The Balancing Act: Finding “Solace”

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My self-worth isn’t great right now. I’m trying to write but it’s like getting blood out of a stone. My brain screaming at me that I’m a terrible writer, that the two rejections I had this week were personal and signalled my ultimate failure as an author. I cringe at the thought of sending more stories out and yet there’s a call coming up that I’ve promised myself I’ll submit a story to.

After the name-changing of the other day, I had a temporary high which means, of course, my mood was always going to crash back town. It’s not as bad as it was a couple of weeks ago but it still feels particularly dark at times. I can find fractured moments of happiness in Disney movies and the Game of Thrones rumour-mill, listening to certain pieces of music and eating things which are bad for me. Though I do have a bag of carrots in the fridge that I’m sharing with the hound.

Yesterday I didn’t write a word all day. Instead, I wasted time on the internet, reading and posting until it was time for an appointment on the other side of town. I took the bus because I couldn’t face the walk from either of the two routes I can use, I even arrived early because it was better than lingering in Starbucks for another half an hour.

Of course, I could have slept in, I could have been kinder but I’m a creature of habit. I did, however, walk back into town, past the barky German Shepherd Uni hates. We had lunch, which was cheap and filling (bonus points to the fact I was craving cabbage and new potatoes). We capped off the day with an epic 99 that took me back to my childhood. The seller even made Uni a micro 99 which she definitely appreciated. It was exceptionally warm and poor Un, well she’s getting fluffy again.

As part of my run of jobs on Monday, I booked her a slot to be clipped for the summer. It’s expensive but worth it, she’s already feeling the heat and it’s only just gone from sub-arctic rain to a few, precious, glorious days of summer. She’ll thank me in two weeks. In the meantime, I’m carrying water and her bandana, even retiring my jacket because denim and heat, they don’t play well together.

My big focus for this week is the short story I need to write. It’s a space mermaid story and I’m hurrying to get it done not because the call is coming (it’s at the end of the month) but because I want to have my crit group look the story over first. I have a better idea of the storyline for “Solace” but my desire to write, it’s still not easy. Plus the deadline is making it much harder, inducing a panic that I won’t be done by 1st July.

This annoys me as normally deadlines are my fodder, my fuel. The trick is, of course, to go back to what MRK taught me in the short story class I did. Outline the story, write down what happens and then, when my muse returns in a coffee-fueled flood, do the story. Worse case, as long as it’s done by Wednesday, the group won’t be too put out but I still feel bad. We each understand everyone has problems writing sometimes and this week, it’s my turn.

I want this story to be good, though. I want to love writing it, the desire is there, but my mood flattens it. I want to nip to the garage, buy a pint but I can’t afford to lose either the money in my purse or the addling of my brain. So I’ve put on Game of Thrones and am trying to outline, hoping that will help. At least I now have a much clearer idea of the antagonism in the story and the ending.

That’s something and, right now, I’ll take anything I can get.

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Happy Spring!

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As the days get warmer, as the sun comes out, I inevitably start feeling better, both mentally and physically. I’m commuting most of the week and spending large amounts of time with The Naked Dog (I can’t really call her my Furball as she’s been shawn for the spring) in Starbucks working. I’m still on a short story streak (Asha really does like them) and have been working on a particularly emotional story called “Constructed Mind, Reforged Soul” that I sent off to an anthology call yesterday.

Oh and I’ve watching Dark Souls III playthroughs, doing Zumba and napping.

So, as today is Good Friday (aka the One Bank Holiday which isn’t on a Monday), I went into the city for breakfast with my BFF, Mhairi and her guide dog, Bramble (the one whose hugs are like dog valium). Then I bought a hat.

Apparently all I needed to complete my transformation into Asha was a hat. Who knew?

(BTW this is not a selfie; Mhairi took it. Not bad attempt either.)

We’d finished breakfast and were heading for coffee but, as it’s Easter, there was this market just by Cafe Rouge selling things like food, bread, jewellery, crepes (CREPES … and I had no room left). Oh and hats.

Funny story: I only found out what a milliner is a couple of months ago. I was in Mary Robinette Kowal’s class and she was brainstorming ideas. She came up with something like ‘a milliner who assassinates people with oranges’ and I was mentally going: WTF? A word I don’t know??? (and I know many just not this one). I actually had to google the definition and discovered milliners are the name for people who make hats. I related this story to Mhairi and the stall owner as I tried on hats, who reminded me of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. That bit I knew: he was a hat maker who went mad from the mercury used to make hats.

But he’s never called a milliner.

I pointed this out. Mhairi laughed at me. Nicely.

I ended up buying this rather nice hate (and mentally swearing at the expense). Lots of people have told me it suits me and I really think it does, even if it means I’m going to have to wear my hair either braided or bound back out of my face. Normally I wear headbands and those get in the way of the hat sits.

This afternoon I finally sat down and edited “One Quiet Night”. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been putting it off, apparently—regardless of my name—I still hate editing. It’s like pulling teeth and actually, I’d put it off so long I had to get the file re-sent as it had expired. That’s just embarrassing. Anyway, I cracked my knuckles, spoke to Shannon and then engaged the Kung Fu Panda 3 OST (it’s a freaking awesome movie BTW). I think it took me two hours to do and, as usual, once you start things don’t feel quite as difficult. I’m sitting on the draft overnight and will then send it off with the blurb I’ve not yet written.

Actually, let’s do that now:

It only takes one quiet night for humanity to die …

Everyone expects zombies and nuclear fire to herald the destruction of the Earth but the end, at least in this tale, comes much more quietly. Your daughter is sick, the entire world is dying, and there’s nothing you can do.

Yes, you.

Step into the shoes of a single mother whose daughter doesn’t just have a simple bug but is one of millions afflicting with a terrifying virus which is quietly decimating humanity.

And you’re not the only one watching her die.

I like it.

Also, hey, on the fly! Go me!

In other news I’ve had a couple of rejections, which is fine. I’m sending out stories as fast as I can and trying to revise the last few in my ‘to revise’ pile. I also have about five which need finishing, particularly as there are at least two anthology calls coming up I want to respond to. I’m now treating said rejections as excuses to, occasionally, rework a story and as a badge of honour, not a negative thing. Rejections make you stronger and I’m now at the point where I get to call C.C. Finlay of F&SF ‘Charlie’ after he’s rejected like four of my stories.

This is a major thing, if my other writer friends are to be believed.

And yeah, I’m still sending him stories.

One day he will accept one, I know it.

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On Neil Gaiman, Clarion and Writing Workshops

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So Neil Gaiman said this *points up*, the internet exploded and writers/authors came down in one of two camps: ‘I went to Clarion’ and ‘I didn’t but I did this so fuck yeah I’m a writer’.

Before we go any further, you should read Cat Rambo’s calm and very well deconstructive post on the whole kerfuffle. Need to read? Go on, I’ll wait. Then go and read this piece as well.

My personal favourite stream for this was Fran Wilde‘s comments (she’s the author of Updraft):

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Now, for those not in the know. Clarion (he’s specifically mentioning Clarion at UCSD/West here) is a six week writers’ workshop/bootcamp from hell which has literally started careers. People who are now winning Hugos and Nebulas (most recently Anne Leckie) went to Clarion. The instructors—typically six of them, each taking a week—are the greats of the sci fi and fantasy world.

And I want to go.

Now I don’t have to but I’m painfully aware what an opportunity Clarion is. Several of my friends/acquaintances are alumni and have spoken highly of everything (except for perhaps Clarion @ UCSD’s food), citing the experience as truly life changing.

I applied to Clarion @ UCSD two years ago and didn’t get in. This year I’ve applied to Clarion West. I chose it for two reasons: a) it’s the cheaper of the two and b) several friends of mine have been.

The trick is, while I have the privilege of time (few people have jobs/lives which allow them to take six weeks off), I certainly don’t have the money. But this, this, it would be something worth getting into debt over.

So I’ve applied and asked for financial assistance (at the level of ‘if you can’t give me financial help, I can’t go’) and am waiting. As this is my first time apply, I don’t expect to get in, in fact I might actually be relieved if this is the case.

I want to Clarion because of the awesome students, the relationships with other students that I’ll be able to forge and the things I’ll be able to learn. Yet, at the same time, I’m aware Clarion is definitely not a prerequisite for writing but it’s an opportunity which I believe, you should take if you can.

Now I’ve done several classes as part of my ‘let’s become an author’ transformation. I’ve sat in on lectures and even did a year long Creative Writing course (though this was more an overview).

I remember back when I first met my friend Shannon (Clarion West, Class of 2014), she was coming to the UK and asked me if I wanted to go to the MCM Expo. I’d gone several times while a journalist and agreed immediately and it was a lot of fun (as well as being Uni’s first time at a convention). One of the panels she wanted to see was Peter F. Hamilton and get her book signed.

We sat on the front row, chatting with the nice chap with a hat on the end of the row and his wife. Uni had decided they were deserving of her presence and demanding fuss; he was most obliging, being quite the dog fancier. It was only when the guy stood up and proceeded to walk on stage I realised this was Peter F. Hamilton.

Yeah, you can’t make this shit up.

But he was lovely, I was at this point beginning to toy with the idea of shifting into a more creative form of writing, Shannon was about a year ahead of me in the process but we got the chance to ask lots of questions and I stole one of Shannon’s paperbacks and read some of Peter’s short stories while we were at the hotel.

A couple of months after this, I did my first paid-for writing class. It was a six week thing taught by James Gunn and not particularly successful even if the story I wrote seeded the idea that I could actually do it. I then dived into novels and decided they were my thing, all but eschewing short stories.

Now I’ve realised I need to improve, ironically it was chatting with an editor who loved my worldbuilding (my undoubted stength when it comes to writing) but also made me realise that worldbuilding, well it’s not everything. That was when I realised stories need structure and I used the money from the story sale to pay for Cat Rambo’s awesome six week intensive on Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction.

(Asha’s tip of the day: if you can do one of Cat’s classes, you won’t regret it)

 The classes (I missed one due to being in Paris) were a massive kick up the arse; they left me scrabbling for my keyboard and needing to write like it was an addiction and I was craving a fix. On top of that Cat encouraged us to send out at least a story a week, indeed so successful was the format that a couple of us continued to get together after the class finished and now have a little crit group which remains immensely helpful. Cat taught me how to be a professional, how to write and rewrite and how to send stuff out in the correct manner (including the little mentions here and there which saw me getting personal rejections from editors as opposed to form ones from the slush bunnies).

Reviewing my notes, it was a practical class but also generalised, we were all short stories writers but that wasn’t our only thing. This was a class on the hows and whys, the nuts and bolts of science fiction, not how to plan a short story from scratch (which, oddly, I didn’t know how to do). That was where Mary Robinette Kowal comes in.

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Now I admit, Mary is one of my favourite narrators and I love her short fiction. In fact taking one of her classes was on my personal bingo card for 2016. She does intensives, which are great … if you’re in the States, and they tend to sell out fast. If I’m honest, the price is also a factor (hence my using earnings from sales to pay for classes I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford; it’s almost ironic given I’m basically pouring back into being an author). I didn’t pay for Mary’s class, there was a sliding scale and it was a ‘beta’ so I hoped the feedback would be enough to cover my toll.

Holy crap, it was.

This was also the class I was looking for, the ‘short story planning for idiots’ course I’d been unconsciously seeking without knowing what it was. As I explained to Draft Zero, my crit group, my novels are organic, they write themselves. Narrators pop into my brain and refuse to bugger off until their tale is told, their story done. They sit behind my eyes, dictacting their adventures (which is why I write almost exclusively in first person) and I seldom need to plot anything as the tales open like flowers as we go. I’m pretty sure I’m basically channeling from another universe or a parallel dimension or something but anyway …

I had no idea how to actually structure a short story. I had ideas, I had snapshots in my brains sparked by ‘what if’ questions or dreams. But I got lost on the path and the stories wandered with me, leaving me to rush endings or not thing the protagonist through. This was a start with an idea class that saw the story grow, the plot stetched like noodles, then contracted and stetched out again. Scenes were planned, maths might have been involved, coding too. The point is, for the first time in my life, someone told me how a story should be written.

Not the seven basic plots but the best way to actual shape a lovely plaited loaf from ball of clay.

I’m still, a week late, in awe of that class and encourage everyone thinking about learning short form writing to take the class (Mary’s classes are usually advertised on Eventbrite; sign up for the notification ASAP which will tell you when a class is coming up/available).

The point of this post, winding as it is, is to say that if you can and the class is the right one, taught by a good teacher long in the tooth when it comes to the subject and skilled at communicating information, then it’s worth the financial cost. Think of it as an investment in your future, just like Clarion. Not everyone can go to America for six weeks, not everyone wants to, but if you want to get good then doing classes with people like Cat and Mary are a boon to your future career.

Neil Gaiman’s tweet, split the community, but I think his heart was in the right place. Clarion remains, at it’s heart, about connecting people and starting careers, about making people better writers and anything which does that is never a bad idea, in my humble opinion. Yes you might not have the time or the money, or the desire, but you’re still a writer and anything you do, free or paid, which helps you improve will only pay off later.

Remember: You win by making yourself a better writer.

And a writer is anyone who writes. Period.

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On Mary Robinette Kowal’s Short Story Idea Generation Class

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So it’s Monday, I’ve spent the weekend rushing to get the last edits done on A Star Filled Sea and emailed off to my editor, somewhat delayed by my keyboard upping and dying on me again. Monday afternoon swings around and I’m actually thinking about a nap, then the image above pops up in my newsfeed.

Mary Robinette Kowal, one of my favourite authors and my even more favourite audiobook narrators, needed people to guinea pig a new class.

That night.

Hello there!

Doing one of Mary’s classes has been on my author bingo scorecard for a while but the classes either sell out too quickly or are out of my price range. This one was a sliding scale and a chance to a) learn and b) help her test out if the class worked. Oh and it’s not like I was doing anything else.

As I keep saying, I’m not a great short form writer and I was especially eager to see the class was about how you generate ideas for stories and then turn them from a budding idea into a proper planned outline. I’ve done short story classes before but they’ve always been general and haven’t ever really touched the nitty gritty of how a story is created.

So, short version, sold.

I admit I didn’t expect to get a ticket. They were gone within half and hour (I was 7 out of 8). The class was conducted over G+ and I learned a couple of new things, such as using Google Drive and how to put my name and gender pronouns (something Mary regards as justifiably important and it was refreshing to be asked, rather than assume everyone is cis; plus I got to have ‘Crazy Cat Lady’ as my tagline, appropriate as D insisted on coming to watch the class).

The class was based off of Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient, something which rang bells (I have a first edition copy of his Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy on my bookshelf). That’s basically a way to classify stories as milieu (place stories), idea, character or event. You can also mix and match or add in a sub-plot thread but the important part is deciding what kind of story you’re going to write.

Half my problem is I’m a pantser when it comes to short stories, I never, ever plan them. They just spill out of my brain and onto the paper, which is half the problem. I have an idea, race through the text and then flounder or rush the ending. I think pre-planning a story from initial idea through to individual scenes might be especially beneficial as it will actually allow me to have a structure my stories usually lack.

Though initially advertised as a one day course, it actually ended up and needed to be two. We spent about five hours in class with homework and it was time well spent (even if it forced me to choose: writing or Zumba ? Guess which won?) I love how Mary uses her back ground in puppetry to explain things as the theatrical analogies worked especially well (I have a little theatre experience, which was enough to follow and much of it is common sense stuff).

I did have problems comprehending a couple of things, mainly due to my Asperger’s. I’m not great at thinking out of the box of my own brain or seeing things from certain angles. That said, Mary did make a point to come back to things and try different ways to explain as they came to her which made the second day’s class tremendously worthwhile.

I especially liked how she taught us to nest stories and the process of breaking a vague idea into scenes, then looking for the gaps and methodically filling them to create a story which would hold water, so tight were it’s seams.

Again, classes like this are an awesome networking opportunity and it was nice to see every other member seemed to have one or more cats (I believe this to be a requirement of the ‘So you want to be an author?’ contract). Mary herself is lovely and ever so patient; both of which are excellent qualities in a good teacher (especially if there’s an open Q and A at the end).

I had an idea I’ve been mulling over for a couple of days, inspired by an off-hand quote. That story, I think, needs to sit for a bit while the idea matures. However I also have this Lovecraftian story that I’m going to submit to my crit group, Draft Zero, next week and so my plan is to take what Mary taught me and rework what I have of “Washed Up Upon the Shore” and try to write it using MICE.

The one thing the class taught me is that it’s not just the effort you put into a story, it’s the process. Though sometimes tedious, Mary’s method can be applied to any form of writing, and it will serve you well if you want to construct that isn’t bloated by extra characters or scene and is tightly composed.

This is the first time I feel like I’ve done a class where the secrets of short story writing have actually been revealed in detail. Hell it’s not a new system and MICE is used by lots of writers, it just never occurred to me this was how everyone else does it, or should. Two days well spent, if you ask me, and I know this is going to set me in good stead for my future stories.

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