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. Continue reading

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

This path leads to madness and ruin. Maybe.

I finished moving my scattered notes over to the Drive spreadsheet I’m using now, and updated this post accordingly. Having a detailed tracker helps me to see:

  • My acceptance rate from 2010 to 2013 is 54%
  • I submitted twice as much in 2010 as in any of the years after.
  • I earned $720.94 for those acceptances, from a total of 9 paid sales, with 11 unpaid acceptances (including one I donated to an anthology). The whole of 2010, I only made $7.

It’s tempting to stay on that path – submitting to places I’m fairly certain will be happy to have my work, waiting to be invited to an anthology. There’s a lot less risk involved when you’re not opening yourself up to the possibility of failure or hurt. But, at the beginning of 2014 I resolved to try a new path: no more writing for free, with the exception of a handful of literary markets, and no more letting months go by between submissions.

This means I have to write more, finish the pieces I have started, have them read/critiqued/edited, revise it, and submit. It’s also going to mean a lot more rejections, as I move from smaller markets where I was a big fish, to bigger markets where I’m a tiny guppy. I’ve sent out four submissions this month so far, and three have already been rejected: two form rejections from Clarkesworld, and a personal from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency:

Hi Carrie –

This certainly has its charms, but I’m afraid I’m going to pass. Cracks more smiles than laughs. Appreciate your considering us, though. Hope you’ll try again sometime.*

I’ve put a counter in the top right corner of the site to share my progress this year. Feel free to poke me if you haven’t seen it change in a few weeks.

I don’t know if this experiment will result in me moving up to the next phase of my writing career, or just depress me into a drunken stupor. But I do know that I don’t want to stand in the way of my own happiness, letting my fear or worry keep me from achieving my goals or creating the life I envision for myself.

Risk it is, then.

* A rejection like that is not nothing, but it’s still a “NO”.

Stats: Submissions, Rejections, Acceptances, and Notes from my writing career to date

My amazing writer’s group* has been comparing the number of rejections we’ve all had in the last few years. Rejections are a measure of success because they mean you’ve been submitting your work, giving it a chance to be sold. Other folks in the group have 200, 300+ rejections, which means they’re submitting over a hundred times a year.

I haven’t submitted 100 stories in my lifetime.

I went over my notes from 2010 to now, and compiled my stats:

I have submitted 37 pieces (1 essay, 1 poem, and 35 fiction submissions) so far.

Sold/placed 24, had 13 rejections.

The rejections represent 9 pieces I haven’t yet been able to place (including a couple that I’ve trunked now). Of these, two ended up in my collection, so I’ve sold them that way, but they weren’t accepted by someone else.

4 personal rejections, 5 form, 3 maybe-form rejections, one “market closed while my piece was on sub”.

Of the sales, one was a reprint, a couple were micro-fiction, one was a pro-rate story (“Call Center Blues” to DSF)**, one was non-speculative noir. Three were for invite-only anthologies, and one of those was the essay. Less than 1/2 of the paying sales were for flash, which surprised me; I always thought of myself as more successful with flash, and it’s true that I’ve sold nearly all of it that I’ve written, but I’ve made more sales overall of longer pieces (for $) which means I must be writing more short stories than I thought.

This doesn’t count all of the non-paying non-fiction work I’ve done: guest essays, podcasts, blog posts, and my columns for Functional Nerds and SF Signal. Those weren’t things that were really going to be rejected, and other than building my resume/fan base, they don’t help my fiction career.

On the upside, my acceptance rate is pretty high, but that’s because I carefully research my markets, very selectively submit, and haven’t been subbing to many pro-markets. I didn’t aim low but I didn’t aim too high, either. I’ve started to change that this year, with my first submission of the year to Clarkesworld Magazine (and my first rejection, from them, 48 hours later).

As I get more out, I know my enviable ratio is going to drop like a stone. That’s the price of moving forward, and I’m willing to pay it if it means a more successful 2014.

* which includes Julie Day, Michael J. DeLucaAdam MillsDon PizarroAngela Still, and Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam. Aren’t I lucky?

**  which made me eligible for the Campbell in 2012 and 2013, but I never felt I’d sold enough to warrant publicizing myself as such, and I’ve now expired out.

Writing Advice: Shop at ALDI

Where I live, we have several options for buying food. In addition to the local grocery store chain, there’s a fancy yuppie market, a “whole foods” -style store that sells a lot of vegan/veggie foods, a farmer’s market (a couple of days of week through the summer), an Aldi, Walmart, an Asian market… even the Target has a grocery section. Usually, I do one or two big shopping trips to Aldi a month, and that covers everything except for what I get at the Asian market (lumpia wrappers, pancit noodles, etc), and a a trip to the chain store to get the few items I can’t get otherwise (or I’ll get them if I have to go to Target that month).

The last few weeks I’ve been so busy that instead of taking the time to shop at Aldi*, I’ve been picking up just what I need most, at the chain store. It’s much more expensive, and though it’s quick, it’s a time spent on lot of little trips. Plus, instead of having a fridge full of food to choose from, I end up stressed and annoyed that I don’t have choices; I don’t eat as healthily, and it’s tempting to get fast food or order delivery instead of yet another trip to the store to get dinner…
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When We Think Different is Brave

I use Pinterest for a couple of reasons. It’s a think-ahead, a place to put ideas for things I want to own, because I tend not to be an impulse shopper. I like to know that if I’m spending my money it’s on something I’ve wanted for awhile, not just to fill a void at that particular moment. I use it to collect book covers I like, so that I can be inspired when I’m designing. There are recipes for drinks and food, some of which I’ve tried. There are also reference boards, with links to info on types of shoes or knife blades or the fancier ways to knot a tie.

While it isn’t the sum of human existence, it is an example of something I’ve been pondering for a while.

I’ve noticed that a lot of writers curate collections of “characters”. Photo reference for costume, inspiration for writing–there’s nothing wrong with the idea, on the surface. I have boards of images for reference. I’ve been collecting one for my Mythos noir story, so that I can get the prices, clothes, cars, and buildings right when I write. Visual models are great for adding true detail to a story when you’re no longer (or never were) in that time or place.

The problem is, many of these boards are filled with women or people of color, and labeled things like “fierce female characters” (or “fabulous”, or “tough” or “strong”–something implying they’re acting in a way that the bulk of the population wouldn’t). When the images are of women in armor, appropriate (or not) to their native land, then okay, an armored up person of either gender, of any race, is pretty fierce. They’re ready for battle, and as long as we’re not talking about chainmail bikinis or something like this*, it’s a segment of the population I think we can rightly label as impressive.

But what about a woman wearing a traditional hat, the same as any other woman in her part of the world? How about one standing outside, smoking a cigarette? Or a little girl standing in front of a bed? How about a woman who is laughing, carrying a baby, or the thousands of other images you find labeled the same way?

What makes all of these women similar is that they are doing perfectly normal things, without being afraid to do them. And we think of that as “special” and “strong”, because we expect women and people of color to be afraid, to blend in, to be unseen and therefore not making a target of themselves. Anyone acting differently, even if it is to simply be themselves in an unflashy but unafraid way, well, we call that “brave”. We decide that it’s fierce and strong and bold. We mean it in a good way, don’t we? We’re proud of their courage, we salute the fact that they’re not just bowing down… but that’s because there’s still an expectation that they should.

It’s a tough situation because as long as there are people who oppress anyone who stands out, then it can take bravery to be different. But we shouldn’t be encouraging a world where that’s true. And we definitely shouldn’t be writing new worlds where that stupid idea gets perpetuated.

Start with this: stop collecting pictures of women or people of color under the banner of “brave”, if you don’t know their story. Instead, give them accurate labels. Write down the real reason that photo moved you. “Woman wearing a hat I would never wear” or “little girl wearing a dress that took her mother hours to make, far more than my mom would spend on me” or “I wish I was brave enough to wear those earrings without being afraid someone would laugh”. At least then you’re admitting what you really think, and giving yourself–and others–a chance to consider that truth.

Note: I left out the women athletes, actresses, artists, musicians, or activists–people who we know something about. Though it’s more accurate to call someone strong when you know their personality, my point was about incorrectly labeling images without context. You want to say Joan Crawford, Frida Kahlo, Sigourney Weaver, Octavia Butler, Hazel Ying Lee, Bessie Coleman, or Elsa Avila are strong? Yes, I’m sure that they are. But we know they accomplished things that most people–regardless of gender or race–don’t ever do.

*Not “viking woman”, as the tag I found it under said, but Skyrim cosplay. In case that wasn’t obvious.

Haiku for Procrastinators

Without a deadline

Words pile up in advance of

A reason to be.

I always know I

Should be writing. I never

Forget that I’m not.

I think if I wrote

You would see my heart beating

In letters, and love me.

I want to be so

Much more than a person who

Hasn’t yet written.

All of my stories

Are nothing but dreams, without

Words on the page.

All of my dreams are

Stories I haven’t told you

But one day, I will.

Read these things, the Nemo storm edition.

If you’re stuck inside with not much to do, take a look at the stories, essays, and interviews that have interested me this week:

Shimmer interviews my friend A.C. Wise, whose story “Tasting of the Sea” appears in issue #16.

Rose Lemberg collected speculative fiction poetry recommendations from various editors – read the list here.

Geoff Ryman’s famously sad novel, Was, is now available as an ebook from Weightless Books (their page has excerpts from the book).

Avi Steinberg talks writing and the Gilbert v Roth argument:

That’s the kind of a person it takes to be a writer: someone who’s zealous and ready to argue, someone who has Philip Roth tell him, “It’s torture, don’t do it,” and replies, “You had me at ‘torture.’ ” You don’t enter into it because it’s a great lifestyle decision—it isn’t—you do it because, for whatever reason, you believe in it, and you believe in it because, for whatever reason, you need to believe in it.

Discover News says readers grasp digital media (aka ebooks) just as well as print.

Eddie Huang (author, chef, and tv personality) talks to NPR about Asian-American food, family, and masculinity. (podcast/interview)

NY Review of Books talks about Wes Anderson as a writer.

Stupefying Stories put together a free ebook of shorts by authors eligible for this year’s Campbell Award.

Wonderful Chet Baker documentary “Let’s Get Lost” now on YouTube.

My latest appearance on the SF Signal podcast is now up: “2013 SF/F/H Conventions We’re Anticipating“. I mainly talk about how great Readercon is.

Oh, and I shared the introduction from FISH over at Dagan Books.