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I think I just figured out agency (Dammit.)

6 May

Thanks to the obituaries for Joanna Russ, I’m getting an education in female roles – both in genre fiction and in life.

I may be slow, but I’m on my way up.

I’m working through some sticky issues of agency and point of view in my long-languishing novel-in-progress. I had started the novel – with outline, plot sketch, etc. – with a strong female character: a woman in her 50s who survived a multiple-collapse apocalyptic event 30 years prior. In the first scene, she shoots an 18 year old male in the leg… and doesn’t make a non-reactionary move the rest of the book. Ugh.

Ugh, I say again, because I am so strongly reminded that I was older than 30 when I first took agency in my romantic life. Relationships were things that happened to me, before that – I fell in love, and it was always a surprise, ’cause wasn’t it supposed to be? When the relationships weren’t right (and they weren’t right) I clung to them anyway. Who knew when the next would happen to me?

The rest of my life had to fall apart catastrophically before I woke up. I took a look at the mediocre relationship I had been nursing along, and suddenly realized: I was worth more than that. My time was worth too much to spend any more of it there, and there were more valuable things I could do. I called up the other person, and broke it off. I made the choice, and took action. And there it is: agency.
In Gathering Grace, there are two strong female leads: the superhero and the supervillian, both women in their 60s. Both show agency, thankfully – but you know who’s better at it? The one doing evil. [SPOILER (highlight to read): She starts to show less agency when she starts to be a little less evil. Dammit.]

For me, this relates to the difference between being nice and being kind. Nice is passive, even when it’s active – no boats are rocked. Kind is a choice, an act – even when it’s the choice to not act. Good females of any age, I learned in EVERY media source, were always “nice” – even if the result was misery.

As an author, am I contributing to this ludicrous poison?

Consider the consequence – do I take the complete-draft 120,000-word novel back from the boy?

It means a MAJOR fricken’ rewrite.

I think I have to. As the author, it’s time for me to get some damn agency, myself. I throw the rocks at the characters – but even my females – maybe especially my females – better have the grit and presence to dodge or bat them right back. If I had a strong sense of agency when I started it, 2.5 years ago (already?!?), I never would have let the boy run with the book. The central female character needs to make choices and drive her own motivation forward.

Other writers – do you have this same problem? Advice and encouragement are appreciated! I may be getting better at taking charge and driving forward, myself – but it’s more pleasant to do with others.

Taking a Resume Risk

5 Apr

With my diversity of experience, I’m unlikely to be hired by anyone with the “I want a zombie who has done THIS JOB for at least 5 years already” mentality. So I have decided not to worry about autobot recruiters, beyond ensuring that I’m using the right keywords in both my resume and cover letter.

Optimizing for what I do excel at – flexible, accurate, brief and impactful information presentation – ought to win me a few points on the job market playing field.

My new, improved resume starts with an info-graphic – in this case, a fancy chart.

Torrey's resume infographicThe on left hand side and across the top are the sweet spots found in eyeball-tracking usability studies. So that’s where the juiciest data lives: experience keywords, years of experience, and companies worked for.

I’ll admit – it took some effort to get right. The first iteration of the chart didn’t include a key. After some usability testing (“hey, tell me what you think this means?”) I found out that it needed both color and a key. Since I’ve added that, the response has been immediately positive.

Sure, it’s a risk to have a resume that steps outside the norm. But I’m already outside the norm – the greatest risk I can take is to not be me.

Disagree? Suggestions? I’m all ears.

Making: from Manic to Mature (and now with Marionettes!)

27 Mar

Since I was old enough to read and write, I’ve gone from one creative pursuit to the next. I have competence in a variety of media, from batik to welding, knitting to writing.

I used to JUMP IN AND GO ZOOM! to any every project that came to mind. I could MAKE LOTS OF STUFF!  but often IT WAS CRAP!

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The skills acquired since becoming a grown-up have improved all the others:

  • Planning ahead for setbacks, polishing, delivery methods.
  • Revising – and revising, and revising, and throwing-it-out-and-starting-over.
  • Seeking and using feedback.

So now, when I tell you that I’m working on making a tiny bronze marionette that lives in a top hat and connects to a black opera glove, you can rest assured that I’ve planned several test pieces, iterations and have made proofs-of-concept (see picture – Sculpey is cheaper than bronze metal clay.)

And it’s likely to be full of awesome.

Ode to Alice

26 Oct

Alice can deceive the unimaginative. Sure, I could call her the starbucks-coffee-on-demand-short-cup-to-full-carafe-stainless-steel-coffee-grinding-cocoa-making-industrial-capacity wonder machine… but that doesn’t begin to describe her consistent production of joy. Maybe those who think dubiously it’s a coffeemaker-right? Maybe they live too far away from reality’s fluid edge; maybe they aren’t exhausted enough from a yesterday filled with unexpected swashbuckling opportunities.

When I arrive at work, ready to take on my new day of surprises, Alice is ready. The cup is put flat where the cup is supposed to go, and I look not-quite-up to the buttons on the front. She dispenses warm truthfulness 12 ounces at a time.

She reminds me of Alice who ran the diner when I was a teenager, when I was too broke or clueless or insensitive or arrogant to leave a decent tip, even after my friends and I made towers out of glassware and straws, painted modern art in the catsup and laughed and swore and smoked too loud.

Maybe you remember: Alice who smiled at nobody, but surprised you the day you came in trying so hard not to cry because your truest-love-so-far had done whatever finally-admitted insensitive thing that shattered your happy illusion. The cup is put flat where the cup is supposed to go, and you look not-quite-up to the buttons on her front. She set hot cocoa in front of you without asking, without smiling, without repeating that there are other fish in the sea. And the bill, of course.

She didn’t add whipped cream, but that’s okay. Neither does my mechanized Alice.

Every weekday I see her. Caff, half-caff, decaf through the day, on demand, without comment, without smiling. Now I’m all grown up and don’t remember to play hooky to the diner, and my daily Alice doesn’t need my tips – just a rinse cycle now and then. Maybe this weekend I’ll drive back to the diner – maybe even this Friday night. I’ll squeeze into a booth near the teenagers and I will not fuss with the silverware or the condiments. I’ll try to give Alice a sympathetic look.

Whatever happens, I’m leaving an enormous tip.

Now that I have a computer again…

23 Oct

It is a ridiculous, petty, affluent-first-world problem: and yet, my life is better when the computer isn’t broken. My most productive, smartest place to write fiction* is out-amongst, where I can hear the sounds of people swirling together in a mass: voices and laughs and indistinguishable sursurrations. So when my trusty computador Sancho became far less trusty several weeks ago – and had to be sent to reform school – I was stuck with the much slower pen-and-paper. 

And by much slower, I mean by a factor of hell-frozen molasses. Slower than snails grow legs. Slower than jujubes melt in a toothless mouth, and slower than a brontosaurus who survived long enough to take quaaludes in the 70s, after taking the quaaludes. Hyperbolically slow.

Which is not to say that writing by hand doesn’t have its place. (To some extent, I just like hyperbole.) But my fingers record words more than twice as quickly, making it so the story doesn’t drag on past the point I’m interested in it. I get bored too quickly! And if I’m writing a scene that i’m sick of… it’s a problem for that scene.

I am so glad to have back my lovely computador. NaNoWriMo ’08, here we come!

 

* People-noise is good for writing fiction, but for nonfiction, I’ve been listening to classical pieces (Hindemith, Adams, Mahler, Holst, + many more) on Pandora, in a station called “Torreybird’s Concentrating.”

Motivations

15 Sep

Being an author is a lovely thing: there’s a little piece of my own worldview that is entertaining and informing and delighting different readers. Not to mention, lots of folks seem to find it impressive. But it is fundamentally difficult to concentrate on writing when there are Big. Important. Things. pending – especially when there’s little or nothing I can do to influence those things. Pee suspect and beloved fuzzybutt.

The problem is that not all of the writing life is lovely. There are times when the writing is so drecky I have to start a new page so I don’t have to look at what I just wrote. But when the writing is done, I can celebrate, right? Of course – because otherwise there’d be no momentum left to drag me through the painful work of editing: the pruning, reshaping, bulldozing and knitting of the story together. And all that before shopping the book around, the further editing, publishing, and then the marketing…

Three-quarters of the way through the current novel I have to wonder: what keeps me going? I’ve tried to distill, record and admit my top motivators below:

5. Seeking fame and fortune, just like so many other writers dream of. Do I think these are likely? Absolutely not, but I do think they are possible. That I seek this kind of attention is kind of strange to me; I’ve only recently started to come to terms with it. I’ve always thought that this sort of public ambition is somehow wrong or, at best, déclassé. It turns out I’m a little bit wrong, then.
4. Participating in the act of storytelling. It may seem intangible, but I think it’s a fundamental human need. Other people may need to tell stories that actually happened to their children and friends, or write in their blogs. Some, like my brother and dad, need to tell important ideas by coding software that makes those new ideas possible. We each have points of view to express, and it’s important to me that I express mine.
3. Discipline is good for me. When writing is going well, it’s not that the story is flowing effortlessly. I’m more exhausted after writing 5,000 “easy” words than 1,200 words I had to scratch out of empty brain. But I feel accomplished whichever I manage – and more importantly, perhaps, it makes any other challenge look that much more possible. Can I change careers? Certainly! I’ve written a novel, after all.
2. Any word count is better than “zero.” Even if the quality is sh*t. Even if it didn’t move the story along, or moved it in the wrong direction. Editing improves even the worst storytelling. Sometimes the “wrong” direction turns out to be just what the story needed – like a certain poisonous shrew that was added to Gathering Grace. If Nathan hadn’t added it, while we were at a NaNoWriMo write-in… I’m not sure what would have happened.
1. Whatever else is happening, I get to write. Sometimes “royalties” are more aptly titled “pauperies,” the kids are involved in complex and contradictory teenage dramas, the computer breaks down and the cat is peeing on the rug. I can pursue steadier employment, promote the book, listen to the teenagers, pull out the paper and pencil and clean the carpet – and still, I can write. It means letting everything else go, while I’m writing; but once I do it, I can revel in it. In my story, if nowhere else, I get executive control.

So now that I’ve posted to my blog, I return to the novel. Back to the control, the increasing of word-count, the storytelling, the discipline, and the potential fame and fortune of writing.

Right after I clean up the cat pee.

The Writing War

27 Aug

I got a rejection letter with a bonus today. It was a company to which I had applied to work writing some documentation; while I didn’t make their final cut for interviews, the person who wrote the email said that the intriguing reviews of my novel inspired her to order it. So one more sale, though one fewer job opportunity.

But what’s the real message I should take away? On the one hand, it’s easy to get discouraged. People are finicky in what they want to read. Most of writing is a solitary endeavor; there’s not much feedback as I’m actually doing the work. It’s not social, or easy, or secure. Success is far more often a function of marketing than artistry, and the market is cutthroat. There’s the perpetual question, too, of “so what have you written lately?”

On the other hand, even though someone wasn’t interested enough to interview me (and boy, do I interview well!), my resume was strong enough to merit research. She had to follow at least one link-within-link, if not two, to read the reviews of Grace. And now one more person is reading it. So I wasn’t the top choice for the job, but who knows whom I was up against? I’m marketing one book against millions of novels, and with one more person I’ve won this particular round.

I think it is not a coincidence that wars and marketing are both waged as campaigns. The message I will take away: It is not the individual sale, large or small, but the accumulation of battles won that makes the difference. One more sale, one more order, one more review.

Today, I’ve got one more – and always one more – book to write.

Post One: Torreybird’s a Writer

14 Aug

“There’s no secret handshake.”

This is the phrase that most sticks with me from my first professional event as an author. I had written a novel, gotten it published, and now I’m trying to get people interested in it. Gathering Grace has its own website, it’s listed on Amazon, and available from bookstores and the publisher - but it’s not enough! Not by a long shot.

I’m finding that selling the book is harder than writing it.  Gathering Grace’s independent publisher has a respectable non-fiction catalogue, but Grace is their first novel. It’s been a learning process all around! Reviewers would have preferred to see it pre-publication. Some booksellers wonder why they’ve never heard of it before. Others are having trouble getting it from the distributor. Some think the cover is poorly produced, and others wonder where to shelve it: with SF? Fantasy? YA? Adult?

There is a definite limit on what I can do. The distribution issues are up to the publisher. I can promote to different reviewers, but it is up to them to read, enjoy, and write about my book. I can do readings, signings, attend conventions and conferences, write this blog… and get the book in front of people as often as possible. If people enjoy it, terrific! Hopefully they’ll recommend it to their friends, give it as a gift, and review it on a public site (like Amazon or GoodReads.)

But there is still “no secret handshake” when it comes to being a successful author. So what can I do? Well, all of the above – but that leaves out the most important part. I started writing because I love to write. Grace was written as part of NaNoWriMo 2006, at a time when I desperately needed to be doing something I loved. My next novel was written in 2007 – and it’s terrible, and part of it I wrote in a post-surgical haze of pain and medication. (It is still in hiding, dreadfully ashamed of itself.) As I write this post, I’m working on a SF novel involving interplanetary travel, a disaffected chemistry teacher, and an alien wall.

Why SF (science fiction)? Because my earliest experience with novels was the “juvenile” novels of Robert Heinlein, and I’ve never lost my taste for them. Sometimes, it’s easier to tell a good story when the reader has already suspended disbelief. Sometimes, it’s easier to reveal a truth when it’s surrounded by the comforting cocoon of this can’t happen here.

More importantly, though: when I go to read a book, I want a story. I don’t want high-falutin’ narratives, or vivid descriptions of undulating hills (see Thomas Hardy), or most fiction that I’ve had handed to me as “literature.” I want dialogue, action, and character transformation. Often, I want heroes and villains and the compromises that each will make. Relationships, opportunities, and conflicts drive the plots, and there should be a satisfying ending – even if it makes me cry. So that’s what I try to write, when I’m writing fiction.

So what will be in this blog? Here’s the plan:

  • Progress notes on my current project(s), when the story is soaring or crashing
  • New ideas about what might make it into a story, someday
  • Answers to questions like, “Doesn’t Heisenberg preclude…?” or “What would be involved in marketing to both YA and adults, simultaneously?”
  • News about when, where, and how I’ll be making professional public appearances
  • Thoughts on current bookly and writerly happenings
  • (Perhaps I should include thoughts on the misuse of “-ly” in adjective creation…)

I’m planning on writing at least weekly, if not more frequently. Please feel free to email (torreybird at gmail), visit my other websites (www.torreybird.com, www.gatheringgracebook.com), and comment on posts.

Thank you for reading,

and please buy my book,

Victoria “Torrey” Newcomb

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