Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Back from Japan!

Yes, I went to Japan for seventeen days with my family.

It was amazing.

We are back, and we are super-jetlagged.

When I try to describe it, I fail to capture its significance. We have a journal we kept which is now over twenty pages long. We ate lots of food that we loved, and plenty more that we couldn't identify while eating it. It was a lot like being in another universe, especially since the vast majority of the time, we were completely disconnected from the internet.

Stories will come of this. Some of those may be actual recountings of our experiences, here on the blog. :)

Anyway, I need to get myself together. I have a hangout coming up on the 8th!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

TTYU Retro: Managing and prioritizing multiple writing projects

Writing more than one thing at a time can be a challenge. The biggest risk, at least for me, is that I can get thinking about so many things at once that I don't feel "situated" in any of my stories, and that means whatever I write will lack the deep-world feel that I prefer to achieve. There are times when I've spent more than a month bouncing between projects, and it always means that an extra round of revisions is in my future.

I generally like to concentrate on one work at a time. If I keep my focus tight, I can get into a good mindset and stay there. I sometimes will even have a tough time readjusting to real-world concerns like going to pick up my kids from school!

However, I like to keep an updated to-do list of all my projects so I can keep track of where I am with them, and potentially be able to switch from one to another. Why? I find that switching from one work to another is a really good way to give my brain a rest from one project and allow it to work subconsciously on solving plotting or structural problems, while not feeling like I'm losing time to "writer's block."

When a novel is out for critique, it's the perfect time to be turning one's attention aside (since it's pointless to keep working on the novel until hearing back from people) and working on other things. A critique window can give you a very nice window to slam hard on another story that needs serious structural work.

Often what I do is keep a list of my projects in terms of where they are in their state of completion (world design, story idea, drafting, revising, etc.). That way I'll have a rough idea of which ones would benefit most from being worked on. I generally keep a list of the stories I'm working on based on how close they are to completion, but that isn't the only factor that enters into deciding which one to work on. I also factor in how close they are to being saleable. For example, if I've been invited to submit a story, it moves up the list even if it's in early stages, because I know someone out there is asking to see it. And of course there is also the Muse. The feeling of inspiration - or lack of it - is the complicating factor that tends to keep me from ever being entirely systematic or organized about the order in which I work on stories.

How do you organize the projects you're working on?

Monday, July 22, 2013

A main character needs someone to care about

We put a lot of focus on our main characters, developing them, coming up with backstory, etc. While we do this, it is important for us to ask who is special to this person. It's not just that people need social connections (though I do think there are too many loners in fiction). It's also that when the main character cares about somebody, the reader is more likely to share that care, and to take the story to heart.

When we're writing, we can easily get totally into the world you've created, the situation and its complexity, and all the details associated with that. Sometimes while we're concerning ourselves with that, we forget the personal stakes. This is a mistake.

As stakes go, saving everyone in the world doesn't work that well. At least, not all by itself.

I was watching The Matrix Reloaded the other day, and when I came to the scene where Neo meets the Architect, I realized precisely what it was that made Neo different from all the Ones who had come before him. They all cared deeply for the survival of the human race, while Neo doesn't care nearly as much about the human race as he does about Trinity.

Think about it. The Architect offers him two doors: one which will allow him to keep humans alive through horrible sacrifice, and one which will cause them all to die but let him save Trinity. If he were concerned mostly with the lives of all humans, this would be a no-brainer. But I guess the Architect hasn't read his literature, or is too much of a machine to get it even if he has.

Bad move. Of course Neo is going to go save Trinity! And thus the outcome becomes something different from what happened in all the previous iterations. And the audience is likely to agree with Neo's choice, because that choice is personal.

I found myself looking for a similar personal form of stakes when I was writing my short story, "Mind Locker." Hub Girl, the main character, has a gang of kids she is in charge of, and she needs to make sure that they aren't being targeted by the Locker of the title. As I was writing it, though, I realized that she had a special relationship with one of the gang members, Big Fisher. It's not a romantic relationship, but she cares about him, and gives attention to that fact, through the whole story. One of my critique partners felt that Big Fisher really helped her understand the way that Hub Girl cared about protecting her gang members. That's because he's a specific example, someone to focus on in the large gang - but it's also because his relationship with Hub Girl is personal.

Who is your main character, and what does she (or he) care about? Who might she/he care about enough to take risks? Who has that personal connection that will motivate the main character as she/he goes forward?

It's something to think about.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

TTYU Retro: How do you convey nature's profusion in a secondary world?

I had two experiences not so long ago that really brought home to me the magnitude of nature's profusion, and the difficulty of portraying this in fiction. First, I took my family on a camping trip to Big Basin State Park, where we spent four marvelous days in a tent cabin and hiking through the redwood forest. Second, I started reading Watership Down aloud to my children.

I don't know how many of you have hiked in the California redwood forests, but to me this is a magical environment that I associate with my childhood. I have been back every year for the past four years or so with my family, but this time was the first time I'd been back in the rain, and before we even left on the trip I was very excited: I had a strong feeling we'd see different things in the rain from what would be there in the dry weather. I was right. On our first day's hike we counted forty-three banana slugs, after seeing perhaps one or two total over the past four years! We ended up at a total of sixty-four for the trip as a whole, plus two salamanders, and any number of earthworms and spiders. We also saw at least two species of squirrels, several bluejays, two bird species I couldn't name... but no raccoons this time, or coyotes.

The sheer number of plant species was another thing that struck me. Very seldom do you find a place where there is only a redwood tree, and some bark around it, and nothing else. There are the little sorrels, that look like giant clovers. There's the poison oak, but there's also the oak. And the madrone trees, and the huckleberry bushes, the fungi, the lichens, the mosses, the ferns etc, etc... You find tons of different plants, so many you can't name them all (unless you're a naturalist). I highly recommend you go out into nature and check out a really diverse ecosystem - it will certainly remind you how limited your garden is! And you might get some terrific ideas for ecosystems in your world. I was reminded that I have some wilderness/forest sequences planned for a later novel, and that I must go back and make sure of a few things:

1. they must be sufficiently diverse
2. they must be difficult to navigate
3. they must have different conditions in different weathers

In Watership Down, I'm continually amazed at how many different plants, trees and birds Richard Adams mentions as he goes along. Yew, furze, sainfoin, brambles, bracken, elder bloom, hemlock, dandelion, nut bushes, beech trees, birch trees, etc., etc... It makes for a very rich sense of place, and a clear view of the rabbits' awareness of their surroundings, what is edible, etc. On the other hand, this place is very specific - it's in England. When we're working with a secondary world, we can't use these terms, because presumably the ecosystem of our world isn't the same as that of England's downs! So do we make up a lot of other alien or fantasy words and let them stand in for these terms? What if we confuse people?

There's a degree of trust involved in reading any novel. I have to trust Richard Adams that all these plants actually live in the place he tells me they do. In a secondary world, I can put in a few new terms, so long as I make clear what role they play - whether they're plants or animals or birds. Once I get to a certain point, though, the reader won't want to go with  me. I think the best way to approach this is through the eye of the protagonist. If the protagonist isn't familiar with any of the plants, then he or she probably won't notice many of them, and won't name any of them. He or she will probably describe them and refer to them with descriptive shorthand. But even if your character is a botanist and and knows all the plants by name, there's no point in having that person call up each and every name all the time. Only use the names when it's important to the plot that your character pay attention. On the other hand, it's valuable to consider that you won't want to describe just a single plant species at each level of tree/bush/groundcover, since diversity is what natural ecosystems are all about. It's a good idea to give a sense of mixture and variety by mixing up the shapes, colors and textures of the surrounding plant life. As for animal life, you can benefit a lot from thinking through food webs and how the species of the area interrelate. If your characters are somehow interfering in some natural process of the animals (hunting, or finding shelter or mates, etc.) then they'll be more likely to run into trouble than if they're simply moving through an animal's territory. After all, people don't run into animals for no reason. They either are seen as a food source, or have provided an additional food source (as when raccoons, jays, or bears come around looking for scraps), or have trespassed on the animal's den, etc. intentionally or inadvertently.

I came away from my trip really hoping that I can give more richness and excitement to a forest environment the next time I get to write one. I'm looking forward to it!

Monday, July 15, 2013

World-building: Pushing the Boundaries of Gender - a guest post by Deborah J. Ross

Please welcome my dear friend and awesome writer Deborah J. Ross. You may already be familiar with her work in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover world, but she's here today to talk about some of her own exciting and original work - specifically, her book Collaborators, which is now out from Dragon Moon Press. Here she discusses gender issues in the book, and offers an excerpt for your enjoyment. Welcome, Deborah!

World-Building: Pushing the Boundaries of Gender

By Deborah J. Ross

People – that is, we Terran-humans -- often confuse gender, sex, and sexual orientation. Sex identification arises from biology, and most of us are either male or female genetically and phenotypically. That is, we possess either XX or XY chromosomes, and our genitals conform to the norm. These are not the only possibilities (you can have XXX or XXY, for example) and problems arise from the societal demand that every person fit into one or the other category. This has nothing to do with “masculine” and “feminine,” which are cultural interpretations, or with which sex a given individual is sexually attracted to.

Gender, on the other hand, has to do with how you experience yourself, a personal sense of being a man or a woman (or both, or neither). Each of these is distinct from sexual orientation, which has to do with an enduring physical, romantic, and emotional attraction to another person. Gender has been described as "who you want to go to bed as, not who you want to go to bed with."

In science fiction and fantasy, we have been playing around with such notions as more than two sexes/genders, none, fluid sexes/genders, and a diversity of gender role expressions. Every so often, a story that takes a new or not-new-but-splashy look at the field garners a lot of buzz, particularly in the queer- and trans-friendly community. Yet much genre writing continues to perpetuate the world view of two oppositional and fixed genders, each with equally unyielding behavioral expectations. For many writers and readers, a character or society that goes too far outside the familiar becomes so uncomfortable as to  sacrifice sympathetic identification. It strikes me, however, that even within the limitations of conventional portrayals of sex and gender, we can reach for greater depth. We can go beyond the Caveman Model of Gender Roles, the Separatist All-Men or All-Women Worlds, the Rambo-in-Drag/Supersensitive Male dichotomies and other variations already done to death.

In writing Collaborators, I wanted to create a resonance between the tensions arising from First Contact and those arising from differences in gender and gender expectations. It seemed to me that one of the most important things we notice about another human being is whether they are of “our” gender. What if the native race did not divide themselves into (primarily) two genders? How would that work – biologically? romantically? socially? politically? How would it affect the division of labor? child-rearing? How would Terran-humans understand or misinterpret a race for whom every other age-appropriate person is a potential lover and life-mate? Not only that, but in a life-paired couple, each is equally likely to engender or gestate a child.

Gender fluidity is not the same thing as being transgendered (which is where a person’s gender – their identity – and their sex – their biological/genetic category are not the same). Both are different from sexual orientation, which has to do with attraction to another person. All too often, if a species that does not fit into the female/male division is portrayed in media, they’re shown as sexless, not only androgynous but lacking in sex drive.

I see no reason why sexual activity should not be as important to an alien race as it is to human beings. We humans have sex for lots of reasons, reproduction being only one of them. It feels good – no, it feels great. It creates bonds between individuals, whether as part of lifelong commitments or transient, situational relationships. It’s physiologically good for health, both physical and mental. So for my alien race in Collaborators, I wanted sexuality to be important. I had the idea that before pair-bonding, they’d be androgynous in appearance, neither distinctively male nor female, but highly sexual (at least, post-puberty). Sex would be something they’d enjoy often and enthusiastically with their age-mate friends. However, the intimacy created by too much sex with the same person would lead to a cascade of emotional and physiological effects resulting in a permanent, lifelong pairing. The pairing, a sort of biological marriage obvious to everyone around the couple, leads to more changes – polarization into genders, with accompanying mood swings, aggression, inability to focus – preparing the bodies of the couple for reproduction. Each partner would appear more “female” or “male,” which sets up many occasions for misunderstanding with Terran-humans who think in terms of those divisions (and react accordingly). The Bandari, on the other hand, would wonder how people who are permanently polarized can get any work done, and they consistently react to Terran women as if they were pregnant, and therefore to be protected at all costs.

Just as we’ve instituted the canonical Talk about the birds and the bees, or sex ed in schools, so the Bandari natives would have systems of preparing their young people, trying to ensure that pairing does not have disastrous political or inter-clan consequences. We know how badly that works in humans, so it’s likely to be equally ineffective with Bandari teenagers, too. Here’s an excerpt from a scene early in the book, with two young people:

Alon had stayed up far too late last night, dancing and then lovemaking with Birre. Now he slept on as Birre cracked the door open and reached up to muffle the chain of porcelain bells. Birre slipped inside, past the portfolios of antique botanical prints, round-bellied clay stove, and corner desk. His eyes glinted mischievously as he bent over Alon.

Alon’s head lolled against the back of the chair, one arm dangling, loose-jointed as a child. A patch of sunlight glowed on his face and highlighted the soft fur, turning it to russet over skin so pale and thin, the veins showed as a threadwork of darker blue. His flat, unformed breasts barely disturbed the folds of his tunic.

Suddenly Alon startled awake, heart pounding. His feet kicked out and the hair along his crest stiffened. His hands flailed empty space and then, unexpectedly, closed around Birre’s shoulders.

Alon’s vision leapt into focus. For a long, terrifying instant, Birre’s face seemed utterly unfamiliar to him, as if he’d never seen it before. Yet at the same time, he seemed to be looking into a mirror. They were of an age, although Birre was taller and more slender, his crest almost burnt-colored. Yet in a heart-stopping moment, those round black eyes, so unexpectedly serious, seemed to see right through Alon to the very depths of his soul.

Alon trembled. Everywhere Birre’s body touched his—hands, knee against thigh, the almost imperceptible movement of breath over hair—he trembled. But not with the shivering spasms of lust. Lust he knew well enough, a night’s mutual pleasuring. This new emotion swept away everything that had come before. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.

Birre took a step backward, a graceless stumble. The folds of his tunic slipped through Alon’s fingers.

Despite all the lingering confusion of his awakening, Alon knew in that moment that this was what he wanted for the rest of his life—to be turning, ever turning, toward Birre’s sun.

Birre stood, shoulders hunched slightly, hands hugging his arms, eyes fastened on a display of children’s picture books. His nostrils flared and the hairs along his neck lifted slightly. He stood so still he didn’t seem to be breathing. Noises drifted in from the street outside, people laughing, the clatter of boot heels on stone, and a creaking, hand-pushed cart.

Alon moved to stand behind Birre, aching to take him into his arms. He had been warned—they all had, at school, by their parents—of the dangers of such a moment. How instinctive drives could take over, overruling sense, judgment, even personal taste. Of the disasters of a pairing without intelligent choice. In times past, before Carrel-az-Ondre, the First Helm, such a union could have serious political consequences between feuding clans.

Birre’s head dipped and the movement, almost timid, so unlike him, sent a rush of tenderness through Alon.

“Alon, I’m scared.”


“I didn’t...expect it so soon.”

“Or with me?”

“Oh no, don’t think I wouldn’t want you.” Birre’s voice roughened with emotion. “Never think that!”

The next moment—Alon could never tell how it happened—Birre’s arms were around him, hard and tight, and his heart felt as if it would explode. His breath stuttered through his throat in a half-sob. He couldn’t make out Birre’s murmured words and he didn’t care.

Some time later Birre drew back, pushed Alon to arm’s-length, and looked at him frankly, without any trace of shyness. His fingers gripped Alon’s arms. “Did you have any idea this was going to happen?”

Irrational joy surged through Alon. When he found his voice, he said, “Oh yes, I stayed up all night planning it.”

The familiar twinkle returned to Birre’s eyes. “I know what you stayed up all night doing.” He slipped his arm around Alon’s shoulders. “We should let them know.” Meaning, of course, his own family. They were an aristocratic sept of one of the eight ruling clans.

Alon thought that all his own parents had to do was look at him and they would know. They might even guess it was Birre because for the past year it had been Birre-this and Birre-that. It would come as no surprise, either. He and Birre were undoubtedly the last to realize what was going on.

He turned his head, found the side of Birre’s neck, and touched his lips to the suddenly attractive curve there. He inhaled Birre’s scent.

“Be practical, Alon. We need to decide...if we’re even ready to have a baby.”

“We may not have much of a choice.” Alon straightened up and touched Birre’s breast gently. Birre shivered, and the fur of his ruff rose briefly and subsided. “You see?”

Something in the tension of Birre’s muscles struck Alon as fragile, although he’d always thought of Birre as being tougher, more decisive, and certainly more athletic. He wanted to surround that new vulnerability with his own strength.

With an effort, he moved away. No matter how they polarized, Birre would never be a person to be protected. And Birre was right, they were too young to be having children, no matter the biological urgencies of their bodies. Yet the longer they touched and tasted each other, the faster and deeper the physiological changes would be. They’d both had the classes; they both should have known what they were doing.

Knowing and acting were, however, two different things.


Monday, July 8, 2013

Professionalism, Waiting, and why it's sometimes good to ask

I worked very hard to learn about being a good part of the community of writers as I entered it. One of the things I've always valued was trying to understand the unwritten rules of a social community; this has helped me in my language learning and travel, and I didn't see why it couldn't help me as I joined a professional community that I wasn't (at first) familiar with.

One of the important things I learned was what not to ask for. Authors, and particularly experienced, well-known authors, have very busy lives. Because they are well-known, they are often barraged by people who want them to do things. As a new member of the community, therefore, you do not ask them to look at your work. Instead, you try to find others at roughly your same level who are interested to see what you are doing. If you do create a relationship with another author who is much further along the career path, you wait for them to ask you. I decided when I had my first story accepted for publication to give a copy of it to one of my more experienced writer friends, but I made sure to tell her that it was up to her whether she read it. I was just happy I'd had it published, and because her support had meant a lot to me, I was giving her a copy.

She read it. Bless her. That still didn't turn us into critique buddies, but she has read more of my work as I've progressed, and I deeply appreciate it. I don't take it for granted.

The other thing that I try to avoid (with mixed success, I'm sad to say) is asking people for status updates on what they are reading for me. Part of being a professional in the writing business means understanding that sometimes you just have to wait. And wait. It's hard, of course, especially when mixed with the drive to get published, and the drive to meet deadlines, etc. But waiting is a skill we need to develop. We need to be able to set aside the anxiety at least enough to continue working on other projects while people (critique partners, editors, etc.) read for us. I'm getting better at this.

Sometimes, however, it is good to ask.

When you are waiting for a reply, particularly from an editor, it's a good idea to read through their guidelines on when to inquire. That means, when to send them a little note saying, "I'd like to inquire as to the status of my submission (of whatever sort) sent on X date..."

I have sent status inquiries twice in the last month, and both times it was really worth it. In the first case, I received a lovely letter from the editor saying I was still under consideration, but that she had a busy life (I'm sure she does!). In the second case, the agent I was contacting had never received my query email.

Yes, I have said argh a few times about this. But imagine if I had not inquired! At this point I have re-sent the query email and am crossing fingers again. I am also thanking my lucky stars that I finally checked, because I could have spent a ridiculously long time waiting for something impossible, and that couldn't have been good for me!

Make sure to keep track of those recommendations in the agent or editor's guidelines. And if it goes over that time limit, ask. Politely. I tend to be very formal in my correspondence with editors and agents I don't know personally, and while that may not be the trend with internet discourse, I feel more comfortable that I won't be insulting anyone.

Anyway, watch the guidelines and ask. It might save you pointless months of agony.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

TTYU Retro: What's in a "strong female character"?

I'm a very strong advocate for writing strong female characters. Recently, I see a lot more female characters who are physically powerful and unafraid of a fight, and I have little problem with that (though those who know me know that I have trouble with over-sexualized images of women, even physically powerful ones). I'm one of the first people to cheer when I see an image like this one racing around Facebook:
I quibble, however. When I saw this girl wearing her awesome armor I hesitated to share it, because it falls into one of the many traps of gender image. To lead into which trap I'm referring to, I offer you this next photo, of one of the strongest females I know:

It's my daughter, Rhiannon. She was a Barbie Musketeer a couple of years ago at Halloween. I guess my first point here is the old saying that one cannot tell a book by its cover. Clothes are a very complex form of social signalling, and practicality often takes a back seat to that. The whole idea of a Barbie Musketeer made me cringe (and still does) but I honestly don't see why it's problematic to have one's long-lavender-dress moments and one's armor moments as well. Of course, I'd advise anyone (including kilt-wearers) to keep skirts under control while in combat, for practical reasons.
Let's focus, though. This isn't a post about beauty or body image or femininity standards of appearance (much as I'm often tempted). It's about elements of character.

I appreciate the idea that women should be able to take on male roles, and be "tough" and even violent when need be, but this is really only one side of the total issue. It still gives first dibs to the value of the traditionally masculine constellation of qualities (including toughness, goal-orientation, competitiveness, etc.). There is a great deal of value to be found also in the feminine constellation of qualities - and these should not be disregarded, either when we're designing female characters, or when we're designing males.
It's hard sometimes to get past the "feminine"-labeled things that drive us crazy. A heightened concern with appearance is one of those things. I have been known to tear at my hair in response to the idea that "how to get the best Christmas gift for each of your friends" is a worthy topic for an hour-long movie. There's also the question of whether "how to get your friends to work together to host a birthday party" is worth a movie, or more hair-tearing. Somewhat more meaty is the topic of "if you miscommunicate and hurt a friend's feelings, how do you get out of it?" A trend I've noticed in all of these - one that frustrates me like crazy - is the way that commercialism gets unquestioningly mixed in with all of these, as when so many girls' stories feature salon scenes, or shopping (grrr).

So I thought I'd list three critical qualities that I consider to come out of the traditional view of femininity and feminine roles, but which are extremely valuable for both female and male characters. These qualities do tend to come out in movies and shows for girls, but my problem with these shows and movies is that these admirable qualities are so circumscribed in their application - by which I mean that we see them applied to birthday parties and Christmas rather than to grander pursuits (or again, when girls are saving the world, these qualities distract from rather than contribute to the girls' success). Obviously this list isn't exhaustive, but I hope it inspires further thought and questioning of those qualities we often dismiss.

1. Patience, long-term tolerance of ambiguity, and moderation in response
I never realized how patient I could be until I became a mother. When you're holding together a household twenty-four/seven, you are faced with a complex, constantly evolving social situation that you can't just walk away from. Especially when you understand the full basis of child behavior, you tend to be a bit more tolerant of its extremes. The other thing that this constant commitment does is that it makes ultimatums very difficult to carry out - what I call being careful with "or else." Any kind of threat you don't intend to carry out ultimately weakens your authority... and since you'll be the one dealing with any chaos you create in the environment - over the long term - it tends to encourage more moderation. [For those of you who are wondering, yes, I do lose it and flip out sometimes. I'm just talking about ideal feminine qualities!]

2. Consideration for others
Girls and women are always being asked to consider things from another point of view - often in the name of understanding why the boys must have what they want, but also in service of larger group dynamics among females. This can be construed as a form of weakness, but it's actually an enormous advantage in any social situation where no one person is in charge. Where a large group is trying to get something done (traveling, staying alive, etc.) a traditionally masculine goal-orientation may cause some members to fall off the group motivation and be lost or diverted; a simultaneous application of consideration for the larger social dynamic can help keep the group together. I'm put in mind of the movie Chimpanzee, which we watched recently, where the group which prevailed in keeping its territory was smaller in numbers, but had a male leader who spent more time grooming the members of his troop. (Take that, salons!)

3. Persistence in the face of setbacks/lack of recognition; constantly taking small steps
This is where patience meets goals. I'm reminded of the story I saw going around Facebook the other day of the man who came home to find his house a complete and utter wreck and his wife in bed with a book saying to him, "You know how you asked me what I do around the house all day? Well, today I didn't do it." Managing a household is like that (particularly where diapers and tiny bundles of chaos are involved). For all my talk of letting the house get messy, I can hardly walk into a room without doing some small thing to contribute to its improvement or ongoing state of usability. The laundry piles up and I keep doing it. When the kids were in diapers, I kept changing them (my motto: that's what diapers are for!) There's a little room in the system for grand gestures (Look, honey, I dusted the whole house today! or Look, honey, I mopped the floor!) but one has to realize those don't last long, and not get discouraged when a spilled juice wrecks your work of the last hour. There's also the fact that many women must continue to achieve success in this way without any recognition that they are in fact doing so (thus the Facebook story).

I'll end this post with some questions:

What other qualities of traditional femininity do you consider valuable? 
How do they contribute strength to a social system? 
How might they change the way a character would go about saving the world? 
Can you recommend some strong female characters who are strong in feminine as well as masculine ways?