How to Not Know a Novel

When I was a kid, I was always writing books. None of them were ever much over two hundred and fifty pages and the first one, something about a dog, a dog thief and a girl named Jenn (hey, that’s me) written at nine years old, was twenty pages (totally still a novel). But by age thirteen or fourteen I had four book-shaped things, plus numerous projects started and never finished. In ninth grade or tenth grade I watched The Matrix for the first time. Two hours after I finished the film I started writing a book about dreams and reality. It was first called Puzzle and last called The Dream Tree. In the space of eight years, I started to rewrite it seven times and rewrote it fully for my undergrad senior project. Then I rewrote it a third time and edited that draft from 95k words down to 48k, which was probably a little drastic. After all that, you’d think I’d have learned something. But I didn’t know how to write a novel before Puzzle, I didn’t know how write one during Puzzle and I still didn’t know how after The Dream Tree.

Somewhere during the time that Puzzle became The Dream Tree, the author Karina Cooper told me to escape. Run away. Stop. Just stop beating the horse dead in the rain.(She didn’t say that, exactly; she was nicer. But let’s be brutal here.) I listened, but not really, and continued wasting my time.Compulsion is strong in me and I have a hard time letting go even when I know I need to. But it wasn’t just a matter of writing this one book over and over. When I was a kid, everything was a novel. Every idea was worth tens of thousands of words.

I don’t know why, maybe because books were it. They were big. They were better because of their greater gravity. But actually, I think it’s because they were all I knew. I didn’t read poetry or short fiction as a child, not unless it was mandatory for school, in which case of course I did (remember my compulsive compulsion?). But even though novels were all I read, I didn’t actually know a thing about them. I knew, sort of, how to read them. I definitely knew how get high on them. I wrote them start to finish, but not very well. Of course, I thought I knew them, but the further I got from them, the more I realized that, no matter how close we’d been, I hadn’t known a thing. I listened, but didn’t engage.

A month after moving to Montana, I finished that third full draft of The Dream Tree and finally listened to Karina Cooper’s good advice.I finished my 47k wordhack, realized the book was broken. I don’t think I’ve opened that file since. I read The Melancholy of Mechagirl and At the Mouth of the River of Bees, two collections that were pivotal. I started writing more short fiction and joined a writer’s group, were I met Richard, a friend full of snark and wordlove, who told me that applying to MFA programs was a shitty idea, because I already had a voice and stories, and that I knew what I needed to do to figure the rest out. Once again, I didn’t listen. His advice was good, but I think that this time I made the right decision. I ended up in a Master’s program of folklore and it’s both good and upsetting. I finished my first year in June. I don’t think I’ve ever been further from novels than during those nine months. All I wanted to do was write stories. Instead, I wrote papers and annotated bibliographies. We were long-distance lovers, novels and I (especially bad because I hate phones and it was all one-sided, anyway), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them clearer than in my first year of grad school. Distance does wonders. (Side note: Richard’s amazeballs–he’ll appreciate that word–The Flood Girls is due out from Simon and Schuster February 2016. Fuck yeah. If you’re reading this Richard, I want an ARC, hahaha.)

When I moved from Montana to Oregon to begin my folklore degree I was deep into a sword and sorcery novel about wormholes and magpies and revenge. I reached 65k words before the term started. I haven’t looked at the manuscript since. I spent the fall, winter and spring reading and writing about foxes, studying Swedish, philology, cosmogony, eschatology, and some of the stuff in between. The only novels I read were during a fiction seminar I took from the university’s MFA program and The Blue Fox, excusable because it was vulpine and relevant. I read probably a couple novel’s worth of fanfiction–sometimes when I had a little down time, but mostly when I had absolutely no time–but no intentional books.

Then summer came and I was supposed to be jobbing, and researching and reading for my terminal thesis project, which I did and am doing. But I got desperate. I read The Republic of Thieves when I was supposed to be reading Convergence Culture. I read The Name of the Wind instead of Marvels and Tales, 2015 (Vol. 29) No. 1, SPECIAL ISSUE: Queer(ing) Fairy Tales. When I wasn’t misbehaving, I did read plenty for my thesis, including Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook, which I think is what really did it. I read Wonderbook parallel to the Lynch and Rothfuss, and while I fried chicken and burritos and jo jos and yet more chicken at Safeway’s deli, I thought about writing books. I’d enjoyed Republic, but Name made me want to write (and just read, forever). But in between reading Le Guin’s Cheek By Jowl for pleasure by way of my annotated bibliography, pretend-coding a database and writing my prospectus, I didn’t actually have much time left for writing. But it turns out that frying chicken leaves you with plenty of time for thinking.

I thought about Wonderbook. I thought about The Name of the Wind. I thought about what was wrong with my magpie book. I thought a lot about wanting to write a book, but I couldn’t think of an idea wide enough and intense enough for a novel. I had ideas, sure, but were they book ideas? Before, when I was a kid, when I was in high school, when I was an undergrad, they would have been, but I wasn’t so sure anymore.

As a kid, I thought about plot and imagery. Plot because I knew that’s what stories are all about*, imagery because Tolkien. This time, I thought about character. Every time I wanted to know how the tale was going to finish, I wrenched my thoughts back to who, and the whys that defined the whos. I thought about many characters, but the ones that stuck were the ones with stories thick enough around them to warrant novels. And it was the around that really got me. I stopped thinking linearly. I thought about what came before and after the pivot point of character, not the story I wanted to write on them. I started with that seed, sure, but I didn’t cling to it. I considered the possibilities.

And that’s what’s most important, I think. I stopped flogging the horse. (It’s still raining, obviously, because I need rain for story writing, and because it’s been smoky and hot in Oregon and if I can’t get it anywhere else, I need rain in my head.) Before, I could recognize when a plot line or scene wasn’t working. So I’d rethink the scene, seeking the key that would make it work. But there’s not always a key, not when all you’re dealing with is brainplay (which is both it’s wonder and its bane). Reading Wonderbook made me realize that I was just trying to unbreak something rather than finish the break and kill it completely. And I understand why I stuck with that method for so long and will probably always have to remind myself that it’s not the only way–beheadings are hard work. Spinal cords are tough. But rather than reviving a scene back to shambling life, I’ve started to wonder what else works. What are my options that have nothing to do with the broken thing at hand? What can I do that’s completely other, unexpected, unplanned? How quickly can I give up a thing and be okay with it?

I think it’s working. After almost a year of knowing I have books in me, but not knowing what they were, I now have a trilogy and two novels to write. Maybe one, two or five of them will fail. But all I know right now is that I’m procrastinating on my thesis not because I’m subscribed to every single Buzzfeed channel on youtube, but because I’m writing.

I’ll be honest: compulsion still dogs me. I still think about The Dream Tree. I haven’t let it go, not completely. There’s something compelling about Fel, Kit and Jiiki, the book’s three main characters–I’m not relinquishing them yet. Their stories aren’t dead–but I don’t think they’re novels, either. There’s an exercise somewhere in Wonderbook, and maybe I keep thinking about it because it feels like a condolence:

Excise a scene from a trunked novel
Keep the scene, the character
Removing the context
Write something new

There, there, little novel. You aren’t dead yet.

But actually? I don’t think it’s a condolence. I think it’s an acknowledgement. I have good ideas, sometimes, but they don’t always come out right. And that’s okay, but beware: repeats might be treacherous. A rebirth might be better. Or maybe go back to the conception. Different egg, different seed, and when you do get around to squeezing that idea out, find a midwife with steadier hands. (Also, be careful around extended metaphors. [That’s probably my favorite advice from Wonderbook.])

Or burn your ideas. I hear that works, too.

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*the asterisk exists to make note of how little I know

keeping myself alive

Writing and drumming and making things are hooks I hang myself on. These are the things I do. I choose to dangle from their lures. I’m my own bait and, being the narcissistic creature I can’t say I’m not, I will always catch myself. The hunt and its end aren’t always pretty or proper or fruitful, but the blood pattern (art) is always there.

My attachment to art and making is somewhat violent. In the mind. A trot on knife-edge. In my own context only, of course, because my life is pretty great compared to everything, everyone, else, beyond my bubble. My so-called problems are small in the global perspective, and will always be because really, I have no desire for world domination. But I do a lot to keep myself at bay; I’ve learned how to cope with myself.

In the past, I propped myself up with anorexia, and pro-ana imagery and record-keeping, and visceral films like (the original) Oldboy and Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance. I’m not anorexic now, but the possibility of it is never far; sometimes I use it as a threat–against weakness, or lack of control. I don’t doubt that my ability to vice-grip myself is still in here, and if I topple too far, I may just dredge it back up again.

But I didn’t start writing today to talk about anorexia, my constant ghost. I want to write about how I stabilize myself today. In a post a couple weeks ago, Theodora Goss wrote about Staying Healthy as a writer. After reading it, I knew immediately I wanted to react to it with words, because what she said resonated. I figured that, considering how eating and movement and body image and obsession and bull-headedness are all embedded in me forever, considering that I’ve written about anorexia before, about my history with eating in the skin I’m in, maybe it was time I wrote about how I stay healthy now.

First, I need to point out that my relationship with my body and food is, and likely will always be, fucked. Though this is a response to a post called Staying Healthy (a post I love, in case I haven’t said it already), I can’t say my own habits are healthy. I am healthy because of them, and I am–for the most part–comfortable with the structures and rules I’ve made for myself, but the strategies, the constraints, I use are not the best. Then again, I’d probably fall apart with without those bones. I’m feral in those bounds–on my long bikes rides (talking/narrating/burning/panting with myself), in the viscera of my story parts–but surrounding myself with calcified focus is how I survive.

At any rate, it’s better than starvation. And so, this. This is how I cope, as a writer, an artist in general, as a human being.

I think the easiest way to talk about all this is to detail the form of my day. (Note: this is my schedule as of the past three months. Note 2: this schedule will change in a couple weeks, when I start grad school. Maybe I’ll post a re-introspection once things have shifted.)

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MORNING

Usually I’m up at seven. Depends on what time I headed to bed the night before–usually midnight, which means I aim for seven hours of sleep, except on my rest days. On rest days, I sleep till I wake (which typically means I’m up by seven-thirty or eight. What can I say that I haven’t already said? A creature of habit. That’s me). Ultimately, I’d like to always get eight hours a night, but at this point, that’s a pipedream.

I get up, I eat either a slice of soaked (fermented) banana bread (if I’m going on a 20+ mile bike ride) with peanut butter and half a banana, or a piece of this sourdough rye bread (on the days of less extensive exercise). Or some variation of it, plus PB and half a banana.

After eating, exercise. This varies day by day, but my schedule is typically as follows:

  • Sunday: Upper body strength training + some kind of cardio.
  • Monday: Lower body strength training + interval training.
  • Tuesday: Active rest day.
  • Wednesday: Upper body strength training + yoga.
  • Thursday: Long bike ride (20+ miles).
  • Friday: Lower body strength training + interval training.
  • Saturday: Long bike ride (10 to 15-ish miles).

After exercise, more eating–of what I consider to be my breakfast. I have this tendency to mash my food together, so this typically consists of peanut butter, mixed with plain whole milk yoghurt, and sunflower seeds soaked with apple cider vinegar. An apple on the side, or some other fruit–preferably figs, if they’re in season and I’m lucky enough to find them in the 50% off bin at my local market.

MID-MORNING/AFTERNOON

I recently found that I write far faster with pen and paper (2000 words or so in a couple hours, as opposed to struggling all day for a few thousand), so after breakfast, I’ll type up whatever I wrote the previous day.

Then I drum, which consists of speed/muscle memory training, rudiments, learning new songs, and writing for my band. After that, I write half my wordcount-goal for the day (I usually aim for 2000+ in total, per day). Sometimes the drumming happens at night.

Also sometimes, I have lunch. And sometimes not. I’m trying to get better about eating three meals a day, but…it probably only occurs half of the week. It’s a work in progress. On the days I do have lunch, it’s typically protein (cheese, nuts, whatever [usually a combo of animal/biomass-based protein]) + veggies.

At three o’clock, I have a piece of chocolate. Usually it’s homemade (a mashed mixture of bananas, avocado, coconut oil, nuts, and cocoa powder, all poured into a cookie tray, frozen, and cut into daily doses), free of processed sugar, because the only time I eat sugar not in fruit/veggies/etc is on Fridays. (More on this later.)

EVENING/NIGHT

Dinner. Which could be anything, really. One constant: whatever it is, I mix it with greens. Lettuce, kale, spinach, whatever. If it is a leaf, and green, I will chop it and put the rest of my food on top. Basically, my greens are your rice/pasta/whatever you put on or beside your main course. There are good reasons/less good (see: messed up) reasons for this, but suffice to say, this is what I do.

After dinner, maybe a walk. And then more writing/a usually failed attempt to meet my self-assigned wordcount. Sometimes I make it. Sometimes I spend too much time on tumblr/Archive of Our Own and utterly fail. In the end, I can only do what I can do.

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The above varies, of course. Sometimes there are hikes. Sometimes (lots of times) there are shows to go to at night, which usually sees me writing during soundchecks. My eating habits, however, rarely change. My breakfast doesn’t really ever change. Lunch and dinner vary more, but generally, my diet is mostly fruit/vegetables, and protein. I refuse to eat reduced fat products. Almost always whole foods. Minimal processing. Lots of fermented and/or sprouted deliciousness. I don’t eat many grains (nothing against them, I just feel better, less ungainly and bloated, when I stay away), but when I do, they’re almost always lacto-fermented. Or, again, sprouted. Farewell, phytic acid!

The only sugar I eat is the sort that occurs naturally in whole foods (veggies/fruit, mostly), except for Fridays. Fridays are my sugardays. I eat ice-cream. I have honey with my pre-exercise bread, peanut butter, and banana. Plus other, small, things of processed/pure sugar.

And then, sometimes, I break my normalform:

 *Once a month, for one meal, I eat whatever the hel I want as an incentive to cleave to my self-imposed rules. There are more stipulations that accompany this, but I’ll leave it at this for now. Because I tend to repeat myself, the meal usually consists of chocolate-hazelnut granola, dates rolled in oat flour, and some sort of chocolate–all dipped in cashew butter.

Side note: I love the food corralled in my self-imposed rules, so the rules aren’t really synonymous with hardship. Which is probably why my free-meal is really not that different from my usual diet (except the granola).

 *Once a month, restaurant-food. Whatever that may be. Quality and tastiness are really the only requirements.

 *And of course, sometimes, I just break the rules. (Many of you may understand that when I say the rules, I mean me.)

 And…that’s pretty much it. Self-dissection, self-exposure, on display. Nothing more than a chronicle of my daily how-I-stay-alive routine.

Are there better ways to stay alive? Absolutely. Maybe? There’s no perfect way of being; what works best for me, is terrible for you. What’s terrible for me makes you superhuman. Truth: I have this constant urge to just let myself be, to trust my body to know, because on the brain-level, I know my body knows what it needs. But I’ve spent so long telling my body that it doesn’t know, that I know better (question: in this context, who the fuck is I?), that I no longer trust it. I don’t trust myself. I worry that the urge to let go, is just that: the desire to let go, to feast, to embrace excess. (What’s so wrong with that?) But mostly, I think I’m afraid I’ve pushed myself so far out of my context I wouldn’t know what to do to say fuck it all, and eat what/when/as my gut sees fit.

So I wonder: have I lost my instinct, or embraced it? Because I know what I need better than I did in high school. Making myself an exoskeleton to exist in is confining, and yet, it’s my exoskeleton. It fits, and it feels good. In it, I’m strong, and I’m me. It is me. It might be wrong, but so much of me is wrong, so much of everything is, so maybe my structure is healthy, maybe it’s not. All I can do is clench the words of Daniel Gildenlöw, and so many others, between my teeth–I don’t know. I just don’t know–and do my best to survive.

Links? Lynx?

I’ve an accumulation of things from…the beginning in April? I think I’ll do these in a couple of posts, to keep things organized.

First, links on writing:

Fundamentals of Writing the Other Basically, Writing Beyond the Default 101. This is good. Also, lots of Julie Dillon‘s stunning art. (On a side note, she recently won the 2014 Hugo for Best Professional Artist, and is utterly deserving.)

Should White People Write About People of Color Listen to Malinda Lo. JUST LISTEN:

When white writers come to me and ask if it’s OK for them to write about people of color, it seems as if they’re asking for my blessing. I can’t give them my blessing because I don’t speak for other people of color. I only speak for myself, and I have personal stakes in specific kinds of narratives.

It also feels as if they’re asking for a simple answer, and frankly, there is no simple answer. Writing outside your culture is a complicated endeavor that requires extensive research, being aware of your own biases and limitations, and a commitment to delving deeply into the story. However, writing any fiction requires this. There are no shortcuts to writing fiction truthfully and well.

Cultural appropriation (from Aliette de Bodard)

When a writer is perpetuating horrible clichés in the course of their writing, when they’re propagating transparently false ideas of what it means to live in a place and/or a time period… This is cultural appropriation, and it’s bad–and whether said writer meant it or not doesn’t change the fact that they’ve egregiously mangled someone’s culture through lack of care.

Five Common Problems I See in Your Stories Chuck Wendig has smart things to say about doom and dream-teats and eating things made out of paper. And maybe some stuff about writing, too. I don’t know. I read this months ago, so why don’t you go and find out.

now i’m looking in the mirror all the time wondering what she don’t see in me (from Elizabeth Bear) “Everybody deserves stories. ”

And some resources:

Writing with Color What the URL says. Lots of questions, accompanied by good answers.

Diversity Crosscheck Tumlr “This Tumblr is intended as a platform for writers to interact with the very marginalized people they want to write into their stories, in order to minimize stereotyping. Nothing will ever be a 100% perfect portrayal, but this will hopefully open conversations and take us a step in the right direction. Diversify your writing. Don’t be afraid.”

How to Ass-Kick Writer's Terror (plus something about prairie chickens)

Once upon a time (an era that ended just yesterday), I thought writer’s block (for me) was as real as a vat full of squabbling, cosmic prairie chickens.

Of course, now that I’ve given digital birth to the Squabbling Cosmic Prairie Chicken, it is inevitable that it has burst into sudden existence on some (very, very) distant plane that is the physical actualization of our ephemeral internets. And thus, the existence of the Squabbling Cosmic Prairie Chicken proves that there is, after all, some validity to writer’s block. Even I, burbling font of crooked ideas, can come down with the writer’s block.

By the way–have you ever SEEN a prairie chicken? They’re actually pretty fantastical. (First image yanked from Wikipedia. The second wriggled through the fabric of space and placed itself there totally of its own volition).

prairie chicken

(I swear this entry isn’t about chickens.)

I misinterpreted writer’s block. (Again, this is my own personal writer’s block. Writer’s block comes in many sizes and flavors, all depending on the quilldriver.) I used to think of it as a lack of ideas, or a fizzling will/determination–and because these problems weren’t mine, I didn’t believe in writer’s block. If I have one idea, I have many; maybe it’s because my mind is tangential and ekphrastic, but art spawns art which spawns art. My neck is broken from the stew of ideas constantly pounding down on my poor skull. Also, have I mentioned my obsessive single-mindedness? It, too, is spawn: a wicked child born of the drunken, midnight frolicking of a mule, a glacier, and an angry swarm of yellow jackets. My writer’s block is not made of idea-bones and spineless grit. It’s got more to do with fear.

A re-naming, then, is in order. I’ll call my own personal writer’s block (or the one I briefly experienced yesterday, at least) Writer’s Terror.

At the beginning of March, I started a new novel. It has a full title, but for now we’ll just call it Magpie. Quick pitch?

SWORD AND SORCERY…IN SPACE!

I wrote two chapters, then had to set it aside because starting this summer, my book Skyglass is being serialized in Sparkler Monthly, which means hel-tons of writing and editing. But I had time yesterday, and a workshop I needed material for, so I opened up Magpie and prepared to write.

I sat. I distracted myself with tumblr. I ate a banana and peanut butter.

And then I began to doubt the story. Where did this nasty sludge of story-pretense come from? Why the hel had I ever thought I could fill a whole book with this piss about blue skyfire and wyrm/holes and twisted reincarnations of Norse Mythology (only, uh, glittery-er?)? I typed a single word: THREE. Because I was starting chapter three. But my leaden fingers refused to jab-out anything more. They were cowering on the keyboard because they knew and I knew continuing Magpie would be a waste of time.

But fearfully is no way to write a story. You have to be reckless and stupid and bombastic. I knew this, and yet I still couldn’t write.

Briefly, I considered another round of banana and peanut butter distraction, but instead, I forced myself to think about Magpie’s characters–the reasons I wanted to write the book in the first place. And once the characters and I spent a little bit of quality skull-time together, I realized that YES, I still had to tell the tale of my deported magic-wielder/prank-puller of slipstream gender, and that foul-tempered axe-wielder who really just wants to chop off everyone’s head. Plus that bit about a God who falls in love with a trickster mortal.

They’re a trio of mayhem and world-annihilation. How could I not want to write about them? So I gut-punched my fear, chose the beginning of chapter three (aka, the dénouement of the trickster’s celestial sexy-times) and started putting pixel-ink on the page.

In fewer words, HOW TO ASS-KICK WRITER’S TERROR:

    1. tumblr.
    2. Banana. Peanut butter. Eat. (If chocolate is available, skip the banana.)
    3. Remind yourself why the hel the story exists.
    4. If step 3 succeeds, put words on the page. Real. Made up. JUST PUT THEM THERE.
    5. Smother the fear in peanut butter, and eventually, the words will be sentences. Will be story.

Honestly? This is useless advise. But it worked for me, and if you have a process like mine, you might find it helpful. If you don’t, ignore all of it except the peanut butter. Peanut butter is sticky. It is the universal adherent. The solution to everything.

a tree in winter

a tree in winter

My poetry professor once told me that artists are like trees. That sometimes we are heavy with neon green, or fruit–fruit that goes on to rot and collapse into our rootwork for food. And sometimes we retreat, we lose our foliage. We may, even, appear dead. Our creative frenzy enters hibernation. And this artistic reticence is okay. It is necessary. Because artists are hungry. And sometimes the only creative act we can sustain is eating. Absorbing existence.

This stillness can be sickening. I get restless and tense and bitter when I’m not making. I feel something’s wrong with me when I’m not creating, like creation is proof of my existence, and I disappear without it. But (deciduous) trees still exist without their leaves. It’s okay to be in retreat. To stand in the snow, and wait, and absorb.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been in a creative lull. I don’t know if this is because I’m closing in on the end of my job, the end of our time in Montana, and the approach of our move back home to the Cascades–but whatever it is, I haven’t been writing, or drumming, as intensely as I have in past times.

Part of me is recovering from shock: at the beginning of April, I didn’t know where I was going to be living once June hit. I had a number of offers from grad schools, so I visited the most promising: first was Eastern Washington’s creative writing MFA program. And then, just four days after returning home from Spokane, I took a late night Greyhound from Missoula to Seattle–during which I saw a man freeze-up, collapse, and spill blood–where I met my mom, who took me to Eugene, to visit the University of Oregon’s graduate program in folklore. Just days after returning from that visit, I knew where we’d be moving: to the program where I can study shape-shifting foxes, and trickster gods, and their amorous cross-sections.

When we first moved to Missoula, we had no idea where we’d be in a year and a half–that particular location was really up to whichever admission committee hated me the least. A year and a half of wondering, speculating, not knowing which way your life is going to turn–it’s a long time. And then, to suddenly to know. It’s a punch to the windpipe that knocks breath back into your lungs. There’s air again, bitter and bright and wild, and you don’t quite know what to do with it.

That’s me right now, learning how to breath again. I’m a tree in winter. I haven’t made much of anything recently–just a brief flash fiction piece about woodland incest, and a rough picture of a blue phoenix (plus a lunar folktale to keep it company). Besides that, I’ve just been working on character designs for my novel forthcoming novel, Skyglass, with the brilliant and wildy-fantastic artist, Mookie.

(Her work. Go. Look. Now. Shiny. Feral. Toothy. Sexy. It more than deserves your gazing eyes.)

But it makes me antsy, this stillness. The lack of fresh writing, or faster blastbeats in my drumming. My last day at work is May 11th, and I think the creative rush will spike after that. In the meantime, I’ve found my brain doing something…funny.

I wrote, once, about how fanfiction got me through high school. That’s part truth, part mostly me being a snarky meatbag of lies. I did many things to survive, one of which was story-related. But these weren’t stories I read; these were brain-stuff.

Let’s call them skullplays: I’d start with a character and their bleeding, something to make them hurt. Then came story and character two, and their pain; then magnetism–sometimes (most times) in the form of love. Sometimes not. Sometimes there’d be a character #3–antagonist, another love interest, an advice-giver. Father. Trickster. Brother. Sage. After I had all this established, I’d begin to tell myself stories about these characters, the angsty minutiae of their interactions.

Lately, I’ve been rediscovering these characters, two pairs in particular: character-set #1 share a shadowy story about art, survival, and fermented blood. Someday soon-ish, I’d like to tell that story in some hybrid form of comics and prose. Character set #3 is secret. A story that will only ever be skullplay. It has no rules, except the ones that satisfy my quirks. It’s dark, and twisted, stupidly painful, and fluffy, and all of that makes me happy. For the past two weeks, I’ve been moving slowly through it as I grind coffee beans and extract cucumber juice.

Sometimes my tangential mind splits off from the story, or I get distracted by a wayward chunk of ginger flinging itself from the Nutrifaster. Or, sometimes the trudge of the story is simply the result of my obsessive story-orchestration: choosing the dialogue that’s most agonizing, the setting that’s most poignant; the placement of a hand, the seam in a tooth–all things that come quickly when the stories are worded, but stretch into hours when my finicky, un-handed brain gets a hold of them.

Yet the lingering makes sense: I’m a tree in winter. The sap runs slow.

I’m leafless and sluggish as a frost-bitten zombie, but inside I’m still ticking. The sap runs slow, but still it runs.

Sex and Cinderseed

Virginity ended when I was twenty. Before that night of carpet and green-glass light, there were other nights: nights when sex was something that existed in books, on computer screens, and threaded through internal monologues (or external, if I was on my bike and the night was dark and empty). The words in my head, and the words that I read, tended to be carnal.

Short story: I thought a lot about fucking.

Shorter story: I’m fucking human. A fucking human. A human that fucks. A human.

But there’s an interesting sexual truth to be found in thumbing through old stories, the words I wrote in 2010 and before. While the books I write tend to be snarled rhizomes and roots of palimpsests, and marrow, and fascination pounded seed-like into the ground to grow into groves of fungal trees supported by giant underground networks of mycelium, my short stories are more…momentary. More vicious. They have teeth, and they are mine.

At least, my stories of today are. In 2010, they were quiet and withdrawn. Stories about foggy people, dispersing–or wanting to disperse–like vapor. People who found all their bliss in a single bite of hyper-sexual brownie (at the time, I edged around the sex, and call it aphrodisiac). But whatever the time, however, my stories have always been flashes of me that breach my interior and break out onto the page, where some level of deciphering can be managed. Often, they are lies and diversions, tricks to make you think they aren’t their writer, but ultimately, my words are the existence I’ve made for myself from the gunk caught in my existential filters.

Which is how I know that, four years ago, I thought a lot about fucking. But it was peripheral fucking. I knew I wanted to fuck, and be fucked, but when said fucking was the centerpiece of my brain, I was on the edges. My short stories had sex on their edges, ghost-words that alluded to intercourse, but nothing more. I thought about death, and dissolution, and fictional people having sex, but I was still a virgin in my head.

These days, in my skull-space, I still don’t think much about sex and myself. My stories, however, are an intimate act, braver and wilder than before: I sort through the entrails of me and fucking, and both are split bellies. Not just genital-thrust fucking. I mean fucking in a bigger way–brutal acts of mayhem, learning to take the world, or let it take you.

So when my editor asked if I was interested in writing a short piece of erotica as a precursor to my forthcoming novel, Skyglass, the decision was quick and easy. Of course I was interested in writing something sexy. I’d wanted to explore the back story of one of my two main characters, Phoenix, anyway–a girl who’s more fire than flesh (literally), whose back story is probably better described as an, uh…erotic history.

Even outside the velvety depths and shallows of erotica, it just makes sense to layer the fat of a story on a backbone of sex (if you’re going for something more straightforward, at any rate). Look at traditional narrative structure–stories are sex: foreplay, climax, afterglow. Plot triangle. But when I set out to write this story, I didn’t want the sex to be a ghost, a vital, but invisibile map to follow. I wanted the story’s climax to be a climax. An orgasm. I wanted sex to be empowering, the catalyst.

I wrote “Cinderseed”. A story of birth, the story of a creature of heat stolen from her sun-home, forced to navigate the cold and nasty human world. She has to find a new fire, hers, her own, taking it and making it as she goes–in part through the thrust and grab and friction of sex.

Read a sample here. Or acquire the whole thing here, out now from Cherry Bomb (Sparkler Monthly‘s adult imprint).

I had no second thoughts when I wrote it. Stories are sex, and erotica is story, after all. But I’ll admit, when I first started talking to people about the piece, I stressed the story, the story! (Because, as much as “Cinderseed” is about sex, it’s also mostly story and–oh, who am I kidding, they’re the same almost always THE SAME) Because maybe I was embarrassed? Or felt the need to make it important, give it gravity? Because for some reason, my brain has been trained (or I’ve trained it so) to think that sex for sex in literature isn’t important. Or gravid. Now? I probably still put the same emphasis on narrative, but in my head, I know it’s all padding, justification, mostly unnecessary, because really–who the hel doesn’t want to read about fucking?

Writing on My Feet

Writing on My Feet

For months, I’ve been sick of sitting.  I perch on my chair, well-intentioned and driven: I will write 4,000 words, a blog post, answer emails/interviews/facebook messages from friends who deserve more, better attention than my easily-distracted mind can offer.  I have a butterfly brain, regularly diverted by the winds of tangent (tumblr, for example, is a temptation-ridden custom-tailored black hole overspilling with Lokis, blood-stained elk skulls, Totoro gifs, and cosmic jellyfish).

One thing I know about myself is that I function better when I move.  Anger can be destroyed with a bike ride, deadend cyclic anatomical self-antagonizing can be crushed by thirty minutes of high-intensity interval training.  So I’ve known for awhile that the reason I spend more time aimlessly flipping tabs when I sit at my computer is because I’m sitting, stationary.   The solution, naturally, is to stop.

The past few weeks, I’ve been sitting (bad!) and thinking of various solutions.  I knew I wanted a standing desk, and that I didn’t want to spend any money, or nail something together, if I could avoid it–mostly because I wanted to be standing, now, and not work too hard to do so (which, really, just sounds like another bout of laziness).  At any rate, two days ago, I decided that my computer was staying off until I’d solved my problem.  I stood for a moment, thought, and promptly found a solution.

My solution was percussive: I found a drum.  As a drummer, this wasn’t exactly a challenge–my apartment is full of them.  But the trick was finding the right one.  The right one turned out to be a cajón.  Which is amusing, since this particular drum is meant to be sat upon.  Happily, though, when resting sideways on my desk, it adds just the right amount of height for me to stand and type on my laptop (or distract myself with an inverted drum, which loses none of its sonic potential).  Return it to the ground, and I have my drum again–or a chair, if I’m being lethargic.

I like  my instruments to be instruments, but I’m also the kind of person who like an uncluttered, multifunctional space.  The musical desk satisfies my obsessive-percussing and organization-addiction in a single hit (a gong hit that rattles through my skull and satisfactorily shakes the compulsive quirks of my brain).

standingdesk

Skald

Like Thor and Loki?  Listen to folk metal.

Before I go further, let me freely admit that I am biased.  I play in a neofolk metal band.  I listen to folk metal.  But hear me out–folk metal is obsessed  (sometimes too much, I admit) with putting myth and lore into song.  Feral, shadowed, gut-pounding song, that is also sometimes cheesy, sometimes terrifying, sometimes so sad it’s all you can do not to freeze and sink into the earth and bury yourself with its bones.

But folk metal is especially keen on Norsk lore.  Give me some time, and I will post songs very appropriate to Thor and Loki, but for now, have this song-tale:

Fejd’s Gryning, played with all traditional Swedish instruments (minus the drum set and keys).  Admittedly, not quite folk metal, but I still call it such, because its spine is wild and chaotic and dark (also, heavy percussion and double kick–which as a drummer, is always satisfying).  Also, lead vocalist Patrik Rimmerfors is kinda how I imagine Thor when I read fic…

Anyway.  Personally, I think Thor would be a great lover of folk metal.  Loki not so much, perhaps.  He, I think, is more of a melodic doom-metal sort of guy god.

once, a short story killed me

once, a short story killed me

I recently read two books that gently removed my brain, fiddled with it as softly as a piranha eating breakfast, and put it back in all reconfigured, chewed upon, and terrible.  The first  was At the Mouth of the River of Bees, by Kij Johnson.  The other was Catherynne Valente’s The Melancholy of Mechagirl.  Both short story collections, both heart-eaters.

Before this year, I wasn’t sure what I thought of short stories.  I knew I couldn’t write them, and wasn’t sure I liked reading them.    I certainly hadn’t read many of them.  But because my attempts at making them always churned out glittery, half-masticated beasts with broken legs, I knew it was time to get better.  This meant reading, because as a writer, reading is possibly the second most important thing to do (the first involves going outside and letting life punch you in the gut—again and again and again).

So I went to Clarkesworld.  I read some E. Lily Yu (who I love, and please, Ms. Yu, won’t you finish your novel so I can eat it?) and then listened to some more E. Lily Yu, while I was working on this piece (which explains why the elk in the drawing looks a little tragic).  But as much as I inhaled those pieces, short stories still weren’t utterly my thing.  So I decided to trick my self.  I got a couple collections, which are like novels-in-disguise (because when you sardine a bunch of stories between two bread-like covers, you get something that looks pretty much like a book).  I began with Wonders of the Invisible World, because this review said it wasn’t going to be “like consuming a box of crackers.”  And it was right!  The stories in this book are not crackers.  Or at least, they aren’t saltines.  They’re more like pita chips–far more delicious, but still missing something (hummus, obviously).

The next collection I read was At the Mouth of the River of Bees.  It contains The Man who Bridged the Mist, which won the 2012 Hugo Award for best novella.  Whatever your thoughts on the Hugos, this probably means it may have been pretty good.   At the moment, I don’t feel like commenting on the Hugos (just don’t want to dive into that particular bag of slugs just this moment), but the story is most definitely good, and most definitely deserving.

What happened after Bees was an accident.  I never meant to buy Catherynne Valente’s The Melancholy of Mechagirl–though I desperately wanted to (after all, it in contains my favorite poem ever in print form).  But then I was writing this paper about myth and story and hearts and robots–and suddenly, this book became very necessary.  So I bought it, because I had a reasonable excuse (wanting something so badly I found a way to trick myself–again–into getting it).

At this point, you might want to know more about the piranhas and brain-eating I mentioned earlier.    It’s this: because of these two books, I love short stories so hard right now.  I’m learning so much about form, and what a short story can be, sometimes I can hear my brain clanking around in my skull it’s still so shock-frozen (the piranhas obviously have ice-picks for teeth).

Now for the funny thing: I just sold my first story, to Shimmer–a story I wrote months before reading these books.  So, while I’m not so confident I feel could free climb El Capitan, I’m feeling a bit better about my ability to write short pieces.  I have a number of new stories with sharper edges, that do stranger things with stronger grins, and soon they’ll be sent out–and if I’m lucky,  find homes.

The piranhas ate my brains, but they left a few scraps, a few loose teeth, and right now, I think I can feel it all regenerating.

Omphaloskepsis (on preparing a book for rejection)

I’ve written this quirky novel called Fable, and I’m going to submit it to this quirky publisher called Chromatic Press.  There.  I’ve found my beginning and end.  The middle, the spine connecting head to tail, is (as always) the hard part.  All those tricksy vertebrae…

Fable is the story of Moss, an anorexic, A-sexual drummer, who’s spinning  circles in the emotional wasteland left to him by his suicidal parents.  It’s also about Phoenix–half fire, half human pop artist extraordinaire–who’s come to earth to murder her father.  When she and Moss cross paths, they upend each others’ lives to the point of no return.

So, the spine: what comes between  writing a novel, and sending it out  for rejection.  This is what Chromatic requires, and thus, it’s what must be done before I press send.

    1. Edit the hel out of it.  (More than I already have, which must mean I’m dealing with Dante’s Hell.  I’ve got eight levels to go.)
    2. Write a pitch.  (See above.)
    3. Outline the novel chapter-by-chapter.
    4. Polish my resume.

But this is all grubfood (even if it’s a tiny bit contextual and specific to Chromatic Press), things you know (or should know) already, even if you’re a writer who knows nothing.  So why blog this?

Mostly, I’m just working my finger jaws, trying to get all the shiit out of my system, so it’s gone before I start editing.  Because I’d rather my manuscript be free of E coli and anything else that might scare off readers.

Only, I don’t want it to be clean.  Fable is quite dirty, actually: there’s sex, and you know, that stuff’s pretty nasty.  There’s also honesty (so much messier than lying), and people doing that stupid thing where they yell at each other over and over and over, because anger is the only way they can express their love for each other. (I say stupid, but there’s a certain logic to anger as an expression of love, the intensity and focus of it…)

Still, an E coli-free book is probably a better read than one that’s not.  Because no one likes fecal matter in their word-food.