, but I’ve never asked her to read anything of mine and she’s never asked to read anything of mine. I think it was better this way. There are times I very much want someone around invested in what I’m writing, pushing me to get it out, wanting to consume it as much as I want to create it. And there are times I want to create things in a private, hidden bubble. I think the lack of expectation involved in writing around a friend who is not a fan of mine helped the writing.

All of this is to say that the writing for A TALE OF REBELLION is clipping along.

Writing Snippet: A TALE OF REBELLION

Idle hands while I wait for a response from the editors on RESISTANCE means I’m working again on the rewrites of THE LONG ROAD, which I’ve tentatively retitled A TALE OF REBELLION. Here’s a snippet of something I wrote yesterday:

Vath worked the compound’s washing with a young woman named Siddah. She was small and wiry, free with smiles, curious and uncomplicated. She was, like every other red elf but Vathorem, a compulsive talker, and she kept up a steady and largely one-sided conversation as they worked. “I’ve never been nowhere but the valley,” she said. “Bardonner born and raised. A body forgets there’s a world out there beyond the peaks. You all, you must be from all over.”

“From here and there,” Vath said.

Siddah grinned at him. She bestowed these pleased, delighted grins on him when he spoke. She had a giddy, contagious enthusiasm, and he found that since she weren’t asking anything of him, since she weren’t trying to suss him out, since she seemed simply pleased to have his company, that he didn’t mind her chatter. It was a lovely change of pace for him, to be stuck with someone happy and untroubled, someone who had, perhaps, never known panic. She kept on. “Where are you lot from? Rethnali, I didn’t know her or nothing. I’m young, right. I know she’s from here, but I didn’t know her myself. But the rest of you, you all must be from all over! From the flatlands. From the cities! And you all found each other in the forest and stuck together. Like a song, it is. Sort of…romantic. You think?”

“Far less romance than you’d guess,” Vath said. And then he remembered the way Fenner was forever trailing after Rethnali, and the way Sellior was forever pining over Fenner, and he laughed. “Well, there’s a bit of romance to it, I guess.”

Siddah dropped her washing in the tub of soapy water. She leaned across it, conspiratorial and curious. “Oooh, is it that tall one with the pale hair and that boy in mourning? Is that the romance?”

“Par and Selli? No. It’ll be some time before Par’s going down that road. Deep in mourning, that one. Lost his girl and he’s drowning in guilt.”

“That’s sad,” Siddah said. She plucked the sheet out of the tub and clucked her tongue.

“Mostly it’s sad stories, what we have, and not romantic ones,” Vath said.

“But you all, you’re heroes!” Siddah said. “Everyone round here says so.”

“If you really listen to heroes’ tales,” Vath said, “you’ll find they’re riddled through with a wicked sadness, each and every one.”

The girl frowned. She beat the sheets against a boulder. Vath could feel brewing in her a disquiet. She stopped and wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her arm. “If it’s all such wicked sadness,” she asked, “then what’s the point of fighting?”

Vath laughed.

Siddah looked over at him and smiled. “You laughing at me, soldier?”

“No, girl,” said Vath. “I’m laughing at me.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” she said.

“There’s no answer to it. Or there’s a thousand answers to it, and not a one is satisfactory.” Vath sat on the rocky ground and cracked his knuckles. “The reasons we started fighting aren’t the reasons we’re still at it. Some of us ain’t got nothing but fight left in us. Some of us don’t know nothing but the fight.”

More Processing on the Writing Process

I submitted RESISTANCE to the press last Sunday, and now I’m in the waiting-for-feedback limbo. I’m still very much in the process headspace, and I just finished re-reading all the Harry Potter books and having all the resulting Harry Potter feelings, so it was time to grab something new to read off the shelf. I grabbed this:

really this should be titled WATCH STEINBECK WRITE LIKE A BOSS

I didn’t really think too much about it, just shoved it in my backpack. And then I marveled at the fact that my backpack was at least 5 pounds lighter than it had been in two months since I was no longer hauling around a Harry Potter tome, but that’s neither here nor there. I grabbed it, and then I cracked it open on a bus and realized I was reading, largely in real time, a (much greater) author’s own process-y headspace while he wrote EAST OF EDEN. Apparently I am still very much in dialogue with myself about the writing process, and now I am in a one-sided dialogue with John Steinbeck, too. This volume is a collection of letters he wrote but did not send to his editor, Pascal Covici, while he wrote the first draft of EAST OF EDEN. The letter served as a warm-up exercise for him, something to get him in the groove of the day’s authorial work, and as such they flit from the gritty mundanities of smudged graphite to his ultimate sweeping purpose for his novel from paragraph to paragraph. The style is casual and unguarded, which makes sense given that he never expected anyone to read these letters, and it serves as a friendly work diary.

There are weird familiarities in terms of process as I read Steinbeck’s work diary. He talks of his book “having pups” and getting longer and longer, breeding side-stories and subplots. And, man, do I ever know that feeling. My books are all so interconnected that I sometimes feeling like I’m writing fanfiction about my own stuff. RESISTANCE, or rather its base story, “Proof”, came about because one of the leads was mentioned in “Blue Flowers” and the other lead down the line has certain interactions with some characters in THE LONG ROAD. This whole project began, essentially, as a way of filling in some backstory for other projects. Every minor character is a hero in her own story, and I have a very strong tendency to let every minor character take center stage at some point.

Steinbeck is also a much more deliberate writer than I am in terms of structure. This could be simply an individual difference, but it could also be that EAST OF EDEN was written late in Steinbeck’s career, written when he had done most of his learning and stumbling, while I’m still just crawling through. He had very particular ideas of what a chapter is or should be. He had very particular ideas about how chapters should relate to and balance each other. He came into the book very much knowing how he wanted it to be read–not necessarily what he wanted to say, but how he wanted the reader to feel, what the experience of reading it should be like. He spends much more time in his unsent letters discussing pace, discussing the need to keep himself relaxed in order to keep the text itself relaxed, than he does on plot or character development. Again, maybe this is a sign of my youth as a writer, but I haven’t yet started a project with an intent to readership experience like that. I don’t know that I can just yet.

Now, I really like RESISTANCE. I think it’s awesome. It’s no EAST of EDEN, though; that shit was a masterpiece. The biggest, strangest and most obvious revelation I’ve had reading his letters is that the work one writer is the work of all writers. Steinbeck wrote long hand with pencils–he was very, very particular about his pencils, actually and spends much time outlining his pencil preferences in these unsent letters to his editor–and I wrote RESISTANCE on a laptop. He wrote EAST OF EDEN at home at a very particular writing desk of his own design, which he fiddled with and perfected over the course of the novel, and I wrote RESISTANCE mostly on buses and airplanes. The methods are different, but his process and mine and probably everyone else’s is essentially the same: you just…write it. You just write a chunk (mostly) every day until the beast is done. Or, in Mr. Steinbeck’s own words right as he began:

I don’t suppose writing consists in anything more than doing it.

And so we do it. And sometimes we finish what we start, and sometimes we edit it, and sometimes it sees the light of day. And sometimes–so very rarely, but sometimes–someone writes and finishes and edits something that turns out to be something like EAST OF fucking EDEN.

Correcting RESISTANCE

ah, the glamorous life of a writer

ah, the glamorous life of a writer

I’ve gotten feedback from some wonderful and thoughtful beta readers. I printed out draft 1 of RESISTANCE and pored over the text myself. All that’s left before I send it to the press is to correct the draft!

I’m doing that over this weekend since working from a sheaf of loose papers and a laptop is not so bus compatible. I’m getting this iteration of the book as close to perfect as I can for the editors–though no matter how many times I go over something or someone else goes over it a fresh set of eyes unearths a new volley of crappy grammar and bad spelling. Pays to be humble, y’all.

I like this part of the process. The hard work of editing is done and all of this is just the icing on the cake. When there’s only 1-5 corrections per printed page you fly through the draft pretty quick, so there’s a happy illusion of productivity.