The Ages of my Protagonists

It occurred to me as I was working on my WIP (work in progress) this last week that there is a way in which I am rewriting the same stories with the same central stories that I wrote when I was a teenager: who am I going to be in the world and how am I going to help the world change?
Back then, a quarter century ago, I was just starting to get glimpses of the injustice in the world, contextualizing my own wounds within the power structures  of my society, and raging about why the world wasn’t a better place.
Truth? I’m still screaming and asking that in everything I write, and most my protags are teenagers, because that’s the moment, I think, when you choose to spend your life trying to change the world or not. Oddly, I’ve also been writing some adult main characters lately, and they are all super-old immortals. I have a guess this is because I find myself at this moment in life of feeling both really old and really young, but not, you know, my actual own middle age.

Six Things for when You are Stuck in the Murky Middle

Did  you have the most fantastic idea for a book and now you are 30,000 words in and staring longingly at the ending and wondering how the heck you are going to get there? Here are some things that might help.

  1. Go on a walk without a phone or any device except a pen and paper. State to yourself, in as simple terms as possible, the problem of what you are stuck on. Example: Casey and Allison need to get back into the city and get caught. How do they get into the city and how do they get caught? Think about your questions hard for the first five minutes of your walk, and then let it go and enjoy the great outdoors, smell flowers, and stop for some coffee. Drink coffee and scribble out some notes. I almost always get the answer to my questions at some time on these walks.
  2. Tell someone about the place in the story you are stuck. Tell them they have to listen to all your ranting and then, when you are done, they are only allowed to ask questions.
  3. Write down six different things that could solve your problem. Don’t worry if they would all be terrible. Write down a seventh one. Stare at it. Now doodle all over your paper. It’s fine if it’s phallic: that happens. Then crumple up and the paper and throw it in the trash and then take it out again, if you want.
  4. Think of the most complex way to solve the problem of your story. This may include guns. Think of the easiest. This may include people being way kinder than they would ever be in real life. Think of the weirdest way you could solve the problem.
  5. Draw the picture of this part of the story. Map that shit out. It can be a really ugly map. It can be any definition of map you have. It can be the worst map in the world.
  6. Write a love letter to this part of your book about all the things you’d like it to do and if this letter ends up looking like a serial killer wrote it that is totally not a problem for the book but it might be a problem for you but let’s not worry about that right now.

Good luck!

Things you should Read

Or I mean, two books I’ve read recently and loved.

Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak.
Isn’t that a beautiful title. My 5 y.o. asked me what I was reading and when I told her, she repeated the title all day long as she twirled around. The book lives up to the great title, and is magical, interesting, and strange. Thoroughly enjoyed this young adult book.

Shadowshifter by Daniel Jose Older
Daniel, are you a secret super spy who invaded my subconscious and plucked all the tropes that I love and crammed them into one lovely book? Probably not, but this book has magical murals, a cast of vivid characters not drawn from the white middle class, the real New York, and so much more. Loved it.

Heroes and the Rest of Us

A friend of mine, who I have never met in real space/time but a friend nonetheless who has done whip-smart editing for me and is generally a great person in the writerly sphere, has written a book I am wild to read. It’s called “Stay Crazy,” and it’s out now from Apex Press. Why am I so excited? First, this blurb:

“Had Philip K. Dick lived through riot grrrl and the collapse of the America’s industrial economy, STAY CRAZY would be his memoir. Erica Satifka is a prophet.”
—Nick Mamatas, author of SENSATION and I AM PROVIDENCE

Nick, another friend, never ever says a word he doesn’t mean, and if he likes a book, I’m generally in. And did you notice the PKD and Riot Grrl reference? Those are two things I will always want to read. Aside from this book being wildly well suited to some things I specifically love, there is another huge reason I can’t wait to read it.

There is am issue in books and the narratives we tell each other in who gets to be the hero? The prince? Or maybe the princess, or if we are being really wild maybe the commoner girl with a plucky heart of gold. For those of us who tell stories, we know heroes are tricky business because you want the reader to identify with the main character, and so the fall out of that is that heroes and protagonist often only come in a very narrow band of race, class, culture, country, gender, and disability. People are working on that, of course. Lots of amazing writers are working on that.  “Stay Crazy” is working on that, too.

See, the protagonist in Stay Crazy is Emmeline Kalberg, who was institutionalized after having a breakdown. She has the kind of mental illness that is hard to understand with hallucinations and a lifelong illness in front of her. Our society stigmatizes Schizophrenia in a huge way, and often imagines if someone hear’s voices they are one step away from axe murdering someone. Trust me on this one, as someone who has worked in community mental health for over fifteen years. Being psychotic makes people suspicious of you at best, and imagine you are villainous and need to be locked up at worst. But in this book? Emmeline Kalberg gets to be an awesome, complex, and worthy hero driving this story that is not centered around the fact that she is mentally ill, but is about her being human, working at a mall, and having troubles with aliens.

I can’t wait to read it. You can buy it here.

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Working on Clifi in the Unseasonable Heat

I have been delving into this young adult climate fiction first draft which is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. It’s a book that’s been brewing like the dankest coffee in the percolator at the back of my mind for a long time. I love it so much and really want to do it justice. I’ve tried to write it a couple of times and failed because I have had all the ideas but none of the plot. I have the plot now. I have the characters who are delicious hot messes one and all, I even have the setting (though I have yet to pick which small Alaskan town it takes place in.) Ready, set, go!

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Only… the weather has been so delicious lately. Mid 70’s with the wild fecundity that only a rainy city in Spring can pull off. There are literally flower petals swirling through the air that look like snow when it is windy, and beauty holding  her nature pageant in every square inch of this town. The kids, whose event horizon of memory is way shorter than mine, are utterly marvelling in the sunshine and the growing world, because for them, it’s their first spring, really, because the other ones were so long ago. And even though this isn’t my first rodeo, it feels like the sun on my skin is a new things. Which it is. April in the Pacific Northwest should be mucky, wet, and still gray. Whatever this weather is, it isn’t normal. We broke the record for the warmest day in April in 122 years. We break records, like everywhere else, every year and humans, we really need to be doing something, a lot of things about this. Maybe I should write a book about it….

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A Great Writing Workshop

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop taught by Jack Skillingsted and Nancy Kress over the weekend about “Writing in Scenes”. Nancy is renowned in SFF-land as being a gifted teacher, and Jack should be as well (as far as I know, he has done less of it). It was the excellent kind of workshop that balanced advice, concrete craft knowledge, great exercises, and lots of insightful asides that I doubt made it into their workshop notes but really enriched the day. The Clarion West One-day class (which, full disclosure, I am the administrator for), had a range of writers in different parts of their writing lives, and that got me thinking about how writing, in this deep way, never reaches a point where you stop learning. I think that is one of the intangible rewards of writing or doing any art: it is something you can sink into, give your all to, and never get bored of. It is also, of course, something that drives me bananas about writing. In any case, here were some things from the workshop that I found super useful:

1. The tension spine: Jack had this brilliant way of describing plot as this spine of tension that runs through the skeleton of your book, ever rising until the climax. As someone who can get really hung up the nine step method and the three acts and the heroes journey (etcetera to infinity) this was a more useful metaphor for me. Also, I am working (so hard!) on having more tightly plotted stories, so this was an excellent tool for evaluating my works in progress.

2. How important beginnings are: I know this, you know this, your mom knows this, but also it’s really good to remember that for a short story editor, you have maybe three paragraphs to catch their attention. For a book editor, maybe three pages. Polish and rework and polish and is it amazing yet? Make it even more amazing.

3. Sharpen your sentences: One of the delicious parts of reading is coming across fresh metaphors that crystallize some hidden meaning you’ve never been able to talk about. The job of the writer is to delight and engage the reader, and this can and should happen on the sentence level.

4. Sharpen your paragraphs and scenes: A scene works best when it has a good combination of dialogue, exposition, thoughts, and action. Get all that in there and make it awesome. Easy? No. Good idea? Yes.

And for any writers who are reading this and wondering if writing workshops, either short or long, are worth the cost, from my experience they can really shorten some of the time you spend bumbling through the woods on your writer’s journey, but at the same time if you don’t have the funds or time or convenience of geography, they are not fundamental to writing.

More Things to Read

It will shock precisely no one when I say that I read a lot of books, sometimes two or three at a time. In the past three years I’ve been on the Andre Norton Award jury, which means I’ve been tasked with reading a glorious amount of teen speculative fiction. It was amazing and extremely informative about what kinds of narratives are being published right now and what kind of books drive me bananas in all the right ways. Anyway, I’m done and having a YA palate cleanse (though I’ll be back, rather soon I expect) and reading widely. It turns out there is a whole world of books that aren’t about the trials and tribulations of being a teenager in the middle of the apocolypse/multiverse/troubled utopia. Who knew?

Usually, I come to books with some knowledge about what kind of books they are and what people think of them, but I’ve been entirely grabbing random books from the little free libraries that populate my neighborhood and seeing what I find.

Some gems!

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1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

So, why didn’t everyone tell me to read this when it came out? It’s so good, and circus tales are deeply in my wheelhouse. It’s fascinating, from a writer’s perspective, how much every character’s inner life is left off the page and this evokes that wonderful reading experience where it lives as much on the page as in my head. Wildly delicious.

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2. Fanny at Chez Panisse by Alice Waters

Charming, charming, no one is shocked that Alice Waters is charming, right? But this is such a tidy book told from a little kid’s perspective about restaurant life and a love of food. I loved reading it and I’m looking forward to reading it to my kids when they are older. Really loved that child’s sense of wonder about how food is made, how bread works, and the love of garlic. Also, such a score at the free library. Thanks, neighbors.

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3. Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

I’m in the middle of this one, but liking it a lot. This is not my first rodeo with Mr. Kay, and I’m enjoying dipping back into his writing which I find lush and romantic in ways that work for me. Historical fantasy can be a hard sell for me because then I’m left wondering about true histories and wishing I was less of a fiction hound and would just read a brick on the Byzantine Empire, but this one feels well researched and immersive.

Happy reading to all, and hope you are finding great books as you wander around the world.

 

 

Right Livelihood

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I was just listening to Rachel Maddow’s podcast and wow is she a geek about elections. Politics and what you think of her slant of things aside, she is living some right livelihood. She is a huge and ecstatic nerd about all the beltway and campaigning minutiae, and her excitement is infectious. You can almost imagine her being that kid from Wet Hot American Summer spending all summer doing a radio show even when the mic isn’t plugged into anything.

I also happen to watch a lot of Curious George episodes (don’t judge) and one of the surprising and joyous aspects of it is that everyone from the doorman to the scientists to the restaurant workers are utterly gonzo about their jobs and love whatever it is they do. The show imagines and presents to kids this reality where all people love what they do and no one is denigrated for their labor. It’s a bit of a quiet utopia that I adore and wish was more prevalent in the real world.

Today I got to take a long walk on a rare sunny day through the quietness of my South Seattle neighborhood full of all kinds of small beauties and crumbly houses next to brand new ones. Spring was budding out and popping up everywhere, and I ended up at this Mexican bakery run by a family that flawlessly makes tamales, quiche, bagels, and flan. I got an excellent almond croissant and settled into a corner with my laptop and a scene from the urban fantasy series I’m working on which I might describe in three words as “Modern Medusa Mayhem” though that leaves out all the devils in my details. I wrote fast and hard as I do whenever I get to have a walk before writing: it somehow helps my subconscious even if I’m not thinking about my story. I had some excellent ideas that had that ineffable feeling of being true, which is odd since I’m obviously making it all up. Then I walked home and stepped into my other kind of mayhem which is the happy chaos of my family and all the pushing and pulling and meeting needs or not which happen on any given day.

All of which is to say I’m so lucky to have my right livelihood which is wrapped up in a lot of levels of both privilege and sacrifice, and I hope whoever might be reading this has a right livelihood too, or is on their journey to getting there.

All Quiet on the Sparrow Front

I haven’t been posting much on this site because I have been having some technical difficulties. But, all things seemed to be solved so please to be expecting some exciting posts in the near future about writing, books, writing books, and other human related activities.

Parenting and Productivity

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(Obligatory cute picture of the first kid and me.)

I wrote a guest blog over at Kiki Cares about being a parent and getting stuff done:

http://kikicares.com/2016/01/04/parenting-and-productivity/

And here’s what I wrote:

First off, thanks to Kiki for letting me do a guest blog on her lovely site! I had the pleasure of talking with her about nannying and loving kids over this Christmas break, and it struck me what deep and profound work it is taking care of little ones, whether you are a parent, a nanny, or someone else important to a child. Today, I wanted to say a couple of things from the parent side of life.

Before I had kids, I thought parents were such drama queens. I thought they were like those kids in high school  who loved to go on and on about how they’d only had two hours of sleep last night and oh my gosh, my life is so hectic and exciting. I felt sure parents were like that. It couldn’t really be that hard, right?

Then I had a kid and realized, holy hell, those parents were underselling it. My days filled up from dawn to dusk with the exhilarating, tedious, and lucky work of getting to be with my kid.  And then I had another one and that wall of work? It just got more frenetic and full and have I mentioned I love being a parent? But it is also the most difficult thing I have ever done, especially because while I get to be a stay-at-home parent, it is not the only work I do. I also do fundraising for a non-profit, am the administrator for a monthly writer’s workshop, and write a lot of young adult and adult fiction. It’s a great plate and a full plate.

What I have learned in the last five years of doing all this? What I want to tell you, and what I want to tell myself? We are not going to get everything done.

We just aren’t. Every day I have things I want to do that I don’t get done, and sometimes that thing should be so easy, like taking a bath, but it just doesn’t happen.

I want to frame any of these moments not as a failure, but the truth of life at this moment. And life at the moment is a bit messy, definitely chaotic, and has more heart and laughter than ever before.

So, here’s what I think we should do. Make a list of all the things we aren’t getting to. Super fun, right? But go ahead and make the list and put every damn thing on it small and big.

Look at this list. Sigh at this list. Blow kisses at this list and the idea it embodies of an organized and gentile life. Then look at your kids and make yourself cross three things off that list. Three things you are not going to care about and are vowing to not get done. Things for today, or the week, or the month that you are not even going to try to tackle.

Then go play with your kids. Crawl around on your floor while you all play the “magical unicorns who can turn into other animal and now we are crabs and now we are kittens” game, or whatever ridiculous and fun thing your kids want to do. Because in the span of your life? The kids will be grown soon and you can get back to all your things. So if you can, if you are able, right here and now? Let things slip and slide. Let them get messy and stay messy even if it drives you a little mad. Forget to send out holiday cards. Let your hair grow long and frumpy. Build that duplo tower that goes all the way to the ceiling and when they knock it down? Laugh and start all over again.

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(Obligatory cute picture of the youngest and me.)