First of Ten for 2017

Naturally, right after posting about not liking to make specific writing goals, I read something that convinced me to give them (or at least one in particular) another go.

Cheryl Klein, executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic and author of The Magic Words, recently sent out her January newsletter. Among other things, she discusses New Year’s resolutions and writing goals – and among her suggested “experience” goals was one that resonated with me: get ten rejections. Klein talks about this goal in terms of bravery, which is definitely one aspect of it; but to me it also suggests productivity and perseverance, two qualities I’d like to cultivate in myself.

Plus, rejections are hard, even when they are expected; this goal turns at least the first ten into benchmarks.

So, without further ado: my goal for 2017 is to receive at least ten rejections of my creative work.

And I received the first today, 5 January.

New Year’s and writing plans

I’ve written elsewhere about why “productivity tricks” often don’t work for me with my writing (or with anything else I do, for that matter). So, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions and I don’t set specific writing goals either.

But I am thinking, right now, about what I’d like to be doing with my writing this next year. It’s partly the New Year, but probably more that I’ve had my first downtime in a long while over these past few weeks. I’ve finally had the time and energy to think about writing: what needs finishing as well as what comes next.

For this reason my idea file has been growing like crazy this past week. I thought I’d written about the idea file before, but I can’t find the link so perhaps I never have. Basically, it’s just a file into which I stick anything that strikes me as being the root of a story. And by anything I really do mean anything – there are fleshed-out story plans in there, and links to news articles, and random phrases I like the sound of, among other things. I used to do this on paper (and I still sometimes do) but my habit of simultaneously using many notebooks meant I lost a lot of ideas. So it’s a word doc on my computer these days.

This isn’t an original idea. I’ve heard of numerous other people who do this in some way or another. But it’s genuinely one of the most useful habits I’ve ever acquired. When I’m trying to get started on a project, I go to the idea file. When I’m attacked by a shiny new idea, it goes in the idea file. When I’m stuck and need a little inspiration, I go to the idea file. And when I’m thinking about what I want to accomplish in the New Year, I – you got it – go to the idea file.

After such a slow year, in which my time was gobbled by many non-writing tasks, it feels very good to have a growing idea file 🙂

Happy New Year, everyone – best wishes for 2017.

Winter solstice

I am writing again these days, after a long hiatus. More on this in 2017. But for now:

Peace, light, and hope to all, in this darkest time for the Northern hemisphere.

Back to the roots

Winter Yucca

In hope:

 

“In a way Winter is the real Spring – the time when the inner things happen, the resurgence of nature.”
– from the short story “Clara” in Mrs Reinhardt and Other Stories (Edna O’Brien)

 

Still here

marigoldsJust busy. I haven’t been able to get much writing done over the last month, thanks to a hectic fall schedule (why do I always forget how busy September can be?).

I have managed to read Cheryl Klein‘s The Magic Words this month though. I’ll try to get a post up about it soon – it’s given me many revision ideas, so I may have more to say about the WIP as well.

Summer’s end

Red *and* green
Red *and* green

Here in New Mexico, the end of summer is chile season. I grow chiles (see the photo 🙂 ) but, like many New Mexicans, in August or September I go to a chile roaster and buy a sack of roasted green to get me through the winter. You can smell the arrival of chile-roasting season: the odor of charred chile wafts over the entire Rio Grande valley.

This smell is just one of many things I love about autumn in New Mexico. The clear blue skies, the warm days and cool nights, the way the colors seem so much brighter…usually mid-August feels like coming home.

This year has been different. I’ve been dreading the end of summer, partly due to day-job drama and partly for reasons I haven’t been able to articulate, even to myself. I’ve been frightened and anxious when I’ve contemplated the arrival of the autumn.

But this morning I woke to the smell of roasted chile. And it gave me faith: faith in myself, that I can deal with the challenges ahead; faith in the turning of the seasons; faith in the beauty of the world.

Finishing a draft; or, why writing is like spelunking

TheEndI finished the draft of my work in progress today…the word “finish” used advisedly (there are various bits that need fixing, now that I’ve gotten to the end and know how things work out). Still, even knowing that there’s significant work to be done before I can hand it to my first-line readers, typing “End” feels so, so good.

This particular project has taken a LONG time in the drafting stage. This is in part because I have been working on it during breaks between other things (two major revisions of another work of fiction, the start-to-finish writing and subsequent revision of a non-fiction book) – it has never once in its lifetime been my only project. It’s also taken a while because, well, sometimes life goes that way.

But I think the biggest reason it has taken me so long to get to the page where I type “END” is my so-called process. I am what Brandon Sanderson has (very generously) called a “Discovery writer.” Some people use the term “pantser” but “by the seat of one’s pants” doesn’t really describe what writing is like for me – it makes it sound kind of like riding bareback on a half-broke horse that’s running off into the sunset.

There are days when writing is like that for me, I suppose, but usually it’s more like spelunking. I start with an idea of where I want to go, and there is definitely a world that confines me. Sometimes I take wrong turns; sometimes I get stuck in narrow passages; sometimes I run out of light and can’t see where I’m going.

Sometimes I stumble into a cavern and look up, and see something like this:

(Looking up and suddenly finding cave art is how many of the famous works of Paleolithic art were identified, BTW. I’m not going to get into my cave-art-discovery-stories geekery right now…maybe another post sometime. This particular image is from Chauvet Cave, which has a particularly cool discovery story. )

To get back to this particular draft, I spent a lot of time at the beginning trying to follow other people’s writing advice, thinking that maybe outlines or story cycles or something would speed me up. But it didn’t. I’m not sorry I tried all those techniques – it’s always interesting to try something new – but in the end, I wound up writing as I always do, groping through the dark with a small lantern, trusting that if I keep on going, I will find the story.

Thoughts about world-building

I recently finished Points of Departure: Liavek Stories by Patricia Wrede and Pamela Dean. Liavek, the world in which these stories are set , was created by a group of authors (I think seven; the group included Wrede and Dean, anyway) in the 1980s; this collaborative venture produced 5 collections (all currently out of print). I’d heard of the original anthologies, but I never managed to get a hold of any of them. So when I saw some of the original Liavek stories had been re-issued I was eager to read them.

I enjoyed the anthology as a whole (rare for me; I’m not much of a short-story reader), but I think its strength really is the complex, colorful world of Liavek. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how a group of authors could create a world together, and write so consistently (at least in the Wrede and Dean stories I read) of it. For me, world-building is really an act of discovery. I know a couple of things about the world and I learn more as I write.

But to create a world as a group, one would have to know more about the world before writing, I would think. Or, if one had a writing group and were sharing stories with them regularly, could it be an organic process in the same way as discovering a world solo?

My first-ever public reading

I have a piece in the 3rd annual SCBWI-NM Enchantment show this month. This is not the first time I’ve participated in the Enchantment show, but it is the first time I was able to make it to the opening reception/reading (it took place last Saturday, on July 9).

The Enchantment show is a fun concept: participating illustrators come up with a piece inspired by a theme (this year’s was “Warm and Fuzzy). Participating authors are assigned one of these illustrations at random, and have to come up with a single-page written piece to accompany the illustration. I am really not a short-form writer, so I began doing this because I thought it would be good practice.

I was right, it turns out: it is good practice, and it’s taken my writing down paths I never would have anticipated. (Poetry???) In addition, the pressure of the “show” aspect (these pieces are hung in the Los Griegos library for all to see) means that I work harder on these pieces than I ever would for a writing exercise meant only for me, which is also good.

And this year, I read my piece at the reception – a brand-new experience and one again, good practice. I like reading aloud (I read my writing aloud while I’m writing it, anyway), I’m a practiced public speaker (even if not about my fiction writing), and this was a small and friendly crowd. I therefore didn’t expect to be nervous. Foolish of me! Reading in front of the illustrator (this year I got a terrific illustration from the fabulous Lois Bradley, an accomplished author-illustrator) made my knees shake as they had in my very early days of giving talks.

Despite my nerves, though, I had fun. Lois spoke a bit about her illustration, I said a few words about mine (titled “The Prickle Runs Amok”), and then read – and then it was over, and I could relax and enjoy the other readings.

Thank you for the wonderful inspiration, Lois – it was an honor to write to your illustration!

The Enchantment show hangs from July 1 – 31 at the Los Griegos branch of the Albuquerque Public Library. If you are in the Albuquerque area, I highly recommend stopping by before it closes!

Listening

I have been listening to Performance Today this morning, featuring Andre Watts and Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. When asked about his relationship with his teacher Leon Fleisher, Watts said that the most important thing Fleisher taught him was to listen – to listen to everything.

It reminded me when I took a class in drawing, many years ago. The class’ first rule was to really look, to see.

Writing, like music and drawing, sharpens my senses. Look, listen, touch: such small things, all a part of everyday life, and yet magic when given full attention.

Reading EUROPE IN AUTUMN in the time of Brexit

I mentioned reading David Hutchinson’s book Europe in Autumn in a previous post. I’ve been re-reading it, more slowly this time, to try to figure out my response to this book. I knew, from the first time I read it, that there were aspects of the plot and writing that didn’t work for me. But despite those things, the book sucked me in. It’s always interesting to me when there are obvious flaws and yet I enjoy a book anyway, and since I’ve been writing myself it’s become especially interesting.

The news about Brexit this morning clarified some of my thoughts on Europe in Autumn. This book is set in an alternate near-future Europe, one which has fragmented into numerous nations and polities. Hutchinson does a marvelous job of world-building; his vision of future Europe seems almost prescient, and even more so this morning.

It is the world of Europe in Autumn that drew me in. Like a good dystopian (and I wouldn’t call this book a dystopian, to be clear), its fictional world provides an opportunity for reflection on important themes in the world today. In this book it is questions on the nature of borders and nation-building which come to the fore. The Brexit vote suggests these questions – and by extension, Europe in Autumn – will remain relevant for some time.

When books don’t work

The wonderful flurry of reading I experienced in May has trickled off. For the last week or so, I’ve been in a reading lull.

It’s not that I’ve been too busy with other things. Nor am I waiting on the next books on the list to come in at the library, or anything like that. And though I have been writing again (finally! hooray!), it’s not that I can’t read because I don’t want to lose the fictional world I’m writing in. (Though I am beginning to get to this place…)

No, it’s merely that I’m in a reading funk, the literary equivalent of a bad mood. I haven’t been able to get in to any of the books I’ve tried these past days, and so I’ve wound up casting them aside. In some cases, it’s been the book’s fault. But most of my reading problems recently have, I think, been just me.

What to do when this happens? In the past I’ve occasionally been able to snap myself out of it by re-reading a favorite. Re-reading hasn’t worked this time, though – I wind up casting even my favorites aside.

So I’ve been reading cookbooks. Here are a few that I’ve enjoyed while in this lull:

Of course it’s too hot to cook these days…maybe that’s why this is working for me right now. I can simply read and fantasize!

 

The past two weeks in reading

 

Two weeks ago I plunged into my summer reading pile, and it’s been…satisfying. Incredibly, unusually, remarkably satisfying. While I’ve attempted a few books that I abandoned mid-read, or that I finished but had significant problems with, most of what I’ve picked up have been winners.

Here are a few that I’ve read and particularly enjoyed:

  • Flamecaster (Cinda Williams Chima) – I started with this one, and it was just what I wanted after the stressful spring drew to a close. It put me in mind of Alanna, not for any particular similarity of plot or world, but because I enjoyed it in the same way.
  • The Core of the Sun (Johanna Sinisalo) – an extremely weird and extremely funny *real* (by which I mean it contains some interesting commentary on the everyday world) dystopian novel.
  • An Inheritance of Ashes (Leah Bobet) – I can’t seem to come up with a short snappy summary of this one. So I will just say: I liked it.
  • Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie) – It’s been a long, long time since I read any space opera and I was therefore leery of these, but I am so glad I got over it and read them anyway. All three were hands-down fantastic. The coolness of the gender concept (the language/culture of the protagonist does not distinguish between genders, and so everyone is termed “she”) was an added bonus.
  • Children of Earth and Sky (Guy Gavriel Kay) – I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, and as a result I was so eager to read this that I dashed through it too fast. I need to read it again.
  • Europe in Autumn (Dave Hutchinson) – This is a page-turner, a spy/SFF novel set in a near-future fractured Europe. This one I will also read again, to pick up whatever I missed the first time around.

Either a lot of good books are coming out these days, or I did an especially good job on my 2016 summer reading list. Or maybe it’s just luck of the draw?

Back to reading!

 

The “marketability” trap

For me, the power of fiction (and a lot of non-fiction too) is that it tells a universal truth through the particular – through an individual, or collection of individuals.

Marketing, on the other hand, seems most often to be about generalizations – guessing what most people (be they a category of people, or people in general) will like. I’ve had a problem, personally, with generalizations about people for – well, for as long as I remember. They make me feel like the last kid chosen for the team; they make me feel like I don’t belong.

I’ve known this about myself for a long time. Usually I try not to worry about generalizations and instead just get on with my life. But the business of publishing has to think about marketing. And I, in my search to publish, got hoodwinked into thinking about “marketability” as part of my writing, about “what readers like.” I was told thinking about the industry would make me a better writer, and I bought it.

I was wrong. This kind of thinking killed my ability to write for a while there. It also killed my ability to read. And worst of all, it made me feel like an alien in my own life. Every time I read, a voice in my head would be asking, over and over, “Is this publishable? Why?” Every time I wrote, I felt alone in a sea of faceless generalizations. And more and more that feeling spilled into my everyday life.

So I stopped. I stopped reading industry news; I stopped worrying about being published. And it took a while, but I’m recovering. I can read, and write, again. I may never publish. That’s ok with me.

Not every piece of advice out there works for everyone.

First pass summer reading list

Some of these are recommendations, some are things I’ve been wanting to read for a while, some are rereads. The list grows.

The list is in no particular order.

  • Children of Earth and Sky – Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire
  • Europe in Autumn, Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson
  • The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Core of the Sun – Johanna Sinisalo
  • Roses and Rot – Kat Howard
  • A Court of Thorns and Roses – Sarah J. Maas
  • The Wrath and the Dawn – Renée Ahdieh
  • The Dark Days Club – Allison Goodman
  • Six of Crows – Leigh Bardugo
  • The Star-Touched Queen – Roshani Chokshi
  • Flamecaster – Cinda Williams Chima
  • An Inheritance of Ashes – Leah Bobet
  • Black Wolves – Kate Elliot
  • Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie
  • Forbidden Wish – Jessica Khoury
  • The Moor’s Account – Laila Lalami
  • Heroine Complex – Sarah Kuhn (due out in July)
  • If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino (a reread)
  • La Sombra Del Viento – Carlos Ruiz Zafón (also a reread)

Most of these are sci-fi/fantasy…where my taste is trending these days. Most are NOT young adult, a deliberate decision (and something I’ll write a post about when I can get my thoughts in some kind of coherent order.)

Oh and, on the cookbook front, the 2016 James Beard Awards were just announced. I put some of the awardees/nominees on my list too:

  • Beetlebung Farm Cookbook – Chris Fischer with Catherine Young
  • Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More – Sarah Owens
  • This is Camino – Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain
  • NOPI: The Cookbook – Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully

Summer reading

DaffodilIt’s been a long hard winter here. Spring is usually not my favorite season – in New Mexico it means wind, and lots of it – but this year it has arrived like the promise of a better world. Which it is: I am moving into a season in which I should be less busy, and more open.

In celebration of the new season, I’m making my list for summer reading – another promise of better times to come! I can’t wait to dive into the pile of books that awaits me, and discover a new world.

I’ll be posting reactions to what I’m reading in the coming weeks/months. In the meantime, I welcome all suggestions of books to add to the list!