Being a writer can be a mentally and emotionally exhausting profession (especially for those of us who work full-time jobs, have families, have kids, have other obligations, try not to be crusty shut-ins who do nothing but write, etc. etc.). Writing, editing, and polishing manuscripts and then sending them out to publishers and agents. You play the waiting game, and then you deal with the hundreds of rejection letters–more emails these days than actual letters.
So how do you keep it from getting you down? I try to celebrate every little success. I think of it as some sort of experience points bar–really it’s the one from Pokemon because they have such fun sound effects as they fill up.
Each word I write, each book or story I finish, each one I edit and polish, and each manuscript I send out on submission–all those things fill in the bar.
And then whenever I hit a new milestone in my career, it feels like I’m leveling up as a writer. I hear a little ding in my mind, celebrate for a minute or two, then get my ass back to work.
So what were some of the milestones that I’ve celebrated?
Finishing my first short story
Getting my first story acceptance
Finishing my first novel
Making that first novel not suck*
Getting that first novel published
Finishing a sequel
Making that sequel not suck*
Writing a novel in a completely new genre, new style, and new series
Making that novel not suck*
Getting form rejection emails from agents
Getting partial requests from agents**
Being asked to submit directly to a publisher**
Getting a personal rejection email from a publisher and being told to reach out directly with other projects**
These last three are huge to me. Getting agents to request something based just on a query letter feels like a big deal. But also my experience submitting Gifts of the Earth has been a huge step forward.
Even though the publisher passed on it they said the “quality of the book wasn’t in question” and that I should reach out directly the next time I have something to submit. Anyone who’s trying to submit manuscripts knows that being able to bypass the slush pile is an enormous advantage.
Rejections are never fun, but the important thing is that there’s a trajectory here. I can’t help but celebrate that. And now if you excuse me, I have more books to write.
What about you, fellow writers? What milestones count as “leveling up” to you?
Author’s Note: this is a very, very simple thought experiment I’m throwing out there. Obviously these sorts of issues have to consider intersectionality as well. So this sort of thing can, and I’d say should, be done across multiple axes of oppression. I purposely chose a high level example for this post.
Another Author’s Note: Gender is not binary. But discussing the fluidity of the concept is beyond the scope of this post and what I was trying to accomplish with this little experiment.
You’ve all heard of the Bechdel Test, right? It’s not without flaws nor is it necessarily a quality benchmark. At the very least it just tells you that a particular work has two women who have a conversation with each other about something other than a man.
Tying into that is: how often as writer do you make secondary or tertiary characters men by default? Until it was brought up to me a while ago, I had no idea I even did that. I always thought I was pretty good about making sure I had women in my books and stories. But then I went back to my WIP at the time and saw that almost every time I needed a:
These characters would be written as “he” in my outline. Even if they didn’t have names or more than a line or two of dialogue, almost all of them were men by default. It blew my mind to realize that. It wasn’t that I was trying to actively exclude women characters, it was just I was conditioned to think of and create men characters first. As if it had been ingrained and reinforced across multiple spectra–especially pop culture–that men were the important pieces in a story.
As I’ve gotten older and have attempted to be more aware of these issues regarding representation and intersection, I’ve wanted to fix my shortcomings. Not only does it help a tiny bit to improve the field, but it also helps me grow as a writer. This kind of thing–unconsciously emphasizing men and just writing the same things over and over–requires no effort. It’s lazy. And lazy writing is boring writing. Lazy writing doesn’t challenge the creator nor the reader. This kind of lazy writing accidentally “punches people in the face.” And I don’t want that.
So going forward I decided to do a little experiment. In my current WIP, the main character, Itjani, is a woman detective, and the women in her family are all major characters (mother, aunts, and grandmothers). But there were other characters in the first draft of the outline that were men, including a character that teams up with Itjani outside official police channels to move the plot forward. Let’s call that character K for right now.
I stopped halfway through my outline and went you know what? This book already emphasizes interpersonal relationships between women in a post-colonial context (i.e. how do they form communities and identities going forward and dealing with centuries of colonization in this secondary world fantasy), so why not make K a woman too? How would that change the dynamics of the relationship I’d written into the story? I changed absolutely nothing else about K’s personality or actions other than their gender.
All of a sudden tons of new nuances entered into the story, themes that resonated with other more personal, familial sections. Itjani already had a male partner on the police force and they had a whole slew of interactions (based on gender, tenure at work, political power, ethnicity, social status, etc.) so it made the story better to give a counterpoint to that. Itjani and K interact across those axes in completely different ways (plus a few more that I can’t talk about right now without giving away too much plot).
I continued the experiment throughout the outline. A god became a goddess, a police coroner with a few lines became a woman as well. And so it went. Not every character was changed, but the majority of them were. And you know what? Even just re-reading my outline, it feels like a stronger story with more nuance, more subtext, more everything. I think part of why things felt better goes hand in hand with what Liz Bourke discusses in “How Do We Talk About Strong Female Characters?”
This isn’t revolutionary stuff, and I’m not claiming that consciously changing a bunch of characters to women will somehow give this book a free pass. Or that these characters won’t be problematic in other ways. Nope. Chances are I’ll manage to screw something up, but that’s part of being an artist–especially one in a privileged position. It’s how you react to learning of those screw ups, listening to marginalized voices that’re telling you how you screwed up, learning from those mistakes, and not repeating them in the future.
Still, I’d rather make these choices than play it safe and churn out the same face-punchy science fiction and fantasy you’ve seen for decades (see Puppies, Sad & Rabid). This experiment is a small step, but it’s one I’d urge other writers to take too.
Reviews are part of being an author. Some people are going to love your book; some people are going to hate your book. And if you’ve written multiple books, multiple series, some people are going to enjoy some installments and dislike others. It all comes with the territory.
And it’s not just for writers but for any artists, musicians, creators that put their work out there for the public to see.
I’m of the mind that reviews are primarily for readers and potential readers rather than authors. That’s not to say that an author can’t look at reviews and find common threads running through them. Maybe a bunch of reviews noticed that your secondary characters were cliche or that the book’s middle section lagged. Those are things to learn from. But for my money–you, the author, do not step in and debate these things. It never ends well.
Reviews aren’t for you. And everyone on the internet should familiarize themselves with the Streisand effect. Trying to suppress a review, getting the reviewer to change it, disagreeing with their opinion, is a terrible idea and only makes things worse.
I’ve never heard of this particular book or author before (which pretty much everyone can say of me too), but based on his behavior, I can damn well say I’m far less inclined to ever read any of his works in the future. That’s what happens when authors try to attack people over reviews that are less-than-glowing. The internet amplifies their terrible behavior and soon people like me–people just scrolling through their Twitter feeds or whatever–see the thread linked and come take a seat to watch the meltdown. I mean as soon as I saw this author’s first comment on the review, my mind immediately went to that gif of Michael Jackson eating popcorn.
Yeah that’s the one. Good stuff.
Do not engage with negative reviews. They aren’t bullying. They aren’t comparable to physical abuse (as that author said). They aren’t cyberbullying either. Maybe if a reviewer wrote a negative review that attacked the author personally, then continued to contact the author across multiple social channels to send personal attacks their way, that would be cyberbullying. But I’ve never seen a reviewer do that before.
It bears repeating: Do not engage with negative reviews. Just stay away from ’em. Learn from criticism. Grow as an author. Don’t tell somebody their opinion is wrong and that they’re hurting the consciousness of humanity because they gave your book a one-star review on Goodreads.
I don’t really do book “reviews” per se, but I just finished Kameron Hurley’s latest novel, the epic fantasy The Mirror Empire. Since I have lots of thoughts (and feels too as the kids say) I figured I’d jot them down here in a loose sorta way. There will be some spoilers so read on at your own risk.
1. The Mirror Empire is the first book in the Worldbreaker Saga. Points for having a badass title and series name. This isn’t an in-depth thought. I just like the name.
2. As Justin mentions in his review, the world of The Mirror Empire starts in a state of flux–and flux seems to be the status quo for the world(s). The world of the story is orbited by “satellites” (moons? comets? actual man-made thingies? No clue and probably not important), and these satellites give certain people magical wizard powers. The closest comparison I can think of is the bending powers from Avatar: the Last Airbender. But each satellite also waxes and wanes at irregular intervals, so each wizard faction can gain and lose power at random. This means the worldview for almost every country in the world is based on change. It’s awesome how deep this theme of change permeates the book.
3. However, because everything is in a state of change–satellites, a bad moon rising so to speak, impending civil war, impending invasion (more on this later), it felt a little hard to get everything straight in the book. Plus, being epic fantasy, there are multiple point-of-view characters in The Mirror Empire. Keeping them straight, their allegiances, their friends and families, and even genders straight can be overwhelming at first. (This may also be partially user error as I tend to read right before bed, so sometimes I fall asleep reading)
4. Lots of stuff happens in The Mirror Empire, but at times, it felt like the opposite. It’s the first book in a trilogy (series?) so a lot of the stuff (heady, dare I say world-breaking even) can feel like setup for future books. There’re quite a few threads and by the end of the book it feels like they’re just starting to really tie together. But I get it, you can’t cover everything and you have to end a book somewhere otherwise it becomes a never ending tome.
5. Hurley some really cool stuff with gender/gender roles in this book. So there’s an assassin that can change their biological sex at will or basically at will. So that character embodies the theme of change in the book. One culture has five different genders each with their own pronouns and an individual gets to decide how they view themselves and which gender they want to be referred as. Cool stuff!
5b. But it goes further than that. One of the cultures, Dorinah, is a matriarchy. So one of the POV characters is a high ranking general. Basically take all of the stereotypes you see male characters think about women in fantasy books (and elsewhere too!) and then flip them around. When you read a passage about this general catcalling a man and then thinking “Well, he just got upset because he doesn’t have a sense of humor,” it’s biting. It hits home because I’ve seen it in real life and on the internet. Women don’t have senses of humor; they’re too sensitive; can’t they just see that men are trying to compliment them? The Dorinah culture in The Mirror Empire flips this all around and man it makes for some caustic satire.
5c. That’s not to say that we’re supposed to read the general as 100% in the right. Or that readers shouldn’t criticize her actions or the actions of her nation. Hurley’s writing makes it clear that we’re supposed to engage all of this critically.
6. Rideable bears. With forked tongues, big-ass claws, and cat-like eyes. Seriously. Rideable bears. Read this book.
7. Alternate universes. That’s one of The Mirror Empire’s big hooks. It’s like Fringe meets epic fantasy meets plant-punk or something. It’s awesome but also a bit confusing. At times I couldn’t remember who was from what universe, and it’s mentioned in an off-hand way that there are more than two universes out there. So when people in World A mention invaders, I think they’re talking about World B. But then I swear people in World B mentioned invaders. Are they being invaded too? And really their invasion of World A is just another word for retreat? Cool stuff, a bit confusing, and I think it will be explored even more in future books.
8. The characters, especially the POV ones, didn’t quite grab me as much as those in Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocryphaseries. I get it though. As a writer you don’t want to just create the same main character over and over again. I appreciate that there’s a wide variety of personality types on display here, and all the characters have agency in their own way. Still, and this is just personal stuff (YMMW), I didn’t feel a huge connection to any of them. I think I cared about Lilia the most and probably Roh the least. I’d love to see more of Taigan too.
9. You can’t help but use the word “ambitious” to describe The Mirror Empire. It’s sprawling, but also personal at the same time. Occasionally the number of concepts thrown at you can be overwhelming, and for me, the characters didn’t quite hit the mark. But seriously, what else is like this on the market right now? I honestly can’t tell you. Despite a few flaws, you have to applaud Hurley’s ambition and the way she throws the reader into the deep end of everything. But unlike the Malazan books, I was never too lost that I gave up. In fact, I finished The Mirror Empire pretty damn quickly. The only bad thing about devouring it so fast is that I have a longer wait until book two comes out.
10. The Mirror Empire, her previous Bel Dame novels, plus her nonfiction collection, We Have Always Fought, only cement in my mind that Hurley is a writer to watch and one I want to learn from.
My good friend Gwen Whiting (formerly Perkins) asked me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour, and I was more than happy to say yes. Gwen’s written two novels in her Artifacts of Empire series: The Universal Mirrorand The Jealousy Glass. Luckily for you readers, a second edition of The Universal Mirror is being published by Rara Avis sometime in 2014-2015. If you like fantasy, magic, and gruesome plagues, check out her series. I’ve also been lucky enough to read some of The Unwilling, and I can’t wait to see the end of it. Plus the premise is just killer.
So it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts and shared what I’m working on, so now’s as good a time as any! Here’s my answers to the questions posed to the authors on the tour.
1. What am I working on?
As of a few days ago I was working on two things: going over the edits for the 2nd edition of The Exile’s Violin and finishing the outline for a brand new fantasy novel tentatively called Red Magic.
The Exile’s Violin is set to be rereleased through PDMI’s Rara Avis imprint sometime later this year, so my editor and I went through it and cleaned up a few typos and other minor things from the Hydra Publications version. As far as I know the cover art isn’t going to change (which I’m happy about!) and work on Terraviathan should hopefully begin soon.
Red Magic came about because I wanted to attempt a twist on a common fantasy trope: mages and wizards. For the most part you hear wizard and you think Gandalf or Dumbledore. Mages are usually portrayed as aloof, purposely staying away from the population at large, using their magics for esoteric goals. Red Magic looks at the consequences of magic being withheld from the populace at large and plays with this question: what if something like a working class revolution was aided by magic?
Plus this book means I get to do a ton of research on the French Revolution, 17th and 18th century Europe, the Holy Roman Empire, and a bunch of other good stuff.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
That’s a tough question. I have a feeling my readers would be able to do a better job with that. Personally, I think that my worldbuilding abilities are one of my strong points. Everything I write is all secondary world fantasy or science fiction, so all of it has to be created from scratch (or mostly from scratch. The real world is an inspiration for certain things).
I believe that helps all my books feel different from each other. The world in the Tethys Chronicles is very, very different from The Song of Siya, and hopefully Red Magic will continue that trend.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I write to tell stories–human stories. Yeah my books may have airships or spaceships, but they’re always about people. Plus, I enjoy taking certain tropes and twisting them around a little bit. (Whether or not I succeed is up to the reader!) For example, Gifts of the Earth took sword and sorcery tropes and changed them by featuring a brown-skinned queer woman as the main character in a non Medieval Europe setting. For the Tethys Chronicles, they’re steampunk novels, but I wanted to avoid glorifying the imperialism of the Victorian era and hopefully show off a sooty, seedy underbelly to the whole notion of steampunk.
4. How does my writing process work?
Right now I’m between jobs so my schedule is really fluid. Ever since my wife and I moved to Portland, I like to get up in the morning, make some coffee, and write for an hour or so until she gets up. After that, I try to squeeze in some more writing time whenever I can in the afternoons or evenings. I used to be a night owl, but now I find myself becoming more of a morning person (as I write this post after midnight).
As far as how I approach a novel: I’m a major, major plotter/outliner/architect whatever you choose to call it. I start by creating a detailed, detailed plot outline. Sometimes they end up being over 40,000 words long. (Red Magic is 21,000) I don’t think they stifle my creativity because I’m really willing to move chapters around, change major plot beats, and rewrite characters during this outlining phase. I do all that early on rather than when I’m righting a rough draft. Having a complete story done in outline form makes writing the first draft go much quicker.
I also use a free program called XMind to create mind maps to keep track of my worldbuilding. I find it to be a useful tool for keeping track of characters, backstory, countries, cultures, food, weapons, basically anything. If you’re writing secondary world stories, you might want to give it a try. The header image of this post is a screencap of my Red Magic one.
Well that’s all from me! Sorry if this post ran a bit long. Like I said, it’s been a while since I’ve talked about what I’m working on. Thanks again to Gwen for tagging me for this blog tour!
This led to his response: “jesus christ.” And then a link to a hilarious image like the one you see above. “White People Almost Kissing” the brand-new novel by Nicholas Sparks. And now for the whole story about my conversation with my mom and some commentary.
I went out to dinner with my mom the other day. In between our main course and the spring roll appetizers–I also decided during this dinner that I don’t care for spring rolls–and with the best intentions she asked me: “Why don’t you try to write a romance? Something like Nicholas Sparks. He’s such a good writer.”
She meant well. She sees me struggling to pay bills and make a living as a writer and thinks that if I just wrote something in a mega-popular genre like romance that the money, movie deals, and all the other trappings of fame would just roll in. I’d probably have to turn away studio after studio that wanted to turn one of my books into a trans-media property. Because romance is popular. Because science fiction and fantasy aren’t as popular. Because she “doesn’t really like sci-fi but she liked my book.”
Here’s the problem with that line of thinking–chasing what you think the mass market wants–you’ll always be chasing after something that’s constantly changing. Maybe you’re one of those authors who’s able to flit from genre to genre with ease. I’m not. My bread and butter is genre fiction: speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and maybe even a tiny bit of horror.
I try to move around within genre fiction–a sci-fi short story here, a horror story there, two steampunk novels, a sword & sorcery novel in the works, and several abandoned space opera novels. But it’s all within what I like to write.
That’s the important part–liking what you write. Because I feel strongly about my stories, my characters, my genres, it comes through in my writing. Would The Exile’s Violin and its sequel have worked as, say, a paranormal romance? I have no idea, but I can guarantee the book because I don’t write paranormal romances.
So you can imagine how awful the results would be if I tried to right a contemporary romance novel for purely commercial reasons. Or maybe it wouldn’t have been awful per se. I like to think I have a tiny bit of skill that when combined with proper revisions, working with beta readers, etc. could produce something half readable. A better term for the resulting paranormal romance manuscript: soulless.
That’s what happens you write something to chase commercial acceptance. Or at least, that’s what would happen if I tried it. Maybe some authors are able to make that work. I’m not one of them.
I have to write what I want to write. Otherwise, why bother writing it at all? So the next time somebody says, “Genre X is much more popular than genre Y. Why don’t you just write genre X?” I’ll reply, “Because I like writing genre Y.” ‘Nuff said.
I love listening to music while I write. That’s just how I work best. If it’s too quiet my mind tends to wander. Some writers I know say they don’t like music with words when they’re putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys, I suppose is more likely). I vary back and forth. Some scenes come easier when I’m listening to music with lyrics, while other times I just want some nice instrumental stuff.
So what do I listen to? I’ll give you a small sampling of some of my favorite writing music. I’ll also share what projects each song goes with–for the ones I can remember that is!
Fight Scenes in The Exile’s Violin and Terraviathan
Heavy metal is my favorite type of music to listen to while writing action-heavy scenes. At the moment some of my favorite bands include As I Lay Dying, Parkway Drive, Mastodon, In Flames, and All That Remains. In case you’re not familiar with them…they’re of the–how do you say–screaming variety. Metalcore, death metal, all those subgenre labels. I love it most of it, especially the bands that use some melody in their choruses.
According to iTunes, some of the songs I’ve listened to the most while working on fight scenes and the like in my steampunk novels include:
Pretty much anything by Strung Out. They’re my favorite band and the inspiration behind my only (so far) tattoo. These guys write some amazing music that flirts back and forth between metal-tinged punk and straight up SoCal skate punk. They’ve been around since 1989, and if you’ve got that kind of longevity, you know you gotta be doing something right.
“Sleepwalker”, “Dark Days”, and “Boneyards” by Parkway Drive. I like the environmental message in “Dark Days” especially. That’s part of the music video up there in gif form. I also “sing” along to those three songs a lot during my commute. I’d like to think that I can keep up with Winston McCall pretty well.
“A Greater Foundation”, “Forsaken”, and “Parallels” by As I Lay Dying. Even though their a Christian band–a religion I don’t subscribe to–most of their songs aren’t overtly religious. Plus they rock. Really damn hard. Those three songs are from three different albums spanning from 2007 to last year. As I Lay Dying has always been in my musical writing rotation since about 2003.
A few other songs and bands: “Oblivion” by Mastodon, anything by Coheed & Cambria, any of Thrice’s hard rock/post-hardcore songs.
Mood Music & Non-Screaming Bands
But what about the times when I don’t want lyrics? When I’m either editing and revising or world-building it’s really hard for me to focus while listening to the kind of relentless aural assault my favorite metal bands bring to the table. What then? Break out your Flock of Seagulls haircut, your Gameboy, and your dial-up modem from 1994! We’re going to listen 80s pop, chiptunes, and dubstep!
The Cars, A-ha, Simple Minds, New Order, OMD, Eddie Money, Genesis, Eurythmics, Tears for Fears, and more. The synth-ier, the poppier, the cheesier the better. Wham, Kenny Loggins, pretty much every one hit wonder you can think of. I listen to it all. I love it. There’s something about catchy 80s pop that really keeps me going when I don’t feel like writing.
And then I have a set of songs that I listen to whenever I want to set a mood. If I’m writing science fiction–especially anything cyberpunk or space opera related–I’ll flip on the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack, the soundtracks from the Mass Effect series, or something from the From Alpha to Omega album by Destructoid community member Alphadeus. All that music really gets me into a sci-fi state of mind.
Occasionally, I’ll log into Pandora and turn on my “Dubstep Station”. I think the music is kinda hilarious-bad, but at the same time I like it. I can’t name any of the artists to save my life, and half the time it sounds like a Transformer and a dial-up modem are getting it on in a blender, but for some reason, I find it really easy to write to dubstep.
The same goes for chiptunes and videogame soundtracks. I have a playlist set up in iTunes that has almost 2000 tracks of just electronica, chiptunes (music made with the sounds and musical effects from 8-bit and 16-bit videogames), and videogame soundtracks. Some of my favorite songs include: anything from any of the Zeldas, a metal cover of the Skyrim theme song, an album of big band renditions of F-Zero, and the Double Dragon Neon soundtrack.
Seriously. That song right there is ridiculously catchy. It’s videogame music and faux-80s pop all in one! How can I resist?
There you have it dear readers! Probably more than you ever wanted to know about what music I listen to while writing. What about you? How many of you authors listen to music while you’re writing or editing? Or do you need to have it silent while you’re working. Let me know! I find hearing about peoples’ creative processes fascinating!
I feel it’s part of my job as a science fiction and fantasy writer to create a sense of place. What does that even mean? Here’s how I’d describe it: it’s more than just creating another world (if you write secondary world fantasy). It’s about making sure you capture an essence, a feeling about the place. If you can’t do that, then I think you let your readers down.
Personally, I think I did that with The Exile’s Violin and the Tethys Chronicles in general. Vorleaux, to me, has a corrupt heart of haze-coated brass and bronze. I think that sense of place permeates all the scenes that take place in the city and even influence how main character Jacquie reacts to the world around her.
Still, I want to do better, to truly feel deep in my bones that I’ve written a place with a sense of place. I don’t care if that sentence is reductive and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Part of the reason that this is such a big deal to me is I feel like I come from somewhere without a sense of place. I live in the suburbs of San Diego, and I’ve lived in suburbs of one city or another. Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough, but I read things or play games like the brilliant Kentucky Route Zero and see how brilliantly the creators are able to evoke a sense of place.
I’ve never been to Kentucky, but after playing that game, I feel like the locations in the game could really exist out there in the backwoods of coal country. The visuals, the aesthetic, and the music–oh God, the music–all work together to make me feel like I’ve been taken to somewhere real even though I’ve never left my desk chair.
I want to make something like that. This isn’t envy I feel in my bones right now. It’s a desire to be able to so effortlessly* make my reader understand the soul of my place and my work/novel/game/whatever. So my hat’s off to the two men at Cardboard Computer for what they’ve accomplished with just Act I of their game. My hat’s off to all the writers out there who’ve done what I’m still striving to do.
*I know effortlessly isn’t the right term. It takes a ton of skill and craft to pull something like that off and make it appear effortless to the reader or player.
After deciding to one of these on my own, I was tagged in a different Next Big Thing blog post by author Sunny Moraine. I figure I got enough projects going on that I can muster up another post. So here goes.
I just heard about this “Next Big Thing”–thing on Carrie Cuinn’s blog. If you haven’t read hers yet, go do it. Two words: magic apocalypse. Then go read all the others she links to. You won’t be disappointed.
So how does this Next Big Thing work? You’re supposed to answer ten questions about your current WIP novel, short story, anthology, screenplay, etc. You get the idea. So what am I working on? Glad you asked.