Setting as context

Setting is a difficult thing for many writers. It has certainly been my Achilles heel in some of my work, though I like to think I grow with each story. I’ve been thinking about it recently, and I think that one of the best ways of thinking about setting in your novel or short story is as context. Allow me to explain.

It’s really interesting how the context of something changes depending on where and when that something has happened. A kiss, for example, can mean a lot of things depending on who is giving it to whom and where. A kiss under the mistletoe evokes holiday cheer and romance; a kiss by a lake, summer love or lasting commitment; and a kiss in the dark lust or fear.

My S.O. told me a story once about finding an unspent bullet in a bus station. He had just been told how dangerous the city he was traveling to was, and advised to be careful. The bullet made him laugh, because he is one of those rare fools halfway to Buddha-hood already. He kept it as a reminder of the absurdity of life, and it sits now on one of our altars.

The context of a bullet in a city bus station is very different from the context of a bullet in an open desert. I also have a story about finding bullets. When I was a child, my father and I would go walking through a small patch of desert in the still developing boundaries of Phoenix. In early morning, the desert is a place of fragile loveliness. Though I was only three or four, I can clearly remember watching the hot air balloons rise over what felt a vast, flat expanse, the world made of soft, washed out blue and rocky greys and reds. The hot air balloons became bright bursts of color in this near monochrome. The world was nearly silent but for us.

On one of those mornings, my father found a pack of bullets left abandoned by a hunter. They were bird shot, and I remember him explaining what that was. It is a very different kind of bullet than the smooth, metal tipped casing that my S.O. found in his bus station. The casing is usually bright red, made of some plastic polymer designed to more or less disintegrate on firing, spreading small balls of metal outward in a speckled pattern that becomes less dense the farther away the target is. I don’t recall that I had ever seen a bullet before. My father threw them into a small pond, a watering hole for desert creature the hunter had likely been waiting by.

Setting, then, makes a thing more or less frightening. The incongruity of finding a bullet on the sidewalk or in a store raises questions, worries, fears. But a bullet left by a watering hole in the desert seems natural and unthreatening. As a writer, it is important to constantly be aware not only of the context characterization can provide, but also of setting.

Characterization comes more easily than setting to me personally. I understand the implications to someone’s reaction towards a spider if they have been bitten by one before, for example. No one likes pain, so that dislike can easily transfer to spiders. Character becomes context when a person’s memories and experiences shape their reactions to an event or object.

Setting, however, can be more complicated. It shapes and informs character in the form of cultural biases and previous learned experiences.

A great example of setting’s impact on character is an interaction I had with a friend on a hike a few years ago. She is from Burma, which has a tropical, jungle climate. There are over 20 breeds of venomous snakes in Burma. In Virginia there are only three. Of such little differences is setting made. When we saw a snake on our hike, I was delighted. I knew instantly from its color that it was not dangerous and for me it was a novelty. For her, it was a potentially deadly threat, until I provided her the context of our mutual setting. Even then she was uncomfortable with the prospect of running into a snake in the wild – a character trait that was shaped in part by the setting of her youth.

Through the lens of setting as context, and by understanding how that context is related to characterization and plot, we can begin to improve our world-building. And world-building is a writer’s bread and butter, especially in speculative fiction. So the next time you’re writing away and something happens to your character, ask yourself if she would have taken it differently in a different time and place. I think it will be pretty revealing.

Creating as a woman

The other day, a friend and I were discussing the movie The Fifth Element. My S.O. loves that movie. It is ironically one of the only science fiction movies that he enjoys. I chalk this up to nostalgia – not that I don’t enjoy the movie, the opposite, but it’s not really his kind of science fiction. His speed is more Interstellar or something else vastly cerebral.

Anyway, so my friend and I were discussing this and she mentioned that The Fifth Element would have been vastly better with some gender-flipping. The trope of the woman as sacred object, the naive woman who needed a man to save her and help her navigate the world, was tiring for her. Make Bruce Willis be Leeloo, and have Milla Jovovich be the tough cab driver with a mysterious past. I suggested going one further – keep Jovovich as the mystical Leeloo, and cast some hard-bitten older woman in Bruce Willis’ role. Her name could be Kora, or Ervin. You already have several speaking male side characters, including the very prominent role of the antagonist. Why not?

In a separate conversation on one of the social media sites I subscribe to, I found this post which talked about the role of female heroes in writing. I want to talk about how it made me feel in light of the above and in light of my identity as a writer. I swear it connects to the above.

female-heroes.

Writing as a woman is hard, because you’re covered in sticky cobwebs of male gaze and you don’t even know it. The post above mentions male writers, but male writers, as male directors, are only part of the problem. They are a huge part of the problem, sure. But the other part of the problem is that we as female creators often perpetuate their tropes.

Unfortunately, even once you awaken to the tropes in question, it can be hard to shake them, mostly because there aren’t any mainstream models of the kind of story you do want to tell. You end up making it up as you go along. I was lucky. I found authors like Martha Wells and Laurie J. Marks early. I knew I loved what they were writing, but I didn’t really understand why. It took me years, four of them spent at an all women’s undergraduate college, to really recognize what it was that was so fulfilling about these stories for me. It was because those stories were written for me. They weren’t written for the male gaze, but for mine. The characters in them, both male and female, were not indefinably crippled by the assumptions that so often come up in our stories: the woman must be saved, the woman must be beautiful, the woman must be perfect, the woman must have volition, but not too much. She must not overshadow the male protagonist. She must be good.

Nowadays I have added a plethora of authors to my list who are writing the kinds of stories I want to write, and to read. Seanan McGuire, Catherynne Valente, Kameron Hurley, N.K. Jemisin – they are all doing amazing things, testing the boundaries of their genres, and generally rocking out. They are telling the kinds of stories that I want to tell

But it is still hard, despite that, to shake the tropes that have so often reoccurred in mainstream fiction and genre fiction. I still read through a story or a paragraph and realize, oh, I have done the thing that I did not want to do. I have reduced my character to her attractiveness, to her goodness, and not let any of the dark survive to give her flavor. Writing as a woman is a balancing act between being true to your heart and being pulled in by the assumptions you never realized that you were taught to make. You can guarantee that if you are true to your heart, someone will accuse you of being an SJW, of distracting from the story, of advancing an agenda. And if you get pulled the other way, if you give up – well, you have even more left to lose. It is hard.

But the best things in life are rarely easy. So chin up, buttercup. Write your heart.

(P.S. if someone wants to write that Fifth Element AU I will totally read it. Totally.)

Impostor syndrome

Recently I listened to an episode of Writing Excuses entitled Impostor Syndrome, with Alyssa Wong. I love Writing Excuses, and I listened to this particular episode at a time in my life when I was feeling that impostor syndrome very strongly. We all have days like that, when we come face to face with our inadequacies and can’t see anything else, when we make those flaws larger than life. I was incredibly grateful to this podcast, and I encourage you to listen to it. But there was definitely something missing for me.

Writing Excuses is made up of a bunch of excellent and famous writers. There’s Brandon Sanderson, perhaps best known for finishing The Wheel of Time series. Mary Robinette Kowal is a phenomenal writer who has won multiple awards and been published in many collections. I strongly recommend her short stories especially, but she is also an excellent novelist. I may have mentioned Ghost Talkers a few posts back. That was her. Howard Tayler has been on the Hugo ballot, and Dan Wells has a multi-book series in the John Cleaver books. They are all well beyond where I am as a writer. This podcast was in fact about that. They were discussing having “made it” but never quite feeling that you have any legitimacy.

I have not made it. This is not an example of impostor syndrome, actually. This is a bare fact. I am making it. I am in the process of climbing. That is something I can be comfortable with. There are no awards that recognize me, there are no even mediocre book deals. There has been no moment of relief on this mountain, and so there can be no sense that I do not deserve that relief. That is what the podcast was referring to: the sense that you do not deserve the relief of recognition of your effort. That you do not deserve the praise, the acclaim. This requires having praise and acclaim.

However, the feeling comes from the same place. The feeling of being an impostor flares up when I think that I will never make it. That my work will never find its audience and that this hard grind, this endless, impossible climb, will never have a moment of relief. It is the same feeling, but different.

My S.O. told me recently that it was utterly irrational to feel bad about not being successful in a field which requires so much input from other people. You cannot control readers. You cannot control agents or editors or advertisers or the people they advertise to. Each little thing you throw out is lost in a sea of media. We are inundated every day with such a massive amount of information. When you become a creator of content, you add to that sea. The additions never cease, and each year they pile on one another. All of which is to say that your voice will be lost. It takes years and years for an author to break through to the top of that pile, and many of them sink down again. You should not be embarrassed or think yourself less than for not welling immediately to the top. That is just silly.

That is what I wanted to hear from the podcast, and happily I had him to tell me that instead. Sounds grim? It is. But for me, it is a comforting bit of grim.

One of the important points that was made in the podcast was the importance of knowing why you continue to create. If you create for acclaim, you will fail. That is something that I have been wrestling with and something that I have had stated to me multiple times recently. If your focus is on selling books, you are doomed to failure. You will never sell enough books to assuage that hunger. But if your focus is on telling a story, and telling a good one – telling a story for a story’s sake – that will never leave you.

So, in light of that, I leave you with this inspiring video. I can only find the link on Facebook, so you’ll have to click through. Enjoy.

Prioritization, the beast immortal

So I have a problem called spin-too-many-plates syndrome. Meaning I like to constantly be juggling a lot of stuff. “Like” may not be the best word, actually. Perhaps it would be better to say that I pathologically over-stuff my plate. Or that I get bored easily. Or that I am overly ambitious. Or am violently deficient at correctly estimating my resources.

Anyway.

This past weekend, I told you that the audiobook for Mother of Creation would be out. We busted butts to try to make that deadline, me and my producer both. Sleep was lost, stress was had. I cried for an hour or two when I realized it wasn’t going to happen. Part of me missing the deadline was that I was trying to do too many things at once, trying to work my day job, find a place to live, plan a wedding, write a book, and simultaneously review and publish an audiobook. It just wasn’t going to happen.

That said, we did get the book out, finally. You can get the audiobook of Mother of Creation on Audible, Amazon, or through iTunes/iBooks. If you start a free trial membership of Audible, you will get my book for free. I’m so excited to be able to offer you this opportunity and I hope that you will take advantage of it.

Focusing on one project and not deviating and meeting deadlines can be really hard for me. I’m very good on figuring out what needs to be done, but not so good on figuring out which thing should be done first. My single human form is obviously not an army, except maybe an army of bacteria. Bacteria does not write. All of this is probably the result of the fact that, like many authors, I am a creator. I am an idea person that likes to constantly be dreaming up new fluffy bubbles of magical rainbow transcendence to dazzle the world with. That makes it really hard to a) stick with one fluffy bubble to the end and b) realize which of the maintenance things need to take priority in order to preserve those fluffy bubbles so they don’t just pop and die.

I’m not apologizing for that weird metaphor. In case you were wondering about that.

Right now my list of weird half-finished projects looks like this:

  • Two projects that need edits. One needs being sent out to a beta reader group of some kind. One needs to be finalized and polished with already-received beta reader feedback.
  • A novella that needs major rewrites. This may be at the bottom of my list honestly. Another novella that also needs rewrites, final edits, and distribution.
  • Several sequels that need writing.
  • Several query letters that need sending out for various completed or psuedo-completed short story projects.
  • A short story I’ve never finished that might turn into a novella but I would like to see done regardless.
  • Several other short story ideas in the works.

That’s a lot of stuff that is floating around in my brain. Knowing which thing to work on next isn’t just about what I most want to work on next, but also about what I think I’m likely to be able to pitch successfully.

The other downside to all of this is that even when I decide on what I think will be successful and start to work on it, it’s often just as likely that I will hare off and do something else at some point that is not planned, or forget I made the plan in the first place and rehash the same tired conversation in my head a month later. I try to keep good notes, but don’t always go back through the notes that I do keep. This is general disorganization, but also a sort of pathological self-sabotage. It’s easy to point to things that you failed to do as the reason that you are failing, instead of accepting that sometimes the reason you are failing is just bad luck or lack of a complete picture.

I don’t have any tips for how to fix this, because it is something I am struggling with all the time. My only advice is to just continue forward in spite of yourself when these things happen and accept that it is a bit of who you are. Not the entirety of who you are. You are not in your entirety a being of procrastination, or you would never get anything done. Nor are you entirely disorganized, or entirely unable to follow through with projects. These are not fair descriptors any more than it would be fair to say that you always keep your work organized and complete everything you set your mind to. People are complex, life is complex, any creative work is complex.

It’s really easy to oversimplify the challenges we encounter, to see them as daunting, impossible beasts which can never be conquered. It is really easy to lose hope and never try. It can be very hard to both believe in yourself and strive to do better. After all, the first of those is a positive thing, right? Believing in yourself requires optimism and faith. Striving to do better requires some of that, but it also requires a certain self-criticism, an awareness of one’s faults. It’s very hard to hold your faults in your head and still love yourself. There are days where you might not be able to accomplish that.

On those days, I advise you to eat some ice cream, take a bath, drink some tea. And then get right back in your chair and write, write, write. Turn off the little voice that’s talking about what you can do better, and do what you can. Put another word on the page. You’re the only one who can write your story. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be yours.

Parallel worlds

I try not to talk about my day job too much. Granted you could probably figure it out if you dug, but generally I try to keep the writing half of my life somewhat separate from my other pursuits. But I’m going to talk about it a little today, because I have some thoughts I want to share about the worlds that are often right next to us.

One of my weaknesses as a writer is my world-building. I get caught up in the characters and the action and forget to think about the world it is set in, or at least forget to tell you about it. This is likely a symptom of my own way of moving through the world. I live in my head a lot, and places can be somewhat fuzzy for me. One of my tasks in my day job is to make maps, and I like to joke that it’s regrettable because my spatial awareness is not the kind that fits neatly into a grid of latitude and longitude. Luckily in this day and age we have computer systems that plot that for you. Making a map can be an eye opening experience. Things I thought of as linear are suddenly curved. Things which I didn’t realize were connected are of a piece. It changes the way I think about my city and my valley, almost on a daily basis.

One of the other things I do is ride the bus.

Okay, you’re wondering about that. I’ll give you a brief overview. My job, sometimes, includes riding a bus to count how many people are on it. The time and route are generated randomly. The counts are used to help argue for better bus services. It’s good work, and it has taught me a lot.

When I first moved to this city, I wouldn’t go near the bus station. Most relatively privileged people don’t here. The station is located downtown, and often there are a lot of “rough” looking people hanging around it. Rough is in this case code for poor POC. I’ve grown a lot since then. But I still had only ridden the commuter bus – a high end coach that takes one to a neighboring city – before I started this new job. I rode it when I was in graduate school and didn’t have a lot of options. That seems to be when most people ride buses. They do, after all, cost one extra time. Time is an even more precious commodity than money for many.

Anyway, this job changed that. I have now been all over the city by bus. I am riding the bus as a relative outsider – it’s my job to observe – and let me tell you. It is very different from what I had observed as a passerby.

Before my first bus ride, I had this idea about how buses worked. The bus stop is, as mentioned, downtown. It takes up the whole first floor of a building owned by the bus company. There is a small lobby. I remembered the lobby as being sort of dark and dingy and crowded. I remembered the actual station as a broad, concrete space. Both of these are…sort of right. The lobby is small, but the walls are white. There are metal benches throughout. It’s not in the best repair, but you can tell they try to keep it clean. There are usually a handful of people inside, and right before the buses go out – they leave every hour – there can be a lot of people waiting, especially in the winter.  But most of the time it is relatively quiet. Those “rough” folks hanging out on the street always say good morning to me, or good afternoon as the case may be. The bus station itself is poorly located, and floods after a hard rain sometimes, stalling the bus service. The buses pull up into their relative lanes, all of which are marked with brightly colored signs indicating the route number and general destination. People from all over the city and all walks of life rub elbows here. It is colorful and vibrant and alive – not a dreary industrial space, as I had thought, but a space made living by the people who use it.

Is it always a comfortable space? No. I am still, after all, an outsider. Someday I might take the plunge and use the bus system as a rider, but for now I’m still the paid observer, dipping into this world and leaving. Being around other people is messy, too. A bus station is a type of urban commons, and there is no method to deny others entry. Being faced so abjectly with my privilege every time I go can be disheartening.

But back to writing, since that’s why you’re here.

Setting is a thing made of details. Each character might perceive their setting differently. I certainly perceive my time on the bus differently now than I would have two or three years ago, and even differently than I did just a month ago. As we know a place better, it changes. As a writer, to make a setting live, I need to bring that into my writing. There are whole parallel worlds within my kingdom or town that another character might never perceive. I should, however, know what those are. My perception of the setting should not be myopic, as my characters’ might be, but should encompass it in its complexity. Communicating that complexity to readers is a challenge, but if done well the world breathes and fidgets and generally feels real.

It’s something I’m still working on, but I think I understand it better every day.

Some thoughts on audiobooks and performance

I may have mentioned that I have recently been listening to a few audiobooks. It started last summer, when my fiance forced me to listen to Dune through his Audible.com subscription. I say forced like he had to twist my arm, but it wasn’t hard. I hadn’t read Dune yet (I know, bad Amanda) so it was something that I wanted to knock off my list. And he loved it so much, which was surprising, since he typically is not a huge fan of fantasy or science fiction.

Anyway, I listened to Dune. And then I listened to The Fifth Season. And then I downloaded a few nonfiction books, and most recently I listened to The Water Knife.

What’s so interesting about each of the books above is that they are read by very different narrators. Dune, for example, is read by a white man. His voice is vaguely British, and there are all sorts of little flourishes and sound effects that really brought me into the story – blowing wind on the desert, that sort of thing. It was almost like listening to a radio play. The Fifth Season is narrated by a black woman, which is appropriate because both the author and the characters are black. The narrator of this book doesn’t do as distinct a set of voices for the different characters, relying more heavily on dialogue tags. Her voice is rich, and listening to a black woman tell the story within the context of the plot – that of slavery and prejudice and racial violence – is particularly chilling. Lastly, The Water Knife is narrated by a woman who, based off her proficiency in Spanish narration, is at least fluent in the language if not a native Hispanic Latina. It was fascinating to hear her manipulation of different accents – the Mexican-born Angel, a man, was voiced very differently from the probably-Canadian Lucy, a woman, for example, or even the bilingual Texan girl Maria. The way that she managed to capture their underlying identities with accent was fascinating.

Listening to these different books has taught me more about writing than I could have imagined it would. Before listening to these separate humans from separate backgrounds narrating these stories, I had sort of imagined that every book had a firm, definite way it should ‘sound’. That is to say, emphasis should be put on certain words and not others. There was a way I read, and I interpreted that way as the way the author intended the words. Now, I’m not so sure. there have been several moments when listening to these books where I have found myself absolutely taken aback by a stylistic choice in delivery of a sentence or paragraph. I could, in those moments, hear the sentence as it was spoken, and hear, in my head, the way I would have interpreted it from the writing. These two things did not match up. The whole text transformed before me, unlocking new meanings, clarifying characters. It was an epiphany each time it happened.

It makes me realize just how little control I, as a writer, have over what the reader will understand of my work. Sure, we writers do our best to be clear. We comb through, searching for misunderstandings or bulky phrasing. But in the end, the reader has their own voice, their own experiences, that must be laid out over the story we have made. We’ve provided, perhaps, the line drawings. The reader has to color in everything. The picture will always be of more or less the same thing, but that doesn’t mean that any two readers will end up with identical pictures. I don’t think I had ever really understood that before. I certainly had never realized that all of those ways of coloring inside the lines are totally sensical and valid. That all of them can add something, some essential essence, to a story.

So, in closing, I’m very excited about listening to more audiobooks, and about working to get my book into audio form. Speaking of, the audiobook should be done over the next week or so. I will be reviewing it and then it will be ready to publish! I’ve still got to get the cover finalized for upload, so I’m looking at a August 20th roll-out, in all likelihood.

The long road

I’ve been blessed in life to have wound up living in Southwest Virginia, an emerald land with lots of mountains and hiking trails. The Appalachian Trail goes right by my city, continuing north and south, connecting acres of national and state forests one to the other. Thru-hikers pass through every spring and summer, going from Georgia to Vermont with nothing but the packs on their backs and the power of their legs. And my fiance and I often hope on stretches of this trail, spending one or two nights sleeping in the open, climbing mountain after mountain.

Even a short overnight of 10 to 15 miles can be intimidating if you are not used to that level of exertion. This weekend, we climbed Dragon’s Tooth, a 2.5 mile peak notorious for its difficulty. Part of the last mile must be climbed using both hands and feet, over tumbled rocks. But the view from the top is wonderful, a wide green valley, and if you’re agile and brave you can climb the Tooth itself, a jagged jut of stone perhaps a hundred feet high. It was windy, so we stayed off the Tooth this time, contenting ourselves with snacks and the view from beneath its leaning bulk. We were exhausted, muscles burning in the chilly air of a late cold snap. We consumed our snacks ravenously, climbed a small boulder nearby and soaked up some sun.

Then it was time to come back down. We made excellent time, jumping off the rocks we had labored so carefully to climb over. There were no options to stop, just spare moments of rest snatched to keep us moving. The trail goes on as long as it does. You can’t cash in before the ending.

But a trail at least ends. There is a peak, or perhaps a waterfall, or a valley. There is a parking lot. Life also ends, but only when you’re dead. It is full of interlocking tasks, steps up the mountain, and there is no pausing. You only have what you carry with you. You can’t cash in before the end.

Writing, as a career, is a lifelong obsession. And like climbing a mountain, it is long, slow work. Unlike climbing a mountain, there is no recognizable peak to tell you that you’re done. You don’t always know if you have made it. I was reminded of this today when reading Kameron Hurley’s blogpost “Dancing for Dinner”, when she said this:

“If you are going to play this game, remember that there is a long road ahead. Remember that it’s not always a straight path. Remember that those with the aura of fame probably still have day jobs. Remember that they are still people. Remember that they are dancing for their dinner, just like the rest of us. Remember the slog.”

I know the slog. I know the place you have to be to make it up the mountain, and then down, and then back up the next one. It’s not a place that hurries. Hurrying frustrates, and frustration is exhausting. You’ll never keep going that way. To live through a hike, you have to enjoy it. You have to breathe deeply of the air and stop to look at cool leaves, strange flowers, ponies, cows, raccoons, even people. You have to take care of yourself, pace yourself, be careful not to get blisters or ticks or scrapes that will slow you down later. You have to rest when the sun goes down and rise with it in the morning. And take pictures – that’s always nice.

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Aren’t these woods gorgeous?

All of this introspection is just to say, in the words of Liz C. Long: “Writing is a marathon, not a sprint.” We are all working forward one step at a time. Work at your own pace. Do what you can. Don’t compare yourself to other people on the trail, and don’t worry too much about how much further you have to go. You’re never going to be finished, but that’s okay. The beauty is in the journey. You’re writing because you love to write, aren’t you?