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Story Notes – “Sour Milk Girls”

I have a story out in Clarkesworld. Let me say that again – I have a story out in Clarkesworld! If you haven’t read it, it’s a story about orphan teen girls and sharing memories and a feisty hacker named Ghost and you can read it for free online here. What a way to kick off 2018!

Before I get to the normal story notes, I have to say – this sale was a big surprise. I have quite literally said out loud before that while I love Clarkesworld, I was pretty sure I’d never sell there because my work is very different than what I thought they’d be looking for. Let this be a lesson to me in 2018 – don’t self-reject, don’t second guess editors, and always listen to the wise words of Ian Muneshwar (who encouraged me to submit the story in the first place).

And now onto the notes! There shouldn’t be major spoilers in them, but just to be safe, read Sour Milk Girls first!

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An Amazing Year

It’s been so fun to read everyone’s end of year eligibility for SFF awards posts this year (and I’ll be writing a round-up of some of my favorite stories of the year in a few weeks, once I’ve had a chance to read as many as possible). Personally, though, I’ve had nothing published in 2017. I’m off the hook (well, I’m Campbell-eligible, but probably very very unlikely to be nominated for that). But even though I’m not eligible, I think it’s good to state out loud how 2017 has been going for me as a writer. Because it’s been awesome!

I have officially finished all of the writing that I need to do to get my Stonecoast MFA – my thesis has been accepted. I still have a presentation to give and a reading to do, but the stories that I have spent the last 2 years of blood and sweat and tears on are done. One has already been sold (it will be in The Dark in 2018 – yayayay!), and one helped me win what is pretty much the greatest honor of my writing career so far, the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Diverse Worlds Grant and Diverse Writers Grant. I applied thinking maybe maybe maybe I could get one of them, and somehow I won both. I knew this year that I would be focused much more on writing than on selling (though I tried to get a few flash pieces out to meet the 12 stories in 12 months challenge, it was ultimately too much for me by April/May), but even when you know you’re on a journey and nowhere near your destination, it means so much to see some heartfelt cheerleaders along the way.

But that’s not all! I have started to dip my toe into not only non-fiction (highlighted by a post on Tor.com that let me go down the rabbit hole of dystopic fiction), but game writing (I’m working on a super fun Choice of Games project that is just what I need to lighten the mood when the stories I’m writing start seeming a little dire), and even slush reading (with the amazing folks at Escape Artists, where I’m an Escape Pod Associate Editor and was a Guest Associate Editor for Psuedopods Artemis Rising call, and my smart and deeply talented fellow students at the Stonecoast Review, where I was a Fiction and Non-Fiction Editor for issue #8). The number of incredible people that I get to work with all the time is pretty amazing.

At the end of the day, though this isn’t something that can be measured or linked to, one of my great joys of the year is that I really feel like part of the Speculative Fiction community now, which I absolutely love. I’ve gotten to speak on a few panels and give a talk, but more than that I’ve gotten to have conversations with fun, smart, engaging writers (and absorb all of their knowledge I possibly can). I’ll be going to a bunch of cons next year, starting with Boskone, and I’m already smiling thinking about it.

Finally, on a personal note, I got the amazing opportunity to travel to seven different countries this summer and try to absorb just a little bit of their setting and life so that I can think back on it when I’m trying to create worlds and cultures and people for my stories. I think that one of the best ways to put life on the page is to go out and live it, and I’m glad I had a chance to do that in a few beautiful places, even if I only got to know them for a brief moment in time.

Okay, enough bragging. Because it does feel like bragging. But writers as a whole (and I in particular) have a tendency to climb a mountain and then act like it was a molehill, to keep looking forward at where we want to go instead of looking and taking a deep breath and acknowledging where we’ve been. So here’s to the journey.

I can’t wait for 2018.

 

 

Dipping My Toe Into Non-Fiction Waters

One of the funniest things that happens to me when I come back to this blog is looking at the titles of all the blog posts that I started to write, but didn’t. I mean, if I were more diligent, you (dear Reader) could have been learning about things like My Year In Review, Planning for My Inevitable Failure (on Twitter, not in life, for the record), and The Future Is Horrible (But The Present’s Just Fine). But alas, I usually only post here when I get passionate enough about something to let it bubble up to the surface into one long post about THINGS I CARE ABOUT!!1!!111!!

However, there are times when I do write non-fiction from start to finish, and those are when I have been asked to by an editor. In fact, all of my non-fiction pieces have either been solicitations or through a personal connection (AKA I threw myself at the mercy of the editors of the soap opera anthology I am in because I have always wanted to write something about soap operas). I feel very fortunate to occasionally pop up on people’s radars, and recently, it’s led to me writing my first ever set of reviews.

The first review, Rebirth, Truth-with-a-Tea, and FIYAH, is appearing in People of Color Take Over Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and is a look at the first two issues of FIYAH, the new magazine of black speculative fiction. The second is a review of the book Sleeping With Monsters, which is itself a book of reviews and personal essays by Tor.com columnist Liz Bourke (a review of reviews! I’m so meta!). So…how did I do it? Here is a quick look into my reviewing process:

Act I

  1. Read the thing.
  2. Take notes on the thing I am reading as I go. The notes are not super in-depth. More like a reminder of what the individual story/section was about and how I felt about it – my first impressions, so to speak.
  3. Become overwhelmed by all the thoughts that I have about the thing I read. Go back and re-read parts. Take more notes. Look for themes in current notes and write them down. Think about what I have written.
  4. Remind myself that I have a deadline to meet and I have to write something that can be put in print somewhere.
  5. Start writing.
  6. Erase what I wrote.
  7. Start writing again.
  8. Curse the day I ever learned to put pen to paper. Scroll through Facebook. Discover that all my writing friends have written 2,000,000 words for their latest project in the last 15 minutes. Simultaneously cheer them and sigh.
  9. Start writing again. Kind of like what I’m writing. Keep going for a bit.
  10. Lose my train of thought. Go back to the thing and read again.  Possibly take a break for loud singing along to musical theater.

Act II

  1. Get back in the mood. Hit my stride. Typity typity type type type.
  2. Agonize over an ending line. Avoid agony by revising the first unrevised section.
  3. Repeat step 12 until the ending is all that is left.
  4. Remind myself that I have a deadline to meet and I have to finish the review. Repeat “the perfect is the enemy of the good” like a mantra under my breath. Finish the review.
  5. Send the review to editor. Read it again after it is gone. Discover 1,000 ways I could have made it better. Decide all 1,000 ways are my brain playing tricks on me, like an editorial mirage.
  6. Get revisions back from editor. Review and implement changes. Think on how brilliant editor is and make my goal to reach similar editorial heights in future.
  7. Send final version to editor.
  8. Have existential crisis about the nature of judgment.
  9. Sing more musical theater and/or watch episodes of shows I have seen 500 times already but still love.
  10. Wait until the review hits the stands (so to speak). Hope that it was helpful. Get nostalgic over previous 19 steps. Move on to the next thing.

And there you have it. Hopefully what I’ve put together turns out to be worth it to whoever is reading it, but regardless (and this isn’t just the nostalgia talking), I had a blast. I can’t wait for my next non-fiction adventure.

 

 

On Safety Pins

I know. It’s been a week. And what you absolutely wanted to talk more about right now was safety pins. Right? Well don’t worry, I’ve got your back.

So here’s the thing about safety pins:

Safety pins are small. They’re hard to spot. They’re unobtrusive. Their very nature is to try to quietly hold things together that have come apart so that nobody notices what’s gone wrong. They don’t take center stage – they hide in hems and sleeves and under buttons. They make believe that everything is okay. And when it comes to clothing, that absolutely makes sense. But as a metaphor? Safety pins are not a revolution. They are not a resistance. They are part of the reason we are where we are right now.

When I think safety pins, I think of every time someone lets a racist or sexist or homophobic joke go because they don’t want to start a fight, every time they let hateful or dismissive terminology slip by them like they don’t hear it, like they don’t know what it means. I think of every time people wait until they are alone to say that things aren’t okay, because they don’t want to expose the rips and tears in the fabric of our polite society in public.

When I think of safety pins, I think of every time someone is more upset by the accusation that they have caused injury to another person than by the fact that they actually hurt someone. I think of every time someone cares more about the way they look to others than what they do to others, of the desire to be presentable no matter how much actual damage has been done. I think of the way that when safety pins pop open, we shove them back closed again so they they won’t hurt us. So they can’t hurt us.

When I think of safety pins, I wonder who exactly it is they are supposed to be keeping safe.

So here’s what I want. I want all those safety pins to be attached to something real. If your safety pin is being used to speak out, to pin your beliefs to your clothing for the world to see, I’m all for it. Write Black Lives Matter on a piece of fabric and safety pin that to your chest. Write Love is Love. Write Being Harassed by Hate? I’ve Got Your Back. Write whatever you want, honestly. But write something. Tell me what that safety pin means to you. Because otherwise, all it means to me is another way of pretending that everything is going to be okay.

So use your safety pin. Use it to speak out about what you believe. And if that scares you, if you’d rather just have a safety pin, quiet and small and safe, helping you pretend that things are going to magically be alright, then please, please – don’t have a safety pin at all.

 

 

Writing “Wolfy Things”

My story Wolfy Things is out at Podcastle! My first-ever sale! Squee!

I’m stealing a page from Benjamin C. Kinney‘s book and jotting down some notes on the story. Nothing about what it means or how readers should think about it – part of the fun of reading is the interpretation. Still, I’d listen first before reading any further, just in case I accidentally spoil something in the process. The link to the story is here – Wolfy Things. Read More

Writing (Speculative Fiction) While Black

It’s rare that a report full of facts and figures punches you right in the gut, but I just finished reading the #BlackSpecFic report (and accompanying editorials) by Fireside Fiction, and I am feeling all the feels. (Note: If you have no idea which report I’m talking about, read it. Read it now. It’s easy to get caught up in shock about the finding, which are that only 38 of the over 2,000 short stories published in speculative short fiction markets were written by a Black person, but there’s more to it than that and it answers a lot of the typical questions about submission rates and quality and all that. It’s worth the read.)

I should probably wait and try to process all of this before I write a blog post, but that isn’t the 2016 way, right, and I worry that I’ll start smudging the truth out of my words, hiding them underneath the veneer of civility and not wanting people to dislike me, so here goes.

I am a Black writer of speculative short fiction who is new to the field, and I have no idea where exactly I fit in. It seems like a ridiculous thing for me to write, honestly, even though it’s true. I mean, as neo-pro spec-fic writers go, I’m doing pretty well. I had the means and work situation/class privilege to be able to go to the Odyssey Writers Workshop for six weeks last summer (and thus qualify for Codex) and enroll in an low-residency MFA at Stonecoast this year.

I live in New York City, so I get to do things like go to the KGB Bar and meet awesome writers and stare in wonder at Ellen Datlow in hopes that I will mind-control her into publishing me one day. I’m a non-threatening short medium-brown skinned extroverted smiley black woman, and people generally tend to (or at least pretend to) like me. With the help of Con or Bust (which sends people of color to SFF conventions across the country), I’ve gone to cons and met some of the coolest spec-fic writers around, including many amazing writers of color. I’ll be at Midamericon II next month, and I’m sure I’ll have a good time. I should feel cloaked in the warm embrace of the SFF writing community. Right?

My burgeoning speculative fiction writing life should be wonderful, but every time I go to send in a piece of short fiction, I start thinking. I think:

This magazine has an awesome diversity statement, but what does that mean for me? I remember, a few years ago, a report revealed something I probably could have told you, that resumes sent in to companies with “black names” don’t do nearly as well as those sent in with “white names.” I don’t have that issue – the name Erin Roberts tends to have people picturing a red-headed Irish woman, not a dreadlocked black one (though for years, I made sure to have something on my resume to indicate that I was a woman of color, because I got sick of having interviewers thrown off by the reality of who I was, repeating over and over again that they “thought I’d have freckles” and ignoring my qualifications).

These days, though, maybe I have the opposite problem. Magazines want “diverse voices” but sometimes I wonder how they’re looking for them. Some authors are known to be people of color, or can be assumed to be POC from their last or first names, but black people are probably the ethnic group most likely to have a name indistinguishable from the Irish girl people always think I am. So how then, do I raise my hand and say – hey this is a diverse voice! Do I put a PS in my cover letter? Do I just keep my head down? Can people tell my background from the way that I write? Do I want them to?

If this story sells, what if I have somehow done more harm than good? When I was at Odyssey, I told my classmates that my biggest writing fear was to have something I wrote torn apart by one of the amazing writers of color who are always willing to speak truth to power. After all, I consume the same media and live in the same country as many of my white writing peers. How much prejudice have I taken in? How much am I unintentionally broadcasting back out, even as I try to use science fiction and fantasy to reflect what I see as the truth of the world I’m living in? What if this story demeans my culture? What if I am a self-hating anti-black sellout who is somehow giving ammunition to racists just by putting my work out in the universe? What if I just want to write about a dragon in Brooklyn? Does all my work have to mean something more? What does it mean for/about me if it doesn’t?

If this story gets traction (an award, a Year’s Best, etc.), how many people will assume it has nothing to do with my talent? I went to an Ivy League university. It was awesome, and a great reward for me kicking ass and grade-grubbing throughout high school. What was less awesome was the people who looked at me and assumed that my acceptance was because of who I was and not what I’d done. (And no, this isn’t an argument to get rid of affirmative action – the answer to one or two racially challenged assholes is not to let the system become just like them).

And now, just as I am starting to get my reward of publication for all the hard work I’ve put into building my writing craft, there are entire movements that seem to insist that a work of science fiction or fantasy that tackles race or gender, that is written by anyone who has had to personally tackle race or gender, only wins awards or get recognized in any way because the powers that be are giving out cookies to people who don’t look like them to satisfy their liberal guilt. That tells me that even if I believe in my stories, in my talent, there will be some people who won’t. And hey, that happens in the writing business, but there’s a difference between being told “I don’t think you’re a good writer” and being told “I don’t think there’s any way you could really be a good writer and don’t you know that people just say good things to you out of pity?”

I don’t have the answers to any of this. I’ve only sold one story. I’ve only gone to a handful of cons. I’m just trying to make my way. So why did I write this? I’m not really sure.

I guess I just want to say, to the other black science fiction and fantasy writers out there who nobody has ever heard of, who are just like me (or nothing at all like me, ’cause do you), to all the black people trying to make it in this field who will probably never see this blog post, I’m putting it out in the universe. I see you. I see you trying. I see you working. I see you submitting and getting rejected and submitting again. I’ll keep writing and trying to get my name out there and trying to get my voice out there, if you’ll do the same.

Let’s knock on the door until our knuckles are bleeding, until we’re sure they hear us, even if they don’t open the door. Let’s feel our feels and cry our tears and channel our passion into the best damn stories this genre has ever seen.

Let’s keep writing.

Five Things I Learned In The Last 10 Days

I have just returned to civilization after 10 days in Maine for my second residency (of five) in my low-res MFA program, where I’m specializing in popular fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, romance, horror, crime, mystery, etc.). It’s kind of like summer camp for writing nerds, and given all the insanity going on in the world right now, it was the perfect escape at the perfect time. There’s no way to really capture the experience, but I’m condensing all my Stonecoastian (that’s a word, right?) knowledge into THE five things I’ve learned and/or are taking with me until the next time I get to hang with my crazy awesome writer friends in Maine.

Drum roll please….

  1. Take risks. We had a whole seminar on risk-taking in fiction, but where I really saw this in action was during our student readings. Everyone gets the opportunity to read their work for 3 minutes, and most of us take it. Some are confident readers, some are nervous as hell, some stare down at cell phone screens and pray nobody calls for the next 3 minutes, some grip papers tightly in their hands. All are brave and inspiring. I loved how as the open mic kept going and nobody was booed off of the stage and/or burst into flames, more people tried to sign up for the last few open slots. Risk-taking. It’s contagious.
  2. Workshopping stories is THE BEST. I love being workshopped. Maybe I was brainwashed by my incredible Odyssey experience last summer, but there’s something so fun to me about seeing what people saw in your story, for good or for bad. As always, had two stories workshopped this go-round. Things I learned about them – it’s probably good to earn your endings, popular fiction students will see through your handwavium technology, and genocide is a downer. Can’t wait to dive back into these stories and get them up to shape and out to market.
  3. I want to be AllTheStonecoastProfessors when I grow up. Every night, we got to hear 3 or 4 of our teachers read from their work for 10 minutes. OMG. Talk about something to aspire to. Not sure how to really summarize the experience except to say, in the words of an old NYC TV commercial, “I laughed! I cried! It was better than Cats!”
  4. Our graduations are the rockingest. I’m not talking about the graduation party, though any group that turns out to the floor en masse for the Time Warp is filled with my kind of people. The graduation itself is just special. In maybe an hour, we were welcomed to the Republic of Poetry, asked to re-examine the blank page, and reminded to “stay gross” and always be who we are. Each time, I know the graduating class better and cry a little more, so I will probably just be a puddle with a cap on by the time I graduate, but it will totally be worth it.
  5. Community matters. One of the reason I love Stonecoast is that we all care about each other. It’s a heavy time in the world and there are always things happening in people’s lives outside of the program, but being at Stonecoast is like being wrapped in some sort of giant comforting creative hug of understanding. We stay up the extra hour to see how a friend is doing. We let the introverts have their time away. We dance into the night like we’re made of pure joy. We work together to make our writing better, to figure out what we’re each trying to say, and amplify each other’s voices.

I can’t wait until next time!

Die, Darlings, Die!

Kill your darlings. It’s one of the pieces of writing advice you hear all the time. But until recently, it never really meant anything to me. I had no problem cutting scenes from a story, or even cutting a whole character. Obviously I was sooo advanced of a writer that I didn’t need the old chestnut of advice.

Nope. Not at all. I just didn’t understand what my darlings were.

I recently wrote a story that I thought had a great first couple of paragraphs. The hook was immediate, the language strong, the pacing great. And most importantly, it had a great voice. That’s very important to me. Every writer (I think) has something that’s in their wheelhouse. One writer friend of mine makes scenery come to life. Another has dialogue so real that you think you’re eavesdropping. I like to think that voice is one of my strengths. And even if it isn’t, it’s something that I always focus on. I’m willing to change a lot of things to make a story work, but messing with the voice? That isn’t really one of them.

But then I wrote the rest of the story and…those first couple of paragraphs no longer really made sense. I tweaked them this way and that, but they still seemed to be in direct contrast with the plot and theme of the story I had written (which, of course, was completely different than the one I thought I was writing).

I sent the story off to an amazing beta reader (the brilliant M. Glyde) and he agreed. My hooks and the questions they raised were great, but they didn’t seem to be answered in the story. And there’s nothing worse than promising your reader that you’re going to zig and then having the rest of the story be a zag. I needed to rework the beginning.

At first, I resisted, making my case to kitty-editor Crumbsnatcher as she reclined on the sofa. But this turn of phrase is so precious! Don’t you see the way this opening line draws people in? This is the part that they’ll be referencing on Twitter when I go to pick up my Nebula!

Then I realized…all of the reasons that I didn’t want to make the changes were about me. How good I thought I sounded, how clever I thought I was being. My darling wasn’t a character or a plot twist…it was in my wordplay, and, more than that, how invested I was in seeming like a brilliant writer because of that wordplay. But writing isn’t supposed to be about the writer. It’s supposed to be about the reader.

So I’ve started killing. My precious adjectives. My great expressions. My clever phrasings. And as they each go into the woodchipper, I’m getting a little closer to the heart of the story and why it should matter to a reader. And that’s worth killing for.

 

A (Half) Year in Review

Since I let this blog get a little cobwebby over the last year, a recap post seems like the perfect way to come back to the world. I was inspired by my awesome writer buddy Leslie Starr O’Hara the Cyborg Valkyrie, who wrote back in January about her writing goals for the year and put down actual numbers. She has this theory of thinking about your life as a business – you set goals and metrics for the year, and then give yourself quarterly reports to see how you’re doing. Of course, despite this inspiration, I’m not implementing the plan until 6 months into the year, but hey, something’s better than nothing, right?

But first….a quick catch-up. Previously, on Writing Wonder, our heroine had been very close to getting into Clarion/Clarion West, but ultimately unsuccessful, and was considering applying to Odyssey. Welp, I got in! Woot! And spent six weeks last summer in the woods with an amazing group of writers, an incredible teacher (Jeanne Cavelos) and weekly visits by some of the industry’s best. I even got to meet/hang out with/get a critique from one of my favorite writers, Kij Johnson.

Drunk with success and in writing-in-the-woods withdrawal, I followed up Odyssey by applying to an MFA program – Stonecoast. I wanted to go because of the amazing professors and the fact that it’s low-res so I can continue to live my life while figuring out how to incorporate a consistent writing practice. And I got in! Woot! It started in January, which is where this half-year in review begins.

My 2016 writing goals are very simple – amass 100 submissions (this is part of the 100 rejections blood pact I made with my Odyssey crew), have 5 stories out on submission at once, and write every day. I am much much less prolific than many of my friends/writing buddies, so this is a good goal for me to keep me focused without trying to run somebody else’s race.

So how am I doing? Well, let’s go to the videotape! look at the numbers:

Stories/Essays First-Drafted: 6
Stories Currently in Revision: 5
Stories/Essays Completed: 4
Note: This includes stories drafted before this year, but finished since January.
Most Subs Out At Once: 2
Total Submissions: 10
Form Rejections/Personal Rejections: 5 form/2 personal
Acceptances: 2
Note: This includes my non-fiction essay, which was written and accepted for a specific anthology.

Not so bad. I’m not where I want to be yet, but if I can convert more of these pieces in revision into finished stories, I’ll be on my way. The one thing I know I have not done? Write every day. I try to write on my commute in the morning on the train at a minimum, but I know sometimes I haven’t done it, and I haven’t been tracking it consistently, so I am now going to start tracking it and try using a Don’t Break The Chain mentality – it doesn’t matter how much I write, just that I write every day. Wish me luck!

Until next quarter…