Come Away: Some thoughts upon FROM UNSEEN FIRE’s release

Take my hand.

Trust me. I will not let you trip or lead you astray.

I know this path. I found it in the wilderness; I marked its stones and notched its trees.

Take my hand, and let me take you on a journey.

The road will wind and twist, and you may not be able to see around the curves. You may lose sight of the street we came from; you may not be sure what we walk towards. But take my hand, and look at the trees and the dappled sunlight. Hear the birdsong and the secrets whispered in the wind. Catch the scent of green life. Let your skin tingle. Step away from the world and out of yourself, or with yourself, or whatever you most need.

Take my hand, and take your time.

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This is how it feels, putting a book out into the world. From Unseen Fire hits shelves today, and I’m asking readers to go along with me, and I know what sort of a journey I’m asking of them. It’s not the simplest, smoothest path. It requires some investment, and it begs some faith. By some measures, it’s a lot to ask.

My favorite books have always been those which ask this of a reader. The ones that lead me off the garden path and into the deeper woods. Books to savor, books to live in, books that release both their secrets and their hold on the reader’s heart more slowly.

American Gods. Kushiel’s Dart. The Name of the Wind. In the Night Garden. A Game of Thrones. Sandman. The Bear and the Nightingale. Daughter of the Forest. Watership Down. The Lord of the Rings.

Books that take the reader on a journey. And now it’s my turn, to tempt you off the path and into the wilds, to duck beneath the hanging branches, to slip between the hedges, to beckon you along with me, to some unknown adventure.

Will you take my hand, and walk with me a while?

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Rooms of Our Own

I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit lately about writing communities — and particularly about those which are composed entirely or primarily of women (and, in many cases, transgender individuals and enbies).

As someone who was supposed to debut in 2017 and is now debuting in 2018, I belong to a few different groups of debut authors. None of them have any kind of gender requirement for entry, but all are primarily composed of women. In these groups, a joyous spirit of mutual admiration and celebration dominates. The gender split seems largely true, as well, for the writing community in the Twitter-verse. I don’t think it’s quite as pronounced there — these particular FB groups seem to run about 90-10, whereas the participants on hashtag games, I’d probably put more at 70-30 — but it’s still extant. And, on the whole, in the Twitter writing community, women seem more likely to favorite and RT each other, more likely to turn a single tweet into a discussion. I’d be incredibly interested to see a sort of connection map to visualize that: I suspect that the womenfolk would have more connections and more extensively interconnected networks than the men.

Recently, a new member joined one of the FB groups — a member who happened to be male. Without ever having contributed to group discussion or helping to promote the other members, he began posting several items a day to promote himself. There was an air of assumption — and an obliviousness to how the group operates. Certainly there was no sense of contribution, no indication that he would be lifting others up as he expected to be lifted. It was… jarring. Didn’t he know how we behave? What would make him think that behavior was okay? Didn’t he realize how rude, ham-handed, presumptuous that was?

The thing of it is, though, I’ve just gotten used to the delightful nature of these particular groups. Some other groups I belong to but rarely spend time in are much larger and have a much higher percentage of male participants. These are places where promotion is a self-driven free-for-all, not a cooperative game. There is no expectation of mutual exchange. They tend to be un- or lightly-moderated.

I don’t spend as much time in they because the conversations tend to be unnecessarily combative. Threads get started that can only be described as “shit-stirring”, and a lot of time they’re retreading the same tired topics. (The one that really makes me want to light my hair on fire is “Do you really have to be a reader to be writer?”, which rolls around every few weeks. The answer is yes, and it’s not even a question in the groups that are populated with more pros than amateurs). Blanket assertions get made. A lot of opinions get stated as inviolable fact. Condescension rains down. As a result, these groups aren’t a lot of fun to be in; I confess, I’m really only in them out of a desire to make my name as Seen as possible pre-launch.

Is it always the male members starting trouble in these groups? No. But 9 times out of 10, yeah.

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This is, of course, not to denigrate the guys I know who are lovely and supportive and generous. The smaller, cooperative FB groups have some excellent menfolk who have participated in conversations, organized promotions, and celebrated everyone’s successes. The Twitterverse has dudes who not only engage in conversations sensibly and respectfully, but who will step in when they see some other dude being a jerk and set their bros straight.

But then, they don’t need me to point that out. They know I’m not talking about them (don’t y’all?). Take the Sirens conference, for example. Last year I think there were all of three cis men there. Those guys were totally welcome, and the best part was, not a one of them abused that. They all understood that they place they were in was not for them. It was not designed with them in mind. Quite the opposite, in fact. They all understood that they were guests in a non-male-focused space, and they all behaved like polite guests ought to. They didn’t monopolize conversations. They didn’t mansplain. They listened. Sometimes they asked questions. But they never tried to assert themselves over others. And it was awesome. Towards the end of the con, several different women commented something to the effect of “Wow. I just realized I went four days without hearing the words ‘Well, actually’.” The relief was palpable.

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Anyway — This recent incident got me thinking: Why do these female-dominated groups have such a tendency towards compassionate discourse, willing cooperation, and enthusiastic cross-promotion?

The one possible answer of “Women are naturally more sociable/compassionate/cooperative” would take a lot of unpacking, positing theories of evolutionary psychology against the massive weight of cultural norms and societal conditioning. A worthy exploration, perhaps, for someone with a more scientific brain than my own.

But I also think there’s an aspect of: Female authors behave like this because we have to.

What I’m talking about, really, isn’t the behavior of any individual man as much as the gender disparity in these groups. Far fewer men seem to feel the need to congregate in such a tight-knit fashion, where mutual advocacy is either an explicit or unspoken component of the group. Many, many women do, because we have to. Our publishing survival depends on it.

Male authors are still more likely than female authors to get the heavy marketing arm behind them. They’re more likely to land reviews from major publications. Male-heavy genres (“literary” fiction, thrillers, academic nonfiction) are treated, on the whole, as “worthier” than female-heavy genres (romance, historical fiction, creative nonfiction, the bulk of YA). I’ve talked about these pervasive schisms before. In SFF, despite how many women are writing in it — talented women, writing innovative and visionary novels — it’s still largely perceived as a male genre. Male authors are still the ones pointed to as the giants, the gold standard. Men still get the bulk of the attention.

 

Women don’t have the advantages that men — particularly straight white men — benefit from. So we band together. We aggressively affirm each other. We give each other the lift that the industry doesn’t always provide. Helping each other becomes sort of like herd immunity — we all become more visible by connecting with each other, and the more visible we are, the less easily we can be dismissed.

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And we can feel safe with each other. We can vent. We can admit ignorance and ask questions. We can be self-deprecating! A vulnerability it’s straight-up dangerous to expose in most male-dominated writing groups. For this, if nothing else, I’m glad we can carve out these spaces for ourselves, decide which male colleagues get invited in, and decide who plays nice enough to stay.

I love these spaces. They’re cozy. But at the same time, part of me wishes they weren’t so necessary, and another part really hates the feeling of surfacing from them.

Wonder Woman, Historical Fiction, and Fantasy Fulfillment

A few days ago, I finally saw Wonder Woman, and it was as delightful as the internet had promised me it would be. I want more movies like this. I want sequels. I want prequels that just focus on the Amazons kicking ass thousands of years ago. I want spin-offs. And I want more heroines, all over the place. More movies focusing on women as central characters, unapologetically, from all kinds of stories and backgrounds and cultures and facets of the multiverse. I want princesses and generals and princesses who grow up to be generals.

I love that the major sentiment women have expressed after seeing this film has been: “Is this how guys feel all the time?” What a powerful thing it is, to come out of a movie feeling like you can take on the world.

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This dovetails with another thought I’ve been having lately: how much articles like “Not in this day and age: when will TV stop horrendously airbrushing history?” and “Women writers must stop falsely empowering female characters in history” annoy the living daylights out of me.

The basic premise of these articles (both of which appeared this summer) is that women couldn’t express feminist ideals before feminism existed — that writers should stop ascribing “modern” viewpoints to pre-modern female characters. Apparently not wanting to marry a guy who makes you miserable is a “laughably liberal” 21st-century ideal.

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Let’s set aside that such complaints register a pretty narrow and (yes, I’ll say it, despite the esteemed source quote of one of those articles) uninformed view of women in history. I could point to example after example of women throughout time and across continents who demanded some degree of agency and control over their own destinies — and, in fact, I’m doing so over on Patreon!

And let’s also set aside that these complaints about ahistoricity are always centered on women‘s supposed societal transgressions: whether it’s sexual agency, domestic and economic power, disobeying their husbands, whatever, the thinkpieces always want to complain about women not behaving as they expect. Funny, isn’t it?, how the complaints about historical realism are never about suspiciously literate stable boys, the unlikelihood of landless rogues being able to afford the upkeep of warhorses, or the preponderance of male tavernkeepers in an age when brewing was a primarily female occupation.

But even if we grant the articles’ premise that modern historical fiction creates anachronisms in the independence/sexual agency/snarkiness of its female characters — Why in the name of Juno shouldn’t it?

Women are finally beginning to get their own degree of fantasy fulfillment in sci-fi and fantasy. Yet in historical fiction — a genre that has long placed female characters front and center, showcasing their emotional journeys — writers are disparaged for doing the same. Though, I suppose, it’s also worth noting that historical fiction is a genre where male authors have long been taken “seriously” and female authors have been dismissed with the same derision as romance novelists.

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I resent the implication that my modern fiction — the books I read and the shows I watch for pleasure, for personal enjoyment — shouldn’t reflect the sorts of heroines that modern women want to see and enjoy. I resent the implication that any girl discovering history through a fictional lens (as most of us do) should be denied the sorts of role models she deserves.

I’m a historian. A persnickety one, sometimes. I twitch when New World fruits and vegetables get mentioned in Old World stories. I flinch when I see patterned fabrics in pre-industrial-manufacturing societies (looking at you, Hobbits). I’ve spent hours combing my own manuscripts for words that wouldn’t be conceptually available to my characters, even though they’re speaking another language (it is shockingly difficult to discuss energy-based magic without the language of the atomic age — another upcoming Patreon post).

But let me state quite flatly: if my historical fiction features an unusually high proportion of smart, sassy women, I have no objection whatsoever. I’ve no doubt that some will take umbrage at the Vitelliae and their patriarchy-challenging transgressions — and I simply could not care less.

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Give me fantasy fulfillment in every genre — just as men get and have always gotten.

History in Fantasy

I read a pair of fun Tumblr articles today from The Writing Cafe: “Your Fantasy Story Is Bothering Me, Pt 1 and Pt 2“. Apart from being a good giggle, it reminded me of a personal thesis I have: that a good fantasy writer ought, too, to be a good historian. I think this is true even if you’re writing second world fantasy, not earth-based AUs, because what a solid grounding in history gets you is an awareness of how worlds work.

7263041032_31c992469e_zYou get perspective. No country exists in isolation. Recently I’ve been reading A History of the World in 100 Objects, which really drives that point home. The earliest human civilizations engaged in trade. During the supposed “Dark Ages”, buried hoards in England had jewels from Sri Lanka. So think not just about where your characters live, but who their national neighbors are. What goods do they import and export? Who are they in competition with and who are their allies? (This topic can intersect a lot with making sure your fantasy world is diverse, too). Is your story’s focus nation relatively isolated? Then there needs to be a reason, and it needs to be feasible. Consider how Japan has periodically closed its ports. It’s easier for a country to isolate if it’s an island — but even so, the severance is rarely complete. The rest of the world doesn’t stop existing just because one nation stops participating in trade (a pet peeve of mine when it comes to a lot of dystopian fiction). And there need to be repercussions. What goods is your society without, if it can’t import them? What does it have a surplus of? How does the lack of new influence affect the culture? Who in your society is in favor of isolation and which citizens agitate for reopening the borders?

Then there’s politics and government. I went to a fascinating presentation at a convention once about how different kinds of societies give rise to different kinds of governing structures. You don’t get complexly structured bureaucracies in small civilizations; you get them when you have a lot of people spread out over large distances. And then, to manage that sort of sprawl, you have to have good roads and a solid system for transferring messages — traits shared by Achaemenid Persia, imperial Rome, Han and Tang China, and the Yuan Mongols. Higher literacy rates tend to lead to more democratic tendencies — or at least to more people agitating for them. Is power centralized or de-centralized? Are there gender disparities in who can hold power? Economic restrictions? Is military control tied directly into political control or is it a separate system? A lot of fantasy, with its medieval-western-Europe focus, tends to reflect an agricultural-based feudal society, but there are so many other options.

KangnidoMapReligion’s another big aspect of world-building that can be augmented by knowing your history. Faith doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere — it’s a product of topography, agriculture, climate. Your landlocked city probably isn’t going to revere a god of the oceans — not without really good reason, at least. Maybe the city was taken over by a different, sea-based culture somehow? Or maybe the city hasn’t always been landlocked? Did the geography change for natural or magical reasons? Do the people feel their god abandoned them? That’s a whole story right there. You can also think about how new religions grow, absorb, and replace the faiths that come before them. People don’t give up their beliefs readily, and even in violent, imposed conquest, certain traits will still carry over — look at how many pagan traditions from across Europe got re-envisioned in Christianity. The speed with which a religion grows has a lot of history-based influences as well: Think of the differences between early Christianity and early Islam. Christianity began as a religion of the disenfranchised, and poor folk, traditionally, don’t have a lot of mobility, so it took a few centuries before it got enough traction to become the dominant force in the land. Islam, however, gets its start with folk who had money (Muhammed being of the merchant class and married to the crazy-successful and seriously awesome Khadijah), and people who have money have access to that most convenient of conversion tools: armies. And, while Christianity got its start when the Roman empire was strong and ascendant, Islam started when the Byzantines and Sassanids were pretty weak. So Islam expands with unprecedented speed. How many religions are in the world of your story? How did they grow? Which are dominant? Which are old and which are new?

I could go on like this forever, because everything has history behind it. Every object you touch every day is just a recent point in a chain of events — and that’s true for every object your characters touch, too. It’s true for what they eat, how their houses are decorated, how they dress, how they talk, and what they talk about. That’s not to say that you need to give explicit descriptions of the historical context for everything, of course. You’re writing a story, not an encyclopedia. (A mantra I occasionally have to repeat to myself, with how much I love world-building). You do need, though, to be aware. If your characters are wearing silk clothing in a land without silkworms or have ivory jewelry in a land without elephants, some reader is going to wonder why.

So go forth and read, friends! Or listen! As I’ve posted before, there are some great history podcasts, and even when they nominally focus on, say, Rome or England, so much information about other nations always gets pulled in as well, thanks to the glorious interconnections of our world. Or look at some maps. Just exploring can be a great way to get ideas or to enhance what you’ve already constructed.

Reflections on Revisions

So remember those revisions that I started way back in June? Last week, I finally finished them. This draft took longer than some earlier revisions had, because it involved a lot more restructuring — that “Come to Proserpina” moment did its job and forced me to really rethink a lot of the shape of the book. I had to spend a couple of months moodling — looking at my outlines, shifting scenes around, deciding that wasn’t going to work, making false starts, hitting snarls, trying again. I think the right word for the process is “detangling”. I had a lot to smooth out, particularly after I’d made the initial cuts.

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Yeah, it went pretty much like this.

Only in the past month or so did I really start producing new material at a good generative rate. I’m estimating that I scrapped something like 70,000 words, maybe more, from the last version of the manuscript — and then added about 63,000 new ones back in. And that’s not counting the minor changes I had to make to nearly every scene to reflect the adjusted timeline and other little ripples. In a lot of ways, this revision felt like writing most of an entirely new book — and yet that wasn’t what I was doing. The characters and the world are the same; I just had to find a different angle on them.

Someone over the weekend asked me if I like this version of the book better than the last draft. It’s a weird answer to find. I’m in love with this book as it stands now. I was in love with the earlier version, too. I was in love with last year’s draft, or I wouldn’t have inflicted it upon agents. They’re just all differently shaped beasts. As the book now stands, it’s shaped much more like a fantasy novel than it used to be — and that’s good, since we have to sell it in that genre. It has more rapidly shifting highs and lows, more exciting incidents, particularly earlier in the novel, and more intense “high-stakes” moments. The magic is also a lot more front-and-center than it used to be, and that was fun to play with, because I love dabbling with thaumaturgical theory. The earlier drafts were written much more like historical novels — and I liked that about them. I like the idea of treating the magic in this book as just another component of the world, and otherwise going about as though this is straight historical fiction, with the somewhat slower pace and deeper introspection that that genre embraces. But that runs against the grain of the industry as it currently stands, and part of being a working writer is knowing how to maneuver within the system without sacrificing your story, vision, and creativity. For me, it meant not losing the important character moments (something that historical novels display so well) amid the more energetic plotline (critical to moving a fantasy novel along). I think I’ve hit that sweet spot now in a way I hadn’t before.

I did lose some material that I really adored. One major chunk took out close to 20,000 words in a single, devastating blow. It was a major event in the earlier draft, but with the changes I made to the timeline and the plot, it became entirely irrelevant. As I’ve said before, though, I almost never actually “kill my darlings”. I just defer them. I’m sure I can use at least some of that material in the second book. That’s definitely the case for another big scene that I cut, an emotional confrontation between two characters — it no longer fit with the flow of events here, but it’ll definitely make its way into the next book. Other things may not even stay in this story, but might get revived for a later project.

Revisions like this are a lot of work. Since the end of August, I think I’ve spent as many hours on this as I have at my day job. The “I can’t; I have rehearsal” mantra of my youth became “I can’t; I have revisions.” I spent two entire weekends glued to my chair (which made me viscerally aware that I need a writing chair that isn’t straight-backed and made of hard, uncushioned wood), not leaving the house, mainlining black tea and Diet Dr Pepper with nature documentaries running unobtrusively in the background. I’m super-pleased with the results of all of this focused grinding — but I am also, I confess, a little relieved that now I get to step back from the story while my agent and beta readers have at it.