Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Magical Thinking and Creativity

Sometimes my friends spark ideas for blog posts, like Pat's post about magical thinking. Because I didn't want to clog his comments with my endless fonts of frustration, I skedaddled over here to talk about it.

Magical thinking is a logical fallacy: specifically a causal one, where the relationship between cause and effect becomes blurred. Common examples include the traditional belief that plants shaped like a human body part would have healing properties for that body part, thinking that speaking of the Devil invokes his presence, and thinking that writing is reliant on a muse.

Sometimes it can be difficult to write, or difficult to write well, when one is not in the right mood. I usually just work on something else - a different project, art, knitting and watching Battlestar Galactica. This is not because of some elusive muse. This is because I am cranky and, nine times out of ten, too lazy to go through thinking exercises to get into the right mood for a particular project. If you are less lazy than I, reading about Feeling Rational or How To Be Happy or The ABCs of Luminosity might give you tools to consciously take steps towards being in a mood more conducive to writing. If they don't do that, they will hopefully at least distract you: I consider rationality articles a worthwhile distraction, because they add to my knowledge base.

Another common piece of magical thinking is to trust the story. This is a mixed piece of advice. If I am sitting down with no idea in mind but an image, I can write that image, but not a story. If I start on a story, it goes nowhere and is generally awful. I have yet to encounter anyone who is able to write a story just trusting it, with no active planning on their part. On the other hand, if I have thought through what I want to happen at the end, how I want characters to interact, how things will interact, I feel like I can trust the story and just write without consulting an outline frequently (or sometimes at all). If I have thought it through, the story is my creation, and I am trusting myself to follow through on my idea.

I do not 'listen to my characters,' as I do not experience psychosis. If I am having difficulty with having a particular character do a particular thing, I sit back and take a moment to examine my characterization. Is this in line with this character's motivations? Abilities? Am I taking an unexplained and rapid shift in character? Sometimes I have misstepped in characterization, and then I go back and fix it, but it is a matter of recognizing it as a flaw in the writing, not as making imaginary people do what they don't want to do. There is frequent talk of characters and having them live in ones head, but I really don't like that, because of my next point:

Creativity and mental illness are frequently conflated. There is some science to a correlation between creativity and some mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, but correlation does not imply causation. Feelings of alienation in general, which can sometimes stem from a feeling of other-ness caused by diagnosed mental illness, give people something to write about. Alienation is impetus to connect through art. But mental illness is not the only way to be alienated, and alienation is only one form of impetus. So people really need to shut the fuck up with "all writers are crazy" as their tittering justification for affected eccentricities. Not only does it otherize creative people it diminishes the import of a diagnosis, and also contributes to the proud declaration of mental illness from teenage writers who have nothing more diagnostically viable than Teen Angst. Teen writers loudly declaring their darkness of soul make it harder for teenagers actually sinking into a pit to be noticed. Cultural narratives of mental illness and creativity as synonymous are damaging, and we need to stop it. Eventually I will have a post entirely about cultural narratives, but today is not that day.

I've already written about Writing What You Know, which is not always magical thinking, but is still an aphorism frequently bandied about to limited good effect.

Another piece of magical thinking is that drugs or alcohol or otherwise altered states help with writing. Some of this can be blamed squarely on Jack Kerouac and the Beat artists. Altered states do not intrinsically help with writing or other creative efforts. The only thing they might help with is in lowering inhibitions. For example, I have been known as of a summers evening to sip Kahlua and hammer through a bunch of critique. The critique is snarky, but it goes quickly, because I don't second-guess myself. I try not to write like that, though, as I have to go around cleaning it up in the morning, which is boring.

Are there any frequent instances of magical thinking that I've missed? Let me know below.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Meta: Violence and Violins

I got an itch to write, but didn't want to work on any extant projects: I was too restless to refer to an outline, and couldn't think of anything in particular I wanted to write about. So, as usual, I badgered the first friend I talked to for a prompt.

He told me violence, or violins, or violence with violins.

We know each other from the Homestuck fandom on Tumblr, and then through talking on Skype. In Homestuck, the character Rose plays the violin, and the character Dave is associated with swords and is the 'Knight' class in the game they play, meaning that to me he is associated with violence. He also has time-travel powers and deejays, to explain some of the other references.

Rose is a passive class in the game they play, which is why I left her up on the tower. She is also associated with light, and with communing with things that live beyond the stars, which is how that symbolism sneaked in there.

The story itself takes place between events shown in the comic, and is meant to be one of the possibilities that could fill that gap.

The whole tone is somewhat ethereal, which was what I felt compelled to write at the time, but might not be the tone I'd use if I were to make it longer. The tone fits well with Rose, except that her writing is a lot more verbose. The exception is the metaphor about drunk surfers, which is more in Dave's voice. He's fairly verbose, too, though.

I think I caught the tone I wanted, even though it wouldn't be quite the same tone as the comic. It got the writing bug out for the evening, and my friend enjoyed it.

I probably could have done more in depth characterization, but that's one of the joys of fanfiction: Homestuck fans would already immediately recognize them.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fic: Violence and Violins

The stars are cold overhead, and he can taste their distance, because it is measured in time.

She plays a dirge for the moon, and he records it to later make a battle hymn. As she plays, the strains of violin ghost through the city, and the Dersites look up. Identical smug tics drag up the corners of their mouths before their faces smooth to default. The crypts won’t be well-guarded for long.

The light of the constellations fluctuates with her tempo, their infinitesimal flickers declaring ‘soon’ for a value of soon whose picoseconds are engraved on his bones.

He jumps easily from the signal tower to the main portion of the roof. It’s only twenty feet. It won’t do any good if they’re allowed to interrupt her. There’s only one door that opens onto the roof, and only one fire escape that leads this far up. They are spaced such that he can keep an eye on both, and he does. He needn’t do more than that, not yet, so he stands with his hands in his back pockets and his shades firmly in place.

There will be no flashstepping tonight. He is here to defend and protect, and it’s not the drop to the street that he’s protecting. The first Dersite bursts through the door like the door did her a personal injury, then slows as she sees Rose up on the signal tower. She walks forward entranced, weapon in hand. She walks forward almost into Dave’s arms, but encounters Caledscratch instead.

They come in waves, lured by a melody they can’t escape. They fall like drunk surfers, unwilling or unable to pay attention to the steel and stars cutting them off from their goal.

He is sweaty and covered in blood not his own, and her melody has changed, no longer hitting high notes. The waves have slowed. They will not be ambushed on their way to their goal.

She floats down to join him, and blood leaks down her face where a string has snapped and recoiled.

He takes her hand and they take their tumor to the crypts.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I never wanted to write this post.

I am from the West Coast and from Madison, Wisconsin. I am from liberal places that pride themselves on being liberal and forward-thinking. I went to high school in the city that hosts the world's leading feminist science fiction convention, WisCon.

I also abhor ad misericordiam (I am sad so I am right) arguments or anything that sounds like them at all. Logical fallacies and fuzzy thinking are more objectionable to me than a great deal of sexism.

I'm just going to copy and paste part of a conversation here, because all of this is part of a broad conversation about society and what we think of it and how we are working on the parts we don't like.

  • Mason: You interested in two articles on Sexual harassment in hacker and literary conventions?
  • Me: yes, definitely
  • Mason:
  • Me: unless it's about readercon
  • Mason: Lolz
  • Mason: Then ignore the readercon link
  • Mason: And go with the Defcon one
  • Me: lolk
  • Mason: It'll pop into a few articles about various hacker cons
  • Me: yeah
  • Me: it's interesting
  • Me: I am glad I am tall
  • Me: I get very little physical harassment
I shared a story about work, which made him say 'bleh.'
  • Me: and it's better here than it was in the midwest
  • Mason: Really?
  • Me: it's been over a month since anyone called me 'sweetie,' and no one has called me 'doll' here even once
  • Me: I get maybe a customer a day who drifts to talk to a male coworker at some point
  • Me: I get an average of a customer a week who will ask me and a male coworker the same questions and only believe his answers
  • Me: this is -better- than Madison
  • Mason: I was just going to ask if sweetie was that bad, but I can't imagine it being said in any capacity that doesn't convey condescension
He ended up linking me to the Red/Yellow Card Project, which is really neat, especially in that it does not require me to continue to be verbal. That's important, as I tend to shut down when people are behaving inappropriately. If someone is making inappropriate comments or staring at my chest, no matter how much I object to it in principle and wish the behaviour would stop, I can rarely find the words, or am not brave enough to say them because it'll make the whole group awkward, and so I smile vacantly and don't associate with the group again if I can at all help it. This is not good. I am letting myself be cut off from social interactions, and they are not being told that what they are doing is not okay.

Those awkward moments that come from someone being called on behaviour are important. One of my coworkers didn't learn until his late 30s that 'gypped' referred to being cheated, as by gypsies, and has now wiped it completely from his vocabulary. If someone had pointed it out earlier, even if it had caused some momentary awkwardness and tension, if would have stopped him saying such things in front of people who might have been hurt by it.

White Knighting is a related but opposed concept. If you are in a group, and someone is saying something sexist to a woman present, and you are a man, before you step in to call the person on it (which is going to be your first automatic reaction, because you are a decent human being), consider: how is the woman reacting? 
  • Does she look like she's gearing up to tell him off?
    •  If so, cutting her off is part of denying her agency, and is also a problem. 
  • Does she look really uncomfortable and unsure how to respond? 
    • Then your calling the other person out is probably appropriate. Refer to Seebs' guide on calling people out for generally good principles and ideas on how to communicate that you want him to stop the behaviour without inducing defensive behaviour.
  • Is she ripping him a new one? 
    • Reactionary vitriol is not constructive: shout at everyone.
      • Don't do this.

I never wanted to write this post, but I realized I had to when Mason asked my about my experience of sexism and misogyny and I responded that it wasn't that bad. I should not be minimizing and making excuses. I want to be the kind of person who can call people on their nonsense no matter the context. Part of that is admitting that the problem exists, and it is a problem.

It's the kind of problem that escalates into the ReaderCon fiasco, the kind of problem that means that I hadn't heard of WisCon until after I moved away, the kind of problem that means that pay disparity still exists. Just because it's not much of a problem for me personally doesn't mean I'm allowed to ignore it, which is why I had to write this post.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Meta: Punk

This was for Adam's contest, and the prompt was 'steampunk mecha.'

What I took to heart was an overarching tone of 'rollicking.' I wanted this to be fun, because the prompt was over-the-top, and I didn't want to take it way to seriously and have to do research. I didn't want to go for an over-the-top parody, either, and I think I kind of skirted the line with it. This piece is about a year old.

The main characters are based entirely on myself and Tristan Tinder, but with easy renaming conventions like one of many ways to mis-parse my name and a shortened version of Tristan's opposite in Tristan and Isolde. I am never terribly opaque in how I rename friends into characters.

There's a lot of info-dumping in the first part, because I wasn't sure how to expose the world in fewer than several thousand words. But I got to refer to people being zombies as "an unusual and cannibalistic form of pica," and that really amused me. As did having Montreal overrun by zombies. I kept thinking about all the bitching that would happen because New Orleans gets sexy vampires, and Montreal is stuck with zombies. Horrible stupid Americans hogging all the nice things, etc.

Also I had been briefly torn between zombies and Bonhomme as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, but zombies obviously won. Zombies also won because I wanted to make the threat obvious without a ton of explanation, and thought Bonhomme might be too regional. That's why the devastation was mentioned in Montreal instead of Quebec City, as well. Montreal is a bigger city, so more people know where it is and it can also be inferred that more people were there to be eaten by zombies. That also let me imply that everything along the St Lawrence had fallen to zombies.

The story is set in a sort of steampunk Victoria because, well, that's where I was living and that was the prompt, but also because islands have it easy in terms of escaping zombie epidemics and Esquimalt is already a naval base. I also associate this area of the world irrevocably with steampunk, because the first instance of steampunk dress that I encountered in real life was the Steampunk Expo held at the Empress, after which I went on a brief tour of the Olympic Peninsula with Tristan, while reading the first actual steampunk novel I'd ever picked up, which was set in Seattle. I'd encountered steampunk before, of course, in the form of the comic Girl Genius and numerous aesthetic references, but hadn't had much personal contact with it.

Now, of course, I am convinced that everyone setting steampunk things in London or other major cities in Europe is Doing It Wrong. Ada Lovelace, for example, lived in Surrey. Explosions and rogue mechanical devices entertain me a great deal more when I picture them ravaging the peaceful English countryside than when I picture them as London's menace-of-the-week (next week: aliens). But the North American West lends itself to steampunk really well in that around the time it is usually set, the West was just starting to be settled. Steampunk technology would make more sense as part of inherent infrastructure in the West.

Obviously, these are just my ramblings, and I've read really well-done steampunk set elsewhere. My favourites, though, are the ones where the runaway technology are a part of daily life, which is usually an invented place.

"When you can't, add some guns," is one of my favourite lines that I have ever written, and encompasses many of my feelings about writing in general. Something not working? Make it worse. Hero half-dead? Whoops, spontaneous regeneration and also an afterlife. Four separate mythical canons involved? Add another. Many of my favourite things to write end with me cackling off into an obscenely complicated sunset.

The engineering things mentioned are in no way based on science. They are based on mental images of dark workrooms and too many gears and arc-welding torches.

The pacing at the end was really off: everything happens too fast, as opposed to the beginning where it's just information and talking. I wanted some acceleration in plot, but didn't manage to execute it the way it was in my head. It could all use a good overhaul, possibly with a bulldozer. But it was ridiculously fun to write.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Fic: Punk

"Will you marry me?"
Ellen jumped out of bed, pulling the sheet with her, and tore out of her room. "Izzy! What the hell did you do to my robot?"

Izzy blinked up at her from the breakfast table and her book. "I installed an etiquette drive. Why? Is it malfunctioning?"

"It asked me to marry it. Obvious malfunction!" Ellen plopped down on the other chair and snagged half of Izzy's bagel. 

Frowning, Izzy put down her book and dragged some of her notes from the huge pile on the counter. "That's not right."

"Gee, really?" Ellen's eyebrows hiked towards her hairline. "It's supposed to pick up after us. What on earth does it even need an etiquette drive for?"

"I wanted it to be able to answer the door and stuff, so it needed to be able to handle social situations. An etiquette drive seemed easier than an adaptable AI." Izzy shrugged, comfortable in her long and over-involved processes for avoiding simple social interaction.

Ellen rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "D'you have the paper?"

Izzy gestured vaguely towards the living area, piled as always with assorted notes and papers and books and some of their cleaner half-completed projects. "It brought it in before it went to wake you up."

Ellen picked her way over the piles to the pile of papers topped by the most recent newspaper, snagged it, and sat in the carved dark armchair that was one of the only points of the room reliably left uncovered by papers. "More rioting on the mainland. Lamp oil prices have risen again. Makes that godawful internship at Public Lighting seem almost worth it, doesn't it?"

Izzy snorted. "For you, maybe. You get to run around in a harness outside. I spend most of my time watching pressure gauges. You know I'd have preferred the desalination plant - the micro-scrubbers that keep mineral buildup down are far more computationally complex than the stupid gauges at Lighting." She scribbled marginalia on a page of calculations, double checking them. It went unmentioned that they'd both applied for Public Lighting because it was one of the few university-sponsored internship locations where they could work together.

Ellen quietly read the paper and Izzy checked her calculations until the clock ticked over the hour, sending a coyote chasing a bird around the platform nine times. "Oh, bugger." Ellen sighed. They put down their papers and started the ritual necessary for travel between the university sector and Old Town. Both donned hats and polarized goggles. Izzy added a trench coat with deep and diverse pockets and an absurdly high collar. Ellen added a scaled metal bolero that shone dully brass; her corset was reinforced leather, and much more resilient than Izzy's brocade vest, so she didn't need the fuller coverage. Then they both loaded on their generator packs, stunners, and gas masks. Ellen adjusted the straps for the heavy pack and complained, "We're all of half an hour from a Navy base. You'd think they could get the rebels under control faster."

Izzy just shrugged; she'd moved from Montreal, which degenerated to a paranoid enclave around le Vieux-Port after one of the many parasites their water board didn't manage to filter out of the St Lawrence gave several citizens an unusual and cannibalistic form of pica. The bites turned out to carry the contagion, and bitten scalps quickly turned septic before their owners were overwhelmed by the strange craving. When Izzy came to Victoria (by passing herself as a boy for safety and getting passage as a rigger on an airship), she'd been quarantined a full month before it was determined that she did indeed not carry the parasite. The rebels who did nothing but beat you to death for your access card to the city were a slim danger compared to out East.

Outside, the clear pipes that ran along every street carrying the false phosphorescence created by Public Lighting glowed eerie through the morning fog. It lit the way perfectly adequately despite the fog until they reached the gate. The Mounties nodded politely, and the younger of the pair opened the gate for them. "Nada spotted close this morning, but be vigilant."

Ellen smiled at him automatically before peering out the gate. "Yes, thanks."

High above the path twin light pipes ran from Old Town - well, one to, one from, for flow. With the fog, they didn't cast more than an eerie sort of glow; a miserable way to start a morning. They made it the kilometer to Old Town unmolested and showed their access cards at the spyholes on the Old Town gate. They were allowed in by the bored Mounties on this end of gate duty. A short walk to the main drag later and they hopped on a trolley up to the end of town with Public Lighting. Classes were only during the week, but Public Lighting was open seven days, as it had to be, and their internship ran the weekend. It cut into their partying time considerably. 

In the imposing block of steel and concrete - the 1950s aesthetic completely at odds with the 1830s aesthetic of most of Old Town but at enough of a remove so as to be inoffensive - they shucked their packs and outerwear, then went to check in with their respective supervisors. Instead they were stopped at the desk by their supervisors' boss and two men in somber black uniforms. Ellen and Izzy glanced at each other. Ellen was perkily casual as she said, "Hey, Ms Williams. What's up?"

"You and Tinder are reassigned for your internships, if you agree to it."

"What would be the new position, ma'am?" Ellen made an act of will to keep her eyebrows from crawling to her hairline. Ellen worked on, studied, and specialized in great big hulking things, mostly for manual labor. Izzy did delicate computer systems. Considering mass robotic production had been halted after the unfortunate mad mechanical army incident a couple decades ago, there weren't that many opportunities for them to work together. 

One of the somber-suited men stepped forward. "Classified, Miss Young. I can summarize that you would be aiding in the design of mobile heavy armor suits for the Navy."

The two girls didn't even have to look at each other. "We'll do it," they chorused. 

Ellen asked, "That won't effect our credit hours, will it, Ms. Williams?"

The Navy man answered for her. "Your credit hours will remain intact, Miss Young."

"Let's do this, then. When do we start?"

"Now, if you'd be willing to come with us."

Ellen couldn't keep her face from falling. "Of course. Let us just go get our packs back on."

The hitherto silent Navy man chuckled. "You're traveling with Navy escort, Miss. You won't need one."

Izzy grinned. "Fantastic."

There was a trolley at the Navy gate, an open-aired thing for the sailors accompanying them to aim twin railguns out - one on either side. In relative comfort they came to the walled base, where there was a much more rigorous identification-checking process. Then they were in, and everything was smooth concrete and discipline. They were escorted to one of five hangars all in a neat row. The hangar housed a machine shop, a messy sort of office space in a loft, and a professor who'd been on leave the last two months. The professor nodded at them, pleased. "Good to see you two. Now, just go sign their silly confidentiality papers and we can get started."

The girls were puzzled but game. Their unspoken code was to act unsurprised and figure out what the hell was going on as you went. Plus, with the brief overview they'd gotten, this seemed like fun. They went through a fairly heavy-handed briefing about the importance of secrecy, during which they gathered that their professor had recommended them, and then were turned loose in the hangar again. The professor called from the office loft, "Tinder! Up here. I need you making an interface. Young! Crawl in the suit of armor down there and see if you can move it. When you can't, add some guns."

Ellen grinned at Izzy, then proceeded to investigate the 'suit of armor,' as the professor had called it. It bore significantly less resemblance to an old suit of armor than to a tank, person-shaped. Absent-mindedly she grabbed an oil can and lubed the joints as she investigated how it moved. No wonder this was top secret; it would be able to literally stomp out rebels. Well, assuming it didn't run out of coal. She frowned. "We should switch this to compressed air, Professor! Less waste, more independent system. We can rig it so it recompresses at an end-cycle, maybe."

The professor shouted down, "How long would it last before needing recompression?"

Contemplating the problem, Ellen kicked the coal-burner on the back. "Depends how solid we can get the welding. Probably eighteen hours?"

"Do it, then."

Several weeks, ideas, shouted discussions, and hours welding later, they had the suit bigger, powered by compressed air, and easy to move in. It was the newest, best way to control the rebels, since it would be able to navigate into ambush situations with negligible probability of injury. It was career-making. In the heat of the project, Ellen and Izzy had missed both classes and sleep. The professor had excused them from class. 

Ellen wiped her hands on a rag already greasy enough that it did little more than spread it around, noticed, threw it in a pile, and grabbed a clean rag from a different pile. "So, who gets to field test this baby?"

"Well, it is Navy property," the professor hedged. Both girls looked faintly mutinous. "But the higher-ups think it's not quite safe, and sailors are more expensive to replace than you, considering that it's Navy money paying for their training. So we get to."

"Sweet," said Izzy. "I call first!"

"Shotgun," Ellen retorted. One of the guns mounted on the arm joined up such that it was possible to perch behind it if the arm wasn't moving too quickly. 

They mounted up, making sure the suit closed securely around Izzy and that her short frame could reach all the controls, and then the professor opened the hangar doors, releasing them into the world.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


It is a persistent idea, that readers or authors may owe each other something beyond just the reading or writing of that which established the initial relationship. Part of what I think brings it up so perpetually is that, with author blogs and pages on Facebook and Twitter feeds and easy email and easy ways to publically review books, it is easier to contact authors. They are more commonly considered real people. Actually, that's a slight mis-statement: they are more commonly considered accessible writing machines.

I see a number of authors being asked 'So when will this update?' 'Is this abandoned?' 'How could you do X?'

Most of it is of the first variety: compare to the fan reaction when G. R. R. Martin doesn't get a book out weekly. Like this blog. That blog is entirely dedicated to being an entitled jerk as relates to a series that apparently the writer is so invested in he is writing a blog about it. I don't understand.

What I do understand are lists.

So here we go, what authors owe:
  • to themselves
    • output
      • Most writers start to feel icky and stale if they don't write. So it is probably to most writers' benefit to write something. Whether it's 1000 words a day or 10 a year is completely up to the individual writer, to be determined by them and no one else.
    • time off
      • Intense creative effort is hard to sustain indefinitely. Time off allows one to recharge. Even if it's just time off from Serious Novel to outline smutty sex scenes that will never be included in anything: that can be a form of time off. What constitutes time off and how long it has to be is completely up to the individual writer, to be determined by them and no one else.
    • pacing/deadlines
      • It can be easy to be swept away and keep writing until three in the morning. It can also be easy to rewrite one section over and over and get nothing else done. Self-assigned deadlines and markers can be helpful. Keywords are 'self-assigned' and 'can be.'
    • keeping it fun
      • If writing becomes a chore, everyone loses. Some parts are always going to be a pain to write, and some editing is frustrating, but finishing those comes with a sense of satisfaction that is definitely fun. A lot of external pressure can make a project less fun.
  • to readers
    • nothing
      • You heard me.
    • still nothing
      • This is not the most community-building approach. A lot of authors reach out and try to engage readers through social media and answering questions and such. But readers are there to read what you wrote. If they stop liking it, they will stop reading it. If they continue to like it, they will continue to read it. Being able to talk to the creator? That's nice, that's like sprinkles on the cake, but that's not part of the writing itself. Neil Gaiman does speaking engagements. If Neil Gaiman did nothing but sit on stage and write during the speaking engagement, that would be bad. During the time he is being paid to speak, he is taking on that as his job. During times he is not at speaking engagements, engaging with readers is optional. As are progress reports and news about upcoming projects. They make good business sense to provide, because, hey, readers will know what to look for. But they are not something owed.
    • not destroying the fabric of society
      • This is one that probably not all authors would agree with me on, but I think it's important. I don't mean never to write anything that rocks the boat, but I mean give serious consideration to what on earth you're doing before you contribute to damaging cultural narratives.
  • to editors
    • meet deadlines
      • It is hard work, editing. It is made harder when you don't get a final revision to edit until just hours before your own deadline. Most writers find their editors a huge help: in some cases, it is the editors who are responsible for publication at all. That means that writers should treat their editors with at least the respect of meeting deadlines. Negotiating to set deadlines that are realistic will help both authors and editors.
    • answer calls/emails
      • Your editor does not want to hound you. It will feel a lot less like hounding if you return calls or emails, even if it's just to say there's been a delay.
I really love lists. The one above can be boiled down to writers owing themselves self-care (like everyone else), owing their editors consideration, and owing their audience nothing but their best output, no matter the quantity and frequency of said output.

A lot of things - like running a formspring or a blog or a Facebook page or a forum - that allow readers to interact with the author are good things. They make fans happy, and can boost engagement and therefore sales. They make some business sense. But they are in no way owed.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Meta: Karl Marx

This was written for a contest hosted by a friend of mine, one that focused on songs as prompts for stories and poetry. Here are the annotations I included with my original submission:

Songs referenced:
Rag and Bone by The White Stripes
45 by Shinedown (word count)
Believe by The Bravery
"Religion is the opiate of the masses." ~ Karl Marx
Religions as represented by their flags (rainbow)

I include those here because that is the context the judge was given, and context is everything.

Rag and Bone was the original prompt, but I was inspired by the concept of the contest to include as many songs as I felt fit. All three songs have similar kinds of grasping desperation, and that's what I wanted to embody.

It was the confluence of listening to Rag and Bone for the contest and Believe from my regular writing playlist that solidified the idea of begging and being on the fringes of society and coming across almost like a caricature of a junkie, but for ideology rather than anything physical.

There's some deliberate ambiguity as to whether atheism is the ground state from which one gets high or whether it's a sharp drop from normal.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Poem: Karl Marx

Hey c'mon and give me something
something to believe
something to breathe (for)
something to inhale
You don't need all that ideology, do you?
Spare some philosophy for a poor man
You've got your opium rainbow
and I'm stone cold down here with the atheists

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Thought Bubbles

This was not quite the article I was looking for, but it covers the gist of it. Not having people disagree with and criticize you is bad for you as a person. More importantly, it is also bad for you as a writer.

For example, I know very few people who vote conservatively. Those I know who do are mostly relatives, or not people I discuss politics with on any kind of regular basis. This creates a thought-bubble for me, where everyone I discuss politics with is fairly liberal. This leads to things like blank incomprehension when my favoured party does not win elections. Blank incomprehension is bad, and means I am not paying attention and probably cannot write about the topic effectively.

If I do the same sort of things in writing, that means I will end up mostly with second readers (beta-readers) who agree with me or have a similar style. With similarities in style, they are less likely to notice weaknesses in mine. That would lead to putting inferior work out into the world, which would be terrible.

I am lucky enough to have a fairly wide circle of friends who write and are online a lot. So, when I finished a short story I wanted to post for someone's birthday, only a couple hours before the end of that birthday, it was to the online writer-friends I turned for feedback. Of those people who were on, one flatly refuses to read fanfiction, while another has a hard time with graphic medical things (my story was both fanfiction and graphically medical). Another eschewed fanfiction in general, probably wouldn't object to reading it from me, but has enough antipathy to some of the plot elements that their critique would be more focused on that than on the writing. Another, newly acquired, I hadn't ever seen critique from, so I was not completely sure of it's potential utility. I asked Pat and Theodore to read it, because even though Pat as a rule doesn't read fanfiction, he's fast and can concentrate on technical things, and Theodore is in the same fandom and was able to comment on things like consistent memetics in the story universe.

Both of them had minor issues with something (different somethings). Pat's was based on terrible imagery, and I ended up not taking his advice because the original amused me too much and was also something of a fandom joke. Theodore's was based on consistency, but we discussed it and deemed it plausible given other factors. This disagreement and discussion made me feel more confident in the story, because they both have different approaches to writing than I do, and so if this was the most they could come up with to nitpick, then I was probably doing reasonably well.

Am I still in a thought-bubble as relates to writing? Quite possibly. I am doing my best to ameliorate that, though - which is why comments on the pieces I post on Sundays will always be welcome.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Meta: First Person

Perspective and the relationship between the narrator and the story itself fascinate me. Obviously unreliable narrators are one of my favourite things to play with.

That was one of my major motivators in this piece. I wanted a narrator who couldn't trust their memory enough to portray things as dialog, and I wanted an ephemeral tone to the whole piece. That's why fog and steam and coffee imagery persist: I wanted the fic to feel like the first inhale of a London Fog.

I had no particular gender in mind for the priest, and so am unsure if this is edgily transgressional or not. The priest was not an important character to either narrative, and so was not assigned a name or gender. Actually, no one got names, because it was not important to what I was trying to do.

Names are usually one of the last things I come up with, and very rarely have any meaning attached other than plausibility. Unless they are from a culture wherein they select their own names, names will have been selected based on what the parents thought was significant, and may or may not have anything to do with the character themselves. I read a lot of amateur fiction wherein the heroine is named something like RavenMoon Bloodless or whatever because they have long black hair and pale skin and oh they had somehow not noticed they are from an ancient line of vampires. My hyperbole is only slight. This personal context is why I shy away from naming characters at all in most short fiction.

I should also admit that this story is a bit over a year old, and I was experimenting with how well I could stay constrained to present tense. Now, of course, there is the Homestuck fandom, so switching between first, second, and third person and past and present tense is as natural as breathing.

I also wanted to work on wrapping things up, and denouement, as it was something that had been frustrating me in working on my novel at the time. I find short stories helpful as scale models of some problems, though the scope is often much more limited.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Fic: First Person

I love when stories are first-person; I'm not sure, always, whether they're telling me fact or fiction, memory or dreamy possibility.

The man sitting across the table from me is telling a story in a low soft voice that smells of the artificial sweetener in his coffee. The brown steam-swirls in my own undoctored cup makes heady illustrations of his words. I can't bring myself to look directly at him - it might make him stop talking, startle him out of this storytelling reverie. And I'm afraid that, once startled, he'll remember that this memory is private, or lose the thread of the fiction if it is so. 

So I stare into my coffee as he tells me about his impassioned affair with a married priest whose husband had tried so hard to kill him when they were discovered. His hands illustrate his feelings, waving in and out of my field of vision, punctuating tension with broad palm strokes. His exact words get lost in the fog of emotion and cadence that drifts softly over me. 

I can't bring myself to look for them too hard. 

The fog cannot hold it's density; probably a combination of the sunshine and coffee, and I find myself once again firmly entwined in his thread. He is describing the ways the husband struck back at him; the confrontation in a dark alley outside a pub, the after-hours fire at his office that the police chief, a distant cousin, never got quite around to ruling arson, the voodoo. 

I can't stop my eyebrows winging upwards; voodoo from the husband of a priest? An admonishing finger swings under my nose, chastising my doubt. 

I smile, wiping the consternation from my face, curiously disappointed to have fiction confirmed.

Rings flashing darkly silver in the sun, he shows me the shape of a curse, intricate and lethal. He gestures vaguely at his ribcage when talking about the freak accidents caused by the curse, the piano leg that had impaled him cartoonishly from height. And the small things, black cats and broken mirrors. He'd sought a blessing from his lover; holiness to counteract dark magic. He was refused, on the grounds of regret and suspected insanity; voodoo didn't exist, so he would be fine, he was just trying to get close again. He'd had to find his own magician, and flee their island out of time. And so he'd found himself on another island, whimsy made stone and coffee shops, and engaged in conversation with a stranger.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I'll be the judge of that

Being Editor in Chief of a magazine and running a contest have unique pressures, but one of the commonalities between the two is the necessity of impartial selection.

Just as important as impartial selection - maybe even moreso - is the appearance of impartial selection.

Would you want to submit to a contest or magazine with a history of the coordinator's close friends winning a disproportionate amount of the time?

The answer is probably no.

In magazines, this is relatively easy to get around: do blind judging, and make it known that you do blind judging. You don't have to trumpet the fact that you do it to everyone, but it can be reassuring to have 'don't include your name in the body of your submission' as part of your submission guidelines. Issues focusing on particular writers are a separate issue completely. Another option is acquiring an unimpeachable reputation, or drawing from a wide enough field that there is no way you could know most of the people submitting. But I like process and things I can trust more than I like relying on my reputation, and Victoria in particular was not an incomparably vast pool to draw from when I was working on Island Writer.

In contests like Adam's Anything Goes Writing Contest, entries are submitted directly in a forum thread, so names are attached. We also spend a fair amount of time just conversing there, and the contest runs monthly through most of the year and fortnightly through the summer, so it's inevitable that he ends up getting to know people. Strangely, studies I made up just now have shown that when you spend a lot of time talking to people with similar interests, you end up friends with some of them!

The difficulty is that then you still have to judge them side by side with people whom you have never met, and you need to do it fairly.

In the couple of years I've been hanging around in the contest, I've only seen it implied once that the contest might be less than impartial, and by someone relatively new who was doing a one-on-one challenge with a regular, and concerned the regular would have an advantage. This post is not in response to that person. This post is not in response to anything in particular except my own nagging need for transparency, because knowing for myself that I judge as fairly as I am able does not reassure the people considering entering my contests. In this case, Adam ended up not being the judge at all: he called in another contest judge and participant in his contest who billed themselves as hating everyone equally.

Yes, this is the bit where I shamelessly upload video of myself (it's also on Adam's site).

The transparency of including critique as well as results has been one of the reasons Adam's contest has fared so well despite his quite scandalously becoming friends with some of the regulars. As I suggest in the video, the level of critique is pretty indicative of how the judge is going to come down about results.

This model might not work so well with larger-scale contests in which getting feedback to more than 50 or so people would be truly onerous, but on the kind of small-scale contest he and I are running, it's the kind of transparency that encourages people to enter.

Transparency preserves the appearance of fair judgement, which lets us feel less bad when our friends win on the strength of their writing. It is not our fault that we make friends with people who write well.