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Taking stock: the writer version

Those of you who have known me for a long time know that Christmas Eve Day used to be my special holiday with my dad. We would go out for lunch and people-watch and maybe buy a last stocking stuffer or two (but maybe not). The important part was that we would spend time together talking over the year we’d had and the year to come. My dad talked to me about his work from the time I was in the late single digits, and took me seriously when I talked about mine, so he made space from very early on for me to talk about what I was hoping to do in my writing and what I thought I had done. And it was very cool and very useful, and I miss Dad but also I miss this.

I am really, really resistant to anyone acting as Substitute Dad. (No, more resistant than that. Seriously.) But as I said to T when I was talking about this earlier this season, “I don’t have special lunch with anybody else on Christmas Eve now…but I still have to eat lunch.” And that analogy is kind of where I am with the stock-taking part: I’m not going to have a special lunch with one other person to do this stuff, but it’s still really good for me from time to time to sit down and think about the big picture. From time to time.

Some friends were looking at doing prompts from year-end assessment projects, but when I looked at this, they were far more general life stuff than I wanted. I have no objection to taking stock of one’s life! Sometimes a great idea! But it’s not the same thing as looking at one’s creative work in specific. The two definitely inform each other, it’s just that the general-purpose “what travel plans do I have in 2023?” “who do I want to see more of in 2023?” questions feel like questions for a different time to me right now. Some of the cues for self-reflection and planning in a more general sense can be repurposed for a more focused one for creative work. But others just felt extraneous and beside the point.

This is all a work in progress. I’m not done with this yet, and some prompts worked better for me in this moment than others. But here’s what I ended up with, in case it helps anyone else. I found that it works better for me to be as concrete and as specific in my answers as possible and to limit myself to things that I can do, not things other people might do or reactions other people might have. Here you go:
What do I trust in my work
What am I proud of in this year’s work
Where do I want to be brave in next year’s work
Where will I draw energy for next year’s work
What will I love in next year’s work
One big dream for my work next year [this is one where it’s easy not to be concrete/specific, and useful to fight that urge]
What was fun this year
What kind of fun do I want to have next year
Best thing I discovered about my work
What I want to write (subcategories: poetry, nonfiction, fiction)
For each item on my project list: how do I feel about this project right now? What do I need in order to make progress on it? What do I need in order to make it feel really great?

I am sometimes extremely resistant to doing this. I have written two new short stories and two poems this week as acts of avoidance of doing this. That’s no bad thing: now I have four new things I’ve written that I had not written last week. More of this may happen before I’ve finished the prompt list. That’s okay. I’m patient, by which I mean I’m stubborn. And if this doesn’t work, I’ll try something different.

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2022: what I’ve been up to

Yes, it’s time for my year-in-review post! It’s been a year full of discoveries and adventures, sometimes even in the good way. (We try to make it in the good way.) We’ve gotten to the point where poems are not an exception, they’re just a thing I write now and going forward, and that’s weird, but again, we try to make it weird in the good way. I notice a shift toward more science fiction and less fantasy, but that may be balanced out by the fantasy novella I’m revising at the moment. We’ll see. Or it may not, that may just be where my head is right now. That’s okay too.

I’m sorry to see Daily Science Fiction shutting its doors, as they have been a fun and interesting magazine for several years now. I love flash as a length that allows me to experiment and play with form, so less of it–even just one magazine less–is sad for me. On the other hand, I’m happy with the story I wrote that closed out my time with them. I have hopes of continuing to enjoy work with the other editors I worked with this year, and I have seven things already in the works for 2023 and beyond–a lovely feeling of continuity and possibility. Also I accidentally started a new story yesterday. Ope.

Short stories:
The Plasticity of Youth, Clarkesworld, February
An Age-Based Guide to Children’s Chores, Daily SF, March
Family Network, Nature Futures, May
The Splinters of Our Bond, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May
Michigan Seems Like a Dream to Me Now, Daily SF, September
Out of the Red Lands, Analog, September
Bonus Footage, Asimov’s, September
Merry Christmas from the Bremmers, Nature Futures, December

Revelations of the Artificial Dryads, Not One of Us, January
Identity, Uncanny, September
Dante on the Metro, Mobius, November

From Panic to Process: What Taking Criticism Actually Looks Like, Uncanny, May

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On Recommendations

Last week on Zoom, my dear friend John Wiswell (read his work! I recommend it!) asked me how I handle book recommendations, with the sheer amount of reading I do. With a data set that large, how do I approach the question? he wanted to know. And I’ve been thinking about how to articulate it ever since.

If you read here regularly, you know that I say at least a little bit about every book I finish. Every book. If I finish it, it gets mentioned in my book notes here twice a month. This started back in the early days of blogging–no seriously, we’re talking more than twenty years ago at this point–when I was trying to post every day, which was the style at the time. And some of what I’m thinking about on any given day is the thing I’m reading, so that was going into my daily blog post. I found it useful to be able to look back and say, here’s which book this was, here’s how I felt about that, but daily blogging was no longer a thing I wanted to do, so I consolidated it. Later I started doing periodic and then year-end posts that were just lists of short stories that I have enjoyed.

With short stories, while I sometimes find things to say about them on twitter other than “this is good,” the list just goes up as a list, rarely any commentary. And the thing is: they’re short stories. They are not a commitment. Click on them, read a few lines, find out if you’re interested! But also know they exist. Obscurity is the greatest enemy of short stories (poems too).

With novels…well, let’s take a recent example that was an eARC so it got reviewed here in advance of the bimonthly book post. Brotherless Night, by V. V. Ganeshananthan. I used all sorts of positive language–“vivid,” “humane,” “nuanced.” I said, “I loved this book so much.” Do I recommend it to you? Well, sure. That is: I said things about it that should help make it clear whether I recommend it to you. Because there are very valid reasons not to choose to read a book about the Sri Lankan Civil War–one of our family member’s family members on the other side of the family personally fled that conflict, for example, and if those people look at it and think, oh, I hope this is beautifully done, I hope it’s a great book, and also I cannot take any more of this, I had too much of it in real life? Valid.

And of course there are less extreme reasons why a book might not be for you! At least one of you regular readers, for example, basically never likes children’s books. Never. No picture books, no MG, no YA, she’s tried it, she keeps trying again at least once a year that I see, she does not like children’s books. I try to give enough information that major predictable categories like that will be clear–that she will not think, oh wow, humor and friendship and the lore of the Indian subcontinent, I definitely should pick up this Aru Shah and the Nectar of Immortality! And then be extremely disappointed for something that is not a flaw in either her or the book, just a mismatch.

So…this ends up leaving me feeling like I don’t want to do “best books of YEAR” posts right now. I could do them with category markings (“best MG,” “best poetry collection,” sure), but most of how I want to talk about books–most of how I want to recommend books–is with a lot of context. And one of the things that does is make the line between “best” and “not really quite there” pretty blurry. So what I try to do instead is to bring things up in context–when somebody says they like historical fiction, for example, I will mention Brotherless Night. (Bullets can’t stop me from mentioning Brotherless Night at this point.) I will talk about Andrea Barrett’s recent collection and how she’s done worldbuilding stuff in historical fiction that is almost analogous to a fantasy world but with actual history. I’ll talk about my surprise at enjoying The Marriage Portrait as much as I did but that in the end I wanted it to go more places than it went–and I’ll reply to what the other people are saying in that conversation, how they feel about historical speculative conceits in this context, how soon “history” starts in their tastes, all of it. I want recommendations to be a conversation, and there are very few contexts in which I don’t want to have that conversation. “Ooh, I’ve thought of a book you might like” is one of my favorite sentences. Even if I don’t, mostly, end up wanting to make a book list at the end of the year and draw a bright line through the murk. I like the murk, is the thing. Having thoughts instead of ratings is another of my favorite things.

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Yep. Still precarious.

New essay today in Uncanny! The Precarious Now is about the trials and tribulations of writing near-future SF or contemporary fantasy in a time of rapid social change.

…trials and tribulations, but also practical solutions, I hope. Because on some level we all know this planet keeps on tilting swiftly, the question is what we’re going to do in the meantime.

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Go ahead and mess with Mr. In-Beween though

New essay out today! Uncanny has published The Roots of Hope: Toward an Optimistic Near-Future SF in a Pandemic.

I’m trying to practice what I preach in the above with the story I’m working on. I don’t think that optimistic near-future SF is the only thing that’s valuable right now, but I think it’s a thing that’s valuable right now, if you can manage it. So I’m trying to manage it. And the above essay is a practical look at how.

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Revision: what and when

The other major question(s) my friend had about revision was: how do you know what needs to be done? And how do you know when you’re done?

Okay, so: what you’re doing, in general, as a writer, is: you’re cultivating taste. You’re cultivating your taste. I don’t mean that you’re shaping your taste to an external standard of The Canon, although you can do that if you like. I mean you’re figuring out what it is that you like and how it’s achieved in practice.

You can skew your taste a particular direction–Hugo nominees, say, or stories published in a particular magazine. But you pay attention to what you’re reading, what you like about it, what you notice about it and don’t notice. You look at sentences, paragraphs, chapters, sections, books, series; poems, short stories, novels, travelogues, articles, all of it. You see what grates on you, what makes you wander off, what compels you. What do you like. And how does it go.

So then when you’re looking at your own manuscript, where are the things where it doesn’t. The things that you don’t like, the things that make you go: ugh that is the third time that one word in this paragraph and not for comic effect, or: wait, have we heard that that’s the case? is this a good time for that reveal or is it catching us off guard in a bad way? or…dozens of other things. Larger things too, things that are more particular to you, revelations you wanted the reader to have that didn’t come through, elements that you wanted to include that fizzled and need to come out. Ways that the thing you wanted to write and the thing that you wrote have not lined up. Ways that you have changed your plan since you started and the traces of the old plan are still there. Ways that you have learned to see what is good and this is not it yet.

You can make lists if you want, if you feel like that will help. Other people have certainly made them for you, around the internet, things that are good to look for in a manuscript. If you like particular elements–if those are things you want to do–but you only notice them about stuff you’ve read later, in conversation when a friend points them out, those might be good to check for on a conscious level rather than expecting to notice them in your own work as you read. But they also might be good to just…have a friend who notices those things read for. It’s totally okay to have someone else flag things in a revision for you. You don’t have to be good at finding everything to revise yourself.

You also don’t have to do everything a friend flags for you. Right now I’m having a long, involved conversation with a friend about their manuscript, and the result may well be that they leave the major element we’re talking about exactly as-is. They may do acres of rewriting. I don’t know. I don’t even have to know. Because being a first reader, beta reader, even a sensitivity reader, whatever terminology you use…it’s not about my ego, it’s not about seeing my vision realized, it’s about helping my friend with their revisions in their project. Which is, we have both noticed, not my project.

So: how do I know when I’m done? When I’ve done the stuff that needs doing. That sounds circular, but for me, setting a limit on each round is a good thing. You can always find something more to change–always. Ideally you will keep growing as a person and as a writer. The goal is not to be perpetually revising the same manuscript for the next fifty years. The goal is to make this manuscript as good as you can make it right now, for some value of now.

So for me, I do multiple rounds of “right now.” I write the thing, I let it sit a minute. Then I read it through and revise it into coherence and send it off to first reader(s). Then I think about what they said and do those revisions. Then I either send it to editors if it’s short or to my agent if it’s long.

For long pieces, my agent has revisions, and we talk those through and think about them and I do them, sometimes in multiple drafts, until it’s ready to go out. And then we rejoin the same stream as with short pieces: editors have it, they ideally want to publish it, they ask for revisions, I revise it, it gets published, I see all the things my current self could do better.

But I cannot do them better. Because “published” and “public” are from the same place. Published means that it is no longer mine, it is also partly yours. Published means that I am still responsible for the work but free of the burden of improvement. Published means that anything that is wrong with it aside from the part on page 7 where the protagonist’s name is misspelled is going to stay wrong with it, and I might say, “I would not do it that way now, I don’t think that now,” but that is what that story says, even if it is not what I say, now, today. I do not say “Dramma,” either, I say, “Grandma,” even though 40 years ago I was saying “Dramma.” People keep growing. You have to let yourself keep growing. You have to say, yes, that is what I said then, I did the best I could with what I had then, now I am doing something different.

Revision is a writer’s best friend. It allows us to be better than our first impulse, and yet to retain that first impulse when it’s the best thing available. But like any best friend, it’s a better friendship when there are clear boundaries. That doesn’t have to be my particular process. It may end up with several through passes I haven’t listed for the sake of streamlining, in my own case–“I revise it into coherence” may mean “I have to read it through again to make sure that x element got woven through and then again for this or that other thing.” The first chapter is going to get rewritten at least twice, I guarantee it, not because I feel like that ought to happen, but because it always seems to need it. But the question can never be “if I read through it again, would I find commas to rearrange,” because the answer will be yes, you will, you always will. And when you’re at the point of rearranging the deck chairs, er, the commas, onward, onward, go write something else.

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Revision: some first thoughts

One of my friends has heard me mentioning that I’m revising various things, over the last year, and asked me to talk about my process a little more here. So I’m going to do that, probably in more than one blog post. Here’s where I want to start:

This is not advice. This is talking about what I do. Most advice is actually that anyway; most advice is just talking about finding your own characteristic problems and how to fix them. So if you read advice that says, “make a list of your overused words and do a search on them before you turn in the final draft,” what that’s actually saying is, “I, this particular author, find that I overuse certain words and don’t tend to catch them other ways, so here’s one way I’ve found to do it.”

I do that. I absolutely do that. I keep a list of bland and overused words, and I add to it when I notice a new one. One of the words on my list? “thing.” Because “something,” “nothing,” “anything,” and “thing” can often all be replaced by more vivid ways of saying that…uh…thing.

But the other thing people are doing when they give advice–on revision or on whatever else–is working around their own characteristic aversions. So when you see advice that says, “Print out your manuscript and highlight each sentence in a color that says what it’s doing: pink for setting, yellow for dialog…,” what you know is: that author has not burned their manuscript, fled screaming, and stopped along the way to file paperwork changing their name and pasting on a false mustache (or possibly shaving off their previous true mustache) on the way to leaving the state.

Which I would, I absolutely would. If I need to change the balance of elements in scenes, I need to do it in some other way than that, because highlighting scenes in that way will make me hate the entire story and also just plain not do it. Anything that makes you not do the work is the wrong tool, even if it helps someone else do the work beautifully. There is no objectively universally right tool, there is just something that gets the work done, or else not.

Lists are great for me. Other people do not work well with lists. I know this from observation. I can’t explain it, but I accept it, because insisting that other people’s brains work like my brain is silly. So. Lists. What kind of lists. I mentioned the overused words one.

Well, here’s where the project notebook comes in: when I know that a chapter needs something revised into it, I will put that further down the page in a different color of ink than the plot notes for that chapter, with a checkbox next to it, to be checked off when I get it done. Do the ink colors have meaning? Not for me, no; they mean “I can see that this is a different thing than the thing above it.” So if I happened to outline the book in L’Amant, which is a deep and lovely purple, revision notes can be in any shade of red or green or blue I happen to have on hand. (I mostly don’t work in orange or yellow.) Because then I can spot them as “not done yet.” And subsequent revision notes should probably go in another color–if the first round was Ink of Naotora (spoiler: it was), that’s a deep red, and the next round should be something else so it jumps out on the page and I can flip through the pages and quickly check which chapters have a revision note on them that hasn’t been checked off.

Then there’s the list at the end of the notebook of things that I know I want to do but I don’t know where yet, or things that need to be threaded throughout. These things, like “bring up more botanical mentions” or “protag defensiveness about town size” are going to take longer to check off the list, and the way that I do those revisions will be structured differently than adding a particular plot mention in Chapter 7. But either way, I have the lists, I can look at the lists, I don’t have to keep track of it all because there are lists and I know where the lists are. I have the lists, and I have the actual scribbled on line-edit pages. So that’s what I have for keeping track of revisions. Will that work for you? I don’t know, my friend might have meant to ask what will work for her but she actually asked what I do, and that’s what I actually know.

And I do have more to say on how I do revisions, and lo, I was right, that’ll be another post!

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Important tools

One of the things I often think about advice is that it usually reflects the advice-giver’s needs rather than being some kind of universal law. “Don’t smack yourself in the face with a frying pan,” okay, sure, but once you leave that realm, you’ll run into “definitely write every day because you need the momentum” and “definitely don’t write every day because you need to take breaks,” and…those two things are advice designed for different people who have opposite problems. And the milder versions, “momentum is valuable” and “rest is valuable” are both true.

So I’ve been thinking about another pair of aphorisms in tension. And they are “it’s a poor crafter who blames their tools” and “get the right tool for the job.” I think this is a case where both are true and it’s a matter of finding the balance and figuring out where you are on the spectrum of “how true is this at the moment, how much does this apply to me right now.”

Example: for Christmas in 2018 I got a traveler’s notebook. And that has been astonishingly helpful for my productivity. I was productive before, no one who lives outside my skull could deny it. And yet this: this is staggeringly useful. This is a thing that helps me be both more productive and more relaxed about it. What is this magic. It is an amazing tool for me. It is objectively much, much better than its absence. Was it worth spending the money? Oh God yes. (It was not my money, it was a gift. But if it had been? STILL YES.

Now: if my productivity device had been an extremely fancy laptop instead of a traveler’s notebook, this math would be somewhat different. Or if I was finding productivity leaps from a different system every month. Because then you start asking: are these genuine productivity leaps? But I think we’re culturally skewed toward Puritanism in some ways. We’re skewed toward sit down, shut up, you can’t possibly benefit from the thing, do not ask for anything.

Except…hammering with a hammer is better and more efficient and safer than hammering with the handle of a screwdriver. You can hurt yourself doing that. There’s a reason professionals use a hammer. No one is going to hurt themselves trying to write in a spiral notebook from Walgreen’s instead of a nice traveler’s notebook, but it’s entirely 100% possible that they might not get as much written. I myself have written on basically anything, computer, paper, whatever. The back of junk mail. Just to prove to myself that I can, that I don’t need a special system, that if I’m in a random location with scrap paper I can still write. I still do that now, so that I don’t get too precious about having to have things exactly right. Buuuut having things that I like is actually great and it is totally okay if you want things that you like too.

And the difference between, for example, really good artist-grade colored pencils and the bottom of the barrel cheapest colored pencils is staggering. You literally can make immensely better art with the good pencils. That’s not being “precious,” that’s not being spoiled or demanding or a snob, that’s…there is a difference in the quality of what comes out.

I suspect that nobody reading this has infinite choice. I suspect that I have not attracted any billionaires to be regular blog readers. (If so, hi! I have a whole list of artists you could patronize, billionaire reader!) So it’s a matter of balance, balance, balance, as in so many things. I just…feel like there’s a certain amount of cultural default that if you purchase organizational tools to make things easier, you’re being self-indulgent and you don’t really need them, and I want to push back on that. Sometimes the right tool that fits your hand is amazing, and you can do better work with it. Hurray for finding those moments. Let’s celebrate them when we can. Even when they seem random and weird from the outside.

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Ramblings around Patreon social dynamics

I want to be clear that I am not saying that Patreon and similar social supports are bad in any way. I support several! I think they’re good! I ponder having one myself! In fact, writing this post reminded me to go subscribe to another! What I want to noodle with in this blog post is: I think that since they’re fairly new, we don’t have an entirely good handle on the social intricacies of them, as a community. Certainly I don’t! And I would like to talk more about them. Please, please use the comments to do that if you also have thoughts, if you think I’m wrong or missing things, etc.! If you have good answers, I would like to hear them!

So. I can see three main reasons to support a Patreon (or similar, I’m going to shorthand it to Patreon). Project support: you like the specific thing that the person is doing on their Patreon and want to get the installments of it. Art support: you like the work they’re doing in general, and you want to see that work continue whether the specific updates/installments are your cuppa. Personal support: you think that the person is worth supporting whether they’re doing specific work at this exact moment–for hope of future cool work, in appreciation of past work, because this is an easy way for you to slip a personal friend a few bucks even though you think their art is kind of meh, “other.”

I don’t think that it’s necessarily clear to the person who has the Patreon what proportion of each of those things their supporters has in mind with their support. I mean, there are some accounts that have monthly support and are not providing updates/installments of any kind of backer reward, so they’re pretty sure that you’re not there for the project support! But in general I don’t think feedback is very clear on which things you’re there for. It also may not be very internally clear to you. Also! Also your proportions of type of support can shift over time. Friend doing a cool project can stop that project and start a new project you’re less enthusiastic about…but still you believe in Friend’s work. Or Friend can hit one of life’s road bumps, but you believe that they’ll get back on track and in the meantime you’re happy to support. Or! Friend was in one of life’s road bumps and you were supporting, but now they’re doing something specifically awesome!

So into this set of inputs comes several social problems. There is the Bored Now Problem. If you have a friend whose traditionally published books you were buying, and you get bored with them, a traditional publisher will not give them an itemized list of who has and has not bought them–but they will definitely see if you’ve dropped their Patreon. Do we have to follow indefinitely if we were mostly on a Project support basis and that is no longer interesting? Is the protocol to politely not notice who has dropped you? Is any feedback possible there, or do they just have to guess why people would have dropped? Can they ask, if they notice a specific or a general downturn in support? If they do ask, will they get honest answers?

Then there’s the Lurkers Support Me In Email With $5/Month Problem: if the person has started doing mildly odious things, when is that worth withdrawing your financial support? if you know they really rely on backers? if they’re more than mildly odious, deeply odious? does the answer change based on how much of your Patreon backing is skewed toward each of the categories? Do you tell the person why you’re not supporting them any more or just back away quietly? Does the answer change based on how much you’ve had a relationship vs. how much you’ve been an anonymous fan?

There is the What Did I Incentivize Problem, and I think of that a lot when I think about setting up a Patreon. I write flash fairly quickly. I could easily set up a flash-a-month Patreon. Do I want to make sure that I write at least one flash a month, every month? and that I prioritize them for a Patreon rather than for a professional market I would currently send them to? I already think about this for things like blog projects. I think about it when I consider pitching essays–I love essays, but I pitch fewer of them than I could, because I don’t want to get into a position where I’m resenting essays for taking time away from fiction that I value more. I want to be doing the amount of them that I value.

I guess I am currently concerned that a lot of people right now are in a place where they really really need the money from their Patreon and they cannot tell how important the specific project is to their patrons giving them that money. The feedback mechanisms are slow and have a lot of social awkwardness built into them. So there’s a lot of early-project feedback, sort of: “would you support me beginning a Patreon that was set up like so“–but this is basically never set up with a control group so that the artist can see what another group would support if it was set up differently. They can see what people did support and what they didn’t stop supporting but not where the priorities are.

There’s a lot of inertia in that system. And I feel like some of the people who most need the impetus to level up in what they’re doing also most need the money they’re getting from Patreon. Now…would they be getting impetus to level up from not getting paid? Quite often no. Quite often having zero dollars a month from their art/projects would be giving them impetus to do something far worse for their art/projects with their time, like…not art at all.

I guess what I’m trying to figure out is: for people who are setting up something like this, how do you build in checks and balances so that you don’t set it up with a feedback loop to reinforce the wrong thing? Do you set up a regular check-in with yourself to see how you feel about the balance of stuff that you’re doing? Is there any way to have trusted patrons you can ask? How do you manage emotions around who does and does not support your Patreon (knowing that people honestly may have trouble keeping track of who even has one and what they’re doing with it)?

And on the flip side, as a patron of these things, how do you know when and how to extricate gracefully? What are the protocols for what feedback you can give kindly? Even–especially–if that feedback is, “Y’know, this stuff is great and all, but I would still support your Patreon at this level if you were doing way less, so you can maybe relax a little”?