So this morning I was crusing my usual internet haunts and I saw this awesome video on Smart Bitches, which I will let speak for itself.
I promise this goes somewhere!
Another quantum post! As you read this, I’m on a 9-hour trek across the country to World Fantasy Con. If you’ll be there or in the San Jose area, I’ll be reading from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms on Saturday at 3 p.m. Come listen and say hello!
Two things I’ve seen this week triggered today’s post. The first was this news article, about a young woman recently found wandering and amnesiac here in New York city. She’d forgotten her name, how she got here, or what had happened to her. What she could remember, however, were lines from a fantasy novel by Robin Hobb. Now, the important and tragic part of this story is that this young woman has probably been through some major physical or psychological (or both) trauma; I don’t want to gloss over that. She’s been identified, and is hopefully now being treated. But the part that caught my attention, given my professions — not just fantasy writer, but psychologist — was that she remembered the Hobb book. She also remembered that she herself is a fantasy writer, working on a novel; she can apparently remember what her story is about, too. So hold those thoughts for a minute.
The other thing that triggered today’s post was seeing a video featuring Nigerian author (and MacArthur “Genius” Grant award winner) Chimamanda Adichie, in which she talks about the dangers of a single story. Watch it for yourself:
My favorite part is the anecdote she starts about about the 10:55 mark:
“I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho, and it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.”
Adichie says it herself: stories matter. Not only because too few stories can create stereotypes or incomplete understandings of the world, but also because all stories lodge in our minds so powerfully, influencing our thinking at such a deep and often subconscious level, that even when our identities are stripped away, the stories remain. In fact, there are psychological theories which posit that human consciousness is nothing but stories — that aside from our most simplistic instincts, all of our ability to reason consists of chains of interlinking narratives, from the simplest to the most complex, that we form and associate in order to understand the world.
I think of things like this whenever I hear people dismiss fantasy, and fiction in general (but especially genre fiction), as “just a story.” This seems to happen frequently in any serious conversation which attempts to deconstruct the stories we tell — like in this conversation that’s taking place in the romance end of the genresphere, about race and cultural appropriation. A number of respondents in the comment thread seem upset at being asked to think about real-world issues because they just want a story to enjoy — by which they seem to mean the same kinds of stories they’ve always read, however singular and incomplete those are. But how much more enjoyable might those stories be if they were made more complete? How many fresh, complex, new stories might appear if there were more tellers, different tellers, and if the old incomplete stories were retired instead of rehashed?
Think about it: if the world’s six billion people knew of Americans only through that Bret Easton Ellis novel, what would they think of us? What if the world only expected Ellis-ish stories from American authors, and refused to publish anything different on the assumption that stories about non-murderous Americans were somehow “inauthentic”? What if the authors of other nations, when they deigned to include Americans in their fiction, only wrote of Americans as narcissistic serial killers? What if the readers in those other nations got upset whenever Americans asked for more and varied representations of themselves? And worse, what if the governments of other nations started building their policies around such stories, requiring that all Americans be frisked and held for psychiatric observation on entering the country?
Would American Psycho be “just a story” then? Could any story written by or about Americans be “just a story”, in that climate?
So I don’t buy the idea that what we’re doing, as writers and as readers, is “just a story”. The stories I write have a powerful impact on the consciousness of every person who reads them, whether I intend to have that effect or not. The stories I read have a powerful impact on my own consciousness — and subconsciousness, whether I’m aware of that impact or not. It seems disingenuous at best, irresponsible at worst, to pretend that neither of these facts are true.
Here’s an idea: just imagine yourself as that young amnesiac woman. Ask yourself: what stories would be foremost in your mind, helping to shape your remaining identity? Because there would be some stories left in you. There always are.
The aliens are invading, and they’re coming for your parking space.
Okay, so that’s a silly way of looking at this weekend’s upcoming radio play in Somerville. I’m not even tangentially involved with the production, but I’ve watched some parts of it come together, and it’s got me thinking about storytelling that doesn’t touch either the screen or the printed page. (Incidentally, if you’re in the area, come see the show. Aliens! Coffee syrup! A stationary marching band!)
Radio plays and audio fiction are media I know very little about. I’ve seen a couple of radio plays performed — and that I say I’ve seen them tells you something about how my perception of them is a little skewed — but I don’t often listen to them, nor do I often listen to podcast fiction, despite the many good sources for it. And that’s a shame, because stories told this way play on the audience’s attention in entirely different ways.
Audio fiction isn’t quite the same, but there are some shared elements — you have only the description as it’s read, and to follow the story you have to be willing to concentrate. I can almost fall more easily into an author’s world when I’m listening than when I’m reading, simply because I have to stop and pay attention. I can’t just scan the page, looking for the next clue to the plot or the clue that I missed on my first read. Done well, it can be enchanting: one of my favorite Christmas traditions is to listen to Christopher Plummer reading E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker (the whole, trippy thing, not the chopped-up version in most retellings).
I have mixed reactions depending on how the reader voices different characters; I got sick of one audio novel because all of the villains had the same nasty nasal tone. (One friend of mine says that she’s never heard any author read their own work well. I have to admit I take that as a challenge.) And like radio plays, there’s the possibility that the intensity of emotion won’t carry over well, becoming laughable or just strange. I always feel a little silly when reading big dramatic scenes aloud, just because I’m skittish about whether they sound as good outside my head.
So this is, again, my way of asking the great wide internet for recommendations: What podcasts or radio plays would you recommend? Are there certain stories that just work better when read aloud? What doesn’t work so well in this medium — either through poor performance or the source itself? And does putting a folding chair out really keep the aliens from your parking space, or does it just draw the wrath of public works?
Every writer has been there. You write something–whether it’s a scene, a short story, or a whole frickin novel–then pass it off to a first reader/critique group/editor, and they come back to you and say, “But this doesn’t make sense!” And you fight the urge (sometimes quite unsuccessfully) to scowl and point to the page and respond with, “What are you talking about? It’s right there! See?” At which time they will sometimes give you a withering look and reply, “Um, no, it’s not. You merely think it’s there because the story is in your head and it makes perfect sense to you. Now stop whining and fix it!”
And, likewise, every reader has been there. You’re merrily reading along, caught up wonderfully in a delightful story when suddenly you read something that doesn’t work, or is just plain wrong, and you’re completely and utterly yanked out of the story. You stop and frown and say, “What the [expletive]? Why the [expletive] would the character need to call a locksmith to get out of handcuffs? Doesn’t the author know that handcuff keys are universal? Why wouldn’t the character own a handcuff key if she owns handcuffs?” (Okay, you might say something else, but the aforementioned handcuff key issue is the reason why I stopped reading a certain popular series. I couldn’t get past this very basic research error.) Or perhaps it’s an issue where you’re not quite sure how something happened, and you find yourself flipping back through pages to see if you missed a crucial detail. Either way, you’re not in the story anymore.
Writing sometimes becomes an optical illusion. The writer knows that something is supposed to work or make sense, and so our little writer brain magically fills in what’s missing, or glosses over parts that don’t work, or ignores the fact that we’ve used the same word seventy-jillion times. I’ll say it now: Thank all the powers that be for editors and copyeditors!
I remember going through revisions with my editor on Mark of the Demon, and reaching one particular scene where we kept going back and forth over the continuity of one character sitting down and standing up. Seems like a silly trivial thing, but if a character is sitting on the floor, and then picks a book up off a table, it’s one of those little details that could jar a reader out of the book. There was also an issue with whether a demon could travel a certain distance, which turned out to be more of a clarity issue than one of continuity. I ended up adding several lines and adjusting some timing so that it was clearer that the characters were talking about two different demons.
Timing has been a big pain in the ass factor as well. Since the phase of the moon is very important to my main character’s ability to summon demons, I had to create moon calendars and pace out the action very carefully–sometimes running several days off to get to the moon phase that I needed. My copyeditor was fantastic here, and I can only imagine what sort of charts she had to make out to keep track of it all. And, despite the fact that I kept meticulous track (or so I thought), she still caught a couple of timing issues where I was off by a day or two.
And then there are timing issues that have nothing to do with the phase of the moon. In Blood of the Demon, my editor pointed out that I had a victim’s funeral set for a day and a half after he was found dead. This seemed a bit speedy to her, unless the victim was Jewish and had to have a timely funeral? (I ended up adding a couple of days into the timeline instead of making the victim Jewish.)
And speaking of things Jewish, also in Blood of the Demon I had a character making a blithe comment about being Jewish, which was why she hadn’t been to Sunday School. My editor jumped on that one and said, “She’s Jewish, with a last name like [very non-Jewish name]?” (And here is where I must confess to heaping quantities of ignorance of Jewish tradition! Shame on me!) Since the character was a single female, my editor wanted me to either explain why she would have such a non-Jewish last name, or change it so that it wasn’t so jarring to people who Had A Clue. This seemed like a very minor thing at first and I was all set to take out the whole reference to being Jewish, but then I had a little thought about the character being previously married…a very short and tragic marriage… which suddenly gave me all sorts of seriously nifty backstory to the character, all from a line that I thought was a brief little funny.
There have also been a few issues that slipped by everyone until we reached the page proof stage. A blouse in one scene turned into a scarf in another. Within the span of a dozen chapters, a manual garage door somehow became an automatic garage door that required a remote. (Scribble scribble scratch… change “he pulled the garage door up” to “he hit the button on the remote.”) One error that made me laugh out loud (and I still can’t believe none of us caught it before page proofs!) was a scene where the overhead sun cast patterns through the leaves… and then two whole paragraphs later a character makes a comment about the rising sun. *facepalm*
And then there are the issues that seem at first be matters of continuity, but are instead matters of clarity. During copyedits, my copyeditor pointed out a place where a character got into her car and drove away. “How could she get into her car? Didn’t [other character] drive her over there?” Ah, yes, I thought, but she’d left her car there earlier. Don’t you remember? But, I went ahead and inserted a couple of words on the order of “he parked next to her car” and figured that would be sufficient to remind the reader that she’d left her car there earlier.
But apparently not, because after I returned the page proofs I received an email from my editor’s assistant, telling me that Production was concerned because I had a scene where the character gets into her car and drives off, and how could that happen if she’d been riding around with [other character.]
Grr. Snarl. Stomp. Why couldn’t the readers frickin’ remember this? But, I forced myself to admit that even though it was blindingly obvious to me, this was obviously NOT CLEAR at all if it was being pointed out by more than one person. So, I went back and added another line on the order of: They went to do crime-scene stuff, but left her car at the house since it was such a piece of crap. (And if that doesn’t work, I’ll make an FAQ that explains exactly how she could get in her car and drive off, ‘kay?)
Needless to say, good editors and copyeditors are worth their weight in gold. A good editor (and I’ve been gifted with a fabulous one!) takes your book and helps you make it better. (I’m going to save What An Editor Does for another post, because that’s going to be a long post. :) ) A copyeditor takes that revised and edited book and (aside from fixing grammar/spelling punctuation errors) makes sure that all of the details fit together, makes sure that what you’re trying to say is what has actually been said, makes sure that what you’re trying to say actually makes sense and is feasible, makes sure that you don’t actually use the same word seventeen times in the same page… (Actually, my most-overused word is “just.” It’s a bit horrifying just how often I use that word!) Also, a good copyeditor makes sure that you don’t make stupid research-related mistakes. (In the first book my CE caught an error regarding the make and model of a gun.I was horrified that I’d screwed that up, and deeply grateful that she’d saved me from looking like a bonehead.)
As you might imagine, I was thrilled to pieces when I managed to score the same CE for both books. Even though a new CE would have been given the previous CE’s stylesheet, my CE caught a continuity error between the two books that I doubt would have been referenced on a style sheet. (And I’m keeping fingers crossed that I’ll be able to keep her for subsequent books as well!)
Finally, for a terrific insight into what a copyeditor does, you absolutely need to read Deanna Hoak’s blog, especially this entry here.
So there’s stuff allllll over the internet about the relationship between author and agents. It goes something like this: author writes awesome book, sends it to agent. Agent likes book, agrees to work with author to sell book to publisher for mutual benefit. Agent works hard, places book at a great house, everyone is happy and makes money. Insert HEA here.
Well, maybe not exactly like that, but you get the idea. And if you still don’t know what I’m talking about, there are a million places you can learn all about every nuance of how the agent/author interaction is supposed to work. Of course, this always makes me wonder: with SO MUCH information out there about what to expect from a literary agent where do people get these crazy ideas about them?
Some of it is simple ignorance, some is misinformation from scammers, and some is simply stupid television.
I’m a horrid cheapskate, so we don’t have television at my house. As a result, I cruise through a lot of Hulu when I have thirty minutes of downtime. This exposes me to a lot of TV shows I would not otherwise watch, including a new ABC classic, Castle (wikipedia link to avoid ABC’s AWFUL auto-launching ads). The show’s premise is as follows (again, from the wikipedia article):
“Nathan Fillion stars as Richard Castle, a famous mystery novelist who is initially called in to help the NYPD solve a copy-cat murder based on his novels. Stana Katic stars opposite as the young detective Kate Beckett. Following his encounter with Beckett, Castle decides to use her as the model for his next book series. He uses his contacts and receives permission to accompany Beckett while investigating cases.”
Fun right? I mean, sure it’s a little far fetched, but who wants reality in their TV? Heck, we don’t even want reality in our reality TV! I can swallow a little ridiculousness in the name of a good show, and it’s got Mal from Firefly! (<3 <3 <3) So I thought I’d give it five minutes. Of course, those five minutes happened to be from the latest episode on Hulu. To truly understand my horror (and the next few paragraphs), I ask that you take 2 minutes and watch the very first bit. Just 2 minutes, I’ll wait.
Ok, for those of you who didn’t/couldn’t watch, here’s the crux. Our author, Mr. Castle, is woken at 7 am in his lovely NY apartment by his extremely fashionable “book agent” ringing his door bell to come and tell him that he is on the short list to write the new James Bond series. This is of course fantastic news… but I couldn’t get much past that because I was too busy picking my jaw up off the floor from the incredible, stupid wrongness that was the set up of events for this scene.
I’ll tell it to you straight. Your agent will never visit you at 7 in the morning, in heels and a hot red dress, to tell you about a deal. She may call you, email frantically, maybe even send flowers, but I’m willing to bet you a great deal of money that she will never show up uninvited at the crack of dawn to play coy about you getting a huge deal. This is mostly because your agent is probably in New York, and, chances are, you are not. Even if you do live in NY, I’m pretty sure your agent still wouldn’t drop by your apartment without invitation early in the morning, (though maybe Nora can set us straight on that one).
This is because, unlike as is depicted in this episode, the agent/author relationship is a professional one. Of course it’s wonderful if you’re friends with your agent, but business is still business, and your agent is aware of that even if you’re not. After all, they’ve got other clients. Of course, life is different if you’re a “famous mystery novelist,” but I’m pretty sure even Tom Clancy’s agent doesn’t just drop in at the crack of dawn. That’s just… stupid. And rude. And unprofessional. And counter productive.
STILL, I could have swallowed all of that for the sake of TV. Really, I could have. My disbelief is used to being in a high state of suspension. However, the little tick that really did me in was the phrase “book agent.” Both our author and our agent referred to her position as being a “book agent.” I have never heard this term. Lit agent, sure, agent, literary agent, etc. But it’s not even the “book” part, it’s the fact that he has to identify her as a “book agent,” which begs the question, as opposed to what? Does he have a film agent too? Is he an actor? Maybe his real estate agent drops by for beers every Saturday and he has to keep them straight.
There are exceptions to every rule, but generally speaking, if writing is your bread and butter, you’ve only got one agent, your literary agent. The person who makes the deals. If you have other agents working with your material (say for foreign rights, or if your book gets turned into a movie), they go through your lit agent. That’s why it’s so vital to get an agent who loves your material, they become your door to publishing, and, through it, all the other good stuff like movies and commemorative shot glasses and your face on a cereal box.
I’m sure there’s more to the show, but I shut the page down after 2 minutes of that swill. The worst part about all of this is that, while it’s easy for me to see how desperately stupid all of this was, how completely and deliberately divorced from the truth, most people probably watched this and saw nothing wrong. The space in their brain for information about being a writer, hither-to pure and untouched, is now filled with blatantly false B.S., all thanks to Castle, and that’s just sad.
Just think of this as another reason to do your research. You can lose viewers (or readers) for the stupidest stuff. You don’t have to be 100% real, but it does help not to be blatantly, foot-in-mouth-to-the-knee wrong. Just a thought, Castle writers, just a thought.
Apologies to those who saw a related post about this on another blog, or an older one on my blog; I just feel strongly enough about this to reiterate. I’m going to pause the examination of fantasy and writing and whatnot to talk for a moment about health care reform.
It’s directly relevant to the lives of working writers, if you’re wondering how this is on topic. Fulltime writers in America, or even those who work part-time or freelance, struggle as much as any artists to find affordable health insurance (something I’ve alluded to here before). There are any number of writers’ grants and loan programs, including the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Emergency Medical Fund, that are designed specifically to help ailing writers pay for unexpected medical bills. Why do you think such funds exist? Because so many American writers, even bestselling ones, are uninsured or underinsured.
Let me tell you a story. I’m in my thirties, generally very healthy, responsible. I’ve got health insurance, for which I’ve been paying about $300-$350/month through the Freelancers’ Union. Expensive, but bearable. Better than nothing. It’s provided by Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Anyway, I’ve got a family history of fibroids (Mom had a hysterectomy at about my age, though that was back in the Dark Ages), and some warning signs have appeared, so my doctor has recommended that I check annually to see if I’ve got them too. This usually means a sonogram (ultrasound), which I’ve now had for the past three years. No biggie. Last year I didn’t have any fibroids, and this year I’ve got small ones. Again, no biggie — nothing I need to do anything about, really. But if I do decide to do something about them, they’re easy to take care of with hormone therapy or something non-invasive, since I’ve caught them early.
This year, however, there was a big biggie — the insurance company refused to pay for the sonogram. Claimed the fibroids were a preexisting condition, despite me not having any on my last (less than a year ago) sonogram. Obviously it wasn’t a preexisting condition, but here was the problem: many health insurance companies routinely consider any significant health condition reported during the first 12-18 months of a new policy to be a preexisting condition. “Significant” means anything worse than a head cold, basically. So because I switched to new insurance when I quit my job to write books, and even though I’ve paid my premiums for almost a year, I’m not really covered. So now I have to pay $3000 for the ultrasound meant to keep me from enduring major surgery and years of possible followup complications. Meant to keep me healthy, really.
Which plunks me solidly amid the 25 million Americans who are underinsured — i.e., people who are paying through the nose for insurance, but are still up a creek if they get sick. If my fibroids become a problem — or hell, if anything goes wrong with my body in the next few months, until I’m out of this preexisting period — I’ll probably be on my own for treatment, which will land me in another statistical category: 80% of bankruptcies due to medical bills are filed by people who have insurance.
I’m fighting this, of course, so hopefully I can make them see reason. (Insert cynical laugh here.) But more importantly, I’m doing whatever I can to fight for decent health care in this country. In my opinion that means single-payer — but I’d be willing to put up with a public option too, so long as it’s not so watered-down as to be useless.
I don’t know you guys’ politics, and don’t really care. I can’t speak for the other Magic District dwellers; this is just me saying this. But I’m urging all of you who do care about health insurance reform to take action. Please, consider writing to your congressional representative in the House or Senate. Do this especially if you live in one of the states/districts whose Democratic politicians are opposed to health care reform, because politicians listen to their own constitutents more than they do people from elsewhere, and these guys are the main obstacle to fixing the system. Send the letter via snail mail for extra impact. And consider joining an organization that’s fighting for reform, like these guys.
Because — as many of you know firsthand — it’s awfully hard to dream up entertaining imaginary worlds when you’re worried about physical and financial survival right here in the real one.
I’ve climbed Mount Monadnock several times since I was a kid, enough that I’m not really sure how many times I’ve actually made it to the summit. I’ve been up on days so clear that we could see Boston from the top, and on gray rainy drizzly days that, in hindsight, would have been much better spent at home. It’s been enough of a family tradition that we have long-running jokes about it (particularly the nonexistent lemonade stand at the top).
And every time, once I’ve reached the top, I tell myself that going down will be easier.
Experienced hikers are probably shaking their heads and smiling at this. I have no explanation for my continuing delusion on this point, beyond lightheadedness and the ease of old patterns of thought. Going down isn’t easier; it’s still rough and slow and, occasionally, painful. But what comes to mind now is the part of the trail past Falcon Spring, where it’s no longer nearly as steep and the trail’s wide enough to accommodate many people. And for some reason, this is the part of the trip that just. drags. on.
Maybe it’s because of memories of the first few hikes up the mountain, when I couldn’t wait to be back down again so that I could go home and jump in the lake. Maybe it’s because the only bathrooms are at the end of the trail, and that probably made an impression on the younger me as well. And maybe it’s because at this point, the hike is mostly over, and I’ve got my sights set on what comes next. For whatever reason, this is the part of the hike that should be easiest, but it’s where I get either so impatient I want to run the rest or so weary I can barely manage it.
In not unrelated news, I’m at the very end of a draft right now.
Each time through, I tell myself that “as soon as I hit X point, it’ll be smooth sailing.” As soon as I reach the museum scene. As soon as I get to the big fight. As soon as I get to the burning building. And each milestone just shows that there’s so much left to go and so much more to fix.
This ought to be the home stretch, right? I ought to be able to just zip through these last few chapters and have it done, right? But that last bit of the hike, the last couple of chapters, are somehow the worst to work through, regardless of how much needs to be done. It can be maddening.
But going by past experience, at some point in the next few pages, I’ll hit my stride, and when I reach the point where I dropped down two lines and wrote “THE END,” I’ll stare at my screen for a moment, blinded like a hiker coming out of the woods into full sunlight, unable to quite believe it’s done.
And then I’ll go jump in a lake.