“Should Writers ….?”

Today’s Grouchy Blog Post is brought to you by the following tweet:

To which question I shout the lawyer’s answer: IT DEPENDS!!

I am getting kind of tired of (and I know it won’t go away, which is why this is a Grouchy Post) people framing questions about writing and writers as though the world is either A or B and can’t be both. Some critics can be good novelists; some can’t. Some writers can be good novelists; some can’t. There are writers who are good novelists who can still write a crappy book.

Writing is not either laws of physics or rules of etiquette. There are things in this world that one shouldn’t or can’t do. Don’t feed your cats a vegan diet (cats are obligate carnivores and will die). Don’t drive drunk. Don’t mix chlorine bleach and ammonia. Don’t jump off a cliff and expect to live. Don’t build a moon lander with toothpicks. Don’t put a bare wire into a socket. Don’t use the wrong sized washer on the faucet or it will continue to leak.

Humans in general are not happy with ambiguity or lack of clarity. As a species, we want rules. We will accept things without questioning because questioning is uncomfortable or dangerous. Rules provide order and predictability. And rules for writing that have developed over the years are worth paying attention to; they’ve developed, because they work.

But writing is not like building a house. Critics and readers (in a free society) are not inspectors coming in to see if the book is built to code. There’s not some list of rules that must be followed to avoid fines, prison terms, or lawsuits. Nor does writing require four years of trade school/apprenticeship and union membership.

There is not a Writing Constitution that must be adhered to. Talking about what writers should or shouldn’t do (Should Christians write fantasy? Should genre writers avoid MFA programs? Must writers read all the books on X list? Should celebrities not write children’s books?) limits writers in unhelpful ways. Further, framing questions as what writers should or should not do avoids the interesting parts of the questions.

Instead of asking closed questions such as “Can critics be good novelists?” let’s ask open-ended questions. What skills used in criticism are also used in writing novels? When does a training in criticism get in the way of taking a writing risk? How does a critic react when she finds herself writing in a style she has condemned? Where is writing a novel similar to making an argument? These answers are going to vary from person to person, and even from time to time in the same person, so the questions stay open-ended. The conversation can continue.

Even if there were a Writing Constitution, there would still be questions of interpretation. Universal agreement on one rule is not the same as agreement of application of the rule. “A good novel must have parts A, B, and C” leaves plenty of room for questions about whether A, B, and C are in the book at all, are used effectively if they are used, and whether the book is actually good.

If law were clear-cut, there would be no need for lawyers, just judges. It’s not. That’s why legal arguments can be made. We can agree as a society, “Do not murder.” But is lying in wait for someone with a gun the same as killing a person when driving too fast? Is it the same as losing one’s temper and grabbing a handy rock? What if the person lying in wait is a soldier in war? What if the person who grabbed the rock is an abused woman in fear of her life? In all these cases, the victim is just as dead. But the killers are treated differently under the law.

Imagine the kinds of arguments that would be made under a Law of Writers.

Writing is personal, uncertain, and ambiguous. An exploration of the uncertainty of writing provides a much richer field for thought and conversation than the imposition of a set of strictures does. Let’s celebrate ambiguity and possibility instead of living by building codes.

In Which I Don’t Talk About the Hugos

In SFF circles, there’s been a lot of public talk about the Hugo Awards. Public talk generally means controversy, name-calling, and unhappiness. My public response to the Hugos was to tweet a picture of Puck as a kitten.


I’m not going to talk about the Hugos here either. (Stefan Raets at Far Beyond Reality has been compiling posts if you’re interested.) Instead I’m going to talk about why I am not talking about the Hugos. It’s because I find the various forms of online media communication counterproductive to meaningful resolution.


Communication is a messy business.


We live in a culture that has become used to making arguments in short online bursts without the benefit of body language and often without time for consideration of the issue. When we are faceless, we seem to revel in telling other faceless people they are stupid, bigoted, wrong, self-righteous, gatekeepers, ignorant, insensitive, uneducated, wacko, and on and on and on. Kindness, courtesy, and thoughtfulness go out the window. We are ring-wraiths, invisible and pitiless.


There’s a concept in tort law called the “eggshell plaintiff.” If you negligently leave a ladder where someone can trip over it, an elderly plaintiff is likely to be more injured than an athlete. But saying an athlete wouldn’t be hurt doesn’t keep you from being found negligent to the elderly person. You can’t blame the victim for being easily broken; you have to pay the consequences.

A lot of online interactions consist of leaving ladders out where someone can trip over them. There’s no knowing whether you’re going to trip an athlete or a senior citizen. Something that might not seem dangerous can cause a lot of damage.


In law school, I took a course on settlement and a course on mediation. There are two things I learned in these classes that influence my feelings about online communications: first, getting to a settlement or resolution take time and preparation. Mediations in law go on for hours. Settlement conferences require statements of the issues to be prepared for the judge and opposing party prior to the conference, so there is time to read and think about the opposing position and go in with (ideally) well-considered arguments of one’s own. Law is an area where people argue, but there are rules and structures for the arguments. There’s a reason court cases take months or years.

Second, for the mediation or settlement session to be successful instead of a dead-end or stalemate, the parties have to feel heard. When people don’t feel heard, they get louder and louder and stop listening themselves. When they really feel heard, they are ready to give something back. Receiving a genuine apology can matter more than compensation or “making things right.” If you’ve ever argued your way through levels of customer service and finally got to someone who “understood the problem,” you’ve experienced “being heard.” It is a relief.

Tweeting and blog-commenting don’t lend themselves to either of these points.


Online communications are short on time. Points have to be made in a hurry or they become stale. So they get made with a jerk of the knee and not with lengthy consideration or preparation.

And it’s a damn hard to feel heard online. Part of the reason it’s hard is that public commenting or tweeting is shouting from the rooftop. You can’t tell who really hears it. Furthermore, all your neighbors are shouting from their rooftops too. Part of the reason is that embarrassment, shame, or fed-up-ness, emotions which are easily generated online, can lead to retreat from the whole process. Part of the reason is that public outrages feeds on itself and discussions turn into attempts at conquest.


But here’s the thing: winning is not the same as being heard.


As part of my mediation class, I observed a mediation. I was supposed to observe an entire day of mediation in action, and instead I got mediation-bust; the attorney for one party had already filed an appeal of the lower court decision, meaning that he no longer was invested in anything but winning, and the parties broke off after the court-ordered minimum hours. But even with only two hours, my take-away from the session was that the parties could have got somewhere if they had been allowed by the attorneys to have more time to work it out. The presenting issue was a matter of money; it swiftly became obvious that what was at issue were much deeper emotional conflicts.

Each side’s story was convincing when I heard it alone.

Each party was trying to do what they saw as the right thing. They thought they had been treated unfairly, but they were not out for vengeance or to humiliate the other party. They were decent people in a bad situation.

Someone won that case. A decision was handed down by a court of appeal and was presumably abided by. But from what I saw in those two hours, I doubt the winning side felt a whole lot better.


I’m going to end with some of Gandalf’s wiser words:

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy, not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”

We don’t have to throw the ring of online communications into the fire. But let’s try a little harder to be hobbits and not wraiths.

Blog-Hop on Writing Process!

Today’s post is a blog-hop post, with questions that writers are answering around the web. I was linked in to the process by Patricia Bracewell, who shares both an agency and an editor with me. Patricia is the author of the historical novel Shadow on the Crown, about 11th century English Queen Emma of Normandy. Check out her blog at http://www.patriciabracewell.com/blog/.

So, without further ado, here are the questions and my answers.

1) What am I working on?

The major project in the hopper right now is a sequel to Moth and Spark, but I don’t want to say a whole lot about it because it’s still very much in process and things keep changing. I will let on that it’s set about 6 months later and features many of the same characters, although everyone is considerably less shiny. The big fun new writing part of it for me is having chapters set in the point of view of the villain.

I’m also starting to play around with a near-future SF novel that starts out looking like a dystopian YA and swiftly turns into a meta-narrative with a collection of texts, somewhat like Margaret Atwood did in The Handmaid’s Tale, where Offred’s narratives were the subject of a scholarly conference. The only thing I know for sure at this point is that the major dystopia event is another, much larger, Dustbowl and other consequences of climate change.


2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

In a lot of ways my fantasy is not terribly different from other traditional fantasy. I think the two big differences in Moth and Spark are first, that the setting is more of a early Industrial Age (say 1800) than faux Middle Ages – it’s not steampunky, but there are hints. Second, my female protagonist, Tam, is smart. I didn’t really realize this was a difference until I started getting so many reader comments about how refreshing and unusual it was to read about a woman whose greatest strength is her intelligence. She doesn’t have to show herself strong by swinging a sword with the boys or seducing people – she is very observant and quick to put pieces together.


3) Why do I write what I do?

I wrote a fairly long post recently about why I write fantasy, so I’ll keep this short – fantasy and other spec fic is for me about possibility, not just world-building but also a deeper world-view that here is a place to find wonder.


4) How does my writing process work?

Mostly it’s been a throw it at the wall and see what sticks sort of process. I am working on using plot outlines in advance more, but an awful lot of my output is still stuff that I didn’t expect to write when I started the scene. Nothing ever comes out exactly as it is in my head. I do a lot of revising as I go. This is not very efficient – I cut a lot – but it does allow for unexpected outcomes or twists that take the story somewhere new and interesting.


And now, I pass the questions on to 3 other writers: Rosemary Claire Smith, Martin Spernau, and Anne Lee Carpenter. Their posts will be up in a week, on April 21. Check back then to see what these interesting people have to say!

Rosemary’s blog is at http://rosemaryclairesmith.wordpress.com. Rosemary writes science fiction and fantasy stories.  Her work draws on her training as an archaeologist and showcases her interests in dinosaurs, time travel, folklore, mythology, aliens, and genetic engineering. She has published four short stories and has a new one about zombies coming out in May!

Martin’s blog is at http://traumwind.de/tindertraum/. A poet of the multi-verse, Martin Spernau’s palms show two parallel life-lines, one of which is fading as he loses his physical sight, while the other shows his ability to portray the whimsical science of the fantastic with true insight and vision. His story “No Thing Harder Than Bone” appears in THEME-THOLOGY: New Myths.

Anne’s blog is at http://suniemianne.blogspot.com. Anne is a writer, photographer and performer interested in interdisciplinary work who has trained at The Studio Theater in DC.  She is interested in exploring the uses of dialogue and how ideas and experiences effect us and the world around us, and in fine and performing arts work.

Why I Write Fantasy

One of the questions I’ve been getting asked lately is why I write fantasy. I’ve been replying with something that is not exactly a canned answer but does repeat things I’ve said previously. This response has three major parts: 1) That was what I read growing up; fantasy was my first literary love; 2) I enjoy world-building; 3) I like talking about big themes such as power or justice, and fantasy makes it easy to do this. A variation on this answer is escapism: when I read, I want to be somewhere else entirely, which is why I also like reading historical fiction and 19th century fiction. So I write to escape too.

But while these answers are completely true and accurate, there’s a way in which they dance around the core question, which is why does a fantasy world appeal to me in the first place. I suspect a lot of writers give similar answers no matter what they write; people generally write what they love, all fiction writers engage in world-building in their own way, and there’s plenty of room in realism and other “genres” to think about big ideas. So why is fantasy my sandbox?

It’s easy to identify what is not the answer to the question. For example, it’s not just the presence of magic or myth. Some books that combine magic with the “real” world bore me, because the magic is integral to the plot but not to the core of the story. Take it out, and characters will mostly have the same experiences. You could put them in a different plot without losing anything. Conversely, I like fantasy that is very low-key on the magic elements; one of the things I like about the Game of Thrones series is that so much of it is politics and non-magical behavior. There’s a lot less magic in it than other epic fantasy series, yet I like it more. I could probably read a novel set in a completely made up world with no magic or gods or supernatural experiences – what might be called a historical novel about an imaginary world.

In some ways, writing historical fiction would satisfy a lot of the same urges: world-building, power and treachery and politics, and fun research into everything. It would even give me a ready-made plot, and plot is what I struggle with most. The week after Moth and Spark was published, I engaged in a public conversation (i.e. bookstore) with Patricia Bracewell, author of the historical novel Shadow on the Crown about the differences and overlap of fantasy and historical fiction. There’s much more overlap than there is difference.

But – and here’s the telling detail about me as a writer – after I read Pat’s novel, which is set in eleventh century England, I went to Wikipedia to get some basic historical background on the era she was writing about. I learned a lot I had never known about England, Normandy, and the Danes, including the fact that there was a short period in which England and Denmark had the same king. And instead of saying, Go write a novel about that period, my mind said, Wouldn’t it be a cool alternate history if they had never split back into two separate kingdoms? No William the Conqueror. No War of the Roses. No Elizabeth I. What would the world look like now? That’s a much interesting question to me than, What did the world look like then?

What this tells me is that I like fantasy because it is potential. I don’t mean this in the sense of creative world-building or in the sense that real historical facts could get in my way so I write fantasy to avoid them (I don’t); I mean that it’s a giant “What if?” It’s a thought experiment. It’s almost like being a small kid, when everything in the world is new and you don’t know what will happen when you try things. Inherent to fantasy is a sense of wonder. Wonder is one of the things that differentiates humans from other animals.

Wonder is not the same as escape. Escape is closing down, shutting off, throwing up barriers. Wonder is aspiration. People find it in all sorts of ways: religion, nature, music, daredevil sports. It’s a form of ecstasy – of being out of place, thrown out of self. (This is one of the oldest uses of literature and story – the flip side of ecstasy is catharsis.) And yet in some ways that moment of being selfless is the moment of most authentic self. Self-consciousness is a barrier to being.

I’m not going to go all philosophical now, though I am building a philosophy TBR pile in my head even as I write. The point is that for me, both writing and reading fantasy – even dark, bloody, unhappy fantasy – is where I have that moment of being lifted out of my self. It’s where instead of being aware of all the things that give shape to my daily life – family, money, view out the window, twitter – I experience limitlessness. Potential. Transformation. It’s the top of my pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

I want to try genres, to write science fiction and thrillers and historical novels and mash-ups of all of the above. That will keep me stimulated and growing as a writer. But I think I will always return to fantasy, because writing it is more than practicing my craft; it is practicing my self.


Before and After

Oh, this poor blog. There are cobwebs in the corners and patches of mildew on the ceiling, and I think raccoons may be nesting in the attic. I gave up even my feeble attempts at housekeeping a while ago. When I have to drive by it, I avert my eyes from the overgrown front yard. At least it is not as neglected as my LinkedIn profile, which is where unpromising graduate students in archaeology are sent to excavate for nothing…

One of the things I have learned in the last six weeks is that I am not a blogger, and I take my hat off to all of you people who do blog, who keep it up, who manage to have interesting things to say day after day. I was asked to do a number of guest posts to run on pub day, and they were exhausting. So I have come to the conclusions that to the extent I blog, it will be a random and intermittent blogging, and is more likely than not to feature me thinking aloud about writing problems.

All that said, I’m going to do a check-in/status update sort of post here on the Before and After of being a published novelist. Here are a few of the surprises:

* The most exciting moment was not seeing the books live in a bookstore, which was what I had always expected. The most exciting moment turns out to be when I got my agent – that was making it through the gatekeeper. That was hurdling the biggest challenge. The second most exciting moment was the offer, and the third was getting the galleys, seeing the book with a cover and a binding. I LOVE the finished copies (and people who are buying the e-book are really missing out on a beautiful, gorgeous book with a vellumy-like jacket and an embossed dragon on the front), but the jump from galley to finished copy wasn’t nearly as big as the jump from manuscript to galley.

* The culture of bloggers and reviewers is not something I was aware of before – it didn’t exist when I started writing or sending things out to publishers. I started out submitting before there was much of an Internet, before there was Amazon (that dates me), when the term “social media” hadn’t even been invented. So none of my publishing fantasies included things like Internet reviews or Amazon rankings or Twitter followers. It’s not exactly a huge paradigm shift, because publicity has always mattered to book sales, but the concrete, daily things I do to promote the book are nothing like I imagined they would be.

* The book is finished. Really finished. I can’t go back and make changes.  As I write or talk about Moth and Spark I get ideas for things I could do better, or that I would like to add, or different choices I could have made. I’ve never been in that position before. When I finished something and trunked it, it was done but not final. If I wanted to pull it back out and mess around, I could. (Of course I could do that with M&S, but it would be pretty pointless.) It’s very weird to have that sort of finality to something I’ve written.

* Readings and recorded interviews (as opposed to written Q&A’s) don’t freak me out nearly as much as I thought they would. I expected I would be too nervous to eat dinner the night of my first reading – no such problem. It turns out to be really easy to slip back into teacher mode, even though it’s been at least 15 years since I was in front of a classroom. Probably practicing law has something to do with that – it’s kind of hard to be scared of a group of friendly people after having had to answer questions from a judge. When I did my moot court argument in law school (this was a class, but in a real courtroom with real lawyers role-playing the justices), I had the experience of truly and completely blanking out and not knowing what I was going to say, followed by a couple seconds of panic. Answering questions about my own book from people who are interested in the answers just doesn’t compare for terror.

* My current writing has changed. Even though I am doing my best to avoid reviews, and I always try to write without thinking of the audience, I catch myself starting to make writing decisions based on what I think my real live audience would say. I think, People are going to hate this or If I do X, that will lose me readers, and so on. (These thoughts tend to be pretty negative, of course, rather than positive ones along the lines of something being really loved or wanted. Getting reviewed is kind of like wearing a dress with a spot on it to an important event; everyone else might compliment me on my looks and all I can think about is the spot. So that’s what crops up when I’m writing something new.) So far I’ve managed to put the thoughts aside for now and just do the best work I can, but it’s a new experience to know real people are reading and thinking about what I do – it stops me in places where I haven’t been stopped before.

* And I had no idea people were so into dragons. If I had known that I would have put them in my fiction years ago!


The first flush of publication is over, but there’s still a lot of settling out to do. The novel needs get past the blind-dating stage and land with the right people, and I need to do more than dabble my Twitter-toes in the communities of writers out there. I’m working on finding a balance between reading new and interesting books and writing without feeling derivative or overly-influenced. I have some thoughts on process, and the nature of story, and the incessant ripples and waves in the culture(s) around me, and so on that need to have time to grow and develop and eventually (maybe) be put in essay form. It often seems like there is never enough time to do all that I want to do, not even close to it, and my priorities keep shifting.

But no matter what, it is still an amazing, wonderful, precious thing to look at the book on my desk and know it is my book. I did it, after years and years and years of trying. (And we’re not talking four or five or even ten years here; Odysseus spent less time away from home than I have spent wanting to be a novelist.) I did it. And I’m proud of that.


Quote of the week

“Is he witty?”


“And good looking?”

“Very,” she said, remembering the kisses.  She felt color rise to her cheeks and hoped it was not noticed.

“And rich?”


“Oh, he must have lands, does he have good lands?”

“Tremendous amounts, thousands of acres.”

Alina gave a little false excited clap and said, “Tell us who he is, do.”

“It’s a surprise.”

Blogging update

I’ve been asked to write a number of guest blog posts to run later in the month, after pub day, so that’s going to take up all the blogging time that I would have for this blog. Here are some of the topics I’ll be writing about:

My education
The debut author thing
Fantasy language
Magic and worldbuilding generally
Moth and Spark particularly
Writing process

If there’s anything you’d like to see, please suggest it in the comments and I’ll add it to the list. I’ll put up links to the guest blogs as they run.

Quote of the week

“Did he practice the occult?”  That was a forbidden practice, not a fad, but a lord who would ask Liko to mesmerize him might well be lunatic enough to turn to the so-called dark forces for assistance.

“He hadn’t the mind for any kind of science,” Liko said contemptuously.  “Not even the dubious ones.”

“Conjury’s not science.”

“Tell that to someone who does it and he’ll tell you the laws of magic are more complex than optics.”

Quote of the Week

An eerie blue light flickered along the ridgetops.  Sometimes it flashed brightly, bleaching exposed granite into something as stark and lifeless as a full moon.  The ribbon of waterfall cascading down the cliffs at the eastern end of the valley caught the light and threw it back so that the mountain seemed to be splitting.  The sky was black and starry in the east, but the wind was blowing hard and cold.  Clouds were piling rapidly over the sea.

“What is it?” Corin asked.  He had been in the wizards’ valley before, but he had never seen such a light.

“Something is trying to get in,” said Kelvan.

Sword and Laser Recording

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of recording a video interview with Tom and Veronica of Sword and Laser, live in the studio. I got to emerge from the airlock next to the dragon with smoke steaming down on me, and we had a nice conversation that will be posted later.  They interviewed 12 people for this season, and I was thrilled to be included among really well-known and popular established writers (Joe Abercrombie, Elizabeth Bear, N.K. Jemisin, and Brent Weeks, to name a few). At this point it’s sort of a blur as to what we talked about — writing, the book, writing — but the questions were friendly and interesting, and it was a lot of fun to just talk about fantasy.  And I got to pet Lem the dragon:


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