mrissa: (helpful nudge)

I felt like my panel on what to write next, with John, Dave, and Ty, went pretty well on Saturday. The audience seemed engaged, and there was plenty to say. So much to say, in fact, that here I am with the next thing: I feel like the panel focused a fair amount on market considerations. I feel like it focused a fair amount on choosing among ideas that you already have.

And sometimes that’s great. Sometimes those ideas have been pushing and shoving to get out, and now it’s their turn. Pick one through some means: choosing a project that’s very different from what you’ve just written, following through on a prior success, consulting someone who knows a lot about the market, hurrah. Whatever works.

What about the other times? What do you do when you’re staring at your fingers and muttering, “What now?” Well, here are some ideas.

Rest. Seriously, rest and then rest and then rest some more. Rest is underrated in our culture. Lately I have heard people talking about how they don’t have time to rest, acting as though taking a break would be a failure. Rest is a human necessity, not a failure. One of our most prevalent cultural attitudes is that if you work 50 hours in a week, you will get 25% more done than if you work 40, but in fact this is only sometimes true. Quite often you will get 5% more done, or 1%, or if you’ve been doing it enough weeks in a row, 25% less. So when you finish a big project, at least consider that napping, playing with the dog, going for a walk, watching Netflix, are the things that are getting you to the point of being productive with the next big thing.

Change inputs. My friend Mary, a poet and fiction writer, talks about filling the word bucket. Read something different, read something very different, read a bunch of things on a theme. Read a bunch of things on a non-obvious theme. Especially if you’re trying to make political art: a lot of the best ideas for art get sparked by combinations of things that are not linearly related, directly next to each other. Reading about pigments or manatees or Tlingit art is not something that automatically says, “From this will come the great protest literature of our time, the cry my heart needs to make.” It gives your brain not only space to breathe but space to make nonlinear connections, to think thoughts that are relevant to the current situation but not identical to the thoughts everyone else is thinking.

Change media. Art museums. Online stuff. Wandering around looking at public art in cities smart enough to have it. Reading is not the only way to refill the bucket. Hell, change to something that isn’t a medium at all but a natural phenomenon. What kind of stories does this landscape produce. What do people who live here learn from it.

Don’t be afraid to be too small or too big. There is no wrong size of canvas. Short-shorts can teach discipline. Giant multi-volume series can too, but not in the same way. Distill your ideas into tiny vials of concentrate. Let them swoop out all over everything. You are not too ambitious to listen to. You are not too trifling to bother with. If it sounds like it might be nifty, give it a whirl, and then do something else if it doesn’t work. Do something else if it does.

Surround yourself with people who believe in the work. Gentle people. Fierce people. People who ask you dozens of intelligent questions. People who leave you the hell alone and make mashed yams and let you work. People who have read all the same things as you so they know what you’re doing here. People who have read totally different things than you so they can see your blind spots. People who want to get technical. People who see the big picture. Your big picture. Your shared big picture. Your own big picture, just yours.

Ask yourself specific questions about what you need to do this work, about what work you need to do. Sometimes you will end up with vague answers. Keep going. The specific is our friend.

Like the man said, say what you mean, bear witness, iterate. You can interrogate all three of those when you’re figuring out what to write. Is this what I mean? What do I mean? Maybe I need an entire short story to figure out what I mean. Maybe I won’t know at the end of a trilogy. What can I bear witness to? What do I need to bear witness to? What do I see in the world that needs to be framed, noticed, seen? And for the sake of all I love, iterate, iterate, iterate. The world is not what it was a week ago. You are not who you were a week ago. Think it through. Try again. Try tenderly, try roughly, change perspective, change form. Get parallax.

I can’t tell you whether you’ve got this. Maybe you don’t. Maybe I don’t. But trying is a virtue. Trying is what we have. Don’t ever apologize for putting the best of your mind and your heart and your body into trying to make something wonderful in the world that wasn’t there before.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (tiredy)

Last weekend I was at ConFusion in Detroit, which I told you I would be. And it was lovely and I had a great time, hurrah. I will probably want to talk about some things inspired by the panels I was on or witnessed, but that’s in a little bit. Right now I wanted to say: I do not have the passwords to my social media accounts on my laptop, and on my phone I only have the password to my Twitter.

This is deliberate, and I wanted to talk about it this week especially. Not being on Facebook for the weekend of the inauguration was definitely what is known in technical terms as a really great thing. But even if it hadn’t been the inauguration specifically, I find that taking breaks from social media periodically is a good idea. It helps me to see what I might be taking for granted otherwise. It gives me mental space. When I’m traveling, I can’t default to doing the laundry/unloading the dishwasher/checking Slack/taking out the recycling/checking Facebook/etc. I have some separation from all of that. I try to be sparing in my use of Twitter at those times.

This is hard for people in my life to remember. “Did you see the picture of–” No. I didn’t. Because I’m not on social media when I’m traveling. “I really loved X’s post about Y, did you–” No. Not on social media. It’s not up to other people to keep track of my computer quirks. But what their comments do is remind me of how submerged in social media I can be on a regular day. How obvious it is that someone will have seen the picture of and read the post about. Because that’s what we do.

It’s not wrong that that’s what we do. Social media is not bad. But taking it for granted, never taking a moment to asses its role in our lives–well, I can’t think of anything that’s a good plan for.

Maybe if I had kept reading social media all weekend, the sheer volume of political speech going on at the moment would have crept up on me. I’m part of that; I have been more overtly political in public social media in the last year than ever before. But suddenly the Twitter feed that used to be book release/politics/cute dogs/science news/personal yammering is politics/books maybe/politics/politics/politics/oh please give me some cute dogs/politics. Should I curate it differently? Spend less time on it? I don’t know. But whatever the answer is, I should be aware of the shift in balance. I should arrive an answer that is conscious of where and how political energy/focus is expended and not confuse it for happy fluffy things or interactions with friends just because it’s coming through the same channel those used to (and may again).

Occasional breaks help me do that. And for me it helps that they are coincidental: not me sitting down with a schedule and saying, “This is the right time and the right duration,” but chance handing me the opportunity to reevaluate. Maybe it’ll work that way for you. Maybe it won’t. But I think we have a strong cultural bias at the moment that staying up to the minute on news is what smart, engaged people do, and I don’t think it has to be like that for every single minute. Sometimes rest, perspective, and a chance to look for depth are called for.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (thinking)

Every writing problem has an equal and opposite writing problem, right? It’s like Isaac Newton or something. So any time you hear a piece of advice, the opposite is almost certainly also great advice for someone. So let’s talk about one of those: the good enough problem.

There are the perfectionists: nothing they write ever reaches “good enough.” They revise it over and over again and never let anybody see, or never anybody who might do anything with it. Or they don’t revise at all, because everything is so flawed that there’s no point, they might as well try again and look, the new thing needs revision too. Definitely flawed. Might as well scrap it and try again.

And then there’s the other category: the people who don’t want to be told how to revise their piece, they want to be told that it’s good enough already. Just as it is. You may find some of these people at student workshops, but they don’t want to workshop, they want to be the immediate and effortless star of the workshop. They want to show up and have the pros running the workshop say, “This is so amazing, let us shower you with fame and wealth.”

Perfectionism is the enemy of good fiction. So is the conviction that good enough is good enough.

The thing is, if you’re going to ask “is this good enough?”, the question is, for what? Good enough to be published? Well, sure; all sorts of awful things have gotten published. Good enough to be a strong contender for publication? Maybe. Good enough that you’ve done what you can do with the idea with the skills you have right now? Good enough that you learned from it? Good enough that figuring out what to do with it and moving on to the next thing is the best plan? Good enough that it will help you make the next thing better?

If you’re aiming for good enough permanently–if you want it to be a minimum bar you clear–then it can get in the way of aiming for good.

If the only thing that’s good enough is perfect, you’ve given yourself an excuse not to work for better.

And either way you miss the satisfaction of “as good as I can make it for now, and the next thing will be better.” Which is worth finding, whether you’re publishing or not.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (Default)

  1. There’s stuff you don’t have to revise any more when you get past a certain point, because you never mess it up in the first place. That’s convenient if you can get it. Do as many of those as possible. But don’t expect them; they come where they come, and yelling at yourself for not having more of them is counterproductive. Your favorite writer in the world wrote something completely idiotic in the first draft of your favorite book. Really. I promise they did. Ideally they revised it out.

  2. There’s stuff that would have looked impossible when you were newer at this. When someone says, “I’d like you to do more of x, more of y, and more of z, and can you do it in 10% fewer words? Thanks.” Sometimes you look at that and think, “Well, sure, yeah. I see how to do that. That’s only work, no problem.” And you know for a fact that when you were newer at this, less practiced, you would have cried. You would have thought this was ridiculous. Smooth out the pacing, what does that even mean? Does this editor, agent, or critique buddy hate you? I bet they hate you. They just say these things because they hate you. Whereas a few years and a bit of practice and the very same critique suggestion is reasonable. It’s like yoga, when they tell you to breathe into various body parts that are not your nose, sinuses, or lungs, and at first you balk and think, “Ludicrousness right here, what do you mean, breathe into my tailbone, you breathe into your tailbone, lady,” and then after a bit more you’re like, “Oh, breathe into my tailbone.”

  3. And then there’s the stuff that you know better than to attempt. Because you have the experience to know that it’s a bad idea. It looks very much like the stuff in #2, only, y’know, bad. Do more of x, y, and z, in 10% fewer words? You breathe into your tailbone, lady, that is bad for my story and I’m not doing it. Not even belligerently. Just: time for the nope, the calm and rational no thank you, nope. Knowing which reaction goes where and how to implement them: that’s the important part of leveling up.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (Default)

A few weeks ago, when we were having a rash of notable deaths, one of my friends was asking, in her grief, whether it would just be like this from here on out. One of her icons, one of her heroes, after another. And Tim very quietly said to me, “Now would be a great time to start liking the work of artists younger than yourself. Every time is a great time.”

Well: yeah. And the immediate aftermath of a death is not the right time to say it more loudly than that, which is why I waited. But yeah. Because you’re not trying to replace anybody. No one will ever replace the artists of your childhood, the people who inspired you in your teens, those who touched your heart and lifted your mind in the first days you were an adult. Those people are irreplaceable.

But that doesn’t mean you go quietly into a downhill spiral of fewer and fewer artists to love. I think too many people do. The studies show it: most people stop liking new music in their late twenties or early thirties. They stop seeking it out–or maybe they never sought it out, and they stop being in situations where it finds them automatically. I think this is maybe less true on average for books and movies, but still somewhat true: the shape of things you seek out slows down.

And it gets easier to feel like the world is getting worse. Like things are getting sadder, diminishing. But they’re not. There’s more good stuff out there. The kids are not only all right, they can be there so that when the artist who was 30 when you were 15–30 and living hard, 30 and partying all night on the tour bus–turns out to be mortal, as statistically it turns out a great many of us are–there’s the artist who was 15 when you were 30.

And no, they don’t sound the same. They won’t feel like being 17 and having your life ahead of you. They’ll feel like being 37, or 57, or 87. And still choosing to have your life ahead of you.

That’s a pretty good thing to sound like too.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (peeking out)

If for some weird reason you’re feeling extrospective–that’s like me feeling introspective but you’re feeling it about me, right?–my bibliography page is always there. Right now it’s just reverse chronological order. One of the things that is on my to-do list is to get it sortable by story series, story type, etc. so that if you want to read all the stories in one universe, all the fantasy stories, all the stories that play with memory as a trope, whatever, you can do that. But that’s pretty low on my to-do list compared to, like, writing new stories, revising the ones I’ve written, sending them out, crazy stuff like that. (It also tends to get put below “read on couch with dog” so far. One of these days, though. Really.)

So 2015. I don’t want to talk about it publicly on the health front–if you’re a good enough friend that this rings alarm bells, by all means email me, but it is very hard to be both succinct and polite about how 2015 was for me health-wise. Ah, I have the word: disappointing. There we are. But on the writing front: great stuff. I mainly wrote long things–five short stories compared to twenty-two in 2014–but I’m really happy with the long stuff I wrote. Next year should be an interesting mix. I went to the Starry Coast workshop in September, a first for me and a really great experience.  And here’s what I published:

“The Hanged Woman’s Portion,” Not Our Kind, Alliteration Ink Publishing, January 2015.

“Blue Ribbon,” Analog, March 2015.

“Empty Monuments,” co-written with Alec Austin. Insert Title Here [anthology], Fablecroft Publishing, April 2015.

“Out of the Rose Hills,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2015 (Issue #173).

“It Brought Us All Together,” Strange Horizons, 13 July 2015.

“Draft Letter on Research Potential Suggested by Recent Findings in Gnome Genomics,” Evil Girlfriend Media shorts, 13 July 2015.

“Ten Stamps Viewed Under Water,” F&SF, Sep/Oct 2015.

“The Many Media Hypothesis,” Nature Futures, 7 October 2015.

“Human Trials,” co-written with Alec Austin. Abyss and Apex, October 2015.

“Points of Origin,”, 4 November 2015.

That’s seven science fiction stories, three fantasy. Two anthologies, eight magazines. A mix of longer and shorter, within the short story category. Obviously two with Alec and the rest solo. Some of it just romps along, some of it was intensely personal, and you can’t always tell which by the tone. And honestly I’m glad to do both. One of the ways I describe my job is that I make nerds laugh, and I am proud to do that. But I do other things, too, and I’m glad to do them. Even when they make me spend the day the story goes public climbing the walls about how particular people in my life are going to respond.

I started describing some of the stories I’m doing as finding an interesting cliff to jump off and hoping there’s water at the bottom. So far there’s been water. Some of you have been that water for me. Thanks for that. Of course, it encourages me to do more of the same in the year to come, but that’s all right, I think. At least it won’t be boring. It’s never that.

mrissa: (Default)

Gather round, kids of all ages and genders. I’m going to tell you a secret.

The world does not come with a five-star rating system.

Several times lately I have seen people impose the five stars into systems that did not helpfully provide one. As if this is universal. As if this is the natural and right way to interact with the universe. No. No.

Yesterday it rained while I was out running errands, sheets of rain rolling into the river valley off the prairies. It was warm rain for Minnesota in November, though not in absolute terms, when what we deserve was snow, but we’ll take it. We’ll take it. My jeans were plastered to my thighs in less than a minute, my hair soaked through. I almost had to pull over, driving home, because there was so much rain that I couldn’t see two cars in front of me. I crept along through the wet white world.

It was not a five-star rain. It was a glorious rain, a drenching rain, a pounding rain.

Last weekend we heard the Minnesota Orchestra play short Sibelius pieces. The humoresques danced and romped. The Oceanides drew us in with woodwinds. For awhile I did not think of my loved ones who had been hospitalized that day. I thought of the music, of the woods of Finland and the sea and the music. At the end we clapped, and we went home, and there was no button to click for stars.  How many stars?  Five?  Why not more?  Seven, nine?  Ten stars?  Seventeen?

I know, I know–the things that do have the five-star rating system attached are trying to get feedback. Many times they’re trying to get past automated gatekeepers, and that can be a worthy goal. But the things that don’t have that don’t need you to impose it.

Sometimes things are so amazing as to leave you wordless. I know. I spend a lot of time there despite all my chattering. But “five stars” does not convey that. Any time you create a shorthand to try to convey that, it stops working the minute it’s established. For most of the things that matter, you have to get out there and say: this moved me. Or, I have mixed feelings about this.  Or, I was not so sure and then the tarragon flavor really hit me and I was a convert. Or you have to be willing to let people see the stars in your eyes.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (getting by)

There is a curious hollow feeling that comes from sending a draft of novel off to be critiqued.

It has been eating focus, attention, concentration, energy–it has been monopolizing as much brain as is available and then some–and now it is done. Gone. Off to other garner other people’s thoughts. Not productive to fiddle with it any more for awhile, and yet not done either.

I’m doing something new this time. I’m going off for a week at the end of September to participate in a peer workshop–other people who have had either novels or a bunch of short stories published will converge on an undisclosed location, and we will all critique each other’s openings, and then we will do smaller-group in-depth critiques later in the week. (Seriously I’m not sure how undisclosed it’s supposed to be, I just haven’t seen anyone else talking about the details, so I’m staying vague.) I sent them a draft of Itasca Peterson, Wendigo Hunter. And we’ll see how this goes. I don’t know any of these people very well, but their work is cool, so that feels, if anything, even more interesting than if it was a retreat with people who were already close friends. And then I will come home and do critiques of the same work with people I know much better, so parallax is our friend, people, parallax is definitely our friend.

And…this is a thing I honestly love about writing. I really, really love this. If you catch me in the wrong mood, I will wax sentimental and get a little choked up. Because in writing, in speculative fiction in particular, we take it for granted–it is a totally normal thing to do–that we will get to look at other people’s awesome things and help make them a little more awesome. Think about that for a moment. There are some other jobs for which it works that way, sure–for which a project is primarily someone else’s and it is assumed that you will get to take your time and help make it better. But mostly not. Mostly you are either working together on something or you’re not helping.

I like helping.

I like cooperation.

Last weekend we had a marathon crit session for someone in my regular group. We hadn’t met for several months, but there we were, back at it again, here’s what I think the heart of this book is, here’s what I think didn’t quite do what you wanted it to, have a homemade cookie and enhance the emotional core of your creative work.

Isn’t that an awesome thing?

Well, I think it is.

So I am behind on all sorts of things. Like, I have not posted about my story “Ten Stamps Viewed Under Water,” which is in F&SF for Sept/Oct, and I have not posted about Alec’s story either, and I have generally had my head in fierce 11-year-olds who hunt monsters. But honestly that is a great place to have my head, and I like it. And also in crits, and I will continue to have my head there for awhile.

And also I get to write short stories now, and you can’t imagine how excited I am. Maybe you can. But honestly I am one of those people who likes to write rather than liking to have written, so it was less “Yay book done” and more “Yay get to write stories now whew.”

Except for having to take days off sometimes. That’s still a thing.

But yeah. A curious hollow feeling. And a love of cooperation. That’s where we are right now. Hi.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (writing everywhere)

One of the things that came up with the Fourth Street writers’ seminar is that some people have taken it multiple times. It’s intended to be a beginners’ seminar, but it covers different things each year, and also people “begin” at different rates, so there’s no rule against doing so. And I think that in general this is a good thing, that people are themselves the best judges of what continues to be useful for them, possibly with some nudges from friends and family who know them well.

But it actually highlighted something for me: that one of the important things about trying to get better at writing–and this is definitely a place where writing is like everything else–is distinguishing when you’re doing something that is forming a practice or forming a rut. “Practice” is key for most skills–this is where the truisms about “you have to write a million words of crap” come in, or the idea of ten thousand hours of practice before you get good at something. But some things are better repeated than others. Professional musicians will play scales or chord progressions all their careers–you’ll hear scales in warmups if you go to the symphony before the concert starts. But what you won’t hear is “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” repeated over and over. Not every repetition is useful repetition.

So…how do we tell the difference between cumulative knowledge/skills and pointless repetition? I think one of the ways to figure it out is to be very specific when we ask ourselves, “How am I improving because of this practice? What skills/knowledge will it bring or sharpen?” Young musicians play scales because their instructors tell them to; more mature musicians play scales because they know that being able to run with quick control through those sequences of notes will be useful in a variety of pieces. (And this is why you don’t see, for example, guitarists who are mostly “rhythm”/chord guitarists playing a lot of scales: because it’s not nearly as valuable for the kinds of chord progressions they’re playing as it would be if they were playing melodies on the guitar.) Be specific and precise. “It will be good for my writing” can easily be cover for “I’m in this habit, and I’m not sure what else to do.”

The other important question, of course, is, “Is this practice getting me the improvement I want to see?” Say that you’ve been attending a particular seminar or discussion with the same set of other writers for years. Is your writing improving as you discuss things with them? Can you point to insights and skills that they’ve helped you with? If so, great! If not, perhaps what you’re getting from them is not “write better descriptions” or “improve pacing” but rather “hang out with friends in atmosphere of camaraderie” or “pass on ideas and skills to people newer than self.” Which are great things to get!–as long as you recognize that you need to do something additional to get the boost you want in description, pacing, etc. Different people learn and improve from all sorts of different input–it’s good to keep tabs on what you’re actually managing to accomplish vs. what you’re trying to do–in writing as in all things.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

All about

Jun. 23rd, 2015 02:30 pm
mrissa: (Default)

A couple of times in the last few months, I’ve had reason to say something like, “Sometimes things not being all about us are the worst, honestly.” Because I have had multiple friends and relations who are helping others deal with really bad things, and they have needed to hear it. So I thought I’d put it here, where other people could see it too.

A few months back there was an essay going around about how support needs to flow towards the person or people most affected by something bad. And I think that’s true and good. It’s just…hard to remember sometimes, when you’re watching the person who is most affected, that you’re allowed to need things from “outer ring” people too. It’s easy to get caught up in reminding yourself that it’s not all about you–and really, it’s not. But it’s a little bit about you. If you’re watching a parent writhe in agony, if you’re listening to a friend’s tears about something you can’t fix–that legitimately is hard on you. Even though it’s hardER on them. And it’s really important to be able to turn to somebody and say, “Well, that could have gone better.”

Sometimes the ritual reminder that it’s not all about you is usefully centering. It refreshes your patience and your perspective. But sometimes it minimizes that you, too, are having some pretty bad experiences in this general area. Sometimes it shuts down the conversation you’re currently having from including sympathy and/or brainstorming for how to make things easier for you. Sometimes it’s really, really okay if the things that are not all about you are just a little tiny bit about you.

Also, hang in there.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (thinking)

So I kind of take for granted that everybody has little weird games their brains will go on auto-pilot and play if they’re standing in line at the post office without a book or whatever. I’ve talked about these before but not, I think, about this one. And then this morning one of my lj friends linked to this article about the most specific words in popular songs, decade by decade.

Frankly, I don’t think the article is very well done because it isn’t selecting for interesting words, so–for example, “you” is one of the words of the 1990s. But if you look at the line, songs from the 1990s have “you” in the title only marginally more than songs from the 1900s. Things like “Disco” and “Mamba” are interesting but not really surprising, so–I feel like a better methodology could have been found, basically.

But the weird little thing I do sometimes while waiting in line is called “singing to time travelers.” The premise is: how far back can any given song be taken and still be comprehensible to its audience without explanation? Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s “Cuz we’re Cousins” would seem by its sentiments to be pretty human-universal: young cousins sharing things and becoming friends. But one of the verses contains in a single couplet both XBox and DVDs, meaning that if you tried to time travel with it to even a decade before its 2009 release date, you’d have some explaining to do–even more so if you traveled earlier than the 1980s, where the more general concepts of a game console and a home method of playing recorded movies on a TV screen would be less familiar. On the other hand, John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” is on my list of darn near universal songs: as long as you’re in a settlement that understands that its landform is not the only landform, you’re good to go. (Different cultures might assume different things about the singers than the culture in which Denver wrote it, but that’s part of the fun.)

It’s kind of fun to notice which songs require which things. You think you’ve got a solid ballad concept for the ages, and then you notice that it leans on astronomical concepts like the moon having a generally-dark side. Or you get to thinking about what isn’t actually universal but feels that way from here: the existence of streets is a big one. Windows and mirrors–and the idea that everyone has windows, everyone has mirrors, not just rich people. Folk music seems like it should be a rich vein of songs for singing to time travelers, but in fact folk music often talks about very specific transportation technologies, specific ways of making a living with their own terminology and technology, etc. Also this can turn into a game of “which thing predated which other thing,” which is good nerdy fun. I’m particularly glad I shared this game with Mark and Tim so that we can be driving down the road and blurt out, “domestication of herd animals!” or “Christian era!” in the middle of a perfectly nice song that isn’t really about that. So I thought I’d share with the rest of you too.

Also I want you to be prepared. I would hate for you to be catapulted back to 825 with magical translation powers and yet nothing to sing.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (Default)

Today I’m wearing the shirt I bought when my grandpa was dying.

There are drawbacks to having a very sticky memory, and this is one of them: Grandpa died six years ago, and I have never once worn this shirt without thinking of the circumstances of its purchase. It’s a lovely bottle green, it’s a fabulous color for me, the fabric is soft…but it is permanently the shirt that I bought when my grandpa was dying.

I sometimes think that after six years I should stop having this lurching vertiginous feeling every time we do something with my side of the family and I’m in charge of making the reservations or buying the tickets or whatever. Every time–every single time–I have a horrible moment of conviction that I have reserved (or bought or whatever) the wrong number. And my brain doesn’t forget at those times. It’s not that I have moments of thinking Grandpa is still alive. Because what I invariably think is, “Where’s Grandpa going to sit?” So the thing in my brain that lurches like that knows that it’s Grandpa missing. But it happens every time, and it’s not tied to a number. My brain knows that we are different numbers at different times. We’re just…always one less than we’re supposed to be, whether we’re four or five or six or seven or…I don’t know, it could get up to seven billion, I suppose, and it’s still seven billion but no seat reserved for Grandpa.

I hate the second week of March.

And it’s not just Grandpa; Gran died on the same day as he did. I have this sense of doom every March. It’s good to keep an eye on that sort of thing so that you don’t mistake it for actual knowledge, and I’ve had this same sense of doom last year and the year before and so on, with no actual doom attached. My dark forebodings should not be reinforced with confirmation bias. The people I love who are going through tough medical things are not any likelier to have a hard time because of my feelings about early March.

Still and all. I am always glad when we get through this bit.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (examine)

I was singing “Accentuate the Positive” this afternoon, because I am clinging rather stubbornly to this as a theme this week, and also because we watched “LA Confidential” with my workout. (I love that movie, and Alec had never seen it.) And then I got to a line that’s always bothered me.

To illustrate my last remark: Jonah and the whale, Noah and the ark!

Okay, no. Jonah may be the single worst figure in the western tradition–religious, historical, literary–that the songwriter could have chosen for this line. This is just a terrible line. Jonah? Is one of the Bible’s great whiners. If you open the Bible to a random page, you will find someone who accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative better than Jonah. Go ahead, do it. “And there they found the Moabites, who were pasturing their goats–” And the subtext, friends, is that both Moabites and goats were making a great deal less fuss about the whole thing than Jonah would have. “Joseph in the jail.” “Isaac on the stone.” Literally any figure in the Bible. Job on the dung heap, though I haven’t made that scan yet: still more of a positive thinker than ol’ Jonah.

Ending up in the whale is not just one of those things that could happen to any of us, like having to get your milk from Hell or your significant other dying and getting turned into the Moon. Jonah gets swallowed by the whale (Leviathan, whatevs) for very specific reasons in that Bible story, and it’s because he won’t stop lipping off to God about how he doesn’t waaaaant to go prophesy in Niiiiiineveh.

And it’s not like “whale” is needed to make the rhyme work. The things that rhyme in this verse are remark, ark, dark. So literally anything that goes DAH dah Dah dah DAH would have fit just fine. You need a stinger and two iambs, which is just about the easiest thing to find in English, and you need them to be more positive than Jonah, which is just about the easiest thing to find in Western cultural references.

For example, may I suggest “Brutus and the knife”? He was certainly taking a more proactive approach to his problems “when everything looked so dark” than running from them and whining and pitching fits at God, which is where Jonah was at the whale portion of that story. But people remember what Brutus did with the knife, and Jonah…well, we’re just supposed to remember that there was something something whale. You cannot trust scansion, people! Scansion is a cruel, false mistress!

I still do not advocate messing with Mr. In-Between. Let no one take this post as favoring messing with Mr. In-Between. I just had to get the thing about Jonah off my chest. It’s the sort of thing I know a lot of you think about, and I needed to let you know you weren’t alone.

Okay, so probably not. But you might now! And my work is done.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (Default)

There is a blog I like to read that tells funny stories, personal stories, about the blogger’s own life, but about every third entry the blogger does something that makes me wince on her behalf. Before the main subject of the post, she goes into Sad Godzilla Mode, stomping all over her own internal Tokyo with her mascara running, thrashing around destroying the buildings and roaring, “Not perfect! not perfect!” before she can start telling the story she wants to tell. She covers the blog post with disclaimers about how she doesn’t have a perfect life–quite often adding, “not like those bloggers you see” and then a list of the attributes of Perfect Life Bloggers.

And the thing about perfectionists–I know because I am one, and I used to be even more of one–is that telling her, hey, you don’t have to do that, it’s better when you don’t do that will just make her more self-conscious, not actually make her feel better about herself. There is no way to frame this as a far-outsider that will make her feel like she doesn’t have to be perfect. She has to come to that idea on her own, because anybody else introducing it–at least from as far outside her life as I am–will sound like “we have already realized that you suck, and here is another way that you suck: you write your blog posts badly,” not like, “hey, perfection is not a thing that exists in humans, so let’s move on without the disclaimers and hear about where your kid put the peanut butter; that’s what we’re all here for.” I would love to say, “No one reads a blog post and thinks, ‘that person is perfect, their life is perfect,'” but in fact this blogger’s comments are proof that some people do cherish that illusion about others, and flagellate themselves with it. It’s just…most of the rest of us don’t. Most of the rest of us get it. We’re all just doing the best we can, and hey, today the dog was cuddly because she got a haircut and the weather turned, woo. Or today something funny happened in the Ikea elevator when I was there to have lunch with my aunt and uncle. Or whatever. Onwards with today. That is what we’re all doing, glossy photos or not. We are all doing the onwards with today thing.

This is actually why I have started trying to avoid the opportunities to tell my favorite new college student How To College. She will college just fine. She will screw some things up, not because there is something wrong with her but because we all screw things up, and she is in a time in her life when everyone is telling her How To College, as a subset of everyone telling her How To Her. And so when she asks for my thoughts because I actually know something she wants to hear, okay, but otherwise, I am trying to mention thoughts like, hey, I love you and I believe in you, and otherwise thoughts like, I thought this picture Tim took was cool. Here is a video link I liked. Etc. In Hard to Change, Meg Hutchinson sings the line, “don’t wanna make the same mistakes that my parents did,” and once in concert she talked about how her father called her to say, don’t worry, honey, you’ll make your own mistakes. And I think that can be hard from the older side, thinking, well, I’ve made these mistakes, I should be able to stop my younger friends, my children or grandchildren or nieces or nephews or godchildren or whoever, from making them. But there’s a line between the sensible teaching and the overadvising, and the overadvising just feeds into the Sad Godzilla that lives inside many of us. I don’t want my favorite new college student to spend her first year at college feeding Sad Godzilla. I don’t want to be a force in her life pushing her towards thinking about what she’s doing that’s not perfect. I want to be a force in her life encouraging her to think about what she thinks is awesome.

This week I started a class in Scandinavian Woodcarving. I knew I would not be perfect at it. If I was aiming for perfect, I would never have taken it, because I was guaranteed to start out vastly, vastly imperfect. As it turned out, I started out even more imperfect than I had hoped, requiring five stitches, so we’ll see if the vertigo meds induce too much neuropathy for me to do this or if I can work around it. But it’s the sort of thing that can’t arise if the question is, “What would my life have in it to be more perfect?” The question has to be, “What might be awesome? Can we try that and see?” And then iterate. Get better or try something else, or both. Not perfect. Not perfect. Yes. Dreams don’t come in perfect. Let’s hear about what might find room for awesome after Sad Godzilla is done with the flattening.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (andshe'soff)

The light has changed. The temperatures are not really any cooler yet than they have been on average this cool summer–the highs were in the 80s today–but the light has shifted, this last week or so, and my hindbrain says, yes, fall. Here we are. Fall. We are home.

One of the strange consequences of this is a complete hindbrain unwillingness to wear things without sleeves. This is fine–I have many shirts and dresses with short sleeves that are fine for this weather. I just haven’t noticed it in previous late summers or early falls. It’s…a bit quirky. I reach for a sleeveless dress and it is clearly the wrong thing. Oh, brains. What I really have the urge to wear is my real clothes, tights and sweaters and clogs, but I am willing to wear your summer person drag a bit longer so I don’t roast. Well, sort of. I’m wearing tights* right now, actually, and I wore clogs outside with them. But the sweaters would be a bit much. I do admit that. This part is not new, it’s only the sleeves that are new. The urge to start wearing sweaters early and often is one of those traits that may be either genetic or environmental–hard to tell, because it wears a big ol’ sign reading “MOM.”

*The tights are bright blue and black plaid. You should be impressed with me that I held off wearing them this long, and by this long I mean a full three weeks of August non-tights weather since I bought them. You should be impressed with me that I did not sit down on the floor of Target and put them on right then and there. These tights called my name, people. They said, “Helllooooo, femme person!” And I said, “Present.” And they said, “You will wear us every time we are clean until it is cold enough that you only want to wear SmartWool. SEARCH YOUR FEELINGS YOU KNOW IT TO BE TRUE.” And I said, “Why do you not have siblings in maroon-and-black and hunter-green-and-black and purple-and-grey also?” And they said, “You are an only child, too, so stop quibbling and give the person a surprisingly reasonable number of your American cash dollars.” So I did, and here we are.

Another strange consequence of the change of the light is that the farmer’s market has plenty of parking again. It’s like the minute it’s not Officially Summer, people think there are no more vegetables? Or something? Half the food trucks packed up and left, too, so it was actually mostly the vegetables. It was the people selling things you cook, instead of things they’ve already cooked. I bought the king of daikons. This daikon will not fit in our fridge straight-on. I have to tilt it diagonally to get it in our fridge. You should not try a home invasion here (in general because it is very rude and also illegal but particularly now) because we have this daikon and we haven’t cut it up yet. It’s still an entirely feasible bludgeoning weapon. It cost $1 and had a luxuriant crown of leaves I had to cut off so it wouldn’t take up even more of the fridge. This daikon, people. I got tomatoes and corn and peppers and two kinds of long beans and all manner of goodness, but this daikon: it is a prodigy. For $1.

Yes, I am frivolous today.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (question)

My dear friend Michael Merriam asked me to take part in a Writing Process Blog Tour. He answered these questions about process last week, and next week some more of my friends will answer them.

1) What am I working on?

When I told Michael about a week, week and a half, ago that I’d answer these questions, I thought, boy, that’ll be an interesting one, I can’t wait to read the answer and find out! At the moment, I’m worldbuilding and plot-building like crazy on several novel projects, waiting to see which one shakes out to be the next novel I write. Probably the strongest contender at the moment is Wielding the Stars, which has a giant jeweled magical orrery and riots and rebellion and fire and flood and…actually not flood I think. Hmm. We may have to go back to the flood later. (This is not to be confused with going back to the Flood later.) It also has load-bearing mythic bears, which are sort of getting to be a thing for me. But I could do any of a number of other things. That number might be five. Unless it’s not. Really, it’s quite a lot of possible projects, and the thing is, the one that jumps out and grabs me might not even exist yet. Novels are like that.

The thing I’m actually working on in any focused way is a short story called “Drifting Like Leaves, Falling Like Acorns,” which has some vets with PTSD who have been given little genetically engineered soothing psychoactive companion frogs. It also has quite a lot of rain and jurisdictional disputes. It is science fiction unless it is fantasy. This is a problem because my filing system for unsold stories calls for them to be put in folders labeled “SF” or “Fantasy,” so I do, but the postnuclear fantasy series I just guess. I could be wrong. I’m just the author, you don’t have to listen to me.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Mine has a giant jeweled magical orrery. And genetically engineered psychoactive soothing companion frogs. Like that. Stuff.

Also I have more grandparents in my work than most people. I have more old people in general.

When asked to talk about theme or political concerns, I tend to curl up in a ball and emit disgruntled noises, so let’s focus on the frogs, shall we?

3) Why do I write what I do?

Because if I sing it instead, my voice gets tired, and I get squeamish about things under my fingernails, so sculpture is right out.

Because I have trained my brain to poke at things, and then I feed it all kinds of input, and this is what comes out. I was kidding above with the singing, except not entirely kidding, because what happens when I have bits of story that I don’t get to write down is that I sort of hum them under my breath, I sort of live with them and hum them, and they nag at me, and so I write them down. There is a thing about habit-formation and that is that once you have formed the habit, that is the habit you get.

Also this is the stuff I like. I don’t get to write all the stuff I like, because I like quite a lot of stuff, as you will notice if you read my book posts. But honestly I like this kind of stuff quite a bit. It makes me happy. I think it is good for me to think around corners about things, and I think it is good for other people too, but I don’t write medicine, I write things I like.

4) How does your writing process work?

As far as other people are concerned, the interesting part of this answer seems to be “non-sequentially.” I get bits and pieces of scene and start writing down the bits I know. I accrete more and more bits I know until there is enough to make a whole story of whatever length. I work from the “incredible disappearing outline” theory, deleting the bits of notes as I write the actual scenes that correspond to them. This is the same for long and short and very very short.

Oh, and there’s the bit in the middle of long things where I get lost and have to spread it all out and think about it a great deal and realize I forgot to plan something crucial when I was doing all the planning, so then I have to figure that out. It would be nice if this was not actually part of the process every time, but sometimes a bit of realism is called for in describing one’s process.

Tune in next week to hear from the following interesting people on their own blogs:

Alec Austin is a game designer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s worked as a nuclear reactor operator and media researcher, and has published a D&D adventure and articles in addition to over a dozen pieces of short fiction. His most recent publication, written with Marissa Lingen, is “The Young Necromancer’s Guide to Re-Capitation” in On Spec, by which you can discern that his work is uplifting and full of good cheer. He’s currently working on a science fiction novel. He can be found at

Mary Alexandra Agner writes of dead women, telescopes, and secrets. Her latest book of poetry is The Scientific Method; her stories appear in Oomph and the Journal of Unlikely Cryptography. She makes her home halfway up Spring Hill. She can be found online at

Merrie Haskell says of herself: “I write for all ages. My first book, THE PRINCESS CURSE, was a Junior Library Guild Selection in 2011, and was nominated for a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature in 2013. My second MG novel, HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS, won the Schneider Family Book Award (Middle Grades) in 2014. THE CASTLE BEHIND THORNS, also a Junior Library Guild Selection, comes out in June 2014. My short fiction for adults has appeared in NATURE, ASIMOV’S and so forth.” She can be found at

mrissa: (getting by)

I have been trying to find a way to say this that will not make the wrong people–which is really pretty much anyone–feel like I am guilt-tripping them.

I am pretty short of social/chatty email these days except for a very small number of the most usual suspects. While things may have turned a corner in terms of getting adjusted to this med, I am still not to the point where things are what one might call “good” or more to the point “highly functional and able to do things like drive and arrange for social outings and stuff.” So if you are a friend of mine and find that you have the time/energy for social/chatty email, that would be a good and useful thing to do. I would appreciate it.

This is the sort of request that is very hard to phrase for two reasons. The first is that I really, really do not want to nag or guilt-trip. Really. The second is that when you ask something like this and then do not get it, that is not always easy. And I have had the “I would like to hear from you more”/”yes I could do that” conversation with a couple of friends in the past and then not heard from them more, like, at all, and that was with individuals who knew that I was talking to them specifically and personally; a more general request is deliberately not meant to be a burden on anyone (anyone! really!) and yet leaves open the possibility that everyone will be unable to do an email blathering about what they read or what they are thinking about ancient Greek wind instruments or what line of paint color names they have thought of next, and will hope that someone else will take their turn at being helpful.

Still. Things have gotten enough better that I can say that this is a thing that might help make this next bit a little less rough. So I am saying.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (writing everywhere)

I’m still working on revisions. I have two kinds of writing process. This kind is cooking. The other kind is gardening.

When I’m cooking, I have one project that I am working on, and I will work on it until it is done, and most of the work (vast majority) I am doing goes towards it. I will still sometimes open a file and write notes or even sometimes complete scenes on another project, so that I don’t lose those ideas (/complete scenes). Sometimes when I’m working on a novel, I write short stories in the middle of it. The longer it takes to write a novel, the more likely it is that I’ll write short stories in the middle of it. The longer it takes to write a particular short story, the more likely it is that I’ll write another short story in the middle of it. Or a novel. Things happen. But when I’m cooking, I might do bits of side project–I might finish chopping the rest of the broccoli that I’m not using in this particular stir-fry, so that it’s ready next time I want broccoli–but I’m not going to start cutting things up for stir-fry and suddenly find that I have chopped everything in the kitchen. Cooking is about knowing the task and working steadily towards the end of the task, which is the meal. Yum.

When I’m gardening, I’m not writing any less, but it’s less focused. I will write a thousand words on one idea and a thousand words on another. Sometimes less–sometimes it’ll be 500 words on a project, or 200. For some people this is a really bad sign. It means that you’re completely unfocused, that you will never get stuff done, that you’re just noodling around with things and enjoying the idea of being a writer without ever finishing anything. At this point I think I can stop worrying about that. I have the assurance from long experience that while some stories never reach the point where they get finished, many to most of the stories that I work on this way do. Most of the stuff I work on in “gardening” mode gets to the point where it’s ready to be “cooked”–it reaches a critical mass where I’m ready to just work on it until it’s done. So it’s not actually something I should feel bad about. It’s not pointless, it’s practice. It’s weeding, tending the soil, picking off aphids. Keeping the whole garden growing.

The weird thing about how I’ve been writing lately–other than the fact that it’s been a lot for months now–is that I haven’t been having to tell myself not to stress about what comes next. That’s…totally unlike me. It’s totally unlike me in general, and it’s not like I am going through a period of less stressing/fussing just now in particular. (Hahahaha no. Seriously, um, no. Nearly everyone who has vertigo ends up with at least some degree of anxiety, and I’ll tell you why. Because it is somewhere on the spectrum from stressful to producing of clinical anxiety to not have a reliable sense of the vertical and to fall over and stuff. Seriously, just on a physical level: your body wants a vertical. And to not fall over, and to not throw up, and stuff. Your body has opinions on that stuff. If you haven’t had vertigo problems, your body might not have made them known. But trust me, they’re there.)

So anyway: it’s not like I’ve generally become a more laid-back, chill person. I’m just…feeling like, yep, there will be a thing that I write next, and nope, I don’t have to be absolutely certain whether it’s Wielding the Stars or King of Flowers, King of the Sea or The Winter Wars or something else on the list or something I think up tomorrow in the shower. A few years back I was asking people to remind me that I didn’t have to figure out what book to write next, and apparently that’s become an automatic function for the time being. Which: cool, okay, plenty else to worry about, thanks, brain. The part of me that can’t resist poking things with a stick is kind of going, “But…why are we…?” But never mind, that part! We’re fine. We will write something else next. It’ll be fun. So okay then.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (thinking)

Lots of my friends talk about skills that each writer gets “for free”–things they’re naturally good at. Well, what I am not naturally good at is describing setting. For quite some time, everything I wrote at any longish length had among its first critiques “needs more setting,” “describe more setting!,” etc. Well, if every time you make stew, everybody says, “needs more salt,” at some point you really have to think of adding salt to your stew earlier in the process.

(Exception is if you disagree and think salt would make it worse. But just as food is cooked to be eaten, stories are written to be read, so–you at least think about the salt.)

Problem: there is not a shaker labeled “setting descriptors” sitting by my desk. The first thing I tried, a couple of books ago, was to set things in a location that was very vivid for me. This did not work at all–I still heard the same crits and still had to go back and fix setting stuff in revisions. The second thing is how most advice gets ladled out in fiction writing: the “just do it” method. Just–be better at this! (Seriously, this is how writers give advice 90% of the time. “Do this! Make it come out this way! Do not make it come out this other way!” Most common version: “Just put your butt in the chair and write!” Timprov has often commented that if standard writing advice was applied to running, no one would ever have developed Couch-to-5K, they’d just stand over the couch shouting, “Run a marathon! Run a marathon now! Just put your shoes on and run a marathon!”) And that worked…about as well as you’d expect, which is to say not at all.

So with The Spy from Atlantis I tried an actual plan. You will be amazed to hear that this worked better. Very, very early on in the writing process I started thinking about setting and the specific locations that each scene would take place in. Then I sat down and wrote settingy stuff for those scenes first. Sometimes it was just a few lines, sometimes a paragraph or more, but, for example, when the protag was going to join her crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister in said sister’s room for some crazy mad science magic, I did not let myself run along with what they were doing until after I had put down some thoughts about what a crazy mad scientist magician genius little sister’s room would look like. (And smell like and those other setting things. But I have noticed that if I put in what things smell like, people gloss over it and still tell me I need more setting, rather than extrapolating all the important stuff from scent like sensible people.)

Bottom line: this worked. Nobody started raving about my lush setting descriptions and how they were the most amazing setting that ever had set. This was not the goal. The goal was to get the setting stuff to the point where it would get other people where they needed to be with the story. I will probably never be a setting-focused writer (sorry, Kev), but actively putting off settingy people is also not my goal. So: putting the thing I’m working on first, before the stuff that’s more natural. That actually worked. It will be interesting to see whether it becomes more ingrained that way or whether I always find that I need to sit down and Do Setting Stuff Dammit.

I don’t know if this would work for other areas of weakness, but it’s worth thinking about. More to the point, I like it when other people talk about improving their writing in specific concrete terms, because overcoming the “just–do that thing! do it well!” culture is important. So I thought I’d share it with you.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

mrissa: (question)

I have been shuffling and snozzling around the house this week with the cold my sister-in-law’s family had at Christmas, and I’m also at a point of increasing vertigo, with which the head congestion is not helping in the least. So naturally it seemed like the perfect time to talk about what I want to read when I’m different kinds of sick.

With a cold like this, when my head feels thick and stupid, I do not want a big chewy piece of nonfiction–in fact, I set aside the one I was reading when I came down with it and will go back to it later, because if there is ever a time for not trying to keep track of the Soviet takeover of various Polish community groups, it’s when you’re blowing your nose every five seconds. In contrast, when the vertigo is moderately bad, there is nothing for it like trying to keep track of things like that. Thick chewy nonfiction (that will last and not make me get up to get more) is just the thing for that kind of sick.

Moderately high fever sick calls for very vivid books. I read Sean Stewart’s Galveston with a moderately high fever, and honestly I recommend this course of action. It was quite good that way. (I checked later. It’s also good healthy.)

When the vertigo is catastrophically bad–when my work-arounds are not enough to work and I can’t do anythingreally–the right kind of books are rereads, because Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan and Mervyn Bunter hold still when the world will not.

But this kind of miserable dragging-on cold, with some vertigo, the best thing for this kind of sick is books by authors whose other works I have enjoyed, and not highly complicated ones, either. Much though I was enchanted by Aurorarama, I am leaving Luminous Chaos for when I feel better and will apprehend it properly. One of you lovely people sent me some Dodie Smith novels, and they have been just perfect. Mystery series would do beautifully, which reminds me of an email I should send, but things for which I have to go to the library are not really useful at the moment. So: rereads and known authors, not too horribly complicated but enough to be engaging. That’s where I am now.

What do you want to read when you’re sick?

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

July 2017

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