Writing Retreats, or: Why I Can’t Teach Anyone A Damn Thing About Writing

My most vivid memories of Wizard World are of the times I disagreed with people.

Of course, it wasn’t always a wise choice. On one panel, offering strategies for writer’s block, I quoted an audience member from an earlier discussion: “Drinking and drugs.” (Which was meant as humor, of course, but I think the moderator wished I’d found a different joke.)

But sometimes I learn that my experience is completely different from everyone else’s. And at those times, I feel like I have to point out that conventional wisdom isn’t the same as You Must Do This. Which is exactly what I did when people started talking about writing retreats.

The panel was about launching your creative career, and the topic at hand was what kind of education might be helpful. There are professions, I learned–notably many areas of filmmaking–where it’s not just the degree, but the specific school that can make a difference. For writing, though, the panel immediately gravitated toward talking about MFAs, and then to writing retreats. Panelists discussed how lovely it was to have all those weeks dedicated to writing, meeting people, making contacts.

I didn’t know anything about the people who in the audience, but a lot of them were young. Some of them may even have been in high school. And I tried to imagine myself at 15 or 16, being told the key to becoming a writer was more school–and more debt.

I didn’t get an MFA. (I didn’t even know, until a few years ago, that you could actually get a master’s in creative writing.) I didn’t attend Clarion or Hedgebrook or any of the lovely writing retreats. Had I known about them, I’d have pined for them, but when I was 22 and right out of college, I didn’t have the money. And even if I’d managed to borrow it or get a scholarship, the job I had didn’t accommodate a six week leave of absence.

So what do you do if you’re a writer, and you can’t afford a retreat, and you can’t take time off from your job without losing it? Are you supposed to give up? Are you supposed to stop calling yourself a writer, let it all go?

Yes, that’s meant to sound ridiculous. But that’s the message a lot of people hear when you say things to them like MFA. To be blunt: Writing has a class problem, and it hits from all sides.

Better people than me have written about the income and diversity problem in the publishing industry. It’s not intentional exclusion, but when you have an industry largely based in cities with expensive costs of living, where careers are built on internships, the majority of your professionals are going to be people who come from (relatively) financially privileged backgrounds. I haven’t spoken to a single person in the industry who wouldn’t like to see it more diverse, more universal–they love stories, after all, and more stories are always wonderful–but we’re talking about a business that basically brokers art. Altering the economic structure is neither fast nor easy.

But on the writing side of it…extolling the virtues of master’s degrees and elite retreats is the same problem. Except that on the writing side of it, it’s rubbish, and you can’t even make the economic argument to support it.

You don’t need an MFA to be a writer. You don’t need a writer’s retreat to be a writer. To be a writer, you need a way to record your words, and that’s it.

And please understand, I’m not suggesting an MFA isn’t valuable. I would have loved dedicating years to writing. I’d have loved a writing retreat, spending six weeks with other authors, sharing struggles, learning from them, even if I’d had to live in my car. (And having said that–I wouldn’t have had to. When I graduated from college I was itching for independence, financial and otherwise, but if I’d approached my family they’d have made me a loan. So I’m privileged even in my lack of education, because I had a choice.) I have no doubt that being able to concentrate so thoroughly on writing can provide tremendous benefits, can present incredible opportunities to learn from fellow authors, can help to build your voice with confidence.

If you can afford the time and money for these programs and they speak to you, pursue them. Fling yourself into them with your whole heart, just as you have to do with anything if you’re going to grow as a writer. Work and work and work, and take everything you can from the experience.

But for pity’s sake–if none of that is in your future, don’t stop writing. Because whatever your framework, the only way to grow as a writer is to write.

It’s probably part of my particular brand of neuroatypicality that leads me to analyze my own writing process. I’ve thought about the stages I went through, how I went from telling myself bedtime stories to being able to take a few months to draft a novel. (Finished a first draft yesterday, and boy are my arms tired.) I’ve been writing since I was five years old, but I was closing in on 46 before I figured out how to complete something novel-length, and it was another three years before I finished something I could sell. This makes me wonder if everyone goes through the stages I went through, just much more quickly–maybe too quickly to be able to see the changes. I had the benefit of creeping through the process in slow motion, allowing me to recognize what was happening while I was going through it.

Or maybe that’s bullshit. Maybe my growth was mine, at my pace, in my way, and nothing that’s happened to me will make sense to anyone else. Maybe, if I’d gone to a retreat, I’d have leapfrogged most of the stages I went through and learned much earlier how to regurgitate an entire novel.

But just in case any of this is worth it to anyone else, here are the lessons I’ve learned since the age of five:

It’s more important to gain confidence in your work than it is to be critiqued. One of the most common questions I see on my writing group is “How do I know which critique I should listen to?” Critiques are by nature subjective, and without a solid sense of what your objective is, it’s nearly impossible to make a reasoned assessment about what someone else has told you to change.

To that end, I think it doesn’t hurt to have your first critters be people who aren’t going to give you a lot of negatives: your mom, your friends, a reflexively supportive online group. Because positive feedback makes you want to write, and the more you write, the more you’ll fine-tune your own sense of what you’re accomplishing. Once you can stand up and say with confidence “I want this work to provoke X response” that’s when you hand your manuscript out for more objective critiques.

When push comes to shove, you only get better one way: by writing. A lot. Over and over again. Don’t do anything that’s going to make you want to stop.

Every word you put down has value. Please don’t mistake me here: This doesn’t mean everything you write is going to be brilliant, or even readable. A massive amount of what you write is going to get tossed. Even for long-term published authors, a huge percentage of what gets written down is just plain rubbish.

But it’s rubbish that serves a critical purpose. Sometimes you have to build the scene badly to figure out how to build it well. Sometimes you have to write far into a novel–even all the way–before you can see that the project isn’t worth pursuing. Sometimes you have to write the wrong words before you can unearth the right ones.

Writing is a non-linear process. You’re not rummaging through a box of Legos and picking out bits to build a house; you’re creating something that only you can create. It’s art, for real, and more often than you’d like you’re going to have to cough up absolute crap to get to the stuff you want.

Finishing is a different skill than writing. Here’s where an MFA might have accelerated my progress. I’m a magpie: I always want to write the shiny thing. And of course I want to write it perfectly, to have it be as beautiful as it is in my head. I spent so much time writing the first chapter or two of something, and then revising it into bland, horrible death.

There’s value in writing partial stories, in scenes and vignettes. As above, it’s all writing. I do it a lot to work through characters (I send them to therapy now and then when I need to get at where they’re coming from). But getting to the end of a story means it has to hold your interest for a long time. Stephen King may be able to write a book in a weekend, but most of us can’t.

For me, that meant learning how to push through without turning back. It’s not a method that works for everyone, but with my skill set, it was NaNoWriMo that gave me the last piece I needed. Being obligated to move forward no matter what my feelings about what came before felt strange–but being able to write THE END was weird and astonishing and wonderful and addictive.

I’ve finished seven drafts now, including my first trunked NaNo novel and the two that got combined into THE COLD BETWEEN. It’s no easier than it was the first time–but now I know, if I focus on the means and not the end, I’ll get where I need to be.

Editing is a different skill than finishing. There are some people who tell me their first drafts are very close to finished quality. I’ll take them at their word, but that’s not true for me. My first drafts are full of trial and error and dangling red herrings and blind alleys and dead chapters and whole scenes that need to be longer.

Once I have a first draft, then I actually have to pay attention to the story.

This is not, as a rule, as much fun as letting your imagination go bananas because you know you can get it in editing. This is the nitpicky stuff, the research and the continuity checking, the purging of those beautiful passages that you love but that are repetitive or bog down your narrative. This is the place where you worry about pacing and structure and making sure each scene has a purpose and a shape.

This is the part where it helps to be a reader. So much of pacing and structure is instinct and personal taste. The more you’ve read of books you love, the easier it’ll be to see when your own work is (and isn’t) flowing the way you want it to flow.

But when push comes to shove? This is the fiddly phyllo dough portion of constructing a book. It’s difficult, it’s often unfun, and it’s very easy to get wrong. And it’s incredibly satisfying when it all comes out the other end.

If you can’t tell the truth, don’t bother. Years ago, when I was in a bad relationship, I stopped writing. I spent every day of that relationship lying to myself, telling myself it wasn’t what it was, convincing myself that it would improve and turn into something positive. I tried, during that time, to write, but nothing would come out. For-real writer’s block, for the first time in my life.

Fiction is nothing less than the absolute unvarnished truth of your heart. If you can’t look into yourself and admit what you find, nothing you write is going to feel authentic. And if you look into yourself and feel you can’t write it down…look at your life. Really. Pretty good chance there’s something there that needs a change.

If you don’t love it, nobody else will, either. Remember that trunked NaNo novel I mentioned? I liked it. A lot. I loved parts of it. (I borrowed bits to create Volhynia for THE COLD BETWEEN.) I wanted to edit it and turn it into a real book. And I worked on it pretty seriously for a couple of months, before I realized I didn’t care enough. Making it what it would need to be was going mean steeping myself in the story day after day for a very long time, and when push came to shove, I didn’t want to do that. I liked the story, and that’s not enough.

We’ve probably all had the experience of reading a favorite author’s latest book and wondering what the hell happened. Some writers seem to just fall off a cliff, going from compelling, irresistible storylines to bland cardboard. I have to think, in cases like that, that they’ve just stopped loving what they write. The craft is still there, the plots still worthwhile, but the writing itself has lost passion, and the reader can feel it.

This theory would hold more water if everyone agreed with me on which authors fell off the cliff, and they don’t. But my point still stands: if you don’t love your work, it’s going to show. And that’s a risk, if you want readers.

Write what you love. It matters.

I’ve always been a writer. And at the same time, I feel I’ll never be a writer. When you’re an artist, it’s hard to separate yourself from a dependence on your audience. But here’s the truth of it: if you write, you’re already an artist. Maybe a beginner, maybe a pro, maybe an MFA, maybe a weekender. Doesn’t matter.

If you write, you’re a writer. If you write, you’re learning. Your path is your path. Don’t give it up just because it doesn’t look like anyone else’s.

I said this, in Philadelphia. I told the audience they didn’t need an MFA. I told them they didn’t need writing workshops. There was a bit of an awkward pause at that, but there’s no rebuttal to it, because it’s the truth. Programs are valuable, and can give some people a real jump-start, and if that’s your dream, find a way. But I couldn’t sit there in front of people looking for answers and tell them they were doomed if they weren’t going after a secondary degree. There’s enough class stratification in publishing; we don’t need it in writing. Every path brings with it different experiences.

As a reader, I want them all.

Writing Advice and Rule-Breaking

aka Still Not The All-Encompassing Wizard World Philadelphia Post (sorry)

One of the things I’ve always believed is that writing is such a deeply individual process that there’s very little I can teach someone else about craft.

I’m not talking about basics like grammar and vocabulary. I tend to assume writers are either already well-versed in those subjects, or recognize that it’s a learning curve that needs to be climbed if they expect readers to engage. Everyone knows That Guy who self-pubbed their novel, and the first page is full of improper Capitalization and stray, commas and too! many! exclamation! points! and nobody wants to be That Guy. Grammar and vocabulary are learnable skills, and trying to write without them is going to get you the same sorts of results you’d get if you tried to fix your dishwasher with a pipe cleaner and some Post-It notes.

(Do you like the mangled metaphor? I think I’ll choose to say it’s intended to be illustrative.)

So when someone asks a question about a work they’ve completed, I tend to respond with the assumption that it’s already well-written. If someone, for example, asks how much trouble they’re going to have getting representation for their 250,000-word debut novel, I tell them, “It’s not impossible, but it’s a longshot.” Which is, statistically speaking, the truth.

Of course, other people tend to provide more useful responses like “You know, odds are at 250,000 words your manuscript is kind of meandery or repetitive or expositiony, so you may want to do some heavy-duty editing before you try querying it.” Which, to be fair, is much more likely the case, especially if you’re talking to a beginning writer. And it’s good advice in any case: don’t write a 250,000-word novel unless you absolutely must write a 250,000-word novel. And don’t write a non-standard query letter, and don’t write any info-dumps, and show don’t tell, and good God, get rid of those adverbs.

All of that advice is good, and solid. And sometimes it’s absolutely, 100% wrong.

One of the panels I did in Philadelphia was called Writing Compelling Science Fiction. The two gentlemen who put it together have been running it for years, and it’s been quite popular. It covers some basics about spec fic and story structure, and is designed to encourage people still feeling their way toward building and completing their stories. How I ended up on the panel is a bit of a tale, but the runners were gracious and inclusive and marvelous hosts.

And I kind of stepped on their advice at one point, even though, strictly speaking, their advice was good.

Someone in the audience had asked about chapter headings. He referenced Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD as an example of a book that did really well but had no traditional chapter breaks. The hosts advised him to absolutely not do that, that no publisher or agent would look at the manuscript without chapter breaks.

I disagreed. I told the person chapter breaks were just a pacing tool, and if the story doesn’t call for them, don’t use them. I suggested they query the book without chapter breaks, and if they found themselves getting rejections on pages they could always add chapter breaks and see if they got a better response. They could then fight the chapter-break fight with their editor once they got an agent and sold it to a publisher.

Now, in fairness, it’s possible the audience member was That Guy, and I just enabled bad habits.

But what if they’re Cormac McCarthy? What if they have something poetic and beautiful and passionate that would be flattened by chapter breaks? How many people have it in them to build something amazing, but take a step back because of an arbitrary Most People Do It This Way rule?

What if that novel really does need to be 250,000 words?

One of the most successful science fiction books in recent years is OLD MAN’S WAR, which I didn’t get a chance to read until recently (after, to be fair, years of my spouse telling me I was missing something I’d love). From a craft perspective, it’s of course written extremely well. The author turns a phrase and knows how to get a reaction from the reader. And past the basics, he writes complex, believable characters, and sets up vivid worlds–pretty much what you’d expect from a best-selling science fiction author.

But narratively? The book breaks a whole bunch of rules. The first two-thirds of it is exposition–fascinating, entertaining exposition (which is possible!), but still. And then there’s the point where you realize this military science fiction novel is actually a pretty traditional romance–once again, beautifully done, but kinda breaks the rules of what one’s supposed to do with a story like this.

I read a book like OLD MAN’S WAR, and I think about all the people told “No, stop writing exposition!” or “You can’t play with genre like that!” and I wonder how many of those people were writing something gorgeous and stopped because they thought they wouldn’t be able to sell it. Is it most of them? Probably not–but if it’s even one, isn’t that too many?

When it comes down to it, as a reader, I want to read something that engages and moves me. Yes, most of the books I’ve loved have traditional narrative structures, but not all of them. Another favorite of mine, SHARDS OF HONOR, is basically four separate stories in a single volume, and it’s a book I reread not just for pleasure, but because I’m fascinated by how, despite the non-traditional pacing, it works perfectly beginning to end.

The other side of this–and that person’s question at the panel really brought it into focus for me–is how much of the writing advice given is geared toward getting the writer published. “Don’t write X genre because it’s over-saturated.” “Don’t write a prologue because too many rookies screw them up.” “Make sure you use traditional chapter breaks.” “Don’t write a chapter longer than Y words.” “Always write first person past/third person limited/etc. for Z genre, because otherwise no one will read it.”

It’s a hard line to draw, because most people who write believe the next logical step is being read, and therefore published. Self-publishing has added another dimension to this, and it’s a double-edged sword: you don’t have to worry about X genre being oversaturated or how many words your chapters have, but you also don’t have to pound your craft into submission before you throw something up for the world to see.

And I’m not convinced, having been on both sides of it, that publishing (of any variety) is the right goal for every story.

I can hear the working writers screaming at me for that, or laughing at me, or thinking I’m horribly naive or privileged. Fair points all. I know some writers who are absolutely writing to market, and loving it, and doing well, and they are no less creative or Artistic™ than the people who scratch at parchment with a feather dipped in ink. Writing is a craft on top of everything else, and if you want to sell to the world, you owe it to your work to make your craft as good as it can possibly be.

But at the same time, writing is an art. It’s self-expression. Everything from fanfic to tie-ins to pulp to and-I-thought-ULYSSES-was-weird stuff is self-expression. Here are my guts, wrapped up in words and plot and characters and (sometimes) chapter breaks.

I’m not sure we nurture good writers by telling them the main goal of writing is to write something they can sell. Maybe the goal of writing shouldn’t be make this publishable but rather hone your ability to make your story read on the page the way it does in your head. Screw sales. Screw publishing. Learn how to use your tools, not just the grammar and vocabulary, but the experiences and perspectives that are unique to you. Take satisfaction in translating that piece of yourself that you want to share in a way that’s as true to yourself as you can make it.

And maybe it never sells. Maybe you show it to your friends and they look at you like you’ve grown a second head. Maybe you never show it to anyone. But if it’s what you wanted it to be…is that enough? Shouldn’t it be enough? Because no writer produces Thing 2 if they never sit down and write Thing 1.

I ran across an essay yesterday (that I won’t link to) talking about how important it is not to tell kids that they shouldn’t be professional writers, that somehow telling them they should keep a day job is discouraging or inhibiting their creativity. Apart from the irresponsible naïveté of that–it’s the same thing. We’re telling developing writers that the only goal should be publishing, when the truth is that even if their eventual goal is publishing, it’s far more important to learn how to build their own stories, whether or not they ever get shared with the world.

Writing, for me, has always been equal parts escapism, therapy, and entertainment. That some of my stories have made it out to the world is marvelous…but it’s a different thing than the writing itself. I’ll always write. If I hadn’t sold a book, I’d still always write. I love the craft of it, the satisfaction of re-reading something and recognizing that it really does work the way I want it to. I love writing and writing and realizing only after I’m finished what it was I needed to say.

That’s the sort of thing I’d like to see nurtured in writers still working on their craft (and we’re all, no matter how experienced, still working on our craft). Yes, there are rules–not just of grammar–that should be broken rarely, or not at all. Yes, there are types of stories that are more likely to be published for money than others. Yes, you should pay attention to that, if publishing is your goal.

But don’t ever forget that writing is an art, and at some point you’re going to have to ignore everybody’s well-intentioned advice, and write your own heart. And remember that the act of creation has a value all its own.

Writing Gender

“How do you go about writing a character that’s a different gender than yourself?”

That was a question I got at a panel at Wizard World Philadelphia, and it caught me completely off-guard.

This isn’t because it wasn’t a question I could answer, or even an issue I haven’t thought about. This was entirely because the question was addressed to me. I had spent the entire weekend on panels with Real Writers[tm] (I know, but you know what I mean), and Real Comic Artists and Real Movie People. It’s fortunate that I tend to go into performance mode when I speak in pubic, because I was suffering a serious bout of impostor syndrome all weekend.

And when I heard this question, my first thought was But I don’t do that.

I do, of course. I have a large cast, and while half my characters are female, the other half aren’t. I suspect the person was interested in hearing my approach to writing men. But I don’t actually have an approach to writing men. Sometimes a character is male, and it’s just another thing about them, and I don’t really think about it.

Which also isn’t entirely true, but I’ll get to that later.

In front of an audience, though, I had to come up with something. So I told people about a character in a book that’s not out yet. I told people about Dallas. And the combination of nerves, time, and my tendency to stammer, I explained myself…poorly.

Dallas shows up in the prologue of BREACH OF CONTAINMENT. Dallas is a parts scavenger, an astute businessperson, frequently sarcastic, a loyal friend, an introvert, something of a loner, a bloody good cook, and agender. Initially they were only going to show up in the prologue and Elena’s first scene on the moon of Yakutsk, but as I was twining the subplot through the story, it became obvious I needed another POV character. Fortunately, there was Dallas, fully realized and whispering in my head. (That’s how Çelik ended up with a POV in REMNANTS; at first he was just Elena’s irritating ex-captain, but he wouldn’t shut up.)

So Dallas pulls my subplot through the second two-thirds of the book, and I don’t write about their gender, because in the culture of my universe it’s not a notable characteristic. So it was odd for me to talk about the character from the perspective of gender, because I feel like I didn’t write them from the perspective of gender.

Except I did, of course, because one does.

Generally, when we write about gender, we’re not writing about gender at all, but the social structures and expectations around gender. It’s interesting, writing futuristic science fiction, thinking about what sorts of stereotyping and cultural pressures will be present in the future; but of course, since our readers are reading today, whatever we come up with has germinated from present-day assumptions. I use these assumptions all the time to hint at a character’s biases, at their blind spots, at their sexuality. I do it on purpose, sometimes to reinforce expectations, and often to subvert them.

The subtleties of Dallas were less straightforward. What I said to the Comic Con audience was this: that as I was editing, I read through the text once envisioning Dallas as male, and then again envisioning them as female. And I did indeed do that, but it’s just one small piece of what happened, and I feel like as stated it glosses over a lot of issues and potentially sounds like I’m casting agender people only in relation to those who adhere to a male/female binary.

Which wasn’t the intent of the editing exercise. The intent of the editing exercise was to deal with my own unconscious biases.

One thing that happens when you publish a book is that you can’t go back and change it. There are things I’d change in both my published books if I could go back to them. There are things I’d change in the one I just turned in yesterday. Perspectives evolve; the issues and ideas I want to write about grow and change.

I have always, from the beginning, wanted to write an egalitarian society, at least with regard to gender and sexuality. This wasn’t out of a desire to make a point. It was out of exhaustion. The world today is pretty awful in a lot of ways, and I write to escape. In my imaginary world, nobody thinks much about your gender or your sexuality (unless they’re romantically interested in you, in which case it becomes genuinely relevant, and even then no harm no foul). People care about what you do, not about the body in which you go around doing it.

And I found, writing this society, that I have my own weird, unjustifiable, lurking biases. Some of them I could catch while I was writing, and some of them I missed. I’m getting better, but I still trip sometimes. How could I not? I’m a rat in the same maze as everyone else. I try to see and learn and listen, but it’s a process, and I’m unlikely to ever purge all my blind spots. Elena, Jessica, Greg, and Ted are all coded female/male in ways I intended and ways I didn’t.

It’s the unintentional coding I wanted to avoid with Dallas, and that’s why I did the editing the way I did. I didn’t want the character to read as binary when they’re not.

And I’m sure, on some level, I still failed. There will be a lot of readers who assign Dallas one way or the other. We’re trained, we humans, to sort things, and our culture strongly reinforces the idea of two genders, never the twain shall meet. I didn’t write Dallas as an agender character; I wrote them as a character who is, among other things, agender.

Which is a cheat, really. But like I said: I write to escape. Beyond that, there’s a realism aspect to it. Just as the future isn’t going to be White Men In Space, neither is it going to be Gender Binaries In Space. Humans are already marvelously diverse and variegated now; in my posited future, where differences are accepted as usual, people of all sorts will be visible everywhere, and there’s not going to be much discussion of it.

This is how I write about politics: by not writing about politics.

In any case: I felt I’d given the question short shrift (apart from the bit where I pretty much dismissed the idea that writing men as a woman was anything like a stretch), and I wanted to clarify. It is something I’ve thought about, but it isn’t something I had prepared myself to discuss. I’m not a marginalized person writing a marginalized character; I’m an author who’s created a culture that has utopian aspects, and one of those aspects makes agender people as conventional as anything else.

Dallas is just Dallas, the character who showed up to save my plot.

About Powerlessness

I miss Laser Cat.

It usually comes over me at bedtime, which was when she’d most often have her bursts of affection. It was easier for her when we were lying down; we were less scary, I think, when we were flat and lower to the ground. She would purr and curl up and push her head into my hand insistently, sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes before she’d give up.

And when my daughter was upset, she would jump up on her bed and purr and allow herself to be hugged and squeezed and all the other things she would angrily refuse at other times.

My daughter misses her a lot. She’s never had an animal love her like that. She’s never loved an animal like that in return.

None of this takes anything away from the kittens. (They are still kittens, despite the fact that Dexter is HUGE and heavy and looks very much like a grown cat.) Pets don’t replace each other. That’s both the pleasure and the pain of them. We are getting to know the kittens, and they are warming up to us as they age and their play changes. They have moments of being affectionate, but fundamentally they sort of breezily coexist with us. They’re happy, and they clearly feel safe with us, which is nice.

But there is still a gaping Laser Cat-sized hole in my heart. I miss Editor Cat, too. But she was older, and had been ill for a long time. Laser Cat was young, and we should have had her for so much longer. The pain of her loss is different.

Time moves one way.

This is a story of powerlessness. It has a happy ending. But while it was happening, I didn’t know that. I only knew it when it was done.

***

Last spring, my daughter casually mentioned, in the middle of another conversation, that she thought she was having seizures, and I had one of those moments where my brain instantly cast around to find some benign explanation for what she was describing. When my brain hit on nothing, the next step was to freeze. I went for casual, because I didn’t want to freak her out. I knew there were all kinds of reasons this might be happening. I knew I couldn’t answer any of her questions, and that we’d have to see a doctor.

I hit the freak-out point around about the time I called her pediatrician. Her pediatrician is lovely, and spoke calmly while I was crying, and gave me a referral to a neurologist’s office.

***

When she was an infant, everybody was talking about SIDS. There’s been some good research on that in recent years, suggesting that serotonin levels are a big risk factor, that babies at higher risk could be identified and monitored. But when my daughter was little, it was only “nothing in the crib, put her on her back, she might die anyway.” She had her own room, and I would get up frequently at night just to listen to her breathing. She was a terrible sleeper, and despite the fact that I was getting two to three hours of sleep in a row, max, I felt somehow safer when she was yelling for food or refusing to settle down. I used to be relieved when she had a cold, because I could hear her snuffling over the baby monitor.

One night when she was five months old, she slept seven hours straight. I slept, too. When I woke up and saw the sunshine I ran into her room in an absolute panic, convinced she had died in the night. But she was fine.

***

The first thing they did for her was an EEG. It was an interesting, albeit tedious, process, and the worst thing about it was that she was only allowed four hours sleep the night before (she needed to doze off during the test). We stayed up until midnight watching movies. Waking up at 4:00 am was less exciting. We watched more movies in the morning. We bought donuts on the way to the hospital. We did what we could to make it fun.

She’s remarkable, my kid. Every parent says that, and for every parent, it’s true. But she really is remarkable.

The next week in the doctor’s office, they showed us the spiky brain waves that meant absence seizures. The doctor was even able to induce one while we watched. Later on, as we drove home, she expressed irritation at that. Her brain was betraying her. That this could happen to her, and she could not even notice while everybody else did, seemed outrageous and unfair.

***

Seizures are actually not uncommon. One in a hundred people in the US is epileptic. I know this for two reasons: one, my daughter had febrile seizures as a child, and I’m a mad Googler when things go wrong; and two, I had to do a PSA poster for a graphic arts class, and I chose to do mine on epilepsy. The only thing I learned that I hadn’t known already was how common it was.

When she started having absence seizures, I learned all the many and varied reasons they can happen, including that wonderful medical catch-all of “Who knows?” Head injuries can cause them (she’s had a concussion). They can be genetic (nobody in the family that we know of). Benign brain lesions can cause them. So can tumors.

***

They scheduled the MRI as a non-urgent procedure. To “rule things out.” There was nothing to suggest that what she was going through was due to a serious brain issue. She had no change in personality, no coordination issues, nothing other than these moments when she’d just go somewhere else.

Throughout it all, I maintained big, cheerful, everything-will-be-fine momness. But my remarkable kid is no fool, and she knows me. She can pick up vibrations in my mood from halfway across the house. There are no false reassurances with this one.

I held her one night, when she was scared. I told her the truth: that odds were there was nothing whatsoever wrong with her. That this procedure would show nothing serious, that they just wanted to know what was going on. That I worried because that was the sort of person I was, but that if we looked at the facts, everything pointed toward her having a fairly common condition that she would most likely grow out of.

We took her to the hospital. We got donuts again that day. They had room to have one parent in with her, and I volunteered. They gave me poorly-fitting salmon-pink scrubs to wear, and I got to sit in a rocking chair while they secured her on the table and explained the machine to her. She had headphones so she could listen to music. She had a panic button that she could press if she freaked out. The machine was massive, and the opening was tiny. I’m claustrophobic, and I don’t think I could have done it. I smiled, and told her it’d be fine, and she could do it, and they slid her in where she couldn’t see me.

She’s a tall kid, but in that machine, she looked tiny.

I tried to read a book. I don’t remember what book it was now. It was good, and it held my attention. I don’t think I’ve picked it up since. Mostly I got used to the rhythm of the incredibly loud noises, and wept in terror. Not of the machine, not of my tiny child in that massive magnet, but of what they might find in her beautiful brain.

When she got out, she told me how close she had come to hitting that panic button. But she didn’t.

***

I got pregnant easily. This is not to say the path toward trying was simple; but once we got there, it was quick. I remember the positive test, and giving my husband a hug, and having this lurching feeling in my stomach like I’d just been locked into a roller coaster and oh God what had I been thinking getting on this thing. I was certain it was what I wanted. I was certain I was not prepared for what was coming.

There is nothing quite as uncompromisingly physical as being pregnant. People call it a miracle, which is a misnomer. Miracles are rare. Pregnancy isn’t rare. But it’s transformative, strange, unsettling, uncomfortable. All of these things, even when it’s desperately wanted.

I was so sure I’d feel less worried about her once she was born. I would be able to see her. I would be able to tell she was all right without waiting for her to kick or for the midwife to pick up her heartbeat. If I could get her safely through the pregnancy, everything would be fine and I could relax.

I was a fool.

***

The strange thing about medical results is that waiting becomes a good thing. When you don’t hear in an hour, you breathe easier. When you don’t hear in a day, your heart rate finally slows down. We didn’t hear and didn’t hear, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to see the lab report online in five days, before anyone called me on the phone about it.

There’s one word I remember in the report: “unremarkable.” The MRI was unremarkable. My remarkable girl has an unremarkable brain. No lesions, no tumors.

She was fine. She is fine. She is epileptic, and she is fine.

***

I have trouble with powerlessness. I like to think of myself as rational person, but I’m insanely superstitious. When my daughter was a baby, I would never leave her room at 13 minutes after the hour. I never make jokes about truly awful things, just in case. Every morning, when my daughter gets on the school bus, I wave at her until the bus goes around the corner. I tell people I love them when we part. I hate going to bed angry.

But the truth of it is we are all powerless. There are little things we can control, but there is so much that is arbitrary. When something arbitrary happens to us, we eventually adjust. It’s so much harder when it happens to someone else.

I carried my daughter for 40 weeks and 5 days. I felt like I had control. I could eat right, and take my vitamins, and do all the right things. But even then, there was so much I couldn’t do. I couldn’t affect her genetic makeup. I couldn’t affect how she was growing. I couldn’t affect when I went into labor. I didn’t even have much influence over what happened during her birth. All of that was the alchemy of her chromosomes and the physical interaction between the two of us as she grew. Luck. Luck is just another name for powerlessness.

There are a lot of things in life that result from a web of conscious decisions. Sometimes the result is predictable. Sometimes we can’t see the web unless we’re looking back on things that have already happened. It’s a compelling idea, that if we learn to see the web before it’s complete, if we focus on our own part in it, we can change its shape to whatever we want.

And maybe we could, if we could see. But most of the time the web is too complicated for us to understand, and so much of it is assembled without our input. Powerlessness. We can’t know what steps to take until we see the result, and time moves one way. We have to make the best choices we can in the moment, and we still get it wrong.

This story had a happy ending. It was frightening. I would wish it on nobody. But the end is happy. Even with the powerlessness, I find the future looks happy, too.

But I remember that powerlessness. I remember how it feels to need control, and to not get it. I remember the overwhelming urge to bargain, sacrifice, do anything to take control of the situation, and the profound disorientation of realizing what I needed didn’t matter.

I have this sense that the act of embracing powerlessness would be incredibly freeing, that it would allow us to change our lives in ways we can’t begin to understand now.

But I suspect the truth is we’re all, always, too bound up in the web.

 

Review: LOGAN

I don’t really intend to write regular movie reviews. For one thing, I don’t see a lot of first-run films (although The Kid may end up talking us into THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE). For another, when I like a film, I don’t always like to examine my reactions too closely. I like a lot of stuff that’s deeply flawed, and I am left cold by some movies that people rave about.

That said: we saw LOGAN today and…yeah, that was a thing. It entertained me, for its entire (checks IMDB) two hours and seventeen minutes. (Holy cats. I knew it was long, but wow.)

But I feel kind of bad about myself for enjoying the movie. Not full-on must-take-a-shower bad, but bad enough to want to wash my hands six or seven times. The TL;DR on LOGAN is that it’s a well-acted, well-scripted gore-fest with predictable winners and losers, and a somewhat fuzzy moral center.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

.

.

.

.

.

.

There’s a point in the movie where Laura, the child saved by Logan and Charles Xavier, is sitting in a hotel room watching SHANE (1953) with Charles. We see them watch Shane’s speech at the end of the film:

There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her… tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.

We are led to believe that this is a Theme. That Logan is who he is and can’t change. Except the entire premise of the film is that he can rescue this little girl from what she’s been turned into – and what she’s done – and thus change who she is.

Because she gets to do lots and lots and LOTS of killing. Only bad guys, of course; but those of you who’ve seen SHANE (and wow, that must have been a restored print, because it looked gorgeous) know that he only kills bad guys as well. And at the end of that movie, while I could get behind Mom’s sentiment about “no more guns in the valley” – they were kind of lucky Shane was there with his gun when he was, weren’t they?

It’s an interesting philosophical theme, actually: the line between aggression and self-defense. Most of us would kill to defend our own lives, and the lives of those closest to us; but how wide does that circle go? And would we kill for a cause? Many films explore this theme with intelligence and subtlety, sometimes showing us people on both sides who believe they’re doing the right thing. It’s a theme that can leave us thoughtful, and sometimes unsettled.

There’s no such unsettling exploration in LOGAN. The bad guys are Bad. One of them isn’t even human, apparently: he’s a guy called X24 (also played by Hugh Jackman) who’s apparently some sort of clone who’s taking Super-Aggresion-And-Extra-Healing Potion. He’s the Phase 2 of a project that started with Phase 1, aka X23, aka impregnating a bunch of kidnapped girls with mutant DNA and isolating and training the children from childhood. (The mothers, of course, don’t last beyond gestation.)

To bring home exactly how horrible this experiment is, we get a scene of secret video in which a birthday party given for the children is interrupted by the Evil Scientists who explain that the kids shouldn’t be treated with kindness because they are only science experiments. There’s not a lot of moral ambiguity here. THEY KILL MOTHERS AND ARE MEAN TO LITTLE KIDS. All we need to hear is that they throw away apple pies without eating them, and we have the Deserves To Die Trifecta.

And that weakens the film considerably. I know they were trying to do a lot here, but packs of Black Hats that we don’t care about at all give us only one thing: a bunch of “justified” gross-out death scenes. I’m not generally shy about violence in movies (depending on the type and how it’s used), but it seems filmmakers keep trying to make things more shocking and graphic. If I never see another person stabbed through the head, it will be too soon. Yes, it was disgusting. But…did we care? Were we really shocked, beyond the ick factor? Bad guys! Mothers and children! Apple pies! Kill them all, Logan! What’s taking you so long?

Yeah. I felt manipulated. All movies manipulate, but I don’t like being manipulated into cheering for large masses of death.

There are also a couple of bits of subtext here that nag at me a bit. One is the Purity of Middle America stuff. Our trio (later our duo) runs into bunches of nice people during their drive up country from Texas to North Dakota. Nobody seems to be worried, or suspicious of Logan’s massive number of new and old injuries, or wondering about the little girl with blood all over her clothes. And being nice doesn’t much help them, does it? I could have done without the Redshirt Family with the horses. They were nice, and didn’t deserve what happened, and we already knew Bad Guys Were Bad, so what was the point of this except to get the kid an iPod?

The other is something I notice in a lot of movies, although not all of them: where are the women? I notice this most often in the near-future semi-apocalyptic stuff (like LOOPER): in the future, women are apparently moms (or, in this case, nurses who are essentially mom stand-ins), prostitutes, or both; but nothing else. They are certainly never part of the packs of Bad Guy redshirts. And I understand why Hollywood doesn’t like to do that: we live in a culture that is still uncomfortable with the idea of female combatants, and in films like this the bad guys are intended as nothing but cannon fodder. But I do get a bit weary, sometimes, of the angst-ridden Men Fighting Other Men nonsense that treats women as something to be exploited or protected, but never as people with their own agendas, abilities, and fates.

(And before anybody comes at me with the “muscle mass upper body strength argle bargle blargh” argument: this movie establishes the existence of injectable green goo that makes you invincible to bullets through the eye so save your breath.)

Ultimately, LOGAN was an underdog movie: our aging, ill hero and a pack of children against a lot of big, threatening, beefy guys with guns. We know from the beginning who’s going to win. The ones who don’t survive to the end credits are no real surprise (although my husband pointed out – and I agree – that it might have been nice to have left us some kind of opening for possibly getting Wolverine back, like maybe a pebble moving on the grave or something), but we know, one way or another, that at least Laura is going to do the Sound of Music trek over the mountains into Canada. (This the film does well: establishing that Canada is offering them asylum, without hammering the point home. That’s about as political as we get here.) It’s the kind of movie where adults can drop like flies, and we can be manipulated into grieving for them, but kids and puppies (or, in this case, horses) are all safe.

So why did I enjoy it?

The script has some well-done dialogue, and the actors do nice work with it. Both Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman sell their parts with humor and humanity. Dafne Keen, who plays Laura, does an admirable job, especially considering she has no lines until halfway through the film. Boyd Holbrook and Richard Grant have thankless parts as mustache-twirling baddies, but they twirl their twirliest, and I nursed appropriate hatred for them both.

And…okay. Gross-out-fest or not, some of the action scenes were pretty cool. I can’t say it wasn’t fun watching a little tiny girl take out some massive, heavily-armed nasties. The filmmakers did some decent choreography there, having Laura take advantage of her size and quickness to get in close to the enemy. And there’s a scene near the end where she actually runs up Logan’s back to launch herself off of his shoulders. Assuming super-strength and training, her fighting style isn’t that implausible.

I like watching fights. I am never sure whether or not I should be concerned about this.

Rating time:

Execution: 7/10. Well-written and well-performed, but the second act dragged a bit, and there were too many convenience characters. Also, that poor family with the horses. Never accept help from strangers, people.

SF elements: 6/10. I feel like I should grade this on a sliding scale, given that it’s a comic book movie in an established universe; but there’s an awful lot of Convenience Technology here, including a clone that looks just like Logan ready to go at exactly the right time, and a super-potion that wears off when it’s convenient to the plot.

Melodrama: 5/10. Some very nice “family” moments with Logan and Xavier, and also with Logan and Laura. But ultimately the film’s message on connection seems muddled, and its moral stance on murder is flat-out contradictory.

Which gives us 6 out of 10. Not bad, for a potato chip.

Review: ARRIVAL

I am a spoiler junky.

Some of this is efficiency. We watch a lot of movies on Netflix (especially random horror films, which, despite the occasional work of genuine brilliance, tend to skew heavily toward disjointed, unintelligent wastes of time), and I want to know what I’m getting into before I invest my attention. With very few exceptions, good films are still good, even if the story’s surprises aren’t surprising. (I re-watched The Sixth Sense last year, and it’s still a lovely film, even knowing The Big Hook.) In contrast–well, let’s just say Wikipedia has saved me from many an emotional investment that would only have ended in annoyance.

My husband saw Arrival before I did. I had been curious about it; but one has to be careful with highly-anticipated science fiction films. So many of them are beauty without substance, or substance without plot. And I’ve really, really, really hated some that have received critical acclaim (*cough* Ex Machina *cough*). But I kind of love Amy Adams, and another SF film made from a short story–Edge of Tomorrow–is one of my favorites, so I had cautious hope.

And entirely out of character, I studiously avoided spoilers.

My husband gave me a spoiler-free review, which I won’t share here, because having seen it I pretty much concur with him, and I’ll get to that in a bit. I will say I’m kind of amazed I was able to avoid spoilers, because Arrival is one of those movies that you pretty much can’t discuss at all without spoiling something.

TL;DR: BIG, HONKIN’ SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ARRIVAL. NO, REALLY, I’M NOT KIDDING, BEGINNING-TO-END DETAILED SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Two minutes into the film, I turned to my husband with tears on my face and demanded to know: “Is this a dead kid movie?”

“I’m saying nothing,” he replied.

Which was the right answer, because I worked very hard to avoid spoilers, and this is a spoiler that would have made me avoid the movie entirely.

Because yes, it’s a dead kid movie. I’d argue that Arrival is your basic dead kid movie stylishly wrapped in some SF tropes.

This is not to say the film doesn’t work. Overall, it works fairly well. Lots of dead kid movies work well. But Arrival basically uses alien invasion, linguistic misunderstanding, time loops and some fantasy bits masquerading as physics to wrap a story of Appreciating What You Have When You Have It, Even Though You Know You’re Going To Lose It And It’s Going To Be Like Having Your Guts Ripped Out Through Your Navel.

I wonder if the people who tell these stories have children, or if their children are grown and they just don’t remember.

I read Sebold’s The Lovely Bones when I was pregnant. I had no trouble getting through the book, but I remember wondering if I’d feel the same after my child was born. Answer: Nope, in so many ways. I saw Trainspotting when The Kid was 2, and I was shaking and weeping while Ewan McGregor was hallucinating a baby on the ceiling to the familiar strains of “Blue Monday.” We rented In The Bedroom (which is indeed a brilliant film) and I still get a knot in my gut when I think about it. We rented The Sweet Hereafter and sent it back unwatched because oh, hell, no.

So yeah, I have a visceral problem with dead kid stories, and you should probably take that into account when reading this review.

But I do think, fundamentally, Arrival‘s SF elements are primarily misdirection, and for me, that was a bit of a let-down. It’s not so much a science fiction film as a melodrama that uses time travel (more or less) to ratchet up the pathos. And all of the elements, both SF and melodrama, were fairly well-worn, no matter how beautifully they were presented.

The unique angle here (and what I suspect was the core idea in the short story, which I haven’t read) is the nature of the heptapod’s language, and how it affects Louise’s mind. I’m not a linguist, but I do remember learning French in school, and finding it affecting my facility with English. Most interestingly, though, was visiting my parents for the few years they were living in the Netherlands, and watching Sesame Street in Dutch. I knew zero Dutch, but after a few days I started understanding the show. Not a lot, and not in a translating-in-my-head way; but I started to get it. It was weird, and not at all the vocabulary-and-phrase-based learning that had been my only exposure to new languages.

It made perfect sense to me that Louise would be changed by learning the heptapod’s everything-all-at-once-forever language. And okay, fine, that change allowed her to somehow slip outside of time entirely and perceive it as a whole. But that nudges the movie toward fantasy territory for me, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it was another thing I didn’t expect.

The line between SF and fantasy is fuzzy and much debated. Most readers are happy to have psychic phenomena and faster-than-light travel in their SF, never mind current evidence that neither of those things is possible. I suppose there’s no reason I should draw the line at psychic phenomena, or at the idea that a human, born and existing in our four-dimensional world, should suddenly be gifted with extra-dimensional perception.

In this case, though, I think it bothered me because of my original problem: it’s all misdirection. The entire tale is a shaggy dog story explaining that personal tragedy is somehow worth it (and it’s spun as Louise’s tragedy, which indeed it is, but it’s also a tragedy for the kid, and the way it’s treated here tweaks a little bit of my women-in-refrigerators sensitivity). The story isn’t about alien invasion, or humanity discovering how to cooperate, or a (rather pointed) message about how incredibly stupidly we can act when we’re amorphously afraid.

The story is about how hideous tragedy can be offset by beauty and meaning. It’s not a bad message, but to have the whole thing circle back to that after aliens and betrayal and duplicity and weird language and Louise’s world-rescuing victory at the end is kind of a let-down.

My husband’s take was that Arrival is the kind of SF movie that people who don’t read much SF really love. That’s a tad harsh, perhaps, but I know what he means. The SF bits are pretty well-worn (there are a lot of opportunities to make the old Twilight Zone “To Serve Man” joke during this movie, even though it doesn’t go that way). And while the romance never gets in the way of the best parts of the story–and we all know, especially by the end, why it’s there at all–its inclusion felt jarring to me. When Louise and Ian meet on the helicopter, I was thinking “Oh, they’re doing this? How disappointingly ordinary.” (Y’all know how much I generally enjoy romance in my stories, but the setup here was unimaginative and clunky.)

“So, Liz,” I hear you ask, “was there anything you liked about this movie?”

Well, yeah. As mentioned above, I’m a big fan of Amy Adams, and I think she did a remarkable job here. It can’t have been an easy part to play. Louise is very self-contained, which is necessary, I think, to avoid revealing the entire plot from the start, and it’s hard to make a character like that compelling on screen. Adams reveals Louise’s character in gesture and reaction, and careful delivery of dialogue. There are some actors who can never quite disappear from a film, but I stopped thinking “Amy Adams” very early on in this movie.

And I think the reactions that various characters had to the aliens were well-drawn, even if the point being made was not subtle. Everyone is afraid, but for some curiosity wins instead of terror. And it makes perfect sense that a pack of soldiers would go AWOL, caught up in the idea of duty and dying for their country, based on no evidence apart from the vast amount of things they didn’t know. I also found believable–if unrealistic–the idea that one government standing down would be enough to get the others to follow suit.

And I liked the alien’s message: We’re helping you, because in the future you’ll help us and it’d be nice if you didn’t actually annihilate yourselves like a bunch of primitive jackasses before that happened.

Well, okay. The aliens didn’t say the bit about primitive jackasses. That’s me editorializing. But I think it comes to the same thing.

Rating time!

Execution: 9/10. I think both the beginning and the end could have been trimmed–the end in particular took far too long to sledgehammer the point home–but goodness, it was lovely.

SF elements: 7/10. The language angle was interesting, but the rest was tried and true (although very well drawn here).

Melodrama: 3/10. A bit too much stereotyping in the romance department, Ian ends up looking like a jerk for leaving his will-die-later daughter and his wife who then has to deal with it alone, and enough with the dead kid stuff, please.

That comes to 6-1/3 out of 10, which is probably a fair representation of my reaction to the film.

Are You Sure? (Y/N)

Dear Fellow Writers Who Have Yet To Publish,

Don’t do it.

Love,
Liz

…Wait. You need more than that? Oh. Okay.

Dear Fellow Writers Who Have Yet To Publish,

If you love writing and value your sanity, don’t do it.

Love, and really, I mean it,
Liz

I can hear you from here, you know. “Well, of course she’d say that. She’s done it. This is just sour grapes or some competitive bullshit because she knows my book is better than hers.”

Dearest fellow writer, I hope your book is better than mine. I hope it’s Shakespeare or Melville or Butler or Rowling or Gay or whatever massively-selling author you idolize. I hope you are brilliant and productive and creative and beautiful, and that publishing brings you massive success and recognition and love from strangers all over the world.

Spoiler alert: It probably won’t. Even if your book is better than mine. Even if it is better than Shakespeare and Melville and Butler and Rowling and Gay.

And even if it does bring you massive success and recognition and love from strangers, it’s not going to feel the way you think it will.

We are storytellers, you and I. It’s a strong desire, and a motivating one. (It has to be motivating, because damn, finishing a book is hard.) We are storytellers in part because we’ve had stories told to us. We’ve read, some of us more widely than others. We’ve had that window into another world, another mind, another framework. That window has changed us and taught us who we are, and who we want to be.

Maybe we started with Goodnight Moon. Maybe nothing spoke to us until we had to read Clarissa for that college 18th century lit class we only took because nothing else fit into our schedule. Maybe it started when we were 35 and waiting at the airport and the only thing on the racks was Stephen King’s It.

We love being told stories. And you and I, fellow writers, decide, at some point, that we want to tell stories of our own. For all the stories that have made us feel less alone–maybe you and I think that perhaps if we write down our own stories, we can give that feeling to someone else.

We tell stories out of love.

Dearest fellow writers, I tell you this as someone who has been making up stories for 47 years, since before I could write, since before I knew what an adverb was (or why I should use as few as possible): Write and write and write and write. Tell all your stories. Pour all your love into your work. Share it with your friends. Have beautiful bound copies made (there are some places that do very nice low-volume binding work these days) and give them as holiday gifts.

But if you love to write, don’t publish.

There are lovely aspects to it, of course. Beautiful covers. Your name in print. The feeling of seeing your words neatly typeset, like all of the stories you’ve read all your life. The feeling that now you’re one of them. You’re one of the storytellers, the ones that tell stories to strangers, just as you were once a stranger who picked up a book. You belong.

Except you don’t.

Perhaps it’s different for you. Perhaps you’re the sort of person who can walk into a room full of strangers completely relaxed, feeling entirely at home, able to blend in a way that makes other people gravitate toward you, assuming that of course you belong there, even if they don’t know you. Perhaps your name and your cover and your words for sale at your favorite retailer is enough.

And right now, you’re certain it will be. I sure was. I knew exactly how all this was going to feel, how all this was going to go. I was prepared for the inevitable bad reviews, the sales that didn’t go quite where I wanted them to. So many authors I love have had bad reviews, have taken years to build proper sales (if they ever did). Belonging doesn’t mean there are no downsides. The downsides are part of belonging, because they hit everyone.

Dearest fellow writers. I was not prepared. I was not.

There are bad reviews. There are always bad reviews. I don’t read them. (I don’t generally read the good ones, either, although my spouse sometimes emails them to me, and some of my readers are genuinely lovely people, I have to say.) But it’s not the bad reviews that will get you. It’s the conversation. It’s the people at that party you’ve just walked into, the ones you think will welcome you. Fellow storytellers, and fellow consumers of stories. We are all one. We Are The World. We all belong, right?

People will talk about you. And it will not always be nice. People you like will say genuinely awful things. Because being published doesn’t mean you join the party. It means you become a topic of conversation for the partygoers. They are, of course, welcome to say whatever they choose; but they will say it as if you are not there.

Because you’re not.

This is the bit that I know you’re not going to get when I explain it, but it’s not you that’s joining the party. It’s not you that’s dealing with belonging or not belonging. It’s your story. That thing you wrote out of love, that you tortured yourself over, that you polished and perfected and fought with editors over, that you finally found a way to offer to the world. It’s all of your heart and parts of yourself you never knew you had.

And to the rest of the world, it’s just another story. And it does not matter a bit how much the story matters to you.

It’s often true that when authors get successful, personalities emerge. There are a number of personalities right now in the SFF world. Most of them I like. Some of them, not so much. But there’s one thing I notice, even about the ones who are successful to a degree I will never, ever see: They don’t frequent those places where they are discussed. They interact with people in their own spaces, on their own terms. And in all of those other places? They’re discussed as if they’re not there, just like the rest of us.

Sometimes, of course, you hear things that make you say “Huh?” My favorite was bashing into a “review” of my book in a random comments thread, in which the reader had been unhappy with my characters. “People who should know better behaving badly.” I remember thinking, “Do you even know people?” And then I started wondering if maybe software, where I spent most of my adulthood, was just full of weirdos. (It’s a valid reaction to the book, of course. If you don’t like my people, you’re not going to like the story. But goodness.)

That one wasn’t upsetting, really. What was upsetting was that shortly afterward I had to stop reading those random comment threads. Because other people would say things. And they were not always polite, and they were not always about the work. These were people I respected, whose recommendations I had taken. Some of them I had even interacted with. The brutality of the tossed-off remarks was startling. Some of this is just the nature of the internet (and before anyone tells me to toughen up: I’ve been on the net since 1988, and I know from toxic flame wars, children). But it’s a bit like road rage: at a real party, nobody would say those things to your face, even if they were thinking them. And reading that from someone you respect…it does change the way you see them.

And if I’d been a raving Shakespeare/Melville/Butler/Rowling/Gay success, maybe I wouldn’t have cared.

But I suppose my ultimate point to you, dear fellow writer, is that with all of the success that may be awaiting you, you’re not wandering into the party you think you’re wandering into. You’re wandering into some gazebo on the side, maybe full of gold and champagne, maybe full of warm fruit punch and bad lighting. You can watch the party. You can wonder if they’re talking about you, and maybe they are, and maybe every word is lovely. But you are never going to be a part of that. You are a storyteller now, and you’re cut off in a way that you weren’t before you opened your heart and let your stories into the world.

It can be very, very hard to write in that gazebo. Because you can’t go to the party and take your stories back. You can’t stop all those people, the ones you thought would let you in, from talking about you however they will. It’s too late now that you’ve published, and you’ll know it’s happening, and you cannot do anything at all about it. You cannot ever go back to the party, you cannot ever untell your stories.

You cannot ever have those dreams again, the ones where you belong.

And now you know, when you write a story, what’s going to happen to it. You know what people will say about it, and about you. You’ve lost that purity of impulse, the story that grows inside you so big and so complete that it has to come out, that joy of writing for that one person who will just Get It. You know now that you may not find them. That they may not exist. You’re not painting on a neutral canvas anymore, and even if you’re writing only for yourself, you can’t unknow that.

I suppose I’ll get used to it. REMNANTS OF TRUST was finished before THE COLD BETWEEN was published, so it lives in innocence. BREACH OF CONTAINMENT was written in a constant state of anxiety and consciousness of dismal failure. But I wrote it anyway. It’s still being whacked with the editing stick (and I will admit, dear fellow writer, that I adore having an editor, and I highly recommend that part of the experience), but I wrote it and finished it and it ends where I want it to, so there’s that, at least.

But it is a different experience. And I can’t go back. And I’m not the sort of person who’s good at doing the hypothetical “What if I could go back and talk to my younger self?” thing. No matter what I said to that woman back in 2013, when I first started querying, she wouldn’t listen.

You won’t either, dear fellow writer. But I can warn you. What makes you write now, what feeds you, those evergreen dreams of sharing your stories…it’s not going to be like that afterward. No matter what your success, no matter what your failure, it’s not going to be what you think it will be.

You may think it’ll be better. You may be right. Maybe this is just me, just the sort of person I am, just my own particular sensitivities. Maybe it’s just how I write and exist in the world, and everybody else is wondering what the hell is wrong with me.

But I will ask you, dear fellow writer, to think long and hard about publishing before you pull the trigger.

Are you sure?

Are you?