So, I agreed to do this blog hop thing. (Two, if you want to be technical about it.) Because I don’t have enough to do with my time anyway, right? -_-
But, actually, it’s an interesting idea: One receives questions on the writer’s process, or reasonably related issues, from other people; answers those questions, links back to the person who asked the questions, and then asks questions of still more people. As Matt Moore rather rightly put it, it’s alike to an SFnal Ponzi scheme. Only, as I will note, without scamming people, or, really, any interaction with money.
(–Much like the rest of the publishing industry…. Too soon?)
The lack of monetary interest in any capacity making it somewhat less interesting, I grant you. But, nevertheless, I have agreed to take on two sets of these questions. And thus I am answering both together, because I can.
Also, given everything else I have been doing around making time to answer these questions, I have not had time to gather other people unto this web of non-monetary chain letter mailing.
So take that chain-letter equivalent writer meme! From Hell’s-n0t-at-all-reimbursing-heart-I-stab-at-thee!
And now on to an actual vague form of point:
The first set of questions was given to me by Robert Runté, who has provided the following bio:
Robert Runté is an Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge, and Senior Editor with Five Rivers Publishing. His editing blog is http://sfeditorca.blogspot.ca/
Robert’s questions to me, and my answers, follow:
You recently said, “my writing process is terrifying if you’re not me”. I’m keen to know what you meant by that. What exactly is your writing process, and why is it terrifying?
Robert’s actually being somewhat discreet with that question. The exact line he’s quoting is from the e-mail exchange we had about doing this wherein I said “My writing process is fucking terrifying if you’re not me.” Which is true. This is because, unlike all of the writing advice you will ever hear, I eschew the idea of enacting standard writing practice. Or, structuring same. Or indeed having anything that actually resembles an identifiably repeatable process.
I suggest that this is terrifying for many because enacting or creating structure is an excellent way to create order for many writers and keep themselves writing regularly. (This is part of the reason many writers suggest you write every day.)
For my part, I have little interest in order. I work full-time freelance. And I still manage to write. But I don’t do it at a given time of the day. Nor for set lengths. I do it when I have time between other things, when there is something I want to write, or when I am staring down a deadline. I am much more comfortable writing at all hours, not being fixed to one schedule or another, and the writing is not this monolithic thing that absolutely must be done. I am not of the “I shall write when the mood strikes me, or the muse calls to me, and only then” variety of writer either. I am also one of those people who will stop writing in the middle of a sentence, nap briefly, wake up, and continue writing.
If cats wrote fiction they would write fiction the way I write fiction. Tell me that’s not a terrifying thought.
Ultimately, it’s a very fluid process and it works inordinately well for me. I do not begin to imagine that this would be ideal for anyone but me. And if you want some free writing advice, here’s how that applies to you: Everyone has their own individual process. For some, scheduling is an effective tool. For others, fitting writing in around other things works best. And anything and everything in between, or hell and gone from those things, is perfectly fine if that works for you and it allows you to actually get writing done.
And, yes, revising counts as part of writing. So if people are telling you you’re doing this writing thing wrong, or you’re focusing too much on one aspect over another, you tell them to go fuck themselves right and proper.
Nobody gets to dictate to you how you should write but you. And even you need to, sometimes, just shut up, stop talking to yourself about it, sit down and fucking write.
You know. As works best for you.
Where on the “just sit down and write <–-> detailed notes /outline” continuum do you fall? Do revise as you go, or first draft and then revise? Any routines or rituals that need to be followed?
See how I segued so nicely into this question? Huh? Huh?
In addition to the part of this question I answered above, I will add this: I’ve employed both of those forms of writing in the past. I will employ both in the future. Each project requires something different. Sometimes one of those named approaches. Sometimes a hybrid thereof. Sometimes something hell and gone from anything resembling process.
And the same is true of revising. My internal editor is never “off.” I revise as I go, but there are times when I will mostly get through draft work and then go back and revise instead of doing it as I go. Again, it’s about fluidity, not a fixed approach.
And by the same token I’m not much of one for ritual. When it’s dark outside I tend not to turn lights on while I’m writing. (Makes it easier to nap naturally, wake up and continue writing.) But beyond that I don’t really require anything specific to write. I can write in public if need be. On the road. At home. Wherever. I do tend to require an increased intake of food when writing, or editing. And/or post-writing/editing. I assume this is because my body is in a rather literal sense looking to fuel the process.
And now, before this devolves into a discussion about food, onward to the next question!
Your blog/Facebook feed is one of my favourites because you often give your readership a pretty clear picture of an editor’s reactions to submissions. Your commentary often makes me laugh, but it also makes me think–and occasionally to rethink one of my own stories. How does your experience as an editor influence your own writing?
Setting aside momentarily my brilliant (brilliant I tells you! *jazz hands*) deconstruction of work in non-specific, non-attributable, absolutely contextless, uh … context … of Apex submissions on Facebook as a teaching tool to answer the actual question:
Editorial experience is one of those things that will vastly influence the way in which you approach your own work as well as everyone else’s, so, yes, it definitely impacts my writing. Partly in the way I approach doing the actual work, and partly in terms of how I assess what I’m doing before and after. Critical self-assessment is all but impossible, or at least the accurate use of critical exegesis applied to one’s own work is fraught with filters, blinders, and a couple of figurative eighteen-car-pileups sitting between you and actually seeing what you’re doing in an unbiased fashion. But, eventually, and often following sufficient writing, editing, or reviewing, critical theory applied to one’s own work becomes all but second-nature once one has spent enough time applying that critical approach elsewhere.
That’s probably part of the reason I’m not terribly fond of the notion that one must refrain from editing one’s work while writing. Or, really, all of these imperative understandings and usages of writing theory. One is far better off just going with what works for oneself. Worth bearing in mind, too, that all of the “Yea, I cast these scraps of wisdom down upon ye from the mountaintop of literary excellence” exclamations are what worked specifically for the person espousing them. And individual method is precisely that: what worked for that person discussing it.
Wider application of same is possible, sure, though not always ideal, nor always necessary. And decidedly not always advisable.
To each their own (process) and benefiting much moreso from it.
At the risk of asking a really stupid question, do you think that your gender fluidity influences your writing process at all? Which is to say that as an editor and thesis supervisor, I’ve found that male and female writers/students often seem to approach the task differently, and that I have to adjust my feedback and advice accordingly. Hopefully I’m being responsive to individual needs, not sexist, but I’d be curious to know if you’re conscious at all of gender in how you write?
It’s not a stupid question, just one I’m not entirely certain I can answer. And whose basis I will also deconstruct now.
Gender fluidity is much more about liminal than fixed states, or being in any one understanding of gender or another. It’s a spectrum of aspects of gender identity that are commonly applied, in social understandings, in binaries elsewhere. I’m also vaguely wary of assigning gender binaries to writing and editing practice, generally or in specific terms.
Not least of all because the individual’s process always trumps gender performance, experience, or purported inclination. But also because binary gender performance is a very tricky concept to map. Who is the base template in that instance? To whose performance do we hold all others? What characteristics specifically make that individual more archetypally “female” or more archetypally “male” than another, and to which culture’s binary ideal are you working? Indeed, why is the heteronormative binary, of whatever culture, the ideal basis in that situation? And at the point at which you identify those elements as a function of a spectrum of behaviours why would you not then move beyond mapping those elements within the single chosen cultural context.
There may be cultural crossover in terms of gender performance (there almost certainly is), but gender behaviour is a learned concept, not an inherent one.
Specifically, take what Robert is discussing here: a culturally derived prevalence for Western, in this case North American approaches, to male and female applications of gender in relation to expected actions. A large part of that is cultural inculcation, with shades of familial inculcation as well, all tangled up in socio-economic and socio-political factors.
Those factors would have to be disassembled, we would have to culturally unlearn those systematized behaviours, and redefine from scratch a global template of multi-faceted gender fluidity on or across a very wide spectrum before that question would really be an applicable one. Add to the mix the fact that gender fluidity is, always, in itself, a non-binary attribution of state and performance, so you cannot comfortably define it along an A-B axis.
On a less involved note, and removing this from process and the gender identification of the writer (somewhat), there are ways to discuss applied male/female balances in fiction (both in terms of representation and input), and in how those choices to represent binary states are used, and why. Also how we subvert those understandings, and whether we do so in binary or non-binary terms. And why.
Specifically, we could discuss gender flipping/gender reorientation in the writing of fiction: the act of looking at how one has chosen to write a character and then deciding to make them something other than originally intended. We often discuss it in binary terms (which “flip” directly implies) as a function of basic gender studies theory, though we certainly don’t have to. And non-binary understandings of gender orientation give us a much more actual and natural approach to a decidedly non-fixed system of representations and actions. Which provides us a much better spectrum of approaches to exploring and examining cultures, gender identities, and sexual identities that we would not normally approach.
I am decidedly of the opinion that writers should stretch beyond the standard characterizations they would normally write, and should challenge themselves to write characters with whom they do not share backgrounds or identities (not at the expense of writing characters like themselves, which is a necessary thing in order to create discussion and dialogue, especially where non-Western narratives and people of colour are concerned given the inordinate amount of time the majority of Western literature spends discussing white, heteronormative stories) in order to better understand others through the act of attempting to properly represent them in fiction.
And in light of the inevitable discussion of cultural appropriation in that context, it’s worth remembering that cultural appropriation is the failure of respectful, comprehensive, and astute representation of someone else’s culture or identity. Writing other cultures, other understandings, and moving beyond one’s own identity in respectful, well-crafted, intelligent and considered terms? That’s just called writing fiction.
And speaking directly to writing fiction, I think the answer to this question could best be served by saying that I write fiction conscious of the genders and gendering (in all contexts of that usage) that I am applying in my fiction. And I do so attempting to discuss, from story to story, vastly different identities and intents rather than writing from my own experience or identity in each piece. Which would actually be quite boring, for both myself and the reader, when you come right down to it. So I think this works out much better.
As a critic I’ve focused on Canadian content and how it distinguishes Canadian authors from American or British or Russian or whatever. How conscious, if at all, are you of writing Canadian fiction, of exploring Canadian tropes or themes?
I rather imagine Sinclair Ross would weep at the paucity of time I spend writing about people standing in wheat fields and windswept plains, awash in the inevitably wind-snatched curl or haze of cigarette smoke.
Which is no bad thing.
And my inevitable bashing of Sinclair Ross aside, my problem with the ultimate basis of this question is that Canadian themes in fiction are generally viewed through a couple of rather distinct, and as far as I’m concerned highly inaccurate, lenses. Speaking both to speculative and literary understandings of Canadian fiction.
The archetypal depiction of Canadian fiction is the landscape of Ross’s prairies. Of Munro’s quiet, painfully human interactions in miniature. Of Atwood’s gender politics and speculations on the human condition as evolving state. Alongside the Canadiana of Ondaatje, of Montgomery, of Davies, of Laurence, of Choy, of Mowat, and so on.
But that list, and others like it, primarily represents the literary mainstream, sometimes moving into interesting territory, other times somewhat more stagnant. And often, though not always, addressing Canada as a homogeneous and cohesive entity. (Which the country absolutely is not and cannot ever be–even before we get into discussions of Canada as the so-often-addressed multicultural nation, and how that works in theory and how that works on the ground–the disparity of those states existing because of Canada’s difficult, shifting, often fraught, and largely xenophobic history while the cultural landscape of Canada’s leadership and internal socio-political view has moved back and forth between outright bigotry and grudging acceptances of everyone who is not lily-fucking white.) And we do that because Canadian literary culture sees itself in very specific terms, and has long been at war with itself about what is the right and proper way of seeing and defining Canadianness. Which is about as elusive, and ultimately fictional, a value as you will ever find.
Now, Robert’s question may have been addressing speculative fiction, but the book and writing culture in Canada primarily addresses our literary (and, admittedly, journalistic as well) mainstream because that is how we choose to present ourselves, in literary terms, to the world: as the literature of the quiet, the internal, the reflective. Until we hit Canadian military history, of which we are fiercely proud, and tend to speak quite vocally.
Nevermind the fact that we have always had some very loud and delightfully brash voices kicking around this country’s literary history in all concerns. But, no, we’re the quiet neighbour, the one where all that multiculturalism comes to the fore and where we get to define ourselves as making it work, despite that fact that we generally fall down hard on multicultural policy and the follow through of inclusiveness on a political, social, and, yes, literary, level.
And sometimes we get it right. We’re just not that fictional ideal we have of ourselves.
I mean, ideally, our literary landscape is vast and far-reaching, but the Canadian speculative tendencies, like the mainstream ones, are ultimately rooted in shared ground. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. But one cannot feasibly escape one’s antecedents, and there is as in most things a need to be in conversation with what has come before, and good reason for that. Though it cannot be at the expense of what must come after, or going forward.
And I’m honestly not sure where Canadian speculative fiction falls on that spectrum right now. I can think of examples where we’re doing it well, and examples where we’re really not.
Ideally, too, I tend to resist speaking specifically about Canadian fiction, speculative or otherwise, as being a thing unto itself for the same reason I am uncomfortable with the idea of creating any literary divisions along national lines, or via the nationalities of writers. Great for archiving, research, and national pride; bloody lousy for everything else. In spite of the import of having connection with one’s cultural roots, literary nationalism is a very divisive approach to creating fiction, and it moves away from the idea and the ideal of multiculturalism that we want so badly to embody in Canada. It compartmentalizes us, and forces Canadianness itself to become a factor in evaluating the work we choose to examine. Look at the recent flap over Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Discussions of Canadianness overtook the actual conversation about the quality of the book. It has pros and cons like any other book. Said strengths and weaknesses should have been central to the discussion. Were they? No. The discussion devolved entirely into one of nationalism and proof of sufficient identity. And I’m more than a little concerned that many of the people arguing vociferously for the protection of Canadian nationalism in literary identity weren’t entirely aware of the isolationist and xenophobic grounding of their arguments. Not to mention that I guarantee you the tone of that argument would have been very different (less immediately and easily dismissive of her work) if Catton were a man.
And in a vague attempt to move away from that massive argument looming just off page, and also in an attempt to actually wrangle this point back to the question that spawned it, I am aware that there are Canadian tendencies to my own work; not least of all because parts of it are set in Canada, and I do want to, as a writer, talk about the way loci in Canada function and shape the lives of the people I write about. But, by that same token, what I am addressing when I do so is how external cultures are shaped, or not, by the experience of being Canadian, and not. It’s convergence of internal and external narrative and culture that fascinates me, as much as inter-generational politics and relationships, damage (emotional or otherwise) and how it manifests, and the other things on which my own writing is focused.
And even having said that, I don’t really think there’s as much division in terms of theme, content, basis, or identity between Canadian fiction and any other national identity you choose to name, and certainly not in the distinctly discrete terms in which we discuss it. There’s actually far more variation in regional terms of Canadian fiction (speculative and non) than there is between the idea of Canadian fiction and extra-national fiction. Principally because the hegemonic Canadian identity is a fictionalized masthead we use to describe an incredibly disparate and varied country to people outside our borders. And the truth of the thing is that that’s really true of any country you look at: there’s also going to be regional differences and a fair spread of intent, approach, and literary concerns within a single country’s creation of fictional literary content.
Because societies are made up of individuals.
If this answer hasn’t demonstrated it clearly yet, I’m very wary of discussing Canadian identity at all. Especially as it’s represented in fiction. I enjoy reading the critique of and commentary on same, but it’s not as cut and dried as we like to make it out to be.
And I will add several things to that already vaguely rambling, possibly somewhat more argumentative than I had intended answer:
One, if we’re going to attempt to ascribe, in speculative or literary fiction, a voice to the last century of Canadian artistic endeavour (which you have to do in order to be able to discuss Canadian tropes, themes, and the feeling of being Canadian in the last century), then I say fuck it, let’s just start talking about the last century of Canadiana as the century of Leonard Cohen.
Two, we really need to move away from the accrued identity of the Canadian literary landscape in which we have ensconced ourselves. Thankfully, there is a fantastic host of Canadian authors through whom we can do that going forward.
There are vastly more names than I can cite here with reasonable brevity, but I can certainly begin by naming the people who are at this moment directly on my radar.
Writers of fiction speculative, literary, or as is vastly preferable to me given my taste in fiction: writers of hybrid states and intent. Writers like Suzette Mayr, Esi Edugyan, Sean Dixon, Leah Bobet, Cory Doctorow, Madeline Ashby, Karl Schroeder, Michael Rowe, Gemma Files, A.C. Wise, Indrapramit Das, Amal El-Mohtar, David Nickle, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Nalo Hopkinson, Hiromi Goto, Larissa Lai, Elaine Chen, Lynn Coady, Craig Davidson, Caitlin Sweet, Peter Watts…
And that list just keeps going. And it has blind spots. I am deeply involved in the Toronto literary community (mostly the speculative side thereof) and so that is where my focus tends to be.
Third, I will add that what we absolutely need to avoid in Canadian fiction is a stagnation of culture, or intent, or ideas. And we’re always on the brink of looking too internally, and part of that is that we try so hard to define our national identity that we end up writing to it instead of from it. (And I’m not even sure the latter is a good idea.)
And we’re making our way there awkwardly. There is a fuckload of literary (meaning all genres thereof) Canadian content from Confederation on that is going to be assigned to the trash heap of history. And a great deal of that rightly so. As with any body, or temporary canon, of literary work.
But I have high hopes for Canadian fiction and its future output. (In whatever context we define “Canadian,” or, indeed, if we even should.) Because I have faith in the excellence of the people writing fantastic (in all senses of the word) fiction who just happen to be Canadian.
–Is it not amazing the lengths to which I will go to avoid discussing my own work? Moving on.
Anything else you’d like to add on your writing process?
Oh, I think I’ve probably rambled on process, and a whole host of related and tangential points, quite long enough.
Now on to Matt’s questions!
Matt’s questions to me, and my answers, follow:
When did you know you wanted to be a writer. It must be a specific moment.
Does anyone ever actually have that epiphanic moment when you decide, irrevocably, that you will be a writer (cue meteor shower and trembling heavens)?
I certainly didn’t.
I can tell you that what spurred me on to wanting to write (though I’d been telling at times quite intricate stories, though not writing them down, since about the time I could talk) was reading Peter Beagle’s work, followed by Roger Zelazny’s. Then a host of other writers, principally Dorothy Parker. (Oh that language. That glorious gift of wit, and her tongue the poet’s scalpel.) What sealed the deal though was reading Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. My reaction to which was more or less: “Wait. One can do this?” And things more or less went from there.
I will also note that, yes, my early reading in speculative fiction was not as full of female writers as I would like. That came later. And my work was decidedly the better for finding them. Immensely so, in point of fact.
Which of your stories would you like to see come true?
None: I write principally horror.
Or, I suppose I could conversely argue that a number of the things I write are already true, since I write principally horror.
But, nevertheless, I’m not sure there’s anything I’ve written that it would be a good idea for to come true. It would be problematic as all holy hell. At best.
And I suppose we could also have a discussion about what constitutes “true,” and whether or not we’re discussing consensus reality, or revealed truths in the classical sense. Or the non-classical sense for that matter.
Actually, you know what? Let’s not have that discussion. Let us pretend I didn’t bring that up. Because that just … yeah … no. Once again: moving on.
A new writer comes to you and says “I feel like I should quit writing.” What do you say?
“Excellent. One less competitor.”
Actually, all joking aside, that question is fairly long and involved. It’s the kind of situation where you wander about on tenterhooks, because that statement can speak to anything from melodrama to meltdown. At one end of the spectrum you can just (figuratively) slap someone around for a while until they come to their senses, and at the other you need to be very careful to walk someone back from a sometimes proverbial, sometimes literal, edge.
Given that writing functions sometimes as a means of monetary support, sometimes as a means of self-expression, sometimes as a means of creating dialogue, and, really, a whole host of other things, in that situation one has to tease as much information as possible out of the writer in order to figure out how to respond to that.
There are also other factors to consider: Why is this person addressing this to me? I’m a comparatively invisible person in the field (despite all the varied things I do, I’m relatively in the background), so are they coming to me because they’re aware that I try to provide information and aid to others in the field where possible? Are they coming to me because they saw something I wrote online and feel a connection? Are they coming to me because they identified with something I wrote elsewhere, or even the fiction? Am I the nearest warm body?
All these factors make an inordinate difference. And the level of interaction is also part of what dictates the response.
And then there is the understanding of obligation, in humane context, and otherwise. How much am I able, willing, or, indeed, obligated to give of myself in order to fix this. This is me, so I will help if I can. But there are limits to what it is possible to do for other people. And sometimes it’s best to stop beating one’s head against a wall before one’s skull cracks open.
There is no one standard answer to that question. Except maybe for saying “Why is it that you think you should stop?” That at least gives you somewhere to start in terms of figuring out what’s necessary, and how to go forward with addressing that question, and getting someone the answer they need.
Also, honestly, I recognize that that question’s implicit subtext is “How do you get that person to keep writing,” and I’m aware that the following is probably not the answer everyone reading this wants to hear, but sometimes the act of writing itself is toxic. Sometimes it’s not a healing process. Sometimes it destroys you. And, yes, not everyone should be writing.
We have this vastly inflated understanding of what writing does, and many cultures have the implicit narrative that “Making art saves you.” That’s often not the reality of the thing. Making art can be a vastly destructive and harrowing thing. It’s what you do with the product of making or creating art (in whatever context) that creates lasting impact, and that can give you the meaning you’re looking for by creating art. The act of creation itself can be the end game, but it often isn’t. Especially if you want to engage in wider dialogue as a function or consequence of your art, whatever form it may take.
And pursuant to that: it’s important to remember that writing isn’t the only artistic outlet. And for all that we treat it like one, writing’s not a sacred, inviolable act. Nor should it be put up on a pedestal. There is excessive refinement and excellence of craft to be had if you’re up for working for it, but writing is a journeyman’s art. You learn your craft. You study it, and you never master it. It is a lifetime’s work. And if it feeds you, allows you to express yourself, and gives you the opportunity to connect with people, expiate whatever you need to cleave from yourself, or gives you something else you need, then that is worth pursuing and you continue doing it. But if it doesn’t, if it wounds you, isolates or damages you, or makes your life unlivable, then there are other avenues in this life.
And art is a far wider spectrum than we sometimes remember to discuss it as.
Reductio ad absurdum: There are an awful lot of answers to give to someone making that statement.
Twilight turned vampires into brooding, sexy teens. What’s the next monster (yes, MONSTER!) we should make sexy? And how?
Fuck it: The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Everything (or most everything) else has been turned into cryptozoological porn at this point, why not swamp monsters? Hell, we could make giant leeches sexy and someone would buy it.
“She hungered for him. He hungered for her. Once they found love he couldn’t let go, and she couldn’t tear herself away.”
I mean, really, we’ve had sexy vampires, sexy werewolves, sexy mummies, nymphomaniac bigfeet, and the less said about horny dinosaurs (pun intended) the better. And, really, I’m uncomfortable that this conversation slides into additional double entendres about merkin.
But I have brought this on myself.
Honestly though, if we’re going to talk about a re-envisioning of the tale of the Creature from the Black Lagoon in Twilight terms, and making him sexy in line with the Twilight … um … makeovers (?) of popular monsters, then we’d have to clean him up and make him look perfectly normal with maybe a set of hidden gills. Or maybe he would just magically breathe underwater. And always come up from the swamp looking like he’d just emerged from a swimming pool. I don’t know.
Ultimately, it would be far too facile.
Personally, I’d rather see a gender flipped monster narrative. Or genderbending. Or a QUILTBAG narrative. So many possibilities.
And if you want to play with the tropes, still subvert them beautifully, and just have excellent writing, especially with this narrative, then I can just point everyone in the direction of something like Jonathan Case’s Dear Creature, of which I am inordinately fond. And which succeeds ably on so many fronts.
I’ll happily take the complexity of that tale over the facile boredom of bringing Twilight-style “sexy” to classic monsters. Many of which already operate on actual, multi-layered, non-superficial allure in any case, and are much more interesting for it.
Well, friends, on that note we bring this blog hop to a close. Be saddened. Be overjoyed. Be terrified that you sat through all that.
Questions? Comments? Arguments? Toss them all into the comments below.