Being the Best: Jessamy in Court of Fives

Originally posted on Once Upon a Twilight for the Poisoned Blade Blog Tour:


When I was in high school a friend of mine confessed that she deliberately scored poorly on tests. She didn’t want to do better than the boys, she said, because boys didn’t like girls who out-performed them and would therefore never ask them out on a date (this was back in the days when the custom was that boys had to ask girls out on a date, never a mutual ask or a girl asking a boy).
Her comment stuck with me. I was smart and competitive; I got excellent grades and I played sports and did pretty well; and, yes, I didn’t “get a date” then. Don’t worry. It’s not necessary to get a date in high school to have the life you want afterward. It worked out for me.
As I grew older and read more I saw how often, both in narrative and in society, girls and women could be good at things as long as they weren’t better than boys and men. As long as, in the unlikely event that they were better, they stayed modest about it. Or hid their light under a bushel. Or gracefully allowed themselves to be surpassed as the boy or man came into his true power. A woman who was too good had to be alone, or she had to choose between career and family, or she had to be described as “as good as a man” as if excellence is a male virtue and a male calling.
Thankfully times have changed. These assumptions are no longer considered “how it is.” However, elements of those old attitudes still drift along the edges of many fictional works (as well as in real life, where too much “attention” to girls and woman being successful can cause backlash among some people concerned that boys are now being neglected). This is why stories about girls becoming the best they can be still feel revolutionary to me, because of that long twilight in which girls were told they ought not to be so unfeminine as to be excellent, that assertiveness isn’t womanly, that they ought not want to compete at all.
When I wrote Court of Fives I deliberately chose to push right at that tender spot. I wanted to write about a girl who is an athlete, who wants to win, who wants never to lose. A girl who isn’t afraid to harness that energy, who is willing to train and work hard, who will never let up. Those qualities allow her to become good at running a game called the Fives, but they also serve her well when she has to navigate obstacles off the court.
Writing the main character, Jes, in this way wasn’t the only part of the equation. When she meets Lord Kalliarkos, it opens up the whole relationship of how and when girls get to be successful. So often the boy or man plays a mentor relationship to the girl or woman whose story is about becoming her true self or finding a sense of worth or realizing her potential through the intervention of a man. I love those stories about becoming and worth and potential too, and I’ve written versions of them.
But in this case I wanted to write about a boy who respects her skill, who admires her competitiveness, who talks to her for the first time because he thinks she can help him improve. How interesting would it be, I thought, to write a confident male character who notices a girl for the first time not because she is pretty or beautiful, not because of her sexy body or how she dresses and acts toward men, not because she is a innately magical girl or a chosen one who is therefore desirable, but because she is skilled and successful through her own efforts. Because she’s better than he is at something he wants to succeed at.
As it happens, the story in Court of Fives doesn’t play out as a flipped version of that trope (girl mentors boy), but it still (I think) pushes against it. Jes is *already good* and the skills she has worked so hard to gain are crucial as she’s plunged into a terrible, disastrous situation and needs all her determination and fierceness to survive. Kalliarkos brings a different set of knowledge and skills that turn out to be equally crucial.
Every time we write a story we, as authors, are engaged in a conversation with our own expectations about how people interact, how they behave with each other, and how society believes they should, or shouldn’t, act. Many of the most exciting elements of writing target received wisdom, and say, “let’s see what happens if we turn this assumption on its head, if we look at it another way.”
Jes is my tribute to the ambitious girls and women who don’t let up and who never stop striving to be the best.

(Thank you again to Once Upon a Twilight for hosting the original guest post!)

 

When First Draft Experiments Don’t Work (But Are Worthwhile Anyway)

Originally posted on Dark Faerie Tales for the Poisoned Blade Blog Tour:


From the beginning I envisioned Court of Fives as a trilogy or maybe even as a quartet. When I first started thinking about the series I had an idea in which I would write the first book in Jes’s point of view and then add one sister’s pov to each subsequent book until the reader met all four “in person.”

So when I started writing the first draft of book two, Poisoned Blade, I tried writing in the point of view of Amaya, the youngest sister. She’s the pretty one who loves fashion and theater, who writes poetry, who pretends to dream of marriage even though she is really dreaming of a different kind of independence in a world that gives her few options. She’s over-dramatic and self-absorbed.

Here is the opening scene I wrote for her:


EXCERPT FROM FIRST DRAFT in Amaya’s Point of View:

Once upon a time, in a better world, a beautiful girl named Amaya Tonor, daughter of the honorable and exceptionally brilliant army officer Captain Esladas, attended the theater with her best and most beloved friend, the equally lovely Denya Tonor. Denya was the daughter of Captain Osfiyos who was also honorable but quite honestly not nearly as brilliant as Captain Esladas. However that fact is something a well bred young Patron woman would never mention in company and certainly not to her most doting and affectionate friend.

With what pleasure did Amaya and Denya watch their favorite play, the Hide of the Ox, for perhaps the hundredth time! They had every line memorized.

It so happened on that occasion that a pair of handsome cavalry officers looking quite dashing in the uniform of the king’s royal horse soldiers sat in the audience. Smote by the charming girls’ beauty and lively speech, the officers at once begged leave to address the solemn fathers, and begged leave to contract each a marriage with the girl who most caught his eye. Because the officers were well connected and rich, the fathers naturally agreed but with the proviso that the girls prove willing.

Thus it was that, holding hands, Amaya and Denya sat later that evening upon a garden bench while the two officers proclaimed themselves unworthy of the elegant delicacy and alluring virtue laid before them. Being officers, they would often be away fighting in the wars. But being brothers, as is the custom of Patron households, they shared a compound and thus the two girls would have each other to keep company with in the months and years their husbands were absent. Would these frequent and lengthy absences be an impediment too great an obstacle for the girls to leap?

No! No! the girls assured them. It would be entirely suitable and just what they most desired.

Once upon a time, in a better world, this is the story that would have unfolded upon the stage of my life.

Meanwhile my insensitive older sister Maraya faces me in the empty common room of the dump of an inn we now live in. As if kindly scolding a slow-witted child, she tells me I have to cut my glorious hair and smear mud on my face so I won’t be possibly be recognized by customers while I serve drinks and clean the floors at this ghastly ramshackle tavern.

“I won’t cut my hair just because you have brewed up a hundred horrible happenstances that will never come true!” I protest as Maraya crosses her arms, callously unimpressed by my reasonable retort. “Even if our father is a famous general now, ten days ago he was nothing more than a humble lowborn captain. He kept us four girls under such a tight rein it’s astounding he ever let me attend the theater with Denya and her family at all! No one will recognize me, especially now that most of the army has left the city.”

Maraya blocks the door that opens onto the street. “If Lord Gargaron’s stewards catch sight of you on the street, they will run to tell his lordship immediately.”

“Lord Gargaron and his stewards only saw me once, Merry. I know I have the sort of pleasingly beauteous face that attracts notice, but it strikes me as implausible that important Patron men would remember me.” If I catch her by surprise and shove her to the left, I might be able to bolt out the door before she can grab me. I can’t breathe in here! So I chatter on, hoping to distract her before I make my move. “It’s unfair I’m not even allowed to go to the market and buy food!”

“Amaya, can you think about something other than yourself for a single blink of an eye? Don’t you recall that Lord Gargaron had Father investigated to make sure he was the brilliant military commander who kept winning victories that gave honor and glory to Lord Ottonor? Don’t you recall that Lord Gargaron had Lord Ottonor murdered? He knows everything about us. He knew Jes secretly ran the Fives. Not even Father knew that!”

“Jes is the selfish one, not me! She ruined everything for the rest of us by sneaking out to run the Fives when she knew Father would never allow any of his daughters to do such a thing.”

“Don’t change the subject.” Maraya pierces my five souls with a deadly flat stare that makes me feel like a bug she is too bored to squash. “You ought to be grateful to Jes, since she is the one who rescued us from a living death in an oracle’s tomb.”

“Of course I am grateful but this wretched compound might as well be my tomb if I can’t ever leave its walls.” I sob a little, as actresses do to show the depth and intensity of their scorned feelings.

“Do you have any idea how tedious you are, Amaya?”

“You have the heart of a fish! Cold and sluggish!”

She snorts indelicately. “Is that a quote from a bad play?”

“No!” I say quickly, even though it is a line from a play I wrote, which no one knows about except Denya.

“Thank the gods,” she replies.

“No one appreciates me!” I mutter in an undertone, but Maraya hears me and in reply sighs so heavily her disparagement might as well be a huge wreath of withering flowers shedding dying petals all around her.

“Amaya? Maraya? Are you in here? It’s so dim without the shutters open.”

Mother appears at the curtain that hides the kitchen from the front room where drinks and food are served. She has to lean against the wall to hold herself up.

I rush over to her. “You shouldn’t be walking yet, Mother! Did the healer give you permission to get up? You are supposed to stay in bed until the bleeding stops.”

“What a scold you have become, Amaya,” says Mother in her gentle voice as she takes my hands and squeezes them. As if she needs to reassure me! Her grip is so frail.

I burst into tears, fear choking my voice until it comes out as a leaky squeak. “You must go back to bed, Mother. You were so sick. Here, let me help you.”

Maraya hurriedly limps over to us and takes Mother’s other arm.

But instead of going back to her bed Mother sinks onto a bench, so we sit beside her. Although I no longer fear she will simply cease breathing and die while she sleeps, her normally radiant complexion looks gray with weariness. “I would like to see other walls just for a little bit. Let me rest here a while.”


After I wrote this I was surprised at how self-conscious Amaya’s voice was. As a writer I wasn’t sure whether that coyness was truly her voice, or whether *I* hadn’t gotten into the heart of her yet.

Regardless, it quickly became apparent for other reasons that the Court of Fives trilogy is Jes’s story to tell. I decided against using any other point of view except Jes to keep the story streamlined and focused, just as Jes herself is very focused, and I’ve been really happy with that decision as it plays out in Poisoned Blade and in book three, which I’m revising now (for a 2017 publication).

However, there were a couple of lines from my attempt to write in Amaya’s point of view that I wanted to keep, so when I wrote a scene toward the beginning of Poisoned Blade in which Jes visits her family, I managed to work those in.


EXCERPT FROM POISONED BLADE:

A drab curtain separates the front room [of the inn] where drink and food are served from the back where they are prepared. I smell bread grilling, but it is the familiar voices of my older and younger sister rising behind the curtain that captures my attention.

“It’s unfair I’m not even allowed to go to the night market!”

“To do what, Amaya? We don’t have money to buy anything. If Lord Gargaron’s stewards catch sight of you on the street, we’ll be discovered.”

“Lord Gargaron and his stewards only saw me once, Maraya. I know I have the sort of pleasingly beauteous face that attracts notice, but it strikes even me as implausible that important Patron men would remember.” By the strength of Amaya’s wheedling I can hear she has recovered from her near death by poisoned candied almonds in the tomb. “I can’t breathe in here! It doesn’t even have to be the night market. I’ll hide my face beneath a shawl and walk down by the water and breathe fresh air and listen to the mellifluous cries of the wind-kissed birds who are allowed to y free. Unlike me.”

“Do you have any idea how tedious you are, Amaya?”

“You have the heart of a sh! Cold and sluggish!” Amaya sobs as third-rate actresses do to show the depth and intensity of their scorned feelings. “This wretched compound might as well be my tomb if I can’t ever leave its walls.”

“Help me,” whispers Polodos with a look of such desperation that I giggle.

An abrupt silence follows my betraying laugh.

The curtain twitches as a person on the other side hooks it open just enough to peek through. I would know those lovely eyes anywhere.

I say, “Amaya, if you cut off all your hair, smear mud on your face, and wear a dirty canvas sack with a hole cut for your head, then you can safely go to the market without being recognized.”

With a shout of excitement, Amaya plunges into the room, flings herself upon me, and bursts into sobs while clutching me so tightly I have trouble breathing.

Maraya limps in, smiling. “Oh, Jes, I am so glad to see you! I was afraid it would be unsafe for you to visit us.”

They look just as they did back when we all lived well protected at home, only without the fashionable clothing, perfectly beribboned hair in the most up-to-date style, and fragrant oils and perfumes to hide the smell of sweat. Had we grown up without a successful Patron father who acknowledged us, girls like us might have lived in a place like this, scrambling to make a living and able to afford only cast-off dresses and mended muslin shawls for wrappings.

“How is Mother?” I ask into Amaya’s hair. When she hesitates I shove her to arm’s length, gripping her shoulders so hard she winces. “What’s wrong?”

“Jessamy? Is that you?” Mother appears at the curtain. She has to lean against the wall to hold herself up. She is as tall as I am, and the most beautiful person I know. But right now her dark brown complexion is sheeny with perspiration; her magnificent cloud of hair has been bound under a scarf; no earrings or jewelry ornament her, all the little gifts Father used to shower upon her. She coughs weakly. I rush over but Amaya bolts past me to reach her first.

“You shouldn’t be walking yet, Mother! You are supposed to stay in bed until every trace of bleeding stops.”

“What a scold you have become, Amaya,” says Mother in her gentle voice as she takes my hands as if she needs to reassure me. Her grip is so frail that I fear I might squeeze hard enough to shatter her without meaning to. “I am so glad you have come back, Jessamy. Is Bettany with you?”

Anguish chokes my voice until it comes out as a leaky squeak. “You must go back to bed, Mother. You were so sick. Here, let us help you.”

Amaya takes Mother’s other arm.

She sinks down onto the nearest bench. “I would like to see other walls just for a little while. I have not been out of that tiny room since we came here.”

Amaya and I sit on either side, snuggling close against her as we used to do when we were little.


For me, a large part of writing and revising is knowing when to discard an idea or approach, however painful it may be to throw out work I’ve already done, and when to repurpose it, as in the rewritten Jes-narrated scene. Experimenting with Amaya’s point of view gave me some insight into how the sisters interacted that I might not have noticed otherwise. That’s the great thing about experimentation during the first draft: It might turn out brilliantly, or you might have to throw it away, but regardless it’s a great way to look at your story from a different angle.

 

(Thank you again to Dark Faerie Tales for hosting this guest post!)

Keeping the Story Alive: Writing the Second Novel in the Series

Originally posted on Such a Novel Idea for the Poisoned Blade Blog Tour:

“How do you write a second novel in a series so it keeps alive the excitement of book one AND expands the story in a way that makes readers anxious for book three?”

BASIC ELEMENTS:

** Give the second book its own introductory lead-in so you don’t have to use boring re-cap. Avoid info-dumping the events of the previous book: “On a quiet morning, Kaitlyn sat on her porch and thought about everything that had happened to her last week for three pages of non-action, and then the zombies attacked.” Start with the zombies; parcel out backstory only where and when you need it…

** Even if the second book follows right on the heels of the previous book’s events, pretend it is a brand new book in a brand new series to try to get that fresh feeling. I worked hard to make the opening of Poisoned Blade become a place a new reader could feel comfortable. While the story is a continuation from book one, the first page introduces a new miniature conflict and action that is perfectly understandable by itself when Jes decides to sneak into a place she’s not allowed to enter.

** When you can, use interactions between characters to reveal the information you need to know. That way you both help the reader orient themselves in the plot and setting AND heighten the characterization by deepening your character relationships.

** Character growth, character growth, character growth. Relationships are the fabric of character growth. Book two can and should deepen and complicate your characters.

BUT WHAT KIND OF SERIES ARE YOU WRITING?

There are many different kinds of series these days, and each one puts a different kind of pressure on a second book. Avoiding a sophomore slump with the second novel in a series starts with a close look at what kind of series you are writing. That way you can identify the part your second volume needs to play in the overall series.

Here are four possible scenarios. Remember, there are more than four scenarios; these are just examples to get you thinking about how to approach your own situation.

1) Your first novel was a standalone with a beginning, middle, and end, and your publisher has asked you to write a sequel. In this case, you want to make sure you aren’t just repeating the plot or character arc of the first book.

Open up the world. Change the direction of the character’s journey. Introduce a new conflict that isn’t a version of the original one. Deepen your character relationships or add a new complicating character.

For example (I’m making this up as I’m typing), after a world-altering firestorm our heroine Tania leads a ragtag group of refugees across a blasted wilderness to the safety of a domed city. That’s book one, and can be read as a complete and satisfying story. But book two reveals that the society in the domed city is corrupt and unjust, using refugees as unpaid labor, and so Tania is forced to lead a revolution to grant refugees the same citizenship rights as others.

The benefit to this “follow-up” scenario is that you can write book two as if it is a standalone too. A reader should be able to pick up book two without having read book one, even if knowledge of book one will amplify and intensity a reader’s understanding of the character dynamics.

A trilogy can also function as related but standalone installments, with some recurring characters and a thematic narrative arc that sits like an umbrella over all three books. In this case the second book must relate somehow to the first and also link to the third, while holding its own as a complete story. A good example of this form is N K Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. The second book, The Broken Kingdoms, introduces a protagonist who does not appear in book one, while her love interest was a major player in book one. The events of book two, while self contained, are a natural progression from repercussions of the events in book one and cause ripples that spill through book three without book three being a direct continuation of book two.

2) You’ve written a duology in which the story takes place across two books. In a way this is the easiest second-book scenario because the second book is the latter half of a single story split into two volumes, with the climax and conclusion coming at the end of book two.

3) You’re writing an episodic series, similar to a tv series with a continuing cast of characters and a mystery or mission of the week. Book one introduces the main character, her sidekicks, & the overall situation (think Leverage’s Robin-Hood-like “we right wrongs caused by the powerful abusing the powerless” or “my mental powers allow me to see a potential death and thus try to prevent it” and so on). A mystery or mission is introduced and solved.

Book two therefore carries the weight of building on the readers’ connection to the characters, while offering a new and entertaining episode-length plot.  The challenge with this scenario is to avoid the info-dump introduction (as per “Basic Elements” above ) and to create a new adventure for this installment that is at minimum as exciting as the first one and preferably bigger and bolder. Add a new antagonist. Expand the world. Add a love interest. Plot out your basic outline for how you want the entire series to go. Decide whether your larger series plot direction is to create bigger and bigger stakes OR to create a close intimate study. Both can work.

For example (again, I’m making this up as I’m typing), volume one introduces our heroine, weary security officer Jo-jo who works at rundown backwater Space Station Tau keeping the peace. In book one, there’s a murder in one of the airlocks which she solves with the help of her trusty robot associate while that annoying administrative chief she’s kind of attracted to keeps hounding her about sticking to protocol even though it’s only by going outside protocol that she can solve the mystery. In book two, a battered space ship arrives with news of a terrifying alien invasion in a nearby solar system, but the station’s governing council doesn’t believe the rakish captain who has a history of smuggling and ration-busting activity; then it turns out that maybe an alien spy stowed away on the ship, and it’s up to Jo-jo and the captain to find the spy before that entity can get off the station and return to the invaders with crucial intelligence. At this point maybe you start thinking about whether you want a war to break out on the frontier. If you do, in book three refugees form the fighting can arrivg at Tau, with the search for a missing child providing the central mystery. Then in book four Jo-jo might get drafted into the space navy as an intelligence officer, and maybe the rakish captain and the contraband ship is drafted into service as well and the annoying admin chief is assigned to go along . . . this is how a story world starts opening up into bigger and bigger stakes. For a close, intimate study, you would stick to mysteries and missions ON the space station and neighboring areas (the planet, the asteroid belt) and concentrate on the character development and character journeys rather than a galloping plot.

4) The classic trilogy is a single connected story that takes three books to tell. The biggest mistake writers make in this scenario with second books is by spinning their wheels. A second book should raise the stakes. It should move the plot and character development forward in such a way that, if the reader were to skip book two and go directly to book three, they would not be able to orient themselves in the story because they would have missed major events and character changes.

For example, if in book one our heroine is sent on a quest to find four magical artifacts to defeat the Evil Overlord and manages to discover two by the end of the first volume, book two should not consist of her continuing the quest in the same way and finding the other two at its end. That sort of plot can easily become static with the quest element dragging on longer than it needs to when in fact the most dramatic element is the looming battle against the powerful antagonist.

Without spoilers, I’ll mention three ways in which I accomplished stakes-raising in Poisoned Blade.

1) Jes learns new things about the world she lives in that change the way she looks at the people and conflicts surrounding her. The reader learns them with her.

2) She travels outside the city of Saryenia, which allows the reader (as well as Jes) to get a look at the wider world.

3) Major events alter the trajectory of the plot.

I’m an architectural writer so I like to think of each book in a series as part of a bigger framework. I consider what I want the narrative to accomplish in book two. Where does the book need to take the story so it ends at the perfect launching point for book three?

Remember: There is no right answer for sequels that works for ALL books; there is only AN answer for each specific novel. That’s both the challenge and the beauty of writing a series.

(Thanks again to Such A Novel Idea for originally hosting this as a guest post!)

Fantasy Gender Defaults

Next week I’m leading a 2 hour workshop at Sirens Studio, the 2 day pre-Sirens Conference workshop. AND I NEED YOUR HELP!

(if you can get yourself to Denver next week you can buy a membership at the door for Sirens Conference, Oct 8 – 11–Rae Carson, Yoon Ha Lee, and myself are Guests of Honor.)

Here’s the description of the workshop:

 

“It all happened TO her, not BECAUSE of her:” Writing Past Defaults.

We all carry societal baggage about gender roles into our writing. That’s inevitable. In this workshop intensive, Kate will analyze how authors (including herself!) who are consciously attempting to expand and center roles for women may unconsciously undermine their female characters by sliding sideways into stereotyped personalities or behaviors and work. Often, male characters act within the plot while women characters—even as the central figures—may be given reactive roles. We’ll discuss typical fantasy gender defaults, ways in which authors who may seem to be subverting them aren’t always, and how to turn around these insidious messages to more fully write women characters as they really are, and have been, in the world.

 

 

Here’s where YOU come in. Yes, YOU!

I’m hoping all you well-read readers can come up with examples of girl/women characters in (preferably well known) fantasy novels who

fit typical gender defaults and why

and ALSO examples who

seem to subvert gender defaults but when examined closely actually fall into some default-ish behaviors or character elements (and why)

and examples who

actually subvert gender defaults (and why)

I welcome any other comments on the subject as well. Thank you in advance, crowd-sourcing friends and colleagues! I can only do so much reading research and I want to cast through as many examples as possible.

COURT OF FIVES Behind-the-Scenes at Read, Breathe, Relax

Can’t get enough COURT OF FIVES? Head over to Read, Breathe, Relax for Kate Elliott’s guest post, “From Idea to Publication: The Journey of COURT OF FIVES,” to learn more about the writing process and inspiration for Efea.

Meanwhile, my spouse became co-director of an archaeological dig in the Delta region of Egypt, a site called Tell Timai that flourished during the Greco-Roman era (about 300 B.C.E to 600 C.E.). Naturally I got interested in the history because of his work, and over the next few years I began reading research books and articles on the period and jotting down ideas. Other inspirations also came together at this time, merging into a larger plot.[…]

Eventually I sat down to write…

 

Read more at Read, Breathe, Relax.

Thank you to Lisa of Read, Breathe, Relax for hosting this stop of the blog tour!

 

Kate Elliott Interview – Adventures in YA Publishing

Thanks to Adventures in YA Publishing for the recent interview on Kate Elliott’s YA debut, COURT OF FIVES!

What scene was really hard for you to write and why, and is that the one of which you are most proud? Or is there another scene you particularly love?

The hardest scenes to write were those in which Jes is running the Fives. It’s difficult to combine describing a sport that doesn’t exist with the physical effort and emotion of a person playing it, and I worked over and over again on the Fives scenes to make them feel immediate and emotional, and to give the reader a visceral sense of Jes on the court. I wanted readers who love playing and/or watching sports to be excited by what’s happening on the obstacles, while also giving an emotional hook to draw in people who might otherwise skim over that kind of action scene.

I’m most proud of the final scene in the book, but if I told you why it would be a spoiler!

Read more about staying true to your vision, advice for other writers, and more on COURT OF FIVES at Adventures in YA Publishing.

The Book Wars Guest Post – The Writing Process: How One Writer Works

Be sure to check out Kate Elliott’s recent guest post for The Book Wars, in which she discusses her drafting and writing process, world-building, and her experiences writing her debut Young Adult novel, COURT OF FIVES (out 18 August 2015!).

“Frankly, working through my first YA novel has taught me a great deal about delineating a world with fewer words, and I think I was able to put some of the lessons learned about pacing and incisive worldbuilding details into good use in my forthcoming adult epic fantasy Black Wolves (coming this November from Orbit Books). Overall I would say writing YA has helped me in writing adult fiction because it has enhanced my ability to judge how well images and emotions in my head are coming across on the page. Clarity is hard, but clarity is vital: Where the reader’s vision connects with mine is where the magic happens.”

Read more

Stay tuned for more guest posts and interviews by and with Kate Elliott as we ramp up to the release of COURT OF FIVES!

 

 

The Month Ahead (March 2015)

That it is March already does not thrill me, given the volume of work I have to do. At this point I am not trying to get ahead or even get caught up; I’m just trying not to fall any farther behind.

On Fridays I will continue to post chapters of my father’s post-World War II memoir, Remembering Japan: 1945 -1946.

Each Thursday I hope to post a short “enthusiasm” for a novel, short fiction collection, or other media, but that will depend on how each week shakes out.

In February I did some publicity (posts and interviews) for the publication of my short fiction collection, THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT (Tachyon Publications). The collection also got a number of gratifyingly positive reviews. It’s not too late to buy and read it!

I also completed and turned in the copy-edited ms of Black Wolves (Orbit Books). The novel now goes to typesetting and I will next see it in page proofs. Publication date remains 3 November 2015.

I continue to work on a draft of the sequel to my YA debut Court of Fives (Little,Brown Young Readers). Having sorted out a plot tangle (with the patient aid of one of my editors) I have what looks to me like a clear shot to the end.

An essay on Writing Women Characters will go up some time this month on Tor.com. It’s long and meant not as an “opinion piece” but as more of a workshop style essay.

I am still working on The Beatriceid, which is now my most overdue item.

The three projects mentioned above are my focus for March. I have other posts, essays, interviews, short stories, and novels awaiting my attention but for the moment they have to stand in line. I’m not complaining; far from it.

I am at that stage of my workload where I am having to say No to things I would like to say Yes to because I have too many outstanding projects and commitments (often small ones, but the small ones pile up into monstrously intimidating mountains). I like saying Yes to things but when I have too much unfinished work, especially of multiple diverse types, I often end up becoming exhausted by the mere thought of the overload and don’t get anything done at all.

So: March is for finding the space to breathe.

Writing Is Never A Waste of Time

Recently I got email from someone I know who asked me for advice. The email was longer than the excerpt below but I’ll snip to encapsulate:

“how do you write when you’re faced with the very likely possibility that it’s likely all for nothing unless you trip into some luck somewhere? I have no clue how other writers get past this to create stuff, when I’ve pretty much lived a creative life that said if you don’t have something worthwhile that makes an impact on someone besides you at the end of whatever you do, it’s wasted time.”

 

First of all, if writing gives you pleasure it is NEVER wasted time. NEVER.

I can pretty much recite the utilitarian argument because we see it so much: if you don’t get paid for it, if no one else thinks it is worth money, if you don’t sell X amount or receive Y number of positive reviews, then “you” don’t count. This view does pervade much of our money and success driven culture, and in the 24/7 social media culture where people can interact all the time and where interaction and sharing becomes part of the process, it can seem that writing is inextricably linked to the idea that it only matters if others want it or pay for it or talk about it in the right way.

I’ll say it again:

If writing gives you pleasure it is NEVER wasted time.

I started writing as a teen. Publishing was so distant from me that I only vaguely dreamed of publishing. I was writing for myself and no one else. I’m old fashioned enough that I tend to think teachers having their students “publish” their books in the classroom is a mistake because it makes people think that only publication makes the writing legitimate. This isn’t helped by the current crop of “hot new young writing star” publicity, as if you aren’t published by 25 then you are therefore already a failure. It isn’t helped by people trying to score points in internet debates by saying Writer X has more Amazon or goodreads reviews and thus must be taken more seriously than Writer Y who only has fewer. It isn’t helped by people trying to create hierarchy by claiming that only award and review notice matters, not “mere” popularity. Taken in terms of the act of writing as writing, those are secondary issues in terms of “legitimacy.”

What makes the writing legitimate is the way it makes you feel inside, the spark of excitement as a scene becomes clear, as vivid words and images emerge that you didn’t expect, as characters surprise you.

It’s weird because before I was published I knew nothing about the science fiction and fantasy scene. I had no interaction with anyone about my writing except my high school English teacher and a couple of university writing teachers. The former was great and hugely influential because he encouraged me both in my love of writing and by recommending classics to read that would bring breadth into my imaginative vista. The latter were basically a waste of time because they universally scorned genre, given this was long before genre became cool and “serious,” and kept telling me I ought to write “real fiction” instead of sff.

After college I tried to sell my first finished novel. It never did sell; it was really very bad, and it is PERFECTLY OKAY that it wasn’t very good because I loved writing it at the time I wrote it. I was totally into it.

Everything we write should make us happy as writers in that the writing of it can fulfill something inside us. Everything we write also makes us better writers (if we pay attention).

After failing to sell that book I wrote three more novels. I got an agent by sending out letters and getting rejections until I found one willing to take me on. I got published. Only then did I learn about sff conventions. I knew nothing about fandom or fanfiction.

Now I see that this ignorance has helped me in specific ways.

I always at root write for myself. When I struggle with my writing it is always because I’m worrying not about the book itself but about reception, about outside things. Again, it was easier in the ancient days to just write in the privacy of my own head, and it’s much harder now that I can anticipate that people will be reading and reacting to the words I’m setting down.

Back then I wrote solely to please myself. I wrote stories I wanted to read.

I would ask writers two questions:

1) Why are you writing? What is your goal?

2) Does the story you are writing right now make you happy in the sense that it gives you pleasure and satisfaction as you see it come into being? Leaving aside ALL OTHER FACTORS, just on your own behalf — does it make you smile creatively? Do you think “Whoo! I did that! Ooo! I could do this other thing here!”

I’m not saying it is easy to block out all the other competing goals and voices and complications, but that

“Oooo! Whoo!”

is for me the central worthwhile thing about writing.

I care about the other stuff too, of course, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. A lot of my self identity is tied up now with being a publishing writer, and I can’t pretend that publishing, paying my mortgage, reader reaction, reviews, interaction with other writers, reading, and all the elements tied into having a writing career aren’t central to my sense of who I am. It isn’t really possible to Franzen-like block out all the influences that pour down over us, and I don’t want to pretend it is.

But that’s not at root why I started writing and why I continue to write.

I write because, however hard it may be at any given moment, deep in my heart it delights me to writing fiction.

If you can find that place, keep pulling yourself back to that place when you stray, then write the story that you want to tell, and write it for yourself.