It’s OK to be Takei in YA

I feel like I ought to link to the current big YA brouhaha: Agent asks authors to “straighten” main character.

This is not the first time I’ve heard of something like this happening, and it’s appalling, to be sure.

I just want to add my data point to the debate, however: my book, in all its incarnations, has always had gay characters in it. There was even a transsexual in one version (who sadly is no more, not for being transsexual but because I was having to engage in painful, artificial plot-acrobatics to keep her).  I have never, ever, not ONCE been asked by my agent or either of my editors* to change anything about these characters.

Let’s call it out when it happens – that’s important! – but don’t imagine publishing is some kind of monolith. Good books will find a home. Keep writing, and don’t despair.

* Yes, I’ve been through two editors. I think I broke the first one.

Edited to add: Was the title of this post too obscure? Here’s what I was referencing:



[This post has a sister: Symphony. You may wish to read that one first, but it’s not strictly necessary.]

One of my favourite books is This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel J. Levitin. Levitin is a neuroscientist at McGill University; before that, he was a session musician and sound engineer. I have always been one to ask stupid questions about music — Why does it exist? How does it have the power to move me? Why do Rush songs always sound like noise to me the first time I hear them? It’s very exciting to see this guy asking the same questions (well, maybe not the one about Rush) and then running experiments to find out the answers.

(In some alternate universe, I became a neuroscientist instead of a fiction writer. Of course, there’s also a universe where I’m a plumber, so my mileage definitely varies.)

Back when I was reading this book for the first time, this passage in particular struck me:

There is nothing intrinsically catlike about the word cat or even any of its syllables. We have learned that this collection of sounds represents the feline house pet. Similarly, we have learned that certain sequences of tones go together, and we expect them to continue to do so. We expect certain pitches, rhythms, timbres, and so-on to co-occur based on a statistical analysis our brain has performed of how often they have gone together in the past (112).

He goes on to discuss how our brains form schemata of musical genres, how the most interesting music violates our schematic expectations a little bit, and how if something violates our schema a lot, it sounds weird (at best) or like indecipherable noise (at worst).

The interesting part, to me, was the idea that these things are learned, that there is nothing inherently happy about a major scale or sad about a minor one. I have two stories from my own life that illustrate exactly this point.

(Those of you who know me well have probably heard the first story, because I love telling it. You can go get yourself a snack now and come back later.)

I was raised on classical music, if you recall. My teenage rebellion – such as it was – consisted of listening to cheesy 80s music (in secret!) and The Beatles (openly). Neither of these musics were that alien to me; 80s pop isn’t that different from Vivaldi, all bright and bubbly, and early Beatles music is straightforward enough. When I went off to college my roommate had The White Album, which excited me greatly. Here was some Beatles I’d never heard before! Sweet! I blazed through disc 1 and found it everything I could have hoped for. Disc 2 was ok, but then, out of nowhere, I hit the Wall of Cacophony.

It was “Helter Skelter”. I could not make head or tail of it. It sounded like noise to me. I sheepishly put disc 2 away, and did not attempt it again.

Fast forward to many years later, my son (Beatles-mad at the age of 4) gets The White Album for Saturnalia. I put the second disc on eagerly because I can’t wait to hear this nightmarish mess of a song again. “Helter Skelter” comes on and… and there’s nothing to it. I find it perfectly tuneful, practically an ear-worm, in fact. Years spent slowly learning the language of rock have rendered the song perfectly comprehensible to me. “Helter Skelter” is easy.

A second anecdote, and then I’ll let you go (those of you with the snacks can come back now)…

When I was in college I took a class on Indian music, taught by surbahar master Ustad Imrat Khan. Surbahar is to sitar as cello is to violin. Anyway, he was teaching us about ragas – which are kind of like modes and kind of like scales – and how certain ragas pertained to specific seasons or times of day. Well, there was this skeptical grad student in the class who raised his hand and said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t get it. How can this arbitrary cluster of notes mean ‘evening’?”

And master Khan said nothing, but picked up his surbahar and started playing this smoky blues riff. When he’d finished, he looked up at the class – most of whom had their mouths hanging open by this point – and said, “Where were you, just then? What time of day was it? That’s how.”

Interesting stuff, music and brains. I think about this more than I should, probably.

Merry updates

* I finished a plot outline for the sequel to Seraphina on Wednesday, and am feeling quite jolly about it. It was only the fourth attempt, which isn’t bad (for me). I sent it to El Señor Don Gato Editor, who appeared to rather like it, which means there will be lots of revisions.

* Yes, there would also have been lots of revisions if he hadn’t liked it, except that they wouldn’t be “revisions” so much as “Could you please start over and come up with an actual plot this time? What? I said please!”

* Revisions are good. Revisions mean there’s something there worth revising. As the folk saying goes: “Thou canst put no shyne uponst a cow pye.”

* It is so a folk saying. Go ask anyone. “Uponst” is a regional dialectic variation, accepted by fauxlorists all over the world.

* I am pleased to inform you that it looks like plotting is a skill one can learn, given enough time and enough banging of head upon table. I’ve done the experiment so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

* That’s “plotting of books,” not “plotting to make mischief.” I have a natural talent for the latter. The former, well. It’s just a good thing I’m stubborn.

* Yes, the silliness of my blog posts does increase proportionally with how merry I am. You may graph it if you wish.

Edited to add: Ooh! We are getting close to a finalized cover at last! It just needs to go through one more round of approval next week, I believe. I hope this one gets the thumbs up, because I really like it.

Across a crowded room (full of books)

Here’s an interesting post by Cory Doctorow on marketing, or as he puts it, “getting people to care about the products of your imagination”. The article’s focus ends up being on self-publishing, but I think it’s relevant for any author, really.

What interested me most (because I approach everything obliquely for some reason) was the first few paragraphs where he described his early bookselling career. I’ve been a bookseller, too, and he’s got his finger on something I often used to feel: the pathos of publishing, that books (even good ones) are ephemeral. So many shine briefly and then disappear.

Long ago, I worked in an antiquarian bookstore in Chicago, where I eventually became a buyer. People would bring in old books and I would offer them money — or not. Age alone does not make a book valuable: someone also has to want it, and most of the books that have ever been published are long forgotten (often justly, but sometimes not). That was an unusual store in that it was tactically disorganized, forcing patrons to browse. I think young Doctorow, based on his description of himself, would have loved it. It was for exactly that kind of reader, in search of a serendipitous book, and that is the kind of context where books – obscure books, books that have disappeared undeservedly – are united with readers who will appreciate them. That was a beautiful thing, to my mind.

Later, I worked at Children’s Book World, where we prided ourselves on being able to unite books with readers in a different way. We all read extensively, we got to know our customers, and we played matchmaker. It was very, very satisfying.

Doctorow seems hopeful that the internet and electronic media will keep books available longer, but there’s still that crucial step, connecting reader with text. Sites like Goodreads help bridge the gap; book review blogs do too. I like to pretend to myself that I’m doing something useful in that direction right here. But I think readers are also an important part of the equation, readers who actively look for a book that will speak to them, regardless of how difficult it may be to find.

What’s the most serendipitous book you ever found, and how did you find it? Or – if you will permit me to pose the question spookily – how did it find you?

On art

A friend recently mentioned my “Epic Fail” post on a Metafilter comment thread. I’ve been checking back periodically to see whether the arguments are still going or if they’ve died down. I am intrigued to note that the discussion seems to have veered away from feminism and toward art (well, some of it has. The part I find most interesting).

I really like talking about art. I am tempted to make myself a Metafilter account and leap right in, but I don’t have the time and besides, if I want to spread my crackpot ideas around the  internets, I have my very own space right here.

I think about art a lot because art is what I do. Honestly, the only reason I write (as opposed to sing) is because I have some native ability there. If I could dance or cook or paint or build gigantic bizarre installations at anything like the same skill level, I might be doing that instead. I’m not fussed about the medium; I just want to get out there and art it up.

I sometimes think art should be a verb: the impulse to art, the tendency to art, quick get me a bucket I’m gonna ART…

I don’t like definitions of art (the noun) because people  insist upon quibbling about the borderlines – X is art, Y is not – and I find that tedious (also, I get silly and end up talking about toilets, and who needs that?). Art has no borders that can’t be redrawn. Some artists spend their entire careers just stretching those borders. That’s what they find exciting, and more power to them. That’s not a question that moves me, particularly.

Here’s what does move me: subjective experience. That’s what I look for in art. The artist is a lens held up to the face of the world, showing everything from an unaccustomed angle, revealing what is hidden, making the old look new. Art (to me) is a burning need to share the subjective, to say, “Here’s what I’ve seen, what I’ve felt and thought and tasted, loved and wondered and fought. This is what it was to be me.”

That may sound like egotism, and I admit it’s a fine line. But egotism says, “Look at me!” whereas art, I believe, says, “Look through me, because the world is fascinating (or other adjective of choice) and I want to show it to you.”

The things we often take for art – virtuosity and technical skill – I would call craft. Good craft can make the lens less obvious (and poor craft can do quite the opposite), but it’s always there, and you can always see it if you know how to look. Sometimes you have to deduce its dimensions from the negative spaces around it. Me, I like seeing the lens. I tend to think the lens is the entire point, rather than what is shown on the other side.

My favourite authors tend to be the ones I recognize as kindred minds, as my people – Terry Pratchett, Lois McMaster Bujold, George Eliot. I read their work and see a person who has suffered what I’ve suffered, loved where I’ve loved, been through the same fires and come out the other side. But they are not me. They come to different conclusions, try different solutions, broaden my conceptions of what’s possible, and give me a new angle on my own challenges. They don’t have answers; they have experiences.

And this, I think, is what art is for. It’s a signpost on the road, saying, “Humans have been here before. It’s a rough road ahead, but you do not walk it alone.”

Fall in love with the future!

Go check out The Intergalactic Academy, where my writer friends Phoebe and Sean have just started blogging about YA science fiction. The future’s looking better already!

The Heroine’s Journey

On Tuesday I was talking with a friend of mine who is a doula and a writer, among other things (I’m linking to her, because you never know! One of you might need a doula). She has recently been training to teach Birthing From Within classes.

At this point you’re probably saying to yourself, “Did I click the wrong link and end up at someone’s baby blog? What does childbirth preparation have to do with writing?” Read and learn, darlings!

There are lots of different kinds of birthing classes, with varying philosophies behind them. The philosophy behind this one (or the part my friend thought would interest me) is that giving birth is a kind of Hero’s Journey, as surely as Frodo going to the Crack of Doom, and that an understanding of its stages would be tremendously helpful to mothers-to-be.

You’ve heard of the Hero’s Journey (or monomyth), surely. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces laid it out clearly, though the idea goes back to Jung and the idea of archetypes. It became very popular when Bill Moyers did a documentary about Campbell, revealing that he was good friends with George Lucas, who had deliberately structured Star Wars as a hero story. The “men’s movement” of the 90s – which was all about men getting in touch with their feelings and learning to forgive their fathers via drum circles (or some such) – was also rooted in Campbell’s ideas.

In other words, I knew about it, but it was all very masculine to my mind. Hearing my friend describe childbirth in those terms was… well, it was surprising and exactly RIGHT. You are called to perform this task that is surely to big for you to handle. There is no turning back. You undergo an ordeal (and must surrender to it, or it hurts even more). There are times you really think you might die – or that death would be a wondrous relief. You come back with a great gift. The ordinary world looks completely different to you afterwards.

And you can’t stop telling your story. Ye gods, I remember that. I could not shut up about it: the great flood, the wild broncos bucking, my husband an island in the stormy sea. I was desperate to hear other women’s stories. We were like veterans. Nobody could understand (or wanted to hear the gory details) but us.

I’m working on the plot outline for my second book. You don’t have to scratch the internet very hard to find a dozen sites with the Hero’s Journey laid out tidily for authors (esp. screenwriters). Just plug in your ideas, and presto! You’ve got an instantly compelling story!

It was interesting to read the steps of the journey, certainly, and a little relief to see that I  had already instinctively created some things that corresponded.  And I’m sure it’s possible to make a story that way, from the prototype up, but it  could end up being The Phantom Menace as easily as Star Wars. The steps are not for my story, but for myself.

Because this, too, came clear in talking to my friend: the journey is compelling as a story because it’s a journey we all take. Being a writer is not so different from giving birth, after all. What’s interesting is not how my written work conforms (or doesn’t) to some preexisting template, but how I am learning to walk the path myself, to be the hero of my own life. I went through an ordeal indeed with Seraphina; I’m still on the Return part of that journey, but already called to begin another. How do I do this? How am I changed? What have I learned?

I’m trying to plan, of course, with this plot outline, but there are unanticipated monsters ahead, and unanticipated help. And in the end, there is nothing for it but to set my feet upon the path and go.