Archive for March, 2009


Fantasy and motherhood

Recently, I went back to an old series I’d loved as a kid and reread it from start to finish. It hadn’t aged well, or perhaps I’d aged in a different direction from the book.  That’s always a possibility with revisiting something from childhood, and I’d kind of expected it in this case, as I’d long grown away from this particular setting. However, it made for good comfort reading, and I mostly enjoyed going back through the long plot progression.

But there was one thing in particular that bothered me this time through, and I’m not sure why it caught my attention only now: Not only were all the female characters treated as if wife- and motherhood were the natural end state of being female, but once these characters became pregnant, most of their old personalities evaporated. It was as if they’d abdicated their roles to the potential roles of their offspring, sometimes dramatically. (The warrior queen who turned into the distracted, slightly deranged twerp was probably the most notable of these.)

I’m not yet sure if this is indicative of a larger trend — I’d meant to do more research before writing this post, but my internet connection went down (which is why this post is late) — but I’m going to go out and make a sweeping statement in hopes of being proven wrong: Fantasy has a very weird and problematic approach to pregnancy and motherhood. Continue reading ‘Fantasy and motherhood’


My shameful lie about short fiction

From time to time I get asked if working to establish oneself as a short story writer is helpful when trying to write and sell novels. My stock answer is that, while it can’t hurt, it’s hardly necessary, and that the only really good reason to write short stories is because you love writing short stories. Shorts pay too little and require too much labor to make them worth writing for any reason other than you love writing them. Writing them doesn’t teach you how to write novels any more than running sprints trains you to run marathons. Also, the audience for them is small, and in talking to book editors and agents, I’ve come to the depressing conclusion that many of them, probably most of them, don’t follow the short fiction field.

In thinking about it, though, I’ve come to realize that my stock answer is a load of horse poo. I was lying. Short fiction totally helped me sell my first novel.

With the exception of a few anomalous print appearances that nobody read, I date the start of my short fiction career to 2001, and while I’ve never been the most prolific writer around (I mean, I’m not a freak like Tim Pratt), I’ve been able to count on a handful of publications in good anthologies and magazines every year. A few years ago, I started to get occasional inquiries from book editors wondering if I had a novel in the works. In each case, the conversation began with them mentioning some specific story of mine they’d read. Indeed, Juliet Ulman, the editor who acquired Norse Code for Bantam, initially wanted to know if I had a novel based on my story, The Osteomancer’s Son, which she’d read in Asimov’s. I’d like to believe that Norse Code is so brilliant that it could have radiated right through a manila envelope and compelled an editor to lift it off a slush pile and write me a check, but that’s not really how it happened. My short fiction publications helped.

And, no, writing short stories is not like writing novels. Novels are longer, obviously, but they’re also shaped differently. They require different rhythms, different approaches to pacing, to weaving plot and character. More than that, though, they require a different degree of faith to complete. If you finish a short story only to find that it’s a big pile of suck, you’ve wasted a few days or maybe a few weeks. It shouldn’t be devastating. But do the same with a novel, and you’ve squandered your ENTIRE YOUTH.

Which is why it’s useful to work on short stories, at least until you’ve done it enough and failed at it enough and garnered enough rejections that you move beyond that point and start to sell some. Because then, even if you squander your better years on unsaleable novels, you can take some satisfaction in the success you’ve experienced as a short story writer. And the science fiction and fantasy genres have long, proud traditions in short fiction. Success in the continuum of those traditions ain’t no small thing. It’s good to be able to feel good about something when you’re in the depths of novel despair. So, yes, while the best reason to write short fiction is because you enjoy writing short fiction (life’s too short to spend it doing non-mandatory things you don’t enjoy), I can say that short fiction helped launch me as a writer of novels.

And if my novel career withers and dies before it’s had a chance to really get going, I know I have a form and a field and a home for my other writing. And since I enjoy writing short stories, I’ll be okay. Now, if you hate writing short stories, most of the preceding is probably irrelevant to you. Short fiction is by no means the only path to novels. But it was mine.


Greg’s Sunday Quickie – Authors and parenthood

Our question for this week’s Sunday Quickie: Are authors like parents to their characters?

Short answer: No.

Characters are distorted manifestations of ourselves. Our experiences, our perceptions, and our memories get blenderized and expressed in language that sparks experiences, perceptions, and memories in the reader. And it’s the reader who then creates characters in his or her own head.

So, if that’s parenthood, then I was totally lied to in health class.


Margaret’s Sunday Quickie: My megalomania is showing

Authors are like parents to their characters?  Well, maybe.  In the sense that the characters wouldn’t exist without the author, and children wouldn’t exist without their parents.  But the dynamic is so dysfunctional that even cold-blooded abusers would wince.  

I set fire to my characters.  I kill off their friends.  I turn them into stone or destroy their livelihoods or pervert everything they have known and loved.  If I’m stuck for a plot point, I find a new way to screw things up for my protagonist and see where this takes her.  I find a perverse glee in finding a character’s breaking point and then jumping up and down on it while chanting “it’ll all work out in the end!”

I’m given to understand that parents do not, in general, do this to their children.

Now, I do love my characters, and I care about what happens to them.  But it’s not a love that wants to spare them pain, or even bind up their wounds and make them oatmeal afterwards.  It’s a love that wants to see them dance and dance well for my amusement — if they are in good shape for the dancing, so much the better.

In short, I am not much of a parent to my characters.  I am, instead, like unto a GOD. And not one of the nice ones, either.  I demand sacrifices of emotional resonance and character development!  I will smite thee with plot hooks and plot twists, and the weeping and the gnashing of teeth will be mighty but not to exceed the space I have allotted for it in chapter fourteen!  I will excise characters from the narrative the minute they become unnecessary and consign them to the outer darkness of unrevised drafts!  I will…

…uh…I will stop getting so worked up on a Sunday afternoon.


Nora’s Sunday Quickie: Authors are like parents to their characters…

…if by “parents” you mean “sadistic maniacal overlords”. Let’s see. In my last novel (Book 2 of the Earth and Sky trilogy) I did the following to my main characters:

  • Had them arrested and beaten by the police basically for existing;
  • Had them kidnapped by religious fanatics…
  • …who later killed one of them and made the others watch;
  • Trussed up one of them and had her “milked” for her blood against her will;
  • Tossed them out of a giant tree above a 1000-foot drop;
  • Broke one’s arm and ribs, and gave her a concussion;
  • Killed one of them repeatedly. (He was immortal, kept resurrecting. But it still hurt.)

Parents? Yeahno.

Though I do get the gist of the statement. It sometimes bothers me to abuse my characters the way I do because once I’ve spent lots of time developing a character, thinking as she thinks, feeling what he feels, I do grow to love that character. I take pride when my characters grow and develop in interesting ways, and sometimes I do find myself wanting the best for them.

…But then my inner sadistic overlady rears up and reminds me that the story will suck if only good things happen, so I crush that smidge of parental feeling and resume laughing maniacally while I inflict hellish tortures upon them.

What? Why are you looking at me like that? Why are you running awaaaaaaaay?


tim’s sunday quickie: I’m Not Your Daddy!

Today we’re responding to the statement “Authors are like parents to their characters.”

And my response is “Oh my god in heaven no.”

Any parent who treated their kid the way I treat my characters would be thrown in jail, most justifiably. I kill my characters. I maim them, I torture them, I mess with them psychologically, I damage them profoundly. I betray them, trick them, and when their lives seem as bad as they can possibly be, I make them worse. I put them up in trees, and surround the trees with wolves, and then I throw rocks at them. (The characters, not the wolves. Unless doing so would further enrage the wolves.)

I like fiction where awful things happen to sympathetic characters, and you see how the characters deal with the awful things that happen. Maybe they triumph in the end, sure, but you’ve got to hurt them first.

I have a son. I consider my sacred duty as a parent to make his life as good as possible in every way I can. That’s being a parent, to me; I’m not the parent for my characters. I’m a horrible sadistic god who takes amusement from their suffering.


Rachel’s sunday quickie: your momma don’t work here

So the topic for this Sunday is whether or not I agree with the following: “Authors are like parents to their characters.”

The short answer is no, yuck.

The long answer is a bit more complicated.  I can certainly see where the comparison comes from. Authors do give characters life. We give them eye colors and curly hair and a nose that’s not perhaps what they would like. But unlike biological motherhood, we also give them personalities, flaws, histories, bad love affairs, and secrets, which takes way more work than just handing over a chromosome.

Even beyond that, though I think Sarah Monette had it right when she said that her relationship with her characters was anything but motherly.  I’ve never been a mother, but I’m pretty sure if I treated (or even thought about) my children the way I treat my characters, defax would be knocking on my door. It’s a mother’s job to encourage her children, to support them and help them as they grow. A writer, however, must stomp on her characters mercilessly. I never let them take the easy way out, I never cut them any slack, and every night is off to bed without supper, that is if I let them sleep at all. (I have a really awful habit of never feeding my characters, or letting them sleep, or pee.)

If I did treat my characters as my children, I think it would kill my book. For me, at least, the author is less like a mother and more like an incompetent and mysterious God who keeps changing the past when things turn out wrong. She is also cruel, capricious, and prone to plucking people out of the world without notice. With a mother like her, who needs enemies?


Let’s talk about the ghetto

I’d like to start a discussion here. I’m not writing this with the aim of starting a big controversy, but lately I’ve been wondering something:

Does SF take itself too seriously?

Is SF a ghetto where we’re the ones building the walls? Why do we get so damn pissed when someone dares to publish an SF book outside the ghetto, and doesn’t want to be labeled an SF author? Wouldn’t it be better to have the SFnal concepts introduced to a wider audience in order to un-ghettoize the ghetto?

Let’s look at romance. The romance book market comprises approximately 60% of all book sales.  They know they’re in the romance ghetto, but they don’t seem to get all bent out of shape if someone happens to publish a “mainstream” book that has romantic elements.  The easy answer to that is because there are a zillion stories with romantic elements. But I’m not so sure that we can say that SF/F is any different, because there are a zillion stories/movies/TV shows/[insert media of choice] with SFnal elements too. Yes, I understand the need for segregated sections of the bookstore. There are many books that are absolutely and unquestionably SF/F, and the writers and publishers of those books want to be sure that the readers can easily find them and others like them. And, we as readers like to be able to go to one section of the bookstore and know that we’ll find a certain kind of book that appeals to our tastes. Same goes for romance.  But, how about this? How about, instead of getting all bent out of shape when someone publishes an SFnal book outside of the genre, we instead embrace it and point to it as a great example of SF reaching out and branching out into the mainstream? How about understanding that there are many people who have no intention of ever going into the SF section of the bookstore, but are more than willing to pick up a copy of Twilight/Harry Potter/[insert other very popular book of your choice]. And, guess what? After they read that book and like it, they want more like it, and yes, there may even wander over to the ghetto and see something they like.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a writer who could be easily described as a grandmaster of the field. We got into a discussion of the above, and I was surprised to discover that he had repeatedly tried to keep himself from being labeled as a fantasy or science fiction author. When I asked him why, he explained that he wrote other books besides science fiction and fantasy, and it was frustrating to have everything he wrote to automatically be labeled as SF/F. But it made me wonder: If we in the SF/F field were to stop working so hard to keep writers “behind the ghetto wall,” would these writers who do write books that reach into the mainstream feel the need to try so hard to distance themselves from the genre?

I once asked a SF/F writer with significant writing chops and several awards and norms under his belt, why the “upper echelon” of SF gets so annoyed when a writer outside of the genre writes a “genre-ish” novel and gets recognition for that novel. His response was on the order of, “We’ve been doing the same thing for years, and yet they call his stuff groundbreaking.”

So….  what? It’s all about sour grapes?

How about instead of yelling at these writers and saying, “Hey, get back into this ghetto with the rest of us who are suffering over here,” we instead just kill ’em with love and kindness and yell to the world, “Hey! Look! He’s one of ours! That’s what we do! We’re ridiculously proud that he’s a popular author who’s managed to make this great inroad into the general populace with themes that we nurtured and cared for and set free into the world. And hey, if you liked him, then you’ll love [name] as well!”



how I (actually) became a writer

Step 1: Decided to be a novelist (age unknown)

Step 2: Spent high school world building, got nowhere, decided to go to college as an English Major so I could “learn how to write”

Step 3: Did not learn how to write. Did get to read some cool books I would never have read on my own, though.

Step 4: Graduated from college with broader horizons, but no more writing than I’d done in high school.

Step 5: Got a sucky job, played a lot of warcraft, dreamed about being a writer, wrote very little.

Step 6: Read the following quote by Hemingway:

Those who say they want to be writers, and aren’t writing, don’t.

Step 7: Woke up.

That was really it, right there. I can actually remember the very moment, the actual second it happened. I was sitting at my desk at said crappy job wasting time on the internet until I could go home, and I stumbled across that quote on one of the many writing sites I used to haunt while I was “waiting for my chance to be a writer.” It truly was like waking up. I could suddenly see how stupid I’d been, how silly. Here I was, at a job where I got primarily got paid to surf the internet, no kids, no obligations, free time coming out my ears, and I was waiting? Sitting there, in my chair, letting the other secretary get the phone, I realized that all this time I was in love with the idea of being a writer, of having written, and not with writing itself, primarily because I had done so little of it.

So I changed. Right there, I changed. I set out a schedule for myself (short stories, this was before I knew I was bad at them) and a ten year plan. I was going to have my first book published by the time I was 24 (I was 22 at the time, ah youth), and I was going to be writing full time by the time I was 30. There was lots of other stuff I’ve forgotten, but those two stick out. The first one I missed by miles, but the second I might still hit if I don’t slack off.

After the revelation (which I think of as my superhero origin… not much of one, but I’m not much of a superhero :P), I wrote every day. There were days off, of course, lazy days, failure days, technical difficultly days, but even after I’d miss a few days, a few months, I always came back. Not because I loved it, and here’s a dark truth, I don’t always love writing. Some days I hate it more than I knew I could hate. Some days I’m just eh about it. But I do it, because of step 1 waaay at the top of the post. It was my childhood dream to be a writer, to tell these stories that I’m constantly in love with, so every day I write and, eventually, a novel comes out. That’s when I love being a writer.


Day Jobs

In my day job, I’m a career counselor, so I’m going to put on that hat for a moment.

It’s virtually impossible to live as a full-time writer these days. Once upon a time, I’m told writers could actually survive off the money made from short story sales, which boggles my mind — but that was long ago, in a time when rent wasn’t 50% of the average American’s budget and you could buy a full meal for a few cents. In other words, ancient history. I’m probably a typical example of a modern full-time writer in that I’m intermittently full-time. Continue reading ‘Day Jobs’