Rec me, Amadeus! or, the Author on sabbath

Well, I’m back.

Once a year the religious community I belong to gets together for an annual meeting, in which business is accomplished, Eucharists are celebrated, songs are sung, and wine corks are popped. This year we were at the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet retreat center in St. Louis. The century-plus-old monastery is right on the river, and of course at the moment it’s even more right on the river than usual: all the rivers in the broad vicinity are vast expanses of opaque and purling water, draining as best it can toward the distant Gulf of Mexico. I had booked a train trip out there, but due to diverted freight traffic Amtrak was forced to bus us to and from our destinations: cue me making a face. I’ve actually seriously considered abandoning my usual stance of recreational complaining and writing a Strongly Worded Letter lamenting our collective priorities when it comes to infrastructure. Of course, I can do both.

Disappointing non-train trips aside, it was great to reconnect with my companions, to breathe back life into the round of daily prayers, to sit and talk late into the evening with popcorn and snacks and wine, and to remember what is so valuable about holding our lives in common. Our collective charism is an undergirding to what we do in the places where we are, and we all wish for more than one chance a year to refresh that knowledge.

Now I’m back at my desk and back to work, and making my plans for the next months. Launching Ryswyck was six months of really hard work, and slowly but surely it is paying off; but I’m definitely ready to recharge.

So I think I’m going to put aside the ‘verse for a month — not do any writing, or any stewing about not writing — and read. When writers who are just starting out ask me for advice about how to develop their writing, I agree with all the authors who say: read. Read a lot or read a little, read good books or read bad ones, read people you know and people you don’t know (and that goes for both authors and POV characters), read in familiar genres and in genres you’ve never touched.

I believe in this advice wholeheartedly: more than half of what I know about writing comes from studying my favorite books — or any books — and working out how the authors did it. (The other half comes from failing again and failing better, because you have to do that too.) But. While I am in the actual act and process of writing, I just can’t spare much headspace for consuming new books. While I am writing, most of my reading consists of making dinner and then opening a Vorkosigan omnibus to a random page, or something similar.

So when I’ve finished a project, or a stage in a project, I’ve started taking reading sabbaticals, seeking out books I haven’t read a billion times and opening new thought-territory. Plus, it pays to keep up with one’s field.

While I was on the road for work, I read the first book and half the second of the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein, and have been enjoying that very much. So I’ll get back to those. And then there are always the monthly reads for my book club, which always comprehend a great variety.

But I want recs. What are you reading right now? I’d like to read something new, or something old brought back from the margins. Something a middle-aging white Midwesterner might not run across on her own; something that has a damn good story to it. Or: something you want to read but haven’t got to yet.

That sort of thing. Or as my sister likes to say: Okay, recs, go.

Good life choices: a fencing manual rec

A week or so ago I joined Instagram — largely because I feared I might be boring my Facebook readers with new views of my cat asleep, and other such random photos as Instagram appears to be specially made for. Instagram is great, I discovered: vastly more simple to curate, with a feed presented in order by date posted (that thing which every user of a social media service wants and every service developer hates to give them), and easier to discover friends on.

It’s thanks to Instagram that I discovered that a longtime fandom friend has just finished a project illustrating a fencing instruction manual. So naturally I bought it; it arrived today, and it is clearly the Best Purchase Ever.

For one thing, fencing — whether HEMA or sport — is a small world. The author dedicated an acknowledgment to a fencing instructor whom I’ve actually met — and I don’t get around much in fencing circles. For another, the manual is both serious in approach and light in tone, which is no mean feat when writing instructions for practice and pedagogy. My friend’s illustrations are simple but clear and excellent.

I’ve read a few fencing manuals for knowledge and entertainment, and this one really raises the bar for both; it does not over-assume what the reader knows, yet the explanations are not heavy. Seriously, snag this puppy right away, even if you’re not a fencer yourself. (I mean, that can always change. Right?)

Congratulations, Kat and Russ!

And it helped, too

So yesterday was the kind of day where, although things didn’t exactly go badly, there was just a general atmosphere of stress, exacerbated by all the little things crowding the margins of my mind that I haven’t gotten done. I have taxes to do, and a sermon to write, and certain work deadlines have been glaring at me from beneath their heaps in Outlook for weeks.

(Speaking of exacerbate, a friend of mine has a running joke where when someone uses a 25-cent word, she says, “And [simpler word], too.” Once in our hearing, V remarked that something-or-other would exacerbate a certain situation, and C said: “It might even make it worse.”)

So at close of business yesterday evening, I shut down the lid of my laptop. “Fuck it,” I said, “I’m going to Bo Lings.” I put on my hat, grabbed my file of “Household Lights,” and went.

Bo Lings is one half of my mental spa ritual. The other half is Barnes & Noble. The order in which I visit them depends on how hungry I am, and whether I plan to purchase reading material to go with my dumplings and egg drop soup. In this case, preliminary editing was the order of the day, so after dinner I walked the two blocks to B&N and mouched about, browsing.

To my delight, I found that B&N had stocked Erin Bow’s new book. Which is, deplorably, not always the case at my local B&N.

Lo these many years ago, I was a failed beta reader for one of Erin’s early projects. Can we talk briefly about beta reading failure? Writers (at least all the writers I know including myself) continually trawl the mental rolodex of their friends for possible readers for their manuscripts: people with certain areas of expertise, or with discriminating taste, or with an editor’s eye for detail, or all of the above. But sometimes it happens that someone agrees to read a manuscript and then…just doesn’t. Or just can’t. And then there’s a shame spiral and they can’t even look at the file, and turn aside from the topic as soon as may be and may take to avoiding the writer on the street.

I’ve been on both ends of such a weltering disaster, and producing Ryswyck has taught me a lot about this aspect of project management. Well, actually, one of my betas taught me a lot about it: she suggested I give a timeline along with available dates for discussion so that she would be able to work it concretely into her schedule. “Ooh, concept,” said ADHD me. By providing a proposed deadline and other parameters, I as the writer can practice expectations management, and the beta reader can find it easier to cancel if necessary without having to say I don’t want to read your book ever ever ever.

Anyway, Erin has obviously found better betas, because she has now produced a string of brilliant books. I read through Chapter Six last night, and look forward to getting back to it. (You know, somewhere among all the abovementioned work.) Some writers worthy of the Evil Author badge are ingenious at making you cry by the end of the book, but Erin is special: she made me shed tears AT THE BEGINNING WTF.

Talk about a mental spa service upgrade. Couldn’t have found a better way to ameliorate my anxiety.

A Gnosticism Taco

For numerous reasons, this Sunday blogging is brought to you by my dear friend and fellow community member V. I have, in the past, shared living space with her for longer than I have anyone else except family, and she didn’t kill me at any point during our sojourn together, so I reckon that as the mark of a good friend.

It was V who recently recommended Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, and since I already knew Rutledge to be a fine writer and preacher, I bought it on Kindle — and am finding it just as amazing as advertised. It has the kind of academic rigor and respect for ecumenical reality that you would hope for from a 21st-century treatment of the topic, and just my kind of humor as well. (To people who argue about whether to focus more on Good Friday or Easter, she retorts: “If you’re making a ham and cheese sandwich, you don’t ask which is more important, the ham or the cheese. If you don’t have both of them, it isn’t a ham and cheese sandwich.” This occasional flippancy is just the right leavening for a serious and complex topic.)

What really got me thinking, however — at least as far as this blog post is concerned — is the way she begins her approach: with a serious and thorough critique of gnosticism as it has leached into our beliefs and practices even in churches, displacing the importance of the cross. I know, I know: we’re supposed to think of gnostics as the good guys — after all, “gnosis” is knowledge, and knowledge is better than ignorance, right? “I thought I was all set to read a blog by a smart person. I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!”

No one ever does.

I mean, I get it. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours in New Age shops, read Jung and learned Tarot, fought my way free of the creeping despair of fundamentalism; my friends constellate the widest varieties of belief and nonbelief, and I have no reason or desire not to honor that, even enjoy and affirm it. But Rutledge is right about one thing: gnosticism is not actually democratic in nature. It seems like it might be: though the cross is a picture of abject helplessness and degradation, we know instinctively that we are more done-to than doing when we face God in a Christian arena. To take the initiative into our own hands, to go out and seek knowledge or to hold still and grasp it from within: that’s more like it. It certainly is more appealing to me.

But democratic it is not. Some people are better equipped for meditation, get more out of walking labyrinths, find more opportunities of learning from teachers. Transcending the difficulties of the body — being spiritual — is a matter of becoming adept. And if you don’t make the grade, you roll down the bank as the train barrels past.

I think we’re supposed to care about that. Not least because I’ve rolled down any number of spiritual banks myself; but also because in some limited areas I have impressed people far more than I deserved to, better people who were not aware as I was that it ought to be the other way around.

So naturally my thoughts turned to the worldbuilding I had done for Ryswyck. As a secondary-world speculative story, it doesn’t carry the same factual history of our world but is an analogue to it. In the story we only meet people from two countries in a backwater region of a global community more or less united against nuclearization anywhere in the world. The two peoples of the story share, with some differences, a religious tradition — a worship of wisdom without resort to images. As I feigned it, destruction and loss on such a massive worldwide scale led to an iconoclasm similar to the Simplification of A Canticle for Leibowitz: it is better to know nothing than to know how to harm people. For my world, the axiom is that it is better to worship no image than to identify the image only with ourselves.

My characters stoop to enter the low lintels of meditation halls; they burn lights in witness to their prayers; they pray alone and they chant together; they consider themselves more or less adept in comparison with others. I questioned myself: did I feign a gnostic religion for my world?

I mean, I don’t think I’m going to hell if I did. But on consideration…I don’t think so. I think what I did was a photo negative to what I experience in this world. After all, I wrote Ryswyck because I wanted to read a story that I couldn’t find out there six years ago. I wanted to read a story driven by friendship, ensconced in community, making use of Charles Williams’s concept of substitutionary love but anchoring a truly feminine point of view: plus all my favorite SFF tropes and the kitchen sink. It makes sense that if my daily fare is a Christian pita with a gnostic filling, I would serve up substitutionary love in a gnostic taco.

So pour me a Dos Equis and pass the hot sauce.

Candlemas: fiat lux

Well, I’m a bit pleasantly tipsy, and I’ll tell you why. I spent the day writing, and in celebration of the fact that I have but two sequences left of this story, and am recovering nicely from my illness, I walked down to the Blue Koi and sat myself down at the bar to eat pot stickers and read The Princess Bride (because after all, I’m leading the discussion at book club next week and I ought at least to have reread the book).

I also asked the bartender to make me a gin martini, and he made a doozy. It was good. It was big. It was big and good, and I drank every drop plus a large cup of jasmine tea for afters. And then I walked home in the damp and no-longer-so-fucking-frigid night.

Have I mentioned how I love my neighborhood? A block along in my journey home I passed two young men on the sidewalk in black hoodies. They had warm skin and facial hair and one had an affectionate arm thrown over the other’s shoulder. As I approached he smiled at me and said Hi silently, and held up his hand. I slapped it as I passed. And I walked on happily into the night and that is what my neighborhood is like.

And now, and now, I must go down and get my laundry out of the dryer in the basement if I want a clothed bed to sleep in, and I have written all but two sequences of this story, and drunk a very large and delicious gin martini and eaten a serving of pork dumplings, and tomorrow is another day, and this one was pretty damn good.

Light to all.

In the word mines: the open sea, with some charts, and the firmament

Well, I seem to have got off my blogging regimen just a little bit, after a brief spate. But I’m not all that sorry, because I have been writing. The odometer on “Household Lights” just clicked over 30,000 words, and I feel pretty good about them.

And naturally, there was a good reason why I was stymied several days earlier. Several of the elements I had envisioned for the story, when brought together, had a chemical reaction I hadn’t prepared for, and the anticipation of the decisions I would have to make had slowed my roll. But, after some chat with a couple of betas, and an exciting new idea, I started to write my way into the new reality.

I remarked to Erica afterwards that I didn’t often write to find out what happens, but that I was definitely doing so in this case, and she said, “Oh god, I write to find out what happens all the time.” It’s interesting to me how different people’s processes can be: I dream and mentally storyboard nearly everything before ever putting down a word — and usually the first thing I write isn’t the first thing, it’s a thread of conversation I found to pull in service of some character interaction or plot turn. I amass a clutch of jotted passages, some of which are barely-scaffolded strings of dialogue and some of which are fully-blocked scenes, and then at some point I take the plunge and start writing the opening. Usually, when I get to the already-written material, it fits in well as-is. Sometimes it needs tweaking. Rarely do I have to throw away any pre-written scenes, but it has been known to happen.

For “Household Lights” I have three pre-written passages to work into the remaining sequences, and (by current count) seven sequences left to write. That will probably work out to about 20k more words, now that I’ve charted my new territory somewhat.

What’s interesting about the developments of this story is the knock-on effects it will have on what I’m still calling Book 2. (That makes “Household Lights,” like, what, 1.5 or something? I haven’t decided. I think Ann Leckie — or at least, Goodreads — did something similar with her short, um, ancillary material to her Ancillary Justice trilogy, and there’s a good story you should definitely read. And you can tell just how effectively she interrogated the domination system from the inside by how livid it made worshippers of domination. I could only aspire to that kind of effectiveness; but I digress.) Some themes I had planned to address in Book 2 demanded to be treated in this story, which on the one hand may alter some of my pre-written scenes for it, but on the other, may clear a lot of ground ahead of time and save me some wordage down the line. So as Bob Ross says, we don’t make mistakes in our world; we just have happy accidents.

So, it’s back to work with me. Tea, sunrise, a dusting of snow outside, and an open document in here. Heigh-ho.

Best of Blog: friendship essays

Back when I started the project that became Ryswyck, I felt pretty lonely talking about friendship as a driving moral imperative in stories. Now, though, my friends link me to Twitter discussions of friendship as an Actual Love, and big-name bloggers are tagging friendship as the stuff to give the troops, as Bertie Wooster would say.

So I decided to file some of my past posts on the subject as Best of Blog articles on this site. (The Writer and Eucatastrophe also technically counts as a best of blog article, but since it’s as close to a manifesto for this site as I’m ever going to write, it gets its own menu link.) Eventually I’ll probably add more posts from the ol’ catacombs, but this is obviously the most pressing and relevant topic, so here they are:

Let the Circle Be Unbroken: Friendship and eros in stories, originally published 12/31/13

and its later sequel

Friendship, Eros, and some notes on the Queen’s Thief series, originally published 5/24/17.

(I note that the tone of these articles, especially the first, is rather defensive; years in fandom has exposed me to a lot of shipping drama, and if you’re going to come out and say you prefer gen stories rather than erotic ones, you have to hedge it all around with assurances that you’re not some kind of purity freak, or outright homophobe for that matter. Let’s just say for the record that the Nutrition Facts on this site do not include either purity freakage or homophobia.)

By the way, if you have not yet discovered Megan Whalen Turner‘s Queen’s Thief books, you are so in for a treat. I can’t even remember who put me on to these books (probably R.J. Anderson, but it’s lost in the mists of time), but they are fabulous, clever, innovative, compelling, and witty and you should go read them right now (while you’re waiting for Ryswyck to come out).

There, I think that will do it for today.