About two days ago, I saw a link to an article called “Thing I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One,” which I dutifully clicked, read through, and enjoyed a fair amount. Then I scrolled down and looked at the Facebook comments, and saw that a number of people were, to put it mildly, losing their utter shit. People were declaring the writer, Ryan Boudinot, a horrible person, a bitter old hag, and there was a great deal of discussion about how he represented what was the absolute worst about a certain kind of writing (read: literary), and I think a lot of people were having some PTSD flashbacks to moments in college writing classes where they were told that this wasn’t the place to write genre fiction.
First of all, writing advice is highly subjective. Some of it is going to be useful to a person, some of it is going to not be useful – and that depends on which person you talk to. If someone read the Boudinot article and promptly began frothing at the mouth – hey, fine. I do that when I read shit by Annie Lamott. (side note: a lot of people really like Annie Lamott’s writing about writing. I find it tedious, idiotic, and like gumdrops for a certain kind of lazy writer – but again, hey, that’s subjective. My utter loathing for Lamott doesn’t mean that she can’t be incredibly insightful, inspiring, and useful for another writer – and sometimes that other writer might even be someone I like and respect! Because the process is different for every damn person)
I’m a product of both an undergraduate writing program and an MFA program. I’ve done my time, I got over a dozen short stories published in literary journals, and I absolutely feel like my MFA program made a profound impact in me as a writer. And now I’m the published author of three (four in August!) urban fantasy novels, which means that I will never (NEVER) be considered for bigtime fantasy awards, and I will have the pleasure of seeing the reflexive “ew” face on any writer of serious fantasy and sci-fi when I’m initially introduced to them.
In what way is not the most hilarious artistic journey ever? Seriously, it actually is.
Not only am I an urban-fantasy writing hack, but I teach literature classes to college students as my day job – how fantastic is that? I get to force Kafka and Tolstoy and Hurston and Achebe down the gullets of nigh-indifferent undergrads on a daily basis, and then laugh an evil laugh. (plus my actual amused laugh as we get to have conversations about Kafka and Tolstoy and Hurston and Achebe, and what is useful and interesting and, yes, fucking pleasurable about reading these things.)
So I perhaps I have a different view on the Boudinot article. Did I agree with all of it? No. But I enjoyed good portions of it, and I felt like chunks were useful and had resonance. Which is why I’m taking this highly unusual step of adding actual content to my blog by responding to this, rather than just posting another Twitter conversation that involved a highly amusing poop joke. (don’t worry, I’ll get right back to that next time)
Let me go through a few of the Boudinot points.
1. “Writers are born with talent.”
Well, I’d say that caused a good chunk of the freakouts. But Boudinot isn’t saying anything particularly groundbreaking here. In fact, Stephen King said pretty much the same damn thing in On Writing. And I agreed with King, and I agreed with Boudinot.
Does this mean that talent is anointed, and you shall know the coming of an author by certain signs and miracles? No. Writing is goddamn hard work, and it takes years of getting it wrong, of going back and working on it, and honing the damn craft. And, yes, that’s if you were actually born with talent. Talent doesn’t mean that this is going to be easy – it just means that you have that something – that way of looking at the world and conveying something specific in prose, that extra flair with language, that thing that set you apart from the other kids in third grade writing exercises.
Anyone can get an undergraduate degree in creative writing (I did it, it wasn’t that hard), or an MFA in writing (believe me, there are plenty of terrible writers with that degree – I know, I graduated with a few). Take enough classes, put in enough work, and any person can become a decent writer. Being a good writer is something different – and you know the difference when you read one. Doesn’t mean that they were perfect starting out, or that it’s an easier path, but it does mean that when they put in the work and the effort, the outcome at the end is different.
Honestly, why are we having such an extreme reaction to this statement? Do you just think that Boudinot came off as a dick when he wrote it? I’d call him a bit frosty, maybe, and definitely still reeling from a few years within the MFA system, but he’s not saying anything that we haven’t all thought a bit before.
Let me put it differently: it’s clear that Tiger Woods’s dad was hardcore about teaching his son to play golf – perhaps in a way that we might not point to as an ideal parenting choice. But even with all of that training, would Tiger Woods have reached the pinnacle that he did without the benefit of having been born with some talent? Writing isn’t that different.
2. “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”
Boudinot’s very next sentence is an equivocation on that statement, which I find utterly hilarious. The man isn’t an idiot – make a broad, sweeping statement (even one softened by the word “probably” rather than “definitely”) and you’re going to see nothing except a series of examples that poke holes in it (Boudinot even offers one himself – Haruki Murakami). But in the broad sense, is he wrong? No, he really isn’t.
RESTRAIN YOUR FREAKOUT FOR FIVE FUCKING SECONDS.
Being serious about writing doesn’t mean that you are a published author.
If I have to pinpoint the moment when I got serious about writing, I’d point to when I was in college – which I suppose could technically be called still being a teenager, but only barely. However, I wrote stories when I was little, I always knew that I was better at writing than the other kids in my class, and I liked the process of writing enough that I did it with some regularity.
But I got serious about writing around the age of nineteen. And then it took me another decade until I got a book published. Serious doesn’t equal published – maybe it’ll take you four or five decades – doesn’t mean that you aren’t serious. I think Boudinot kind of shot himself in the foot to a degree by specifying the word “teenager,” but, hey, tiny quibbles.
If anything, I find Boudinot’s most important statement to be under that – “Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.”
Honestly, hell fucking yeah, Boudinot. If you want to write, my feeling is that you’ve got to have a relationship with books, and an enjoyment of language. Again – it doesn’t mean publishing, people. And he isn’t even talking about the action of writing anymore.
3. If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
OF THE MFA PROGRAM. Also, side-note – yes, I utterly co-sign with Boudinot here. When I was a college student I bitched endlessly about my workload, never even dreaming how good I currently had it. When I entered my MFA program, I had just blown out of law school, and I couldn’t believe how much fucking free time I had to write. Compared to law school, the MFA requirements felt like “laze on a field of beautiful flowers for half the day, reveling in nature – now read half a book, write three sentences, and roll into class to marinate in the beauty of language. Then we’ll head to the bar for some beer!”
I might be exaggerating slightly, but seriously. If you can’t write when you’re an MFA student, I’m sorry, but you’re never going to be able to write. Writing while balancing a full-time job and a spouse and possibly kids and something approaching a social life is terribly hard— wait, hold on, I think Boudinot actually covered this portion:
“My experience tells me this: Students who ask a lot of questions about time management, blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are should just give up and do something else. Their complaints are an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student.” (emphasis mine)
Thank you, Boudinot. That put it very nicely.
4. If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
There are people who only want to write, and don’t like to read. At all. It still blows my mind.
Boudinot mentions four books in this section: Infinite Jest, 2666, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Great Gatsby. I think people went nuts over this because they took this to mean that what they liked to read (I assume fantasy and sci-fi, just a guess) would be judged by this writer as not being serious. Hey, maybe Boudinot is a snob. I don’t know him, I can’t judge. (though I will note that his statement that: “Conversely, I’ve had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren’t into “the classics” as if “the classics” was some single, aesthetically consistent genre. Students who claimed to enjoy “all sorts” of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!), told me she preferred to read books “that don’t make me work so hard to understand the words.” made me nod very sadly in understanding – I, too, get very sick of teaching lazy readers)
But I think that, as writers, we all need to regularly challenge ourselves as readers. And this means reading out of our comfort zones.
Does it mean you have to pick up Tolstoy? No. But it might mean giving Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice a try. Or after you read four books that were right in your wheelhouse, kick back with Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Being serious about your reading means that, in addition to the act of reading for pleasure, you also consider whether something will stretch your horizons, or challenge you as a reader and a person.
Reading for enjoyment is critical and important. But sometimes you don’t know whether you might enjoy something or not. Reading something outside your comfort zone might end in disappointment, or it might end with excitement and discovery.
And along those lines – I’ve read many moving accounts by people who were, at various points in their lives, told that what they loved wasn’t serious or important, and I’m sorry about that. But maybe instead of deciding to then be just as much of a dick back to the genre that you felt was a dick to you (read: literary fiction & classics), you can try, you know, not being a dick. Don’t take a shit on a book or a genre just because you’ve never read it – that applies to the classics (though, like Boudinot, I agree that this isn’t a real genre – what it does mean is that it has held up to a certain scrutiny of time and has become part of a canon of well-regarded books) just as much as to YA.
There are shitty books everywhere you want to look. I’ve read crappy epic fantasy and I’ve read crappy literary fiction. I’ve read crappy YA and books that were touted as classics that I’ve loathed. But I’ve also read books in all those areas, and more, that I loved, that moved me, that challenged me, and that I recommend unceasingly.
Scoffing at the very idea of reading a certain type of book shouldn’t give you any additional street cred in your preferred genre. That applies to fantasy and science fiction just as equally as it does to those in literary fiction.
5. No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.
“Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.”
Boudinot is harsh. He’s also right.
Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss is about the incestuous relationship she had as an adult with her father. It is moving, stunning, viscerally painful, and utterly incredible in the way that it is written. I read it in a non-fiction class during my MFA, and I still own the book. Not because it’s about incest, but because of the writing.
I read more than a few stories by classmates in my MFA program (and turned in a few myself) that were just about similar topics – shitty childhoods and periodic instances of molestation. Some were about rape. Some were about death. A story isn’t good or strong because of its topic, or even because of the *truth* of your topic – it’s good or strong because of the writing. And if someone is a bad writer, then even the most heartbreaking and painful topic will not save it.
There was a guy in my MFA program who was an absolutely painful writer. And every story he turned in was the same – about a vastly inappropriate psychosexual relationship between a gay man and his mother. The first one we all read, knew it was about his life, and tried to be tender and gentle as we addressed the difficult topic of trying to help him address the problems within the story that were preventing him from being able to say anything true or moving in the story (no plot, one-dimensional characters, painfully obvious attempts at symbol, verb tense, etc).
Then came the second story, which was about the same topic as the first. And the third story. And the fourth. And this continued for the entire two years that I spent in that program. Taking a workshop with this man (who had survived what was apparently an utter horror of a childhood to become a really standout and great guy, but just not a good writer), became a chore, because he wasn’t there to hone his writing – he was there to tell the story of his vastly inappropriate psychosexual relationship with his mother.
Having a painful life (or even an interesting life) doesn’t necessarily make someone a good writer. It’s a painful, yet true, thing.
6. You don’t need my help to get published.
I totally disagree with what Boudinot is saying here in its entirety.
Agents and editors have a place, and an important one, in the changing publishing landscape. The idea that we should all turn to each other and form our own little self-publishing communes is utter madness, and I think that Boudinot is clinging tightly to his own inner back-to-nature 70s hippie. (full disclosure: I don’t know Ryan Boudinot, so I don’t know whether he is even in the right age-range to be a back-to-nature 70s hippie. I simply have my suspicions.)
7. It’s not important that people think you’re smart.
YES. THANK YOU. I’m just going to copy, paste, and then cosign.
“After eight years of teaching at the graduate level, I grew increasingly intolerant of writing designed to make the writer look smart, clever, or edgy. I know this work when I see it; I’ve written a fair amount of it myself. But writing that’s motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience really is best. I told a few students over the years that their only job was to keep me entertained, and the ones who got it started to enjoy themselves, and the work got better. Those who didn’t get it were stuck on the notion that their writing was a tool designed to procure my validation. The funny thing is, if you can put your ego on the back burner and focus on giving someone a wonderful reading experience, that’s the cleverest writing.”
I wonder if people’s response to this article would’ve been demonstrably different if this had been point #1 rather than #7.
8. It’s important to woodshed.
I agree on this one. I think the woodshed, where unpublished novels go to die, was less of a problem back in the days before easy self-publishing. Self-publishing has its benefits, which I won’t deny, but I think there are more than a few authors (myself included) who are desperately grateful that their early efforts died unsung deaths, and never saw the light of day.
It’s hard to let a book die, because you’ve spent so long on it and believed so hard in it. But not everything that hits 100K deserves to be read, which is the danger of easy self-publishing.
In total – everything is subjective, and nothing moreso than writing advice. Just because we disagree (or agree) on whether an article has merit usually doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot. If you disagreed with Boudinot about everything – fine. But disagree for your own reasons – not because of various sentences that got posted out of context, or because of reflexive defensiveness.
Harriet took the cigarette, which she felt she had deserved, and sat with her hands about her knees, mentally turning the incidents of the last hour into a scene in a book (as is the novelist’s unpleasant habit)… — Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
Something that I have noticed about writers, both myself and my friends who write, is that we are endless collectors of little facts, incidents, and trivia. Even if we have no idea how we could ever fit something into a book or a story, we are unable to stop observing and collecting. I cannot tell you how many small scraps of paper are stuffed into my desk drawers or tucked into folders that have an interesting name that I heard, or a tidbit, or a fragment of an experience. Because the thing is, you’ll never know when something could become useful, or you might find a home for a particular shred of information. I was visiting with a friend from my masters program who had recently had a cyst removed from the back of her neck, and she was joking about how the whole process had been so gross that even in the name of writing, she hadn’t really wanted to take a look at the gunk that had come out of the hole. Which we both laughed about, because here’s the thing – writers are like cats. We can’t help investigating something, reading random magazine articles, or listening to a bizarre story that someone is telling. I had a friend who was in a terrible car accident that flipped his car and ended up lacerating his spleen, and when he was telling me about the whole experience later, I couldn’t help but start hoarding the details in my brain for possible later use.
Because it isn’t just the collection for its own sake, it’s the hope that someday this will be useful. That observing the gunk that comes out of an incision (yes, I did that when I had minor foot surgery), or listening to a friend’s frightening survival story, or even just sitting on the beach on a sunny day and thinking about what it feels like – that this will help in your writing. And the truth is that it actually does. Sometimes it helps with the big plot stuff, but a lot of the time it comes out in the secondary elements. At one point in Iron Night (to be published January 7, 2014, but available for pre-order now) I introduced Suzume’s home. The layout of her house is based on the duplex apartment that a friend of mine rented in Somerville, MA. Fort has a new crappy job in Iron Night, working as a waiter in a fancy restaurant and tormented by a foodie chef – that entire idea came to be because I was reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. And there’s actually a section where I mention how the fancy restaurant handles food allergies because I was also reading Sandra Beasley’s Don’t Kill The Birthday Girl: Tales From An Allergic Life. Houses, businesses, cars, weather, random elements – it all bleeds through from things I’ve seen or read. I was on a great panel at WorldCon this year about how to write horror, and at one point a casual comment ended up revealing that all of the writers on the panel were fans of books about Himalayan climbers (myself quite definitely included) – not because we were adrenaline junkies or wanted to ever do it ourselves, but because the topic itself was absolutely fascinating to us – the danger, the discomfort, the possibility of having to leave friends behind to certain death – that was the stuff we were hooked on.
From what I’ve seen, it seems to be practically universal to writers. So if you’re around me and you start telling a great story, or something funny happens, or we visit a certain restaurant – someday that might end up in something I’m writing. Maybe the whole thing, barely changed from life, or just the tiniest fragment will be glued into a larger scene. But it will definitely be there.
So Generation V has now been out for three months! Pretty amazing, actually, when I think about it. I’ve learned quite a lot over the last three months – namely that the Amazon sales rankings make little to no sense, and seem simply designed to break my heart.
Now, what should I be expecting from a three-month-old book? Well, as always, the Internet provided an answer:
Your 3-month-old is growing bigger and becoming more aware every day. By this age, your baby should be settling into a schedule, and giving you some much-needed rest!
Your 3-month-old’s nervous system is maturing, and his stomach can accommodate more milk or formula. Those changes should allow your baby to sleep for a stretch of six or seven hours at a time, which translates into a good night’s sleep for you.
If your baby does wake up in the middle of the night, wait about 30 seconds before heading into the nursery. Sometimes, babies will cry for a few seconds and then go back to sleep. When you rush in at the first sound of fussing, your baby won’t learn how to fall back asleep on his own.
When the cries don’t stop and you do need to go into your baby’s room in the middle of the night, stick to the essentials. Feeding and changing should be done in the dark, if possible, and then it’s right back into the crib. Eventually, your baby will get the idea that nighttime is for sleeping only.
Your baby’s daytime sleep schedule should also become more routine by now. Most 3-month-old babies take a few naps of about 1 1/2 to 2 hours each day.
Thanks, WebMD! I’ll definitely keep those things in mind. Somewhere between improving its nervous system and working on not waking in the middle of the night, Generation V got reviewed again – this one is from Book Lovers, Inc. I also had a great time recently writing a guest post about naming the Generation V characters for Shadowhawk’s Shade‘s ongoing series on the topic. If you haven’t been reading these posts, I really recommend that you go over and check them out. Abhinav has gotten a really great roster of writers, and it’s very fun to see so many different perspectives.
My posting recently has gotten fairly erratic – August is a pretty busy month right now. I just finished the copy edits for Iron Night and mailed them back to Roc last night (WOO!) – it really helped clean the manuscript up, and hopefully we’ve caught all the typos and little bits of weirdness that always seem to hold on no matter how many eyes go through the manuscript. (until the first real reader, of course. THEN they pop out.)
Here’s something interesting that I learned during the copy edit – apparently “Wookiee” has two “e”’s? What the hell is up with this? Now, I actually read a not-insignificant number of Star Wars books when I was younger (for those curious – the Thrawn trilogy), and somehow this missed my notice. What is up with all those extra vowels? One “e” would’ve been sufficient!
That took a little under a week, but now I can fully shift back to work on the yet-unnamed Book 3 (it has a working title, but it’s pretty horrible, so I’m not going to mention it at this time… or EVER). The deadline on that one is September 1, which is getting just slightly stressful.
On top of that I’m teaching two classes this fall (that part isn’t so bad – usually I teach five) which each need a syllabus before classes start – on August 28. Usually wouldn’t be too bad, except some jackass decided to assign new books. What jackass would that be? Yeah. Me. Fuck you, me from April! Stop making more work for August Me just to try to stop plagiarism! (Meanwhile October Me is probably all, “Yeah, fuck off, August Me. I am totally not dealing with that shit.”)
Aaaaand WorldCon is the last weekend in August. Which should be awesome and all, but Jesus Christ, at this point it would be redundant to even throw up a .jpg of The Scream.
So if I’m frothing at the mouth and twitching spastically in another two weeks – that’s why. Not all is gloom and doom, though. My brother wrote me an inspirational haiku! (seriously, this is an ML Brennan’s Older Brother original. If you want to use it, you MUST credit him)
Bare slate beckons man:
“Fill the page ere dusk descends.
Words don’t write themselves.”
–ML Brennan’s Older Brother
Isn’t that nice? Clearly my brother got the poetry gene in the family. (which I am actually very, very okay about)
So, what are the odds that I’ll be delivering a Book 3 manuscript on deadline? Here, I will defer to the master.
Is great! Seriously, I had a good trip to Newport, and an amazing time at ConnectiCon!
I’ll start with Newport – it was low-key, I was able to get some solid outlining work done, and I took some good reference photos for the books. Great ambiance, pleasure to visit there again, and I had a lot of meals at the Newport Creamery.
Oh, and for anyone who has wondered what Madeline’s mansion looks like, here was what I used as a reference:
I got home on Thursday, meeting up with my good friend John, who was nice enough to agree to ride shotgun on my first convention. Let me tell you – ConnectiCon was a shit-ton of fun. For one thing, this happened at the first panel we attended:
I ended up being on three panels over the weekend – Worldbuilding 101, Crossgenre Writing, and The Ten Things You Need To Know About Writing (on that last one, I don’t know what our final tally was before we went to questions, but a few people taking notes said that we were about fifteen-ish – even without counting how often we were expanding on what the person before us had just said). Each one was so much fun – the first two I was lucky to be with Michael J. Sullivan, Leona Wisoker, and the incredible Joseph Bruchac. All so lovely. Big kudos to Michael J. Sullivan, who managed to avoid looking horrified the third time I showed up on a panel with him (seriously, he was not only wonderful, but also graciously served as defacto moderator for two of the panels – Leona Wisoker made a heroic moderator stance in the second panel when the topic completely dried up on us). Last panel included Margaret Killjoy, who was such a pleasure to meet, and who very graciously began peppering his speech with profanity to make me feel less conspicuous after I accidentally broke the curse barrier. I am reading through his thoroughly delightful choose-your-own-adventure book What Lies Beneath The Clock Tower and I’m really enjoying the writing, the goblins, and the presence of absinthe.
I also got to meet wonderful people! Rob Durand and Rachel Sasseen were incredibly nice and cool for the whole weekend, and so much fun to hang out with! We talked, we had dinner, we played games, they introduced me to the fantastic Cam Banks, and then they even did me the *huge* solid of helping me with a very inconvenient and stress-inducing box.
Oh, and the gaming. Seriously, I had so much fun. I got to play 3-person Puerto Rico (fast, too – John and I played with a guy who apparently plays Puerto Rico in tournaments – and, yeah, I totally tied him on points, but he beat me by three coins), I learned Revolution with John and my husband (thanks Steve Jackson game instructor!), Gloom (which Cam very nicely taught me how to play), and Rob and Rachel taught me and John how to play 7 Wonders, which is so good that I’m probably going to have to buy it now.
Also amazing? The artists’ area. Stunning, stunning artwork – if I was single and I didn’t have to compromise on my choices in wall art, I would’ve come home with so much stuff to frame. But I did pick up a few small things – one whimsical print of sheep having a tea party by Anne Hoffer, and a set of the most glorious postcards by Cari Corene. Yeah, I’m not sending those postcards – I’m going to frame them.
I also was able to hand out a lot of my business cards, talked with many aspiring writers, and hopefully some more people will check out Generation V. And, in Generation V news – I’m up to 25 reviews on Amazon.com, so thanks so much to everyone who has done that! If you haven’t written a review for them yet, please do! I was very lucky to get wonderful coverage by two fantastic bloggers – shewolfreads posted a review and an interview, and Civilian Reader also posted a review and an interview. All are well worth checking out – I really enjoyed these ones!
For this week – just working hard and trying to stay cool in the monstrously hot temperatures.
Monday’s usual blog update will not happen, since I’ll be in Newport, working on Book 3, drinking Awful Awfuls from the Newport Creamery, and avoiding soaking up the sun. (I have a big floppy hat and a stern warning from my dermatologist)
I’ll be without internet access for the most part (yay for productivity, sad face for Twitter), so I probably won’t be updating again until after ConnectiCon. For anyone attending who would like to say hello, here’s my set schedule:
Friday 1:30p – 2:30p: Worldbuilding in Fantasy & Scifi 101 – Panel 7
Friday 7:00p – 8:00p: Cross-genre Writing – Panel 8
Saturday 1:00p – 2:00p: M.L. Brennan Autograph Session – Online Media Guest Hall
I’m really excited about being on these two fantastic panels – I only know that Michael J. Sullivan is on both, which will probably give him the distinction of being the first author who I publically geekspaz out on since becoming a published author myself. (authors who I publically geekspazed out on *before* getting published myself? Um… let’s not dwell on that list…)
Also, if you are going to be at ConnectiCon on Saturday? PLEASE come see me during my signing session! I’m really looking forward to meeting some of the great people who I’ve bumped into on Twitter and through blogs, and I can even promise some swag!
Emphasis on “some,” but still – check out what just arrived in the mail today:
My Generation V business card! They are actually very cool to hold – the perfect size for sticking in a pocket or wallet, but the cardstock is really nice and the picture actually doesn’t do justice to how well the cover photo turned out! I’m really happy about these. So if you come say hi to me at my signing, but either don’t have your copy of Generation V or don’t have the spare money to buy it that day (though my publisher is sending a whole BOX to the convention, which, let me tell you: pressure), come over and I will sign one of the cards for you! I’ll also have a few of the Ace/Roc samplers that has the first chapter of Generation V in it, and I’m happy to give those out to the first 25 people who ask me. (and, I cannot stress this enough: ask me *while I’m carrying them* on Saturday. You can probably ask me for the business card if you run into me at any point in the con, since I’ll have a bunch in my pockets)
Next time I update, then, I’ll be able to talk about Newport, hopefully I’ll have some solid work done on Book 3, plus I’ll be able to talk about my FIRST CONVENTION!
Remember – in my absence, please harass friends, loved ones, and random strangers to buy my book.
Welcome to July (also known as, “shit, how is it July already?”)! Last week was pretty good for the writing. I had a very useful phone conversation with my editor (the great and powerful Anne Sowards) in the middle of the week.
We talked about where I’m planning on taking Book 3. This was a pretty important phone call, since when Roc bought the three books, the purchases on #2 and #3 were based on a set of proposals, plus an over-series arc document. Iron Night is similar in most major points to its proposal, but the problem is that there are a few really BIG events that were in the Book 3 proposal that I just didn’t feel should happen yet. They needed more prep before I could get to them.
Anne agreed with me, and I had a really productive week of outlining. I’ve cleared up one of the thornier areas of the main plot, and now I’m just figuring out how some of the ongoing plots will fit in around it. The timing is going really well on this, since on Saturday I’ll be heading down to one of my favorite places in the world for a six-day solo vacation – can you guess the place?
Newport, RI. My family starting going down for a week every summer when I was about 4, and I actually lived there for a full year on my own. Newport is both one of my favorite settings in the Fortitude Scott books and a really important place in its creation. I finished the first draft of Generation V in Newport in the summer of 2011. In the summer of 2012, I’d just sold the series to Roc, and I thrashed out the full outline of Iron Night during my time there. This summer I’m hoping to get a chunk of writing done on Book 3.
My schedule in Newport is pretty basic – I get up in the morning, eat breakfast and read on the porch. Then I come inside and write for a few hours, breaking for lunch. In the early afternoon I take a break and head down to the town – I walk all over, looking in shops, checking out what has changed, until I’m exhausted and sweaty. Early dinner at the Newport Creamery (greasy spoon diner and decent eating for a writer on a budget – plus, Awful Awfuls!), then back to the keyboard. Time out on the porch to enjoy the sunset. Work until I’m tired, then to bed. Repeat until vacation is over.
It’s wonderful – though my brother usually calls me a few times to make sure I haven’t gone all The Shining on my own.
This year I’ll be leaving Newport on a Friday – the same Friday as my first convention! I’m really excited to be attending ConnectiCon – I’m on two panels, plus I’m going to get a chance to sign copies of Generation V! Plus I also get to attend a convention – yay! If you’re planning on attending ConnectiCon, drop me a note so that we can meet up!
So that’s what’s going on with me (and why there won’t be a State of Monday next week), on to the important stuff – what’s going on with the books! Firstly, Generation V is up to 22 reviews over at Amazon. Amazon also has a new format which I’m not especially thrilled about – I find it really visually annoying, and it kind of pisses me off to have to click on something to see basic book info like where something was published. But, hey, I guess when I’m a global conglomerate with billions in assets, I can complain then, right?
Two really great reviews of Generation V – one from Kristin over at My Bookish Ways, and the other that I found over at bookistry. Also, Candace from Candace’s Book Blog is having a guest post and giveaway extravaganza, and she was nice enough to ask me to add a post. I had a lot of fun doing it, so check out My Top Ten Favorite Books So Far This Year — because, really, I’ve never been able to do a Top Ten list of favorite books of all time. I remember getting really frustrated over that once back in 8th grade, and let me tell you, I’ve read a *shit-ton* of books since then. It’s not getting any easier. But favorite books read in a six month period? That I could get a fun handle on. Oh, and you should also check out my list because Candace is running a giveaway of a signed copy of Generation V. So, free stuff!
I’ll be guest blogging tomorrow at That’s What I’m Talking About for their Urban Fantasy Summer Reading Celebration ) — they have a pretty great lineup of books to raffle off, and they’ll also be talking about some of my favorite authors.
Speaking of summer fun – check out the Blogger Summer Circus Giveaway Hop. There are a lot of great blogs involved, but start off at one I like very much – Danielle at Coffee and Characters is the ringmaster, and she also has a lineup of cover reveals, and I’m *very* flattered that she included Iron Night as one that she’s really looking forward to! Believe me, I’m *dying* to find out what people think of it, and January feels like forever and a day, but it’s with the copyeditor now, who will no doubt point out about fifty problems that I was completely unaware of. (last time favorites included the fact that the gun Fort was using held about four more bullets than I thought it did – so the final version ended up with four more shots to explain how he emptied his gun)
Speaking of the Iron Night cover….
…it was included in the All Things Urban Fantasy Cover Art Coverage! They had 36 covers to get through (whoa!) but were nice enough to include Iron Night. The entry is worth checking out on its own (I love reading their cover art posts), but here’s what was said about Iron Night:
The covers for this series suck. A lot. They’re boring as all get out. That’s especially sad since this is a tremendous series.
Did you hear that? Chris says that this is a “tremendous series”! Woo!
While I will always applaud sensible clothes and just plain clothes on a model this is kind of boring. He looks like he’s just taking a stroll with his gun.
“Taking a stroll with his gun” would be the best kickoff to an animated Disney song EVER! (wait, didn’t that already happen in Pocahontas?) But, yes, I am continually relieved at Fort’s state of dress on these covers – ie, his commitment to wearing shirts. Actually, this cover got even safer, since he now has a tee *and* a long-sleeve shirt! That’s smart layering, Fort!
The V in the background is why I’m giving this cover the middle. My interest is peaked by it alone.
I’m a huge fan of that background V. Yes, it has flummoxed a few people, since the official series name is American Vampire, not Generation V, but I was seriously worried around title time that my series didn’t have themed titles, and I think that the artist did a fantastic job of using that V to tie them together. Bravo!
Fun side story – I was on the phone with my brother last night, and I asked what he thought of the new cover. Typical brother, he didn’t even know I *had* a website (right on the book! Argh!), but it turned out to be a win, since then I got to listen in realtime to his cover reaction! (once he scrolled past last week’s fluffy dog – not my cover, btw). It was hysterically funny, and I wrote it down to share with all of you:
My Brother says:
WHAT? He went from film theory geek to Die Hard! And why is he carrying a sawed-off shotgun?!
I’m going to call that a thumbs up.
That’s about it – but remember that tomorrow is the debut of Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names (#5 on my list of books I read this year, btw). According to SF Signal:
I would wholeheartedly recommend The Thousand Names, not only to fans of fantasy but also to fans of military fiction of all types. Fans of Steven Erikson, David Drake, Glen Cook, Naomi Novik, Tom Kratman, Jack Campbell, David Weber, and John Ringo take note – there’s a new military fiction cowboy in town and his name is Django.
And if you’re buying The Thousand Names, why not take the opportunity to pick up Generation V as well?
Things are going pretty well right now. I finished making adjustments to Iron Night based on the edits that my editor sent me, and sent it to her on Friday. These were mostly big-picture elements – character motivations, pacing, building up some elements and toning down others. What happens now (based on my experience with Generation V) is that she’ll take the manuscript and start working on it line-by-line – does this wording sound right? Is there too much repetition in one paragraph? Is a particular idea or piece of information established thoroughly enough?
That’s where Iron Night is right now. I’m really excited about this book – for one thing, I got to take Fort deeper into the supernatural world that he’d been fighting to avoid. I got to revisit and expand some tertiary characters from Book One, as well as introduce some new ones. The world gets more complicated – and also longer! Generation V went to publication at around 85,000 words, but right now Iron Night is beating that by 23K. Given that my word-count goal going in was just to hit 90K, that was kind of surprising, but fun at the same time.
I’ve also gotten a peek at the Iron Night cover – and it is amazing! I’m under strict orders not to share it yet, but as soon as that gets lifted I’m going to put it up. Stylistically it’s similar to the Generation V cover, but I think it’s more dynamic and atmospheric. Can’t wait to hear everyone’s reaction to it!
This week I’m working on Book Three stuff – solidifying plans, doing some background research, that kind of thing. My hope is that at the end of the week I’ll have a working outline of the book. Right now I have a broad idea of major events and where I want a lot of the characters to be at the end of the book, but I’m still working on finer details.
There have been a few changes on the website since the last time I posted an entry – I now have a full character list page. Don’t look through that unless you’ve finished Generation V – it’s spoiler-heavy. I made it to help me with Iron Night (making sure I didn’t use the same names for background characters, being sure that I was consistent on birth years for my vampire characters, that kind of thing), so it establishes where everyone is at the end of the first book. (including, for several characters, deaths and who killed them). When writing Iron Night I found myself constantly flipping open a copy of Generation V to fact-check, and somehow I think that that will just be getting worse when I start Book Three, so I figured that it was definitely time to establish a separate series bible to avoid continuity flubs.
I also have the Reviews & Interviews page – links to all the reviews, interviews, guest posts, or media mentions that I know of. In the last two weeks what has been very exciting is seeing the occasional review pop up that I had no prior knowledge of – a blog review by someone who hadn’t been sent the book by either me or Roc. That’s been very neat, and I’m happy to say that the reviews have overall been really positive.
A few recent ones include:
Fang-tastic Fiction, That’s What I’m Talking About, Urban Fantasy Investigations, Owlcat Mountain, and Fangs For The Fantasy: The Latest In Urban Fantasy From A Social Justice Perspective. There’s a wide variety of responses and writing in here – I love seeing how every reader responds differently to various elements.
My most recent interview was over at Book Lovers Inc.. I also had the wonderful opportunity to write for SF Signal about deeper meaning in speculative fiction writing, which gave me the chance to write about two of my favorite books: Neuromancer by William Gibson and Singer From The Sea by Sheri S. Tepper. Check it out: The Veneer of Escapism.
So that’s where things are. I’m hoping to do that parasite post sometime this week, but I have a few things on my To-Do list, plus a job interview on Wednesday, and Tuesday is the publication for the latest Nalini Singh *and* Cassie Alexander’s latest Edie Spence book, so there will be some rather significant distractions. I’m also trying to introduce my three cats to the CatGenie (litter pan whose cleaning is controlled by TECHNOLOGY!), and it is Not Going Well.
Oh, last thing! Shiloh Walker wrote a great article here about how important Amazon and B&N reviews are for the success of a book. Generation V has twelve reviews at Amazon, and one review at Barnes & Noble. So if you read the book and enjoyed it, please post a review on either website, or both!
And if you haven’t read Generation V… well, wouldn’t you like to give it a try?
Ever since Generation V was bought by Roc last year, most of my time (when not focused on work, or during the time when I was writing and polishing the initial draft of Iron Night) and focus was on how to best work on promoting the book before it was published. And now… the book is out. I can visit it any time in the bookstore, and now when I talk to people about it, they can actually order copies on their phones, and have e-copies pretty much immediately.
Which is incredible and amazing… but now I can’t help but wonder, now what?
Oh, don’t get me wrong – I know what I need to be doing. The classes I’m teaching are just going into finals, so there’s a lot of hand-holding and correcting going on there. Plus I received edits back from Anne for Iron Night, and those need to be worked on and finished before June 1. Plus I have the third Fortitude Scott book to plan and write. And I really should mop the floors of my house, because that totally got pushed to the back-burner for a few months when I was crazy busy.
But in a larger sense, regarding Generation V, now what? Worrying about how well it’s selling, or doing research and sending emails to try to get more people to talk about it – that has occupied the majority of my days this week. And I know that with my to-do list of actual writing, that’s going to have to change really soon. Maybe I’ll be able to spend a few hours a week thinking about and working on publicity stuff, but that’s probably it.
I’ve made a deal with myself – I’ll keep focusing on Generation V until the end of the week, but then the shift to Iron Night has to happen. So this is an interesting transition time.
Stuff To Check Out!
One of my favorite interviews ever at Yummy Men & Kick Ass Chicks – fantastic and thoughtful questions!
Another great Interview at The Qwillery.
Finally, another really strong review of Generation V by Tori over at Smexy Books. Very thoughtful and great stuff.
And in closing, my usual appeal – wouldn’t you love to own your very own copy of Generation V?
Two weeks until Generation V is on the shelves! This is amazing, because I can try and work it into conversations in a very fake-casual kind of way. “Oh, week after next? Well, I have that dermatologist appointment, and then I thought I’d swing over to the bookstore. No big deal. Thought I’d buy Munchkin Chtulhu… and MY OWN BOOK THAT GETS PUBLISHED THAT DAY!”
Very exciting times right now. Advance copies of Generation V have gotten three really nice reviews on Goodreads, which everyone should go and read. Here’s a snippet of what David Caldwell wrote about Generation V:
This isn’t your typical vampire/shapechanger novel.The author has come up with a new and creative take on vampires.The idea of the host is great and gets rid of a lot of the problems presented in most vampire tales.Vampires aren’t immortal, just very long lived.They continue to grow strongeras they age.They also gain many of the weaknesses(like having to avoid the sun) as they age.
And Matt Lunn:
M.L. Brennan develops a very likable hero and excellent surrounding characters to go with an interesting new take on old vampire myths.
And Django Wexler (full disclosure, I know Django, and his first book The Thousand Names is incredibly cool and amazing and I reviewed the crap out of it already.):
It’s always nice to see an original take on the vampire mythos. (Including, for once, a reason why vampires haven’t overrun the world!)
I’ll brag a little here – all three of those reviewers also gave me five out of five stars. (fact: I am going to bawl my eyes out the first time someone give a nasty review)
But what all three reviewers were talking about was the way that I reimagined and rebuilt vampires in this series, so I thought that this could be something useful and interesting to blog about today.
Firstly, I’ve always had a bit of an issue with the vampire myth as it usually plays out, for pretty much the same reason that Django refers to – if vampires are immortal and all they have to do to make more of themselves is bite someone, have that person drink a little bit of blood, and then you have another vampire? You have a massive population control problem that will fairly quickly result in the entire world being covered by vampires!
I knew before I even started planning the series that I wanted my vampires to have a lifespan. Because, let’s face it, immortal characters are boring. They have no life cycle, they have no particular stake in doing anything. But then there was the question of what kind of life cycle? I didn’t want this to be a thousand years kind of thing, because then you’re only ever within two generations of the time of Christ, and honestly, that’s a little weird to think about. “Oh, that guy? Yeah, my grandpa was drinking buddies with him. Man, did that Nazarian like to put back a few bottles of wine.”
I also really didn’t want a protagonist who was a few hundred years old. Unless I made it a completely separatist society, the vampire would have a really tough time rolling with the constant changes in time. And half of his memories would involve women in corsets, a lack of flush toilets, and the days when Mozart’s music was banned for being too racy.
When I started constructing my vampires, I wanted them to make sense in a biological way. Not a lot of sense, granted, since this is still fantasy and my field of study was in the humanities, but just enough that I felt like I could work with it.
My first step was to think about how vampires would fit into the natural world. Essentially we’re talking about an apex predator in its ecosystem – big, in charge, eats what it wants and no one eats it.
Vampires are basically Great White Sharks.
Now, Great White Sharks are amazing, and badass, and the entire reason behind Discovery’s Shark Week. But like all apex predators, they are also inherently vulnerable because of this important fact – prey species must reproduce quickly, because it’s through sheer numbers and fecundity that the species can continue, since just about everything eats them (think bunnies here). But apex predators are different. For one thing, it usually takes them much longer than their prey to reach maturity – both physical maturity and then sexual maturity. After all, nothing is eating them, so what’s the rush? Secondly, they tend to reproduce less often, and in smaller numbers, because, again, no one is eating them, so no worries.
Which is fine… as long as nothing effects that ecosystem.
Here’s the thing about an apex predator – they are far more vulnerable to changes than their prey species. They are also far easier to wipe out, because of those important traits – slow to mature, slow to breed, and then they produce small numbers of offspring.
This takes us back to the badass Great White Shark. We don’t know a whole hell of a lot about them, but we do know that they live 30+ years, and that they don’t reach sexual maturity until around year 15. They also have an eleven-month gestation cycle, and deliver between 2 to 14 live pups, which then swim off and have to fend for themselves while they get bigger.
That long maturation period and relatively low amount of young makes them very vulnerable. For example, if suddenly another species comes along with boats and the interest in sport-fishing them and/or making tasty soup out of their fins, a huge dent can be made in the population, and this is a population that can’t bounce back very quickly.
And that led me to an idea I really liked – that vampires were a species that was barely hanging on, because the long maturation period and the low birth rate had been a disaster once humans began developing technology that could offset the natural power imbalance between them. Imagine a rabbit vs. a wolf. Now imagine if the rabbit is carrying a rabbit-sized AK-47. Those big teeth don’t make such a difference now, do they?
So vampires are strong, and powerful… but it takes them a while to get that way, just like baby Great White Shark. And if normal humans (the rabbits) traditionally reach sexual maturity around 15-18, then my vampires don’t hit it until they’re around 250. And the birthrate is very low – usually between one or two offspring in a regular vampire’s lifespan.
Now my primary vampire, Madeline Scott, is unusually fertile in the vampire world. Her oldest is Prudence, who was born in 1775. Then Chivalry in 1864. Then Fortitude, who is now 26. And none of her children are old enough to either leave home or start a family themselves, though Prudence is getting close.
To me, that seemed both interesting and plausible that this was a species that A) hadn’t overrun the entire world, and B) could be pushed right up to the edge of extinction.
But most importantly, C) would be neat to write about.
That was how I imagined I used the idea of vampires as apex predators to construct my species. But I also had a second way of interpreting vampires, which I’ll go into more next time –
Vampires are apex predators. But they also are very specific predators, feeding solely on the blood of another species. Which to me made them…
In my last post about my path to publishing glory, I covered the long process of signing with my agent. Let me take my mind back to those halcyon days, when I was sure that publication and actual cash were right around the corner. It was 2010 and I was 28, still hoping that someone would put me on a 30 Writers Under 30 list, or start a review by writing “Hot Young Writing Talent!”
Okay, it didn’t happen.
What happens once you sign with an agent is that the agent starts doing her job – namely, sell your book. This is an interesting experience, because up until this point, selling my book had been a very one-person job. Like writing itself, selling for me was a very solitary experience. I made lists, I researched a lot, but I wasn’t part of any writing group (and I have a feeling that being part of a writing group focused on getting agents would’ve been like being in the center of a cloud of despair) and I tried to keep my family as much in the dark as possible about the process itself.
So, it’s pretty lonely, and there were a lot of late-night moments of seriously wondering if I was just a talentless hack. But the other side of that was that I was completely in charge of my own destiny. Who I sent something to, whether I entered a manuscript into a contest, whatever, I was the one making the calls. At every point I knew exactly what was going on.
An agent makes that very different. For one thing, now someone with a professional stake in, you know, getting paid, had told me that she wanted to work with me. That’s pretty helpful during those “I’m just a hack!” moments. The other thing was that, for the first time, someone else took stuff on. I had to email Colleen to find out what was going on with the manuscript – that took some getting used to. It was also different to see an ad or something for a press or a contest and think, “Oh, dude, that would be perfect for the manuscript!” but then have to contact my agent about it instead of just going forward with it.
It was an adjustment. But I really feel that getting an agent was incredibly important and worthwhile, and in retrospect I would never have done anything differently. For one thing, I’m saying that from the point I’m at now – late August of 2012, with an accepted book rattling its way toward publication, and I have seen up close exactly how indescribably useful it is to have my agent and how very much she is earning her commission. (hint: I am fairly sure that without Colleen, my contract with Roc could well have included language concerning firstborn children, and I never would’ve known)
Once my agent and I were working together, she started submitting my manuscript. The benefit of the agent is two-fold here – for one thing, having an agent means that you can side-step the slush pile at the publishing house. Don’t get me wrong – the slush pile has worked for some and will continue to do so. But it’s better to avoid it. Plus, your agent brings with her a career’s worth of contacts – she’ll look at a manuscript and think, “Oh, I’ll send it to this editor I know over here, because I know that this is up her alley.” Are those contacts that fool-proof route to publishing? No, and I’ll talk about that later, but it never hurts to give networking a shot.
The sad truth was, though, that my first book just didn’t get a publisher. It was a pretty hard kick in the ass, but not that uncommon – I knew other people from my writing program who had also acquired agents, and none of them were able to find publishers either. Believe me, trying to get a book published is not for wusses.
Basically, I did the only thing I could – I rolled up my sleeves and wrote something else. This was what would become Generation V, the book that is being published in May 2013 by Roc. (you see how subtle I was there?) It was under a different title at the time, and someday I’ll do a fun post about title evolution, but for now I’m trying to keep on topic. I wrote Generation V in the summer of 2011, revised it, and showed it to Colleen. It wasn’t the kind of book that she normally worked with, but since we were already working together, she decided to represent it. That was a huge plus – I was willing to go through another agent hunt, but believe me, I was really happy to still have Colleen in my corner.
Here’s how it went:
In September of 2011, my agent sent Generation V to the editors at eleven different publishing houses. A few places turned it down fairly fast, but because I was working with an agent, usually I got a paragraph or two of response. Most of the editors used the phrase, “I liked it, but I didn’t fall in love with it.” I cannot properly express how maddening it is to hear that, but it’s actually a valid response. An editor is looking for not only what they think will sell, what will make money, what will do twenty other things, but also something that they can seriously get behind. After all, they’re going to be spending a lot of time on that manuscript. Plus, I’m sure that on most days Generation V was one of about twenty books sitting on their desks, most of which had a lot of similar themes going on.
Plus, there’s my personal theory, which I picked up from years working in short stories. If you have a manuscript (or story) that is good enough to be published, then that just moves up to another category, which is still really really crowded. Generation V is good, and that’s not just my opinion – I have professionals on my side now. But probably it was sitting next to fifteen other manuscripts, all of which were also good. And the editor might have two slots in their publishing calendar to fill. Which two get it? The ones that the editor loves, not just likes.
That’s pretty rational, of course. I believe that, but it doesn’t mean that there weren’t a few days that I didn’t wish that I could put my manuscript in some literary equivalent of a slutty dress and have it bend over in front of editors at lunch.
I’m not sure what that would look like.
Fast forward through autumn (which was notable for the insane Halloween storm that left me without power for nine days) through the fall semester of teaching, and into solid winter. A lot of people passed on it, several with very encouraging notes, and along with one rejection letter from an editor who, and I swear this is true, wrote that he wished that my book had been “more gothic.” I pouted through much of the new year. (I actually had no idea what the hell that was all about until recently, when I was talking to a friend of mine, BigRedK, who works at the Harvard University Press. She told me that apparently gothic themed books are immensely huge overseas. I declared that the next thing I wrote would have Spanish moss hanging over every damn thing in sight)
In the spring, things basically dried up on the manuscript. I sighed, my agent sighed, and I started putting together the basics for a new book, planning to write it over the summer.
Then, in late May, we had an interesting little nibble on our lure. In terms of catching stuff, this wasn’t just a minnow – this was a shark. It was Anne Sowards, an executive editor at Penguin who handled the Roc and Ace imprints. She works with people like Anne Bishop, Patricia Briggs, Jim Butcher, Rob Thurman, and pretty much every other author whose new releases I pine over. She was a judge for the last Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest.
Her name is a killing word.
And she was emailing my agent to let her know that she’d just picked up my manuscript and was wondering if it was still available.
Colleen said, “sure,” in a very casual email, and then immediately let me know in a decidedly less casual email. This led to an exchange between the two of us that revolved around the theme of: “Let’s not get too excited, because this might not happen, but if it does it would be incredibly amazing!” We both managed to avoid using either abbreviations or emoticons in these emails, which I will in the future reference every time someone asks me to give an example of professional behavior.
And, yeah, it happened. There was a little more to it, of course – while Anne was thinking it over, I submitted proposals for two sequels, as well as an outline of overall themes. Anne and I had a phone conversation to talk about the book and possible edits, which was very cool and lasted a little over an hour, and there was about a two-week period that I essentially spent hyperventilating, but it was awesome because Anne and Roc Books made an offer for Generation V and two sequels.
And that was such a fantastic day. Really, really great.
There’s a lot of stuff after that, of course. The contract, which someday will probably get its own post. The editing process. Lots of stuff.
But that’s how I got my editor. Basically, persistence was really important, but so was a lot of flexibility. Luck probably can’t be discounted either.
Next week, back to my slow stroll through every vampire influence I’ve ever encountered.