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.

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.

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!

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.

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”?

We’re getting the band back together!

Arkady Martine, Django Wexler, John Chu, and I had so much fun teaching the workshop at 4th St. Fantasy convention last year that we’re doing it again this year…but with a twist! This year’s theme is “Getting Unstuck.” Participants in the workshop should submit pieces they’re stuck on–not outlines but some prose written–and we’ll use tactics both usual and zany to get through the block. We’ll work on identifying patterns that contribute to getting stuck as well as ways out.

The deadline for signing up for the workshop is May 20, but it’s first-come first-served–AND convention membership rates go up on March 1–so now is a great time to sign up!

Breaking the Glass Slipper guest

Recently I was a guest on the Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast. BtGS is a feminist SFF podcast that wanted to do more episodes on intersectional issues, so we talked about disability representation in SFF. You can give it a listen here!

(I will confess that I am terrible at listening to podcasts myself, but it can be so much fun to be on them–one gets into good conversations. So we’ll see if I can’t get better at this.)

Indirection and the horrors of the moment

Last week I finished watching Season 2 of The Good Fight on CBS Some Access (that’s not what they call it, but…welp). I really loved the show from which it’s a spin-off, The Good Wife, and they kept some of my favorite characters and added a few new characters I like a lot. All the things that frustrated me most about the original show were gone, plus they had kept the rich and extensive universe of characters going. Yet I found watching this season a slog–I was going downstairs to watch it with my workout with a little distaste rather than a lot of excitement–so I had to think about why.

The Good Wife had fictional court cases inspired by real ones in recent headlines, starting from the first season. That wasn’t new. But The Good Fight doubled down on the contemporary references. It is a show that is entirely about American politics in 2018. There’s a lot that’s directly about Donald Trump and his effects on local and state level politics. There are also plotlines that are less inspired by and more copies of current events in other areas. Even plotlines that are supposedly about the characters’ love lives are often also about the fate of protesters or how candidates are presented in modern elections.

I sympathize. I do. There’s a lot out there, and sometimes just screaming into your pillow is not enough. Sometimes you really want to scream something in words, that someone else can hear. Words like, “What is even going on,” and, “I am not okay with any of this.” I get it. But I think that there’s a paradoxical effect where the closer you get to an actual nonfiction commentary without being one, the harder it is to take.

I think the people who wrote M*A*S*H are a great counterexample here. M*A*S*H is set during the Korean War, but even a cursory glance tells you it wasn’t about the Korean War. It was about the Vietnam War. Not only does the quagmire timeline not make sense for the US’s presence in Korea, none of the characters’ backstories do either. Anyone over the age of 22–so all of the main characters except Radar and maybe Klinger–but probably just Radar–should have WWII experience if they’re regular Army. If they’re not, they should still have the perspective that came of having their country in an all-out world war within the last decade. But they don’t seem to. What they do have, eventually, is Colonel Potter, the old-timer with world war experience that he’s always hearkening back to–but not recent experience, of course. This makes no literal sense, but it makes complete emotional sense when you consider that the show is really about the US troops in Vietnam instead.

Why bother? Why use one war to comment on another? Why remove your characters that far? If they wanted to talk about current events, why didn’t they? For me, one of the answers is: it can get overwhelming. Dealing with news stories and then having your fictional entertainment copy those same news stories exactly: it’s too much of one thing. Which is bad enough when that one thing is chocolate peanut butter ice cream, far worse when it’s a specific corruption charge.

Another answer is broader thinking. One particular policy discussion can start to fall into “denounce this one thing, this one thing is bad.” In real life, that can be necessary! But art gives us the chance to look for patterns. To ask, what kind of thing is this, where have I seen it before, where might I see it again, would it still be bad in those contexts too or is there something specific to this one. What are my actual principles here, when removed from the immediacy of people I already know I trust or distrust? How would I react to a situation like this one if there were a few things different? and what does that tell me about this situation?

Of course my bias is toward indirect comment because I’m a science fiction writer. M*A*S*H may have been the first Vietnam War commentary I encountered, in reruns my parents watched while they were making supper, but The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is also pretty influential in my line of work. Haldeman is a Vietnam vet who had things to say–and he used the depth of hundreds of years to say them. Haldeman also wrote War Year and 1968, both of which are non-genre novels inspired by his experiences–both of which are very different from The Forever War. Indirection and shift of perspective give you different art, even when it’s coming from the same person.

I’m not giving up on The Good Fight. I hope that it manages to find its footing and a place to stand where it can create commentary that stretches beyond the current moment, that gives us a lens that allows us to look into that moment without damaging our eyes with the intensity. But my preference as a reader and as a writer is going to continue to be work that tries to find a different angle for perspective and illumination.