Tag Archives: writing

Invisible Fences

I want to talk a little bit about going to SFF conventions and workshops. The first workshop I ever went to, my dear friend Camille told me, “There are a lot of people here who’ve known each other for a long time. They are excited to see each other and hang out. They aren’t exclusive, but it doesn’t occur to them to actively include or invite new people in. But if you go up to people and introduce yourself, they will welcome you.”

That is some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

autumn leaves swirly fence

When I first started exploring the SFF communities, I knew no one. I felt like no one. I thought everyone knew each other and didn’t want to know me. It turned out I was wrong. I started by going to small, one-day writing workshops, where I connected with one or two people. Over time, they introduced me to more people. I got braver. I started to feel like MAYBE I belonged. I listened to the advice not to self-reject. I kept working on my writing, I kept applying to workshops, and then last year I got accepted to Viable Paradise.

Last weekend I was at a small convention in Minneapolis. The main draw for me was to reconnect with the friends I’d made last fall. Suddenly I had switched sides of the invisible fence. I didn’t realize it, until it was pointed out. There were people who were new to the community, new to going to conventions, and they were feeling like I used to feel.

I try to remember Camille’s advice, especially since I’m on the other side. I look for people hanging on the edges and try to invite them in. If you are new to cons, most people are there because they want to connect. If they don’t want to connect, they won’t be in public spaces.

Now that I’m further inside/know more people, I try to remember what it felt like to be new. I don’t feel like I have more wisdom or knowledge, even though on some level I do. I understand that the more visible a person is, the more they attract new people who are hungry to know how they got there.

So here’s my advice:

  • Feel free to approach people in public spaces
  • Listen and get a feel for the people or person
  • Do not chase them if they get up to leave. They probably have a reason. I know an editor who had a writer pass her a manuscript under a bathroom stall.
  • If you know people, and there are new folks, try to invite them to join you. Or introduce one new person to someone you know. Or introduce yourself to a new person.
  • I am an extrovert. I don’t have social anxiety. Even for me, it can be scary and intimidating to talk to someone new. I often feel awkward and am certain everyone can see my tentacles quivering. I think most people feel this way. Or at least, I tell myself that.
  • If you don’t have anything to say, THAT IS OKAY. Don’t feel like you have to talk if you aren’t ready.
  • The first workshop I went to, I made a goal to talk to ONE PERSON. Over a three-day period. I did it. Courage is rewarded.
  • If you don’t find the people you are looking for in one place, KEEP TRYING. It took me years to build the community I have now. I didn’t find them all in one place. I had to look in many places, and not the places I expected to.
  • You will get many chances. It’s not a one-and-done. If you are feeling discouraged, try again.
  • One thing that has helped me is finding other writers on Twitter. When I know someone I’ve met on Twitter is going to be somewhere in real life, I like to ask if I can say hi and chat with them in person.
  • There are lots of ways to do something, and you ultimately have to figure out the way that is best for you. If it’s a buddy system, do that! There are people you will find something in common with, and there are people who you won’t connect with.
  • If you are an old hat, or know more than three people at a con, try to remember what it felt like when you first started going.

What strategies have worked for you? What would you wish there was more of?

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On Paradise, Viable and Otherwise

Several friends have asked me about my experience at Viable Paradise. I wanted to write up something while the experience was still fresh.

Martha's Vineyard

I first found out about VP from my friend Camille Griep. I had been looking for my writing people for a long time when I finally found Camille. She told me about the workshop, and then over the next few years I met more people who had also attended Viable Paradise. All of them, to a person, were kind and supportive and encouraging. If they had egos, I couldn’t tell. This, more than anything, was a huge selling point for me. I have been working very hard to cultivate people who are focused on their own passions and who support and encourage others to do so. That is the sign of a healthy community in my book.

I sent in my application two days before the deadline and found out I got in two weeks later. I was so used to rejections I made my girlfriend read the email out loud. Maybe something about writing could be easy.

Thanks to the magic that is The Internet, I got to connect with several of my fellow workshop participants before I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, not to mention meeting two in person, one who also lives in Seattle.

I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard the day before the workshop was scheduled. The weather was delightful and my roommate turned out to be amazing. We got to explore the tiny Victorian houses and get to know one another, learning among other things that despite our two-decade age difference, we both love They Might Be Giants and Queen. Even if everyone at the workshop wasn’t my people, I had at least added another one to my network of support.

Victorian panorama

The structure of the workshop is fairly straightforward. Participants spend the first three days critiquing works they submitted for their application and receiving feedback. There are lectures and other activities to supplement the learning. The students spanned four decades in age and came from as close as Martha’s Vineyard and as far as Hawaii. Other years have seen international students.

And to my relief and gratitude, the experience I had at Viable Paradise exceeded my expectations. Everyone – staff, instructors, and fellow participants – were kind and generous. I was impressed by the level of self-awareness people had, how much work everyone did, and how we all cheered for one another. If someone needed to be alone, they could do so. When I wanted company, likewise, I could easily find someone to hang out with.

One thing that was really impressive to me was the harassment policy. Several times I saw staff say they felt uncomfortable and the person crossing the line reeled it back. I think I’m so used to just feeling uncomfortable at times that it hadn’t even occurred to me I could say something. This created an environment that felt incredibly supportive to me. No one had to guess when they were crossing the line, but at the same time, people did make an attempt to be respectful.

fall color: reflection

Each person I talked to, I found an affinity with – whether it was tea, octopi, librarianship, or a story someone had been looking for for years (hi Val!), we had so many intersections and overlaps I found myself agog. And thanks to the internet, we get to continue our connection as we go forward.

Aside from the community, I got very helpful feedback on my work, and as soon as I figure out how to revise my story to incorporate the feedback, I will be sending it back out for another round before I start sending it out to paying markets.

In conclusion, I crossed over water and spent a week on an island where I simmered in liminal time. When crossed back over, I felt a subtle shift. I have been told there are things I learned in that week that won’t make sense for years. I believe it. In the meantime, I will continue to apply myself to my writing. And if you have been looking for a workshop, I encourage you to apply to Viable Paradise. What do you have to lose?

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Writing Queer Characters

There have been a lot of conversations in the last few years about diversity, inclusion, and representation in fiction. I have followed along with a lot of interest, in part because I want to see pieces of myself reflected in stories – whether queer, Jewish, female, identical twin, femme, tea drinker, you get the idea, etc.

For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to focus on representing sexuality that is non-heteronormative. If nothing is explicitly stated or said in the text, the reader will assume the characters are straight. (And white. And cisgendered.) The question for many writers who want to represent these characters, then, is how to describe or show their characters are queer without it feeling artificial to the reader.

There are two points I want to make here:

1. How to show a character is LGBT
2. How their sexuality relates to the plot

glowing dahlia

Showing the character is LGBT

You might be tempted to just state it directly. A friend allowed me to use this example from their WIP. Your protagonist enters a room and catalogs the people. They see your gay character, who they also know is gay. They say, “Clearly, Juan and Bob are in a relationship,” without giving any additional information. It’s clear to that character, but it’s not clear to the reader. What is it about any couple that indicates they are in a relationship? How do you show that to the reader? What if they were in an opposite-sex relationship? Without having the characters engage in sex, here are a couple of ways I could think off the top of my head: they wear matching wedding bands, they are holding hands, they mention how they met/their first date/their anniversary/their wedding in conversation.

Also, where they stand in relation to one another will tell the reader a lot about their relationship and/or personalities – are they close in private but won’t stand within five feet in public? Are there societal things that make that kind of behavior normal, or is that just the personality of the characters (could be both).

Finally, the attitudes towards the queer characters will tell the reader a lot about the society in your book. Are all forms of sexual orientation equally valued? Are some accepted and others not? This will inform how your characters behave in public versus private, and an individual character’s opinion and judgment about those characters will tell the reader a lot about them.
Last weekend I went to a restaurant for lunch. It had a very long bar. I noticed two women sitting next to each other. The one to the right had her arms stretched out on either side of her, resting on the seatbacks of the chairs. It was a very possessive posture, and it let me know that the two women were a couple.

Here’s an exercise: go to a restaurant in your area. Watch the people and how they interact with each other. See if you can figure out who is in an intimate relationship. What are the cues they are giving? Is it different for same-sex couples than opposite-sex couples? Are there cues that a single person is sending that tells you what their sexuality might be?

Sexuality as a plot point

I have been having this conversation a lot, so I figured I would write it up. It’s very common to read a story or see a movie where the character’s sexuality moves the plot along. The one most people are probably familiar with is the coming out story, where the moment of reveal is the climax, and then the character is punished because of their sexuality.

The movie Carol defies this trope this incredibly well. It’s set in the ‘50s, when American society was less accepting and there were laws against being gay. The titular character, Carol, is married to a man, but has affairs with women. She meets a young woman and tries to run away with her, but her husband sends someone after her. She has a young daughter and is sued for divorce. There are consequences for her due to the cultural context, but the character herself isn’t punished for being queer. She doesn’t feel ashamed or sorry for her sexuality. It is an immutable fact of who she is, just as being blonde or 5’6” tall. This is not to say that everyone’s sexuality is fixed, just that it is for this character.

What I’m trying to get around to is this: your characters will be informed by their sexuality and their social/cultural contexts, but it shouldn’t define them.

I will try to see what resources I can pull together, including a recommended reading list of queer fiction, but that will be in a future post. In the meantime, check out these resources for finding and working with sensitivity readers: Write in the Margins, Writing the Other, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s advice on working with sensitivity readers.

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The Long Con

I’ve been thinking about seduction, falling in love, and the creative process. I keep thinking there are multiple strands I have to weave together, threads to embroider, knots to untangle, but it turns out there aren’t.

I’ve written about distractions before, so I’m not going to spend time on that. I’m just going to say it’s easy to get pulled away from the things I want to focus on – to a point. And that is what I want to talk about.

Heart birds

For the last several months I’ve been tweeting a good night/morning message. Last night it was: “good night existentialists. Good morning absurdists.” I do this because it amuses me. There’s no reward. Sometimes one or two people will respond. Mostly I feel like it just gets lobbed into cyberspace. It’s enough for me that a couple of people here and there seem to like it. I probably ignore a ton of stuff or don’t let the creator know necessarily that I liked something they did. I don’t take it personally that I don’t get much feedback.

It’s easy to get discouraged, to think no one cares, but it matters less and less to me as I let myself fall in love with the work. I feel the pull of the creative process and I’m resisting it less.

This is to say that a slow, steady, persistent effort turns into something else. Recently I had a few friends tell me how much they like these tweets. Individually they don’t stand up to scrutiny, but together, they’ve turned into something else. A little ritual. It’s something I love doing. And even though it might seem like no one else is noticing the effort, it turns out when I raise my head up out of the sand, they are.

There is a second part to this immersion: valuing what you love. I think it’s easy to get distracted when I don’t think what I want to spend my time on is worthy. Over the course of a year there was construction going on across the street from the yoga studio where I practice. I went to a morning yoga class, three times a week. The construction noise was constant. At the beginning of class, I would notice all the banging and clanging, but by the end, I had become so absorbed in my effort that all the noise faded away. It didn’t even bother me in savasana.

Having had this experience, I know I can create the same kind of focused effort in other areas, in areas that I care about. I just want to make a note that I’m not discussing the financial component of making art in this post. I will probably get there one day, but I’m not to that point right now.

Part of my effort this year is enjoying the seduction, and not just in the passive “oh look you brought me flowers and chocolates and wine” way, but bringing myself as an active participant in the process. So I’m doing what I love, and not worrying if anyone else will love it or not. Because just like the tweets, the truth is, there probably are people out there who will.

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Submit

A couple of years ago I started selecting a word as my theme for the year, rather than doing resolutions (which are fraught for many reasons that most of you know). I like to choose verbs, because they remind me to take action. I like to treat the word like a mantra or meditation focus. It’s something I can return to, again and again, without labeling myself as a failure. Our attention wanders. It’s natural.

century plant with bloom

For 2014 the word was return. For 2015, it was try.

I was thinking last week what I wanted it to be for 2016. I was listening to The Moth podcast, and Dan Kennedy shared some resolutions that listeners felt were particularly potent. One was, “fail more.” Given how much time I’ve spend pondering failure on this blog, I thought I would focus on that.

So for 2016, the word is submit. I particularly like Merriam-Webster’s definition.

: to give (a document, proposal, piece of writing, etc.) to someone so that it can be considered or approved

: to stop trying to fight or resist something : to agree to do or accept something that you have been resisting or opposing

I like that there are multiple meanings. Amongst my writer friends, the first meaning will probably the one that comes to mind. And I like the second meaning: to stop resisting and give in. In this case, even though I know I want to write and be published, I resist it. In addition, I can bring the words from the last two years along. Return. Try. Submit.

2016 is going to be about giving in even further to what I want. What do you want for 2016?

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Questions To Ask This Writer

In June, Brenna posted 10 questions never to ask a writer.

I’ve been meaning to write a response, and well, because I’m a turtle, here I am a month later. I wanted to write 10 questions I love being asked. Or, well, we’ll see how many questions I get to. I have a slight aversion to the listicle format. So it might be 10 questions. It might be 5. Brenna also posted 10 questions to ask.

Dahlia

If you run into me at a party, or on the bus, or in the cafe, here are some questions you might try asking:

  1. Who are your favorite writers? The ones who open my mind in a hundred new directions, starting with Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula LeGuin, and Nicola Griffith. If you want more current names, go check out my Goodreads account.
  2. What kind of stories do you write? Not in terms of genre, because apparently what I think counts as within a genre others don’t.
  3. What inspires you? This is waaay better than “where do you get your ideas.” Who knows where ideas come from. The idea market.
  4. What book are you recommending right now? Why thank you, I thought you’d never ask. Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley is phenomenal. It’s about two young women in the south dealing with the impact of desegregation. Also, Letters to Zell by my friend Camille Griep. It’s a retelling of the fairy tale princesses, investigating love and what it means to stray from the story lines that have been plotted for us.
  5. What do you think of going to conventions? Nevermind. I lied. I don’t want to answer that question.
  6. How do you find community and support for your writing? For me, it’s been a slow process. I tried in my twenties and didn’t find people, so I gave up for a while. Then I tried again in my thirties and got closer, but still not close enough. My most recent attempt has been far more fruitful, although I have a feeling this is going to be life-long process. There are tremendous people I’ve met on Twitter in particular, but going to workshops, going to cons, and going to local readings have helped me feel less alone, too.
  7. How’s your writing going? Brenna said she doesn’t like this question, but I like it. I’ve specifically told my friends to ask me, because it helps me. I don’t use it to self-flagellate, as I know many artists do. It’s like a reality check. Am I writing? Yes. Then the writing is going well. Or even if it’s going frustratingly, it’s still good, because I’m making the effort and trying.
  8. What can I make you for dinner? Seriously? That’s so sweet that you offered. Do you clean houses and do laundry, too?

Okay, I made it to eight. That’s as arbitrary as ten. And that’s what I got for you for now.

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On distractions

Sundial

I talked to my therapist today about what enables good writing for me. What it boils down to is not letting my mind get pulled by the distractions. And wooo buddy are there ALWAYS distractions.

This is why I chose return as my theme for 2014.

I chose to focus on writing for ONE HOUR this afternoon. Just one hour. Just after I’d turned the timer on, I swear to everything holy a car alarm started going off. I had to laugh. I could let myself be distracted by the car alarm, or I could choose to focus on what I wanted.

Here’s what I want: I want to immerse myself in the world and characters I’m creating. I remembered what I wanted. And every time the fucking car alarm went off again (because oh, it did), I heard as a reminder to return to my focus.

I’m grateful for the years of practice I’ve had at meditation. I’ve learned that every moment is an opportunity to return to what I want to focus on. I don’t have to shame myself for getting distracted. I can just return. And so I do.

What are you choosing to focus on these days?

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Clarion West: A Love Letter

I’ve known about Clarion West since I first heard of Nicola Griffith. I’m going to say close to 20 years now. For those of you who don’t know, Clarion West offers a 6-week residential writing program for emerging speculative fiction (sci-fi/fantasy/??) writers in Seattle.

Squid canoe

A few years ago, Clarion West also started offering one-day workshops in Seattle on specific topics. I screwed up my courage and signed up for one. It was on how to create a plot, something I desperately needed. I sat in a room with about 20 other people, and while I sat there, I discovered something. I was a writer. I’ve always wanted to write. But more importantly, I’d found my tribe.

I was recently asked for my impression on my experience at the workshops. Here’s what I said:

I have attended nearly half a dozen of the Clarion West One-Day Writer’s workshops. While each workshop has focused on a different aspect of writing, I’ve taken away lessons that have improved my writing. I’ve met and befriended fellow writers. I’ve found support.

I’ve attended other types of writing classes, and the workshops offered by Clarion West are without peer. Most of the workshops have offered a mix of lecture and hands-on, giving me the opportunity to try out what is being taught, in the moment. They are often collaborative, with each writer offering his or her own experience as well as the instructor offering theirs. We have the opportunity not only to learn from the “expert,” but to learn from the other students. I’ve been able to share my own work and get feedback, which has increased my comfort with receiving critiques on my work in other arenas.

Overall, I’ve found that attending the One-Day Workshops has strengthened my writing, bolstered my confidence, provided me with a new and supportive group, and expanded my sense of what is possible with my writing.

It’s through Clarion West that I met Camille Griep, who has become a stalwart support for me. Last year, through the write-a-thon! I met GG Silverman, another fantastic comrade. I befriended Karina, and she befriended me. Three powerful women who inspire me and encourage me, in all my silly, weird, and wacky ways.

Last year I wrote a blog post about the power of story and the danger of a single story. In the past year, I’ve explored more about the mono myth and become curious about the heroine’s journey.

I think Rebecca Solnit captures what I’m trying to say here in her book, The Faraway Nearby:

We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller. Those ex-virgins who died were inside the sultan’s story; Scheherazade, like a working-class hero, seized control of the means of production and talked her way out.

This is the third year I’ve participated in the Write-a-thon. The mono myth has failed me. We all need more stories that show us other ways of being. Please consider sponsoring me and making a donation!

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Writing Process Blog Tour

My good friend Camille Griep tagged me for this one. I have to admit, after reading her answers, I had to take a deep breath and tell myself I’m a writer, too. So, here I am, plunging into the deep end.

For Jill - keep writing

What am I working on?

I feel like this is a two-part question. First, I’m working on learning craft. I’m learning the bones, the tricks, and the various approaches people take to writing and storytelling. I just finished a workshop with Connie Willis. Have you ever taken a class from someone who makes you feel like a genius? Well, that’s how this one was. Now it’s just about applying the lessons. Turns out, that bit’s a little more challenging. So I’m figuring out what the basic pieces are in a story and thinking about them and then trying to write them.

As for actual stories? Ah ah hahaaa. Well, I just finished a short story that’s about dust bunnies. I’m waiting for a few more critiques before I start sending it out. I have also been invited by a group of women I met on Twitter to participate in a Weird West compendium, so there’s that story. And then there’s the novel with the character of my heart. I’m on my second attempt at this story, and I’m not really sure where to go with it. I might have to rewind a little bit and make some different decisions.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

This question couldn’t have come along at a better moment. I was thinking of writing a blog post about this, but instead, I’ll just answer it here. One of the things that drives me batty is that the overwhelming majority of stories for LGBT folk are either coming out stories, and/or, the LGBT character is depressed/suicidal/comic relief/evil killer. I like to write stories with happy queer characters, living their lives. Coming out stories are important, but we need stories that address life after coming out – like, happily ever after. Fairies can have their tales, too.

Why do I write what I do?

Because I want to see myself reflected in the stories that are out in the world. And to the previous question, that is rare. Somewhere deep in my narcissistic soul, I also hope that my stories will resonate for someone else. I write to expose my silly, weird ideas. And I write to have fun! I’m interested in exposing and exploring truths through humor. It’s a sneaky way to get someone to let down their guard and relax enough to consider other ways of thinking about the world.

How does my writing process work?

Oh, I’m so glad you asked! This is the part where I quiet the doubting voices. I’m still stumbling and fumbling in the dark, working to discover what my process is. With each iteration, I gain more clarity. Sometimes I start with a character, sometimes it’s an event. From there, I .. get lost, try to figure out what the story is, noodle, force myself to write something, and then try to make something resembling an actual story from the wreckage. It isn’t pretty.

Thank you so much, Camille, for inviting me to participate in the blog tour. I’m handing the baton over to my Spider Overlord, G.G. Silverman. She has a YA novel coming out, Vegan Teenage Zombie Huntress, and I will be first in line to buy it!

Also, if anyone else wants to participate, I would LOVE to hear your answers to these questions. Don’t wait to be tagged. Break the rules! They’re only guidelines.

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The Heroine’s Journey

strong woman

Last weekend I attended Norwescon, a local convention for fans of science fiction and fantasy. It was the first time I’d been to something like this, and I had an incredible weekend.

One of the best panels I attended was on “The Heroine’s Journey.” I’ve spent the last several years thinking about stories and story structure, specifically women’s stories, so I was curious to hear what the panelists thought about the heroine’s journey.( 1 2 3)

They started with a discussion about the hero’s journey (aka “monomyth”), which has been well documented by Joseph Campbell and others. From there, the discussion went into how the heroine’s journey and experience differed from the hero’s. Here are the primary points I took away:

  • The hero is externally focused.
  • He rises to meet an external challenge or “call to adventure,” through which he proves himself.
  • He returns home at the end of the story, changed and stronger than when he left.

For the heroine, these were the main themes I took away:

  • The heroine is embodied. She has physical experiences that inform who she is (e.g. menstruation, pregnancy). This resonates strongly for me, but what does it mean for people who can’t menstruate/get pregnant (i.e. not limited to but definitely including queer and trans folks)?
  • The heroine knows herself in relation to others. She is often defined bye her relation to others.
  • The heroine is told to hide or suppress her power in order to make others (i.e. men) comfortable and/or to feel powerful (e.g. Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie or Samantha in Bewitched.
  • The heroine’s journey is generally understood to be internal, in opposition to the hero’s. Her challenge, then, is to understand and identify her power, to figure out who she is while in relation to others, and to integrate these concepts into a fully integrated whole.

In addition to these differences, I think the mono myth is problematic. It doesn’t consider that not all people have the same experience. I’m totally curious about finding other stories and structures that represent our diversity and richness as human beings.

Would love to hear your thoughts. How do these concepts resonate with your own experience? What fits? What chafes? What would it mean for a man to take the heroine’s journey? How do trans* and queer people fit with these kinds of narratives? How do socio-economic class, social standing, race, religion, country of origin, etc. challenge and/or support these narratives? What kind of narratives do you think the world is missing and what do we need more of?

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Notes:

  1. I want to make clear that I’m talking about people who are socialized as female in Western culture. I also think there is a need to include queer and trans folks in this discussion.
  2. Panelists: Nisi Shawl (M), Susan DeFreitas, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Karen Kincy, Stina Leicht, Cassandra Clarke
  3. Why I Hate Strong Female Characters