"Fail, fail again, fail better."
- Samuel Beckett
Friday, September 12, 2008
I've been thinking about it more and more lately. I usually do, around this time of year.
Here's why I still think of it so fondly (this post originally appeared here):
Drunk & Unpublished at the Edge of the World
My first year of undergrad work in Alaska, I met a girl named Lou who drank a half gallon of Black Velvet whiskey every week, rolled her own cigarettes, wore steel-toed boots, and took home a different guy every weekend.
In Fairbanks, even more than other university towns, there’s not much to do during the winter but drink and have sex. When it’s 20 below and it’s been dark for the last twenty hours, you’re really not up for much else.
So Lou would coax me up to her room with promises of cheap whiskey and diet coke, and once I was sufficiently sloshed, she’d bring out her stories.
Lou was an English major from Oregon. She’d spent a year in the Philippines when she was sixteen, and most of her stories were about that year. They were beautiful, emotional pieces that took me to a hot, humid place, to beaches and palm trees and rice at every meal. They were potent escapes from a dark, cold, November night.
After the readings, we’d go down to the front porch of the dorm and roll cigarettes with numb fingers and smoke until we were frozen, then go back in and drink some more. I would drink until I realized that if I drank any more, I wasn’t going to be able to make it downstairs to my own bed without passing out in the stairwell. Lou said she wouldn’t have minded me not returning to my own bed, but Lou wasn’t really my type, and I was still holding out for somebody else at the time.
Lou was a good writer, something I was surprised to learn once she started reading. I’d had any number of people come up to me and claim to be a writer when they heard it was something I did. Most of them were of the, “I have this great idea, and if you write it, we can split the profits 50/50,” type or the “As soon as I have the time, I’m going to write a novel,” kind.
But Lou definitely had talent. She told good stories on paper and in person, and told me about the time one of her girlfriends shot off her boyfriend’s toe after he threatened to kill her and locked her in a basement for three hours.
These were the sorts of people Lou was friends with.
But Lou’s writing had one fault:
She never finished anything.
The impression I got from the bits and pieces she read about her experience in the Philippines was that something not all-together empowering had happened there, something that, after coming back to the States, she dealt with primarily by drinking a lot of whiskey and putting on a lot of weight. She liked to talk about how thin and desirable she’d been in the Philippines, how much men liked her blue eyes. She would say, “135 pounds” with the wistful nostalgia of a far older woman for a much younger self, though she wasn’t even twenty-two.
Lou and I hung out with the same group of stoner guys - the beer drinking, motorcycle riding, marijuana smoking, guitar playing types who were easy to get into bed. And while I mostly was stuck on one of them, she went to bed with all of them, and some of the drama and English majors to boot. I wanted to admire that kind of sexual freedom, but I soon learned that Lou wasn’t particularly happy with her conquests. Mostly, she was angry and bitter that a one night stand was just a one-night-stand. I suggested that maybe getting to know a guy and having a relationship with him before she had sex with him might lead to more long-term interest.
She rejected that out of hand.
“Men don’t want to be in relationships with fat girls,” she said, and she scribbled something into her notebook.
What always fascinated me about Lou was that when I looked at us, I often saw the same person. Or, rather, who I could have been. She was angry and bitter and pissed off at the hand she’d been dealt. She’s had one really bad experience, and it broke her, and she believed everyone was out to betray her and piss her off and nobody would stick by her. And believing that, she created the world just as she imagined it to be.
Most of our drinking and reading sessions involved discussions about how she would get back at the latest lover who had jilted her: not returned her calls, not been up for another midnight session, told her she was just a passing fuck.
When rumors began to circulate on her dorm floor that she and I were lovers, she wanted to stage a glorious public breakup in the dining hall, perhaps to draw further male sexual interest from the woodwork.
She had a flair for the dramatic. It made her a good storyteller, but a rather undisciplined one. Her life was in such a disarray, so full of drama and angst and drunken nights, that finishing most any bit of writing at all would have been a blessed miracle.
She was living. The recording could come later.
Some of the best advice I was ever given about writing came from Geoff Ryman, and it wasn’t advice about writing at all. It was advice about life. He sat me down for my one-on-one at Clarion West after a rather stunning critique of a story of mine in which he asserted that the he found the story “personally offensive” and believed it suffered from “a failure of the imagination.” Coming from a writer like Ryman, when I was twenty years old, the youngest in the class, was like a cold slap in the face.
He said I needed to travel and read outside the genre. He said I had far too much talent to be writing sordid slash-n’hack (I still write slash n’ hack. But it’s a better sort of slash n’ hack).
When I went back to Alaska after that summer in Seattle, Lou was gone. She had had a wild “breakup” with the group of guys we hung with, told one guy’s girlfriend she’d slept with him, told that girlfriend I was a loser slut who’d slept with her boyfriend, too, and was fleeing an abusive boyfriend who’d threatened to kill me (not exactly common knowledge at the time), and tried to get the motorcycle riders to ditch me, too. It worked pretty well. Everybody got pissed off.
Lou always did have a flair for the dramatic.
I’d spent a great deal of my life, about ten years of it, working very hard at “being a writer.” Whatever the hell that was supposed to be. I believed you just had to work really hard. You had to write every day. You had to finish everything. You had to read the books in your field (unfortunately, to the exclusion of all others). You had to go to writing classes and workshops (I’d been going to one sort of workshop or another since I was 14). You had to write, to the exclusion of all else. You had to cut yourself off from other people, because only the writing was important.
Lou didn’t really do any of that. But damn, she had good stories.
I’d like to say that not a lot of my writing got done in Alaska, with all that drama, all those dark nights, all that whiskey. But I sold my first pro-rate-paying story while I was there, something I popped off in a couple hours on a dreary October night while downloading porn and music from the networked computers in my dorm.
When it’s cold and dark and you don’t have a real job, you can say yes to every opportunity that comes your way and write about it, too.
Well, you can say yes to almost everything.
I think Lou may have said yes to too much. There’s a fine line between living out loud and driving yourself into the ground.
Stories don’t come from nowhere.
I remember spending one chilly May night at a ramshackle cabin in the hills just outside Fairbanks. The floor sloped precipitously, there was no running water, and the couple who lived there were growing marijuana upstairs in the loft. We ate wild rabbit cooked up with rice, and before the beer really got flowing, me and one of the other girls took turns shooting a rifle at makeshift targets made out of the remains of a sled dog kennel.
I drank eight beers followed by a fifth of vodka and promptly heaved out a stream of projectile vomit over the porch railing. The guy from New York was playing the guitar, and the couple were dragging themselves drunkenly to bed, and I retreated out to the bonfire just off the porch (fueled, as well, by the remains of old dog kennels) with the kid from Evanston. We huddled together for warmth, and I bled out a bunch of perceived ills and moaned about how unlovable I was, and how Lou had gotten laid more than me, and about the couple heading upstairs, and how I felt I didn’t have any friends, and I didn’t fit anywhere. I always felt too smart around them. Too big, defective.
“You realize you’re a lot better than us, don’t you?” he said. “I’m not really sure why you’ve spent this long hanging out with us.”
I suppose I couldn’t help it. They had good stories.
When the guy from New York hauled me out onto the porch later and berated me for crushing on the coupled guy for the last year, I burst into tears, and he hugged me and said, “Listen, us, this group of losers, you’re not going to see us again. We’re just gonna be some guys you knew in college. This really isn’t important. It’s a chapter in your life. There’s a bigger picture. You deserve way better than that guy, and way better than us.”
Ah, my drunken Alaskan boys.
A month later, I went to Clarion. By September, the group broke apart, Lou’s forked tongue helped severe me from the crowd, and I didn’t see any of them again.
In some small, secret way, I suppose I loved them, and Lou, for being everything I wasn’t. Their expectations of the future were closer, more attainable, less risky. They wanted a good partner and a good motorcycle and good weed and a roof over their heads. They wanted enough money to live. They did not want to be known. They didn’t want to be heard. The stories they told were more private, secret histories, often far more interesting than mine, that they had no interest in broadcasting to the world. Why bother? What did they have to do with the world? That’s why they’d come to Alaska.
And it’s why I left. I wanted more in the way that the perpetually unfulfilled will always want more. I had more people to meet, more places to go, more stories to write.
Like Lou, I never wanted to get stuck in one story. I didn’t want to endlessly catalogue the mistakes of my youth. I wanted to finish what I started.
When I sent off my Clarion applications, I did so without the money to go, and without any real expectation that I would get in. I made the waiting list. I got in a month or so later by sheer virtue of the fact that somebody else didn’t want to go.
That seemed somehow appropriate.
Your writing life isn’t over once you get out of bootcamp any more than your life is over after getting married, or divorced, or having kids. Those are just mileposts on a very long marathon route, pit-stops for food and refreshment, and they usually turn out to be the places where you meet the most interesting people, and collect the best sorts of stories.
Sometimes, I can even finish some of them.
It took me a long time to realize that writing wasn’t about cutting yourself off from people and huddling in a dark room for hours and hours and hours every weekend (well, not every weekend). It was about going out into the world with big boots on and learning how to roll your own cigarettes. It was about riding motorcycles and drinking home-brewed beer and taking trains across New Zealand. It wasn’t just looking out at the world, it was about being a part of it, and living to tell the tale: yours or somebody else’s, somebody who couldn’t finish theirs.
You want to open up your hands and say to somebody, “Here, this, this is your life, what it was, what it is, what it could be. How do you want it to end?”
And I wonder if that’s why Lou never could finish a story. I wonder if she was afraid of getting stuck with the wrong ending, afraid it ended with her reading half-finished stories in a little dorm room at the edge of the world, drinking whiskey by herself on a cold, dark night, trapped by her own adolescent self and the roads she walked before the world became too much, before it reared up to get her, before she got lost to anger and fear.
I dream that she went out and made a better ending.
I know she can.
Finding good examples of query letters and synopses online can be tough, especially when you're an SF/F writer. I returned again and again to this one by Lynn Flewelling when I started writing mine.
And lo, look, now here's a whole bunch of them.
For those working on Queries, I also recommend Elizabeth Lyon's book, The Sell Your Novel Toolkit. It has a ton of great synposes and query samples, and it was just the book I needed to read when I started seriously trying to sell books.
Here's my contribution to the collective wisdom of the free internets. The Query that got me my agent, who subsequently got me my deal. Personally, I still think it's a little dense and wordy, but hey, it piqued some interest:
April 23, 2007
Dear Jennifer Jackson,
God’s War is a 90,000 word SF novel of faith, betrayal and submission played out in the contaminated deserts of Nasheen, a matriarchal nation engaged in a centuries-old holy war.
Nyxnissa “Nyx” so Dasheem is a bel dame, one of the brutal women engaged in hunting deserters. After getting caught selling out her womb to gene pirates, she is stripped of her bel dame title and forced to make a tenuous living as a less-than-respectable bounty hunter. Nyx’s luck appears to improve when she’s offered a bounty on an interstellar gene pirate who’s fled – or been kidnapped – from the royal compound. While trying to keep together her ragtag crew of mercenaries, Nyx pursues the elusive alien across Nasheen’s parched interior and over the war-torn border with Chenja.
There, under the dim lights of Chenja’s underground fighting rings, Nyx must face a black market boxer, a traitorous magician, and the betrayal of one of her team members. As her crew begins to unravel, Nyx finds herself hunted by her former bel dame sisters and a notorious war veteran. If Nyx can salvage her crew and outwit her rivals, she could hold the key to ending Nasheen’s centuries-old conflict in her bloody hands.
My educational background is in the political history of southern Africa, with an emphasis on the experiences of female guerilla fighters. I am a Clarion West graduate, and some of my work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Talebones, and the upcoming Year’s Best SF 12.
The partial or full manuscript and synopsis of God’s War are available for review upon your request. I am currently drafting a sequel, Black Desert, and a third and final volume is in outline form.
Thank you for considering this proposal. I have enclosed an SASE, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Infodumps bore the living crap out of me.
It's probably one reason why I don't read a lot of hard SF. Hard SF loves the infodump. The trouble with infodumps is that all they do is get you information. It doesn't expand on character. It doesn't move the plot forward. People aren't moving forward with it.
It just sits there.
There's a good example of the total word-waster that is the expository lump in Black Desert round 2, below.
This is just authorial dumping. It's me figuring out this character, this story, and just blabbing on and on about pretty much everything, even stuff that's completely not relevant.
Please fix your expository dumps. They're unseemly.
If you have to write an "As you know Bob"-like conversation, fine. This is what most folks do. Joss Whedon dumps in the form of a classroom discussion in Serenity. I use the same technique in The Dragon's War. If you're going to get information to the reader, please do it in a way that's believable.
In Black Desert round 3, the Expository Lump becomes slightly more engaging dialogue. Also shown below. It's just a first pass fix, and there's still some dumping there at the end, but you can already see what a big difference it makes.
Here's the original:
ORIGINAL (blah blah blah blah blah. Please don't do things like this!)
Alharazad had retired from the council back when Nyx was still a bel dame, and the bloody story of her leave-taking had been popular gossip in and outside bel dame circles for year. Alharazad had opposed a coup against the former Queen, Zaynab’s mother, Abayyd. Abayyd had limited the sorts of notes bel dames could collect, just one more erosion of power, the sort bel dames had been fighting for centuries. Abayyd had restricted the bel dame council to notes for war criminals, draft dodgers, and terrorists. No longer was the council to take out notes for petty officials who wanted their sister’s head in a box because she stole some locusts, or bring back an old man who’d fled a marriage contract. They could police war veterans who escaped the breeding compounds, sure, but private notes could no longer be accepted. It was another limitation on bel dame power.
The council discussions went on for days. Alharazad and two of the others on the nine-woman council argued that the bel dames had taken an oath centuries before to uphold the laws of the Queen. To disobey the Queen’s edict was to break that contract. The penalty set down in the contract for the breaking of that agreement was the dissolution of the bel dame council. The oath kept the bel dames from running rogue like the magicians before them, making and breaking their own laws. The rest of the council argued that the bel dames had been around longer than the monarchy or the caliphate before it; they had hunted down rogue magicians and petty thieves equally. Back when bel dames were the only form of law in the desert, no one had had any problem with that.
The story went that once everyone had cast their public vote – three for the upholding of the Queen’s edict, six for civil war – Alharazad had strode out into the middle of the floor, drawn her sword, and decapitated three of the six women who’d voted for war.
As the others took arms and came at her, Alharazad quoted from the old code of the bel dames, the one carved into fiery red metal flanking the entry into the council chamber.
Bel dames in violation of code must be brought to justice by their sisters.
Breaking oaths, she reminded them, was a violation of code.
“You can’t pick and choose from the old laws,” she was said to have told them. “If you vote to break an oath in favor of an older law, I have the authority to met out justice as laid down by those laws. Knowing now that a vote for oath-breaking is a vote for the penalty for oath-breaking, vote again.”
The six remaining members of the council voted to uphold the Queen’s edict. Six months later, the last of Alharazad’s daughters died, and after assisting in the nomination and election of her replacement on the council, Alharazad had retired to Faouda, the birthplace of all of her children.
Alharazad had sent all twenty of her children to the front over the years – fourteen boys and six girls – and she’d given birth to them the old-fashioned way, in groups of three or four instead of the ten or eleven the magicians manipulated now. Only three of her children had come back from the front; a crazy girl who got drunk and drown in a gutter during a flash flood a few months after finishing her six years of service, and another daughter who was so bug-crazy after a year in the trenches that she was sent home and locked up in a mental ward in Mushtallah. The only boy of hers to survive came back from the front at forty after completing his mandatory service, but he came back a radical. He had his own ideas about how to police Nasheen. He became a bounty hunter and started hanging around the magicians’ gyms in Faleen, recruiting boxers and girls fresh off the front before the bel dames signed them. He was known for his strong moral and religious arguments against the mandatory drafting of men for the front, and his heated desire to disband the bel dame council, which he saw as an unregulated army of bloodletters who answered to no Queen, no Imam, no God.
His name was Raine al Alharazad, and he’d recruited Nyx after she paid off her debt with the magicians at the morgue. He had taught her how to bring in a bloodless bounty, how to kill with her bare hands instead of munitions, and how to drive a bakkie like a bel dame on a blood note. What he taught her had given her an edge when she joined the bel dames, but he’d never forgiven her for going over to their side.
Ten years later, Nyx had put a sword through his gut and left him to die in a gully in Chenja.
So she was really looking forward to meeting Alharazad.
And, the first pass of the fix:
FIXT VERSION (first pass)
“So tell me something about this Alharazad,” Suha said, capping off the tank.
Nyx peeled off a note and gave it to Eshe to feed into the big central money depository. “She retired when I was still a bel dame, back before Queen Abayyd abdicated. There was a big shit in the bel dame council after Abayyd restricted notes to terrorists, draft dodgers, terrorists. Made the bel dames more an arm of the monarchy than an independent force, you know?”
“And she didn’t take to that?” Suha said.
“Alharazad goes by the old code. Nobody fucking liked it, but bel dames take a blood oath to the Queen. That’s new since the monarchy, sure… we didn’t swear to shit before that. But we all swear that her word’s God’s law. You break a blood oath, you know what happens?”
“Bel dames kill you,” Eshe said. He gave her her change. Nyx pocketed it, nodded.
“Yeah, bel dames kill you. Alharazad reminded the council of that, watched them vote on whether or not to split from the Queen. The ones who voted yes? She chopped their fucking heads off.”
“Must have made her real popular,” Suha said.
“To some people, sure. You can’t pick and choose from the old laws. You break your blood oath in favor of some old Caliphate law about bel dames running their own show, you still get taken out for breaking a blood oath.”
“Is that why you keep taking the Queen’s notes?” Eshe asked.
Nyx peered at him. She was wearing the hat she’d gotten at the coast, to keep the sun out of her eyes. He went uncovered, as usual, burnous flapping loosely behind him, no hood, shoulders bare.
“Cover up, would you?” she said. “You’re going to get cancer.”
He rolled his eyes, pulled the burnous back over his shoulders. “Is it? Is that why you took the note?”
“I took the note because it’s my job,” Nyx said. She shuffled back toward the bakkie.
Suha opened the door for her. “I bet Alharazad thought it was her job to kill half the council, too,” Suha said.
“No shit,” Nyx said. “My bel dame oath? The part about protecting the Queen is the only part of it I haven’t broken yet. I’d like to surprise myself in my old age by sticking with that.”
Suha shut the door.
Nyx leaned out the window. “Let’s have you drive, Eshe.”
“Why?” he said.
“Cause Alharazad won’t shoot a boy unless she’s provoked.”
She saw Eshe lose some color. “This is why I taught you how to use a pistol,” she said.
“And we’re lucky he’s a better shot than you are,” Suha said.
Nyx sat up front and watched the pitted landscape roll by.
She have any kids, Alharazad?” Suha asked.
“Why, you planning on pissing her off?”
“Just wondering if she’s on her own,” Suha said. “I don’t want to face a fucking kid army like that Anneke women’s breeding.”
Nyx grunted. “Naw, nothing like that. Heard Alharazad had twenty kids. Fourteen boys, if you can believe it. All twenty went to the front. Three came back. Crazy girl got killed in a flash flood, drowned in a ditch. Another girl went so bug-crazy after her year in the trenches she got locked up in a ward in Mushtalluh.”
“What about the other one?” Eshe said.
“Did you get any food when we were back there?” Nyx said.
“Nobody asked me to,” Eshe said.
“We didn’t get any fucking food?” Suha said. “Shit.”
Nyx let them bicker. Alharazad had one boy come back from the front, too, at the end of his mandatory service. He was forty by then. He came back a radical and took up bounty hunting, started hanging around the magician’s gyms in Faleen, recruiting boxers and girls fresh off the front before the bel dames got them. He was known for his strong moral and religious arguments against the mandatory drafting of men, his passionate desire to disband the bel dame council, and his uncanny ability to hunt down terrorists. He believed bel dames were an unregulated army of bloodletters. They answered to no Queen, no Imam, not even God.
His name was Raine al Alharazad. He’d recruited Nyx at the magicians’ gym and taught her how to bring in a bloodless bounty, kill with her bare hands, and how to drive a bakkie like a bel dame on a blood note.
Tens years after leaving his crew, she put a sword through his gut and left him to die in a gully in Chenja.
So she was really looking forward to meeting his mother.