An Education

I attended NorWesCon42 this year, and while there were a number of amazing panels, insights, readings and friendships, what I want to talk about is education.  Specifically, an education in writing.  I have not had a formal education as a writer, and often at my lowest, I feel like I have had none.  That is a lie. My education is pieced together from a thousand places, and disseminated this way, it is easy to overlook it.

I attended a really helpful panel this year on where writers come from with authors Craig Laurance Gidney, Kat Richardson, Caroline M. Yoachim, and Yilin Wang. All of them had different backgrounds in their writerly education, and the most important thing they stressed was that there is no correct path to a career as an author.

And because it has taken me so long to accept that I am not alone, that I have built an informal education for myself out of conventions and books and time in the chair writing unpublishable nonsense, I want to pass this key on to you, whoever you may be.

However you got here, whatever method you used to learn your craft, and wherever you are on the path right now YOU ARE VALID.

Fanfiction is valid. Writing books are valid. Workshops are valid whether they last one hour or six weeks.  Your friends who read your work and give you feedback, whether or not they are also writers; they are valid resources (and golden and beautiful souls and you should hug them next time you see them.) Writing awful things and tearing them up and making them into new things is valid and necessary.  You are learning.  You will never stop learning.

If you have been waiting for someone to give you a certificate that says Now You May Write Because We Have Decided You Are Educated Enough To Do So, stop waiting.  There’s no certificate as important as the next finished story.  Because writing in itself is an education in writing.

(and so is reading)

 

I’ve read some really great things lately, so I’m going to share three of them.

Holly Heisey’s article on medium sparked the thought behind this blog post, and my time at NorWesCon only fed the fire. Speaking Up (When You’re Not Perfect And Never Will Be)

I got to hear Carolyn M. Yoachim read the first part of her story The Archronology of Love at the convention, and I just managed to read the rest today. It was beautiful and the construction was so clever and I need other people to read it so I’m not the only one holding all these feelings.

And while I did not get to hear Chimedum Ohaegbu read her story Toothsome Things at Norwescon, Erik did, and he told me as soon as he saw me that I was going to love it. I did. It’s frightening and quick, and it mashes up all the stories you know into something so much bigger. He knows my tastes so well.

 

 

 

Finish the Work

I like planning a story. Drawing maps, designing costumes, sketching character profiles. At my most extra, I will make touchstone objects for a story; a character’s favorite sweater, a pair of goggles with wire mesh lenses, a tee shirt stamped with a swarm of bats. At this stage, before everything coalesces, it is easy to play with a story’s design. The beats aren’t cemented in place, the thing is nebulous and sparkling. It’s easy to love a dream.

The writing is harder. First drafts are especially difficult, because I am forced to confront all the spaces the dream washes out. How does character get from knowing their antagonist to hating them? How does their sidekick go from annoyed acquaintance to best friend? Outlines will provide some structure, but there are places in the story that I won’t know about until we get there.

There are places in the story where I will have to hang a curtain between this world and the one I am writing, and ask that you not look behind that curtain. There are some things I can’t import into the story’s world. Many more things that I wish to exclude. As much as I am writing a world, one woman can’t be an entire universe.

I can only masquerade as one.

When I begin to pin down my story in a first draft, it loses its depths. It looks as thin as that curtain, and I worry it will tear at its first reading. My big nebulous shining thing, with all its maps and props, looks very little like the thing I wrote.

But notes and props and maps are very boring without a story to go along with them. And I can’t edit what isn’t written.

Because the trick to story telling isn’t in the props. Depth comes later, when I have a first draft, and I can tease its structure into three dimensions. I need to finish the work, and then its time to share.

#

I’ve listened to some really great stories lately. Keyan Bowes wrote a beautiful love story about research funding and the intelligence of octopuses. You can listen to Octonet on Escape Pod.

And I am Fire, I am Tears by Wendy Nikel is on Podcastle. It’s got cursed sisters and dragons and untrustworthy husbands. It felt like a lost fairy tale, a favorite one, that had just been rediscovered.

Props and Costume

I am gathering objects for a new story.

They are not all physical.  Some can’t be, because their magic does not manifest properly in this dimension.  Most won’t be, because I don’t have the stamina to learn blacksmithing or gem cutting or bonsai for a novella.

But I am collecting descriptions of these objects in a notebook, so that I will have them when the story needs them.

I love important objects in stories. I know I’ve written about them before in the blog.  I’ve even written a short story about their makers. Physical objects give weight to a story. You can feel a crystal doorknob in your hand, or a warm jacket around your shoulders, or a favorite tee shirt with a collar that rests just right below your neck.  I want things that can be touched, because that touch will ground me in the fantastic.

So I’m building a prop shop.  Or, rather, I had built a prop shop about two years back, and now I’m restocking it.

Crystal Doorknob with spotty brass fittings.

Robins egg blue suit jacket, double breasted, cut perfectly for a 5’11” heavy set woman in her fifties. Very dashing.

Costume tiara, bent, missing three of its plastic jewels.

Comb disguised as a flick-knife, one chestnut hair caught in its hinge.

Soft gray cotton tee shirt, worn thin from countless washings, patterned with a colony of bats in flight.

Space suit, far future, made for someone very tall.  Sanitation department badges on chest and sleeves.

 

I get lost in scenes sometimes, unable to write down what is important because in your head it all seems very important.  But it helps to have something specific to look at.  Something that will catch a character’s eye, center the scene, and allow the action to unfold.

And sometimes it helps to get into character, when you’re wearing a soft tee shirt covered in bats, and a silly broken tiara.

 

 

A few notes from my phone:

I wrote five and one half stories over the last five weeks.  Heavy drafting always results in half-formed story ideas on my phone typed out in the middle of the night, and sometimes I really like how they look separated from their stories.  So I’m going to share! Here are, without context, some of my favorites.

“Dripping Moon, wobbly soft boiled moon, void moon, sucking light from the stars.  Super blood wolf moon with a triple axel, every night a new performance piece…”

“Do fifth dimensional spider women like ice cream?”

“The night sky stuck to his fingers,  beautifully dark. He used his handkerchief to wipe it away.”

“Eyeball sale pyramid scheme.”

“I put smiles on faces faster than hot chocolate on a snow day.”

Most of their stories have a long polish before they can be sent to magazines. I hope they’re not too weird to find homes… But if the weird is too great, I can always make trash magic out of a super blood wolf moon and publish it on youtube.

I had two stories published in the past month-ish. Both very short, and both from last year’s stint of writing five stories in five weeks.

We Have Always Lived in the Barbie Dream Castle is podcasted at Toasted Cake (and I love the narration dearly- Tina Connolly did a great comedic read for this one.)

and

Quilting With The Rejects at Flash Fiction Online (which is a little bit of a love song to my favorite coffee shop in town, as well as to the textile arts.)

Art Against Fear

It takes a lot of courage to write. I’m not big-upping myself, I know that if you are reading this, you probably write.

(All my friends are artists, even the ones who don’t acknowledge that part of themselves. You are courageous, and I love you.)

It takes even more courage to present that work to scrutiny, to ask someone who owes you nothing, if they would please like to buy your work and promote it with their name attached. My courage usually fails here. Query letters are a social game, with indiscernible rules, where a win grants you a few more seconds to pitch your work, and a fail is mark on your name. “This one does not belong with us.”

Or, that’s how it seems, when you are all alone, reading every book in your writing-instruction library and wondering how anyone has ever liked their own work enough to write “Dear Editor…”

I am becoming more courageous. That has not come from the years writing alone. (That had its own uses, which may be a post for another day.) It’s because I’ve met people in the industry. I’ve seen so much kindness from fellow authors, and editors, and agents. And I know that every one of those people are in the industry because they love stories and they want to make stories happen.

I sent out a couple really big stories recently, and I am not worried about them. If they sell, I will be thrilled. If they don’t, I will send them on to someone else. I won’t have offended anyone for sending a story they don’t want. I won’t have made some great social blunder that will keep me out of print forever.

Nobody seeks failure in their inbox. And if you’ve found an editor who does, you didn’t want to work with that person, anyway.

 

Also, if you know some magic, use it! Fear tells stories. Its favorite story is the one about all the possible disastrous futures that could result from your actions. But stories are my magic, and I’m really good at upsetting the narrative. I once put on skull face paint to set up a poetry reading over the phone. Fear didn’t know what to do with the shear absurdity of my actions, and the phone call went exceptionally well. Not every magic needs skullface, but allow yourself the tools you need to overcome fear. Sometimes just a favorite pair of sunglasses will alter your perspective enough to send that query letter.

 

In other news, I’ve been reading some brilliant stories while not updating this blog. Here’s a few recent favorites:

Robo-Liopleurodon! by Darcie Little Badger is about the futility of being a scientist when the world has stopped listening to scientists, and the piratic ways to fight back!  (And just keep reading through the rest of Robot Dinosaur Fiction after you are done because it’s seriously great.)

After Midnight at the ZapStop by Matthew Claxton is absolutely delightful, and I love how dang mundane this incredible science fiction world is to the poor guy working the counter at the only 24 hour 3D bio-printer shop in town.  The way all the pieces come together in the end is super satisfying, too.

The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections by Tina Connolly is a total magic trick.  A despot slowly savors another delicious meal while the protagonist relives the years in which he rose to power, and the ways she failed to resist.  Also, there are magic pastries that allow you to relive specific memories, and I want to eat (almost) every single one of them.