Saturday, 31 December 2011

I hear wings beating

The next time I'm writing a series, I'll write the whole thing before I publish a single book.

Granted, it's quite possibly terribly inefficient in terms of work. What if reception is so bad that you've just spent three years of your life writing a series that people are hating? And yep, overall reception has a huge impact on whether I'm writing the sequel, or feel like doing a prequel. Characters that are loved are more likely to come back on the stage for an encore. People hating the overall concept of a series can strangle the second part in its infancy. On the part of the author - total deniability: "It was meant as a standalone anyway."

Writing a series while parts are being published seems like a clever thing to do, then, until you do it in practice. (Hey, I'm still learning how to treat the Muse right - a writer's career seems largely a series of experiments on him/herself, trying to trial and error a way to stay alive and productive and more-or-less - but not too, that's dangerous, too - happy.)

When I started the Dark Soul series, I wrote "Dark Soul" for a gun kink anthology. Much like a lucky oil explorer getting the drill in just right, I then saw the earth split wide open. Geyser. Unstoppable. I'd hit 20-year old oil in my own soul. Holy shit, I hit THAT geological layer again, get the rig over here, NOW!

I wrote Dark Soul 1-3 in a happy daze, sucking on that general area and swallowing as fast as I could. Then, November happened, certain moderators of a certain Goodreads group stepped up their harrassment of trans* writers, "sniffing out" "fake men" and demanding that publisher police the contents of their writers' underwear or be threatened with boycotts, some bloggers ran around outing trans* people as having ovaries (gosh, the possession of ovaries now a crime or what? Personally, most trans* men would like to keep theirs in jars or wash them down the toilet, but they ARE kind of important for the body's hormone equilibrium).

Things thankfully died down (mostly, anyway, not that those mods ever learnt a thing or even apologized), but the important thing was, the geyser had died off. My "sure I can write this whole Dark Soul series, want the whole thing next month?" became pure boisterous posturing.

For weeks, I didn't even feel like a writer. Words were just scrawls on paper. I had moments (days) of intense loathing for pretty much the whole genre and everybody involved in it, including myself, then I slowly dragged myself out of that, realizing, deep down, that I'm not going to allow a few entitled assholes to ruin me as the writer, ruin my fun, or take my books out of the hands - and minds - of my readers.

In short, just because there are assholes and trolls on the internet, I don't have to suffer for them, or hurt those people who really want my stories. Of course, when I write, I'm emphatically NOT writing for the assholes and trolls out there, but I've also discarded the very petty idea of anti-dedicating my books ("This book is for readers, but not J., L. and JM, or A.S., who I hope burst spontaneously into flames when they read any sentence I've written" - ah, if words had such power!).

Although it admittedly would have been fun to watch how quickly and indignantly they'll deny having done "anything" to "deserve such vile treatment", while at the same time working very hard behind the scenes to damage me and my business, and that of my friends.

Honestly, regarding November I'm very nearly past caring, because my real battle - the one that almost nobody has any influence on whatsoever - is to finish a five-part series when trolls have stomped all over the well you'd been tapping. Why do I even bother?

I've spent what feels like two months staring at the screen, digging in my brain, using the sharpest tools I had to try and draw blood. Some writing is nothing less than digging through the
scar tissue of your soul and trying to get at a fresh artery. Some of us look inside like junkies trying to find one good vein. And if you can't find any on your arms, you can always go for the one in your balls or between your toes. We're talking THAT kind of writing.

I felt so bruised and so numb inside that I couldn't see the faint blue shimmer of a vein through my skin. And when the blade went in, I couldn't get deep enough to get even a spurt of blood. Anywhere. Obsessive writer that I am, I kept cutting away, kept digging, and probably made all my friends utterly miserable with my thinly-veiled self-loathing. A blocked writer is a pitiful creature, and he/she knows it.

I knew it would be two more parts, but I couldn't get them written. I analysed my own writing process from inception to final proofing stage to debug it, and I have some vague ideas what I can optimize now and in the future. All this under the pressure to have to deliver two novella-sized books of several stories that were nothing but a twinkle in the Muse's eye. My Muse, however, usually a hard-working and pretty reliable bastard, had fled the scene.

And then you're stuck in the middle of a series, much like a marathon runner who gets a foot blown off at kilometer 20. In front of what feels like thousands of people, most of whom haven't even heard the shot or noticed what's wrong. All they see is that "their" runner staggers and falls. A few go after the shooter, others stare or shout in horror. And while you stagger, all you can think of is to shout "I'm OK! I'm OK! Of course I'm finishing the race, no problem, I just, errr, stepped funny on a stone or something." It's not a pretty picture, because the reality is, you know something's badly wrong, and there's this myth floating around that writing is easy once you know how to do it, and we're all writing machines and reliably produce if given half an incentive, and surely the money is enough, right? We just sit down and do this thing. We're "professionals". Usain Bolt doesn't get a cramp. Muhammad Ali doesn't chicken out.

It's all nonsense. In the end, the battle is between you and the white page on the screen. If I can't find the hole in to the story, it's not happening. That's a block, and I haven't had a real one in ages, but this one was nasty. It was made nastier because of the loathing and disgust, the trolls, and a deep-seated insecurity whether anything would have changed after November.

The answer is, yes, everything has changed, and I'm still cataloguing the fall-out, good and bad. But the first area where I had to do damage control was in my own writing, and, specifically, Dark Soul and whether it would get completed.

You're getting all these funny ideas, too. Whether the pre-November parts will have the same tone. After that huge upheaval, will I write "differently"? How will people now read part 3, which was written well before any of that shit happened?

You manage to take the first steps in part 4 and keep thinking "is this what I would have written before the trolls ate my Muse?" There's a certain taint, a certain fear and tentativeness in the writing that is maybe totally in my imagination. None of my own struggles HAVE TO have made it on the page. Writers can happily suffer in real life and nothing of it makes it on the page. I think. I hope.

And while the trolls haven't destroyed my writing, I do wonder if they twisted it. If I let them down inside me too deep and they did shit in there than I can't even fathom. Or whether I'm clenching up, in a protective reflex, in expectation of their next move. Whether I write in a certain way to justify myself, and how my Muse works, and what my themes are, and how I tackle them.

And then you write more, and the tentativeness slowly falls away. You're a swimmer who has broken out of the pollution of the coastal waters. No plants that wrap themselves around your ankles. The sea out there looks like you remember it - cold and powerful and dark and threatening, and now your muscles are warm and you can SWIM again, for all you're worth. There's no help out here, but veteran that you are, you don't NEED anybody's help. You pull, push, stroke, the machine remembers how to do it, and all the creaky, painful, self-conscious shit, the stuff about expectations, good and bad, all falls away. It's done. None of that matters.

And suddenly you have 15 thousand words, and they might be different from the 15k words you'd have written before it all happened, but, never mind, those 15k are still pretty good words, there's no taint, no rage that doesn't belong. The trolls haven't actually reached THAT deep. They are beach trolls, but once you're deep and far enough in the water, they look like spoiled, bored children hitting each other with plastic sand spades.

In the last four or five days, I've written more than 15k words. Dark Soul 4 is almost finished, and once I've finalized the last scene, I'm going to swim further and bring back Dark Soul 5. I'd say they should both be done in January.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

"Is he ever going to write a book for people like me?"

Recently (a few weeks back, okay, make it months), my colleague and friend Chris Hawkins told me of a conversation she's had with one of my readers (I still struggle typing the word "fan" and will likely forever be stuck in that default...).

Chris explained that my reader is a paraplegic who loves my work and she asked Chris: "Do you know whether he's ever going to write a book for people like me?" Adding that she felt I could write a main character with a disability and do him (and her, by proxy) justice.

Now I don't know who she is (Chris kept this in strict confidence, just relaying the story). I responded that I have a lot of characters dealing with a disability. Vadim Krasnorada suffers from a a bad case of PTSD. Other characters have survivor's guilt, shell shock. Sergei Stolkov, in many ways Vadim's younger mirror-image, loses an arm and a leg and has issues with his prosthetics (which are stupidly advanced and those issues seem to be largely psychological). Kendras, like Richard, has a permanent limp after a foot/knee injury.

Of course, those characters who are permanently disabled get what I'd call "magical replacements". Stupidly advanced tech that makes the physical limitation pretty much only cosmetic. In short, if it doesn't seriously impact a character, it's basically a cop-out, and in many ways, I'm pretty aware of it.

After my experiences with Race!Fail (and my immediate, passionate denial of being a racist just because I had white main characters only), I've become ultra-wary of my own instinctive "but of course I'm not X!" responses.

In this case, we're not talking racism, we're talking ableism. The assumption, in short, that main characters can only be physically perfect, with all limbs basically intact. Now, of course, in erotic fiction, the perfect six-pack, the wise-cracking charm and the physical beauty are, in some ways, givens. It's the default.

It's also a pretty rotten message, which some people can understand as "only perfect/white/healthy/X/Y people deserve love and passion" - and are understandably upset about. While we as readers (and I'm one, too), slip into the skin of these perfect people (who are prettier, wittier, sexier, more confident ... than us), that skin doesn't always fit. The "default" excludes a lot of people.

I've written Kendras a black man, and it wasn't hard at all, once I really understood what was going on inside him, his skin colour didn't matter to "me the writer". I've written Silvio as a genderfluid person (Dark Lady II definitely crosses the line from crossdressing into real gender issues - and wow, was I expecting to be hanged and quartered for that, but it didn't happen), I've tackled various mental and physical injuries and damages.

Today, I think I've seen a character happen to me who is for my reader, whoever she is, and everybody out there who wants a character like that. He's pretty kick-ass, and I can't promise more, because all I've seen so far is a tiny glimpse, but something's germinating.


On a side note, I've written more than 5k in the last two days. I can hope that I've overcome the agonizing writer's block that November has given me. I'm not quite sure if anything that I've written yesterday and today is any good, but attempting to write doesn't feel anymore like tearing out my eye balls. I've even hit the occasional patch of "flow". It's no longer like pulling teeth - and how much I missed that.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Of rabbits and wolves, and bridge trolls and knights

Today I was pointed at this most excellent post by Marie Sexton about the Muse and its natural enemies, and how sometimes, when the Muse gets wounded, it crawls away to die.

Read the full post here.

This is an incredibly powerful post about the power of the "haters". The wolves out there. They might take many shapes - for me, the wolves are people who harrass authors, who demand to know who we sleep with, and who sticks what into whom, all so that we are "legit" in the eyes of the wolves - or "trolls" as I like to call them.

The trolls are the demons lurking under the bridge. They eat the unwary. Sometimes, they injure the valiant during the combat. Sometimes, they take an arm or a leg. Passage into the next story, the next project, was rarely bought so dearly, has rarely left such gaping wounds. Some knights still soldier on and continue onwards, others don't. Others stay the fuck at home.

The problem is that the trolls don't just live under bridges. If the questing knight KNEW the trolls were under that bridge ahead, he could "weapon up", put on the helmet, change from the gentle steed to the charger, and lower the lance, armoured in his heart and body and ready to do battle with whatever comes. (Yes, knights in the Middle Ages didn't travel fully armoured and ready, they did have to change before the battle.)

The trolls I'm talking about today don't live under bridges. They live in forums, where they tell people to boycott publishers who are not policing the gender of their authors, and they live on mailinglists, and blogs (some even write blogs), and comment on blogs and hang out at any place where a juicy, unsuspecting knight might pass by. They have nothing more to offer than snark, nasty attitude, ignorance and hatred. Some of them even believe that knights quest for the "easy money".

Trolls attack the knight's horse if the knight himself cannot be brought down. They attack the knight's squire, his lady, his friends, even the peasant who told the knight which way to take.

They do it "because". I'm not sure what soul-sucking darkness lives in them so that they revel in the mayhem they can cause.

But to trot out the metaphor further: Being a troll or a knight, is, ultimately, a choice, but we can remember (and take heart in) that it's not the troll that might, eventually, reach the grail castle. Trolls are obstacles to overcome. In Campbell's The Hero's Journey, they are Threshold Guardians that try to scare us and test us and that look ghastly and mean, but ultimately, they don't matter. They have no real power.

I need to remember when I sit down to write that, in fairy tales and "romances" (and that's where the word comes from, in Western literary canon), the knight has a name, and we all remember Percival and Galahad, but I couldn't remember the name of a single troll.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Rainbow Awards Winner

I saw yesterday that Dark Edge of Honor - co-written with Rhi Etzweiler - has tied (three-way) for best gay sci-fi novel in Elisa Rolle's Rainbow Awards.

That makes me (us) an award-winning author. :) (But seriously, I'm very honoured and more than pleased, especially for Rhi, who's an amazing talent and this was their first book - here's an author that deserves all the recognition there is, in any case. Great co-writer, extremely hard worker, good friend).

Also, this wouldn't have been possible without Deborah Nemeth, our editor, who helped us fix a number of pretty serious issues with the book (like, she made us completely re-write the last three chapters, which went from "WTF?" to "OMG" under her guidance).

And a great link that's worth watching for all blocked writers out there.

My week largely consisted of staring at a screen while blood was beading on my forehead. You really can't fault me for trying to break through this shit.

I did buy some "sex toys" from Cult Pens and promptly broke my new black Rotring Pro mechanical pencil (me and mechanical pencils have a long history of trench warfare, as the Faber Castell issue a couple weeks back has shown) just three minutes after taking it out of the packet. I broke it while trying to put in a mine from Koh-I-Noor (coloured mines, great idea, but they are going to break your MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE pencil, so stay the hell away from those mines, or at least only put them in a clutch pencil!).

On a sidenote, I'm officially in love with the Rotring tikky 3-in-1, which took me a while to figure out, but it's clearly magic and extremely useful for editing on paper.

Otherwise, very little else to report - sending off the first few Xmas presents and juggling a gazillion things (slight exaggeration, but I did stop counting at a million).