Chasing the Muse

How to Fake Clarion

So this happened this morning.

For many of us, Clarion isn't in the cards. Maybe you can't leave your job for six weeks without losing the job and your home. Maybe you're the parent of a small child, or take care of an elderly or disabled relative. Maybe you have a chronic health condition yourself, or an anxiety disorder that means you wouldn't be able to travel or participate. Maybe you're saving up for a house or paying off medical debt.

Maybe you'd rather go on a proper vacation if you happen to come into a few thousand dollars in disposable income.

None of these things mean you can't be a professional writer. But the good news is, there's more than one path to being a writer, pro or otherwise.

Clarion Isn't the Only Game in Town

First off, Clarion is a six-week endeavor. There are other writer's workshops that require only one week out of your life, and are also highly regarded. Viable Paradise, for example -- and I wish I could make the time for that one. Taos Toolbox is also reportedly an excellent workshop and worth your time and money, if you have them to spare.

Even better, these retreat-style workshops aren't the only way to improve your craft. There might be a genre writer's workshop in your own town that meets once a week, or once a month. And there are critique circles online ranging from Critters to Absolute Write -- I'm sure commenters will chime in with more. If you want a workshop-style venue to have your work read, and to critically read the work of other writers in turn, there are plenty of options.

And the truth is, workshops are helpful... but they're not necessary. Far from it.

Faking a Workshop

What a workshop does for you is hone your critical eye. Simply by being exposed to excellent critical thinking, you develop the capacity to critique your own work. But you can develop a critical eye on your own, if other means don't suit you.

Read. Read widely. But don't just take in the story. As you go, consciously reflect on what you're thinking and feeling. Are you expecting the story to go in a particular direction? What exact sentence or passage led you to that belief? What made you feel excited, or sad, or tense? How are the scenes structured? How are description, dialogue, and action blended together? How long are the sentences? A story is a machine, and every part should be doing a specific job. You need to become a mechanic, able to look at each piece of the story to identify what work is being done.

Read reviews. But not of your own work -- of the stuff you're already analyzing. When you've finished a book or a story, go looking for the reactions of other people to calibrate your own antennae. In preference, read longer, analytic reviews that talk about both what a work has done and how it fits into the overall landscape of genre publishing. Deep critical analysis like you'll find on NPR Books or are perfect, but you'll even find insightful critique on Goodreads and Amazon. 

Read bad work. This is, I strongly believe, an important part of a writer's development. Read stuff you know is going to be bad. And then -- this is the important part -- analyze the hell out of it. Why is it bad? Does it fail on a sentence level, on consistency, does it fail in terms of pacing or plausibility? Sometimes we learn from mistakes better than we learn from success. You can't watch Meryl Streep and learn how to be an amazing performer, but you can watch a fifth grade play and learn that maybe you shouldn't leave your hands hanging by your sides the whole show, and maybe you should speak up a little more.

Revise. This is where you apply what you've learned. The temptation to write and immediately submit is strong, but while you're trying to actively develop your craft, resist the urge. Come back to a story after a few days, weeks, months if you can spare them, and try to read as if you'd never seen the story before. Think about everything you're learning, and apply those lessons to your own work. 

Repeat. Clarion (and other workshops) are an intensive course in this kind of thinking, but even when Clarion is over, you'll need to keep doing these things forever. At least, you do if you want to keep growing as a writer. And why on earth would you ever want to stop getting better?

Clarion's Secret Sauce

Here's the real reason Clarion is a big deal: the alumni association, as it were, is a powerful and widespread network in genre publishing. Human nature being what it is, we like people who have the same experiences and affiliations as we do. And we like to help the people we like. So if you go to Clarion, some doors of opportunity are a little more open to you than they were before.

We like to tell ourselves that publishing is a meritocracy, and that's only sort of true. People do emerge from the slush pile, naked and alone. You really don't have to know someone to be published.

But at the same time, it's a bit easier to break in if you've become a familiar face -- not just because people are more willing to go to bat for a friend, but because you'll begin to understand the kinds of work different editors and markets are interested in, you'll learn from the successes and mistakes of your peers, you'll become a part of the cultural conversation that SF/F fundamentally is.

So how do you fake the network? Duh, networking! Build your own. Go to cons, if you can. Make friends. Invite people to coffee or a drink. If that's not possible for you, work social media. Follow authors, editors, agents on Twitter. 

And don't be all networky and utilitarian about it, because people can tell and generally super hate that. You need to approach everything as an exercise in meeting interesting people and making friends. Promote the work you admire. Ask questions. Introduce people to each other when you can; do favors when you can. Give to the community. Give. Give. You can worry about taking later, or maybe never. 

Because Clarion is, at the end of the day, just one neighborhood in the SF/F community. But there are others, and you'll find professional writers in all of them.

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Confessions of a Transmedia Pundit

If you're a long-time reader here, it won't have escaped your notice that I stopped talking about transmedia a while back. I'm not writing about craft anymore, I'm not giving talks at conferences, and I've been increasingly winding down or declining commitments to run workshops, speak to classes of aspiring digital professionals, and so on. But it's not because I've left transmedia, and not that I don't believe in transmedia anymore.

Partly this is because I'm in an extremely fortunate position wherein haven't needed to hustle for new projects for a long time now. But it was already in the cards when I was still hustling. Mostly it's because I don't want to sell snake oil, and when I talked about transmedia, snake oil was where I was headed -- and definitely what audiences wanted from me: promises that if they just did what I told them, they'd get more engagement, attract more eyeballs, and make more money.

That's not always true. Transmedia is not your magic bullet; you can use every technique in the toolbox and still make a project nobody ever looks at or cares about. Sometimes implementing a transmedia strategy is a waste of precious energy and resources. It's hard to say that when your goal is to get people to hire you for money to do things, though. But look: transmedia isn't synonymous with innovative or interesting, nor is it a replacement for a traditional marketing plan.

Anyway, I didn't want to become someone eternally pitching something I didn't believe in anymore. So I stopped punditing, basically.

There's another reason, too. While I was still on the conference circuit, I found myself increasingly talking about work that I'd done or experienced three years before, five years. Meanwhile the amount of work I was actually doing was paltry, and I don't think any transmedia work I've done has been noteworthy since... well. *coughs* It's been a while. 

I got into this field because of the art, because of the audience relationships, because when you make something amazing and electric, there's nothing else like it. I got into this because of The Beast, because I was told a story and gifted with an experience that changed my life. I want to do that, too. 

I wasn't ever, ever going to do that by speaking to a group of brand strategists about the engagement pyramid.

When something isn't working for you, when you find yourself walking down a path that goes somewhere you don't want to be, the only answer is to turn a corner and head somewhere else. So what have I been doing instead? I doubled and tripled down on making instead of talking

I've got a really magnificent long-term project that you could probably call transmedia I'm working on -- details will come eventually, I swear. Hopefully in the next couple of months!

And I've also been chipping away at a long-term plan to build some credibility as a writer, and maybe start some organic growth so that one day I can go to a publisher or a production company and have the gravitas to get more complex things made... without having to start a studio my own self. I've done independent works like Lucy Smokeheart and The McKinnon Account. I've also somehow turned into a legit science fiction author. I've written a novel, I've published a few short stories. I'm represented by Zoe Sandler at ICM now, and I'm a member of SFWA. I have a game on the way, and some secret stuff, too. I'm making again. It feels... amazing.

But I'm still here, and I have big plans. Long-range plans, to be sure. But hopefully when we get there, you'll find it's been worth the wait.

And who knows, maybe when the time comes, I'll finally have some new things to say about transmedia, too.


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Never An Other

At Phoenix Comicon last weekend, a gentleman came to me after one of my panels and asked if I had any advice for him on writing women. I had a lot of things to say: fill your story with tons of other incidental women, so no one character bears the burden of demonstrating what it's like to be female in your story world; make sure she has agency in the story; please don't have her thinking hard about her relationship with her own breasts. 

But the first thing that popped out of my mouth was: write her just like you'd write a man. Because she's not really any different from you at all.

I've read lots of advice about writing the other. Much of it is sensible advice for achieving a new point of view -- research cultures and subcultures, make sure you read and talk to people in a culture and not just people who know it from the outside. But I was always a little unsatisfied with how the topic is addressed. I didn't understand why until that lovely young man asked me 'how should I write women.' And the problem I have is: talking about writing the other assumes otherness. It assumes a fundamental difference, even an alienness in priorities and perceptions. And I simply don't think there is such a thing as a human being who is other to me.

I admittedly have the privilege of possessing a remarkably broad swath of lived experience. I've been a minority in several senses, and just like everyone else around me; rich enough to have live-in servants and poor enough to have food stamps; I've been shy and unpopular, I've been the life of the party; I've made my home in a dozen places cutting across nations and regions, and spent time in a dozen more. And the thing that always strikes me isn't difference. It's how all the same everything is.

Wherever you go, people are fundamentally the same. Do parents want their children to succeed any less in China than in Chicago? Does an Iranian doctor feel any different about losing a patient than a Philadelphian? There are differences between cultures, to be sure, but the variation between individuals even in the same culture dwarfs it in scope. Who's more different from a gregarious restaurant owner and father of three in Atlanta -- the gregarious restaurant owner and father of three in Mumbai, or one of Atlanta's own homeless with crippling social anxiety and PTSD? 

So when I'm writing, yes, I do try to be cognizant of how the weight of etiquette and culture color a person's opinions and interactions. Maybe don't have the devout Orthodox Jew order the BLT, right? But also don't assume that no Jew would ever order the BLT -- not everyone practices their faith impeccably. Be sure you're operating from a credible perspective on what a culture's norms and standards actually are, and not groundless assumptions. Maybe don't have your Ugandan character behave as though they have never even heard of a mobile phone before, much less seen one. 

But at the end of the day, I think the key to writing the other is to discard the idea of otherness completely. Writing any character is an act of extreme empathy. You have to find the spark in you that understands what it would be like to be someone else -- how the world might treat you in different circumstances, how those different layers of reward and resentment would influence your reactions and change you into something different. All of us know what it is to be virtuous and terrible, petty and generous, brilliant and stupid, selfish and brave and worn down. Find the person-like-you first. Once you have that, the rest is just color.

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Children of Rouwen

Most of the news around here lately is about that book, but meanwhile Fireside Magazine published a new piece of short fiction from me on Monday: Children of Rouwen. I'd be delighted if you would read it and tell me what you think!

I'd like to talk a bit about where that story comes from -- and this is incredibly spoilery, so if you care about that sort of thing, please, read the story before you continue. Children of Rouwen is very directly inspired by and in conversation with Ursula Vernon's Elegant and Fine, a breathtaking work about Narnia, and about Susan, and the realistic emotional consequences of living a life in Narnia and then... coming home again, into a child's life and a child's body. It's a fine piece of writing, and Ursula Vernon is a genius.

This got me to thinking about the nature of portal fantasy as a whole, and about the ones who get left behind. If you think on it, the adults of Narnia, living through wartime and reconstruction, arguably need a little magic even more than the children do. The idea of being left behind, of being the one not chosen, of having missed your chance -- I think that speaks to a deep human fear. And there's another layer here, especially for parents: even once those children come back, the parents have still been left behind by the passage of time, haven't they? So Children of Rouwen is also, as many of my works are, about the inevitable sorrow of seeing your children grow up and away from you.

When my first daughter was a few days old and I was home alone with her for the first time, I was suddenly overcome with waterfalls of tears in the middle of a diaper change because it struck me all at once that one day, she would be a teenager and she would hate me; or at the very least, one day, she would be an adult, and she wouldn't really need me anymore. This was mostly a crazy rush of weird postpartum hormones. It's not really a rational train of thought, as such.

But parenting is, for me, full of something opposite to nostalgia; I think maybe the aesthetic called mono no aware in Japanese. It's the sadness of knowing that something beautiful is ephemeral; of missing something that brings you joy before it's even gone. 

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Striving Toward Perfection

There's some substantial discussion going on right now about... you know, I can't even explain it. But there are important questions being raised about activism, about trying to do better, about whether trying is enough, whether being a good person is enough, even when you set a foot wrong.

I have expressed terrible opinions in my life, because I did not know better.

These opinions have been grossly homophobic (because the newspapers told me about the pervy gay people and AIDS.) They've been about trans people (because also pervy, I guess? That one sort of folded in with gay people back then.) They've been about how fat people are lazy and greedy, about gender roles and how I was a superior girl because I was much more like a boy, about Christians and rigid, repressive fundamentalism. Don't even get me started about the racist "knowledge" I learned and repeated about Filipinos when I lived on a military base in the Philippines.

But I know better now, I think. I have aged and grown more compassionate, more experienced at life. I've come to understand that my life is just a small fraction of all the possible lives to be lived, and many are more difficult than mine. Or just different than mine. But other experiences than mine have merit and value. Other choices than mine have value. I'm not the center of the freaking universe, nor are people like me. I know that now.

None of that erases the fact that I started off so horribly, cruelly wrong, a product of my time and environment. All of those horrible thoughts and opinions have been in my head. They were mine. Over time, I try to find the bad patterns, the awful judgey opinions that hurt people, and wear them away with something newer and kinder, something that lets me see and hear more people. It's an ongoing process. And yet I feel it might be unfair, unjust, unkind, to judge me for not having already arrived at the ultimate destination.

In twenty years' time I expect to find with horror that I've been even more wrong about other groups. Because I cannot be perfect, and I will never be perfect.

All I have is trying. And if trying isn't enough, then what hope is there for any of us?

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