Writing compliments

Doug Cohen at Realms of Fantasy sent me a nice note today, saying that he was passing a story of mine along to Shawna. He said he figured out the ending halfway through, which was not good, but then added:

But the writing and characterizations are so solid, and you do an excellent job in capturing a rather creepy mood while still keeping the tale drenched in sexuality. The way you went about reaching this ending is also rather different than the usual cliched approaches. So given all these factors I’ve decided to pass this piece along to Shawna for further consideration.

Then later he reassured me that the ending wasn’t hugely obvious and added:

Of all the stories I’ve encountered so far during my run with the magazine you write the best sex scenes by far….You obviously have a gift for this sort of writing. Have you ever considered writing straight erotica? It’s a booming market these days.

So that was wonderful to hear–especially considering it’s my first time to sub to ROF–even if nothing further ever comes of it. :-)

And I do have an erotic fantasy/historical bumping around in my brain. I need to see if I can get it out on paper. :-)

(And as a writing aside, I did intend to sub to the F&SF slush bomb. I started too late and couldn’t have a story shipshape in time, though; it would have defeated the whole purpose to sub something substandard, so I didn’t sub at all. I have some great hard-science bones for one, though, and I can always send it when it’s ready.)

The Work-at-Home Parent

Note: None of the below is to be taken as any indication that I don’t absolutely adore my kids. I love them dearly, but it would be nice to be able to talk openly about the challenges of being a parent working at home without the fear that you’re going to be accused of not caring about your children.

Both my kids went back to school yesterday, after being home all summer, and having the house quiet after three months of screaming and squabbling and joyous screeching and constant interruptions was just…glorious.

And this touches on something that a lot of writers (who also, of course, work at home) have to deal with: this perception that if you work at home, you’re able to be some kind of super-parent to your kid(s) and manage work well at the same time, all within the bounds of a normal working day. You can’t.

Well, okay. I won’t speak for you. But I can’t. Something has to give.

That “something” varies from person to person, I’m sure. With me, it’s downtime for myself that goes first. Well, that and housework. I hate housework anyway (and am far from being a neat freak), so it just goes by the wayside when I’m busy. There are tons of messes kids make that absolutely have to be cleaned up right away. Broken glass jar of jam? Bodily fluids of any kind, anywhere? Stuff spilled on the dog or a bed or a sibling? I have to take care of those immediately. One hundred little tiny cars spread out all over the living room, or all the books pulled off a shelf? Those will stay there till I finish my current project and take a “day off” to clean the house. (Yes, I can make the three-year-old clean them up himself, and he ultimately will: but that takes more time in supervision [and encouragement or discipline] than cleaning them up myself.)

People envy me for working at home; I envy people who get to go to work and just work. I averaged about sixty hours a week all summer, with both kids home. Without kids, sixty hours a week when you’re working at home is completely doable–you don’t have any travel time cutting into your workday, don’t take lengthy lunch breaks, and so on. With kids, sixty hours a week meant that I pretty much sat at my desk trying to work (and having to get up every few minutes to do something for the kids, and then reread whatever paragraph I’d marked my stop at when I came back, so I don’t miss something) from the minute I got up in the morning (usually around 4 a.m. so I have at least a few hours of quiet) until the minute I went to bed, seven days a week. It really was not pleasant.

Yet when I meet people and tell them what I do, their first reaction is often something like, “How wonderful you get to stay home with your children!”

Right. Yeah, I get a lot of quality time in (this is sarcasm)–and then I suffer a lot of guilt over it. I’m not sure when people think you’re supposed to work, or how they suppose that happens. There seems to be this notion that your day can just be broken down into segments: work for three hours, play games with the kids, take a lunch, work for an hour, read to the kids, work…

Small children aren’t that convenient. They’re great big bottomless pits of want and need.

I know I do more for my kids when I’m working than the vast majority of daycares would. But am I sitting around reading books to them for long stretches, or playing cards or Candy Land? No. When I’m working, my kids watch a lot of TV (which before I became a parent I swore they’d never do) because I’m least likely to be interrupted when they’re doing that than anything else. My daughter takes care of her little brother quite a bit (and I tell her all the time how much I appreciate it). I encourage them to do everything for themselves that they can–and I’m willing to endure the mess that results from them learning to do that, which is substantial.

Every parent who works at home must manage it in their own way. I don’t know what other people do, honestly. There’s so much guilt wrapped around parenting that it’s not something you can even talk about without fear that you’re going to be accused of not loving your kids enough–whatever that “enough” is. Everyone has an opinion on parenting.

People say, “Oh, you don’t have to work that much!” Well, no. In my current circumstances, I don’t “have” to work at all, frankly. I do this job because I get enormous satisfaction from it, and I know I’m good at it, and I know that many of my authors and editors really appreciate what I do. I know because they request me for their books, and those requests make up the vast majority of my work–to the extent that to take any substantial break from work, I inevitably have to turn down those requests, which I hate to do. I get far more satisfaction out of this job than I would from being a full-time mom, whatever “full-time mom” means. (I think I already am a full-time mom, just with a full-time job, as well.) And again, that does not mean that I don’t love my kids.

I need the mental stimulation that I get from my work. My kids, of course, need mental stimulation, too, and so I spend loads of what I make through working my brain on a fancy private school for them that works their brains very well, with teachers who (it seems) get satisfaction from their jobs.

And in the process I get five hours per school day to work in peace.

Does that make me a bad parent? Well, I certainly hope not, though I think it’s in the nature of good parents to worry. I have great kids who are typical kids–with all the noisiness and rambunctiousness and neediness intrinsic to childhood. My sincerest hope is that they’ll turn out to be great adults who recognize their own value in all the aspects of their lives.

Alas

I got a rejection today on that erotic and disturbing SF story that had made it to the final pool of the Horrors Beyond II antho. The editor was kind enough to include a note, though, that read, “Deanna, your story stood its ground with an astounding number of works — and it held up. There was no lack of quality; it was ‘fitting’it in a location in the anthology.”

(The editor, William Jones, describes his selection process for anthos here. It’s really extremely interesting, the way he ties the stories together into an arc.)

So that’s the best kind of rejection. I knew it was at least that kind of rejection because it was down to the final hours, so I’d bought champagne to celebrate either way. I poured it into a glass one of my authors (China) sent me for my fortieth birthday, which he hand-etched with an illustration from a story of mine he’d read and liked. I’ve decided that will be my writing-toast glass, and if I ever sell the story it’s based on I’ll be even that much happier. :-)

I do really well with my short stories considering how few I’ve written: I’ve only done five. Two of those I’m certain aren’t publishable; one I’ve never even submitted anywhere. Two of the others (the most recent) regularly make it to the final reading pool of anthologies–I’m just almost there. :-)

I really just need to write more.

Writing Sex

Victor Infante has an interesting column on writing sex posted on GotPoetry.com.

I find sex easier to write than anything else–and I’m told by numerous people whose opinions I respect that I write it well. :-) Why it’s easy for me, though, I have no idea. Part of it, certainly, is that it doesn’t embarrass me to write it. Part of it’s the enjoyment I have in the subject. Victor shares those characteristics, too, though, and says that writing sex is still something he struggles with. So the other part’s a mystery to me. :-)

What are your opinions? What makes sex easy or difficult to write well?

Thoughts on Character Growth

I’m copyediting a book I’m utterly delighted by right now, which is wonderful since I’ve been so extremely busy; it reminds me of why I always thought copyediting fiction was a dream job. :-)

At the back of my mind, though, I’ve been thinking about something on character development that perhaps some of the writers/readers/editors on the list will have some insight on. It’s been tugging at me, oddly enough, ever since I took my kids to Cars last week, but I focus so tightly on individual projects with copyediting that I haven’t been able to work through it the way I’d like.

(Bear with me through the Cars explanation–I promise it doesn’t have to do just with that. ;-))

With a kids’ show, of course, everything is exaggerated, and the protagonist’s growth in Cars is no exception. Lightning starts out as a selfish and arrogant jerk and grows into a thoughtful and caring individual. In adult fiction, the growth is usually more subtle. :-)

Nonetheless, that direction for growth isn’t uncommon in the fiction I see, while others are. Arrogance and selfishness seem more acceptable as character faults to be outgrown than, for instance, neediness or insecurity, and I wonder if we expect a certain pattern.

Are there initial character faults in a protagonist that turn you off of a book? What are some of your favorite examples of character growth–from what to what? Which authors manage it best?

Some good news

I got notice that my story “Mutual Feelings” (a sexy and disturbing one) has made it into the final reading pool for the Horrors Beyond II anthology. I’m sure it’s up against some great stories, but it’s exciting anyway. The editor noted, “I enjoyed the tale a great deal–you have a solid prose style; I can see why you are requested as a copy editor.”

I’ll let you know when I find out more. For those of you who enjoyed that bit of smut I posted a while back (please don’t click the link if you’re offended by sex or cursing!), maybe I’ll have something more involved to point you to. :-)

The Internal Editor at Work

I’m always really leery of talking much about writing, because, well, I haven’t had any fiction published, so I don’t know why anyone would be interested in what I have to say about it, except in the ways it relates to my job. :-) I worked on a bit of setting yesterday, though—trying just to paint a picture of a place and time, with no plot in mind at all as I wrote—and I thought it was interesting how my internal editor, which Jay Lake and I discussed the other day, looked at the sentences once they were done.



Ruby crouched in the dirt between the tomato plants, the heavy green scent of them all around her, and pulled a clover-colored caterpillar off a baby tomato. I’m not wild about “Ruby” (especially since I have “Orange” for the dog later). Maybe choose a somewhat religious name. And, you know, I like clover because it’s something this country girl would relate to, but hornworms aren’t really the color of clover—they’re kind of lighter and brighter than that. Deanna? Honestly, quit worrying about stupid crap like that and get on with the story, or you’ll never get it done. Her little brother Peter just squished the hornworms, but they stank when you did that. The chickens liked ’em alive anyway. She palmed it, ignoring its wriggling in her hand, and plucked another, then dropped them in the bucket between her soil-crusted bare feet, thinking how she’d need to scrub under her toenails extra hard next bath she got. With the toenails, you can fit that info in somewhere else in the story. It’s too much description right here. Another worm tried to crawl out, and she flicked it back in, where it twisted among the others, half its stubby legs grasping at air, before righting itself and clambering over them to try again. Okay, this whole image is cool—I like her picking the hornworms. It shows they don’t have pesticides, it illustrates how this country girl easily does a chore that might gross out a kid from today, it shows her needing to work to help the family be fed, shows the rural conditions in which they live, etc. HOWEVER, this is not an interesting way to start a story—it’s just description. To open, you need some conflict to keep the reader going, or you need to pose a question in the readers’ minds that they’ll want answered. You can put this somewhere else, to illustrate something about her character, like maybe she prefers being out here picking hornworms to being inside.

Sweat built up along the top of one eyebrow. She pulled the back of her arm across her forehead before the salty stuff could drip into her eye, then winced at the grime covering the long sleeve of her old dress. Mama would scold her for it. It was hot out here for the sleeves, she knew, but the hairs on the tomato plants always made her itch. Okay, cool. I like the image of her out in the heat in this long-sleeved dress, and I like the info about her mom. I like picturing those fine hairs on the tomato plants and showing how this chore affects her.

The long, low voice of Dewie’s coon dog sounded from somewhere up the road, and dogs joined in bit by bit from all around—some so far off she could only hear them as distant whines. Even old Orange, stiff as he was, crawled out from the hollow he’d dug under the front porch and gave a few barks for good measure while stretching, before circling and flopping down by the rotted-wood steps everyone just leapt past. First, cut off the sentence after “stretching.” You just don’t need all this right here and can just show someone leaping past those steps later. Also, I’m even a little skeptical about her mother allowing them to be rotten anyway, because she seems pretty anal about stuff otherwise, unless the dad’s kind of a layabout who won’t do the “guy” chores this time and place calls for, which is an idea. That’s little stuff. Big stuff, though, is that I think you can use this paragraph as foreshadowing if you place and edit it right—make it known that something about the coon dog’s call isn’t normal, and raise the question in the readers’ minds about what he’s barking at.

She looked up those steps to the screen door riddled with holes that were patched over with squares of sewn-on flour sacks—Mama hated when the flies came in. Mama wasn’t there yet, though. No lunch yet, then. She turned her attention back to the tomato plants and picked another hornworm. I like showing her mother’s personality here through the way the screen is patched, but just having my protag waiting for lunch isn’t very interesting, and this description is too detailed following the last paragraph. I think this could be mentioned in passing as someone goes in the door, maybe accidentally rips off a patch or something.

A horsefly buzzed near her ear, and she swatted at it, then clapped it between her hands before it could get her. She wiped the mess on the material stretched across her thighs. I like showing how buggy this place is, and how unbothered by killing the bugs and by mess she is. It’s a little detail that could go almost anywhere in the story. A change of wind brought pitch-perfect singing–“that saved a wretch like me”–and she glanced toward the west field to the side of the house, away from the shade of the trees, where her oldest sister was hanging laundry on a line Papa had strung out in the open, with some metal poles he’d bought special for Mama. I love the details this shows about her family—religious, how the father buys a chore-helping present for the mother that sounds exorbitantly expensive to this poor family. I like the accuracy that the clothes need to be hung in the sun, while the house in this hot climate is shaded by trees to help keep it cool. It doesn’t seem as though there’s enough reason to have it, though. This needs to be tied into the plot. You can relate the change of wind to what’s happening, or you can somehow illustrate and elaborate on the relationship between the two sisters.

The back of her neck tingled, and she twisted to look at the Big Trees. The twelve oaks clustered so tightly they looked like a single tree from way back here, multi-textured trunks leaning together striped with darker shadow under the layered canopy. This is your first hint of conflict. It needs to come sooner. Also, I’m not wild about “canopy” for this girl’s world. I think you can say “tingled like a passel of fire ants was crawling across it” to get more into the world and replace “canopy” with…something. Don’t know what yet. Let’s have fun thinking about what’s under the trees.

As near as I can tell, I’m one of those writers who has to write in order to get ideas. If I sit around waiting for an idea to occur to me, I’ll just sit forever. Once I started painting this picture, though, plot ideas started to come to me. When I grab one and riff off it, I’m sure it’ll lead to more. :-) This was really a fantastic exercise for me.