Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Competent Enough to Compete: Lessons Learned from Competitive Piano Performance

When I was eleven, I decided I wanted to learn how to properly play the piano. My mother had already showed me the basics of how to read music and I could fumble out a few things with right and left hand parts, but I wanted to learn classical music. So, my mother canceled our cable subscription to pay for piano lessons and signed me up with a teacher down at the local conservatory.

Because I had a head start on the basics I progressed quickly. After the first year my teacher suggested I compete in the local music teachers competition. The first year, she said, I would be only competing against myself. If I enjoyed it and wanted to continue the following year, we would see about putting me in the category where I would compete with everyone my own age.

Despite the nerves, I did, in fact, enjoy competing. Not so much for the competition factor, but because the real joy of music, like writing, is in sharing it with someone else. Sure, I enjoyed playing at home and getting lost in the fiddly, rolling-down-a-steep-hill harmonies of Bach's Inventions. But the real enjoyment, the biggest rush was in performing for someone else. Especially in performing for strangers who would appreciate the music without regard for me.

So, after two years of competing only against myself, I entered the local competition along with everyone else in my grade level. This was a challenge. Many of them had been playing much longer than I had. And let me tell you, six years of additional experience makes a big difference - in both the quality and complexity of the work being presented. My teacher and I carefully selected work that pushed my skills and showed off my range. For the remaining five years before I headed off to college, I competed at my grade level. Every year I placed high enough to continue on to the state level. Every year I received good marks at the state level, but I never won or progressed to the regional competition.

I was competent enough to compete. I was not skilled enough to win.

"Why this story?" you may be thinking.

Lately the SF/F realm has been rife with conspiracy theories about secret "liberal" cabals, active bloc-voting by particular "conservative" groups to narrow the playing field to works which they approved and endorsed, and then rejection of those works by a broader fan base. At this point it seems as if the attempts to put forth a complete slate will continue next year. Which also means more bitterness and vitriol and finding out that folks who have been positive about your work in the past didn't really mean "This is good," but rather "This is good for a girl-writer."

And much of it stems from the inability to grasp the idea that you may be competent enough to compete, but not competent enough to win. It is laden with fear about a broadening of the pool of talent to include voices that may not be just different but also better. It is laced with venom over the idea that fandom is bigger than you are, bigger than your group of friends, and in that larger sea you are a smaller fish than you thought. And all of it is wrapped up in an "us against them" narrative that transforms that fear and poison and lack of understanding into a conspiracy against some deeper way of life - the "culture wars" we keep hearing about.

This, more than anything else, is the reason I have no patience for the Puppies (Sad or Rabid) and their movement to "reclaim" SF/F for future generations.

At some point, you have to realize that maybe your work just isn't better than your competitors. And at that point you (and I), have two basic choices.

You can:
Accuse the judges of favoring the Asian-American over you because of a hidden affirmative action agenda.
Declare that the other contestants played newer, more modern work and were rewarded for it while your own more traditional selections were passed over because they are no longer en vogue.
Orchestrate and implement a plan to only allow those who play at your skill level to compete. Bonus if you can limit the works to the same style and content you perform.

Or you can:
Improve your skills.
Work harder.
Be persistent.

"Well," you may be thinking. "You only say that because you've never been nominated for a literary award."

And that's true. I haven't been nominated. I've been eligible since 2012. In fact, 2012-2013 I was eligible for the John Campbell "Not a Hugo" Award for Best New Writer. Those years came and went without any sort of recognition for my work. Aside from, you know, having been published, getting paid, and knowing that folks were reading my work. But even if I had been nominated, I learned years ago that sometimes my very best is not "the best".

I'm okay with that. You know why?
Because, for me, the answer is simple - write a better story.
It's the thing I say to myself every time I sit down to put words on the page - write a better story.
It's the thing I say to myself every time I see someone belittling my genre - write a better story.
It's the thing I say to myself every time someone implies that even if I were to be nominated it would be for something other than the quality of my work - write a better story.

Because there is only one way to compete - write a better story.

[Disclaimer (because, you know, ethics in journalism): I have been published by two of the Puppies nominees - Abyss & Apex, and Jennifer Brozek. And I split a reading time slot with Jason Cordova last year.]

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

New Release: Dust

Half-Fae cop, Jonas Flannery has lost enough partners in his years on the job - to drugs, to corruption, to the monsters that prowl the streets. When his current partner, Lola Rodriguez, is whammied by a dying pixie queen, he finds himself in a race against time to find the drug producing Dust farm, free the other Corlun, and save Lola before the magic breaks her mind.

Urban Fantasy

Monday, July 13, 2015

Legacy - New Release!

Available Now! Only $0.99!

When a skin-changer looking for passage to Lake Ponchartrain collapses at her feet, Willa Arch finds herself drawn into a conflict between the iron-willed Queen Elsbett of Brittania and Queen of the Dead, Marie Laveau. But survival means coming face to face with Willa's own deadly legacy of fur and teeth.

(Epub also available through Scribd, iTunes, Inktera.)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Writing for Others (Update 7.2.14)

An oft repeated piece of advice is to first write what you love. Don't worry about where you'll sell it or which readership or if the fans will like it - write for yourself first.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, if you don't love it then staring down the blank screen day after day to finish a story/novel/whatever will be a tedious business. Secondly, if you don't love it your readers will be able to tell. Passion for your story absolutely translates onto the page. So does boredom.

After I had my first story published (a little piece of flash about the aftermath of an argument between a husband and wife that wanders into suggestive territory) I quickly realized that writing for myself was the first step, but at some point I would have to deal with what the readers think. (Just a hint, for that particular story the words "softcore porn" showed up in the comments.) It was around that time I settled on another personal rule.

I do not write for those who don't like what I write.

I've gotten a few weird looks over that one, but the fact is that there are certain things you will find over and over in my work. If you don't like those things... chances are you are not the reader I meant the story for. And that's fine. I write what I like, for myself first. That anyone else likes (or even loves) what I put on the page is icing on the cake.

But there is a point in digging into the words that it gets difficult to remember that I'm not writing in a vacuum. The whole point of putting these stories on paper is to share them. If I wanted to keep them all to myself my head would be pretty crowded, but I'd have a lot more free time on my hands. But I write to share the things I enjoy.

A few weeks ago a friend introduced me to The Hillywood Show. I was absolutely delighted with their parodies. Not only are they very loving recreations of various creative entities, but they're funny. Even if you (like me) are only slightly familiar with the particulars of specific fandoms.

And then, yesterday, I discovered the reaction videos*. And I quickly realized that these videos were almost even better than the original parodies. Why? Because for folks who are creative, having fans who are genuinely excited about the content you produce is a kind of satisfaction all its own**.

I've spent the first half of this year digging on various projects. (The not-yet-finished Southern Gothic Horror novel. The OGN script. A novella that turned into an unfinished novel. A super-secret project for a different pen name. And some other stuff.) All of which are things I love. But what I love most about them is the fact that at some point I will get to share them with folks who are equally excited about the story and characters.

This is the value of remembering that while we write first for ourselves, we are also writing for our fans. Somewhere out there is someone who will be as excited as you are about that killer scene in the middle act. Someone who will laugh as hard as you do at that joke the MC made. Someone who will cry when that character you both loved dies.

We write for the folks who love our work.
We write for the fans.
Because we're fans too. 

*So, I didn't know this was even a thing. Kind of like unboxing videos. Only these are folks watching various shows or videos and recording their first reactions.

**Personally, I also appreciate the satisfaction of being paid for my work. But having happy fans is obviously in contention for the top spot.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Teaser: Legacy

With only 13 days left until Legacy is released as an eBook, I thought I would post a teaser to whet your appetite.



Summer heat grips Savannah in an iron fist. Even with the wooden doors at the back of the zeppelin hanger opened wide, it's sweltering under the metal roof. Willa wipes a dribble of sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. The fans turning overhead barely move the humid air and her shirt's already soaked.
She glares at the guts of the tension-triggered, chain transmission lying on the crate that doubles as a workbench. “More like tension fucked.” The derailing arm is sticking at all the wrong points, dropping the chain every time she attempts to change gears. She gives it another prod, prompting it to fold at the appropriate joints, but it moves as a whole and the chain snarls.
Fire and damn.” Resisting the urge to whack it with the spanner, she reaches for the screwdriver instead.
The money had been good. If it hadn't, she'd never have taken the job running rifles down to the Gulf in the face of a storm. Trouble with good money is it never makes up for the trouble that comes with it. Now all four props on her air-ship are wracked and need new parts before they'll run smooth again.
The bell at the front door jangles. Then heavy footsteps.
Willa doesn't even bother to look up. “No trips today.” Likely no trips this week.
I'm looking for Captain Arch.” The voice is deep, with a rough edge.
You've found her.” She waits for the muttered apology, the hasty retreat. A quarter turn on the middle tension joint and another prod at the derailer. Better.
You're Captain Arch.” The stranger's tone is a mix of disbelief and amusement.
She stands up, wipes the grease from her hands. “That's right.” He's dressed like an Amerigish trader, but his hands are not those of a merchant and his accent is a blurry Imperial. She fixes him with a hard stare. “You're not from these parts.”
He shakes his head. “No. I'm far from home.” Something about that makes him grin, dry as dust, and it catches Willa off guard. There's a rawness to him she recognizes. The sense of never belonging.
She clears her throat. “Can I help you with something?”
His grin softens. “Maybe. I understand the sly-like smiles now. The lack of a first name.”
It would have spoiled the joke.” She hooks her thumbs into her belt. “As it is, it don't matter much if what you're looking for is transport. Squirrel is down for repairs.”
He rubs his fingers through his hair. “A shame. I've plenty of coin to spend on the right pilot. Every man in town says that's you.”
Willa frowns. He's clever, holding out the promise of good money, but she's just about had her fill of that. Besides, if every captain in Savannah is pointing him to her it can only mean one thing. “You're headed for Lake Ponchartrain.”

Coming 7.14.15

Friday, June 26, 2015

When Am I Done? (Update 6.26.15)

This weekend I'm attending a little regional SF/F convention (LibertyCon). As a part of my activities for the weekend, I'm doing a reading on Friday afternoon.

I've only done a couple of readings before, but, despite the nerves about actually reading my stuff out loud in front of strangers, I tend to enjoy them. I like sharing my work with folks (even if I feel like I'm about to swallow my tongue the entire time). However, picking something to read is always a challenge.

Do I select something short so folks can hear it beginning to end? Something already published? Something forthcoming? Part of one of the (as yet) unpublished novels? There are pros and cons with every choice, but this time I settled on reading the first section of a novelette I am putting out as an eBook reprint in another couple of weeks.

Legacy was originally published last fall in Beast Within 4: Gears & Growls, edited by Jennifer Brozek. It's a great little steampunk story about a (fictional) queen of England, the fictionally portrayed but absolutely real life Marie Laveau, and my totally fictional and non-queen protagonist, Willa Arch, who is just trying to survive to see another day. And there are skin-changers (shapeshifters), voodoo zombies, and a large helping of asskicking.

Due to the length constraints of the original publication there were a few narrative beats I had taken out. Since I'm republishing this myself in digital format and no one is likely to say "I would really have liked to read this story but 7k words instead of 5k is just too much" I figured I could add back in some of the partial scenes I had left out.

So far those little revisions are going well, but I find myself walking a fine line between writing the story as I had originally seen it (before I realized it wouldn't all fit under 6k words) and just writing the whole thing from scratch at twice the length. Because it would be easy to do that. Add in more subplots, more back story, put a little more distance between the key plot points. These are all things I tend to do when I revise. It's great when the thing I'm writing is a novel. Not so great when I'm trying to keep it within novelette range.

But I'm also looking at the original story and part of me is a little sad that I was willing to let it go without the additional scenes. The story is stronger now. Why did I think it was so good before?

And here's the thing. The first version is good. It's short and tight and tense. It lacks a little of the finesse the newer version is achieving, but it is still a good story. I'm proud of it and pleased that it was published. Does that mean I can't make it a little better? Of course not. It's been two years since I wrote the first version of Legacy and I've developed a lot as a writer since then. My craft, I like to think, is finer than it was then. It is only natural that I would see areas that could be improved.

Will I continue to publish longer, more polished, more detailed versions after this? Hell, no. Because I know what my original vision was. I also know that at the time, for various reasons, I was not able to achieve all of it. Now I am. And once I'm satisfied with the new version, that will be it.

Writers always lament never being done with a novel or short story. "There's always something left to change." And yes, as a new writer, it often feels that way. As I've grown more confident in my literary abilities, I find myself less dissatisfied with things I wrote six months ago. Less likely to look at something I've had published and think "Damn, I wish I'd changed that."

Don't get me wrong - you can always improve on craft. I will probably never grow out of finding sentences I think are clunky or poor word choices. But I have reached a point where I feel I can trust myself to say "Yes. This is done." And that is a good place to be, because it keeps me moving forward - finding new stories and writing those as best I can.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Silence is Support

Back in May, Irene Gallo said something on her Facebook page regarding the Sad/Rabid Puppies. It was, perhaps, not the most thoughtful thing she could have said, but it shouldn't have been a big deal. However, Theodore Beale saw it, screencapped it, sat on it for almost a month, and then released it with a statement about how it was just another example of the libel and slander coming from Tor. Because everyone knows by now that Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia are not racist, sexist, homophobic right-wingers. Because they keep saying so. (More on this in a moment.)

It's an argument that's been going on for a while now. Folks call out the things the Sad/Rabid Puppies say as having sexist/racist/homophobic overtones (not necessarily all three at once) and then there's a big outcry from the Pups themselves as they insist, with lots of vehemence and fingerpointing, that they never said those ugly things. (Again, more on this in a moment.)

It's an argument a lot of folks are getting tired of having, no matter how strongly we feel that we should make it known that the Puppies in all their flavors, do not represent the heart of the SF/F fandom. At least, we hope not.

And then something really terrible happened.

Last week a young man walked into a church in Charleston, sat down with a group of folks having a Biblestudy, then stood up afterwards and murdered nine of them. He said it was because black men had been raping white women. He said it was because he was taking back his country. He said he hoped to fire the opening volley in a race war.

After the fact, all the signs that this malignant worldview had been simmering for a long time. There are photos of him wearing apartheid era flags on his jacket, of the Confederate States of America license plate on the front of his car, of him burning the American flag. And then, his friends talked about how he used to make racist jokes a lot, but they never took them seriously. That maybe they should have.

It is a terrible thing that has happened. This young man with a head full of poison, has murdered nine people. Maybe he would have murdered them no matter what. But one thing has become clear - he thought he was not the only one. He thought he had the support of his friends and neighbors and family. Why? Because none of them ever thought to call him on his shit. They just chuckled at his jokes, maybe uncomfortably, and nodded a little and he took that to mean they agreed with him.

So now we come back to Brad Torgersen, Larry Correia, and Theodore Beale - the loosely allied figureheads of the Sad and Rabid Puppies respectively.

Personally, I think that Torgersen and Correia are primarily ideological bigots. They have made it clear they are adamantly opposed to particular ideas and political movements that they lump together under the label "Liberal". They are not kind nor do they mince words about how they view folks who identify with or support those ideologies. Their apparent racism/sexism/homophobia, I believe grows out of that ideological bigotry. They object to the ideas and they believe that certain groups (People of Color, women, LGBTQ) are pushing those ideas so they attack those groups. Not so much for the color of their skin or their gender or orientation, but because of their ideas.

It's still ugly and narrow-minded, but I'm not certain they actually believe PoC are actually lesser humans or that women are best suited for procreation and almost nothing else.

Theodore Beale on the other hand does believe those things. [Let me just note that I do not like disseminating Beale's philosophy. But there is always an argument made that his words have been "taken out of context" or somehow "misunderstood". I feel there is an unpleasant value in seeing that these are the things this man actually proclaims to believe, and repeats to his friends, family, and followers.]

And this is the man that Larry Correia decided to push onto the Hugo ballot last year (2014) in order to piss off the liberals at WorldCon. This is the man the Brad Torgersen continued to work with this year, synching up slate-voting ballots to exclude all but a few non-Puppy nominations for the entire Hugo ballot. This is the man they have chosen to fight beside in a (ridiculous) culture war.

But, Torgersen and Correia maintain that they themselves are not racist, sexist, or homophobic. They just, don't say anything about Beale's ongoing rants. Maybe they laugh at his jokes or hit like on the comment window. They can argue all they want that they are not be bigots themselves, but their actions say otherwise.

Correia reached out to Beale last year. This year he reached out to GamerGate (with admittedly uncertain results when it comes to the ballot stuffing) - a group known for its sexist attitudes towards women and a radical and violent fringe. And Torgersen got in deeper with Beale by coordinating their slates under the Sad and Rabid Puppies flags.

This isn't just silent support. This isn't just silence that is interpreted as support. This is a deliberate alliance with those who do not hide their racist, sexist, homophobic agendas.

But I will not be silent. And I will not support the ideologies that led a young man to murder nine men and women in a church in Charleston. I will not shrug and say "That Vox Day. He's an asshat but what can you do? It's just one man ranting on the internet." I do not want the others like Dylan Roof looking at the world of SF/F and thinking "See? They agree with me."

Because I don't.
Because we don't.
Because silence only leads to regression.