Writing

What I’ve Been Watching: The Everybody Dies Edition

I haven’t done a movie review post lately, so this list covers a couple of months of watching. These should all still be available to watch streaming on Netflix and other services. As always, my reviews are mainly about the writing; though of course a film with a great script can still be shot poorly, the writing shines through, while a poorly-written script will still be obvious no matter how much money is thrown into the production. (See below, World War Z.)

Starting with the best:

 

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HOW I LIVE NOW, 2013. Saorse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay. Director: Kevin MacDonald

5/5 stars.

Originally a novel by Meg Rosoff, published 2004 (winner: British Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the American Printz Award for young-adult literature). I haven’t read the novel but from what I can tell, the movie doesn’t diverge from it much, only cutting out scenes/people to get it down to a 1h41m runtime.

This is a beautiful, haunting, and — most importantly — organically logical story of a teenage girl who naively chooses to stay in England on the eve of a war rather than go home to her American father and stepmother, who’d sent her away in the first place. It’s the story of kids who are left stranded when their mom gets called away and isn’t able to return, who are separated, conscripted, and ultimately have to fight their way back to each other. It’s about making a family, making choices, taking risks, and doing so while the adults around them either ignore what they need or actively try to hurt them.

The kids can’t possibly make all of the right choices, even though for a moment it seems they’ll be okay in their country home, away from the mess of the world. That summer paradise is ripped away by the advancing army, and serves as a dreamlike reminder of the innocent joy they’ll never have again. Truly, they never will: some of the kids are killed, and the rest are changed forever. Daisy, the MC, isn’t nice or likeable to begin with, but neither is she cruel. She’s an unhappy teenager, simple as that. She grows over the course of the film, becoming a mother and protector, but the change isn’t capricious. She fails in a lot of ways as she learns to get the important things right.

There are consequences to everyone’s actions. The characters have motivation and agency and needs, and while displayed subtly, they’re also obvious in the context of the story. The director manages to keep the pace moving without rushing too fast or dragging behind. There are no montages; there is nothing shown outside of the Daisy’s experience, yet the story is complete and bursting with detail. It’s tight 3rd person, excellently scripted, and I highly recommend it as an example of how YA storytelling should be done. I normally avoid anything with teenage main characters because it doesn’t speak to my life now, and I don’t get terribly nostalgic for my own past since what I have now is so much better. But I’ve seen this twice now, and would watch it again, because it’s not about “teenagers”. It’s about real, textured, people who just happen to be kids.

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Writing Process Blog Tour

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam invited me to join this blog relay on writing craft. Her post is here.

1. What am I working on?

I’ve got three big projects right now, as well as a couple of short stories I need to revise, and my editing work. I’m concurrently writing two novels and compiling a mosaic novelette of SF poetry. The working titles are:

  • Sonnets for the Rocket Queen – 144 Shakespearean-style sonnets about love, loss, and space ships.
  • Shades of Gray – first person, female protagonist, modern day, ghost story. Urban fantasy without the tramp stamp. Miéville noir with a female lead.
  • Caudal Ballad – third person PoV, multiple protagonists, surreal/interstitial. Borges meets Nabakov, with traces of Burroughs and Poe.

Shades and Caudal are set in the same universe, same town, at the same time, and explore a series of events from very different perspectives. They don’t need to be read together.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

No one else has read what I read, in exactly the same way, or lived my life, or shares my exact sense of humor. That’s true of all of us. For that alone, I’d like to think what I write is different. When you add to that mix that I write because I have a story in my head I want to get out — instead of for fame, money, respect, or notoriety — and that if I’ve read the same story elsewhere I no longer want to write it, then what I do produce fits into a small space occupied by not much else.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Have you ever read something and thought, “Oh, yeah, that is true”? You learn some fact you didn’t know before, but based on everything else you know, this thing makes sense. I love to read fiction that has that resonance of truth, and I don’t want to put any of my own writing out into the world unless it speaks to me in the same way. It has to answer a question, or provide a viewpoint which clarifies a confusion you didn’t even know you had. I want to feel more alive, more knowledgeable, when I’ve finished a piece of reading. Even if the knowledge is sad.

I’m also interested in mixes of genres or the places where multiple genres lean against each other. I think that when you work in solid, simple, mainstream, genres, whether it’s literary or epic fantasy or hard science fiction, you’re more likely to be retreading the same old ground. There are stories which slip between the cracks, tales that don’t quite fit, and are therefore told a lot less often. Those are the stories I want to tell.

4. How does my writing process work?

My current writing process was developed over years of failing to produce consistent work. Ideas, I have. Ideas are easy. They’re everywhere. I’m lucky that my subconscious, what I call my lizard brain, is strong enough that I can decide I want to work on a story, spend a little time thinking about it, and then move on to another task, another piece of writing. Meanwhile, my lizard brain will keep writing, until one day, it taps me on the shoulder and says, “Here you go.”

The hard part is always writing it down. I’m chronically overbooked, overworked, and exhausted. I don’t have time to read for pleasure, be with my family the way I’d like. So, how do I find time to write?

I carefully manage what I have, and the rest I need, I steal. The managing comes from being organized — two white boards at home, online spreadsheets, Field Notes books in my bags to scribble down thoughts, post-it notes on the wall, documents saved to Drive so I can work on them anywhere. I manage my time like I structure my writing, so I’ve got spreadsheets for how much time is spent on each freelance project, to do lists, and even my daily word count.

Doing that means I’ve got everything I’ve written down whenever I want it, and knowing whether I’ve spent enough time on other projects that day tells me how much I have left for writing. If it’s not enough to get out the part of the story I’m ready to write down, I take what I need from other places. I write instead of going out. I write instead of getting to bed on time. I write on my lunch breaks, before work, while watching tv, during dinner. Not all of those times every day, but whatever I need to make sure that every day, I am writing.

I’m a better writer because of it, and I think that I more fully enjoy the times I spend with my family, partner, friends because I know what I give up to write, and what I give up to be with them. I cherish everything. To me, making time to write feels like having it all.

* I was supposed to tag two more writers who’d then complete this meme and pass it on. Instead, I am tagging all of you. Write your own posts, and leave me a comment with the link so I can go read yours too.

#SFWAPro

It takes three points to make a plot, or, how to write an interesting (complete) story.

A plot, also called a storyline or narrative, is the sequential list of events which make up a story. These events are linked together within the framework of the story, and occur one after the other as the reader progresses through the story. They may not be revealed chronologically, and multiple events may be occurring simultaneously, but the reader — going through the story line by line — is generally only able to see one event at a time. Events may be “seen” in the sense that they are described as happening at that moment, on the page, or they may occur “off stage”. Offstage, unseen, events can be recounted by a character who was there/heard about the event, to a character who is listening to the event being described, or can be hinted at by revealing the ways in which the event affected others without describing the actual event.

While a story can have any number of events, for it to be interesting and complete, it must have three event points on its plot. Less than that, and the story is either incomplete (a vignette or character study) or it usually fails to be interesting. Often, a plot with fewer than three events is both incomplete and boring. Think of it like this:

Event A and/or/but Event B, so Event C.

That’s a complete plot. Without those three points, you’re not telling a story.

Now, before we get more into what is a plot point, we need to rule out all of the things that aren’t:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Place
  • Genre
  • Passage of time without implied/stated change of events

A character is a person, or anthopomorphic animal or object, which has stated qualities that set them apart from another similar person/animal/object. Examples:

  • Jenny is a 20-year old white woman.
  • Karl is a 35-year old German white man.
  • Lee is a 15 year-old African-American boy from Texas.
  • Taffy is a ginger long-haired kitten living in a box behind the Wegman’s.
  • Rex is a purple toy dinosaur.

By themselves, those descriptions do not contain events, even when they are giving the character qualities not possessed by all others. Age, color, race, geography — these are not events. They do not place the character within a story. There is no history, no arc, no context.

However, there are descriptions which contain events, and therefore reveal plot points:

  • Jenny is a 20-year old white woman waiting outside the diner for her date to arrive.
  • Karl is a 35-year old unemployed German white man.
  • Lee is a 15 year-old African-American boy from Texas, living in California.
  • Taffy is a ginger long-haired kitten living in a box behind the Wegman’s, where she was abandoned.
  • Rex is a purple toy dinosaur lying in the backyard.

Some of the events are more obvious than others, but each of those characters now is fixed to at least one event. Jenny is waiting, in a particular place, for a date that has not yet begun. In order for her to be there, she had to have made a plan, traveled to the diner, and she has not yet met up with her date. She has three events tied to her in that one sentence. Karl, by being described as unemployed, must have either once been employed but was separated from his job, or is expected to be employed but has failed to do so.

Lee has moved from Texas to California. Taffy used to belong to people, but now she doesn’t. Rex was placed in the backyard, either intentionally or unintentionally, by someone else, or moved there on his own (depending on the type of story). Though more about these events can be inferred because the age, place, and other descriptors imply greater depth to the events (Lee was either moved there by adults who made the decision for him, or ran away, since a 15 year old rarely has the legal right to move alone; if he does, that’s even more complex) they are still single events: one move, one loss of a former life, one moment where the character is no longer where it once was. (more…)

Where to find me at Boskone

Attending Boskone this weekend? Here’s where to find me:

Saturday

Gender Roles in Doctor Who (1 PM to 1:50 PM), Harbor III

From the description: “The characters (Companions, foes, etc.) in TV’s Dr. Who have included men, women, and “other.” How have they all conformed to “expected” gender conventions? Discuss notable breaks in tradition, giving examples (this will not be graded.)” With LJ Cohen, Max Gladstone, Julia Rios, and Laurie Mann (M).

Capes, Canes, and Superhero Comics (3 PM to 3:50 PM), Burroughs

From the description: “How we treat our superheroes and villains provides a unique view of our own culture’s beliefs and values regarding ability and disability. Panelists explore the complementary and conflicting nature of superpowers and disabilities. What do the cane bearers and cape wearers from comics reveal about ourselves, our health concerns, and our treatment of those with permanent disabilities and chronic conditions?” With Dana Cameron, Christopher Golden, Brianna Spacekat Wu, Daniel P. Dern (M).

Warning: I have to run after the end of this panel if I’m going to make it to the next one, so I won’t be available to talk immediately after.

From Pixels to Print: The Challenges of Running a Magazine (4 pm to 4:50), Harbor I

Note: I’m moderating this.

From the description: “Got a great idea for a online magazine or podcast that will feature exciting new content, authors, and artists? How do print versus online models compare? Figuring out what you want to do may be the easy part. Now let’s talk about funding, staffing, and managing your organization, and then printing (or enpixeling), distributing, and publicizing your precious products. Successful magazine and podcast veterans tell you how they do it all!” With Scott H. Andrews (Beneath Ceaseless Skies), Neil Clarke (Clarkesworld Magazine), and Shahid Mahmud (Galaxy’s Edge).

Sunday

Flash Fiction Slam (9:30 AM to 10:50 AM), Burroughs

Performing a never-before seen flash fiction story, in under 3 minutes! I may write it the night before! Who knows? Come and cheer me on as I compete against several other authors, some of whom may even be prepared and/or awake!

Writers on Writing: Sex Versus Romance (1 PM to 1:50), Harbor II

From the description: “Authors share ideas and experiences about writing scenes that are erotic as compared to scenes that are romantic. Which is harder? Which is more fun to write? Does your protagonist’s gender or preference make a difference? How do you accommodate audiences of different ages or sexual orientations? Is romance just sex in soft focus?” With Anna Davis, Nancy Holder, and Darlene Marshall (M).

And then I run away home.

The rest of the schedule is online here.

#sfwapro

A Sale, A Review, and A Problematic Story

First, the good:

This week, I sold two SF haiku to Scifaikuest for their August 2014 print issue, and a new review of my latest publication said:

“CL3ANS3 is a beautiful story” and ”Cuinn’s voice and the picture she was able to weave inside my mind was absolutely amazing, her prose was top-notch.” Yay!

The not so good:

A few months ago I shared the opening of a story I was writing, “The Night Hours“. It’s got lots to love: 1930s Innsmouth, a non-white hero navigating a Mythos noir mashup, a strong female character, and more. I thought it would be the start to a series of these stories, maybe even a collection. I researched, wrote, rewrote, finished the story and -

I’ve become hesitant do anything with it. In writing about a main character not normally seen in this type of fiction (Lovecraft’s work was notoriously white-washed, and I’ve been pushing back against that for years) I started from a place of appreciation but ended up wondering if it’ll be read as appropriation. Why? Because too often, white authors will write about non-white characters – usually Asian – to add an exotic flavor to their fiction. Exotic because they assume we’ll read the inclusion of this “other” character as unusual, strange, mysterious, and even sexy – but definitely not normal, average, typical, day to day, or white. And flavor because often these characters are described as food, with “chocolate”, “mocha”, or “cinnamon” skin, and they’re sprinkled into the story for the characteristics the author assumes their race implies, in the same way that a dinner of dim sum and fried rice would be mentioned – because hey! that’s weird food – but when a character eats cereal for breakfast it’s left out.

I wrote that character because I wanted to see something in fiction that I don’t often see – a strong, non-white, lead character doing all of the typical noir things, including getting the girl. I picked a Filipino man as the lead because I felt I knew enough to have a good sense of the character without having to guess at anything. I didn’t want to risk getting it wrong, and if I’d written about a native of the Sudan, for example, I would be inventing instead of relaying. He is like any other guy, white or not, because the real life Filipino men he’s inspired by (not based on any one but an amalgamation of several I’m close to) are the same as white men, which is to say, they’re normal and unique and typical, depending on the moment, just like everyone else. This isn’t a revelation to me and it certainly shouldn’t be to you.

But while a lot of the readers on this story loved it, I noticed an odd split: all of the non-white readers adored it, while some (not all) of the white readers thought it wasn’t believable. I was told that this story would only sell to “certain” markets. One person even asked why the MC had to be a Filipino when I’d “obviously” written a white man and then changed his appearance. I’m already aware of the fine line between celebrating and othering, when it comes to writing about people and places you’re not legitimately a part of, and these crit notes were making me nervous. There’s a lot of non-white authors who’d say that you shouldn’t even try to write non-white characters if you happen to be white, because it’s not your story to tell.

I respect that point of view and I at least agree with part of it – you shouldn’t tell someone else’s story without drawing on your own experiences in some way. But I disagree with the implication that only people of a certain race, color, background, sex, gender, identity expression, neighborhood, and so on should write about characters with those qualities. We should all write everyone, and we should all be careful to write real people with whom we can relate, instead of using a character’s external appearance or birthplace as shorthand.

I want this story out in the world because I think it’s entertaining, well-researched and well-written. I also very much want it out in the world because the idea that [insert any non-white person here] can only be admirable, strong, manly, sexy, or brilliant if we first write a white version and then paint ‘em a different color is something I don’t ever want to hear again. We make SFF a more diverse place by including more diverse characters, regardless of the author. But if readers look at this story and think I’m exaggerating someone’s abilities to make a point, and so use it as proof they’re right to assume non-white peoples are less than in some way – I’m failing my friends and people I love by contributing to that. That’s not fair to them.

The fact that I’ve had to say “non-white” and “white” several times in this post isn’t fair to them either, by the way. We are all so much more complex than a simple “this/that” division could ever express. Do you really want to be “just a white guy”, a stereotype, a bad guy in a certain kind of films? Neither do I.

I don’t have a good answer to this problem yet, and so I’ve got the story tucked away in a file until I decide what to do with it.