Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve: 2013

I’m a glass half-empty kind of gal.

It’s easy for me look back at 2013 and lament the things I didn’t do, the goals I didn’t achieve, the lack of productivity in my days. But I won’t. At least, not here and not at this time. So here’s a positive spin on things. . . .

--I had two short stories published this year, which is double my fiction publication record of any previous year.  One of them, Snow’s Daughter in NewMyths.com, was my first paid piece of fiction ever! And the other, Immortal Life, appeared in an awesome science-in-culture webzine I love, LabLit.

--I wrote three new stories after leaving my position this spring. Only three new stories! my critical self mourns, and kicks me for emphasis. What happened to my dreams of productivity? But damnit, they’re good stories. I think that one is the best I’ve ever written. At over 8,000 words, it’s the longest, most ambitious, and most emotionally complex thing I’ve ever tackled. And I think it works. My brilliant First Reader and members of my critique group think so, as well.

--I joined a critique group! Joining Critters is paying off in ways that exceed my expectations. It’s not just about receiving thoughtful, honest criticism from dedicated fellow writers. It’s about meeting and joining that community of dedicated writers—of finding those others who understand what it means to spend hours with imaginary people in your head, or to spend a day agonizing over the rhythm of a single sentence. I have no one to discuss “craft” with in my physical, real-world life. Meeting these others online—even just exchanging an e-mail or two with them—makes me feel less lonely.

And the gains to be had from critiquing others’ work? That’s a post in itself. Having my work critiqued is incredibly valuable, but regularly critiquing others’ stories is at least as valuable. The weekly critique requirement of Critters doesn’t just force me to recognize and articulate why elements in a story do and don’t work. It forces me to think about how a story could be better. It makes me think about the differences between a good story (and I’ve seen many good stories on Critters) and a great story (which is rare even among professionally published works).

--I took an online course in medical writing, got my first 2013 gigs as a freelance medical writer, and have learned a lot about new technical writing genres. Perhaps I’ve been a bit disappointed that the pay hasn’t been as high as I’d like relative to the hours I’ve put in for a project. Perhaps I’ve been a little disappointed that more gigs haven’t flowed in. Small steps and patience, I advise myself. Just before the winter break, I landed a gig with a new client which (if they like my work) promises to turn into a regular, well-paid, and interesting assignment. I’ve learned a lot about the medical writing field, I’m networking with other medical and science writers, and as I gain more experience I should be able to work faster and increase my effective hourly rate. (My clients generally pay on a per-project basis, not per hour. So the faster I complete a project, the more I effectively make per hour). And as I network and gain more experience, more clients and gigs will flow in.

--I got another scientific publication. Middle-listed author for a piece of work that made use of experiments I did in my first postdoctoral lab six years ago. But at least those constructs and GST-pulldowns turned out to be worth something in the end, after all. I guess you never know. 

--I spent a lot more time with my family. And this is the big one.  

   When I left my job, it meant having weekends—every single weekend—to spend with my family again. And not just with my husband and children. This year two new nephews joined my family, and I’ve been able to spend time with them both. This summer we rented a house at the beach, and we were able to host my parents and both of my sisters and their families (which includes the aforementioned new nephews!) for a wonderful gathering. We flew to L.A. to spend Thanksgiving weekend with my husband’s family; we hosted Christmas for my parents and Sister #1 and her family. . . I’ve cuddled babies and a sweet toddler. . . And oh, yes, I’ve cuddled my own children as well--a sweet and quirky 6-year old and her wise and patient 9 year-old sister.

I’ve watched my children grow over this past year. I’ve had more time for them, and for my husband as well. In the end, that was the most important thing of all.


2.5 hours to go here, and onward to 2014. 2013 was rough and crappy in ways that I don’t mention here, but it had its moments, too. Some very good moments. Here's to more good moments in 2014, and a few less of the crappy ones!
Happy New Year's!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Writing is not easy and it might drive me mad

Writing is not getting any easier.

I hoped, of course, that it would. But as another writer once said (I can’t remember who, or the exact quote), every time I sit down to write a story, it’s like learning how to write a story all over again. The lessons from the past don’t carry over--not completely--and it’s a different learning curve each time.

I’ve spent the last few months struggling with an awful, jaw-grinding mess of a story. It’s way longer than I ever meant it to be. The narration swoops in and out of present and past tense. I can’t judge its success. There are part of it that I love. But I don’t know if all hangs together in a coherent whole. There’s a character that hasn’t quite come into focus for me. There is a passage that is still niggling away at my mind, that doesn’t seem quite right.

Be careful what you wish for, they say. I wanted to see what it would be like to spend a solid month or two on nothing but fiction writing. I turned down potential freelance (paid) gigs to do this, and I have found that two months of solid devotion to craft has nearly driven me bonkers.

Perhaps it’s just this one story. But I suspect that I’m not cut out for fulltime fiction writing. I suspect that my brain needs other interests and pursuits to function.  Fiction writing was once my escape from science; I suspect that a return to science reading and writing (starting this month!) might also serve as a necessary escape when the fiction machine stalls out on me.

Anyway, the too-long story, “Between Sea and Shore,” has been put to rest for the week while I work on other things. Tomorrow it goes up for critique on the online writing workshop I’ve joined, Critters! And yes, I am nervous about it. I’ve done a few critiques in this workshop now (which is another post; I find that I actually love critiquing and I feel it’s really helping me as a writer) but this is the first time I’ll have my own work up for critique. And somehow this prospect is far more nerve-wracking than hitting the “Send” button and sending my work out directly for acceptance/rejection to a faceless editor at a literary/genre journal.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Work, money, value, rambling

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “work.” I’ve been thinking about how we devalue work that isn’t paid, about how we define some types of work as “frivolous” and ultimately not real work at all; about how we often assume that real, serious, socially validated work is hard and frequently unpleasant and how true “passion” for one’s work is, outside of certain narrow exceptions, immediately suspect.

“Work is work,” I was frequently told growing up. “You’re not supposed to like your work. That’s why it’s called work.”

I ran across this lovely essay in the New York Times, and its themes have been ringing in my head ever since. The author of the piece appears to be a comfortable, financially successful middle-aged man with what would be considered a “real” job. His son is a 25-year old musician. The author writes with love and pride and concern about his son’s career path:

My son Max is a 25-year-old singer and songwriter who goes by the moniker Dolfish. When my friends ask how his career is going, I say, “There’s a girl in Indiana with Dolfish tattooed on her arm,” although that doesn’t exactly answer their question. They know Max was signed to an indie record label when he was 23. They know he tours a lot and has been reviewed by some important music sites and even by mainstream magazines. . . What my friends don’t know is how to measure any of this on the only scale most of us have. You know, the one the I.R.S. uses. And to be honest, I’m not sure how to answer the question either. How successful is Max’s music career?”

The author compares his son’s lifestyle to the 9-5 grind he and his contemporaries lead, and writes of how he and his middle-aged friends are busy working toward retirement just to have the lifestyle that his 25-year old son already has—a life pursuing one’s passion.

He muses: “Maybe we should have an expression that captures the level of success you’ve achieved when you do exactly what you love every day.”

This isn’t all a moony, stardust-in-the-eyes ode to pursuing your passion. The author is concerned about his son’s future; he worries that the young man won’t be able to afford a family or health insurance. And the author is writing with genuine pride of a young man who is doing what he loves, who doesn’t accept parental handouts, and who does substitute teaching between gigs to make ends meet.

The online comments on the piece were, predictably, eviscerating (I really do need to stop reading the reader comments on major news sites).

“Bum,” “parasite,” “lazy,” were typical epithets thrown at the young musician in question. “Get a real job” wasn’t the extent of it; many commenters seemed to presume, not only that being a musician isn’t a real job, but that’s it not even any kind of work at all. That touring and practicing and writing music isn’t rigorous and exhausting; that if a creative field is pursued out of love, then it’s all just fun-and-games. That Max, the young man in the article, really is a lazy bum playing around and having a good time while real Americans put in their time at real jobs.

Certainly there are legitimate financial concerns about pursuing an artistic career in America, or any type of high-risk creative field. But the vitriol vented online was something else. There was a deep anger in some of the comments, a resentment that seemed to stem from a feeling of “I hate my soul-sucking job, therefore everyone else should hate theirs, too!”

A presumption that if someone truly loves what they do, it can’t be real work. Even if, you know, it often is a lot of work (I assume road tours can’t be easy).

Interestingly, an exception to this presumption occurs if an artistic career makes a lot of money. As an astute commenter on the original piece said, "How is Max a bum? Is Bruce Springsteen a bum? Is he a bum until he's a member of the 1% The 10%?" 

No one would ever call Bruce Springsteen a bum. Or Bono, or Adele, or anyone who happens to be making tons of money at their art. Money somehow transmutes everything; that which was unrespectable becomes worthy. A struggling film graduate is a bum only until he produces a hit movie, at which point he is suddenly no longer a bum but worthy of adulation (even though he’d been working hard all along the way). Ditto the struggling novelist, painter, musician. Struggling anything.

I suppose I’m sensitive to these ideas now because of where I am in my life: no steady, full-time job, no paid “work.” I was raised to equate a job’s value with the money and security it brings; and though I rebelled against that view, I’m still unable to tear out the roots of that teaching. I chose to embark on a career path with little security and relatively poor financial compensation considering the amount of education and training required. I chose a path for love, not money. My family’s direst warnings came true, and that career (basic scientific research) collapsed under current funding pressures. And now I sit at home, writing fiction and pursuing a field with even less financial compensation than science. A bum twice over, according to some views?*


*Of course, a number of people would say that I can only do this because I'm "bumming" off of my husband, who trained in a practical field and brings in a more-than-comfortable living. Yes, I'm privileged. Very very privileged. And I still have a weird and complicated relationship with money and self-esteem and value, as I think we all do.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Monday, September 30, 2013

Ramblings about fictional characters

I’ve been thinking about what makes me fall in love with a fictional (literary, film, or television) character. Critics bat around terms like “realistic,” “complex,” and “multi-dimensional.” I would say that the latter two traits are definitely important to me. But “realistic?” I’m actually not so sure.

Critics have praised the characters of the Hunger Games trilogy as realistic. I’ve seen reviews praising other popular genre works—Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, even the anime series Attack on Titan—as having characters that are engaging because they’re “realistic.” Bullshit. Katniss Everdeen and her friends are compelling, flawed, and complex. But “realistic?” Katniss and her friends are layered, but they’re also smarter, stronger, braver, more badass, and also better looking than any ordinary people out there.

 Maybe the term I’m trying to refute isn’t “realistic.” Maybe it’s actually “ordinary.” Katniss and her friends are not ordinary. The most beloved characters of genre (and mainstream?) fiction are not ordinary. Fans don’t seem to write fan-fiction about and cosplay “ordinary” characters. I think we all want the extraordinary.

I find an element of wish-fulfillment in the characters that I fall for. I wish I were as witty and clever as Tyrion Lannister. I wish I were as brave and badass as Jon Snow and Arya Stark. Or as principled and quietly resilient and spirited as Jane Eyre. I wish I had the clever repartee of a Joss Whedon character. For me to truly fall in love with a character, there has to be something about them which I admire. They can’t be completely admirable, of course; that would be boring, and flaws and quirks deepen my attachment. But there’s always an element of idealization in my infatuation. How else would I grow infatuated in the first place?

And I’ve fallen for deeply flawed characters. Jaime Lannister, anyone? Or to take a non-genre example—Robert Frobisher from David Mitchell’s novel “Cloud Atlas.” In the book, Frobisher is self-absorbed, entitled, manipulative; he’s a thief, a freeloader, and someone who can be extraordinarily insensitive to his best friend and one-time lover.** And yet this character is also utterly charming: his narrative voice is witty, entertaining, brilliant. And though he’s selfish and often oblivious, there’s also a kind of inconstant, childlike sweetness to him, like the flighty sweetness of a toddler. What am I falling for in this case? Is it just the brilliant charm and intelligence? Is it also the spots of vulnerability and hurt in this character? In real life I’d run like hell from this man; on the page, I’m happy to be seduced by someone so “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

There is a place for those novels and stories of ordinary upper-middle class North Americans with their ordinary, upper-middle class problems. Stories of people who are not particularly brilliant, or talented, or funny, or courageous, or angry, or. . . anything, really. Just normal people trying to muddle through their normal lives. I have loved examples of this type of story; hell, I’ve tried writing these types of stories. But you know what? While I may enjoy the beautiful language and minutely observed detail; while I may enjoy the way such a story can catch and distill some aspect of contemporary life; while I may like and feel for the characters while I’m reading, I still never fall in love with such characters. Shortly after closing the book, I forget their names.  

Give me bold strokes. Give me bright colors. Give me a character with passion and yearning. Give me a character larger than life. Give me the Struggle Against Unbeatable Odds. Or give me a seeming everyman—a seemingly ordinary person—and then put him in extraordinary circumstances and show me that he’s not ordinary at all. Give me that ordinary, insecure, fearful, wallflower and have him level up.

Here’s the tricky part. You also have to make the character relatable. You have to make her or him human enough that critics will call this character “realistic.” It’s a trick, an illusion of realism. No one in real life is actually that witty or brilliant or strong or badass or awesome. But make me believe it; and furthermore, make me so identify with your character that I believe—for just the space of a story, a novel, a television episode—that I, too, could be that awesome.

**The character of Robert Frobisher was softened considerably for the movie version of Cloud Atlas. But it is still a wonderful character—brilliantly portrayed by Ben Whishaw—and easily the best thing in the movie.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

What I want

As I left my girls in the bathtub tonight, the older one, "bean-girl," was telling the younger, "Legume," a story. Something about mermaids and jelly doughnuts.

I passed by the bathroom a few times as I put away laundry and took care of small tasks. I heard Legume enthuse, "That's a really good story!"

I heard bean-girl say modestly, "No, it really isn't. It's just a mix of things."

The next time I passed by the bathroom, I heard a squawk and ruckus. "Mom!" bean-girl cried. "Legume is being crazy! She pinched my ear!"

I sighed. "Why did you pinch, Legume? That's not nice."

"Because she won't tell me the rest of the story!" Legume pouted.

After their bath, Legume chased bean-girl around the house, demanding to hear the rest of the story. "I can't tell the rest because I don't know what happens next!" bean-girl said, giggling and running as Legume threatened to pinch her again.

And I thought, That's what I want. I want to be able to tell stories so compelling, so wicked awesome, that people want to chase me around and pinch my ears to hear the rest.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hello, world

Well. The weather has been playing with us; it's been in the 80s this week, and the kids think it's summer as they play out in the yard, begging to stay out until the sun goes down. But it's nearly mid-September, and they're finishing their second week of school. New friends, new classes, and lots of new experiences both in and out of the classroom.

Changes for me, too.

And with those changes a new blog as well. September, someone recently said in the part of the blogosphere I visit, is a great time for re-sets.

For those who have followed me from my old blog. . . thank you. There will be a shift of focus in this new blog. Since I'm not a research scientist anymore I won't, obviously, be blogging about the world of hands-on research science. I'm trying to make a go of it as a freelance biomedical writer and editor, but I probably won't talk (too) much about that here. (I may eventually launch a separate website for more science-y posts).

This will be my place to talk a bit more about fiction writing and reading. I hope to post book reviews. I'll rant about pop-culture obsessions. I'll rant about whatever abstract issue I feel like, I suppose. You see, it's all a jumble.

And speaking of personal pop-culture obsessions. . .The anime series Attack on Titan has been ruining my life. Go see it. Even if you hate anime, go see it. I thought I hated anime, too--all the conventions of the genre, the big-eyed characters, the high, breathless Minnie Mouse voices of the females. Then I saw this series. As I raved on Facebook, it's like "Game of Thrones" on crystal meth. The Daily Dot has a great beginner's guide to the series.

Then again, maybe you don't want to start this series. Because I am still traumatized over episode 22. Because this series rips out your heart and drags it along the ground and then stomps it to a bloody, pulpy smear. Because George R. R. Martin and the creator of Attack on Titan would probably be best friends and I can't decide which one I hate more.