A couple weeks ago, the SFWA released its summer bulletin, Issue 202, which contained some fairly heated responses to reader responses to this winter’s Issues 200 and 201. This is the end of a really long post I wrote on Saturday that I had to break into three parts. You can read the first two parts here and here.
Now, what I had originally planned to post today was based on my readings of the three bulletin pieces at the heart of the Kerfluffle and my readings of a pretty good cross-section of responses on both sides of the issue that were posted throughout the interwebs. It’s also colored by my reactions to several other kerfluffles that have been swirling around the ether and the intertubes. It still exists after the cut below in its original form (making this an obscenely long post, taken as a single thing). But yesterday evening I spent rawther a long time (several hours) reading the SFWA forum threads covering the issue and the discussions which have been going on at least since January when Issue 200 landed in folks’ mailboxes. That, friends, was verrry illuminating. So before you read what I was going to say, here’s where I landed at one in the morning last night, after reading the conversations that have been taking place out of public view.
You can’t read the forums if you aren’t an SFWA member, which is troubling in this case for the very important reason that a lot of would-be members are watching to see the organization’s response to the Kerfluffle to help them decide whether SFWA is something they want to participate with. A lot of current members are doing the same. But a lot of us (myself included) don’t visit the forums as often as we might. And while there’s a rousing dialogue going on online, very little of that has contained concrete information about what the SFWA itself is doing to respond. There has been an official apology and statement from outgoing president John Scalzi; vice president Rachel Swirsky has also apologized publicly and been appointed to a task force to evaluate the Bulletin and how to improve it based on this episode as well as ongoing grumblings about its usefulness and the readership’s expectations for it. Both of which are great, but it would be easy to think those are a couple drops in a bucket compared to the massive response of everyone else who’s spoken up on one side or the other.
If you are making the decision about whether to renew your membership, please, please login to the forums and read the threads about the Bulletin. And if I might suggest, while the early threads about the individual issues make for more, shall we say, entertaining reading, you should probably start with the thread titled “Moving Forward.” This is the one you need, and if you start with the other ones, you might never get there. Moving Forward is the thread in which you’ll find several instances of direct evidence that not only the leadership of the organization but the leadership of the magazine itself understands the magnitude of the situation and is responding accordingly. Although I suspect some of these things will be announced publicly very soon, a brief Google search suggests they haven’t been announced yet. But they’re there if you’re a member and can login.
More importantly, though, there is a rousing discussion between folks who are eager to contribute to solving the problems with the Bulletin–both the very real problems of these last few issues and the less immediately troubling but no less important questions of how the Bulletin can stay relevant to its readership and provide real benefits. One relatively new member, Carrie Cuinn, who wrote this about her response to the Kerfluffle back in April (this was the issue with the Barbie litany), contacted editor Jean Rabe and volunteered her skills and time to help at the Bulletin. Jean Rabe brought her aboard despite the fact that Carrie openly wanted to work toward changing the Bulletin. Carrie has not only been volunteering at the Bulletin ever since, but has been active on the forums not merely calling for change but offering concrete solutions and helping to extend the discussion by encouraging others to join in.
She isn’t alone on the threads, either. There are many, many voices who, after venting their reactions, followed up not with continued vitriol but with suggestions and counter-suggestions. This, despite the fact that one of the sad things that happens in all of the forum threads in question is, unfortunately, a predictable bit of what I’m going to call “this is our sandbox” posturing, mostly from two or three specific voices. One of those voices felt (and perhaps continues to feel) that Affiliate and Associate members don’t have the right to “make demands” of the organization. They may make suggestions and requests, this person said (I won’t quote the individual directly or by name; that would be inappropriate since the forums are not public-facing), but use of the word “must” (as in, the Bulletin must change) is inappropriate from anyone who isn’t an Active member.
The membership requirements are here if you’re curious, but to summarize, the difference between Associate and Active member is only the number of prose fiction sales that person has made to qualifying markets at certain pay rates, and Affiliate members are professionals who work in SF/F but not necessarily as writers; they are editors, agents, reviewers, academics, etc. A single sale of a prose novel to a qualifying market allows one to join as Active, and those who work in short fiction need three qualifying sales to join as Active or one to join as Associate, and of course they can change their membership later.
There are differences in the levels of participation allowed members at different levels, so maybe there are some theoretical grounds for The Individual’s suggestion that Associate and Affiliate members should not feel entitled to have the organization pivot to suit them. The problem is that everyone who believes in the work it does for authors wants SFWA to grow, which means it’s in all of our interests that people join at whatever level they can and upgrade their memberships when they can, which emphatically will not happen if all levels of membership can’t be involved in shaping the organization, at least by taking equal part in discussions about its future. If people feel that Associate members aren’t “real” members, then why should they bother plunking down their hard-earned dues money to join as Associates? Certainly they’ll have no reason to volunteer, or to participate in discussions like these. I’ve been an Active member for like five years; my first sale was a novel, so I was Active from minute one. But ask me how often I’ve volunteered. Ask me how often I visit the forums except to make sure there’s a PDF of my books available around Nebula/Norton season. Now take someone who works full-time as an SF/F editor and has several SF/F sales of their own but they’re verse fiction, not prose and therefore they can’t join as Active, and let’s further pretend that this person actually maintains a pretty decent level of involvement. My concerns–when I suddenly discover I have them–are more important than our fictional ‘sub-Active’ member? Riiight. Also not irrelevant: members at all levels are demanding change. Lots of members. And the concerns of non-members saying, “I don’t know if I ever want SFWA to speak for me if this is what it’s going to say” aren’t irrelevant, either. So. That’s what I think about that.
One of those sandbox voices also felt (and perhaps continues to feel) that the problem with younger and newer voices making all of these demands is that the SFWA and the Bulletin are what they are because of the recognized names and long years of contributions of the organization, and that they have earned their platforms and the right to a certain level of respect. Now, I think everyone deserves respect, and deserves to be heard. Basic human respect, though; not veneration and an ongoing platform. And most everyone in the discussion on the forum sees the platform issue as one linked to the Bulletin’s place as one of the mouthpieces of the organization. Someone said something I really liked–that just because someone’s put in a long career and made contributions doesn’t mean they get a megaphone and the right to speak for everybody.
But here’s the neat thing–although several times I literally slapped myself in the forehead while reading the forum discussions, they were, by and large, almost entirely civil and rational and involving people who were provably eager to solve problems, not just to gripe about them. Yes, there were the sandbox guys, who at the end of my reading still seemed to think that what was being asked for by those who were asking for change was a full-scale coup d’etat under the flag of Never Offend Anyone Again. And there were a couple times where both sides got a little strident. But between the superhuman moderators and some occasional “let’s make sure I’m hearing you right” reality checks from parties eager to keep the conversation going, things never escalated so far that the conversation couldn’t be made civil again. (Although I confess to being curious about how many comments the mods actually had to mallet; none of them were closed for comments at any point, but all four threads that I read did eventually wind up having ground rules set and all of them eventually went into active moderation).
And active in all the conversations were Rachel Swirsky (who as you will remember is heading the Bulletin task force) and incoming president Steven Gould. At one point, someone asked Rachel what the timeframe was on a related issue that had been raised as needing eyes on it, and Rachel’s response was (again, paraphrasing) that she had planned to tackle it in about two weeks, but was she hearing that it needed to be given a higher priority? Several questions were raised from people about things they’d been trying to get answers on for some time, and scrolling down other people came back with answers. It was not just a place to vent. It was (and is) a place to work. The Moving Forward thread is still active, and anyone who wants to be involved in the discussions should get over there asap. There’s also a thread for those willing to volunteer.
So what I took from the forums were two things: 1) sadly, my suspicions that there was a certain sandbox mentality going on were confirmed, although it’s hard to know how prevalent it actually is because only a few sandboxers joined the conversation; HOWEVER more importantly 2) the Kerfluffle had resulted in inclusive, solution-focused conversations and brainstorming involving members at all levels and on both “sides” of the issue, and those things were already resulting in active steps being taken to improve the Bulletin both in terms of professionalism and inclusion and its value to the SFWA constituency. Oh, three things: I also learned that the Bulletin is and has been (although evidently almost nobody knew it) open to submissions from both members and non-members alike. Bonus: it pays pro rates. So another tremendously useful way to get involved in making changes to the Bulletin is to submit to the Bulletin.
SFWA members who haven’t visited lately–this is a really good time to go to the forums and catch yourself up. I was extremely heartened by the discussions taking place. Those who are not members and who are still deciding, you may have to wait and see what the next couple of Bulletin issues show in terms of results. It isn’t clear what state the next issue was in prior to all of this blowing up, so it’s hard to say whether we’re going to see visible results with Issue 203, but I feel pretty good about the likelihood that Issue 204 is going to do a better job for everyone. And the Kerfluffle–well, it would have been better for it never to have happened, but certainly it’s gotten people involved who haven’t been involved before, and it looks like it’s going to result in some things that perhaps really needed to be examined being done differently. Those are both really good things.
Here it is: (more…)
I spent Saturday writing a blog post that became three, because I was that peeved by a series of kerfluffles lately, culminating in a dustup at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America over several pieces spanning three issues of the SFWA Bulletin. This is post number two.
In very brief, in Issue 200 a dialogue between Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg raised some hackles, as did the cover, which featured a metal bikini-clad warrior woman crouching over the corpse of some cold-climate beast. In Issue 201, another contributor, CJ Henderson, opened his mouth and inserted his foot by saying that, like Barbie, women should maintain a “quiet dignity.” And in Issue 202 Resnick and Malzberg responded to the complaints the SFWA received about both the cover of and their contribution to Issue 200 by saying the complainers were idiots, if not outright attempting to censor and suppress them.
But there was another response in Issue 202 to the reader responses to 200. It was by Jim C. Hines, and it came in response specifically to the cover and the outcry it prompted. Echoing a blog project he did some time ago in which he himself posed as closely as he could to the contorted positions in which cover chicks find themselves, Hines argues that the problem is not primarily the fact of the skimpy clothes and the sexuality—it’s the specific ways in which those things are drawn, and the fact that men on covers are not required (or at least, not required nearly as often) to break their backs in the name of sexy poses. In his blog post he very generously speculates that the idea behind these covers is probably to portray strong, sexy women–not just pinups in costume. But in the course of sexing the poses up, the artists have put these women in nearly impossible postures—certainly postures from which they could not possibly fight or in fact, function without pain.
In his Bulletin column, he points out: “Our barbarian swordswoman is more than able to take down monsters with three times her mass, but she doesn’t have the slightest idea how to dress herself. As both armor and protection from the snowy environments, her wardrobe puts her clearly in the “too dumb to live” category of characters.” Therefore, if you want to draw a sex-kitten/warrior woman, you’d better be able to justify your choices. Preferably, dress her in something she can actually fight in, and pose her as a fighter, not a pinup. And (adds Kate) if you don’t think you can accomplish both with the same picture, you’re not trying hard enough. That’s all. Full stop. You’re an artist. Try harder.
Interestingly, Hines’ article, which directly follows Resnick and Malzberg’s, includes on its first page the following statement: “I’ve been talking about sexism in cover art online and at conventions for more than a year now, and I believe it’s an important conversation to have. I certainly understand that not everyone agrees with me, and I’m not about to try to force everyone to take part in that conversation, but I wonder sometimes when people seem so eager to shut it down. Whether it’s dismissing concerns about the objectification and sexualization of women as knee-jerk overreaction from people looking for reasons to be offended, or proclaiming that the PC Police are coming to paint burkas over all the old Conan the Barbarian covers.”
I said it in yesterday’s post, and I’ll say it again: the conversation is important. The conversation has merit. And in the interest of keeping the conversation going (and in response to something I mentioned in yesterday’s rant, the fact that the Resnick and Malzberg took issue with their detractors’ purported “anonymity”), Hines is also keeping a roundup of the (not at all anonymous) responses to the Kerfluffle. You can find it here.
And here’s another thing to discuss once we get that conversation going: there’s a problem with the way that some people use femininity and female sexuality, and the way they defend their uses (some would say abuses) of it. A sexy woman on the cover of a magazine doesn’t immediately have to equal sexism. But when that woman is fairly obviously sexy just for the sake of the sexy, well, then there might be a problem. But when women (and sometimes men) complain about hypersexualized female images, they are often countered with something like this: she’s not hypersexualized, she’s strong and powerful and in charge of her own sexuality, and by the way, why are you ashamed of the female body/female sexuality?
About a year and a half ago DC Comics went through something like this when they rebooted Catwoman and Starfire and a Kerfluffle resulted, in which many (mostly but not all female) readers objected to what they saw as a massive and misogynistic oversexualization of characters they cared about and many (mostly but not all male) readers countered that people were reading “misogynistic oversexualization” where they should have been reading “strong, sexually empowered, and badass” and demanded to know why those angry readers were offended by beautiful women who weren’t ashamed of their sexuality.
My response was what I hoped would be a helpful tutorial on how to write better female characters, in which I argued that, if only for financial reasons (namely, increasing market share by not pissing off female readers who would otherwise spend their money on your product), DC writers ought to consider just writing better women. Because really, that’s all the angry folks were demanding: female characters who were written so that their entire personalities were not based upon their sexuality. (Now, to be clear, I wish people would write better women and not assume or claim that sexuality is a sufficient stand-in for personality and strength because it’s the right thing to do, much like I wish we could all have equal rights and pay and generally be treated with respect because it’s the right thing to do, but on matters like this I admit I default to being cynical.)
I guess the parallel for artists (and designers and publishers, if they’re listening) is: you can have your sexiness, just please make it make sense. Otherwise nobody’s fooled and people get pissed off because it starts looking like you’re pandering to men and objectifying women. And writers/editors/artists/designers/etcetera: you can do that, if you feel that strongly about it. You can continue to pander and objectify. Of course you can. You’re allowed, to put this on the kindergarten level of discourse. Nobody’s going to come to your home or place of business and stop you. But you should expect some negative reactions and you should expect to lose a chunk of your audience. Weigh that into your calculations, is all I’m saying. (I’d like to say, be reasonable and do the right thing, but again, cynicism. Plus, if we were ever likely to agree on what “the right thing” looks like, we wouldn’t have kerfluffles like this, would we? Evidence: this response to the Kerfluffle. But look: just don’t click on that link. And if you value your blood pressure remaining at healthy levels, for God’s sake, do not read the comments.)
But let’s go back to the positive, because there are positives here to talk about. In Hines’ article he speaks to an artist named Lee Moyer and asks “how a professional made the distinction between painting a beautiful woman (or man) and objectifying them.” Moyer’s response included the following: “I cannot speak for other illustrators. But for myself, the goal is always to paint the person first. To paint women as persons in their own rights is key, as opposed to painting women for the male gaze.”
So again: people who feel so strongly about having your SF/F served up with sexy sexy covers–you can still have that! But maybe the artists and designers just have to work a little bit harder. They’re professionals. They can handle it. And frankly, so can you, probably. It’s not like anyone’s asking you to eat kale or anything like that.
Yesterday I posted a massive rant. I tried not to write it as a rant, but that’s pretty much what it was. But I finished the post by commenting that on the bright side, the SFWA is taking the Kerfluffle very seriously and really actively looking to foster meaningful discussion. Thank you, Jim C. Hines, for taking part in that discussion, and challenging others to do the same.
This was supposed to be my last post on getting yourself unstuck when you’re putting a story together. I guess it has to wait. Sorry, guys.
A couple weeks ago, the SFWA released its summer bulletin, Issue 202, which contained some fairly heated responses to reader responses to this winter’s Issue 200 and spring’s 201. Going through the magazine rack on the back of our bathroom door as well as Nathan’s wastebin and my own wastebin on Saturday, I located all three issues and read the articles in question after reading E. Catherine Tobler’s blog post in which she explains why she’s leaving the SFWA (spoiler: it’s because of Issue 200, with a cameo by Issue 201, and the responses of some of its contributors to some complaints by readers).
Yes, I’m an SFWA member. No, I hadn’t read any of the Bulletins all the way through. The truth is that I don’t typically find that they feel relevant to me or my writing and publishing experiences thus far. I always chalked that up to the idea that middle grade fantasy is maybe a different beast in many ways from what most of the SFWA membership is up to. But now this kerfluffle is making me wonder if that’s not the only reason it doesn’t feel relevant.
In Issue 200, Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg have a dialogue about “lady editors.” That phrase did put a few backs up, but more bothersome than that seemed to be the repeated references to the physical attributes of the ladies in question. There was also an anecdote about how editor Beatrice Mahaffey joined the Cincinnati Fantasy Group and how after “ the members’ wives got a look at Bea in her swimsuit at the 1950 Midwestcon…the club’s makeup changed to the 50% men and 50% women that has existed ever since.”
Now, as a personal strategy for looking at comments that I find offensive, I try very hard to assume good intentions on everyone’s part at the outset, and I try to look at context. I don’t find “lady editors” to be immediately offensive. And to be fair, the dialogue does actually talk about the accomplishments of the women it profiles. It does mention some women without starting off their segments by calling them “knockouts.” And there is clearly a lot of admiration for these women. The anecdote above came from another woman who knew Ms. Mahaffey personally. Other anecdotes are included that seem clearly intended to draw more detailed portraits of the women, not necessarily to suggest that these things (including their physical attractiveness) are more important than their editing.
On the other hand, read this paragraph: “Anyone who’s seen photos of Bea from the 1950’s knows she was a knockout as a young woman. She was invited to Chicago to edit Other Worlds by Ray Palmer when she was barely out of her teens. In the process she also edited or co-edited Mystic, Science Stories, and Universe. (Some of them were the same magazine under different titles; Palmer changed titles a lot to keep a step ahead of the printing bills.)” Now, I don’t necessarily have any issue with including the fact that a brilliant editor was also beautiful, but I’m just going to say that if it had been me writing that paragraph, I would probably have mentioned it at the end if I really felt like it was that important. Just, you know, to keep anybody from thinking I thought it was critically important. And by the way, in the article, that’s the second of three mentions of Ms. Mahaffey’s attractiveness.
I’m sorry, Mike and Barry—I don’t think you meant to suggest that she accomplished what she did because she was beautiful, but bringing up one lady’s hotness three times in two pages…it’s weird if that’s not the point. Sloppy writing at least. At worst, well, it’s easy to read what is ostensibly an article about female editors and to come away with the impression that you might think one’s beauty was as important as her literary contributions. Which one would hope you can see is sufficient reason for readers to maybe get their backs up. And you certainly left room for that interpretation, gentlemen. Moreover, coupled with this, “lady editors” starts to seem less quirky and more condescending.
We’re writers. We put content out there for readers, presumably after we have honed it in order to do our very, very damnedest to make certain that the message our readers take away is the one that we intended to get across. I’m not going to say it’s always the writer’s fault every single time a reader takes something in a way the writer didn’t intend, but if a bunch of readers get their backs up…well, maybe it’s not just that the readers got it wrong. Maybe the writer/s needs to own the perceptions his/her/their words have created.
So, to summarize: I’m willing to assume good intentions and true regard for the women in question in the “lady editors” column, but in that case it’s seriously sloppy work. However, I also think it takes absolutely no work and certainly no agenda to find the column problematic or offensive. I certainly did (although admittedly I read it after reading about the shitstorm it caused, so I wasn’t a totally unbiased reader).
But Issue 202 contains Resnick and Malzberg’s rebuttal to the complaints they and/or the SFWA received about that column, and boy, even I, with my high-minded assumptions of good intentions, had a hard time reading that.
Their argument is that for the entirety of their careers, they have never (or almost never) before been “censored” despite writing stuff that could have offended plenty of people along the way, including the gatekeeper types who, if they had chosen, could easily have stopped publication of those racy pieces. But they worry that the complainers are calling for their censorship now, by those who responded negatively to their article and to the warrior babe on the cover.
Malzberg calls the objectors’ concerns “stupidity”—which he is willing to stomach as long as the objective isn’t to “shut us down” (which, presumably, is what would push those concerns from relatively harmless “stupidity” into true “censorship”). They argue that romance novels are just as bad about objectification of men on their covers. This might be a fair point, but while I’m not a member of the Romance Writers of America, I’m pretty sure the RWA would happily to discuss that any time its readership and membership choose to raise it as a concern. (Note: since writing that line, I found this excellent post, which–apart from containing the cover of 200 and the pdf of the dialogue column from 202–addresses that particular note directly. Evidently there is robust discussion on the topic. Hooray for robust discussion! That’s a good thing.) That’s what service organizations do—they respond to the concerns of their members and the readers they serve. And raising concerns is what many members and readers of the SFWA did, which is why the SFWA needs at least to have the discussion.
So, halfway through the rebuttal column, I had learned this much: the authors consider that either those who objected to the cover and dialogue in Issue 200 are at best stupid and at worst censorious. Resnick and Melzberg are also upset about the “anonymity” of those who complained, although ten minutes on Google would’ve given them ways to contact plenty of people eager to discuss their concerns—assuming they’re interested in discussion, and if I were still assuming good intentions, I’d presume they’d be pleased to do that. But by this point in my reading, I was no longer assuming good intentions. In order to explain why, let me tell you where I lost my ability to read objectively. It’s where Melzberg says this:
“Our Warrior Woman protesters and enemies of the adjective (who unlike Ms. Dworkin will not identify themselves) fall into the category of what Right Wing radio talkers call “liberal fascists,” and I cannot disagree with that description.” He then goes on to quote Sean Hannity: “The difference between the so-called liberals and conservatives is that the liberals want to shut us down. They truly do not believe that we should have airtime. They truly believe that we should be banned. We do not feel that way about them. We don’t like their positions but we acknowledge their right to expression. They do not extend us the same courtesy.” Melzberg continues: “This seems to be the subterranean issue here…the conviction held by at least some of the protestors that what they found offensive should be banned. That does not take us to anyplace that a writers’ organization should want to go, and I find the central issue here as distressing as you do.”
Actually, what I find distressing is the idea that a writers’ organization would not respond with discussion and debate to evidence that one of its mouthpieces (the Bulletin) does not represent the values of the community it serves. The problem is that the community is not one homogeneous organization. It now contains a lot of younger writers and fans and a growing number of women, many of whom, as Resnick points out, are making noise, demanding that the SFWA—which represents them as much as it represents the two men writing the dialogue—hear their concerns and take them into serious consideration.
And my interpretation of those concerns—having read rather a lot of them now—is not that hard-bodied Warrior Women should not exist or be on the covers of any books or magazines, and it certainly isn’t that women should never be described as beautiful (the adjective Melzberg mentions having “enemies” in the quote above). It’s not that no one should ever write or read material that anyone anywhere finds problematic. It’s that in 2013, many people are bothered when they see, coming from their writers’ service organization, so many potentially problematic things in one place—one of the mouthpiece publications of the organization—and they want to be able to discuss those things with the organization. And they have the right to that discussion by virtue of having paid dues.
Here’s something I’m pretty sure is almost universally true: when we disagree about something, there is a marked difference in the way we speak when we are willing to discuss that something on equal footing with the other party in an open exchange of views, and when we just want the other party to shut up. And the evidence that these fellows are too angry at being challenged to consider the possibility of the opposite point of view being valid and unwilling to engage in discussion is the way the article ends: with references to thought control, to Stalin and Chairman Mao; with comparisons between the negative response to their previous article and “the Federal Government (or the Supreme Court) telling you what you are allowed in your bedroom and with whom.” This not the language of anyone willing to consider that they might have caused legitimate offense and willing to take part in a discussion. This is the language of someone who isn’t willing to consider the other party’s point of view at all. The message here is: shut up and stop complaining, you’re behaving like a bunch of idiots and would-be dictators, and your challenging of what I wrote is on the same level as withholding my civil rights.
Note that at no point here have I accused the authors of the dialogue of behaving like Old White Men, which they claim is one of the reasons people are trying to silence them. On the other hand, dude, I’m really thinking it. I wish I wasn’t, but I’m not going to lie: I totally am. I also really wish that they hadn’t made the argument a liberal-conservative thing. I really wish they had just been willing to take part in a discussion. To have a conversation rather than a fight.
The conversation is important. The conversation has value. And it has value in this case especially, because, having now discussed Issue 200 and Issue 202, I should just mention one thing from Issue 201: CJ Henderson, in an article on how to maintain a writing life even when it seems to have stalled, includes an unfortunate bit of advice: Be like Barbie.
Now, once again, let me start from a place of assuming good intentions: while Henderson says, “Yes, Barbie has always been perfectly long-legged and tiny-waisted, perfectly proportioned in every way with dazzling blue eyes, terrific hair, and oh right, quite the pair of sweater-fillers as well,” (honestly, why would you even go there?) he completes that sentence with, “But, that is not who she is.” He goes on to suggest that Barbie’s great staying power is due to the fact that who she is is more—and more important—than the sum of her measurements. “That’s not who she is inside.” So far so…well, so far so really, really awkward, but I kind of see what you’re trying to do there. There’s a weird sort of parallel here to what I think maybe Resnick and Malzberg were trying to do—refer to a woman’s prettiness as part of her but not all that she is. But then Henderson puts his foot in it. “She has always been a role model for young girls…because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.”
No, no, no… And I’m not even touching the other thing he said that raised lady-hackles, about how Barbie’s staying power was due to the fact that, unlike the Bratz dolls who “dress like tramps and whores,” Barbie is a “nice girl.” I don’t have the bandwidth. But the net effect, of course, is that the rest of Henderson’s article, which on the face of it has nothing to do with preaching to women about how they ought to behave, disappears from the conversation, because, like Resnick and Malzberg, he says something he somehow thinks is complimentary but which makes a chunk of readers drop their heads on their desks in either (charitably) embarrassment or (more likely) disgust.
There are bright spots here. I had to break this post into three because I had so much to say, and the next one talks about a really excellent rebuttal piece that also appeared in Issue 202, from Jim C. Hines. Also, both SFWA President John Scalzi and Vice President Rachel Swirsky responded immediately to the concerns raised by readers and members alike. A task force has been created to evaluate the state of the Bulletin. And a lot of people are talking.
And that’s good. Even if Resnick and Malzberg aren’t willing to have a discussion, plenty of people are. And that’s good for everyone.
Still working off one magical prompt for blog material from a Twitter pal, I’ve been writing about tactics for moving your writing along in those times when you need a little help. Last month I wrote about ways that I give myself a kick in the pants when an in-process project stalls. This month I’m writing about what happens before that–when you’re trying to pull vague ideas together into a Project, something you can dive into and begin to write. I have three main strategies (I think), and here they are:
Having already tackled Item Number One, let’s talk about lists.
My stories tend to come together like puzzles, which means I need to assemble a certain number of pieces before I get any sense of what the picture is. The story might have a single spark, but that’s very rarely enough to get started with, at least for me. So I start looking for the pieces that go along with it. I was on a panel last year with Sarah Beth Durst, who answered a question about the genesis of Vessel by saying (I’m paraphrasing) that her books often start out as ‘lists of things Sarah thinks are cool.’ I was really excited to discover that I’m not the only one who does this.
Making lists is kind of how I spend my days in between deadlines. I hunt down odd books. I make notes on things that interest me. My husband emails me almost daily with things he thinks might be useful either for something specific or just down the line. I keep everything. I read nonfiction like it’s going out of style, and I make notes when something interests me, even if I’m not sure why. Then every few months I sort the notes I’ve made into files or special notebooks based on what I think I might use them for. Sometimes, when I feel like I’m needing a new project, I’ll hunt through the file that holds the unsorted, undifferentiated notes. Inevitably, a few of them begin to coalesce into Something.
Now, what constitutes a useful list for you is going to be different from what constitutes a useful list for me, or that would be my guess, at least. I don’t think any two writers approach a potential story the same way. I also am not sure any writer approaches any two of his/her own books the same way. You might approach your list from a purely practical point of view: protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, stuff like that, so you know what critical elements you’re still missing. I’m not a planner, so mine tend to be far less practical lists of stuff I want to include in the story. They tend to look something like this:
The downside of my whimsical lists is that there’s nothing to tell me what pieces I’m missing–but then, sometimes even though I need the list to get the story going, I need the story to tell me what it needs to be finished, and of course that comes later. (And yes, this is actually a working list for something I’m turning over in the back of my head.)
I think lists like these are useful because humans are wired to recognize patterns, to see how things fit (or could fit) together. Of course, sometimes it turns out a piece doesn’t fit, which probably only means it belongs more properly to a different puzzle. Save it! If you don’t already have one, may I suggest a folder or notebook specifically for cool ideas you haven’t found the right place for yet? Let no cool idea go to waste! And don’t judge yourself for what you put on your list. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. It doesn’t even have to make sense to you at first. It just has to put ideas–even if they appear to be unrelated–together for you to think about.
The bottom line is this: a list is a way of getting ideas out of your head without the pressure of figuring out story that comes with setting out to write an outline or synopsis. Outlines and synopses are tremendously useful tools, but they do require you to have, you know, the story figured out. (One could look at it the other way–that writing one or the other forces you to figure the story out–which is obviously true. But a) I’m on record that I personally break out in hives at the idea of writing outlines and/or synopses and b) anyway I’m talking about the stage in building a story before you’ve got enough to dive into writing outlines and/or synopses.)
The other useful thing about a list when you’re trying to work through what you haven’t figured out is that it helps you to see how much you do have figured out. And knowing that might give you a place to dive in and start writing. And once you’re there…well, you’re there! Get writing!
Next up: a trip to Nagspeake to discuss how building a set can bring a story idea into focus.
In my last posts, I wrote a bit about ways to move an existing draft along when you find yourself staring at the screen. But that assumes there’s a draft there to move along. What about when there isn’t? What about when you still need to find the story?
I’m a stationery junkie, so here’s how it goes in my world: I literally find myself staring at a blank page. (All right, I like quad-ruled paper, so it’s never a totally blank page, but you get the idea.) Sometimes I wind up staring at that page because I have a vague idea itching at me that I think might turn into something; sometimes it’s because I feel like I need some kind of palate-cleanser, but I don’t have any specific story in mind. On two occasions it’s been because I needed something to show an editor and I knew nothing on my current to-do list was going to be what she wanted, and once it’s been because my critique group gave each other prompts for a summer project, assigned by random drawing. I got “stained glass.” It meant nothing to me at the time, but I needed to come up with a story anyway, because that was the point of the exercise.
People find stories in all different ways–writing exercises, prompts, daily journaling, whatever else–so once again (I feel like it should go without saying), these are just things that have worked for me.
Today, item number one: Research. Sometimes it’s for when you don’t even know what the heck you’re researching.
Ah, research, sitting on that fine line between productivity and procrastination like that idol thing at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Take it off the pedestal wrong and there goes your day. Do it right and you still might lose your day, but maybe tomorrow, after you’ve processed what you read and you’ve fallen asleep trying to figure out whether you actually learned anything useful and if so, how it relates to anything else–maybe tomorrow you’ll sit down and scrawl a few thoughts that relate to your potential story.
The tricky thing about research when you don’t know what you’re looking for is, obviously, where do you start? Me, I’m usually looking for weird.
Sometimes, for various reasons, I know the story hiding just out of view is probably going to need to be set in a certain era, which is awesome. Or perhaps there’s an era I’ve kind of been wanting to learn more about. At least it narrows things down, although not necessarily that much. After having done this for a few years now, I am getting a sense of where to look to find the kind of weird that appeals to me, and there tend to be good traces of it at the edges of science, religion, and the arts. Wartime has tremendous scope for the weird, for various reasons. Folklore and superstition, for reasons that are probably obvious. Technology, which often involves philosophy.
I find a lot, a lot of useful stuff reading about these particular elements of whatever era I research. These are things that involve tackling questions of the unknown, or at least the not-well-understood. They are things that people give their lives to. Not coincidentally, they are also things that polarize, and while I get very bitter and angry about the polarization I see in my own world in my own lifetime, a story needs conflict and a writer needs to know where to look to find it. Even when I don’t have a particular era to help focus where I’m looking, I still tend to default to the same basic spheres I mentioned two paragraphs up. As I hunt, like I said, I’m looking for weird, and I’m looking for something I haven’t encountered a hundred times before. I’m looking for something that makes me dog-ear a page and fumble for my notebook and a pen.
Last year I visited Deer Hill School in Massachusetts and took a bagful of books full of weird stuff to talk to students about finding stories in unexpected places. Together we went through an assortment that included science, history, bizarre diseases, cartography, cabinetry, a couple of my grandfather’s notebooks, and I can’t even remember what else. We were looking for things that could be the jumping-off point for stories. The kids each picked a book and scoured it until they found something, anything, that caught their eye as a potential plot point, character clue, whatever. Anything. Then we talked about how one might go from that first thing-that-made-you-stop-turning-pages to a rough story idea. We talked about the necessities of reading widely, and of keeping an open mind; we talked about how something you might never have thought you’d be interested in could turn out to be exactly the missing piece that either completes your story or helps to spark a vague story idea in the first place.
Research. Open-ended, open-minded, undirected research; research just for the fun of it. And for this girl, at least, it guarantees that I am almost never without a jumping-off point when I’m ready for something new. Finding a new story by going on this kind of hunt depends on two potentially contradictory things, I think.
One: being roughly aware of what sorts of things catch your interest and knowing where to look for them. As I type this I’m reminded of something my friend and illustrator extraordinaire Andrea Offermann told me she’d been told about keeping a sketchbook. I’m paraphrasing here, but the basic idea was that a really great way to keep yourself sketching even when you aren’t inspired to do it or don’t have a subject in mind is to know what kinds of things you like to sketch and start with those when you need a jumping-off place.
Two: being open-minded enough to look in other places, too. The first time my husband wanted to read me an article about the differences between object-oriented and functional programming, I just about banged my head on the steering wheel to make him stop (I was driving at the time, and therefore couldn’t leave the room and claim I had work to do). But he was absolutely certain this article–about two types of computer programming philosophies, remember–was relevant to Simon Coffrett and the other Jumpers of the world of The Boneshaker. And dammit, he was right. He was SO right that if I tried to explain WHY he was right, I’d be giving you huge spoilers. And I should have known he’d be right, because he’s given me critical tidbits like this about a million times before. The Broken Lands only has an ending because of a couple of those tidbits. But if you’d told me a couple years ago that I’d be increasingly relying on computer science to write middle-grade historical fantasy, I’d have laughed in your face. And yet, here I am, and quite literally neither of my forthcoming books would exist if not for things that I didn’t think I’d be interested in at first.
Other things I would not have expected to be fascinated by but that turned out to be critical to something I either have worked on or am working on right now:
This is just off the top of my head, without consulting the truly batshit-crazy collection of books that lines my walls.
So I guess the tl;dr of this post is that, when hunting for a story, it sometimes helps to both know roughly where you ought to be looking and to be willing to peek into random cabinets along the way, even if they don’t look remotely like the sort of cabinets that are going to contain what you’re seeking. Be openminded. Keep copious notes. Look for the unfamiliar. And when the rabbit hole does, finally, turn up at your feet, you’ll be ready to follow it, even if it doesn’t, at first glance, seem to lead where you expected.
Next up, lists: they’re not just for household chores and grocery shopping!
So far in this little series, I’ve rambled a little about a number of reasons why one might wind up staring blankly at a page, stalled mid-project, and the ways I work around them when they mess with my progress on a story. But the things at the top of the list–needing a kick in the pants and needing better focus–are sort of the easy problems. Time now to tackle the scary items way down at the bottom of the list.
You suddenly don’t love this project anymore.
Sometimes this isn’t the problem; sometimes its a symptom of something else–one of those focus problems, for instance. Or it could be the result of burnout. Sometimes, especially if you’re on a deadline, you may be hating the thing because you legitimately need a break.
My last four books all had to be written, for various reasons, in relatively brief stretches of time (one month for The Kairos Mechanism and three to four months for The Broken Lands, Greenglass House, and The Left-Handed Fate). My workdays for these tended toward a minimum of 3000 words; in the case of the novels, I more often had to push to clock days that were closer to 5000 or 6000 words. At some point, I hated every one of those books, just out of sheer burnout. I go through points where I’m so focused on meeting the deadline that not just the dishes, but taking care of myself goes right out the window. Within two weeks of the deadline of every single one of the novels I got sick enough to require me to stop writing for a few days because I literally couldn’t sit up for a couple of days. It took getting sick to make me stop and slow down.
And it takes far less than this level of output to burn yourself out, especially if there are other things going on in your life that might be contributing to the angst. So make sure the problem isn’t that you need to stop and take a break. Maybe don’t give yourself such a hard time. (Says the girl who ought to take her own advice now and then.)
Now, if the problem isn’t that you’re working so hard on the thing you can’t do anything but curse it, but you’re still cursing it–that’s different. Maybe you need to be reminded why you loved the thing in the first place. Here are some ways I re-kindle my connection with what I’m working on when it starts to annoy me.
Print the thing out and read it from the beginning. I don’t do this while I’m working, usually. I might re-read what I wrote yesterday, but in general I neither read from the beginning or do any meaningful editing while I’m trying to get to the end of something. But sometimes stopping to read from the beginning is just what the doctor ordered. Reading the whole thing on paper is a great way to remind myself that what I’m writing isn’t awful. It reminds me that I want to know what happens next. And because it’s on paper and not on a screen, it’s an experience unlike all that staring at the screen I’ve been doing. Sometimes, as a special bonus, I discover things in the story that either I’d forgotten I put there or just didn’t realize I’d put there, and those act as catalysts to move things forward when I go back to writing.
Revisit the original source of inspiration for the thing, or look for a new source altogether. For me, this usually means go back to the research that put me onto the story in the first place to revisit the reasons I want to write this particular project. Sometimes, though, it means looking for something new to bring to the piece, a whole new chunk of inspiration. Sometimes research accomplishes that, but sometimes it takes something else: a road trip, a visit to a museum–something to open my eyes, get me thinking with new circuits and looking down roads that might lead in completely different directions from the way I thought I needed to go.
Sometimes, of course, even after trying all of these things I still find myself stranded and lost.
You’re stuck without a clue as to what happens next.
Weirdly, I actually find this a cool place to be, because anything at all can happen and all roads are still open to me. But that coolness dissipates pretty quickly after a couple days of getting nowhere and morphs into anxiety the closer I get to a deadline.
The easy solution is perhaps, next time, outline the thing. But like most easy answers, that doesn’t solve everything. I guess it depends on how you outline, how much detail you figure out ahead of time, and whether the story decides to play by the rules your outline sets out. Me, I hate outlining. I do it when necessary (meaning, when an editor makes me or when the deadline is particularly tight, like with the novellas). And I’m happy to do it in those circumstances, but in my experience even an outline doesn’t guarantee I won’t find myself staring dumbly at the screen, without a clue as to what to do next. So I…
Skip to a part where I do know what happens. This sounds obvious, but sometimes I forget I’m allowed to do it. I’m not kidding. But it’s an almost foolproof tactic when I get stuck. Just move on. There’s no law that says you have to write sequentially, or have any one section perfect before you move onto the next. There’s also no law that says you have to come back to that unfinished section until you get to the end.
Work backwards. This works for me a lot when I know vaguely where I need to go but am not sure what needs to happen between where I am and that vague endpoint. I list chapter titles. It’s kind of an outlining compromise, something like bullet points. This tactic also tends to work well when I’m writing something I need to be shorter (like the novellas). It imposes a bit of restraint.
Brainstorm or talk it out with someone who really gets you and what you’re trying to do. For me, this person is my husband. He rolls his eyes when I ask if I can talk out a story problem, but he’s a great listener, he asks great questions, and he has great ideas. This could be where you make an emergency call to your critique group or to a particularly thoughtful writing partner.
Go back to your research. Sometimes for me, the problem is not so much that I don’t know what comes next, but that there’s a piece missing without which I have no way of knowing what comes next. Sometimes it isn’t just about thinking harder or working a problem out, it’s about hunting down that missing puzzle piece. Most often, this means going back to my books; internet research tends to require (for me, at least) knowing at least what I’m looking for, but if I don’t know what’s missing, trying to find it on the interwebs turns into screwing around aimlessly and wasting time. For me, anyway. And there’s a fine line between research and procrastination.
And…well, that’s all I’ve got. Again, I can only speak to what works for me, but these are the strategies I tend to fall back on–or, in the case of everything above that argues for not being so hard on yourself or allowing adequate time for exercise and taking care of yourself, strategies I fully plan to be better about next time around. Here’s hoping there’s something here that you find helpful the next time you’re staring at a blank page. Share your thoughts and strategies, won’t you?
And thanks, @kindleaholic, for the great prompt!
The cursor is blinking, and your will is strong. It’s not a question of needing a kick in the pants–you have antique shoe frames for that–and yet you’re getting nothing done because your brain simply won’t focus where it needs to. This happens to me like every single day.
Let’s take Problems B, C, D, and E and call them the focus problems. I suffer focus problems a lot, for a lot of reasons.
Firstly, in addition to being a bad blogger, I am also a very, very bad housekeeper. Compounding the problem: my husband is perfectly happy eating takeout seven days a week, so there’s no external pressure for either of us to do the dishes until we’re out of something critical like coffee cups or silverware. But I cannot, cannot focus in a messy space. My brilliant little brother’s advice on this matter: throw the dishes out. But I actually like my dishes–as well as much of the other stuff that clutters up my life. Secondly, I procrastinate on things like replying to emails, texts, and phone calls, trips to the post office, calling the insurance company about that duplicate charge, etcetera. Thirdly, I like spending time with my husband, and finally, my brain will not limit itself to thinking about one book at a time.
But I have some strategies. Here they are.
Leave the house and go somewhere else. Must be somewhere without wifi.
My branch office happens to be the local diner. I go and write there as often as necessary, for as long as necessary. This solves Problem B completely and Problem C as well, because I have never asked for the public wifi password at the diner. I sometimes use Freedom and just shut myself off from home, but because I’m very rarely distracted only by the internet, that doesn’t work quite as well as the diner.
Get some good headphones and set some guidelines for interruptions.
Things get tricky when a spouse and kids are added into the mix. I haven’t had to figure out writing with kids yet, but two days a week, Nathan and I are both home together. The trouble comes because I like being at home with him (so the branch office is out) and because Nathan is able to transition from work to other internet stuff much better than I can. He’ll find something he thinks is funny or might be particularly useful to me and wants to share it immediately. But when I’m writing, I don’t stop and transition well. So we have an agreed-upon arrangement whereby if I have headphones on, all interruptions, no matter how useful, have to be submitted in the form of a ping on Gchat or an emailed link, which I am allowed to ignore until convenient. It’s such an easy signal, and it works.
Make sure there’s time to knock other stuff of the to-do list.
Between them, the diner and the headphones solve 75% of my focus problems. Of the remaining 25%, most tend to be solved by taking a day off to get All The Other Things done, stopping for a while to exercise, or now and then just taking a day off to do absolutely nothing related to writing. Nathan says I don’t do this often enough and don’t remember how to do it right. I’m working on that.
But about 10% of the time the problem is that I really want to be working on that other neat idea I’ve been wishing I could work on.
Consider caving in to the temptation of the shiny new idea on a very limited basis.
That probably seems counterintuitive. But there are two arguments for it. In the first place, often my brain fixates on a new idea because deep down I’m afraid I’ll lose it if I don’t do something with it. This is not only easily handled, but it can be handled in a way that caters neatly to my obsession with stationery: I get a new notebook, dedicate it to the new idea, and stop what I’m doing long enough to write down everything I know or think about it so far. Then I can relax, knowing the notebook is there whenever I’m ready.
But the big argument for caving to temptation is this: that shiny idea can actually help move the one that’s stuck in the mud forward. I use those ideas the way I use rewards to help me motivate myself to work out or eat better. And like exercise motivation, it works better to celebrate incremental successes along the way than by trying to wait to enjoy it until the whole project is done. So sometimes I’ll decide that if I have a really great writing day or solve a particular problem, I can spend an hour or two messing with the new project as a reward. But the key is, it has to be a reward for something substantial, and when the reward time is up, I have to stop. So maybe if I clock a 4000 word day or something, I get that evening after dinner to play with any project I want. But then tomorrow, it’s back to the grind. As a bonus, sometimes that palate cleanser even helps me to come back to the original project stronger and more energized.
So those are my focus-sharpening strategies. Tomorrow: tackling the scary problems at the bottom of the list. In the meantime, how do you handle focus issues when you’re working?
Nothing like updating your website with a glitchy plugin that requires hacking and constant refreshing to force you to look 18 times at the nearly month-old blog post that’s the most recent thing (other than the glitchy plugin) on your front page. Granted, I kinda like that I also got to look at that swoony picture of Stephen Decatur every time, but that’s no excuse for lazy blogging.
I never have a good excuse. I also don’t feel like I often have good ideas about what to blog about. So yesterday I asked on Twitter if anybody had any requests. And interestingly enough, my pal @kindleaholic suggested I write “a post about figuring out what to write when your brain is zombiefied.” ’Cause that isn’t at all the whole problem I’m having. IF I HAD THE ANSWER TO THAT, I WOULD ALSO HAVE HAD A BLOG POST.
And yet. And yet, as long as it’s not a blank post, I’m generally pretty good at getting past the blank page problem, and once I got going, it turns out that I had thoughts enough for several blog posts on the subject. Thanks, @kindleaholic! So here’s Part the First.
You’re humming along on a project you really love and all of a sudden the words stop. There are tons of reasons why this happens, and they’re all potentially scary, although some are scarier than others. A not-at-all exhaustive sampling of causes might include the following:
Those are the most frequent offenders in my life. Some are easier to deal with than others. Today, let’s start right at the top of the list and take a look at Problem A.
Set a deadline. Of course, this only works if you treat your deadline as seriously–or almost as seriously–as you’d treat a deadline from an editor. Make it reasonable, something that’s doable. A challenging deadline is great but not necessary. Set yourself up for success.
Clock some words with friends. I can only speak for myself, but I’m hugely motivated by writing with friends on Twitter. A quick tweet to a group I can usually count on to be slogging through a draft–or to the community at large using #1k1hr–links me to friends who are often the key to getting a tough day’s work done.
Stop obsessing about making what you wrote yesterday perfect. Now, I have friends, excellent writers all, who really don’t like moving on from one section until they’ve perfected it. They have this preference because they (not unreasonably) feel that it’s hard to know where the story’s really going until that first chapter’s set it solidly on its way. It’s a perfectly legitimate approach, but it doesn’t work for me at all. In fact, when I’m actively trying to get through a draft, I start my writing day with working through my word count and save reading anything that’s come before as a reward.
I also don’t typically edit at all until very late in the draft. I know I can fix anything afterward, but if I get bogged down with perfecting things too early, not only do I not make forward progress, it doesn’t even save me editing time later. I often make discoveries about the plot or characters that result in big changes to the story itself as I go. I accept that the resulting retrofitting that’s sometimes necessary is just part of how I work. Of course, not everybody is going to enjoy working this way–some people I’ve talked to hate the idea, or can’t even fathom how it works. That’s fine. It’s just one way of going at it, but it’s what works for me.
Because I work this way, spending time on early editing is more like procrastination than any kind of meaningful productivity. The way I figure it, I am always going to have editing to do afterward. The question is, do I have a draft to edit, or am I just editing a fragment? (Again, there’s nothing wrong with editing a fragment–your process is your process–but for me, setting editing aside until I’m done a draft is one of the ways I get through a draft in the first place.)
So that’s my three-part strategy for giving myself kicks in the pants when necessary. How do you keep yourself on task?
Tomorrow, on to the big fat middle of the list: focus problems.
Postscript: It now occurs to me that maybe the original prompt was actually asking for ideas for surviving the shambling apocalypse, in which case nothing here, nothing is going to help you. You probably need a bat or something, and a good pair of running shoes. I’m not at all prepared for that. Someone else will have to weigh in.
I’m closing in on the end of my first draft of The Left-Handed Fate, and I have this story problem. I think I’ve solved it, but it continues to bother me. In fact, it’s bothering me so much, I think it might not just be a story problem. I think it might be The Point. It was not supposed to be.
So here’s the problem. If you’d like to know the history behind it (which I, obviously, think is really important), you can read all of that below*. But the TL;DR is this: it’s 1812, America and Britain are at war (and it’s a war in which both sides are really, really pissed at each other and have been for about thirty years), and I need an American midshipman and a British privateer to work together on something that will give one side measurably more power–possibly the power to win the war out of hand–than the other.
But it’s actually more complicated than that. Not only do they have to work together, but my American midshipman, temporary prize-captain of a British privateer, has to effectively decide to ignore both his orders and every shred of common sense he has and hand the ship back over to its original crew so that the privateer can continue a mission that’s completely against American interests. The situation is so impossible that, once he’s decided to proceed along this course, basically the only thing that can possibly happen to the kid when it’s all over is a court-martial that, in the absolute best case, will kick him out of the navy. In the worst case, he’ll be declared a traitor and hanged. On the other hand, in this story, helping the privateer complete its mission is really the right thing to do.
Now, the factors that I put into place in this story to enable the boy to make this decision–to make it not only the morally right decision, but also one that makes enough practical sense that an actual officer under orders could choose the way the kid does–these factors, they are not inconsequential. They are so potent that, if hehad not bowed to them, he would have lost his ship and likely his life anyway. But the fact that the choice is there doesn’t make it a logical one, especially for a kid for whom the simplest and most justifiable answer–the only answer that’s likely to be accepted by his superiors, no matter what the circumstances–is to follow his orders even if they mean destruction. Any other decision involves some degree of working with the enemy, and therefore some degree of moral ambiguity, even if it’s the only one that saves the lives of his little prize-crew and the ship itself.
On the one hand, what I’ve set up creates enough justification for his making the choice for it to be believable. On the other hand, it still basically constitutes an act of treason during wartime, and my protagonist is still a twelve year-old boy–a boy who spends basically the entire book trying to figure out how to be a good leader when leadership is forced upon him. Either way, it’s suddenly sort of looking like The Point–or one of The Big Points–where it wasn’t before. Before, it was just a story problem I needed to solve. Now I think it’s more important than that.
But it’s also occurring to me that I never seem to figure out what The Point of anything I write is until I’m a chapter away from being done. I never sit down and think, I want to write a story about this theme or this idea. It’s always that I have an idea about a villain, or a weird historical thing, or just something I think is cool and want to use somehow. The Points always seems to turn up on their own. This will be the seventh manuscript I’ve written to completion, and this is actually the first time I’ve really sat up and paid attention to this pattern I seem to have.
It’s all just stuff I’m turning over in my head until I get my editorial notes–maybe I’m wrong and it is just a story problem after all (in which case, presumably I’ve solved it: yay!). But it’s going to be uppermost in my mind as I give the finished draft its first complete reading this week and I work through whether Acting Commander Dexter’s arc is what it needs to be.
Writerly folks–does this happen to you? That A) The Point turns up way late in the game; or B) that what seems to be just a story problem you think you fixed continues to bother you so much it threatens to become What The Book Is About?
It’s 1812. War has just been declared between the United States and Britain. A fascinating thing about this point in history is that our government actively didn’t want to get involved in foreign wars. They wanted this so badly that it took an incredible amount of work on the part of Jefferson and Adams over the course of three combined presidential terms to get Congress to authorize the construction of a blue-water Navy. That’s right–it seems absurd, looking back now, when any cuts to our defense budget make a huge chunk of our legislators start screaming that America is dead, but there was a point when our Congress believed a tiny regular army (and functionally no navy) would do just fine, supplemented by state militias and private coastal vessels. (You know that big debate going on right now, the one about guns? These were the “well-regulated militias” the Second Amendment’s talking about. The right to bear arms had a lot to do with the fact that militias were still relied upon to do most of the work that, two hundred and some years later, we delegate to the large professional military that many of the Founding Fathers emphatically did not want.)
Jefferson got Congress to authorize the building of six frigates; Congress fought tooth and nail against a blue-water navy because they didn’t see the point. They didn’t want us sending some teensy navy out against any of the bigger navies on the Atlantic, who were almost certainly going to smash it to pieces. At the time, Jefferson wanted to stop the Barbary States from harassing American shipping, but Britain was already causing the trouble that would eventually lead to the War of 1812.
Due to its decades-long wars with France, it was constantly short of the sailors needed to man the hundreds upon hundreds of ships of the Royal Navy, and additionally it viewed any trading (neutral) America did with France as unacceptable. Therefore, British ships made a practice of interfering with American shipping, preventing it from trading and also stopping American ships and literally taking sailors from them. Britain claimed to be taking only Englishmen who had deserted from British ships; in practice, many, many Americans were kidnapped, too. Congress believed that building an American navy to defend American shipping was pointless, because in any contest against the might of the Royal Navy, American ships would lose. Even when war became inevitable, Congress (and, in fact, President Madison) believed more good would be done by privateers than the tiny navy itself.
Meanwhile, Britain was furious at America both for insisting on neutrality when Britain was fighting Napoleon, who it (rightly) saw as a threat not only to British interests, but also to all of Europe and maybe the whole world. Worse, because France had been such a critical ally in the Revolutionary War, many Americans (not all, but many) were inclined to think if we came in on either side, we ought to come in on the French side. Britain was furious because it saw Britain and America as natural allies, linked by a common past and a common language. It was furious because it felt that its need for seamen so far outweighed America’s wish to protect the sovereignty it had just fought a war to gain that Britain actually saw America’s protests as something like betrayal.
Got it? Good. What hopefully is obvious in all of this is that it’s not a likely time for an American midshipman and a British privateer to decide to join forces.
It was the final piece of my original plan for The Kairos Mechanism: a digital edition illustrated by reader artists, one per chapter, each of whom would be paid for his or her work. I was excited about the whole project, but this particular piece–the illustrated edition–was the most special piece of all.
Everybody who got involved with The Kairos Mechanism was excited about the illustrated edition. Several of the co-conspirators donated their (meager) compensation in order to bring additional artists on board. With the help of an amazing group of Kickstarter backers, we were able to raise the amount each artist made per illustration from the originally-budgeted $100 to $125. Meanwhile, with the help of friends, colleagues, a few teachers and librarians and one fairly amazing counselor, I found twelve artists ranging in age from 11 to 20 years of age.
We all worked together to make sure that each artist was assigned the chapter he or she was most excited about (and some lobbied hard to be allowed to illustrate more than one). Beyond making sure that each chapter was covered, I gave no instructions, except where I was asked directly for input. And in September, the finished artwork began to arrive by mail and email. As I mentioned in my previous post, the final piece was hand-delivered to me by my cousin Annie on Christmas Day, the work of 12 year-old Hassan Davenport of Baltimore. Best present ever.
Because I wanted to offer the final edition free or pay-what-you like, I opted to rely on a PDF edition for this version, and last week I turned everything over to Allie Tova Hirsch, a literary designer recommended to me by the good folks at Vook. Allie took my files and created an interactive PDF (correcting more than one of my own formatting errors along the way). And here it is, at long last, complete with not thirteen but eighteen original illustrations.
Please enjoy this book. It is absolutely free if you would like it to be; follow the link and you can decide for yourself whether you’d like it to be complimentary (in which case, leave the dollar amount at zero). However, all proceeds from The Illustrated Kairos Mechanism go toward this summer’s release of Bluecrowne, so if you’d like to become a backer, just enter the amount you’d like to contribute in the dollar field. The artists have also decided to offer prints to help raise the cost of paying the next group of young illustrators for their work, which you can purchase here.
Last of all, please remember that although The Illustrated Kairos Mechanism is offered as a PDF and that you don’t necessarily have to pay for it, the text and all the images are copyright-protected and the rights belong respectively to myself and to the individual artists. If you would like to reproduce anything, please contact me directly about permissions. And if you read the book and would like to share it, please share the download link rather than sharing by any other means. Your friends can still have the book free if they’d like, but I’ll be able to get excited about every copy that’s circulating, which is helpful, and your friends might just contribute a buck or two, which is wicked helpful.
And I guess that’s–oh, right, you want to know where to get that book thing I’ve been talking about this whole time. Click here, and enjoy, with all our thanks for reading!
Aidan, Candice, Emma, Hassan, Lily, Maeve, Maud, Natalia, Shannon, Reed, Tanner, Victoria, and Kate