Writing Project Results

So I got massively sidetracked. It still feels like summer, but it’s Labor Day weekend, which means it’s time to admit it’s over. My original summer project list:

  • at least one essay as Emah
  • finish a fic I deleted
  • finish rewriting the werewolf thing
  • finish the Regency polyamory

What I ended up doing:

  • rough draft of my Statement of Purpose
  • write 60,000 words of fiction over 10 different works, none of which are on the above list
  • working a lot
  • getting my hair dyed pink

The last two had nothing to do with writing, but were significant time sinks. Only one of the projects I was working on was original: the rest were transformative works. I mean, that is a fair chunk of writing and I’m happy to have done it. I’m also really glad I deleted the one work I was planning on finishing, because it had become less than fun and I didn’t give in to the sunk cost fallacy.

My goals for this fall have more to do with grad school and getting options narrowed and essays written, but I think I’m also going to try to get some original fiction in there, when I’m not organizing gift exchanges of fanworks.

Summer Projects

Tomorrow I take my last two final exams of my college career. Friday, I move. A week after that is Commencement.

Over the next year, there will be more changes, including applying to and then sorting out the logistics of various graduate programs as well as one of the more important Presidential elections I’ve seen. But the summer stretches out before that, before any decisions need to be made, with only work as a necessary draw on my time.

So I’m going to write. And knit, of course, but that list of projects isn’t relevant here. What I hope to write:

  • at least one essay as Emah
  • finish Silver In The Sun
  • finish rewriting the werewolf thing
  • finish the Regency polyamory
It’s a short list, but they’re mostly long projects, and it’ll be satisfying to have them done.
What are your writing goals for the summer?

You Are Not Alone

It’s the night before the end of Homestuck.

There are other things going on in my life right now, but that’s the one singing note of tension that keeps coming back to me. I’m planning to wear a Homestuck shirt tomorrow to campus, and drop everything to look at the finale as soon as I can.

Homestuck, obviously, has been important to me. It won’t stop being a fandom when it’s over, but the impetus for obsessive reflection about what it means to me will be gone – we’ll have the end to talk about, after all.

Homestuck was the first fandom I really got into – I’d read fanfic other places, sort of desultorily because it was free and more about characters I liked. But Homestuck let me reach out and make friendships and talk to people about stories and their nature pretty much as things happened. It was the first really immersive fan experience I’d had, and the first fanfic I wrote. The experience of being in fandom has been a massive and transformative thing for me, letting me connect with a whole bunch of talented, kind new friends.

And fandom has a really interesting relationship with Homestuck – the narrative was originally driven by fan prompts, fans have been involved with art and music and merchandise, and it changed some of how fandom is done. It’s been kind of a wild ride.

Part of the reason it grabbed me so much was that it opened the door to talking about stories with more people in different ways – and to talking about the specifics we look for and the shapes they can take with no interest at all paid to originality, because this was after all transformative works. And one of the conversations that came up around Homestuck, and came up repeatedly, was at the core of Homestuck itself: the ways in which we reach out and connect.

The interpersonal narratives in Homestuck are, at almost every level, about knowing that you are not alone. They myriad ways that’s expressed are a gift in and of itself. And for something that starts with a bunch of isolated kids, it’s a gift seeing them all gain strength from that connection.

It reminds me of what I love about Person of Interest: a repeated refrain of “in the end you’re all alone and no one’s coming to save you,” with the characters then proving over and over with their actions that someone indeed will come to save them. For those characters, the emotional growth is in unlearning their isolation and slowly growing to trust each other, but they’re adults and more jaded and it’s a slower process.

In Homestuck, the kids don’t have quite as engrained in them the idea that they’re alone, and there’s more joy and hope in their learning, and less of a focus on their unlearning. One of the reasons that the fandom is so obsessed with Homestuck is that the very nature of fandom, and particularly Homestuck fandom, means that those people who are caught up in the culture around Homestuck also get to reach out and feel that they are not alone.

Homestuck has brought people together in remarkable ways, and I’m not quite ready for it to be over.

Genre Fiction and Sexual Violence

One of the interesting contrasts between literary and genre fiction is what we expect from them: literary fiction we expect to give us good writing and interesting narrative devices, genre fiction we expect to give us a particular emotional experience.

With the recent kerfuffle about Game of Thrones and having gone to see Mad Max yesterday, I was thinking more today about the things I want from an experience.

This tweet summarizes a lot of it. I mean, at this point, we all kind of expect a pervasive threat of sexual violence from every shadow in Westeros. And, because I’ve seen other action movies, I was kind of expecting some threat of sexual violence in Mad Max. I was braced for the hit. And then it never came, and it was a gift, and I really love that fucking movie.

I read non-fiction and literary fiction both for school and for my own edification, and I brace in the same way when reading a lot of those. Sexual violence is pervasive in the real world, and so it pervades fiction set in the real world.

Which takes me to the genre fiction I read. I have a friend who, because she’s perfect, heads an email filled with book recommendations as ‘Trash Books!’

They are supernatural romance novels. They’re amazing. It’s great. In every single one, people fall in love in a long-term-monogamy sort of way, kick butt, have magic powers, and maintain healthy friendships. It is the best kind of wish fulfillment.

Also of note is the way it treats sexual violence. Rape still exists, in these worlds, because I tend to read the kind of paranormal romance with high body counts and so other kinds of violence come with that. Of note, though, is that rape attempts are far less frequent than in the real world. In the series I’m reading now, I’m on book 19 and there have been two characters who were raped, of which only one was a perspective character (the other character started a centuries-long war and she was considered justified except when she nearly murdered her kids). There were also three threats that ended in violence. This is significantly lower than anywhere in the real world. Also, anyone who tries to rape a woman ends up dead or severely beaten. It’s very emotionally satisfying.

And it also makes these books kind of reassuring to read: one doesn’t have to be quite so braced against the possibility of an onslaught.

That’s what genre fiction offers. There are other genres, like cozies, where the only thing one has to be braced against are dessert cravings, but these tight genres offer a kind of consistent experience that’s as relaxing as a glass of wine.

Body horror and blenders

Becoming a monster plays into an aspect of horror that I’m very fond of: body horror. Becoming a monster sometimes involves physical changes – shifting, or things under the skin. One of my favorite incarnations is in Homestuck and Homestuck fandom, where there exist Helmsmen: high-powered psychics capable of directing a spaceship with their minds. Mostly they are chained to the ships, stripped of free will, and wired directly into biotechnological interfaces. Fanworks are frequently somewhat horrifying.

Body horror taken to this kind of extreme is its own kind of externalization – of different things for different people. Puberty is generally horrifying, with all of the growing and hormones. For trans* people, who sometimes experience their changing bodies as deeply and irreconcilably wrong, it can be deeply horrifying and an utmost betrayal. Disability, severe injury, and assault can all be traumatic. They can all be body horror, and expressing body horror as a plot device, as a way a character becomes stronger can be ways to explore the more mundane sort of body horror at enough remove that it’s just fascinating. Body horror can also be a way to explore the ways we take – and deal with – damage.

I haven’t generally been fond of the product of writing as therapy, but that has somewhat changed – body horror in particular has let me read stuff that I can relate to – and I’ve also come to a slightly different appreciation of the ways we use our experiences to create art, which is well-articulated in Amanda Palmer’s review of The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. I’ve found that I really like when things are fine-ground and spit out as art that’s appreciable in its own right and not just as a reflection of the creator.

Schools of thought

I see two major schools of thought about writing when not on deadline, and I mostly see them dichotomized.

The first is that one must write every day, just plant butt in chair and get words done, get them out. Polish later, but write every day, no matter what. The discipline will mean you produce more and more easily and improve.

The second is to write when you feel like it, and to forgive yourself when you’re not up for it for months on end. I’ve seen it mostly as a reaction to the first one, particularly from the chronically ill. A friend with arthritis goes through periods when writing is physically horribly painful; a friend with depression feels blank and flat and hates everything they force themselves to produce.

And the first is more popular generally, but the existence of the second is incredibly important: especially with mental illness, it’s imperative to acknowledge that sometimes one’s ability will not be the same as a well person, and to not beat oneself up about it.

The dichotomy of the two schools of thought kind of bothers me, in large part because the idea of not writing for months on end makes me feel kind of panicky. I write almost every day, even if it’s just a little, and I write for work, and I write for school. I don’t have a set word count or time. I just leave a story or two that I’m working on open in tabs (I usually only have five or six tabs open). If I have a thought, I’ll go noodle in the document. Progress gets made eventually.

So writing daily – or at least having a constant reminder that I could be writing – is important to me. But not putting a minimum requirement on it is also important. I’m a full time student and paying my own living expenses. During midterms I had an hour-long breakdown over soup one day. I don’t need the stress of a self-imposed writing requirement on top of that.

For me the starting point had to be that it’s okay to try and fail. I can try to write every day, or try to write five thousand words a week: I can set any goal I want, but if I don’t make it, it’s okay. I haven’t failed as a person, I’m not doomed as a writer for my lack of discipline. It’s okay.

I think we have too few messages that it’s okay to fail. So the second school of thought, the idea of forgiving yourself and taking care of your needs first, is desperately important. But it’s not a terrible thing to also go to the first school, and set goals. We just need to be able to get off each other’s – and our own – cases when we don’t meet those goals. Because it’s okay.

Character Creation: Cheesy Broccoli Casserole

A story is food for the mind. A drabble is an amuse-bouche, satisfying to the palate but not the stomach. A novel is a multi-course meal, with tastes that complement each other and segue into the next part.

Characters are the ingredients. You combine a little salty, a little sweet, a little bitter, a little sour, a little umami. Umami is a Japanese loanword, for pleasant savory tastes, like meat or onion sauteed in water with a little salt. It’s what makes a meal satisfying, and what makes a character feel real and stick with you.

So a novella can be taken as cheesy broccoli casserole. One dish, consumed in a single sitting. Not as many complexities as a novel, not as many twists and turns and things to synchronize. Importantly to all of this, I need to know what I’m making before I start: ingredients aren’t important until they’re used.

I start with the pasta and the chicken. The pasta is a fairly straightforward character, who’s gone through some hard times and lost some stuff. The pasta’s tragic, boiled backstory has to stop before they’ve gone completely limp. They still need to have some body in order to support the other characters and work well as a group. It’s also important that the pasta be properly drained: having pasta water floating around makes everything lose coherence and draws too much attention to a single character. Their backstory contributed to who they are, but it isn’t the totality of their character.

The chicken has a different sort of backstory, one of murder and personal tragedy and exposure to medium-high heat until thoroughly cooked. Even though the chicken and the pasta both have horrible backstories, they aren’t the [i]same[/i] horrible backstory. Identical characters unbalance the whole dish, no matter how exciting the shared story is. The chicken then gets sliced into smaller chunks. The size of the chunks depends how much I want the dish to be about identity politics, how much I’m okay with having big chunks of narrative devoted entirely to this one character.

The broccoli is a big part of the story, and is usually the main character. It knows the pasta, usually, has a bit of a shared history in that it, too, went in the boiling water. But the broccoli was only in there for a little while, and it only made the broccoli more vibrantly green. Some of the brittle rawness of the broccoli is gone, but it’s still crunchy with vigor and determination. The freshness makes for a good YA protagonist, a fighter that everyone can root for.

The shredded cheddar is not a tragic character, and is part of the glue that holds the group together. Even a glue character, though, one that facilitates group cohesion and keeps our ingredients together when they want to fall apart, can’t have that as their only identity: they need their own sharpness, and enough of them needs to show up in the story that their personality is on display.

Campbell’s 98% Fat Free Broccoli Cheese Soup is our supporting cast, our environment. The minor, supporting characters should at least imply that they can and do exist separate from the story, that they don’t stop existing when the main characters stop needing them. The soup is much improved by using it as a casserole ingredient, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist on its own. The helpful innkeeper might be married to the surly coachman, or cousin to the secret informant with the critical information. It doesn’t need to be on display – we don’t need to make broccoli cheese soup from scratch just to throw it in the casserole – but it should at least be implied. The supporting cast should be dumped all over the other ingredients and mixed well, because our main cast doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Seasonings are part of atmosphere and setting, but they’re also important to character: salt is something some people avoid out of health concern or prudishness, but it highlights different aspects of character. Sexual content isn’t a bad thing on its own, and can show up different sides of an ingredient, but it’s at the discretion and to the personal taste of the cook. How much salt I use varies – by mood, by how fresh the broccoli is, by whether I want to feel like I’m eating something with pretensions at health or want intensely comforting food. Audience matters, and influences character and cookery in various ways.

Garlic is part of worldbuilding, too: it adds umami and brings the whole together, but overdoing it and giving it too much space in the casserole means that only very particular palates will like it. Foul language can also be peppered in at the discretion of the author, with the knowledge that it pairs differently with each individual ingredient.

After cooking in the story for 45 minutes at 375, the ingredients are still recognizable, can still be pinpointed, can even be enjoyed on their individual merits. But it’s the whole that’s important, and they only serve the whole. The characters can no longer be extricated from the story. Even if I were starting with the same building blocks, the same basics of tragic-but-strong or my-whole-family-is-dead, the details would change with the dish, because the story as a whole comes first, and the characters are only there to further it, and there can frequently be substitutions.


I didn’t watch horror growing up, and thought the genre was mostly faceless killers and shock stuff – cheesy gushing blood and dead cheerleaders. I was turned off by the whole concept, even aside from the lure it should have had as something that was forbidden in our house.
My first horror movie was Ghost Ship, which made me jump but didn’t have any lasting emotional impact. A couple years later, I watched The Haunting. The Haunting made an impact – I wasn’t all that horrified, but I was amazed that it wasn’t a ‘proper’ happy ending, and I loved that death and transmutation were Eleanor’s happy endings.
I didn’t really get into horror in any kind of meaningful way for about a decade after that, but now, years later, I watch Hannibal and Teen Wolf (the MTV show; yes, it’s horror), and love stories where the monster isn’t an external threat.
A large part of it is that I like the idea that we can all be monsters, given the right circumstances and motivations. That idea is intrinsic to both shows, like the second season of Hannibal where most of the FBI characters are drawn into Hannibal’s web, and almost the entirety of Teen Wolf, where our beloved hero has attempted to kill his best friend on more than one occasion. Teen Wolf makes for an easier metaphor, here, because the metaphors at work are utterly transparent: the main character is bitten and turned into a werewolf. A lot of his internal struggle – and the struggle of other characters – is to not let that define him, to not let his monstrous nature make him do monstrous things.
There are external threats, of course, because that’s what makes them lose their shirts and get extra powers, but it’s a recurring theme that they struggle against themselves, that all of the characters try to remain themselves, try to work towards being better versions of themselves, despite the parts of them that say rending and killing and dumping the bodies in the woods is a really excellent solution to every problem.
Just as important, though, are the times they give in to the monster inside, and do terrible and horrifying things, and have to live with the aftermath. The thing I love about Teen Wolf in particular is that monstrous and terrible things are not the domain of men alone: one young woman gives in to grief and tries to kill a bunch of people, and another takes several years to even re-accept humanity at all, and another comes into knowledge of her own powers and acceptance that she might have to kill someone almost simultaneously. And young women becoming monsters and then grappling with that is a narrative I want to see more and more of, everywhere, because it’s amazing. Meghan McCarron did a really fantastic interview with Kelly Link here about young women and monsters and The Vampire Diaries.
When young women are monsters, they become compelling, in part because literal monstrousness is a perfect externalization of the internal growth we grapple with as part of coming of age, and too much about femininity is still considered internal, private, something to be hidden. Black Swan embodies a lot of conventional femininity, at the same time dramatizing and externalizing it in ways that make it utterly compelling: ballet is considered intensely female, and it’s a female-dominated movie, and most of the ballet company are women, and almost all the important interactions are between women. But, on the other hand, a lot of the major conflict occurs primarily internally to the main character. The physical changes she perceived were manifestations of psychological pressure.
More literal monstrousness brings femininity more into the open, erases some of the still-persistent separate-sphere ideology, and makes the problems of the young woman characters everyone’s problem rather than something she has to struggle with on her own.
Becoming a monster means more and better and harder choices, and more freedoms, and I think that’s beautiful, especially as an option for more and more women.

Piracy and books

I spend a lot of time talking to writers.

I spend a lot of time specifically talking to indie writers who make all their own publishing decisions.

It’s pretty great!

But one frustrating part of it are some of the myths that get perpetuated, like that free stuff hurts sales. This can take the form of distrust of and unhappiness with Creative Commons licensing, but on the whole tends to take the form of aggressive anti-piracy stances.

And, hey, I’m not super enthusiastic about piracy, because intellectual property is important and it’s important to respect it and the people who create the things one likes. But the thing about piracy is that it’s not actually lost sales.

You heard me right.

The people who are pirating your books either never would have bought them or are going to like it and either buy a copy or consider buying future works of yours.

Okay, let me talk about examples from my own life. Four books I have pirated are the 50 Shades trilogy by E L James and Sunshine by Robin McKinley.

50 Shades I wrote about here: to say I was unimpressed is a dramatic understatement. I also knew, going in, that it was going to be probably-enraging Twilight fanfiction, and made a deliberate decision to not support the author. That was never going to be a sale. I was never going to purchase anything written by her. It does not affect her sales numbers in the least.

Sunshine* was the opposite story: I love it, and have purchased two paperback copies of the novel, both of which have gone missing. It’s also not available as an ebook through legitimate channels. So nor was that a lost sale: I’d already purchased it, and was unlikely to purchase it a third time in the same form.

Piracy can actually increase sales, but hey, if you don’t want in on that, the best way to discourage piracy of your particular works is to make legal downloads ubiquitous. Make DRM-free purchase of your works for multiple platforms easy, and I can guarantee at least some people will find hitting the ‘buy’ button more appealing than piracy.

*Ms. McKinley, if you happen to see this and be unhappy with someone pirating your work, I’d be more than happy to Paypal you your royalties.

Literary Analysis

I’ve actually been attempting a fair portion of literary analysis in the last few months, and the deconstruction of narratives in general. The only issue, and the reason it’s not here, is that it’s all fandom-based.

My reluctance isn’t a matter of shame (please see links on Words page to erotica I’ve written), but a matter of context: the discussion occurs primarily on Tumblr, and is tagged such that mostly other fans see it. I don’t have to introduce characters or concepts and I don’t have to preface arguments with a description of the common perceptions I’m rebutting: I get to rest on the laziness of shared common knowledge.

But this semester I’m taking a required entry-level literature class, and I’m finding exegesis much easier. Surprisingly, arguing about the significance of driving to a relationship or about how someone’s mistranslation means they’re evil (it was true) has prepared me very well for expositing at length about women as portrayed in 1946 movies about veterans. Of course, it’s also prepared me for injecting comparisons to Jane Austen and the Vietnam War into the same essay, but that’s what second drafts are for.