A blog for sweeping out the cobwebs and taking flights of fancy
I tend not to join heated conversations, particularly internet ones, for a couple of reasons: They’re rarely actually conversations; I get emotionally hooked and obsess over things that take me away from my work; and I have a bit of (perhaps faulty) programming in my head that runs this way– angry people are potentially dangerous. My tendency is to stay out of their way.
But I’m wading in.
I love SciFi/Fantasy cons. Unabashedly. Everyone I’ve been to, but the craft-focused ones in particular, feel like places where I can be who I am– the overly-excitable, talkative enthusiast who asks too many questions and gets carried away. They’re places my kid feels okay being who he is, and that means more to me than I can put into words. They’re a place where excitement and emotional intensity run high. And I love that. Most of the time. This time, it really challenged me.
For those of you who aren’t chin-deep in my little corner of publishing’s little corner of the world, this originally white male world is increasingly diverse. It is not necessarily diversely diverse– people in positions of power are still mostly male and white– but the conversations are increasingly high-profile. There are have been a series of eruptions, but the ones this summer, and the one in particular I want to talk about, have been around sexual harassment and policies designed to prevent or respond to it. It’s a delicate area. People feel unsafe. People feel defensive.
During the opening ceremonies of one of my favorite cons, one of the more senior members, a guy with legions of fans and dozes of books, and a board member of the con, read a prepared personal statement that questioned whether the harassment policy would do more to limit and restrict the free flow of ideas than it would to curtail bad behavior. I tend to read how (and how strongly) a person feels before I process what they say. I had registered something – not danger, not threat — but something that called for heightened alertness before the author had even begun to read his open letter. The second thing I remember feeling was some weird kind of exclusion anxiety, the sense that there was a high-stakes conversation already in progress that I hadn’t known about. I knew there had been discussion around harassment policies and that different cons were handling the matter differently, but I wasn’t aware this particular conversation was on-going at this particular con. Consequentially, welcoming ceremonies didn’t feel super welcoming. The experience I was hoping for — what I love about cons — felt under threat. I felt uncomfortable.
I feel much more uncomfortable now.
I’m not saying anyone made me feel this way. Hundreds of things, experiences, social forces, and neuroses contribute to my emotional reaction to things. I am not making anyone else responsible for my feelings. I am saying how I feel. As a data point. As practice.
Because I want to talk about things that matter and that elicit strong emotions. I want to hear everybody. I know that the expression of strong negative emotion (particularly anger) makes that harder for me.
So what do I do? I only see three choices, and I don’t love any of them: I stop talking about certain highly-charged topics, I excuse myself from the conversation when the expression of strong negative emotion becomes overwhelming for me, or I stop talking with particular people. Maybe there are options I don’t see, but for now, this is me trying to break my programmed preference for silencing myself in the face of discord, and talk about something that makes me feel vulnerable and afraid.
So here’s my question: how do we have a conversation about how we talk? How do we get to hear everybody? How do we create a space for meaningful conversation from a wide range of passionate voices about the stories we love, the ideas behind them, and the craft of their creation?
Okay, that wasn’t one question, it was three, but math isn’t emotional enough to interest me. What do you think?
This is a tool I use for every book I write. I fill it in before I start the first draft and keep it pinned up on the wall behind my laptop. I introduced it to my writing students who found it useful so I prettied it up and added it here.
I’ll talk through title and hook in this post, and tackle the rest in later ones.
Titles are trickier than they seem. A truly great title does more than simply say what’s in the tin (a la Snakes on a Plane.) Two of my favorites:
Star Wars, A New Hope It took me years to pick up on this but this is Luke’s story, and he’s the new hope. Leia tees it up for us with her, “Help us ObiWan, you’re our only hope.” And he was, but now there’s a new one.
Little Miss Sunshine Not only is the Little Miss Sunshine pageant the destination of the story’s journey and the prize they’re hoping to win, it’s also who Olive is and isn’t. She really is a little miss sunshine, but lower case. It’s her sunny personality and courage, not how she looks that earns her the title.
This is an incredibly useful tool. Here some ways of getting at it:
- What would be exciting and fun for you and your readers?
- What’s interesting and makes you curious?
- What are your favorite stories and who are your favorite characters?
- How can you combine elements of any of these?
For the One Sheet, experiment and write at least one for your new project from group A and one from B
- X meets Y
- What if?
- Once upon a time, there was X. Every day, Y. Until one day, Z
- Who is trying to do what important, difficult thing? Why?
- In a world where W, X must Y before Z (or in order to Z)
- Game of Thrones meets Jurassic Park
- The War for the Roses with dragons
- Cowboys and Indians on the raggedy edge of space
- What if you had to live the same day over and over until you got it right?
- What if an alien space ship parked itself in the sky over earth and then did nothing for 100 years?
- In space, no one can hear you scream
- Her life was in their hands. Now her toe is in the mail.
- Once upon a time, there was a spoiled Southern beauty. Every day she toyed with men (and the women who loved them) until one day the Civil War began.
- A low-ranking botanist/ engineer on a manned mission to Mars works collecting soil samples until a dust storm blows up forcing the rest of his team off the planet. Believing him dead, they begin the return trip to earth leaving him stranded.
- A good-hearted farm boy with the soul of a warrior tries to rescue a princess from a distant planet and keep the galactic empire from destroying more worlds.
- The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty must transfer control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son in order to keep his legacy alive.
- In what was once North America, the Capitol of Panem maintains its hold on its 12 districts by forcing them each to select by lottery a boy and a girl, called Tributes, to compete in the annual “Hunger Games”, a televised fight-to-the-death. When her sister loses the lottery, an introverted girl who grew up hunting rabbits for food volunteers. Now she and her male counterpart with whom she has a troubled past must compete against bigger, stronger Tributes, some of whom have trained for this their whole lives in order to save herself, her sister and her world.
- In a time when births are rare and healthy births are even rarer, fertile women are captured and assigned as handmaids to elite couples and forced to conceive their children through ritual, impersonal sex with their male owners while holding the hands of their wives. Under rigorous state surveillance, one young handmaiden learns about both her owner and a secret underground rebellion. As her relationship with her owner deepens and her involvement in the underground increases, and still not pregnant, she faces multiple paths to destruction and few avenues of escape.
I don’t really like advice, but I’m pretty opinionated, so I seem to hand it around a bit. Still, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of giving advice. I tend to ignore the wise suggestions of others, and the good counsel I give myself.
If I have a core belief, it’s uncertainty, so there’s not much I can say to you, writer-to-writer, with conviction. But there are a few things I’ve learned – just five, it turns out – that might save you some heartache, or give what of it you must endure enough of a slant to slide on by a bit faster.
- It matters.
I can’t prove that fate or God or gods exist, that karma will catch up to those who hurt others, or that our questions will be answered when we die. I do know that when I’m flat on my back, I — like every other human confronted with the random shape of clouds or the scattered distribution of stars — will see bunnies and dippers. Humans are pattern-makers so innately that we might as accurately call ourselves homo scriptoris as homo erectus for our tendency to see a hunter’s belt in a smattering of summer stars. And when we, the patternmakers, confront the total randomness of those distant flaming gas balls, and find that they don’t chart our course, or make us underlings, (or even Leos and Virgos,) we can still see Orion.
And whether we make or detect constellations and causalities, we share them, and we tell stories to explain what we see. I believe in those stories. Not as always-accurate explanations, but in their power to explain. I believe in Story’s power to transform pain into meaning, or worth into shame. I believe in its ability to transfer information across generations and to unify a nation. Or divide one. I believe that sharing our stories binds us, and that understanding another’s story inevitably eradicates hate. The world is made of stories, and when we write a better one, we change the world. It matters, but it’s hard.
- It’s hard.
Writing asks us to think more deeply than is easy, feel more keenly than is comfortable, and to keep our fingers in the soil and flesh, probing and peeking. Writing teaches us to bite off more than will fit in our mouths, and to hunger for beauty and opportunity that are in short supply and unevenly distributed in the world. It bashes our ideals against reality. It lets us down. Or rather we disappoint ourselves and suffer for it. Writing turns us on. And leaves our finite time and limited skill to wrestle with our excitement and discovery. But still, we work to write something worthwhile, and to make a difference to other writers. We try to improve our work and keep putting it out there where it can get rejected or ignored as easily as it – or we – can be understood or loved. It’s hard, but it matters.
- It isn’t all you are.
We’re writers, but also characters in other people’s lives. We’re spouses and parents; we’re siblings and employees and friends; and even on the worst writing days, when I’m not sure I’m a writer at all, I am still those other things. Just as, on the best writing days, I still have to do the laundry.
But in the same way that writing requires me to balance its difficulty against its worth, being a writer requires me to balance myself – the person I’m trying to become and aspire to be – with my obligations and affections. Our stories live inside the larger narrative of the English canon. We live inside the meta-narrative of other lives. We are alone in creating, but profoundly connected in creation. Writing isn’t all we are. We can share.
- Victory is impossible.
Writing does have moments of glory, and we should roll around in every one of them – contest wins and publishing wins, critical and sales successes, artistic and stylist triumphs — but even if they’re numerous, and far exceed the losses and failures, no book is ever as good as we wanted it to be. Our idea of the story is always better than our execution. And someone else has always sold more books, or written better ones. Victory is impossible, but the only defeat is despair.
- Nothing is lost.
I don’t believe things happen for a reason, but I believe we can make reasons for what happens. When you’re a writer, every long post office line, every year spend chasing the wrong career (or man), every deleted chapter, every frustration and chocolate sundae can serve us. Because anything we pay attention to, we can write. We can feel and observe.We turn it over and stick our fingers in its anguish or futility or joy. We peek into the lost time or love or language, and rescue and recycle. Even our doubt, if we probe it, can yield certainty. Nothing is lost. Even if only five things are found.