February Microfiction The Locket

February Microfiction: The Locket

“This makes no sense,” Tulla said. She’d said about five times up to that point, as if repeating the statement would manifest someone who would then make it make sense. But that wasn’t going to happen because it did not make sense.

The locket on the sidewalk was not a picture. It also wasn’t a mirror, yet it was a reflection. Just of someplace that didn’t exist. Click here to read the rest of the story

Mette Harrison On Revising The Right Way

Posts in the Writing Wisdom category are primarily for my creative writing students. Most consist of quotes from others that I want to pass along and sometimes I offer up the things I’ve learned as well.


In a Facebook post titled “You’ve Got Revision All Wrong” author Mette Harrison breaks down where many writers go wrong with thinking about revision.

When I was in high school and college, teachers would talk to us about revising papers and focus us on fixing sentences, rearranging paragraphs, and choosing better words. Which is definitely revising on one level. The problem was that when I became a professional writer, I realized that this was the very last stage of revision, basically the copy-editing level.

The revisions that I do before I get to copy-editing are massive. MASSIVE. Like, every single word of the manuscript changes. Sometimes all the scenes are in the right order (Ha–this is never true, but we’ll pretend it is for a little while). It’s just that I have the voice wrong. Or the point of view. Or I change the rules of magic. Or I have to tweak a character’s motivations. Or the setting is now historical–or isn’t historical anymore. Or I’m now writing a series instead of a standalone. Or a thousand different changes that probably sound like they’re small in terms of scope, but in fact change every single word of the book. Because my descriptions are going to change based on how my character changes. And how I introduce the magic or offer setting details changes if the point of view is different.

I know that some writers manage to figure out these kinds of problems before they start writing a first draft, but I’ll tell you honestly, not many do. Even writers who outline extensively find a ton of problems that require massive, massive revisions. And the writers who aren’t finding their problems by writing drafts are spending just as much time (IMHO) figuring out the problems in their heads.

Almost always, when I see a writer who isn’t making progress from draft to draft it’s because they aren’t either willing or able to make these kinds of revisions. They hold tight to their original vision of a project because they think that’s what people mean when they say to “write the book of your heart.” Or they honestly don’t know how to reimagine everything from the bottom up and let everything go in order to rebuild something that’s even better. And do it again and again and again in order to get a manuscript that’s ready for publication.

Read the whole post, as she goes on to say many brilliant things.

Years ago a writer (can’t remember who) said that her revision process went like this:

  1. Print out first draft of novel
  2. Delete the file
  3. Start a new file
  4. Write the novel again using the paper draft (with corrections!) as your guide

I have not gotten to the point where I’m willing to delete old versions. However, I do take a blank slate approach to revision, especially with short stories. Sometimes the fiction needs that much of an overhaul, and so I sit with my marked up manuscript and maybe notes from my beta readers and I start typing. Maybe not every single word changes (I now have a DARLINGS file, though). But I’m not beholden to anything I wrote before if it doesn’t fit.

How do you go about revising? And how extensive are your revisions?


image credit: woodleywonderworks on Flickr

white man writing with chalk against green chalkboard

The Rules Won’t Save You, So Stop Looking For Them

A couple years back when I wrote about cultural appropriation for NPR one of the more intriguing reactions I got was multiple people saying what boiled down to “But you didn’t tell me exactly what cultural appropriation is and the exact steps I need to avoid it in every possible scenario!” and then demanding I do so on Twitter or other public spaces where they could get at me. I tried to say both in the article and in subsequent discussions that the issue was far too nuanced for the exactness people were looking for, which… wasn’t the answer they wanted. I thought about this again while reading Jeanette Ng’s excellent piece on Medium offering advice for writers who want to create diverse fiction but worry about culturally appropriating. She says:

Stop looking for rules. There is a tendency in humans to desire rules, of what should and should not be permitted. It is very easy, however, once you’ve reduced things to rules… for some to forget why something is bad. Some will begin to argue that the rules seem arbitrary.

YES to all that. Plus, I’ve argued with enough Rules Lawyers[1] to know that folks will also use the rules to look for loopholes or insist on rules so that they can get around them and then claim what they’re doing is okay because it wasn’t explicitly dealt with in Rules.

I know that this isn’t true of all people trying to work out how to deal with and avoid cultural appropriation. And I know some people are better with absolutes than judgment calls. There are some situations in life where that can’t be accommodated, and issues around writing inclusive fiction and cultural appropriation are an example of such. With these you have to develop discernment based on knowledge and understanding of the nuances.

This is why I’ve spent so much time putting together resources like the Cultural Appropriation Primer as well as many of the other links on the Writing the Other website. I want to make it easier for people to find information and grow their own knowledge. And I want them to get a sense of the complexities involved, which is why there are dozens of articles and sources instead of a handful. Hell, the resource list we give our students is around 200 links deep at this point, and still growing.

Even having read all those links I can’t and won’t create a set of concrete rules to follow because that wouldn’t be a solution. Writers could follow every rule to the T and still make mistakes that harm marginalized people[2]. So why even try? Because it’s not about following rules, it’s about doing your best to reduce harm and, if you don’t get it 100% right, apologizing, learning from your mistakes, and doing better in the future. That’s it. Most people aren’t looking for perfection. They are looking to see that you care, that you’re putting in a good faith effort, and that you’re willing to listen and learn.

So listen to Jeanette and stop looking for rules. They won’t save you.

Footnotes

  1. My usage of this term closely aligns with what TVTropes calls Obnoxious Rules Lawyers/Rule Sharks.[]
  2. I address this in my LitReactor essay on representation when talking about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: A Game Of You storyline.[]

Breakable Rules: You Must Write Every Day!

Posts in the Writing Wisdom category are primarily for my creative writing students. Most consist of quotes from others that I want to pass along and sometimes I offer up the things I’ve learned as well.


Write Every Day is an oft-given and basic piece of writing advice. If you want to be a Real Writer™ you must write every day, no matter your circumstances, no matter your lack of inspiration. Put that butt in that chair and sit there and write. Every day.

Even Jerry Seinfeld agrees, and he’s a huge success. (He has a productivity trick that helped him accomplish this that I use myself because it is quite motivational.)

The problem with Write Every Day as a dictate from on high is that it creates a huge amount of pressure. And, as author Daniel José Older explains, that doesn’t work for everyone.

Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.

Yes to that. Not everyone is motivated by deadlines and hard goals. For some, writing on your current work/s in progress every day might not be feasible, might not even be what you need to do. Older again:

Every writer has their rhythm. It seems basic, but clearly it must be said: There is no one way. Finding our path through the complex landscape of craft, process, and different versions of success is a deeply personal, often painful journey. It is a very real example of making the road by walking. Mentors and fellow travelers can point you towards new possibilities, challenge you and expand your imagination, but no one can tell you how to manage your writing process. I’ve been writing steadily since 2009 and I’m still figuring mine out. I probably will be for the rest of my life. It’s a growing, organic, frustrating, inspiring, messy adventure, and it’s all mine.

For myself, I find that I can’t always move forward in my work progress every day. Sometimes I need to work out why a scene isn’t gelling or a character isn’t behaving in a way I want in my own head before trying to do so in words. Sometimes I find I really need to get a bit of research out of the way to make the next chapter or scene flow. And sometimes I’m really busy with work projects.

The problem that arises for me is that I can’t not write for too long otherwise I run into trouble. Author Justine Larbalestier is the same:

If I don’t write for a month then I find it very very very difficult to get back into it. And the longer I’m not writing the harder it becomes. My writing muscles atrophy. I need to write—not every day, but at least three times a week—to stay limber.

In his book About Writing, Samuel R. Delany compares writing to an addiction:

…your mind becomes… addicted to the pleasure of writing. …while the pleasure is there (it’s unique; very real; all writers experience it), the truth is, it isn’t that great. You need lots of it to effect the “addiction” that will keep you at it. Though the practice of writing has the structure of an addiction, it’s a mild one–one remarkably easy to wean yourself away from, even accidentally or through inattention.

The way I reconcile this with the idea that you don’t have to write on your work in progress every day is that I make it my goal to do one ten minute writing exercise a day. Ten minutes is not a large chunk of time, so even in a busy life I can find the moment to sit down and do it. Even a short exercise keeps my creative brain engaged enough to make it easier to get back to writing on my work in progress when I can. And on those days I do an exercise right before I get to the main writing in order to turn off my horrid little internal editor.

This is why I did the Writing Exercises class last year and why I started The Picture Game a few years back. That one is simple: find a picture, get out a notebook or open a blank word processing document, set a timer for 10 minutes, take no more than 30 seconds to take in the picture, then write until the timer dings. No stopping to correct spelling or to think, just keep your fingers moving.

There are plenty of places[1] to find different writing exercises that keep you limber but won’t make you feel pressured. Find your level and what works for you and do that!

Whatever you do, know that there’s no one right way to be a writer, no one thing you must to, no one path you must follow.


image credit: photosteve101 on Flickr

Footnotes

  1. Some of my favorites:

    All with great exercises to do alone or with other writers.[]

Dragon Bound

January Microfiction: Dragon Bound

“You’re not supposed to carry me like this! Are you listening? Kid! Brruughfft – this is so undignified.”

Tamar let the Dragon complain until his complaints ran out. He’d pay for it later when the Dragon got bigger. Didn’t take too long for that to happen, but maybe by then he would be a Dragon himself and nothing could hurt him.

“You think you’ll get to be one of us? Not likely.”

Click here to read the rest of the story

Sunspot Jungle cover

Celebrating the Equinox (an excerpt from The Copper Scarab)

The autumn is upon us, and it’s time to celebrate the harvest and wave goodbye to summer ~sniff~. I try to mark the quarter days (equinoxes and solstices) with something special. And there is stuff to celebrate! Those of you who backed the Sunspot Jungle Kickstarter should be getting your hardback copies of the book very soon! The paperback and eBook editions will be out on December 1 (and are already up for pre-order!).

I have a story in volume 1, a reprint of my Pyramids and Punk tale The Copper Scarab. When I was writing it I had this vision of how I wanted the last section of the story to go. I knew the sphinx at Giza would be involved, but needed some other element to make it all click. I went poking through all my research files and found an article I’d saved talking about the connection between the sphinx and the eastern horizon and the timing of the inundation of the Nile (which is a plot point in the story) and everything fell right together into this passage below.

This is from the last section of the story but does not include the end. It’s minorly spoilery, but I doubt the reading of it would be “ruined” for you if you read this.

Excerpt: The Copper Scarab

In the darkness before dawn on the equinox, Khemetans who came from across the delta and White Fortress region gathered around the base of the Great Lioness. Their voices quiet, reverent; their bodies newly wet with water from the still anemic Nile. They sat with eyes trained on the eastern horizon. Like the giant stone Lion of the Horizon, their faces would greet the dawn directly on the day marking the beginning of the harvest season. Most of them tried not to think about how poor that harvest would be this year, just as last year, and possibly all the years to come. Instead, they waited for the life-giving rays of the sun to warm their skin and remind them of the first eternal truth: Everything changes, but the dawn always comes.

Half a shade after the sun disk pushed fully over the horizon, the Lioness seemed, impossibly, to shudder. Sounds emerged from under the ground that ricocheted around the still quiet crowd–vibrations that didn’t make sense.

They had begun to murmur when the copper scarab emerged from the sand between the stone paws, hissing and clicking and gleaming in the sunlight. The people’s silence held for one breath, two, before everyone reacted at once. Amatashteret watched from a short distance as some scrambled away in fear, some fell to their knees in shock or in reverence, and some ran to get a closer look. The engineers surrounded the scarab, lifting the copper wings to the right position and ensuring the steam pressure stayed at the right level. Once they gave the ready signal, she and the other chariot riders rolled past the machine, heading into the desert and upriver toward the capital.


Pre-order Sunspot Jungle to read the whole story.

Goth Rose

Story Notes: August Patron Fiction

Sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places.

Earlier this week I took an out of town friend up to the International Rose Test Garden here in Portland. In the Shakespeare Garden area we sat to chill and my friend, Shveta Thakrar, read to me from a book of faerie stories.

One of the stories she read was The Lothian Farmer’s Wife, a tale I hadn’t heard before.

The wife of a farmer in Lothian had been carried off by the fairies, and, during the year of probation, repeatedly appeared on Sunday, in the midst of her children, combing their hair. On one of these occasions she was accosted by her husband; when she related to him the unfortunate event which had separated them, instructed him by what means he might win her, and exhorted him to exert all his courage, since her temporal and eternal happiness depended on the success of his attempt. The farmer, who ardently loved his wife, set out on Hallowe’en, and, in the midst of a plot of furze, waited impatiently for the procession of the fairies. At the ringing of the fairy bridles, and the wild, unearthly sound which accompanied the cavalcade, his heart failed him, and he suffered the ghostly train to pass by without interruption. When the last had rode past, the whole troop vanished, with loud shouts of laughter and exultation; among which he plainly discovered the voice of his wife, lamenting that he had lost her for ever.

When she finished I said: “It’s a reverse gender Tam Lin except, when a man has to do the bold brave thing, he fails. This is why men ain’t shit.” And we had a hearty laugh.

Then I kept thinking about the story, and about Tam Lin, and about how I have never thought that dude was all that great despite really loving some arrangements of the ballad, such as my favorite one by S.J. Tucker[1]:

The more I thought about how the people in this story might have known the people from the Tam Lin ballad and how Tam was probably not the best husband a Janet could ask for, the more I started to spin a backstory on why the wife got taken and then the first draft of this month’s microfiction poured right out of me.

It is, as some of you are aware, not all that micro! It’ll likely get a bit shorter once I polish it and send it out into the world for publication. Patreon patrons get to read it right now.

Footnotes

  1. P.S. You can buy the studio version of this track, which is excellent, on Sooj’s website []
Onyx Pages booktube

Watch My Interview on the ONYX Pages Booktube Channel

Back at WisCon I met a wonderful Canadian booktuber named Njeri whose YouTube reviews of books and interviews with authors are a delight. You should definitely subscribe after you finish watching this interview she did with me. She got me talking about social justice and art, spirituality and the role of the artist, Black Panther, Afrofuturism, and my own work.

mother of invention anthology cover

Mother of Invention Essays on Gender, AI, Androids, Allegory, and the Other

Next month the fabulous Mother of Invention anthology comes out and I highly encourage you to pre-order this fabulousness if you did not get in on the Kickstarter. It features stories about gender as it relates to the creation of artificial intelligence and robotics by Nisi Shawl, John Chu, Seanan McGuire, Soumya Sundar Mukherjee, EC Myers & many more. Editors Rivqa Rafael and Tansy Rayner Roberts did a fantastic job with it (I know cuz I’ve read my contributor copy already :D ).

As a companion to the antho Rivqa and Tansy asked me to write a non-fiction essay around the same themes as the fiction, and I immediately knew I wanted to write about androids and race. It helped that Janelle Monae dropped Dirty Computer in the middle of the editing process, allowing me to go deeper into her contributions to androidified fiction. I also got to namecheck Chesya Burke and talk more in-depth about her work, which is always a treat.

Mine is not the only companion essay. Katherine Cross wrote about The Gender in the Machine and Aliette de Bodard wrote about AI as the Other, AI as Family. Both essays are fantastic and have me thinking more about what I might want to say about AI in future projects. (And by that I mean far future because I’m gonna be in Egypt for the next long while…) Same with the stories in the anthology. They all have me considering aspects of AI I had not before.

Bottom line: read the essays and pre-order the book!

background of books on a shelf in sepia tone with the words steampunk dollhouse on top

The Copper Scarab mentioned in the Steampunk Dollhouse podcast

Clockwork Cairo, the anthology where my first Pyramids and Punk story “The Copper Scarab” was published, hasn’t gotten many reviews. The few it has garnered are pretty positive on up to glowing, which makes me happy. Still, I was really glad when the person behind the Steampunk Dollhouse podcast (her nom de plume is Bluestocking and I am here for this) said they were going to devote an entire episode to the book.

You can listen to Episode 12 “Walk Like a Windup Egyptian” over on the Steampunk Dollhouse website or subscribe to the podcast. If you don’t want to hear a discussion about recent sexual harassment allegations in the steampunk community, you can skip to the 40 minute mark, which is where they start going through the book. Bluestocking devotes a few minutes to each story. If you haven’t read the book yet you’ll get a good sense of everything. Since my story is last she talks about it at the end. And hooo let me tell you all the blushing was going on once I got there.

Bluestocking loved the story and spoke highly of what I was trying to do with it. I haven’t been sure how steampunk fans were going to react to my milieu (I’m using many French words today), so it was a happy surprise to find that she enjoyed the story in part because it’s not “Anglo at all” as she put it. She also compared me favorably to Ken Liu and therefore is now my favorite person.

If you haven’t bought the anthology yet but do like steampunk, have a listen. It may inspire you to grab a copy.