Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hiding in Plain Sight

Being a writer, I’ve come to accept the fact I’m more observant than other people in my life. I have to be, if I’m ever going to be any good.

So it always surprises me when my husband or a friend or family member makes a canny or clever observation. My hand reaches for the notebook even as I wonder just what else they make of the world around them that’s never voiced. After all, that’s a wonderful thing to aspire to as a writer – giving voice to what people never articulate for themselves. Those truths that resonate with readers.

I’m an intensely private person – the anonymous blog is one clue. Only a few people in real life know I write, and it will stay that way until I have a bit more to show for my efforts. I'm flying under the radar. Hiding in plain sight. Or so I thought.

My conception of myself was thrown for a loop recently when I received a gift from one of my aunts. A book on writing, with the note: “I think this is something you like to pursue in your own way.”

At first I thought my father spilled the beans to his sister. He swears he didn’t. This was just my aunt putting two and two together. Somehow.

I’m still struggling with how she guessed since I’ve never acknowledged that side of me when I’m around her. Of course we both share a love of books and have been trading novels, recommendations, and reviews for years. And my vague answer to what I’m up to these days is probably eyebrow raising to her, considering my past academic and professional achievements. But that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable admitting it. To her. Yet.

But the fatigue of keeping up appearances, of pretending this huge part of my life doesn’t exist, is wearing on me.

The fantabulous, always-articulate Tahereh Mafi wrote a post this week on Writers Coming Out of the Closet. Even looking through my old archives, I’ve noticed this issue of identity recurring again and again. And there are hundreds of posts out there from published authors, bestsellers even, who still feel insecure in their writerly-ness.

Do you find yourself hiding in plain sight? How do you own being a writer? And if anyone could tell me who started the silver pin “I am a writer” badge, I’d be much obliged. Happy writing!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Review – Air by Geoff Ryman

Air (or Have Not Have) by Geoff Ryman is my April selection for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge I signed up for through the book review blog Floor to Ceiling Books.

Chung Mae is the resident fashion expert in her poor farming village in Happy Province, Karzistan. Unable to read, Mae spends her time making graduation dresses for local girls and hosting shopping expeditions into the big city for her adult clients. But all that is threatened with the coming of Air, a new technology that will bring Happy Province, willingly or no, into the future.

When a test for Air goes horribly wrong, linking Mae’s consciousness with that of Mrs. Tung, an elderly neighbor who dies during the test, Mae is both feared and admired by the other villagers thanks to her ability to navigate Air and the prophetic wisdom she utters when Mrs. Tung takes over during emotional moments.

But just as Air takes away Mae’s fashion business – for she can no longer be the only fashion expert when anyone in the village can access Air and see what designs are the latest rage – Air also gives her a new purpose as she vows to prepare her fellow villagers for the flood of information that will soon be at their command.

Air is a meditative, beautiful, frustrating, imaginative read. If you are interested in stories featuring the impact of new technologies on culture (like me) then it is also a must-read (albeit with some reservations).

What is perhaps so striking to me is Ryman’s decision to show how Air, an advanced technology, impacts a small farming community where things like indoor plumbing, telephones, and bank accounts are far removed from daily life. The villagers literally go from having nothing to the possibility of having everything thanks to Air. Thus Air is a very different story from one where Air is just the next iteration of communication technology in a more modern community.

The intersection of a traditional, agrarian society with the new technology provides countless opportunities to show the effects Air has socially (Mae’s interactions with her neighbors and the larger community), gender-wise (Mae and the other village women are empowered by Air and subvert traditional gender roles), occupationally (Mae goes from fashion expert to teacher, resulting in friction with the local headmaster), as well as other cultural dimensions. Ryman explores each aspect exhaustively but weaves them together into almost seamless, satisfying conclusion.

What was also impressive is Rymans’s use of lyrical and figurative language to describe concepts – as if literally translating them from Karz or Chinese. Not only in Mae’s dialogue, but her inner thoughts as well. His portrayal of Mae is intimate and complex, offering writers a great character to study.

My only issue with the book is his handling of


Mae’s pregnancy, which I found offensive and the only misstep in an otherwise excellent work. Other reviewers have interpreted this part of the story as a symbolic event – and it does work as such – but the specific subversions of Mae’s pregnancy necessary for symbolism still rankled. I mention this not so much to deter readers, but to give them a heads-up, should they be surprised by it like I was. Otherwise, I fully recommend Air to any reader of speculative fiction.

Be sure to check out other April reviews for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Voice Matters Blogfest Challenge

Two characters. Three genres. Each scene with an appropriate voice.

It's the Voice Matters Blogfest Challenge, hosted by my critique partner Lori M. Lee.

I took my characters from my historical romance and put them in a contemporary romance and a science fiction scene. Tricky stuff!

Historical Romance:
“I want to thank you for taking the time to show me the area, my lady. However, I would ask in the future that you do not venture out on your own, even if you plan on remaining on your family’s lands.”

The pretty color he had noticed in her cheeks earlier began to darken. She pushed aside her trencher. He steeled himself for yet another fight. But before Isobel could respond, the innkeeper came bustling over with a jug of wine and two mugs. Her eyes flashed with anger but she didn’t stir until the innkeeper moved a discreet distance away.

“I wonder how long you have been waiting to recite your little speech, Sir Alexandre,” she said before taking a deliberate sip of wine.

He watched her lips close over the cup, the column of her throat working as she swallowed. He raised his own mug to her in mock-salute. “For quite some time, I can assure you. And please, call me Alex.”

Contemporary Romance:
Even though he was still a respectful distance away, Isobel could see his knowing grin flash in the afternoon sun. “I didn’t believe it when Daniel said that you’d be here so I came to make sure.”

She relaxed her stance and let go of Rufus. “Alex Johanson?” Her mouth curled bitterly as she took in his thick, dark hair and proud yet even features. “I didn’t realize it was you without the suit.”

The dog bounded over to Alex, and she let her eyes feast on him for only a moment before she tried to calm her furiously beating heart. She had nothing to be ashamed of, she reminded herself. Rufus, the little traitor, pranced happily around Alex’s feet as he strode towards her.

A maroon flannel shirt peeped out from underneath his unbuttoned lambswool-lined jacket, a sharp contrast to the three-piece suit and tie he wore when she saw him last. He seemed completely at ease, which annoyed her even more.

“I’m not the only one who has changed.”

Science Fiction:
Alex saw her, of course, before she had even decided to seek refuge in the cafĂ©. One did not often see the senator’s daughter out and about unescorted. She must have run into the rally he heard rumors of all week. Stupid girl.

Alex turned back to the stack of books he’d gotten from the library, determined not to get involved. No good would come from that. He pulled the volume on design theory he had special ordered towards him. Diagrams animated with electronic ink winked up at him.

“I’m sorry I’m late. I’m glad you didn’t wait for me,” a female voice announced, before the owner of the voice took the seat opposite of him. Alex blinked, taking in Isobel’s face, for once unencumbered by her trademark glasses, her hair unbound and framing her dusky features.

Surely she wasn’t so desperate she’d use a stranger to get out of the trouble she’d found herself in. But when he saw the determined glint of her gray eyes, the strict way she held herself as if she was prepared to bolt the second he made things difficult for her, he supposed she was.
This was a hard challenge -- to establish the characters' relation to one another, establish setting and other genre conventions, and still make it clear which character's voice was narrating the scene.

Be sure to check out other participants in the blogfest here.

And remember: Voice matters!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Best of the Best - Speculative Fiction Resources

The Best of the Best series is back, this time focusing on resources for Speculative Fiction writers. Previous installments looked at Agent Blogs, the Writing Blogosphere’s Major Players, and Romance Writing Resources.

Since I’m slowly shifting gears from my historical romance MS to my speculative fiction WIP, I thought it was an appropriate time to share with you the resources I’ve collected for writing speculative fiction.

And remember, these are links I’ve personally found useful – if you’ve come across your own resources, be sure to share them in the comments!

General Resources

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America - Although there’s a lot of members-only content, you can still find tons of valuable information that’s publicly available on the official SFWA site. Blog entries on the right-hand side of the home page run the gamut from craft to author news. The Author Information Center includes advice for beginning writers, the craft and business of writing, and copyright. Links to SFWA member fiction are also available in case you want to see what it takes to be published in a pro market. - An online portal for all things specfic. Blog posts cover book reviews; fandom notes for SF/F books, games, movies, and TV shows; polls; and con recaps. An impressive numbers of first-rate short stories, novel excerpts, and comics are also available on the site.

io9 and Blastr - Two sites I use for my specfic pop culture fix. io9 is affiliated with Gawker, while Blastr is an extension of SyFy (the cable network). Both sites include movie casting info and spoilers and speculation on upcoming releases. I tend to prefer io9 since they cover a broader range of mediums (Blastr emphasizes primarily visual media) and io9 also has a series of science-related posts – new findings and the like – that always give me story ideas.

Science In My Fiction - A blog where contributors examine different SF tropes and synthesize the research that is available (research findings, technical reports, mythology, history, you-name-it) into eminently readable articles. They present the science behind such topics as nanotechnology, quantum gravity, and what aliens should look like. If you want to write specfic but don’t have a background in hard science, Science In My Fiction provides a great primer on a variety of subjects.

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy - Podcasts with established and up-and-coming SF writers as well as other futurists, hosted by author David Barr Kirtley and Lightspeed and Fantasy Magazine editor John Joseph Adams. Interviewees include George R. R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, Paolo Bacigalupi, Carrie Vaughn, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. - A wonderful resource for speculative fiction markets, including detailed listings for pro and semipro markets. The website also provides a helpful list of writing resources and articles.

Specific Writers*

Janice Hardy - Hardy, author of the Healing Wars Trilogy (MG Fantasy), examines every aspect of writing craft on her blog. Regular readers will recognize her from some of my Resource Roundup posts because she does such an exceptional job covering writing topics in a thorough yet accessible manner. Even if you don’t write specfic, you should be following Hardy’s blog. The Kristen Nelson is also her agent, for those of you keeping score.

Juliette Wade - Wade’s blog TalkToYoUniverse includes thoughtful posts not only on writing craft but how linguistics and anthropology (her academic background) inform her writing process. She also hosts a Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop where she provides line-by-line commentary on how volunteers employ worldbuilding techniques in the opening paragraphs of their story.

Christine Yant – Yant’s perspective as a specfic writer and assistant editor with Lightspeed is particularly helpful for those of you looking to break into the market. Her blog blends the personal with anecdotes from the writing life, but I’d say it is her Lessons from the Slushpile posts that are required reading: The Numbers, Why I Refuse to be a Snarky Slusher, What Editors Owe Us, Your Cover Letter and You, and Good versus Great.

Magical Words - I’ve been a bit lax on the fantasy-specific resources since I’m more towards the SF end of the specfic spectrum, but Magical Words is a wonderful resource for specfic writers of all stripes. Writers A. J. Hartley, C. E. Murphy, Carrie Ryan, David B. Coe, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Edmund Schubert, Faith Hunter, Lucienne Diver, Mindy Klasky, Misty Massey, and Stuart Jaffe all take turns tackling different aspects of craft, publishing, and the writing life, often using examples from their own works.

*This isn’t to say it’s not worth your time to poke around on say Ursula K. Le Guin’s site or Neil Gaiman’s or other SF/F author sites (I’d also recommend Orson Scott Card and Holly Lisle's sites for writing resources), but the websites I mention above are my go-to resources that I read on a regular basis.

Other Resources

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Competitive Edge

I think it’s fair to say I’m a competitive person.

Growing up, I constantly challenged my younger sister to silly contests: Who could sing the loudest? Who could build the bigger block tower? Who loved our parents more? I played sports through high school. I got good grades and not so subtly competed against my friends for class rankings. So I’ve always had a sense of who to beat when it came to something I wanted to excel at.

But writing is one of those things – especially when you are apprenticing like me – where a competitive mindset can hurt you. We’re human, so it’s not uncommon to feel jealous of other writers. (See posts by writers James Scott Bell, Leslie Greffenius, Diana Santelli, and Juliette Wade who are more eloquent than I on the subject.)

When we’re just starting out, we need community, not competition. But it can be hard to bury that competitive instinct. It’s how you manage it that’s critical.

For example, I held off sharing my work with others because (in part) my competitive nature could not handle failure. Sucking was not an option, especially at something I loved. I got over that, of course, because we all know there is nothing more humbling than writing for publication. I exchanged my work with a few writing groups and found two wonderful critique partners.

But now that I’ve started work on a new novel-length project, some of those old fears have crept back. How can my new story possibly be as good as my old one? What if my first story was just a fluke? What will my CPs – who have come to expect a certain level of competency from me – think?

But then that competitive edge that kicked in: Not good enough? You will make it better. You’ve done it before; you’ll do it again. Or else.

Ok, so maybe my inner voice didn’t say it quite like that, but the prospect of having someone else’s eyes on this particular story pushed me out of the writing funk I found myself in whenever I thought about the project.

For whatever reason, I couldn’t make myself take initiative – I had ideas on where to take my characters, possible plot lines, even a full draft – but I wasn’t making any real headway in completing the story. But once I decided this would be my next project after my historical romance and consequently the next novel I share with my CPs, I found my motivation again.

Suddenly it was easier to commit to some changes and cut what wasn’t working. With the prospect of someone else reading the story who wasn’t me or even my husband, I found it that much easier to direct my revisions. I have certain expectations of my writing before it’s ready to share with others, and my competitive nature won’t allow for anything less. So I funneled that energy into my story, and so far, I’ve been pleased with the results.

You may have heard the advice: know your audience. This is important, and author Micheal Cunningham has some interesting thoughts on the subject as well. He suggests finding that one person to write for – not yourself, not the world at large – just one person to focus your efforts. I think it’s important to take that concept one step further – write for that one person who forces you to be your best.

For this particular story at this particular point in its development, I’m writing for my CPs. To ensure the quality is there and worthy of their time. They won’t always be my intended audience – at some point I’ll be revising and rewriting for agents and a general reading audience – but for now, while my story is still new and full of possibilities, there’s no one better to write for because my competitive nature will force me to ensure the work is as good as I can make it before I turn it over to my CPs.

If you are competitive like me, how do you harness that energy in your writing? Who inspires you to do your very best?

Friday, April 8, 2011

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Writer

I love being a writer. But as with anything, there are some things I wish I'd known before I got started. The blog Paper Hangover is hosting Friday Fives, where writers share the five things they wish they knew before becoming a writer.

1) It’s ok to be afraid, but do it anyway

I stared writing in my early teens. In my bedroom, door closed. I like to think my family didn’t know what I was doing – they probably did, but we didn’t talk about it. You see, I never told anyone I wrote because I was scared of what they’d say. Sometimes my doubts made me stop writing all together. I lost valuable years of developing my craft thanks to my fears. And I regret that every day as I try to keep moving forward with my writing years later. It’s ok to be afraid – writing is a scary thing, putting your thoughts and feelings on display – but never stop writing. You can only get better, and soon enough, those fears will fade.

2) Seek out all the opportunities available to you

I hate the fact that I was too intimidated to take a creative writing class in college. I was good at studying, got good grades, but terrified at trying something more creative in a room of my peers, even though I had been writing on my own for some time. Now I realize that it was foolish to let my fears hold me back like that. Today I would kill for an opportunity to take a creative writing class with my peers. Now I constantly cull the local paper for writing opportunities and events. I got involved with two writing groups. I make sure I know when readings and author events happen near me. If you want it, work for it. Make connections. You never know what will pan out.

3) Don’t just read books – study them

You’re going to read a lot of books. For fun, for school. Books you want to read. Book you hate. But the best thing you can do is become an active reader, a critical reader. Don’t just read a book because you have to or because you want to pass the time. Read for craft. Why does the author write something one way and not another? Why is one book a page turner and another one isn’t? How would you make the content of a dry history text come to life? By asking yourself these questions as you read, you will have internalized the techniques of other writers and be able to apply them to your own writing.

4) Remember to experience life

If you know you want to be a writer, that’s great. And it’s important to work towards that goal. But don’t forget to experience life in you quest for literary greatness. Go to that party. Watch TV. Walk in the rain. Talk to that person you never talk to but always see. Live. And write. The more you experience, the more fodder you will have for your stories.

5) Don’t give up

Writing is a long journey. It can be lonesome. It can be terrifying. But it can also be exhilarating. It can also be energizing. It can tell you who you are. But it takes determination, patience, and hard work. A few good writer friends won’t hurt either. You will be rejected, you will get discouraged. But you will still pick up your pen or type on your keyboard, because you are a writer. You write.

Be sure to check out the other writers participating by going HERE.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Capturing the Crisis

Something unexpected happened last week. A wildfire blazed through the open space that borders our property. Because our house is right next to the gate to the open space, my husband and I had a first row seat as panicked visitors drove off, police cars and fire trucks drove in, and the local news affiliates tagged along to document the blaze.

Now I don't want to say this was a huge deal -- not with earthquakes, tsunamis, and wars still commanding the headlines. No one was hurt. Strong winds blew the flames and smoke away from the homes bordering the open space. The fire was contained in a relatively swift manner.

But the potential it had was terrifying. What if the winds were blowing in a different direction? What if the kids who allegedly started the fire chose a different park location to mess around? What if someone, tired after a long day of hiking, got caught up in the blaze?

Around 7pm, we saw smoke. Police arrived, fire trucks soon followed. By 7:30pm, Eyewitness News cameras were set up and collecting footage. The other affiliates trickled in after that. At 10:30pm the news crews finally left since they stayed on location for the 10 o'clock news. Fire trucks worked through the night. The next morning they were still there, assessing the damage.

In total, only 10 acres were destroyed, upsetting the natural ecosystem and the hiking and biking trails that wind through it. Now that I'm over the surprise, I wanted to share what I learned from the fire, which may help you if, god forbid, you find yourself in a similar situation or just want an extra dose of realism for a crisis moment in your own WIP.

1. Always call 911 - Don't assume someone else has done so. With the park full of people, I was shocked my husband was only the second person to call it in after seeing flames from one of our windows. You may have heard of something called the Bystander Effect, where people don't offer help when other people are present, ostensibly under the impression that someone else will. Is your character someone who takes charge, no matter what, or someone who lets others do the work for them?

2. A lot can happen in a short amount of time - Like I said, we saw smoke around 7pm. 15 minutes later, the fire trucks finally showed up. In addition to smoke, flames had encompassed the site by then - big ones - that exacerbated an already intense situation. When writing a crisis moment in you stories, use pacing to your advantage. Short, choppy sentences. Sensory details. Never forget the unpredictability of Mother Nature, and use it to your advantage to up the stakes.

3. People are still people, even in a crisis - Before the police arrived, there were still jerks trying to get into the park to see what was going on.  Once the cops showed up, people would approach officers and pester them for details. One policeman said his time was better spent on fire containment, not answering questions. My point is if your character is a jerk before a crisis, chances are, he'll still be one during and after it. There were no magical transformations. If anything, someone's defining characteristics (good and bad) become even more pronounced in such situations.

4. Fire in particular is compelling - People inched as close as they could to the line the cops were maintaining. One group of hikers snuck through using another trail to see what was going on before they were called off. Even in the blurry pictures I managed to take, my eye is constantly drawn to the bright spots, to the flames. So when capturing your crisis in words, do not neglect the visual component. This doesn't mean you overlook the other senses, but remember the cinematic quality such events can have.

5. Never underestimate the appeal of getting on TV - Because the TV crews were set up essentially in my yard, I saw how the reporters found people for televised reactions -- they just had to turn around to find those who had crept up behind them, in some cases making small talk with the cameraman or reporters, kissing up for their chance to share their impressions. Is your character someone who will push his way towards the reporters or someone who hangs back (like me) to get away from the spotlight?

6. Bystanders do two things - They either parrot the information they think they know about what's going on and/or articulate their association to the situation - in this case the area under fire. "We live right here." "I run on the trails every morning." "Well, I mountain bike here on the weekends." "I remember a few years ago how about another fire that happened here." And so on. People feel connected to place, then share that connection to justify why they are looking on, helplessly. It can devolve into a pissing match ("This place is more important to me." "No, me.") but ultimately, it's people expressing their connection to the tragedy. What connects your character to the crisis in your story? How does it make them feel? How can you use the unvalidated information people parrot back and forth to drive your narrative?

7. There will always be looky-loos - People were driving past the open space entrance for hours after the fire trucks showed up on the scene. The next day, people kept stopping by to see for themselves. Never underestimate the compulsion to see something with your own eyes. What's the difference for your character whether they experience something firsthand or not? Would they want to see for themselves or accept other people's accounts of the crisis?

8. You will quickly learn what is most important to you
- After I saw the smoke, my first instinct was to gather up essentials, in case we had to evacuate in a hurry. Within five minutes, I assembled a bag with my laptop and notebooks (of course!); documents like the deed to our house, birth certificates, passports, marriage licenses, insurance; a box of mementos; and my ipod since I'm such a music snob. It was just one bag, but those items told me a lot about myself. What would your characters put in their bag?

I hope no one has to experience such crisis moments first-hand, but that doesn't mean we can't write about them. And I hope this post helps you do just that.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...