A Message To My Future Self

“I just have one question.”

The old man and a woman I took to be his wife came up to me after I had burned through my signing line at Book Bar, a lovely venue in the Berkeley neighborhood of Denver, Colorado. I was there with fellow New Mexican author Rebecca Roanhorse who was promoting her electric debut Trail of Lightning while I was promoting my own debut Implanted from Angry Robot. We had both read sections from our respective books, answered questions moderated by J.L. Forrest who runs the Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy reading series, and then made ourselves available to sign books and chat with audience members afterwards. Forrest provides a nice recap of the evening here.

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It was only my forth public appearance for Implanted, and I was still trying to figure out how to strike that careful balance between being approachable and authorly, all the while keeping imposter syndrome at bay. No mean feat when you’re sitting next to the zeitgeist. My mouth was tired from trying to smile for the last two hours lest my resting bitch face slip through. I still hadn’t found a position on my barstool that both presented my pear-shaped frame to best advantage and didn’t aggravate my lower back. I was regretting my choice of outfit and rethinking my answer to one of the questions put to us earlier in the evening. And oh god was I hungry, having put off dinner since there hadn’t been time to eat beforehand.

But I smiled at the couple and said, “Sure!”

He had his hands clasped behind his back. His wife stood mute beside him, a half-smile pasted to her face. An impressive white beard reached down to his breastbone. He paused and pursed his lips, and suddenly I realized this wouldn’t be like the other people I’d spoken with that evening. The ones who said they were excited to read Implanted after hearing me speak, the woman who was grateful to have found a cyberpunk novel not imbued with the male gaze, or the nervous young man desperate for writing advice. Somehow, this would be different.

This gentleman pointed out that both excerpts Rebecca and I had read that night depicted women hunting men for hurting another woman. After a moment of reflection, I realized it was true. Rebecca read from Chapter 2 of Trail of Lightning where her main character Maggie is chasing down a man-shaped monster who has stolen away a young woman to feast on—a powerful, unsettling scene. My selection, the opening chapter of Implanted, the main character Emery is hunting a young man who’s in the process of stalking a different young woman. When the coast is clear, he attacks in an attempt to steal her neural implant. Emery stops him, but she leaves the scene of the crime before the police arrive, setting her on a journey the rest of the book follows.

“Would your character go to such an effort to protect a man in the same situation?” the old man asked me, an unpleasant intensity to his voice.

Rebecca was engaged with some enthusiastic fans beside me, so she luckily didn’t have to face his quiet disbelief when I said, “Yes, of course.”

I then nattered on about how that wasn’t really the point of the scene though, that my main character was protecting someone from a similar attack she survived before the events of the book, that as the author, I got to pick what elements best served my story, and in this case, upending reader expectations and exploring female rage, was my goal. After all, I named the person Emery is following Breck Warner, echoing the name of that of apex scumbag Brock Turner. Subtle, I am not. Of course it would be a young woman Emery’s trying to protect from a repeat of her own past, a past she hasn’t quite figured out how to escape at the start of the book. I said something glib about sisterhood too, but the details at this point are fuzzy.

But I well remember the way he shook his head, disappointed, and left. His wife followed him, having never said a word. Oh, and in case you were wondering, he didn’t buy either my or Rebecca’s book.

I’ve thought a lot about that interaction since. I know it doesn’t hold a candle to uncomfortable interactions other authors have had with members of the public over the years. But I try to analyze moments like this when they pop up to better prepare me for the next one. I’m a classic staircase wit where I’m nothing better than a deer in headlights in the moment. It’s only after I’ve retired from the hum and buzz of a public interaction that any cleverness returns, far too late for a rescue.

As a publishing professional trying to drum up support for a debut, I’m always fearful that any negative interaction could affect my ability to get another project published—not true of course, but the little voice in my head doesn’t know that. After reviewing that conversation, however, I don’t think there was anything I could have said to salvage that interaction—to make the sale, as it were. He was being provocative at best, trying to set me down at worst, for having the temerity to center the female experience in my story.

So much of writing—writing for publication, that is—is getting enough people to decide, “hey, this is great,” and getting even more people to read it, preferably giving up their cold hard cash for the opportunity to do so. The business side of writing leads to this mindset that we must go after every potential reader and find a way to convince them we’re worth their time and money. That each missed opportunity is why our numbers suck, that if we could only convince this one other person we’d all be bestsellers and shortlisted for all the awards. A bruising cycle that only ends when you either quit writing or pick out a penname to start over.

It’s not worth it. Even for someone like me where my little book could use all the help it can get. But if someone is going to approach my book from such a perspective, there’s something freeing in deciding: my dude, my work is not for you.

These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

You can find such sentiment online, often in pithy tweets that read like affirmations in our current political climate made by women stronger and/or more experienced than me in navigating the intersection of art and economics in a broken world. Sometimes it feels a little like settling, knowing your work can never have the reach you’ve dreamed of. Or maybe I should feel driven to succeed despite that dude and all the others like him, even if it feels like crawling uphill over shards of glass. I don’t know. Of course, I’m still writing, but my wide-eyed naiveté has taken a critical hit, and I’m not sure I can afford that, not when that naiveté is what allowed me to pursue writing in the first place.

It’s just one guy, right? Why am I even letting myself get caught up in all this? Maybe it’s the people-pleaser in me. Maybe it’s a way for me to give other writers out there a head’s up about the world we’re so desperate to be a part of, a toolkit for deciding how and when to cut your losses.

And maybe, like Emery, I’m trying to protect my future self from another no-win situation, where the best choice is to walk away and keep writing, no matter what.

Implanted Launch Party!

This past weekend was the Implanted launch party in Albuquerque. Yes, the book has been out for little over a month, but considering my convention travel schedule in August and other logistical difficulties that popped up, this was the soonest we could manage it. And of course, I wanted to have it at my local indie Page 1 Books.

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Hugo/Nebula/Campbell winner Rebecca Roanhorse joined me, and we both read from our respective debuts and took questions from the packed audience. I happily sold out of all my books, which was a great feeling. Then it was to my house for an after party featuring tacos, champagne, cake, and much merry-making.

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I love to cook, and with the help of my husband, we made carnitas, pollo pibil, and lots of salsas, sides, and toppings. He even made an apple pie featuring the apples from our tree in the backyard.

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Good friends and colleagues from the NM writing community joined us for a lovely evening on our back patio. I’m just sorry I was so busy hosting I didn’t get a chance to get pics. I also want to give a shout out to my publisher, Angry Robot, who helped make this night happen, not only in publishing Implanted, but also thanks to their generous contribution to the festivities.

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The robots were very naughty and didn’t pick up after themselves…

Implanted featured at the 2018 European Speed Reading Championship!

My novel Implanted was featured at the 2108 European Speed Reading Championship! Test your knowledge with the reading guide if you’ve already had a chance to read the book!

How Do You Critique?

The last couple of weeks (and maybe into the next) I’ve been buried in critiques. Hence this slightly delayed post. I’m not complaining, mind you, but the volume recently—the result a confluence of chance—has forced me to evaluate my process in between all my edits, insertions, and comments.

Some observations:
I read everything. For me, critiquing is less about the genre or subject matter and more about supporting the writer behind the project.
I firmly believe there is a level of trust required for exchanging work. And that mutual respect means doing my best to evaluate the work I agree to critique, regardless of what it is, as I would hope others would do for me. It’s too early for me to be trapped in a particular genre, and I’m always eternally grateful that my CPs and trusted readers are usually game to crit whatever I send their way.
Part of this is because I’ve spent a lot of time in non-genre specific writing groups. In fact, one of the more successful groups I’ve been a part of has members writing in completely different genres—poetry, alt lit, women’s fiction, and then there’s me. All of us have good bs detectors and strong writing chops, which definitely helps. Plus having this exposure also keeps me from getting tunnel vision from the particular genre/style I’m writing in.
If a fellow writer thinks they’ll benefit from an honest reader reaction from me, I’m happy to support them. Karma is important, and I know I’ve benefited from the writer connections I’ve made. That’s not to say if they hand me a mystery I’ll be thrilled. But I’ll do my best to critique it, with the caveat that I’m not as well-versed in this genre as I am others.
I usually have to read a piece twice before I’m ready to critique.
This is time consuming, yes. That has become abundantly clear these last couple of weeks. BUT, it’s something I’ve made peace with. Mostly because my own standards of quality demand it.
Reading the piece the first time, I’m trying to get a general feel for the story, understand how all the different elements work as a whole. I might make some copy edits in the first round, but really I’m just reading for story.
This is a tremendous help when it comes time to offer my comments on the second pass. That’s when I decide what are real issues that need to be dealt with to support an author’s story intentions. I believe I have to understand the macro story elements into order to comment on the micro-level ones (outside of grammar).
My critique style has evolved as I’ve taken strides with my craft.
What this essentially means is that early on, I was overly focused with style and micro level issues. If someone wrote a line in a way I wouldn’t, I’d offer my suggestions for changing it. I was also overly concerned with “the rules” and more than happy to say “You’re doing it wrong!” because the craft books said so. I won’t say I was a Craft Nazi, one of the Writerly Types to Avoid, but it took time for me to digest all that advice so I could apply it in more constructive ways.
But after a number of critiques, after reading a variety of work, I’ve been exposed to a lot of different ways of doing things. And I’ve realized with all the do’s and don’ts out there, all that matters is whether a particular technique is effective in a particular story context. That’s it.
So I’ve adopted a more flexible live and let live policy. I’ll still point out awkward phrasings or unsuccessful techniques, but I’ve come to realize that just because someone doesn’t write something exactly the way I would doesn’t make it wrong. It just makes it different, and that’s ok. And that frees up more of my mental space for addressing more substantive story issues.
I rarely say no to requests to exchange work, but the time may be nigh to change that.
For so long, I was too scared to share my work. Then, when I got less scared, I had trouble finding people to share it with. I talked about this progression in my post The Critique Mindset a while back.
Over time, I’ve collected a formidable group of trusted writer friends: local writers, online writers, and my writer colleagues from Taos. For every person I can rely on for critiques, they must be able to rely on me. And as the last weeks have shown me, I’m near my limit, if I still want to be producing my own work at a pace that doesn’t make me cranky. (Hint, I’m cranky this week.)
So while I’m a huge proponent for exchanging work for critique, all things in moderation. And maybe it’s time to take my own advice.
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Happy Nanoing for those participating! Happy writing for the rest of us! And only good thoughts for our friends on the east coast!

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Know Your Genre – Speculative Fiction

How many times have you heard that? If we are to ever write something worth publishing, we must know how our book differs from all that has come before. This is essential in marketing your book to agents, editors, and ultimately readers. As agents are fond of saying, your book’s genre is where it gets shelved in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

With the rise of e-books and self-publishing along with the current trend of postmodern genre mash-ups, the importance of genre may be slightly decreasing, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know your stuff. Consider it another part of the research process.

That’s why I’m so freaked out about attending Taos Toolbox next month, a two-week science fiction and fantasy novel writing workshop. I write speculative fiction, of course, but I know I’m not as well versed as I should be in the field.

Sure I’ve read Tolkien and Lewis; Le Guin, L’Engle, Bradbury, and McKinley; Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander; and later Phillip Pullman and Garth Nix. I also read my fair share of Piers Anthony and too many Star Wars novels to count. But current stuff? No so much. You’ll also note how much of the authors above trend toward more young adult stories.

So of course I started hunting around on the interwebs to see what was considered required reading for speculative fiction.

io9 provides a wonderful overview of the genre with their Syllabus and Book List for Novice Students of Science Fiction Literature. The list is described thusly:

It is not comprehensive. It is intended to introduce the novice student of SF literature to the major themes in the genre, as well as books and authors who are representative of different eras in SF lit (including the present day).

And I’ve read just 7 of the 24 titles listed. Yikes.

Last year, NPR ran a poll for the 100 best books in science fiction and fantasy. I fared better here, having read 29 of the top 50 books (and another 14 of books 51-100). But still, there are plenty of gaps in my reading.

Earlier this month, Kirkus Review ran a series on Social Science Fiction (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). And while I haven’t read all of the books they mentioned, it’s clear that social science fiction is one of the areas I’m better versed in. That and young adult SFF up until two years ago (when I essentially stopped pleasure reading and started writing more).

This is good since I tend to write more socio-cultural speculative fiction stories in addition to YA. There’s still more work to do, but at least I’m not a complete slouch in the sub-genres I’m writing in.

What about you?

For more recommendations:

Adult SFF: David Brin’s List of “Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy Tales”
SFF Short Stories: Bibliophile Stalker’s Short Story Collections for the Aspiring Speculative Fiction Writer
YA SFF: Book Review Blog Charlotte’s Libraryvar gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}