Long-stemmed Roses

Yesterday, Bobby and I walked on the beach in the chill Autumn drizzle. Among our discoveries of a tiny moss-like crab lurking among the branches of a beached coral, a string of shells, and darting sanderlings, we found a long-stemmed pink rose. Far past its prime, the thing looked sad, dejected, and Bobby asked me for its story.

I glanced in his direction. “It’s story?”

“Yeah. You know, how did it get here. Whose was it. Where did it come from. Its story.”

As we walked, I told a tale of lovers on a cruise ship, one of whom gifted the other with the flower before they fought, and the flower got thrown overboard because it was too painful a reminder of something lost. I rambled about a wedding party taking creative pre-ceremony photos at the beach and when they picked up their equipment and props to go home, the flower got dropped. It wasn’t missed until they were miles away, too late to go back for it and after all, it’s only a flower. Or perhaps it is a clue to a murder. Maybe a young party-goer from one of the beachfront condos had a little too much to drink and slipped out for a waterside stroll to clear her head. Someone followed her, hoping for a little romance and when she refused, things got violent. The flower is a clue because the young killer gifted her with it earlier in the evening and she left it behind in the condo when she went out. Only the person who gave it to her in the first place would have brought it back to her later. (I know. Weak. My defense is that it was an on-the-spot prompt with no time for thought.)

So now I have a new story concept on my list of potential projects. When I was adding it, I read through the list and was struck by how many intriguing ideas are written there. Writing them in that book and nurturing the ideas into what may become great stories is very much like growing a rose garden. I know they aren’t all destined for long-stemmed bouquets, but all have potential to produce prize-winning blooms. In their early stages, I can’t know which ones unless I tend them regularly, one each evening, maybe two on a weekend.

With so many rose bushes, my biggest “problem” is deciding which flower to water on any given day.

Here’s an overview of my current “garden.” I am presently working on book two (and by connection, book three) of a novel series, four incomplete short stories, and several poems. In addition, I’m searching for magazines to print the six completed short stories already on hand, nursing ideas for another novel, taking a fiction class series, and reading as much as I can in various genres, savoring other people’s “roses” so that I can know what makes a good one and what flaws I want to avoid in my own blossoms.

Sometimes, garden maintenance overwhelms me. Each rose is exciting in its own way, and I certainly don’t want to plant a seed only to let it wither and die. At the same time, if I see a rose will die whether I tend it or not, I’m likely to set it aside and work on another instead. I don’t know how other gardeners maintain a large plot, but even a master rose grower has to start somewhere before her canes produce winning blooms.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. I’m just thinking out loud, so to speak, trying to make sense out of a crazy, self-imposed regimen of learning when to fertilize and when to prune, and how to recognize when a rose has reached its prime and is ready to share.

How about you? What’s flowering in your garden? How do you manage its regular maintenance?

Bumbling Into Body Hair

By Everett Maroon
First Ed. Booktrope, © 2012, ISBN 9781935961338, 250 pages
Second Ed. Smashwords, © 2016, ISBN 9781370241484

I don’t usually read memoirs, as a rule. I never thought they would interest me. I was wrong. Bumbling Into Body Hair is a story of the author’s transition from Jenifer to Everett, and all the emotional, social and psychological transitions that accompanied him along the way.

Told with remarkable humor and poignant honesty, Everett’s tale is sometimes raw, frequently hilarious, always moving. The thing that shines brightest on every page is his courage. Throughout the process, despite his self-doubt and the resistance from his partner and some of his best friends, Everett persists in doing what is right for himself – which sometimes required him to slow down. Be sure. Think this thing through. Seemed prudent to me, and to his therapist, who is a true gem in this story.

I read with anger, horror, and flat-out shock some of the reactions of people around Everett during his transition. One person on the street literally spit in his face. His bowling league manager asked him to use a special bathroom so as to not upset the other patrons of the alley. A cis-male passenger on the metro stood over him shouting, “Are you a man or a woman?” To each of these painful and awkward moments, Everett brought his own special brand of humor, like shouting back at the guy on the metro, “Are you an idiot? Or an asshole?” I think I actually cheered at that.

It seemed to me that his biggest fear was telling his co-workers, friends and family. How would they react? I won’t spoil it by telling you who said or did what, but I will say that not everyone handled the news well, and I can only imagine the betrayal Everett must have felt from people whose support he needed during an already difficult and confusing time. And yet, through faltering relationships and rude strangers and resurrected breasts, the rollercoaster ride of T creams, disastrous experiments with plastic wrap, and learning to use a “packy” (hint: don’t lay it on the radiator), he maintains his sense of humor and hope for a better life.

But Everett’s gender is only one thread in the larger tapestry of his story. At its heart, Bumbling Into Body Hair is a snapshot, a single episode in a much larger story. Because Life doesn’t hit the pause button while we figure these things out, the daily grind continued to throw the usual obstacles at him throughout his journey of discovery. Every reader, no matter their gender, can find some relatable element of Everett’s story, whether it’s his hectic work schedules, his financial struggles, his tendency to be accident-prone, his social adventures and romantic ups and downs. His first date with Susanne was especially endearing, given that we are riding on Everett’s shoulder and feel with him the awkwardness, his certainty that he will do something to screw it up.

My biggest takeaway from this memoir was that those things that matter most to us must be pursued. Despite opposition. Despite fear. Despite self-doubt. Each person’s journey is unique, and while others travel with us, alongside us, each of our journeys are undertaken essentially alone. Everett’s determination to bring his outside into agreement with his inside, no matter what, made me stand up and cheer.

Some Reassembly Required

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it took me more than fifty years to realize that the old saying “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans” means exactly what it says. To understand that this moment—not the one when I finally get my act together and all is right with the world—is Life. The body slam of that sudden insight was like rounding a corner to come face-to-face with Wonder Woman only to find that she is far shorter than I imagined, with mismatched socks and bad breath.

That epiphany spotlighted what I’d missed, or perhaps willfully ignored. I have spent far too much time wishing “tough” times behind me and longing for the “good” era of my life. Now, in my middle age, nowhere near the life I envisioned at 18 or 25 or even 30, I find myself in an unexpected role, pursuing a career I never dared to dream of, brought here by adventures and experiences I could never have predicted. Sometimes that awareness is cold water in my face. Other times it is a warm blanket on a chill night.

I can’t help but compare this to storytelling, and the art of writing.

Have you ever seen kintsugi? those pieces of broken pottery repaired by gold-dusted laquer so that the cracks are actually highlighted? The idea therein is that the cracks are part of the piece’s history, that we should embrace the repairs rather than reject them. It’s the same with us. Our flaws make us more beautiful. More interesting. More real. Those cracks are often where stories come from in the first place.

Don’t believe me?

A baby was born into a happy home where her parents adored her and provided every opportunity for advancement. The girl took advantage of this priceless gift, pursuing and excelling at the things that made her heart sing. After high school, she went on to a lovely, affordable college, graduated with high honors and no crippling debt. In the years that followed, she continued to work in her chosen field, which fulfilled her in almost every way. She met and married the partner of her dreams, built a family, bought a beautiful home in a lovely, safe neighborhood. Their credit cards were paid every month. The family never wanted for anything. Their cars never broke down and they were never late for work. Their children were beautiful, well-behaved, with high marks in school. The whole family was happy and healthy, and no heartache or tragedy ever touched them. And they all lived long, satisfying lives. The end.

How much of that book would you read? Probably not much. It’s boring. There’s no escape in such a story. As counterintuitive as it seems, the suffering of the protagonist makes the story more compelling, doesn’t it? In the end, even if she doesn’t “win” (however you define that concept), the story is in the struggle. In the cracks. We don’t skip over the tragedy in a novel only to read the parts that give us the warm fuzzy. More likely than not, we couldn’t understand the warm fuzzy without seeing how it is informed by the tragedy.

I’m still new at appreciating my own brokenness and the idea that life is a pot-holed road. Even so, I find that these flaws hold not only new stories, but clues toward understanding older ones. Perhaps, as the kintsugi artists portray, there really is gold to be found in every crack. We just need to know how to see it.

Write. Right?

I signed up for another 6-session fiction class, where students write and submit, then critique each other’s work. I’m excited, but I’m also nervous, as I am anytime I share my stories with someone else.

(That’s crazy talk, you say; don’t you want to get published? Won’t that mean others are reading your words all the time? Yes, but that’s not the same. Readers in a library or gym or living room half a state away—or half a country or half a world—won’t sit across the table from me while they poke holes in my plots. Yes, I’m sure I’ll be critiqued by anyone who ever reads my stories; but a small, intimate classroom setting hits closer to home. It’s a small difference, but compelling nonetheless. I wonder if I’m in good company?)

I do know, though, that the critique process builds better writing. This will make my second 6-session fiction class. Last time the workshop was facilitated by Lamar Giles. This time, our fearless leader is Lydia Netzer. Both Lamar and Lydia are published authors, so as a student I know I can learn from their experience.

To tell the truth, I’ve been in a writing slump. Oh I have lots of ideas. They just never seem to go anywhere. I keep noting them in my little book of ideas. Meanwhile, I’ve gone back to my novel series, which has been languishing for months while I worked on short stories.

This weekend, I took the time to fill in most of the gaps in my plan for book 3 (book 2 was already plotted and outlined). It looks so wonderful to see all those little colored stickies up on my board, each one a brief note of my intent for that scene. Together they form a sort of road map that will lead my plot through all the essential points up to the crisis and denouement. They give me a target toward which I can aim the arrows of my words.

Even so, some days are a struggle. I’m tired. I’m brain-fried from my day job. I can’t think of a single elegant thing to say. The words I put in my characters’ mouths are stilted, spoken in the wrong voice. On those days, I might write 500 words in three hours, all of which must be rewritten the next day. I must admit, I’ve begun to shy away from the computer on those days. Maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe that’s the source of this slump. ‘Coz writing is hard, y’all. It’s tempting, when I’m tired, to make excuses as to why I shouldn’t even try.

Bobby enticed me outdoors for a few hours earlier today, which I needed, but it was harder to come back to the blank page than I wanted it to be. I did it, though. I wrote almost a thousand words in book 2 (even if I do have to rewrite them later – who cares?), then I switched over to this blog post so I could try (TRY) to describe how I feel when it’s a struggle. If you write, you already know. If you don’t, these words probably won’t suffice. Still, it’s worth the effort. It’s good practice. So here I am, at my computer, even though I’m blah.

Right. Onward. Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard, Typing Away Madly – otherwise known as BIC HOC TAM. (Borrowed from Brad Parks, and a darned common slogan for writers online, apparently.)

Doesn’t matter if it’s perfect. Just write, Drema.

Just write.

The Traitor’s Kiss

(Traitor’s Trilogy, Book 1)
by Erin Beaty
Imprint, ©2017
ISBN 978-1-250-11794-6
Hardback, 352 pages

Sixteen-year-old Sage Fowler would rather live off the land than submit to a traditional arranged marriage, despite her uncle’s wishes. After she is apprenticed as an assistant—and part-time spy—to the head matchmaker, the two of them set out across Demora with a group of young women toward the king’s stronghold, where the young brides-to-be will be paired with appropriate husbands, and wed at mid-summer. Sage is just happy she’s not one of them.

Newly promoted Captain Alex Quinn must prove he’s worthy to lead by escorting the women on the months-long journey. Frustrated at what he considers a babysitting job, Quinn soon notices signs that all is not well in Demora. Barbarian squads filter across the borders, moving in strategic directions. Quinn knows something is very wrong, but with a whole caravan of women and the crown prince under his protection, his options are limited.

Sage finds the Captain cold, aloof. Quinn finds Sage rebellious, and far too curious in a suspicious way. As the secrets and lies pile up, neither knows who to trust. When assassins and traitors close the trap around them, they must make hard choices with the lives of others, and Demora will never be the same.

There’s a lot going on in this young adult fantasy. Within the layout of a strange land and a well-developed, intricate social structure lie all the familiar landmarks we might expect: landed lords and commoners, far-flung strongholds connected by dangerous roads where horse-and-wagon travel is the norm, arranged marriages that cement political alliances and secure dowries. Old-world traditions regarding the roles of men and woman rule here, which has drawn criticism from some readers.

But The Traitor’s Kiss also offers a strong female protagonist who isn’t afraid to speak her mind or show her strength in the face of opposition, no small goal for a YA novel. Sage’s intelligence and curiosity make her an oddball to her fellow female travelers and occasionally get her into trouble; but these characteristics also make her an asset to the main plot. No few number of young readers (of any/all genders) will relate to Sage’s difference, and surely find inspiration and hope in her good use of it. Quinn, too, offers a good role-model for young readers with his paladin-like qualities: honor, chivalrous leadership, devotion to duty, refusal to surrender to what seems inevitable.

With more than a few steamy romance and fast-paced battle scenes, it was sometimes easy to forget that Traitor’s Kiss is intended for younger readers. Still, the author balanced the intensity well, I think; there’s nothing in here I wouldn’t want my own teens to read. As for descriptive detail, Beaty spends more time in the characters’ heads, exploring their thoughts and personalities, than she does describing scenery or frippery or architecture. Personally, I find it easier to “see” a scene with a bit more detail, but that’s just me. Even so, it didn’t matter. I was quickly too wrapped in Sage’s and Quinn’s struggles to notice any lack.

I truly enjoyed this story. Even if you aren’t a young adult (I’m certainly not!), this is a good fantasy set in a believable world. Traitor’s Kiss is the first book in the Traitor’s Trilogy. The second book, The Traitor’s Ruin, is due to be released in May of 2018. The third book’s release is scheduled for one year after that, but I can easily see how Beaty could carry this tale on for years, far beyond the current Sage-Quinn drama. I sincerely hope she does. It would be fun to watch how Demora and its people grow, evolve, change. But even if the Traitor’s Trilogy is all we see of this land and these characters, I’ll be watching for more fiction from Erin Beaty.

Writing Diverse Characters

Before you read today’s post, please note: This can be a sensitive topic. It’s one in which someone may find offense, so please, please know that everything herein is from my own personal search. I offer my words with the utmost regard for individuals and groups involved, and with genuine curiosity about how to portray characters outside my own experience with respect, realism and authenticity. If I give offense, I promise it is unintentional. I offer apologies, and ask that you help me to recognize and correct my mistakes by pointing them out (nicely, please!).

• • • • •

A few months ago, I began to toy with a short-story idea about a transgender character. As the concept took shape in my head, it occurred to me that I know nothing about how to portray a believable trans person. Do they think about things the same way I do? Where are our relationships similar? Where are they different? How do they interact with society? Do we love the same way? Get angry? Grumble about our work? How are we the same? Where do we diverge?

Now before you mumble something about stupid questions, hear me out. As a cisgender female, clearly there are some differences between myself and a transgender individual, but I suspect those variations go deeper than the obvious. Different lifestyles usually forge different cultures. For example, my beautiful, loving cisgender sister-in-law is Christian. I am not. While we love each other and share many things, a common culture is not among them. We think in completely different ways, but since I was raised in a Christian church, I understand that culture. I know (for the most part) how it works. I know what to expect from it. I could write a believable Christian character with little effort above and beyond the challenge inherent in writing any interesting character.

I’ve never been transgender. I’ve also never been Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, African American, Columbian or Japanese. I’ve never been a man, or emigrated to another country, or lived in a mansion. I’ve never been paralyzed or epileptic. I’ve never been pregnant. Characters written for each of these circumstances or backgrounds would embrace quite different worldviews and necessities of daily life. Some of these groups of people couldn’t care less if I write about them. Others might, unless I do it very, very well. So if I want to write a character who is or has been any of these things, I will need to do some intense research—much more than a search on Google or Wikipedia, though I might start with those.

For instance, if I want to write a transgender character, I need to enlist the assistance of transgender people, as many as I can manage. I must ask them those stupid questions I listed above, as well as others. I must ask them to read what I’ve written and provide feedback as to authenticity and sensitivity. Without their input, my story and my character will never go deep enough to feel real. However, approaching people from these cultural groups may be awkward.

I read several blog posts on writing transgender characters when I first began to ask these questions. One blogger said trans people are tired of being poked and prodded in this way, as if they are aliens or some newly discovered species. I can understand that, and will absolutely respect a trans friend who says “bug off” when I ask for their input.

In a workshop on this very topic led by Erin Beaty at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference this year, someone in the discussion pointed out that in movies, it might be difficult to find trans actors to play trans roles, because the pool from which to draw is still very, very small by comparison with the cisgender pool. I hope it won’t always be that way, for actors or for writers. In the meantime, the same blogger (above) said that trans people are tired of being portrayed in victim roles, that they want to be shown as regular, everyday people because they are. The more they are depicted this way, the less “foreign” the idea will seem to people who resist their presence in the larger social setting.

I was fortunate to find one transgender ally so far who agreed to read any story I wrote and provide feedback, which I appreciate. They said, though, that they would not normally read such a story in a magazine unless it was written by a trans writer. I sympathize with this sentiment, but it makes me wonder—must we wait for trans writers to provide us with trans protagonists? And if so, does that apply across the board to all cultural groups? How will any of us write a character whose life we haven’t lived?

As I said, this is a very touchy subject. At the conference, I mentioned to a fellow attendee that I was headed to the Diversity workshop. Her reaction, one of anger and disgust, caught me completely off-guard. Why would you want to take that class? Why would you even want to write a trans character? Her emotions stemmed, she said, from her belief that diversity has become such a “huge deal” that the molehill has become a mountain, and it’s getting in the way of writers’ creativity because they feel they need to be inclusive, when they should just write and let the rest take care of itself. I don’t agree, but to each their own.

For the record, this post isn’t just about writing trans characters. I’d been contemplating the subject of writing outside my own paradigm for quite some time. Some folks say “write what you know.” I say the heck with that! There’s a whole world full of things and people and places I don’t know – far more than what I do – and why should I avoid writing all those wonderful, heartening, inspirational stories simply because they require research? What better way to learn and grow and understand than to reach beyond the narrow confines of my own experience? As long as I tell a great story with respect and dignity for the characters and communities I intend to represent, perhaps my own learning can be shared through my words.

There is so much to say on this subject, and I am only one in a long line of people to join the discussion. A simple Google search on “writing diverse characters” brought up a long list of articles; check out some for yourself, and know that just like any subject on how to write, opinions run the gamut. Take what works for you. Leave the rest.

But I still say this: Ask. Research. Get input from the community you want to represent. And treat those communities with honor, with dignity, and with respect.

One last note: I would love to read a story about a trans character written by a trans writer. If you have a great one to suggest, please share the title and where it can be found below. Thanks!

Finding My Niche

Last week I attended the 9th Annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference. It was my fifth year at that event, where I always learn something new. This year, I finally realized I’m not the only one who feels awkward at those sorts of things. Oh I’ve done large events plenty of times, years ago when I was the organizer for festivals and conferences. Back then, I was too busy to feel out of place or geeky. Wearing that “staff” badge gave me the luxury of an enormous buffer and made people hesitant to approach me (unless it was to lodge a complaint).

Being an attendee is different. Scarier. There’s nothing between me and the rest of the conference-goers except the space I create around myself. The first few years at this event, I left immediately after the last breakout session of the day rather than stay back and get to know my fellow writers. Even the last two years, when I went for an hour or so to the Friday night social, I stood on the sidelines watching everyone else mingle and network. I know it sounds silly to someone who doesn’t get easily overwhelmed in large crowds. You’ll just have to take my word for it—the emotional and psychological drain for introverts in such a situation takes a toll.

This year, I took my Kindle with me and planned to find a quiet corner and read during the three hours that separated the Writer’s Boot Camp (an awesome new addition to the conference) from the regular Thursday evening session. But that isn’t what happened; several of my fellow Boot Campers hooked arms with me and dragged me off to the bar for $5 hors d’oeuvres. (Okay, I might be exaggerating on the whole dragging part.) Once there, we were joined by a few other conference-goers, and dinner turned out to be a delightful affair.

The next night, I managed to stay through the whole social and met some truly interesting fellow writers standing beside me on the sidelines. Instead of being my usual shy self and wandering off alone, I leaned over and commented to one of them that I always seemed to wind up at the edge of the room each year. She laughed and said she did too, and we struck up a conversation based on our common ground as writers and introverts. Soon we were joined by other sideliners until we had our own little party going on. It was fun, and it opened my eyes a little bit.

But my breakthrough didn’t stop with the social. I actually enjoyed a short while of Open Mic afterward, where I was treated to insightful readings by others from the conference. I even signed up to read a bit from my own short story, “Upshot”; but when they hadn’t called my name after an hour, I had to admit to saturation and head home. With yet another day of mingling ahead of me, I opted to conserve my remaining energies. I heard the next day that the Open Mic’s facilitator, Michael Khandelwal of The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, had called my name five minutes after I left. Figures.

Every breakout session I attended taught me something new. No surprise there; this conference is always packed with great teachers, presenters, speakers and literary agents. I think my favorite regular session this year (it’s hard to pick just one!) would be the workshop on Diversity in Writing, led by Erin Beaty. I’d already been kicking around this issue in my head, so the timing was perfect. Close runners-up would include one on getting published in literary magazines, by Meg Eden Kuyatt, and best use of tenses, by Dr. Meriah Crawford. And of course the keynote speakers, John DeDakis and Austin Camacho, were fantastic. I didn’t win with my short story, but the contest judge for my category wrote outstanding feedback on my copy—so helpful!

In the end, though, I think my biggest takeaway was the confirmation that I need to surround myself more frequently with these like-minded souls. Writers are my Tribe. We share a common bond. No matter how we may differ, in this we are the same: we all struggle with the challenge of the blank page, the rewrite beast, and the search for fulfillment—however we define it—from this odyssey.

The Stone Sky

By N. K. Jemisin
Orbit, ©2017
ISBN: 987-0316229241
Paperback, 464 pages

A change is coming. Whether for better or for worse, Essun cannot tell, but she has a plan to nudge astronomical events toward the side of humanity’s survival. She knows what it will mean for her, but no price is too great to pay. After a lifetime of anger and resentment and resistance, she has finally found a home among the ragged remnants of Castrima with people who care what happens to her.

Nassun also sesses the change. She, too, has a plan. But at the tender age of not-quite-eleven, Nassun has already learned that sometimes a broken thing cannot be fixed. Sometimes the best solution is to put an end to the suffering. She knows what it will mean for her, but after a lifetime of being used and mistreated and hated, Nassun believes wholeheartedly in a merciful resolution.

When mother and daughter come together on the other side of the world, the Change is imminent and the world hangs in the balance. The strange, white Moon looms overhead. Schaffa lays dying. Nassun has already set her plan in motion. And Essun must make the hardest decision of her life.

In this nail-biting conclusion to the Broken Earth Trilogy, Jemisin brings every thread from the complex Stillness narrative together in a seamless and breathtaking tapestry. From the ash-covered Rennanis high road to the deadly desert crossing, from the terrifying trip through the core of Father Earth to the clean, near-empty ruin of Corepoint, we travel alongside Essun, Nassun and Houwha as they hurtle toward convergence, the tipping point where the fate of all will be decided.

Scenes from the ancient past in Syl Anagist—where Life is sacred—lead inexorably to the breaking of the world, and the answers to all our questions. Not all at once, you understand; Jemisin metes them out in masterful storytelling style, a bit at a time, each piece full of promises that lead the reader further and further down the path to an exciting and not-quite-predictable end. By the time I reached the climax of the book, I could not put it down.

Stone Sky, and the entire Broken Earth trilogy, is a cautionary tale of the consequences of greed and self-absorption, of what happens when the advancement of the world rests solely on the repression of one group by another. The horror of the Seasons in the Stillness, and the shocking obscenities that occurred in Syl Anagist, remind us that building on the backs of others carries an inescapable price. Whether we pay it ourselves, or shunt it down the line to our ancestors, the scales will balance themselves. The only question is whether or not we are ready to accept responsibility, and do what is necessary to make things right.

Jemisin’s scenes are vivid, yes. But the thing I find most compelling about this trilogy—and this book in particular—is her visceral conveyance of emotion. When Hoa takes Essun’s offering, we feel her mixed emotions, her shift from revulsion to understanding, her sudden epiphany of where it will lead. When Nassun traverses the core of Father Earth, we share her terror and grief and loss, and the numbness that follows. When Essun faces Nassun at the climax of the book, we know what is in both their hearts, which makes the decision all the more painful for characters and readers alike. Stone Sky is a true vicarious escape into an adventure beyond anything I could ever experience here in my own world, and I am perhaps better for the journey.

Stone Sky is not a standalone tale. You must read the series from the beginning for it to make any sense. But believe me, that is not a hardship. The Broken Earth Series is an excellent tale, told in masterful style. I have no doubt that this newest book in the series will win its own Hugo, and probably others as well.

Connecting With My Tribe

This week is the 9th Annual Hampton Roads Writers Conference, an event I always attend. Between the guest speakers, publishing agents, breakout sessions, contests, critiques, and networking opportunities, it’s worth every penny. While I’ve been attending these for a few years, it’s only been in the past year that I’ve begun to seriously query agents and seek a publisher for my novel, and only in the last ten months that I’ve been writing short stories. As a writer who has yet to sell her first work, I am always in the market for new learning experiences, as well as a chance to talk to other writers who are in a similar position or who have actually found an agent and are now among the ranks of the published.

Even so, as someone who prefers the shadows to the spotlight, two-and-a-half days of non-stop interaction with all these other people in a high-energy atmosphere is exhausting, and more than a little overwhelming. By the end of the conference, I am fit only to slump on the sofa with a glass of wine (or more likely a shot of Sambuca) and say in my oh-so-eloquent way, “Wow. Just ….wow.”

This year, the conference planners have added an optional four-hour “Boot Camp” to the first day on the agenda. Of course, I signed up. I expect it will be worth the additional sensory overload, and hopefully will give me a boost toward polishing my work and finding my niche.

I did enter one of the contests (I’ll let you know how that turns out), but I didn’t enter the critiques this year. I’ve been selected every other time I’ve attended, so I thought it might be nice to take a break this year. I did sign up for pitch sessions with two of the agents, even though I’d already sent a query letter to another rep from one of these groups earlier this year. If this particular guest (who happens to be the owner of the agency in question) isn’t interested in my pitch, I can use my 10 minutes to ask related questions—like what is the best way to draw positive interest to my query among all the hundreds in the slush pile? Or shouldn’t the narrative of a story fit the tale and its lead character? In other words, does a story have to use eloquent prose if the protagonist is someone who speaks in plain, ordinary language and wouldn’t know how to use Big Words or evocative turns of phrase? Or how does an agency and the publishing industry feel about self-published works? I know what they have said in the past, but with works like The Martian and Sleeping Giants finding not only a huge market for their originally self-published works, but movie rights as well, is that opinion changing to any extent?

In past years, some of the breakout sessions have included writing exercises; I hope this time will be no different. Writing prompts can really break me out of a rut and give me a whiff of new idea that might turn out to be a great short story.

I am not one to seek crowds large or small, nor am I fond of small talk and ice-breaking. The shy side of me dreads these encounters, while the writer in me looks forward to conversations with like minds for months. I always come away from interactions with other writers excited, enthused and inspired. I’m sure next week, you’ll hear all about my experience. In the meantime, wish me luck with my pitches and that contest entry!

Learning by Doing

Most targets for our submissions, whether they be online zines, print magazines or book/novel publishers, do not offer any sort of feedback when they send rejections. I understand why. With so many queries and submissions, and slush piles that may sometimes seem to rival Mt. Everest, there isn’t enough time for staffers to send personal feedback to each and every would-be contributor or author. It makes sense, but it’s so frustrating to not know where I’m failing! It feels like doing your best through a whole year of school, then finding out you failed but not knowing why or which subject shot you down; or maybe it compares to taking a trip somewhere without a detailed map, then getting lost and not knowing how to get back on course. Without any specific guidance, how are we supposed to improve our craft?

I attended a science fiction workshop at The Muse Center (in Norfolk, Virginia) a few days back and came away excited, motivated and inspired. (Thanks, Jason, Matt and John!) I also came away with some new resources, which I’ll be adding to my links page soon.

One of those new potential targets was Metaphorosis, an online magazine for short fiction. I’ve read some of the entries on the site; they’re good. The zine pays, but the best part of its submission system is this: the editorial staff offers feedback if you ask for it.

I asked. And I learned.

The editor, B. Morris Allen, rejected my story, but at least I know why. First of all, my story’s concept was familiar enough they could predict (accurately, I might add) the ending. Morris suggested if I’m going to use a familiar concept, I have to do something new with it. Okay. I can deal with that. Second, Morris (and/or his team) rated my prose for that tale 3 out of 5, which basically means my prose was functional, but not exceptional. Could use some work. No problem. Now that I know where my weaknesses are, I can work toward improvement. In fact, the Hampton Roads Writers Conference (coming up later this month) offers several breakout sessions for improving prose. I’ll be attending as many as I can.

The “overly familiar concept” thing is something I’ll have to figure out. I stopped reading altogether for a long time, because I figured that if I was reading, I couldn’t be writing, and I wanted to spend ALL my “extra” time writing. Wrong. Erroneous thinking, and this is an excellent example as to why. If I’m not reading, I don’t know what other story concepts have been done. I thought the concept for “Switch” was clever. Shows what I know, and the only way to fix that knowledge gap is to fill it. By reading. And reading. And then reading some more.

As you know, I’ve been posting a book review every single week for a while now and while that alone shows I’m reading, it’s also keeping me so busy with novels and other full-length books that my new issues of Analog have been languishing. Bobby suggested I might review short stories, or particular issues of magazines. This makes sense, and I’ll probably start doing that as soon as I finish reviewing the Jemisin series I started last week (and continue this week). I’ve read many online stories, trying to get a feel for what various target magazines want, so there’s a lot of material to be had.

In the meantime, I’ll be sending Metaphorosis something else to read over. Maybe they’ll offer more input I can use. You should check them out – and if you like what you see, support them through Patreon. Zines like that one are good to keep around.