Come to My New Blog!

If you followed a link here from a comment I made on somebody's google blog, I would love to have you visit my blog, but this is no longer it. While I may occasionally post things here again once in a long while, virtually all my content will be at from here on out. If you were curious enough to come this far, why not give me one more click?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

October Sky and Good Writing, Part I

I'd never heard of the movie October Sky before last year, but now I've used it in my classes two years in a row. It's a wonderful story about fathers and sons, about striving to be yourself and not who others want to define you as, about overcoming long odds, and math. :)

It hasn't yet ceased to amaze me how I'll start the movie, turn the lights down, and without me having to do much of anything, conversation and off task behavior will just die of its own accord, as the kids get totally hooked by this story. The kids are thrilled at the high points and concerned at the low ones. A quiet moment will come along, and you could hear a pin drop. Often there's applause when the movie gets to the end. This is a powerful story, and one the kids eat right up.

When you show the same movie class after class, you get a chance to move past the narrative, and see what's going on behind the magic. I've heard some folks recommend typing out or copying down published stories that you find effective so that you can get beyond the spell and see how the author accomplished it. I haven't yet tried that myself--spare time is just too hard to come by these days. :) But I can totally see how that could be good advice, because, among other things, I felt a similar effect as I saw this film repeatedly. Either way, the point is to get to where you're not pulled into the thrall, so you can see what's going on. (It's not the same exactly, but I didn't just watch the movie repeatedly; when you show a movie to kids in 50 minute increments, you do more than just watch the screen.)

I had a couple of observations I thought I could take away from watching this today, one of which I'll post now, and the other one I'll save.

A lot of what I've read on story structure talks about having disasters continually separate the protagonist from his or her goal, and either forcing the protagonist to regroup, or forcing the protagonist to revise the goal. At the end, when all seems the most hopeless, the protagonist finally breaks through. It gets to seeming like the protagonist can never have a moment of success of enjoyment along the way, and that hardly seems to represent all the fiction out there.

As I watched October Sky, it occurred to me that the pattern I was seeing was slightly different from that. There were disasters, true. And each low was lower than the low before as well. But there were highs too, and each high was higher than the one before. First Homer gets excited by the sight of Sputnik, but then he destroys his mother's fence. Then Homer gets help and builds a more powerful rocket, but he accidentally launches it in the direction of the mine. Then Homer and his friends regroup and create a launch site out of town, only to have their rockets explode before reaching a respectable altitude. Along the way he gets encouragement from Wernher von Braun, but gets discouragement from his father. He has a successful launch and gets written up in the newspaper, but then he gets arrested when he is suspected of starting a forest fire. Then we get a whole series of disasters, but once they're past, success again: Homer proves his innocence and wins the state science fair. This is followed by the biggest fight with his father yet, and by violence caused by the miner's strike.

Do you see my point? The highs get progressively higher, but always with some new disaster to make satisfaction fleeting. Until the end, of course. So it's really more of an oscillating function. Something like this, maybe:

(Yeah, I'm a big nerd, I know.)

Anyhow, I thought this was a useful way of looking at plotting, particularly for longer works. Next time I write something long, maybe I'll try to follow that kind of rollercoaster pattern.


The movie's only real moment of fail comes at the very end, and it's a minor shame. Homer's dad finally comes out to the launch site to see what he's been so obsessed with, and together they launch a rocket and watch it climb into the sky. Impressed, his father stands there, jaw agape, for a little while, and finally gives his son the first sign of approval of his choices and interests: he puts his hand around Homer's shoulder. Unfortunately, the camera's loving closeup, the father's slow arm motion, and the placement of the two actors makes it look like Homer's Dad has an entirely different sign of affection in mind. In every single class I show this movie, the spell is temporarily shattered and the class breaks into giggles when it looks like Homer's Dad is about to grab his ass:

I didn't crop it to look that way. That's pretty much a full screen shot.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Hero's Journey

I have a friend of a friend who is an author with a big house and swears by writing to the Hero's Journey. The Hero's Journey, or "Monomyth," is a series of tropes that are supposedly ubiquitous in stories from every culture. This was first pointed out by Joseph Campbell, and later elaborated on in the context of playwrighting by Christopher Vogler, and doubtless others as well. Here's a wikilink with a pretty thorough description of the structure.

I've seen it asserted online that pretty much every successful story can be analyzed in terms of the Hero's Journey--not that they elaborate on every stage of the journey, but that they focus on part of the journey while at least alluding to the rest of it. I'm not convinced that this is so, though. Certainly I can think of lots of novels--especially fantasy bricks--that adhere to this structure closely. I'm willing to concede that the same goes for a lot of short stories. But when I think of a story like "All I Have To Do . . ." or like Elizabeth Bear's "The Horrid Glory of Its Wings," I'm hard pressed to make the connections.

. . . hmm . . . let me rethink that. In "All I Have To Do . . . ," maybe the challenge Liz is confronted with is getting to the bottom of her ability and learning to live (or not) with it. She rejects this challenge through her drinking and her attempts to stay awake. Her road of trials could be when she befriends Ronald and they experiment with filming her and with attempts at lucid dreaming.
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Does that work? *frown* Arguably. But is it useful? If the connections can be as tenuous as I just outlined, how does that help me when I set out to write a new story, instead of merely shoehorning an existing story into the broad strokes of this structure?

I wish I had a good resource on the Hero's Journey for writers. Like every good English major, I have a couple of books by Joseph Campbell, but those don't focus on the craft side of storytelling, but on the analysis side. I'm not going to go out and buy a how-to book without knowing if it's going to be helpful--I have enough useless books on writing. I found precious little online on this topic.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Is steampunk a single genre?

I've been dipping my toes into steampunk--as a reader, not a writer--for the last year or so, just trying to see if it's something I enjoy reading, and if it's something I thought I might be able to write at some point. If I ever do write steampunk, it will likely not sound like a lot of other steampunk prose fiction out there, because I don't think I could pull off the pseudovictorian prose that a majority of the steampunk I've read affects. I have encountered a few examples, though, where the steampunk is all about the juxtaposition of modern contrivances with low technology. I could see myself doing something like that. On the other hand, I have no great interest in writing about England, but I could have fun writing something set in the United States or in Latin America--or in some totally unheard of land.

The more I read, though, the less convinced I am that all the things being bundled together to show how trendy steampunk is are in fact one genre.

(I'm no expert of course. I think I've made this point before: My blog, my aimless and possibly inaccurate rambling. I'm just thinking "aloud" here. If my facts are wrong, feel free to tell me where.)

I perceive of steampunk as being inspired by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. The Victorian overtones in steampunk are in homage to those two authors. For them it wasn't an affectation, though--it was their era. (Of course, Verne was not a subject of Victoria. Presumably the same stylistic choices that were common in English literature were common in French, or perhaps he was simply translated that way.) I've actually seen Verne and Wells classified as examples of steampunk, but that seems patently ridiculous. They wrote science fiction. Their science fiction bears the stylistic and technological stamps of their societies, but these are not self-conscious homages to an earlier age.

When it comes to fashion, what is the difference between being steampunk and being simply quasivictorian? Goggles? When people mod their computers or whatever, that is pretty clearly steampunk, because what they're creating is a Victorian-inspired version of something technological that never actually existed in that era. This is what a Victorian computer would have looked like if there had been such a thing. That seems pretty quintessentially steampunk. But if we're just talking about top hats and waistcoats and pocket watches and monocles, where's the steampunk in that?

A lot of writing on steampunk I've read refers to the original Wild, Wild West as some sort of proto-example of the genre. I love Wild, Wild West as much as anyone, but here, specifically, is where I am most unconvinced. I'd say pseudo-historical action tales including technology that didn't exist in the period in question has a long history as a trope. In how many Indiana Jones or Allan Quartemain type movies have we seen some millenia old native treasure trove feature automated devices putatively powered by carefully counterbalanced stonework or by underground streams or whatnot? Should we label these something like "stonepunk"? I don't think so because I don't think the creators of these movies and shows had it in mind to meld science fiction with historical settings. Rather, they had a particular setting in mind, and they didn't want to let the technical limitations of that setting interfere with the cool eye candy they wanted to pull off.

I'm not convinced that Brisco County, Jr. counts either, because Brisco actually is a time traveler. That makes this as much a steampunk story as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

What it all comes down to for me, I think is this: the literary steampunk I've read is largely based on imagining what could have been if earlier societies had managed to invent high tech items based on the technology available to them at the time. It envisions societies substantially affected by these inventions, though still recognizable historical. The nonliterary examples I'm familiar with seem to be more about style--James Bond in the old west, say. What would a fan of the Will Smith movie, or of the Jackie Chan Around the World in Eighty Days, make of the Victorian prose, "gentle reader" asides, and infodumps of written steampunk?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Short Story Analysis: All I Have To Do Is . . .

Good luck finding this one. It's in the Winter 2007 edition of Brutarian, and you'll spend at least as much on shipping as you will for the magazine, assuming you can find this issue for sale anywhere. Brutarian is a highly entertaining magazine featuring reviews of movies and records I've never heard of along with short speculative fiction. It reminds me a lot of the free arts weekly I used to read in Miami, crossed with Asimov's or something. I think I would seek it out if it weren't so dang hard to get a copy of.

Nick Mamatas's story was my favorite of the ones in this issue, but I'll tell you quite honestly that I'm not positive if I "got" it or not. It stayed with me anyway because the concept was fascinating to me. Liz is a teenage girl who experiences the dreams other people have of her. If someone dreams of having sex with her, she feels it, and wakes up with anal tears to boot. If someone dreams of strangling her, she feels that too. Gradually she learns that she is not only a receiver, but a sender. She can send other people experiences by way of her dreams. If I'd thought of this concept, there is still no way I would have written this story--but I wish I'd thought of it anyway. *grin*

The ending seems ambiguous to me--unless that's just me being dense. Liz starts out with plans for revenge on those who have wronged her--her parents, primarily--but claims to move beyond those fantasies and achieve enlightenment. In her enlightened state, she proposes to dream a dream of all of us, wherein we all "embrace the nothingness." She starts to do just this, and the story ends. Come to think of it, maybe it's not as ambiguous as all that. It seems to me like she decides to put us all out of our collective misery through death. She promises Nirvana, but, correct me if I'm wrong here, Nirvana in Buddhism isn't really heaven, is it? As I recall, Nirvana refers to ending the cycle of life and rebirth--to getting off the wheel. That seems to work with the whole idea of embracing the nothingness and of becoming "dead leaves on the damp earth."

This story defies analysis in terms of conventional structures I'm familiar with. Liz's ultimate goal just kind of coalesces in the last quarter. There isn't really a try-fail-try again thing going on here. I've seen it alleged that just about any story can be analyzed in terms of the hero's journey, but I'm struggling to connect this story with that structure at all, except by such vague connections that they may as well be meaningless. The only structure that seems to fit is the most fundamental of all--a character makes a choice, acts on that choice, and that choice has consequences. Liz is tempted to seek revenge. Instead, she (I think) chooses oblivion for us all, and sends us the dream that will make that happen. And then the consequence--we don't see that consequence because of course we are dead.

But all of that happens at the end of the story. I would estimate this story at about four thousand words long--again, a model of brevity for me to learn from. The first third, I'd say, serves to situate us in Liz's life. We get brief accounts of two of her mother's dreams of her, one of her father's, and one by her more-or-less boyfriend Ron. In the middle third of the story, Liz and Ron begin experimenting with the workings of Liz's experiences. She already knows what happens to her, but this appears to be the first concerted effort to really study and explore it. Then Ron threatens to use her condition against her, she turns the tables on him, suffers the dreams of others due to her newfound notoriety, and is visited by her father who explains to her that she can send as well as receive. The last third of the story, roughly, is when Liz goes to the mental hospital. There she gradually masters her ability and uses it to grant us all Nirvana.

That strikes me as a lot of set-up for that payoff. It works, though--for me at least--because the concept is so intriguing that I want to read on even before Liz figures out what it is she wants to do.

So what can I learn from this? I . . . am not sure, really. That traditional structures are a myth? The power of the concept to hook a reader? I'll have to think on this one for a bit.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sometimes I almost believe in muses

I'm just about done polishing "Spacelift." Not, necessarily, that it's polished, but it may be about as far as I can take it. As I was thinking about it this morning, I realized that I had no idea, now, why I had made one of the plot choices that I had made. It served the ends of the story, but I don't remember consciously thinking about it. I can analyze the effect that choice has on the narrative, but it's really as if somebody else wrote it.

Jorge's goal is to get to Magda, who is injured, before
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He gets to the ship's infirmary, only to discover that she's been moved to the airlock in preparation for transfer to another ship. He gets to the airlock, only to discover that he has no time to do anything, because the transfer is happening now. And so it goes.

But why did I decide that the ship Jorge and Magda were on did not have a fully-functioning sick bay, and that she needed to be transferred? I don't remember consciously thinking about it. I knew that he had to have obstacles, and getting to the infirmary and finding her not there would work, but why that specific scenario?

Here's what I notice as a reader: not only does it serve as an obstacle--it also helps Jorge. It keeps him in the game. After all, he's trying to get to Magda before the doctors do. If his ship had a real sick bay with real doctors, I'd have to come up with some other reasons why it wasn't Game Over for Jorge. And that's what kind of dawned on me today: I hear a lot about obstacles and conflict for the protagonists, but whatever the protagonist is striving against--be it an antagonist or just cruel fate--needs obstacles too. There's something keeping the bad guy from just walking up to the good guy and shooting him in the head. Maybe the bad guy's in hiding. Maybe his henchmen are inept. Maybe he hasn't figured out who the good guy is yet.

If the bad guy doesn't have obstacles, you end up with the silliness of many James Bond movies. You know what I'm talking about. The evil supervillain dude has Bond captured and tied up. Naturally, he immediately lodges a bullet in Bond's skull and the credits roll before a stunned audience. Wait--that's not it. No, first he brags about the details of his evil plan. Then he starts his Rube Goldberg Death Machine and leaves! He can't even be bothered to watch Bond die! He just turns the hourglass that will release the rope that's holding back the pendulum that will block the laser that will unlock the cage that will release the alligators that will step on the weight-sensitive plate that will trigger the nuclear device that will kill Bond. Because I guess he wants Bond to be dead and impressed.

You ever see a competition where one player is substantially more skilled than the other? You ever see the more skilled player play at less than his best, and let the inferior player keep it close? It's not terribly sporting, but he's doing it to keep the other guy in the game. I guess phony drama is better than no drama at all.

So thanks, Muse, for doing that automatically for me, so I didn't have to think about it!


» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

(Thanks--and (((hugs)))--to pmmonkey for the how-to.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Funny how "independent" and "undependable" have the same root

Last week my wife and I wanted to order a book for a friend whose birthday was coming up. We each decided to take advantage of the excuse and order ourselves something as well--kind of like when you go to the fridge to get someone a beer, but get yourself one too, right? Well I have a pretty lousy memory for things like this, but I finally remembered the links I'd seen to Indiebound, and so I decided to give my money to an independent bookseller instead of to Amazon. Amazon is terribly convenient, with its wishlists, its DRM-free MP3s, its frequent deals on shipping, its recommendations based on your shopping history, and with the wide array of products they sell. But they also have some business practices I find unsavory. For one, last year they leaned on small presses to use their subsidiary POD service as a printer, saying that if they did not they would refuse to stock their books. In Europe, they demanded that publishers give them better discounts than they give brick and mortar stores. The practical effects of this is that Amazon can undercut brick and mortar stores, driving them out of business.

I like bookstores. I want them to continue to offer me pleasant places to browse through books and see what discoveries I might make. Also, the consolidation of bookselling into fewer and fewer larger players hurts up-and-coming writers, because it gives the buyers from those chains an undue level of control over what gets published. Is there a point in publishing a book that Barnes & Noble won't stock? Well there would be if there were tons of booksellers other than B&N, but with the slow heat death of Borders, Barnes and Noble and Amazon are the big players, with Wal-Mart mucking up the works with their own predatory pricing.

For this and other reasons, I try to support when I can. But beyond that, I would like to see other choices beyond the mega-retailers. So the idea of an Amazon-like site that benefited indie bookstores seemed perfect. I happily placed our order--maybe not so much happily as smugly.

Well the days passed and still no books. I guess we'd gotten spoiled by Amazon--their books always seem to arrive an hour or two after we place the order--sometimes even before I hit submit. So I went to the website of the Orlando bookstore I'd placed the order from, and it said my order was "open," and "processing." Did that mean they hadn't even shipped it yet? By this point, I was kind of hoping it meant that, because then I could just drive downtown and pick up our order myself.

I tried calling the bookstore to see . . . but no luck. They closed for the evening at six. No problem; I'd call in the morning during my planning period . . . except they were closed, because they don't open until eleven. When I finally got ahold of them during my lunch, I learned that a glitch had prevented them from even seeing my order. Further, they didn't actually have the books I'd ordered in stock, because what they do when they get a website order is order the book themselves, and then send it along to you when it comes. So it's this friend's birthday, and we have nothing. The order hasn't gone through, and the book is not in stock.

I canceled the birthday book and left the rest of the order standing; my wife says I went too easy on them.

So I did a little scrambling, then. Barnes and Noble's website will tell you which local stores have a given book in stock. None had this particular book, but I was able to find one in Orlando that had another book that seemed like a good choice.

So what's the moral of the story? As I left school this afternoon, I was thinking the moral might be that stores that become big chains are as successful as they are because, frankly, they provide better service. They send things faster, they don't lose your order, and they have better hours. I mean, seriously? Eleven to six?!

But not so fast . . .

Because it turned out the Barnes and Noble website lied to me about whether or not they had the book in stock. Their computers said they did, but it wasn't on the shelf anywhere. So I guess this story doesn't have a moral--just like the rest of real life, neh?

Anyway, when you next decide to order a book, consider ordering from an independent bookstore. Unless you also want toys, music, T-shirts, or whatever. Or unless you're in a hurry.

Friday, November 27, 2009

What Would Elizabeth Bear Do?

Spoilers for "Spacelift" follow, in case anybody cares.


A lot of the feedback I received for "Spacelift" seemed to indicate to me that I wasn't ending the story on a conclusive enough note. Tying into Algis Budrys's seven point structure (I finally found a link!), perhaps I wasn't sending enough validation at the end. Or maybe not. The feeling I got was that Jorge's big transformation, his big reveal, came too late, was treated too shortly, and was anticlimactic. He spends a scene arguing with Adriana about what he's going to do . . . when he finally does it there is no surprise for the reader, and no real closure.

I decided the ending would work better if Jorge transforms himself into Magda's double just a bit earlier--before his confrontation with Adriana. Have Adriana spying on him, and have her confront him when she catches him in the act. The climax of the story, I think, is their confrontation. If the transformation occurs after this, it's anticlimactic. Hopefully, with the transformation occurring before, it's not.

Moving this transformation up, though, has had a couple of challenging consequences.

One thing I struggled with is how to refer to this character after this point. Jorge or Magda? He or she? I came down on the side of calling the character Jorge, reasoning that the name is tied to the underlying identity. Besides, Jorge tells Adriana that "Jorge" is the name closest to his true Catarine name.

But what about pronouns? Is Jorge-as-Magda a he or a she? To all outward appearances, after the shift Jorge is a girl. My initial thought was to use female pronouns. (Besides, if I stick with the male name and the male pronouns, won't it be easy for readers to lose sight of the fact that a change has taken place at all?)

A couple of readers have suggested I base that decision on how Jorge sees hemself. I haven't really explored Catarine concepts of gender in the story and it would be well beyond the scope of a 5,000 word story to do so. In my mind, gender roles in a society of shape-shifters are a lot more fluid, but if my mind is as far as that goes, what difference does it make? (Does it make any practical difference that Dumbledore is gay? Is he really gay if readers are never shown or told this within the narrative? Does it matter what I say about Jorge's gender, unless I make it explicit?)

On a tangential note, I've always been drawn to art that is gender-bending. I think this is largely due to the fact that my own views of gender are out of step with the prevailing conventional wisdom. I would like to write a story that can be classified as gender-bending, but I'm walking a fine line here, with pitfalls I can see on either side. If Jorge takes Magda's form but keeps his name and keeps being, for all intents and purposes, male, then I'm not really exploring gender here, am I? He's basically in full-body drag, no? On the other hand, if I start referring to Jorge as a she because of the shape shift, then I'm basically implying that gender is a superficial thing. (We may refer to transsexual people who have had sex reassignment by their outward gender, but the outward change they go through reflects a much more profound internal process.) I believe that gender roles are societally constructed to a much greater degree than we realize, but that doesn't mean it follows that gender identity is a superficial thing, as easily changed as a set of clothes. It takes a lot of soul searching for a transgender person to identify as such, and the whole point of identifying as transgender is that gender goes beyond what is visible from the outside. I don't want to be unintentionally insensitive to this.

And then there's the much more practical issue of whether my use of pronouns throws the reader straight out of the story. Right now I have passages like this:

A crashing sound broke Jorge’s concentration, and she turned around to see the lavatory door flapping against the bulkhead. Inside the darkened stall, she could just make out Adriana, eyes wide, sliding against the wall until she was kneeling on the floor by the toilet.

Now, I don't see why this is such a big deal. I mean, the first time maybe, sure. But once you figure out that Jorge is being referred to as "she," need this continue to throw you? But my First Reader has indicated that it does. Maybe it comes down to how we view the world and how adaptable we are to things that confound our expectation (particularly when it comes to gender). Granted, I'm the writer and not the reader here, but I'm confident that something like the above would not bother me. I'm hoping that I could ease the transition by adding a sentence where the shift in pronouns was made explicit. Something like "Jorge looked down at his hands--her hands--and . . . "

So, my eight readers, what do you think?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Short Story Analysis: Jaiden's Weaver

I often go through short stories that have been effective on me, analyzing their structure in depth and trying to figure out how they work. I'm especially likely to do this with stories I can get my hands on electronically, like Hugo nominees, because then I can copy and paste them into Open Office, triple space them, turn them into Windows Journal documents, and scribble all over them. I was doing this just today when I realized that my blog would be a good place to put my observations. This way I can find my analysis again later and possibly gain new insights or remember insights I've had but forgotten. (That certainly does happen to me. I'm so disappointed when I realize I've forgotten a hard-learned lesson and been banging my head against a wall, trying to reinvent the wheel.) (Blogs are a cliché-friendly zone, right?)

Anyway, today I followed a link on Mary Robinette Kowal's blog to her story "Jaiden's Weaver." I actually remember when Diamonds in the Sky came out, but even though I'm a fan of Kowal's, somehow I apparently managed not to read this story at the time. I think because it was an educational story anthology. That's dumb of me, I know, but what can I say?

"Jaiden's Weaver" is a sweet story with a determined young protagonist who is active in pursuing her own goals. If you're not turned off by young protagonists or sweet stories, then I encourage you to go give it a read whether you're interested in my ramblings or not. And then go read everything else by Kowal you can find, if you're a science fiction fan. You'll get to see what will surely be a long and successful writing career from near the beginning of its arc. You'll thank me later.

On the surface, this story seems to follow Algis Budrys's seven point story structure. (I used to have a link to an article by him on it bookmarked on my old computer, but not on this one, and Google is only leading me to other people's write-ups of his ideas. Which makes a pretty good argument either for storing my bookmarks off of my personal computer, or for throwing links up here like I've been doing.)

The character of Jaiden is pretty well-defined through the first person narrative. I find it extremely easy to identify with characters when they tell me what they're feeling and what they want. Her problems? Feeling trapped by the (admittedly beautiful) landscape in her steep valley home, and the tight finances of her family. Her goal is to get a spider teddy, which could solve both problems for her: she could explore the valley by riding the spider teddy, and the spider teddy's weavings could be sold for a profit.

We've got the typical three attempts to attain the goal. First Jaiden asks her parents to buy her a spider teddy egg, but they tell her they can't afford that. Then she drops hints in the hopes of receiving an egg for Christm Bottom Day, but, to her dismay, her parents merely buy her a toy spider teddy instead, and finances are again mentioned as a reason why Jaiden's goal is unattainable. Then, in true protagonist fashion, Jaiden takes matters into her own hands. Her third attempt is to raise the money to buy the egg herself, and in this she succeeds.

All this happens in just about 2500 words, and it doesn't feel at all skimpy. There's great world-building (a little too much on the rings for my taste, but then this is for an educational anthology), effective characterization (the parents are only painted in broad strokes, but something's gotta give when you're writing in such a short medium), and Jaiden's attempts to solve her problem are well-fleshed out. A perfect example of Budrys's structure.

Except . . .

Except that at this point, the story is just over half over. Once Jaiden gets her egg, we get to see her care for it, get to experience the hatching, and we live through an apparent disaster: the fact that her teddy spider is missing a leg. The story doesn't feel anticlimactic even though it keeps going after the initial goal is attained, because there are continuing complications: her parents' initial intent to put the deformed creature down, and Kali's consternation when she first tries and fails to weave normally.

Though the story works, I was at a bit of a loss to understand the mechanics of it, until I remembered something I read on Nancy Kress's blog some time back. (I want to attribute this advice to Arthur C. Clarke, but I have a tendency to attribute all sorts of writing advice to him, and it usually turns out to be apocryphal.) As Kress related it, a good short story should have two unrelated problems, or two situations, and the resolution of one should tie up the other as well. Looked at in that light, Jaiden's Weaver isn't over when Jaiden gets her spider teddy because the family's finances are still strapped--more so if they must now care for a large disabled pet. The story can't end, then, until Kali grows a bit and manages to prove the doubts about her ability to weave to be groundless. Since this takes time to happen, the other complications basically keep the story moving until that point.

At least, that's what I'm seeing. Now I need to go back and see how she accomplishes all that she des in so few words. Kowal is a master of this; her Hugo-winning "Evil Robot Monkey" isn't even a thousand words, IIRC. Clearly she's good at making every word carry as much meaning as possible, so she doesn't have to belabor points like I tend to. (I think this may be a place where my love of detail gets in my way. Attention to detail is a good thing, when it takes the form of a few Telling Details, but I need to get away from feeling like I need to flesh out an entire universe in each short story.)

One thing I'm noticing with a quick scan through is how short Kowal's paragraphs tend to be. In particular, they seem to get shorter as the story moves on, except at key moments--when the egg hatches, and when Kali learns to weave successfully. Those are the moments Kowal describes the most thoroughly, after the first few paragraphs.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This is what I want to write

(This isn't normally a book review blog, but this book got me thinking about the line between MG and YA, and on which side of it I fall.)

I was browsing the kids' department at BAM with my daughters the other day--aren't kids just the perfect excuse to be un-adult?--when I came across this beautiful cover for The Shifter, by Janice Hardy. My daughter Ana wanted to read it but didn't want to blow so much allowance on a hardcover; I offered to go halfsies on it, and let her keep it as long as I got to read it first. :-)

I was intrigued by this book--aside from the obvious SpecFic elements--because it seems to straddle the MG/YA line, just like my own writing does. I had a totally serendipitous chance to chat with a literary agent the other day, who asked, pretty much out of the blue, about my own writing, and I was fairly incoherent in trying to explain that I write YA but with protagonists that are closer to MG in age. In hindsight, I should have said something like "the low end of YA," but I hadn't been thinking in terms of making an elevator pitch. Shame on me. Anyway, I'm trying to get a feel for whether I should go one way or another, at least as an unpublished writer, so as not to defy easy classification. I look at books that are clearly MG, and I often feel like I can't write that. Sometimes--particularly when it's SpecFic--they have a twee, almost fairy-tale-ish tone about them that I personally would find condescending; other times . . . not, but I still don't feel capable of writing like some the samples I've looked at. They tend to use a more limited vocabulary than I usually want to use, and be more superficial in the emotions of their characters. (I'm not saying this represents all of MG; just what I often seem to pick up.) When I analyze my own writing, I seem much closer in tone to the YA I read--and I enjoy reading YA in general more than I enjoy reading MG--but I tend to write about younger characters.

I want to write the sorts of books I wanted to read when I was that age. (Which I still enjoy reading now. ;-) ) I guess early YA is a good way to put it. I know that there is such a thing, because I see it mentioned from time to time. (Or maybe, and here's the point, there's such a thing as "late MG," though I've never heard of that, that straddles the line from the other side.)

So anyway, I was intrigued by this book because it was shelved in the kids' section, not the teen section, but when I picked it up, it didn't seem to fall into that twee/unsophisticated category I don't care for. I mean, here are the first two paragraphs:

Stealing eggs is a lot harder that stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack, and make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don't like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it's close. And they squawk something terrible.

The trick is to wake the chicken first, then go for the eggs. I'm embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure this out.

This to me is a lot more sophisticated. I love the voice of this narrator. I love the matter-of-fact discussion of stealing--this suggests already that it will be a morally challenging work, which is one of the things that I think seem to separate YA from MG. (It also kind of reminds me of some of my own first person writing, if it's not too presumptuous of me to say so.)

So maybe this book's presence in the children's section was an indication that the kind of kids' books I like to read and write could possibly be MG rather than YA. I decided to read it and find out.

This book is a lot of fun. If you like to read YA or if you are buying a book as a gift for a kid, I recommend it. It features an intriguing magic system and world-building that just inspire my imagination. I totally lost myself in this world, and I loved Nya, the protagonist. I will certainly read the next two books in the trilogy.

From a writing standpoint, there is a lot for me to learn from Hardy. What really struck me as I read--because this is precisely what I'm working on at the moment--is how the tension on Nya never lets up. Literally. I don't know if I've ever read a book, written for any age, that managed that as beautifully as this one. Nya seriously never has a moment of peace. Resolving one problem always leads to the next one. And the story consists of one difficult moral dilemma followed by another. And these aren't easy choices. Nya repeatedly has to make decisions about whom to help and whom to let suffer--or whom to make suffer. Nya is a likable character who wants to do the right thing at every turn. It's not clear that she does do the right thing each time, but if she fails anywhere, it's not because she doesn't care. (And Hardy puts in repeated "save the cat" moments to make it clear that Nya really wants to help everyone that she can. Sometimes you just can't do right by everyone, though, no matter how badly you want to.)

My favorite books and stories, YA or adult, are those that pose challenging moral questions to the reader and don't answer them. I don't like being preached at, but I do like being invited to think.

It's really hard to put this book down, between the moral dilemmas and the constant worrying about what danger Nya is going to face next.

There are ways in which I think The Shifter could have been improved. Often it felt like Hardy glossed over details, like she was racing to get to the next big thing. Often I was unable to picture a setting in my mind. A character would do something that I hadn't realized was possible because my concept of the scene wasn't accurate and needed hasty revising. This certainly could have been my failure as a reader, but it's not something I often encounter in my reading, leading me to believe it was the book. Similarly, the political history and the rules of magic often felt glossed over. There were plenty of times when I was confused, and if I was confused, how much more confused would a less experienced reader be?

Additionally, there was a section at the end where all of Nya's friends basically hash over those moral dilemmas, and reassure Nya that her choices were, in fact, the right ones. (Okay, they are arguing the point among themselves, but the argument is pretty quickly resolved in Nya's favor.) As a reader, I didn't care for this. First of all, the climax had passed and I felt that continuing the story for so many more pages got anti-climactic. Beyond that, I think it cheapens the moral dilemmas. Remember my point about books that raise moral questions but don't answer them? (This doesn't exactly violate that preference, because the opinions of characters do not necessarily translate into a definitive answer. I certainly still think there is room for debate on whether or not Nya made the right choices.) Having the characters reassure Nya at the end that she did nothing wrong makes the guilt that Nya suffers feel like Mary Sue guilt--this is unfortunate, because I don't see Nya as Mary Sue-ish in general.

(If you're not familiar with Mary Sue guilt, it goes more or less like this: Protagonists should not be perfect, we are told, so the author gives Mary Sue something to have done and feel guilty for. But the author can't bear to give Mary Sue any actual faults, so instead it's a fault that Mary Sue perceives in herself, that nobody else can possibly agree with. At the end, in the big reveal, where everybody tells poor suffering Mary Sue how much they love her, all the other characters reassure her that they never saw her as flawed at all. That really isn't a fair description of what's happening here, but that scene, for me, treaded the line. I think it would have helped if Aylin, the character who questioned Nya's choices, had stuck to her conviction that Nya was wrong to do as she did. She could have stayed on Nya's side, and kept being her friend, but still believed that some of her actions were ultimately wrong. From a reader's standpoint, having likable characters who disagree reinforces the point that there are no easy answers, and gives readers permission to form their own opinions.)

In the end, I'm not sure if this book really answered my question about YA versus MG. It was shelved in the kids' section, and Harper Collins has it categorized as a children's book, but Nya appears to be around fifteen or sixteen--I don't think we are given an exact age, but I seem to recall her mentioning early on that she could pass for eighteen--putting us right in YA, agewise. There isn't any overt sexuality, that I can recall. There are some twitterpations of like, and the suggestion that Nya and Danello will have romantic possibilities as the series progresses. I seem to recall some unexplicit mentions of bad things that could happen to homeless kids, and maybe an unexplicit reference to the existence of prostitution. Certainly YA can get a lot heavier than that. If I'd simply read this book, I'd probably call it YA though, based on the sophistication of the writing--vocabulary-wise, this book makes no concessions--and on the age of the protagonist.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

::insert sound of torpedo tube firing::

I dropped a story in the mail today. Well okay, today's Sunday. So I put a story in an envelope, sealed it, and put it by the door. Same thing. This baby hasn't been exposed to the mean, cruel world out there yet--on the upside, it hasn't garnered a single rejection yet! I'm sending it to Fantasy and Science Fiction, which Duotrope lists as one of the twenty-five hardest markets to crack. Go me.

I revised it until I thought it was as good as I could get it. Then I revised it until I thought I couldn't revise it any more. Then I revised it some more. Lots more. I've lost my first draft somewhere along the way, but I'd say I've culled two thousand words from this sucker.

You know? I think I'm getting halfway decent at this revision thing. Time will tell, but I feel as though the words, clauses, and sentences that aren't moving the story forward and need to go are starting to jump out at me. Maybe not compared to people who aren't naturally as given to overwriting as I am, but certainly compared to where I was a year or two ago.

Some day I need to look back and chart my [past] course. I'm vaguely aware that at different times over the last few years I've focused heavily on different elements of my craft, and I've seen improvement in each. I've got to think that sooner or later I'll reach the point that pushes me over the top, and makes me good enough to be professionally published. All I have to do is keep working at it.

I'm a bit torn right now over what to do next. I've got an old short story that I love that I'm thinking I ought to revise and send out. I've got a much newer short story that probably already has a lot more polish, that would probably take less effort to get out the door. I'm also feeling the urge to write something new. And then of course there's Vanishing Act. Most folks would tell me that should be my highest priority, but here's the thing: I can have one of my already-written shorts out the door in a week or two. I can have a new story written and ready to go in not much longer. Vanishing Act is going to take a lot more work. Doesn't it make more sense to do that work while some stories are out and circulating, looking for print homes? And if one of my stories should actually get bought, wouldn't that make my novel query that much stronger?

Who knows. One thing I do know is that I have learned a lot by focusing on my short stories. Short stories require a level of tightness that people tend to think novels can get away with lacking. If I hadn't focused on my shorts for the past year, maybe I'd be in that camp. Instead, I've learned lessons that I think will help my longer fiction, and that I think make me a better critter for others as well.

Now it's time to go apply them.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I'm learning to revise, but I ain't got wings

Something in Jennifer Jackson's livejournal last week, along with a conversation I was having in Starbuck's with my wife today, got me thinking about how my approach to getting published has changed over the years. When I wrote Prototype, the internet certainly existed, but it wasn't quite as big a thing as it is now. Virtually no agents blogged, and most of the information I had about the publishing process came from books about publishing or writing. Some of those books were fantastic--Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy stands out as an excellent guide to writing in general, not just F&SF. ( dates it as 2001, but I read my copy in 1992.) Many of them were useless. (No links to useless books, sorry.) The useless ones contained--at least, my memory, which may be faulty, says they contained--lots of platitudes but little concrete advice. And then there were the articles in Writer's Market and the novel and short story version of same.

I had no conception back then of where the bar was. I knew it was higher than I'd reached yet, but I was clueless in so many ways. The existence of agent and editor and writer blogs has really opened my eyes to what the common pitfalls are, and I've also found it easier to sift through the tons of advice out there and find the good stuff. (Maybe because reading blogs involves less committment. If I check a book on writing out of the library and it seems to suck, I'm likely to keep plowing through in the hopes that I'll find some gem in it. It's mine for a couple of weeks, so I might as well. I've already made the effort to go to the library once, and exchanging it for another book is going to be a hassle. But when I read a blog post and it's not useful, I don't keep digging for more unless that blogger has already proven him- or herself to be a source of good advice. It takes no effort to keep looking until I find the good stuff. And any OCD sense of obligation I have toward the writer (ask me why I never fail to finish books I start) is satisfied by completing a blog post--I don't have to read someone's entire oeuvre. So over the last couple of years, I've found far more good advice than I found in all the years before.


I grew up being constantly told that I was a talented writer. I always got good grades in English, I wrote for the yearbook and the newspaper (and eventually edited the newspaper). I won schoolwide writing contests. And when English teachers talked about drafting, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, because the truth was that I didn't do this. My first draft and my final draft were separated by almost nothing. A cursory read-through for typos, and that was about it. And that was good enough, because all I was looking for was grammar and spelling mistakes, and grammar and spelling have always come easily to me. I think the biggest adjustment I've made in the last couple of years is realizing that this wasn't serving me in fiction-writing. When I wrote (the perhaps ironically named) Prototype, I did my usual read-through, and my wife did a read-through. And we looked for more than spelling and grammar, it's true, but we didn't put a lot of effort into the revision process. For me, it was a lot more than I was used to doing, but in hindsight I realize how laughable it was.

The last few years have taught me that fiction takes a lot more work. My grammar and spelling are clean, but am I telling instead of showing? Am I overusing adverbs? To-be verbs? Junk phrases? Is there enough tension? Is my protagonist doing, or is s/he witnessing while others do? Am I using generic descriptions and verbs instead of vivid ones? Am I being verbose and boring? (Yes!)

I wasn't trained to look out for these things as a young writer. If my writing was clean, that was good enough. I became an effective writer, but not an effective storyteller. I'm still working on that.

My English teachers would be so happy. After all these years, I've finally become someone who writes multiple drafts and works his ass off on revising.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

We all agree there is something to be learned from the music industry; we just don't agree on what

I've been absent from the blogosphere for a while (duh) and I'm going through the stuff that my feed reader hasn't given up on and thrown away yet. (I'm not positive how it works, but it only seems to keep stuff for about a month before it tosses it.) I just ran across this post by Rachelle Gardner. It's been a month since the entry was posted, and it already has 122 comments, so I don't see much value in trying to sound off in the conversation over there. Either it's over, or I'll be lost in the throng. Still, it was food for thought, so I figured I'd blog about it over here.

In this month's backlog, I have encountered a lot of handwringing over what the demise of the music industry can teach us about digital rights. Most of it has expressed the belief that we as a society didn't step in to protect the music industry from those evil pirates, and now the music industry is dead, and the publishing world is next. Woe is us.

I find that version of history ridiculous. The RIAA is the victim?! Absurd. Gardner is just about the only blogger I've read this month who, in my opinion, actually gets what really happened right:

We have only to look at what happened to the music industry to see that this is exactly the kind of step publishers should be taking. The big mistake the music business made was turning a blind eye on the fact that new technology was making it easier for artists to record and distribute their own music. They refused to try and be part of the new landscape and instead tried to fight against it. It was devastating for the industry, which has never recovered. They could have joined in and been part of the innovation and revolution; they could have had a piece of the pie. Instead they lost their shirts.

Now I don't know that I actually agree with her conclusions. It's not clear to me that the situations are truly analogous. I don't have an opinion yet on the publishing side of this, except the opinion that I'm just not knowledgeable enough to have an opinion. But this matches my memory of what happened with the music industry.

I believe that back at the turn of the century, before people were set in their ways and used to not paying for digital content, people would have greatly preferred a legal, official option for buying just the songs they wanted. People by and large want to do things the right way; they don't prefer to steal. A legal iTunes or Amazon type scheme would have worked. Instead, people rejected the RIAA's insistence that they pay for an entire album for the privilege of owning one song, but finding no legal alternative, and finding easy illegal alternatives, they turned to those instead.

I'm not defending the morality of illegal downloads; I'm simply describing reality. Illegal downloads were easy and free, and the RIAA had no competing product. By the time they started offering legal downloads, a downloading culture was in place, and it was difficult to dislodge that. (Especially when the alternative we were finally offered was iTunes, a crappy product that limited the number of devices you could hear your music on, and, at the time, prevented you from converting your purchases to MP3 without a second stage of lossy compression. When you're the last guy on the scene, an inferior product is not likely to win the masses to you.) Now you get spurious moral arguments, like "it's not stealing, it's sharing." But if the music industry had not foolishly attempted to wish the internet out of existence, I think things would have played out differently.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An oldie but a goodie

Elmore Leonard on writing.

I promise I'll get back to content and stop it with the link soup soon.

Monday, November 9, 2009

More linky goodness

This from INTERN:

-Open novel to a random page
-Read a couple paragraphs, or at most, a couple pages
-Can you tell what the conflict is, or what the character is yearning for? Can you explain, in just a few words, what these paragraphs are doing and why?

It can be as concrete as "she is trying to catch the rattlesnake" or as abstract as "he is struggling to understand his son's anger".

I've encountered more or less this advice before, but it's a good reminder--and a hard pill to swallow.

Some good advice on revision

. . . from Jacqueline Lichtenberg. I'm quoting it here so I can remember and think about it later.

7 points to self-test a novel for "quality"

1) PLOT INTEGRITY - check to make sure what I call the "because-line" actually tracks logically. If YOU think it tracks, ask someone you don't know to read it then ask them questions about why things happened in the novel. To FIX missing links, make sure every event happens BECAUSE OF the initial event. Anything with a very tight PLOT (PLOT = BECAUSE LINE) but very little EXPOSITION will sell somewhere (that's from Robert A. Heinlein).

2) CHARACTER MOTIVATION (i.e. the STORY-LINE which is the sequence of emotional states that leads the main character to change) must be clear to the target readership (not just to you). You have to explain WHY people do things in SHOW rather than TELL -- that WHY is inside the chosen plot events. When a character DOES SOMETHING the world responds with a LOGICAL consequence from which the CHARACTER derives a (possibly illogical but human) LESSON which the CHARACTER tests by doing something different "next time" which CAUSES (plot-line) another logical consequence, until the character has learned his/her lesson (theme=lesson learned)

3) When you've got both these lines whole, complete, transparent, accessible to your target reader, and precisely formulated to the genre that the symbolism belongs to, when everything makes complete sense, REDUCE THE WHOLE THING to an outline (chapter-by-chapter, describe what happens, why, and what it means in just 2 or 3 complete sentences -- this is your sales tool for your pitch). If you can't do that reduction, there's something wrong with the structure. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE NOT VIOLATED A TROPE OF YOUR GENRE (that is the real criteria by which Manhattan Agents and Editors work - trope-trope-trope.) Trope is often the cause of the PACING issue that editors will cite when rejecting. Editors don't know what's wrong or how to fix it. They're not writers. That's your job. Readers expect you to do your job. If you don't, they call the work badly written or low quality.

4) Go back and DELETE 15% of the words, cut-cut-cut, use better words, delete all the adjectives and adverbs, and shift to well-chosen words. Then if necessary add-add-add to get the exact length for the genre. Then delete almost all the EXPOSITION. Take what's left and break it up like a sonic beam breaks up a kidney stone. Pulverize the exposition and sprinkle it here and there in LOGICAL sequence. The trick with exposition is to make the reader curious to know the fact you need to impart -- take about 50 pages to build the curiosity -- meanwhile drive up the suspense until the reader just HAS TO KNOW. Then tell them in a dependent clause buried in the middle of something -- use an oblique reference, nothing "on the nose." Make the reader FIGURE OUT what you want to tell them in exposition. That's a dodge for SHOW DON'T TELL -- make the reader think it's their own idea, not yours. If you do the work for them, they don't have any fun even though you do. Writing is selling FUN, which means you have to give away your fun in return for money. So you don't get to tell. You have to work to induce the reader to figure it out.

5) Send it out to test readers you DON'T KNOW and who don't know you personally (not work-shoppers you see every month- actual people who have no stake in stroking your ego -- yes, building a cadre of such folks you have access to is one thing online networking can do best). Get tech experts in fields you have used to check the facts.

6) NOW - after all that, you polish the text, not just running spell check, but going through the whole MS looking for word-substitution typos, bad sentence structure, wordy constructions "Well, the fact of the matter is that he lied" becomes "Well... he lied." Don't use grammar-check, learn grammar.

7) Yet another test reader, one who knows grammar, punctuation, spelling and reads books from your target publisher in your target genre. (each publishing house has a style sheet dictating grammar, spelling, punctuation). That's your final step - no sense polishing words you're going to delete. In hand-written times, that was known as "making a fair copy." On foolscap.
I'm pretty good at the grammar and polish part . . . I just need to make sure I'm doing a good job with plot integrity and character motivation.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Food for thought

Nancy Kress on Al Zuckerman on blockbuster novels

I'm not interested in writing to a very specific formula, but it's interesting and informative to look at one (very educated) opinion on what people are after. As Kress summarizes, the characteristics of blockbuster novels, with notable exceptions, are:

  • a clear protagonist, usually sympathetic, that we want to succeed
  • characters who are not Everyman, but rather are "larger than life," by which he means driving hard to get whatever it is they're striving for, whatever that takes
  • multiple point of view (despite having one main character) to "open up" the story and let the reader know more of what's going on than the protagonist does
  • a "big" setting: the Civil War, international espionage, the world of the New York Mafia, the million-dollar art world, Mars
  • very high stakes
  • personal as well as professional relationships among characters on opposite sides of the struggle
  • a lot of action, all building to a climax that changes everything for the characters
  • usually, victory for the protagonist

It's just a flesh wound . . .

The thing with knowing I'm too wordy/my stories are too long is that sometimes I find myself going through manuscripts pointing at chunks and saying, "This can go," with more regard for whether it's necessary than for whether it's good. Fair enough--the art of the short story is precisely the art of writing without a wasted word, no? But where is the point where I actively make my story worse, by chopping to the point where it gets, well, choppy? Sometimes I'm afraid I'm taking something that's basically okay and damaging it in the name of brevity.

No answers, today. Just questions.

Friday, November 6, 2009

New School Year, 1/4 down (Self-Analysis Edition)

So the new school year is 1/4th past now. Now I have two AP preps, as opposed to last year, when I had one (and the year before, when I had none). In some ways, Calculus AB is like a new prep to me too, because I'm approaching it rather differently this year than last year. Last year my students' pass rate wasn't what I hoped it would be, so I'm trying different strategies--different and time-consuming.

Still, I tend to find the first quarter the most draining, in terms of my personal time. The reason for this is that I don't believe in spending a ton of time reviewing material from previous classes--especially when teaching honors or AP classes. So I tend to fly through the early parts of the curricula, hoping that in so doing I can free up time for me to go more slowly later on in the year, when we cover material that is actually new to the kids. The consequence of that for me is much more frequent quizzing and testing, and so a heavier pile of grading. The fourth quarter gets rough too, but that's just at the very end.

So it's time to get off my ass when it comes to writing. I've hardly done any writing or revising at all since the start of August, and I am properly ashamed about that. (In my defense, I have done more than you could tell by looking at this blog. I sacrifice blogging before I sacrifice writing. Since my last blog post, I have revised two short stories and done some preliminary planning on a new YA novel. Not a lot, I know, but not nothing.)

A huge problem of mine, and one I need to work on, is my tendency toward perfectionism--more in teaching than in writing, actually. For the past nine weeks, I have averaged around four hours of sleep a night on school nights. When I grade, I don't just mark stuff wrong--I make detailed comments explaining where student work went wrong. But most kids don't look at that; they just look at the number at the top and put the thing away. So I need to find a way to help the kids that want help, but not spend my whole life on grading. I also operate a forum where I answer questions from kids, but I tend to spend too much time on silly details. For instance, the forum doesn't support LaTeX or any other mathematical mark-up features, so I make mathematical expressions with other software, capture it as an image, and upload it that way. But then I waste time trying to get the typeface and the background to match, so that it will look as if it were actually native text instead of an image. Who the hell cares? Well, besides me, that is.

(Not all the things I spend time on are that silly. I spend several hours each weekend on lesson planning, where other teachers tell me they spend maybe a half hour. I almost never give kids seatwork in class, which means I can't get my work done while they're doing that, which means all my grading and lesson-planning and communicating with parents are always take-home work. I tutor kids four afternoons a week. I think a lot of these things make me a better teacher, but it's time for me to start thinking about bang for my buck, and about when I get time to be more than my job.)

It's not perfectionism, exactly. It's that I'm very detail-oriented. As a consumer, I appreciate that tendency in the art and craft I most enjoy. That's what I love about Disney--both their movies and their architecture. Always that little bit of extra "Ah ha!" for those of us who are looking out for it. Maybe that's why I'm such a big fan of the Indigo Girls--those amazing harmonies are like that little bit of extra detail that most artists don't bother with. That's what I loved about the original Star Wars trilogy: the sense that there was a greater storyline, and that someone behind the art already knew where this was all going. (That's probably why I'm more of a plotter than a pantser.)

I have a difficult time giving myself permission to not get the details right. I think as an artist, this leads to some of my strengths. I think I use foreshadowing well. I also think I'm good at throwing in little self-referential "symbols," for lack of a better word. Of course, this also leads to my tendency to spend too long revising.

As a teacher, this focus on details may be hurting me, and, ironically enough, making me less successful. I spend so much time doing things that nobody notices. Things that nobody particularly appreciates. I may be the hardest-working teacher I know; but I don't necessarily work smart. Who appreciates that I stay up until 2 am or wake up at 4 am to grade or lesson plan? Am I crankier or less effective during the day because I'm tired from working so hard? Am I crankier or less effective because I put my artistic dreams on hold for so much of the school year?

I had a bit of an epiphany at the end of the last quarter. I tend to fall behind on my projects because of my perfectionism. If I don't have time to do it perfectly, I'll wait until I do. Eventually, some things become emergencies, and that's when I finally give myself permission to cut corners, to do less than a perfect job. It occurred to me that perhaps on some level I fall behind on purpose, as a way of giving myself permission to cut those corners. (Ironically enough, nobody notices the difference between when I cut corners and when I don't, though they certainly do notice when I'm behind.)

The trick, then, is to learn to back off on the things I do for my day job without waiting until things are emergencies.

We'll see . . .

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cabrón (a story)

This isn't strictly speaking a brand new story, but I did that "leave it alone and then come back to it in a few months" thing, and I've spent the last week or so spiffying it up. I'm hoping I've finally got something good enough to sell. Here's a teaser:

As the days passed, I began to sense my certainty that something was profoundly wrong at Fátima slip away. It all began to seem silly and embarrassing. I had taken a series of minor calamities and pieced them together into some sort of ludicrous dark conspiracy, with Hermano Leopoldo at the center. Hermano Leopoldo, who was almost certainly harmless, and who only aroused suspicion because of my aversion to his disfigurement. Nothing but the delusions of a pathetic, homesick girl.

I nearly convinced myself of this, until the night I woke up in a pool of my own vomit.

This story is my completely made up origin tale for a well-known folkloric monster, so if you figure out where it's going before the end, good for you! It's about 8800 words--a bit longer than "Spacelift" was.

Without further ado, here's the story. As before, if you know me, including if I've posted on your blog or if you've posted on mine before, then you're welcome to read it. Just drop me a line asking for the encryption key and I'll shoot it off to you. Any constructive comments you feel like making will be very appreciated, but if you just want to read it, that's fine too.