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?

Friday, July 23, 2010


So I recently had a story become a finalist in a literary competition. (Pause for a moment of "Yay me!")


On an entirely unrelated note, I had cause to pull up an old story and read through it. This is a story that has not sold yet, and is pretty much out of pro-paying options. However, it received very nice, personal rejections from some editors at pro markets who complimented my writing and indicated they wanted to see more from me. It was also a finalist in a couple of literary competitions.

You know what? I was stunned at how awful the writing seems to me. My attempts to create tension and hook the reader seem so obvious and hamfisted, my conflict so melodramatic, and I'm embarrassed that I sent this story out to anyone.

I'm also, secretly, a bit thrilled.

Because when I started sending this story out a couple of years ago, I thought it was sooo polished. From a writing standpoint if not a storytelling one, I thought I was at the top of my game. So what I take away from how amateurish it seems to me now is that I've gotten a lot better since then, and that, FSM willing, it won't be long before I break through.

Here is the opening of the old story in question:

Kayla burst through the door and into the night, clutching her prize in her hand. It had worked. It had worked! Now all she needed to do was get back home. Back to her new life.

Her senses seemed to be on high alert as she covered the couple blocks to her parents’ home. On some level, she had been sure something would go wrong, and now everything she saw, from the guy drinking a beer in a paper bag right outside the store to the SUV hurtling past as she jogged along the sidewalk, took on a sinister purpose in her mind. Mostly she looked out for police, or perhaps some dark, unmarked sedan instead. But nothing stopped her, and in less than five minutes she was standing behind the house.

Through the rear window, she could see her mother walking around the kitchen. It looked like she was on the phone. At this hour, her father would be in the living room, watching his CSI: Miami or Criminal Minds or whatever crime drama he was currently obsessing over. They’d be furious if they knew she’d been this close without stopping in to say hello, but there was no time.

She chuckled at the irony in that.

Behind the house, she stood just outside of the faintly glowing edges of the displacement field and eyed it warily as she rested with one hand on her old swing set, catching her breath while the peeling corners of the paint dug into her palm. The field was rotating rather more quickly than it had been twenty minutes ago, and, beyond it, the floor of the laboratory was pitching and yawing—or at least, it seemed to from her vantage point. Clumsy. She could have done better, but then, she was out here.

As she watched, the rotation slowed. The alignment wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t going to be, and she couldn’t wait forever. The floor in her lab was a little more than a foot higher than the grass was, and the wall was in view, setting the course of her landing skew to the path she’d have to take into the displacement field, but she had to move now.

Kayla ran the three steps separating her from the field and jumped. For one blessed second, she was back in the lab. Then the change in gravity hit her. This was still new to her, and she flailed as “back” became “down.” She tottered, and time seemed to slow. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the dirt behind her house coming up to meet her, and, worse, the neon-colored rim of the displacement field. She could not let that touch her.

“Help me!” she cried out, flailing, thrusting her hands in front of her. And then her breath was taken away by a searing pain and the sweet stench of sizzling flesh she barely had time to recognize as her own. The ticket, fluttering leaflike in the chaos where the air of the yard met the air of the lab, was the last thing she saw before the edge of the field sliced from her right armpit to her left ear.

All that past perfect, signaling that I'm giving backstory. I was so desperate to start with action, but so desperate to dump info there just the same. And an intro that ends in the death of the central character, only to have her alive again after the # break. How provocative! And the clumsy bits of foreshadowing: her chuckling at an irony that the reader can't possibly get yet, or the comments about how inexpertly the displacement field is being handled. I use the word "as" six times here, something I've come to regard as a marker of inexpertly trying to weave action together with info. Sixteen uses of the word "was," which I've come to associate with telling rather than showing. I feel like I was trying so hard.

Here is the intro to a short story I'm working on right now, that I'm maybe a fourth of the way through writing. This story doesn't even have a title yet. It's first draft, not the least bit cleaned up:

The Orinoco’s dark surface twitched and undulated, one eddy gradually separating itself from the otherwise languid film. Carolina edged back into the shadows between the bait shop and the boatyard and maintained her vigil, gripping her father’s revolver with both hands like a talisman. From the other end of the alleyway, strains of an old song by Maná drifted down.

Over the debris that had once formed the retaining wall, a shape rose, shimmery and pink and dripping. Carolina’s eyes reported the scene faithfully, but she blinked anyway, scrunching her eyelids together as though demanding her eyes bring back better information next time. Blink. Slick pink-grey skin, a ridged back with water cascading off, and a long snout. Blink. No, not a snout. A nose. A regular old human nose, though maybe larger than average, and a high forehead. Blink. No, not pink. White like a norteamericano. Whiter than her own caramel skin certainly, but not pink. Blink. And not naked, after all, but wearing clothes so white she could hardly make them out in the twilight. He stood up, clearly a man now, and the moonlight practically reflected off his liquiliqui, especially the silver buttons on his high collar. The silvery light made something else clear: he wore nothing beneath his loose linen pants. Blink. What she had taken to be a high forehead now appeared to be the crown of a llanero hat, with a fashionably narrow brim pulled low.

Carolina sucked in a breath. He was still beautiful. Eight years had worn down her girlhood and left her instead with calluses and worry lines, but he was still the achingly perfect boy she remembered, as though not a day had passed. She crouched behind an empty tank, wrinkling her nose at the shrimp and algae scent, and watched him step past, whistling an upbeat tune she’d not heard before as he swam through the night. When his back was to her, she stepped out and pointed the gun at his back.

“Looking for someone, tonino?” she asked.

Now maybe I'm just full of myself—or maybe I'm full of something else—but this reads so much better to me right now. Only three uses of "as," and two of those are in the context of comparisons, and none to show simultaneous action. Only three uses of the word "was."

I feel like this piece is more vibrant because, while the previous one begins with action, it tells the reader about the action while this one shows it more. I show it through Carolina's eyes, but I try not to use words that give the reader a sense of detachment. I don't indicate that she sees this or that—I just show this or that and assume it's obvious that she's doing the seeing.

It still needs some work. I'm not at all sure the blink paragraph works, and I think the cadence of the first paragraph could be better. And maybe someone reading this blog will think it absolutely sucks. But I like it. I think it's a lot better and that excites me.

Maybe in a year or two I'll think it's horribly amateurish and I'll be embarrassed that I ever bragged on these awful paragraphs. I kind of hope so, because that'll mean I'll have continued to grow as a writer.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Congratulations to my wife on her prize-winning essay!

I don't know that I have any regular readers who aren't already friends with my wife, but just in case I figured I throw a shout-out to her win in the "Pyr and Dragons Adventure" essay contest:


Lots of us who love speculative fiction have similar stories. The particulars differ--I never had asthma or ITP--but the fact that we all found something that fired our dreams and our imagination is pretty constant. In that, I think Lisa speaks for all of us.

So go check the link out if you haven't already, read the essay, and congratulate her!

And if you're going to Dragon*Con, let me know!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

On honorary men, stereotypical women, and feminized men

I read some great food for thought on writing and gender over the last couple of days. At sfnovelists, Marie Brennan talked about the tendency of writers to attempt to create "strong female characters" by basically writing "men with tits": characters who act like stereotypical men in every way but the plumbing and the name.

In the comments to Brennan's post, someone linked to an article deconstructing the trope of the Hollywood strong female character. This was the bit that best summed it up for me:

I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for “strong female characters,” and male writers misunderstood. They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters. The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.

(I had mixed feelings on the discussion of hot women ending up with schlubby everydudes. While reading the article, I couldn't deny that the author [I could only find the author's online handle, not a real name] was onto something, but the farther I got into the comments the more clear it became that many of the commenters seemed to buy into the myth that looks were the only component of desirability. As a schlubby ugly guy who's nevertheless pretty decent in a lot of ways ;) I beg to differ.)

I also ran across a rather heated debate on Absolute Write on whether it was okay to write gay characters who conformed to gay stereotypes. One of the principals in the discussion claimed to be a gay male who was stereotypically feminine, and his argument was, as I understood it, that people like him existed and shouldn't be swept under the rug in the name of fighting stereotypes.

I've thought a lot about this issue over the years, because it's something I don't want to inadvertently do in my own writing. I seem to be drawn to characters of either sex who fuck with gender expectations. I'm not the most macho of men, so I like seeing sensitive male characters. I'm also drawn to strong females in life as in art. My male characters tend to be sensitive--am I feminizing them? My female characters tend to be strong--are they just boys in drag? And I've not yet gotten around to writing a gay character, but since my tendency is generally to buck stereotypes, that's a tack I could certainly see myself taking.

I don't have any good answers, but in all three discussions I found online this week, the bottom line seemed to be about characterization. At least some of the vitriol in the Absolute Write discussion seemed to come from the fact that the poster suggested writing gays according to stereotype with no real focus on who these characters were--in other words, instead of allowing their characteristics to grow organically from their personalities, to use stereotypes as a code for "this guy is gay." In real life, most people don't conform that perfectly to a whole set of expectations. They'll conform to some and defy others, and which is which is rooted in their personalities and their experiences and who they are.

Likewise in the Overthinking It article and in Brennan's blog post, the emphasis seemed to come down to making the female characters good characters, not on whether they do or do not kick ass. In particular, my eyes lit up when Brennan cited Firefly's Zoe (pictured) as an example of a good strong character of the female variety--and not just because I have a crush on Zoe. Oh yes, she definitely kicks ass, but she is also definitely a real woman, and not a guy in disguise.

As for my own writing, all I can do is try my hardest to do right by my characters, and think of them as real people who come by their personality quirks the hard way. So far I haven't had any complaints, but when I do, hopefully I'll listen with an open mind.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Editorial Anonymous: Countdown: A Conversation with Deborah Wiles

In revision I throw out great wads of the plot (usually the entire second half), but as I do that, the light begins to dawn, I begin to understand who my characters are and what their motivations are, which inform their actions and reactions, and as these things begin coming clear, I go back and layer in foreshadowing and tension.

This novel sounds fascinating--no, I haven't read it, or anything by Deborah Wiles. But this paragraph struck me because it echoes my experience of writing a 129,000 word YA novel and then cutting out 48,000 words of it.

All that stuff I cut? It was useful. It was useful to me because it was time I spent with my protagonist. I didn't consciously think about characterization as much as I'd like to in the future--and yeah, I'd prefer not to chop a third off of my next MS--but in the process of writing all those scenes I was unconsciously working on characterization, if nothing else.

I'm tired of the way people laugh when I tell them my first draft clocked in at 129,000 words. Hello, it's not like I was ignorant of the expectations. I'd already written a YA trunk novel of 90,000 words. And yeah, writing long is something I've always wrestled with.

But I ain't sorry.

The time I spent writing that huge first draft was time well spent. Time getting to know my characters and my setting and the living situations of all the players. Some people walk around the mall holding imaginary conversations with their characters. Some people go off and do firsthand research, living as a migrant worker or whatever. I wrote.

No shame in that.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Blue Fire

For anybody who was intrigued by my post about Janice Hardy's Shifter last November, you might be interested to know that the sequel, Blue Fire, is just about ready to come out, and you can win an ARC of it here, but you won't, because I will. :p

Monday, July 12, 2010

On the (un)importance of getting everything right

I have a tendency sometimes to research myself into a corner. I don't want to get something wrong, so I come up with all the flaws in my story ideas and try to torture my stories into working around these flaws. And I've certainly had the experience as a reader of getting annoyed at a story that touched on something that I am knowledgeable about and Got It Wrong.

But I'm starting to think you can make a fetish of accuracy and take it too far. Recently I read a couple of stories that touched on areas I am knowledgeable about and got things wrong . . . and worked anyway.

I think many of us are passionate about the things we're "experts" in--that's why we're experts in the first place, sometimes. Maybe it's a musical instrument you play or your ethnic background or your religion or your occupation. Maybe it's a language you speak. With me these areas include (but are probably not limited to) my culture and first language, the religion I grew up in, teaching, the geography of places I've lived . . .

When I was a kid my parents used to watch a lot of cooking shows on PBS. We were a one television family for much of my childhood--and I never had a TV in my room--so I either watched what they watched or I watched nothing at all. So I grew up with more than my share of Julia Child and Yan Can Cook and the Galloping Gourmet. My favorite among these shows--pretty much the only one I could stand, actually, was Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet. I didn't give much of a damn about cooking--though maybe these shows laid the groundwork for my cooking as an adult--but Jeff Smith didn't just give recipes. He gave stories and history and bits of folklore about every recipe and about the people who ate whatever dish he was presenting. I loved the stories.

Until he did an episode on Cuban Cooking! Oh my goodness he got everything so wrong! He explained how Cubans and Mexicans pronounce "tamales" differently--um no, USians pronounce it differently, and incorrectly surmise their pronunciation is how Mexicans actually pronounce it. Then he showed how to make a Cuban Sandwich--with mayonnaise and salami! Ugh! (Yes, some restaurants make Cuban Sandwiches like this. They are wrong.) Along with my sense of outrage of seeing him get my culture and my food wrong was this thought: what else had he been getting wrong over the years? How could I trust now that any of his other stories were more authentic than the ones he told about Cubans?

I never looked at the show quite the same way again.

But here's the thing--if I had wanted to cook authentic food, I could see how that mattered. But when it came to enjoying his stories, did it make them any less enjoyable if they weren't totally accurate or well-researched?

Getting back to food, when I eat at a restaurant that is not Cuban, I really don't care how authentic the food is--I care if I like how it tastes. I know most of the Asian and Mexican food I eat is inauthentic, and I'm okay with that. For some reason, though, it drives me nuts when an allegedly Cuban restaurant serves a bunch of spicy dishes or makes a dish wrong.

And okay, if you get a detail wrong in your story, experts in that field will howl. But will most people care?

I suppose they will if it's something so fundamental that lots of non-experts know you blew it. And why tick off even the experts if you don't have to? There's nothing wrong with getting things as right as you can. Sure, that's a virtue.

But maybe it's good to remember sometimes that telling a good story is what it's really about.