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On Remembering That Writers are People

I met a new author this week, the first professional author that I’ve spoken with for longer than 15 seconds in the course of a book signing. We talked about traffic and getting lost on Interstate 80; it was a normal conversation. And I think it was exactly what I needed.

The setup: Husband and I went into San Francisco on Sunday night to attend SF in SF‘s monthly author reading, something we hadn’t done in a long time. As luck would have it, each one of us was excited about one of the two featured authors this month. Husband, a hard SF/Big Idea guy in the core of his being, devoured the first book in Hannu Rajaniemi‘s Jean le Flambeur trilogy late last year and was eager to get his hands on the rest, while I’ve read Daryl Gregory‘s We Are All Completely Fine and Afterparty (read my review of the latter here) and find myself consistently interested in whatever Gregory announces he’s working on next.

So we joined a decent-sized crowd for the reading, hosted by Terry Bisson, and listened to each of the authors read two short pieces. As I suspected might be the case, I was left admiring Rajaniemi’s craft even as I acknowledged that his stories weren’t really aimed at me, and wanting to check out Gregory’s short story collection (not, alas, available for sale at the reading!) The first piece Gregory read was about a very human reaction to the coming apocalypse (which was, really, all this dystopian fan sociologist needed to hear to be hooked :)); the second was a lighter piece about the location of human consciousness. Once both authors had finished their readings, we took a short break, and I sat down to dive into one of the new books I’d picked up from the Borderlands sales kiosk — at which point, Husband tapped my shoulder. “It looks like they’re chatting with people — do you want to go say hi?”

I froze. “Oh, no, that’s OK. I wouldn’t know what to say. I’d feel awkward. I — they’re real authors.” 

Husband: “So are you!”

Me: “No — no — I’ve been working on the same story for ten years and I’ve got nothing to show for it yet. I’m not a real author. I — uh — I’m just gonna read.” At which point, I proceeded to bury my face in Pandemonium.

And then heard a friendly voice say “So, you’re getting a head start by reading at the reading?”

I don’t remember exactly what I said to Mr. Gregory in response; honestly, I think the first thing was a stammered schoolkid answer along the lines of “no, I promise, I wasn’t reading while you guys were reading!” But then he cracked a joke, and then Husband asked him where in the Bay Area he lived (since he’d mentioned in his intro that he’d recently moved here), and then, suddenly, we were talking about a neighborhood where I’ve got friends, and a coffeeshop there where he goes to write, and the struggles of figuring out exactly how long it takes to drive from one place to another in the metro area with one of the worst commutes in the nation.

Daryl Gregory just won the World Fantasy Award; his work has been nominated for the Nebula and the Locus. He first crossed my radar because of an interview he gave in Locus Magazine a few years ago, where he talked about the difference between fantasy and science fiction as being focused on the characters’ reactions to the unexplainable:

Readers will read something as science fiction if the characters are engaged in the process of science. In fantasy there’s no fiddling with the rules. You pull a sword out of a stone, and that makes you King of England. There’s no, ‘But what if I put a sword into the stone?’ In a science fiction novel, everybody would be trying to figure out how to make more kings by inserting more sharp objects into rocks! A fantasy novel is almost distinguished by not asking those fundamental questions about what is going on. A science fiction novel, no matter what the rules, is always asking those questions.

This  idea has stuck with me, and continues to be one of my basic benchmarks for how I distinguish the two genres; it’s the brainchild of a “real author.” A real author who struck up a conversation with me about the weirdness of being a Bay Area immigrant and who offered to chat if I ever see him around town.

Given how I’ve been feeling about my own writing lately (more on that in the last few posts, so I won’t recap here), I think I desperately needed that reminder — that the people behind the books are real people, who live in the real world, and have to deal with getting into San Francisco on a rainy night just like everybody else. And that in many of the ways that matter, the successful aren’t so different from the rest of us.

So thank you, Mr. Gregory, for reaching out; I hope to bump into you around town, and I also hope I’ll have the opportunity to pay your kindness forward someday. If I ever finish this book.

On the Things You Can’t Learn from Books: My Experience at West Coast Falconry

I haven’t done much writing lately.

As my regular blog readers know, I’ve been working on my Big Fat Fantasy Series (with little concrete to show for it) for longer than I’d like to admit. When I read this quote from Pat Rothfuss’s interview with Locus, it definitely resonated with my experience:

“People talk about the trunk novel, writing 10 novels before the 11th or 12th gets published. For me it was just the one book. I worked on this one book for the same amount of time that other writers worked on 11. (In my head I always think of it as ‘‘The Book,’’ like it’s the Platonic form of the book.) So really, I sort of wrote 11 books too – it was just 11 serious different drafts of this same story, constantly refining it.

What I’ve been doing the last few weeks (in between dealing with bouts of nasty Uber-Cold and far too many Real World logistics) doesn’t even count as drafting:  I’m still in outline mode, trying to lighten the burden on my Future Self by figuring out where my story is going before I write myself into too many corners. I’ve spent most of the last 2 months scowling at my third trilogy, which was always the most loosely plotted portion of the story and which is stubbornly refusing to resolve itself into a nice tight arc the way the other two did. I’ve dreamed on more than one occasion of throwing the whole thing in a drawer and letting it simmer for a while. I’ve thought of printing out Elizabeth Bear’s refreshingly honest take on artistic burnout  and tacking it up on my wall. I’ve wondered if any of these books is ever going to see the light of day, or if I should throw in the towel and run off to become a lumberjack.

And it was deep in that mindset, two weeks ago, that I packed a bag for the weekend and drove up into Yolo County, northern California’s agricultural heartland, to a place called West Coast Falconry.

While the substance of my novels’ arc has shifted and changed in a hundred different ways over the years I’ve been working on it, one thing has stayed resolutely the same: my protagonist’s heart and soul are wrapped up with raptors. So I’ve got half a dozen falconry and raptor biology books on my research shelf, and I started working at a local wildlife rehab facility last year in part because it gave me regular opportunities to interact with raptor patients. But for years now, I’ve known that all the text and pictures in the world, and even learning how to safely restrain an injured hawk for an exam (which I’ve now done a few times), wouldn’t give me the kind of detail I needed to make my book work. I needed to see birds that were comfortable around people, and talk with people who spent their days with birds.

West Coast Falconry, run by master falconers Kate Marden and Jana Barkley, bills itself as a way for the general public to learn about raptors and the ancient sport of falconry. I first met Kate and Jana in 2012 when I went to their site for a “Falconry Experience” — the chance to watch their falcons chase the lure, and to call a Harris hawk to my arm. I walked away exhilarated, with pages of notes — but then, bit by bit, the days and the years slipped by. I got caught up in the minutiae of plot and character, of word choice and world-building, not to mention real life, and I felt my story growing stale. I needed an infusion of inspiration.

And so, after hemming and hawing about it for months, I signed up for the three-day Falconry Apprentice Seminar. This course is designed to prepare would-be falconers for taking the California apprenticeship exam, and covers everything from state regulations for obtaining and keeping raptors to building a mews (hawk enclosure), interactions with game wardens and the Department of Fish & Wildlife, trapping and training a wild bird, what to feed your bird (and how to butcher said food), and hunting etiquette. On the final day, we gathered early in the morning, with two Harris hawks, and went hunting rabbits.

While I’d spoken with Jana (a fellow author!) before signing up and gotten her reassurance that I would be welcome in the course, I knew that I wasn’t the target audience, and during the opening ice-breaker, I felt awkward. While the other students spoke confidently about wanting to hunt with a red-tail or a peregrine or an owl, or peppered the facilitators with logistical questions about  building a mews in the suburbs, the best explanation I could come up with for my presence at the table was “…so, I’m writing a book. Not a book I can tell you the plot of, really — not a book that’s close to done — but really, I promise, someday, maybe, there will be a book.”

My nagging sense of imposter-hood lasted for about an hour, as we reviewed the bureaucratic process for becoming an apprentice falconer. But once we got past paperwork and into the meat of the lectures, my doubts disappeared.

Between what we learned in the classroom and what we saw in the field, I walked away with enough material to turn into 8 single-spaced pages of notes when I got home Sunday evening. A lot of it was straight-up prepared material from the curriculum, like these tips:

  • Birds captured from the wild as first-year adults (“passage” birds) are often more pleasant to be around than those hand-raised by people, because they know that they’re birds and will not try to attack their handler for food as they would their parents.
  • The best way to check your bird’s condition is to palpate its breastbone (the keel); although raptors don’t enjoy being touched, the bird can be trained to tolerate this handling, including recognizing the word “keel” as a cue for what’s about to happen.
  • Most of the killing that happens on a hunt will be done by the falconer, not the bird; the bird’s initial attack rarely kills the game animal, and so part of the falconer’s responsibility is to make sure the game is dispatched as quickly and humanely as possible.

As you can see from these examples, the class was pretty comprehensive; in addition to the written material, we learned what it feels like when a bird lands on your glove, got some first-hand experience with operant conditioning, and gutted Coturnix quail as preparation for the hawks’ morning meal. And yet, I think the most valuable things I learned were nothing to do with the prepared curriculum at all.

Over the course of the weekend, I spent two twelve-hour days and a six-hour morning with five falconers. And as I watched them interact with their birds and listened to their stories, I felt my basic background assumptions shifting. Here are some of the myths that were dispelled for me without anyone’s having to say a word:

  • That one can be a “part-time” falconer. If my protagonist keeps a raptor and treats it well, that means he’s taking it hunting for hours at a stretch, at least every few days. I drove away from West Coast Falconry this time pondering which key scenes in my outlines could feasibly take place in a rabbit field.
  • That the glove and gauntlet worn by falconers are only necessary to avoid being “footed” (grabbed) by an angry bird — in a setting with mystical/magical ties between human and animal, the hawk would “just know” to sit lightly. After watching an excited hawk bouncing around on her falconer’s arm, with one foot slipping off the glove onto bare skin, I realized that even an innocent touch is painful. (Also, a hawk would never sit on someone’s shoulder like a parrot — the wingspan’s too large and the bird’s too flighty — and so when it travels on your person, it’s on your fist. Which makes your footprint in a crowd considerably wider).
  • That a hawk could sleep with humans in any old room without needing special accommodations for perching (more complicated than you’d think because for the vast majority of its life, a raptor’s weight is on its feet; wild raptors spend an average of 20 minutes in the air each day, and never lie down unless they’re very ill), casting (undigestable parts of its meal, vomited up some hours after eating) or its mutes (waste, which a hawk typically shoots 4-6 feet away from its body; falcons are more considerate in this regard, muting straight down, but still have the other problems).
  • That a falconer’s bird, sleeping safe in its mews every night, will live to a ripe old age: we heard several stories that made it clear these birds’ lives are far more dangerous than those of your average tame animal. In addition to mundane dangers like disease, they face threats from the game they hunt, the wild predators whose territories they cross, and the environment they race through in pursuit of their quarry. Finally, with the exception of one species, raptors aren’t social: a falconer with multiple birds must consider them all potential threats to one another.
  • That every hunt is successful. We flushed more than half a dozen rabbits in our two hours in the field, with two experienced hawks, and only caught one.
  • That anyone could successfully figure out how to train and handle one of these birds without mentorship, mystical advantages or no.

I walked away from my weekend of falconry with a far better understanding of the commitment — in time, money, love, and tears — this lifestyle requires of those who seek it, especially in any world not inclined to give its people the liberty of days at a time to go hawking. I knew, in a way I hadn’t before, that falconry isn’t a passion I have room for in my daily life, now or probably ever. But I also knew that to write the book I want to write, I will have to take steps to bring more falconers and trained birds into my days. So in the week since, I’ve taken the first steps in that direction and I plan to continue doing so.

Because while I’d never be one to dismiss the power of research (I was too long a student to do that), there are some things a book can’t teach you.

DSC03797

The author with Seabhag (she-VAK), a female Harris Hawk, at West Coast Falconry in 2012.

If You’re Doing It, You’re Doing It Right: The Creative Process

A few months ago, Husband came home from work with a book in hand: “I saw this at the store and thought of you.” The book was Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey; it’s basically the distillation of as many different sources as Currey could find, laying out the creative process for “novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians… who describe how they… get done the work they love to do.”

I suspect that I’m not the only creative type who enjoys hearing about how other people get their creativity flowing, so I was intrigued by this book, but also intimidated. I’m still a little new to this full-time creative life, after all, and also acknowledge my own tendencies to compare myself to others — so when I hear that Stephen King writes 2000 words every day and says that “the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season” (from his book On Writing), I get anxious. The first draft of my current project took almost two years; the second draft is shaping up to encompass another year and a half, if I’m lucky. Hearing about wildly productive and successful authors like King (whose books I faithfully read and generally love) makes me feel like I’m doing it wrong.

Turns out what I may have needed is some perspective.

It took me a while to read Currey’s book, over the course of many, many 5-minutes-before-bed stints. There were moments in my perusal when I felt my old comparison anxiety popping back up, like when I read about how Faulkner “often [completed] three thousand words a day and occasionally twice that amount” — but for every section about wildly prolific authors, there was a passage like the one about John Updike, who said that “I’ve never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again.” Joyce Carol Oates said that “Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.” Ayn Rand got through writer’s block (which she called “the squirms”) by playing solitaire without getting up from her desk; Goethe waited for inspiration, saying that “It is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.”

One thing the book makes abundantly clear is that no two creatives have exactly the same process, and that there’s no “right” way to make art. I found it useful to keep this fact in mind last week, when I was trying to decide whether to go back over a chapter that I knew needed more work or to press on to the next one. As someone whose Lawful Good alignment runs deep, I spent a day or two obsessing over which was the “right” way to do it, before finally making my peace with the fact that there was, in fact, no rule to follow here. In the end, I decided to spend a day laying the groundwork for the new chapter and then as long as it took (as it turned out, about 1 week’s/20 hours’ work) to go over the old one and set it right before I lost track of the threads of plot and character motivation that’d come together at the end of a difficult pass through. It involved three days of really frustrating work on the rougher parts before I got to the “easy bit,” but I was left feeling that the chapter was better and also pleased with myself for managing to get it done in a single fairly condensed time frame. And as Husband keeps reminding me, in the end, I’m not Stephen King or William Faulkner, and my book will take as long as it takes.

In the spirit of writerly disclosures, here are a few things that seem to be part of my “best practices,” as they’ve emerged over almost a year of full-time writing:

  • My best work tends to happen in the morning and early afternoon, between about 10 AM-2 PM (a little earlier if the cat cooperates by settling down and not making a pest of himself)
  • I can usually work between 2.5-3 hours at a stretch; if I’m writing new material and the words are coming easily, I may do two sessions of that length in a day with lunch in between.
  • I’m best off working on my manuscript every day, even if just for a half hour, to keep it fresh at the top of my mind
  • To avoid the temptations of social media while I’m working, the deal I make with myself is that I won’t check Facebook or Twitter until I’ve met my minimum writing goals for the day (typically 1500 words and/or about 400 words an hour)
  • I keep track of both words written and hours worked for the week; this allows me to avoid feeling bad about myself in a week that has more planning and less prose production, and also gives me the satisfying feeling of watching the words and the hours pile up.
  • If I’m feeling blocked, it’s usually a sign that I haven’t thought through some element of the plot or character motivation clearly enough. Going for a walk, and/or sitting down with a notebook (away from the temptations of social media) are my best ways of solving that problem

There are still days when I want to throw the whole thing out the window; but for the most part, I continue to feel deeply fortunate that I get to live this life. And I found this book a useful reality check that whatever works for you, however long it takes you to produce your masterpieces, as long as you’re working and someday your work makes it out into the world, what you’re doing is the right way.

History Through Two Lenses: On Watching Star Trek/TOS

Until very recently, my Star Trek literacy was shockingly low, at least by the standards of my uber-nerdy social group. I had conscientiously watched the two new JJ Abrams movies, more-casually watched two original movies (so casually, in fact, that while I’m sure that I’ve technically seen Wrath of Khan, I couldn’t tell you what the other one was), and caught a scattered handful of episodes from TOS, TNG, DS9 and Voyager. So when Husband and I found ourselves in search of a new show for our weeknight evenings, I suggested we start Star Trek from the beginning. If nothing else, I figured, it’d give us a nice long stretch before we had to worry about choosing another show.

We’re still in the earliest stages at this point, Season One of the original series, and I’ve already noticed my Star Trek literacy increasing. I know what a Vulcan nerve pinch is now; I also feel much better able to appreciate the satire of John Scalzi’s fabulous novel Redshirts. That said, I find that my purest enjoyment of the show is happening on the meta level — in fact, on two different meta levels. Whenever we hit hit one of those inevitable moments that cause people to roll their eyes at TOS, Husband cringes, turns to me and says “I promise it gets better!” And every time, I shrug and say “Sweetheart, I’m a storyteller and a sociologist. I’m fascinated by all of it.”

Some of the conscious liberal philosophy built into the original Star Trek seems to be fairly common knowledge even outside the Trekkie fan base. I already knew, for example, that TOS was the site of TV’s first interracial kiss. I also knew about Roddenberry’s carefully considered decision to make the bridge of the Enterprise a multiracial, multinational place, and I’d heard Nichelle Nichols’ fabulous retelling of her meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where he talked about the importance of the American people’s seeing a black actress playing something other than “a black role.” But there were other elements of show design and storytelling that I wasn’t aware of until I started watching. In the first pilot episode, which features an almost entirely different crew, we see that Roddenberry originally intended for the Enterprise to have a female first officer who (gasp!) wore the same uniform as the men.That level of equal treatment might not have made it into the later series (I’m looking at you, miniskirts and go-go boots), but there’s still plenty of ideology in TOS that I don’t think was par for the course in 1960s TV. One early episode, “The Arena,” boldly suggests that even “bad guys” rarely see their own actions as evil-for-evil’s-sake. Another, “The Menagerie,” features a character with substantial physical disabilities, who can’t easily communicate with his peers, as one of the judges in a court-martial, implying that his judgment is as sound as anyone else’s. The episode isn’t perfect — there’s some unexamined disabilism elsewhere, and the ending’s  pretty problematic — but coming more than 20 years before the passage of the ADA, it still seems very forward-thinking.

In addition to marking the places where the show was ahead of its time, I’m having fun picking out moments where the attempts at progressivism haven’t aged quite so well, or where it didn’t occur to the creators to question their base assumptions. There’s one episode, “Mudd’s Women,” where the walk-on heroine ends up living happily ever after because she just has to BELIEVE she’s beautiful to be desirable to men. In an era when women were still expected to wear makeup every day, I see what they were trying for, but it looks dated to modern eyes. And don’t even get me started on Kirk’s endless string of nameless love affairs: I’ll just go out on a limb here and guess that even if Majel Barrett‘s first officer had remained a part of the series after the pilot, she would not have been engaging in such “wanton” behavior. As entertaining as the social commentary is, though, what I find most interesting is unpacking the plot tropes.

Unsurprisingly, TVTropes.com has a lot to say about Star Trek, but I found this passage particularly illustrative:

The show’s writing was good, the cast had great chemistry and the characters themselves were very memorable, to the point of creating three new archetypes: The Kirk, The Spock, and The McCoy. In fact, this series created so many new tropes that it has left an unmistakable mark on both television and pop culture ever since. Not to mention inspired a lot of mostly affectionate parodies.

Whenever I’m watching an episode, I can’t help but feel like I’m seeing the norms of sci-fi storytelling developing before my eyes. In the evil twin episode, “The Enemy Within,” when a transporter malfunction basically splits Kirk into id and superego, “evil Kirk” spends most of his energy screaming and attacking people, making him eminently distinguishable from “good Kirk”; it’s only at the end of the episode that we begin to see the writers playing with the idea of not being able to tell them apart. When the Romulans make their first appearance in “Balance of Terror,” where the Enterprise is forced to violate the Romulan “neutral zone” in a presumed act of war and then discovers that the Romulans look a little too much like Vulcans (certainly not an allegory about either the Cold War or the suspicion that fell on Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor), after Kirk’s brilliance leads to their successfully outmaneuvering the other ship, the enemy captain blows up his own ship and crew after saying poignantly to Kirk, “You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”

I recently discovered that one of my local nerd cronies is also doing her first TOS watchthrough right now; when we discussed it, she said that the thing she likes best about the show is that the stories don’t turn out the way she expects. Star Trek created so many storytelling tropes, she argued, that contemporary writers seeking to avoid cliches have no choice but to go in a different direction. I agree with this in part, but I also don’t think it’s the only explanation for the change; one recent episode got me thinking about how broader norms for “likeable” characters have changed in the last 50 years.

In the episode, “Court Martial,” Kirk is called to task by Starfleet High Command on charges of negligence causing the death of an Enterprise crewman. For most of the episode, we’re treated to video and computer evidence suggesting that Kirk genuinely made a mistake, pushing the wrong button in a tense situation and flushing the crewman out into space. But in the end, it becomes clear that the crewman faked his own death; blaming Kirk for an earlier incident that derailed his career, he was determined that The Great Hero should meet a similar fate. When we finished the episode, I looked at Husband and said “wouldn’t it be more interesting if Kirk really had made a mistake?” **

Thinking about it later, I remembered a film studies course I took in college where we learned about the New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. The filmmakers from this era, whose famous movies include Bonnie & Clyde, The Godfather and The Graduate, made a point of demonstrating the moral ambiguity of their protagonists, telling stories that weren’t so clearly “black and white”; the change is generally viewed as drawing its inspiration at least in part from the changing American zeitgeist after the Vietnam War.

Contemporary audiences are used to gray heroes. Whether we’re talking about Walter White, Greg House, or Tyrion Lannister, modern characters make complicated choices, and sometimes they do bad things. On purpose. But even though Rick Blaine let the Nazis drag Ugarte away at the beginning of Casablanca, and Rhett Butler slept with ladies of ill repute and ran the Union blockade, both of them ended up clearly on the side of the “good guys” by the ends of their stories. I suspect that earlier audiences weren’t so keen on ambiguity in their heroes.

So all in all, I’m enjoying my Star Trek education so far, and looking forward to seeing what other sci-fi tropes I can trace back to this universe — and for what it’s worth, the experience is confirming my earlier belief that it’s worth our time as storytellers to dig into the history of our genre. If nothing else, knowing what came before will stop you from being like a friend of mine who reportedly got about 100 pages into Lord of the Rings on a first reading and then threw it aside, saying, “This is the most cliched book I’ve ever read.”

Know your book’s genealogy: something can’t be a cliche if it came first. Go forth and read and watch and think, and your writing will be better for it.

**(For the record, Husband’s answer to my question about whether the other way of ending the story would be better was “You’re going to LOVE Next Gen.” I’m looking forward to it.)