a little red flag

I know a lot of writers. Really a lot. Really really. And we all have different process, and that’s great, that’s wonderful. In person I have been known to chirp “we are all a beautiful rainbow,” but it’s really hard to get my total lack of sarcasm on that point through on the internet. (We are, though! We are all a beautiful rainbow! Yay!) In this case, I have spotted what looks like a consistent red flag for burnout, and I’m having a hard time phrasing it so that it’s clear that I don’t mean to exclude some kinds of inspiration.

Here’s the red flag. Writers with a few novels or a ton of short stories under their belt who get into a place where they only want to talk about being sick of tropes and wanting to deconstruct them. I know that deconstruction is a major creative inspiration in some writers’ processes (all a beautiful rainbow!). But the larger percentage of conversation about other people’s work gets to be about deconstruction and frustration, the more I watch for other signs of burnout.

Because–squee is not just good publicity. Squee is important for your own work. If you’re not honestly feeling like squeeing about other work you’re encountering, that’s a bad sign. And it’s probably not a bad sign about what’s out there in the world, because there is a lot of stuff out there in the world. If none of it is pressing your buttons, really none? that’s a bad sign about your buttons and where you are in terms of energy levels, taking criticism, getting enough recharge, all those things.

This is not a red flag of you being (or a friend being!) a bad person, or a worthless artist, or someone who will never recover, or anything like that. I’ve seen many people come out of this kind of burnout. But just as it’s easier to talk about how to begin a story than how to deal with the middle and ending that grow out of it, it’s a lot easier to talk about early-career things than all the paths that can grow out of them. And yet it feels to me like there are a lot of mid-career/developing writer paths and pitfalls that it would be really useful to talk about more, so…I’m going to try to do some of that, and I appreciate the other people who are doing that too.

(One of my favorite roads out of this is to cast my net very, very wide and look at things that are way outside my usual so that badly handled tropes and obvious choices are less grating. But other solutions for jolting out of this kind of deconstruction/negativity trap welcome.)

Attention tax

One of the things that has been making me furious about sexual harassment lately–secondary to all the other things that make me furious about it–is the attention tax it imposes on women. The time spent figuring out whether there’s enough evidence for us to be taken seriously this time, whether the people who were in the “surely you misinterpreted” and “that doesn’t mean what it blatantly means” camp last time will finally take us seriously, the time spent recovering from someone shouting in our faces and someone else grabbing our asses, the time sharing stories and pooling information and cleaning up messes and figuring out what to do, what we can do, what we have the power to do. That is time not spent on other things that are frankly a whole hell of a lot more interesting.

When it’s in convention terms, the time spent discussing who did what and what to do and letting the adrenaline settle and coping is time not spent on ideas for books and stories and where to go with them. It is very directly a tax on attention that could and should be going toward work. And it makes me exhausted and resentful, and then I try to corral my attention back to my work, because that is a far, far better place for it to be. I have directly observed that when I am at a con where people are dealing with an ongoing situation of this type, I come back with far, far less in the way of inspired notes for new projects–not just coming away drained instead of energized, but the specifics of what business are we doing here, where is our attention going.

I’m lucky. I know a lot of good men. I know a lot of good straight, white men. One of the benefits of this is that when a straight, white dude is an asshole, I am clear that it is artisanal assholery that he is hand-crafting by choice, not a trait he can’t avoid by his demographics. And a lot of good straight, white men have been stepping up to share the work of dealing with sexual harassment on a community level. I appreciate it. I do. But that is a choice they are making. Statistically, on average, the nonconsensual part, the part where you have to cope with the fallout of being harassed again, the part where it happens several times in a row and then it’s on your mind and you go into the next professional situation having to have a plan for how to cope–that’s a drain on your time and attention that you cannot have back, that other people can help with structurally but not in the moment. They can donate their time but not hand you back yours, not give you back those hours and days of working on the situation and processing and coping. It can happen to men. It does happen to men. And as one woman I know never loses an opportunity to point out, it does not happen to every woman. But statistically, on average, it is an attention tax that falls much, much more heavily on women, for things that we did not ask for and cannot change.

It’s not just sexual harassment. This is not the only attention tax, and I don’t mean to talk as though it is. Racist bullshit and the people who visit it upon people of color? That is, among other worse things, an attention tax on those people of color. Having to cope with accessibility issues and prejudice against the disabled? Attention tax. Homophobia and other forms of anti-queer assholery? Attention tax. Navigating the world while neurodiverse, even in ways that do not feel like a disability internally, among people who are going to be utter jerks to any hint of non-neurotypicality? Attention tax. And while I’ve talked about men and women above, the amount of attention tax that falls on gender-nonconforming and non-binary people gets mind-bogglingly larger the more gender-policing the subculture they’re interacting with gets. One of the fundamental questions is: how much jerkitude are people going to blithely shovel on you for being you and then skip along with their day, and how much will that pull away from the focus you need to do your stuff that you do.

Do I imagine I’m the first to observe this? Hardly. But “show don’t tell” is hardly new advice, either, and writers get blog posts out of that several times a year. What I’m saying to you is: this is affecting the work of people you know and care about. All the time. It doesn’t have to. It is literally all entirely voluntary. The thing I said above about artisanal bullshit: last month I got very tired of people saying “so that’s a thing that happened” when they were describing a choice someone made. So let’s not do that. Let’s not ascribe to fundamental forces things that are actual bad choices people are making.

And also: people who are doing work through all these attention taxes, who are managing to push it aside and fight their way through to focusing on making something awesome: I see you. I appreciate you. I’m sorry it’s like this. I keep hoping that some of the draining work will gain us some ground and it will be long-term less necessary. But in the meantime, thanks for clawing back some of your own in the face of it. It’s so hard, and it matters so much.

F&SF story interview

I’m back from Boston! I had a lovely time going to Readercon and writing and seeing friends and riding back and forth on the T and wandering up and down Mass Ave. I am now convinced that wandering up and down Mass Ave is a substantial part of what you do in Boston. Things are there. Also, every time you come out of the Harvard T, there is Greer Gilman, so it is written and so it must be.

But other, less eternal things are written, and you can read them! Such as this interview about my story in the July/August issue of F&SF. Interview with me! Things you might want to know! or maybe not, but there it is anyway.

I answered these interview questions in the spring, and one of the things they’re showing me now is that life moves fast. Well. I knew that. And if it’s going to move fast and smell all right while it goes, I’d better get a load of laundry in. More, much more, soon, now that I’m home for awhile.

Tomorrow’s Kin, by Nancy Kress

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I am really torn about my review of this book, because there are a lot of things that I found grating and clunky in it. There are copy editing errors that make sense into nonsense, there are sentences that grate on the ear, there are near-future references that are actually already near-past references, there are places where a character introduces a piece of gratuitous racism and the protagonist gratuitously excuses him for it only to find that it has no bearing whatsoever on the larger plot. The gay character is basically labeled THE GAY in sparkly foot-high letters with no other character traits. The sections from the points of view of the Black lady assistant and the kids read as pretty patronizing to me.

And yet. And yet it is a near-future science fiction novel substantially from the POV of an older lady, and how many of those do we have right now? Not too bloody many. And she is an older lady who is a mom who is realistically concerned about her kids and eventually grandkids–she is explicitly not enmeshed in a network of friends, but she at least has some family, some life outside a career. She gets to have a love life. And her family disagrees thoroughly, completely, on politics, the economy, and the ecology. As families really, truly do.

And there is an ecology. There is a character who is obsessed with purple loosestrife. Sometimes this is a metaphor for alien or displaced ecological disruption in the main plot of the book, because there are aliens of size and conversational ability, and also there are space spores. But sometimes? Sometimes it’s not a metaphor. Sometimes it’s just purple loosestrife. Those are my favorite times of all.

So I am torn. The structure of this book is weird–its focus shifts around–and there are so many nits to pick. And yet there are also a lot of things it’s doing that are not as widely available as I would really want. Mixed bag, is I guess where I come down in the end. Not my favorite Nancy Kress, but not without its points.

Please consider using our link to buy Tomorrow’s Kin from Amazon.

Readercon Schedule!

Okay, mammals! Here is what I know of my Readercon schedule, since I have a minute to tell you. If you’re going to be there, look for me in these places, or in the places you would generally look for a person (the lobby, the bar, the green room, the meet the prose party, the ’90s dance where I will be wearing an authentic ’90s dress and an authentic ’90s flannel shirt against the authentic hotel air conditioning…).

Thursday 9:00 PM  Highway to the Weirder Zone. Samuel R. Delany, Max Gladstone, Maria Dahvana Headley (leader), Chandler Klang Smith, Marissa Lingen. Surrealism, magical realism, paranormal romance, and other genres of the weird have different methods for getting the reader to suspend disbelief and acclimate as the roses rain down and the protagonist turns into a cockroach. Can authors of less-weird science fiction and fantasy borrow those tricks to ease reader dislocation, or is dislocated exactly what a reader should be? Are there different approaches that work for a phantasmagoria of ideas or a phantasmagoria of sensory impressions? And what problems arise from applying the assumptions and techniques of one genre or subgenre to another?

Friday 2:00 PM  In the Heartland. Chris Gerwel, Marissa Lingen, Natalie Luhrs, Peter Straub, Catherynne M. Valente. What about the middle of the U.S. makes heartland stories such as Stephen King’s The Stand and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven so powerful? Recognizing that the U.S. is far from perfect, does the baked-in concept of American exceptionalism negatively affect these stories? What do they teach readers who aren’t American about Americans and their values?

Friday 4:30 PM  Reading: Marissa Lingen. Marissa Lingen reads a selection of short fiction.(That’s what the program says! I can tell you that it will be something that is sold to BCS but has not yet been published with them and will be published in the issue just before the first Tuesday in November. If that timing and venue gives you enough clue to content. Come and hear it! Also please keep me from reading to an empty room.)

Saturday 11:00 AM  Engineering in SFF, the Sequel: A Bridge Too Far. Scott H. Andrews, John Chu, Jeff Hecht, Marissa Lingen, Fran Wilde (leader). At Readercon 27, our panel of SFF writers with engineering backgrounds discussed bridges, flight, castle fortifications, and why engineering often gets short shrift compared to other technical sciences. They pointed out that readers never see a school at Hogwarts for magical engineering, or classes for building magical tools. This year a new panel will go deeper with some of these topics, getting into the different types of engineering such as bio, hydro, civil, and mechanical, and how these can inform your worldbuilding.

Sunday 10:00 AM  Reckoning Group Reading. Christopher Brown, Michael J. DeLuca, Marissa Lingen. Reckoning is a new, pro-paying, annual journal of environmental justice fiction [and nonfiction and poetry] edited by Michael Deluca. (And special guests who are not otherwise on the program! It will be great, you should totally come.)

Sunday 12:00 PM  The Works of Judith Merril. Andy Duncan, Marissa Lingen, John Stevens, Gordon Van Gelder. Celebrate and discuss the life and works of the 2016 winner of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award. (Possibly also rage at the times in which she lived! Do some of both maybe!)

Books read, late June

Ben Aaronovitch, The Hanging Tree. This is the latest installation in a long-running series. Do not start here. You will not have the character emphasis to get why various appearances are important or even make any sense. For people who are in the middle of this: there is at least Lesley but not as much Lesley as I could want. On the other hand there is quite a lot of Guleed, and I love Guleed. I love Sahra Guleed enough to pretty much forgive the fact that this is a pretty light entry in this series.

Chaz Brenchley, Dust-Up at the Crater School Chapters 1-4 and Three Twins at the Crater School, Chapter 22-end. Kindle. I am generally, as I have said many times here, not a fan of the serial format, so what I tend to do is let them pile up until I have a book. Or in this case, I let them pile up until I’m traveling and have a good chunk of reading to catch up with on my Kindle. There’s definitely arc plot in these, but their template is both old-school SF and old-school boarding school novels, so there is a lot of short-arc/episodic stuff as well, midnight feasts and sneaking out and getting caught in various hijinks and being in disgrace for them–about as well-suited for a serial as anything could be. Three Twins is the first and Dust-Up is the one that’s going now.

E.M. Forster, Maurice. Written just before the Great War but not published for decades thereafter, this is very simply and straightforwardly about being gay and male in that era. It is a character/relationship study about a young man of that era of “good” but not “high” family and how his sexuality affects everything for him. It is short and in places poignant; Maurice is not perfect and can be very annoying, and Forster knows this, he did not mean to portray a paragon. Even if you feel like you have lots of factual data about this era, about Oscar Wilde and his trial and so on, this is still a work of art that lends texture and contrast and also makes me want to give Mr. Forster a cup of the good hot chocolate and someplace safe to hang out.

Roger Knight, Britain Against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815. Logistics! So much, so many! You want to fight Napoleon, you need logistics, and the UK had a bunch of them, and not always enough, and not always lined up properly with each other. And then the logistics fight. I do like a logistics fight.

Mary Robinette Kowal, Scenting the Dark and Other Stories. Reread. I think this should be of particular interest to short story writers who are new to their careers and would like to see someone evolve in her ideas and execution.

Foz Meadows, A Tyranny of Queens. This portal fantasy is, among many things, a love letter to those of us who spent our education being the good girls who could be counted upon to be convenient. For all those who were seated with a harasser for the teacher’s convenience, who were ever pinched on the thigh under the desk, whose complaints were “trouble” when the harassment was not. Foz has a story about parallel worlds and magic and travel and dragons and queens and strange beasts–but also a story of standing up and saying no, of finally having enough. This book was not here for me when I was fourteen. It is here for me now, and when my goddaughter is fourteen it will be here for her. And dammit, we will still need it. Caveat: I read it in the airport lounge, and I had to try not to cry in the airport lounge, so. Possibly be careful of your location. But recommended, oh, recommended.

Judith Merril, Exile from Space (Kindle) and Out of Bounds (reread). Who has two thumbs and is on a Judith Merril panel at Readercon? Yes. So. Exile from Space really clarified one of the strong things that’s going on here, which is writing from a female perspective but for a male editorial gaze. Once I saw that I couldn’t unsee it. I’m not at all sure there’s a man of the time who would have had the tools to write this story, or most of the ones in Out of Bounds–but it’s still very much written for them, for their attention. Fascinating. Very space-focused, very Cold War, and I do love Judith Merril or I wouldn’t have volunteered for the panel, so stay tuned for more.

Elizabeth Moon, Cold Welcome. The latest Vatta book, and it’s a crash-landing into difficult polar conditions with a saboteur to find. Even in space there are too many whiners, seems to be the thesis of this book, and maybe so, but it would be more fun if not.

William Morris, The Hollow Land. Kindle. Every once in awhile when I’m traveling I read another piece of Morris’s fantasy to get another bit of how to write him in the story I have in my head. As a fabulist he is a great ceramicist and other sorts visual designer. Oh Uncle Will. I do love him, but not for this, which is overwrought and overemotional and melodramatic and full of “revenge!” and symbolic colors and people swooning and spending years at things in one paragraph. Which is not to say that it doesn’t have its own appeal, just…oh, Uncle Will.

J. Robert Moskin, The Story of the U.S. Marine Corps. Grandpa’s. I have been reading through my grandpa’s book collection since he died in 2009. I have done it in no particular order, except that I knew that I wasn’t going to want to leave things I would turn my  nose up at for last. This was second to last, and it was very solidly done on the deployments of particular Marines, sometimes down to their individual names. It is less solid on the motivations for those deployments, and not even just on the stuff that might be politically debatable, but if you’re writing historical fiction of any type that involves moving Marines from place to place, this is a good resource. It ends just after Vietnam. (The link is to a third edition which goes through the Gulf War. -ed)

Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold, Death by Silver. This is a fairly light Victorian fantasy mystery, wherein men who were bullied and abused at school are put in a position of having to implicate or, sadly, exonerate their abuser of a capital crime. Reading it in close proximity to Maurice and A Tyranny of Queens was fascinating coincidence, as the type of school harassment it depicted was substantially different, and its take on British attitudes toward gay men just before Forster’s period was meant to be historically serious without being depressing. An interesting balance, not a book that will probably be a passionate favorite of mine but still a fun read.

Jessica Shattuck, The Women in the Castle. This book was simultaneously harrowing and not harrowing enough, which is odd. It’s about the survivors (…sort of) of the men who attempted to assassinate Hitler, mostly their post-WWII lives but a bit of the context they had before the war. They face privations and sexual violence, and they forgive, and don’t, and get on with things, and don’t. I feel like if you’re going to write a book that basically takes the position that a lot of people, especially women and lower-class people, were swept along into Nazism and didn’t entirely know what they were doing and that forgiveness is the road forward, engaging more than peripherally with the people they most directly hurt is called for–the people who are not privileged enough to live literally in a castle, the ones who were not a protected class. Women were at risk of sexual violence even in that protected class, but as this book demonstrates, that was not unique to the Nazi regime and is somewhat aside from the questions of it, so…the questions of forgiveness of it, how a country moves forward from it, deserve more depth than this gives.

Lynne Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trota, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issues 15, 16, 17. Kindle. I’m not sure there was a weak piece in all three of these issues. I’ll put the links in short story posts, but in general I enjoyed all the content and was glad to have it in this compact form–especially since rereading a couple of the pieces I’d already read online brought aspects of them to my attention that I hadn’t entirely noticed before.

Two pieces of writing news

  1. The issue of F&SF with my story “An Unearned Death” in it is available now! You can get it from SF Site for paper copies and subscriptions or from Weightless Books for the ebook version. Mine is the July/August issue, although they have many fine issues also available for you. There’ll be a blog post coming up on their site, so stay tuned for the links on that.
  2. Yesterday I came home from my New York trip to find that I sold a story, “Flow,” to Fireside Fiction! More word on when that comes out when we collectively know more, but I’m really proud of this one and happy to be working with Fireside for the first time.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled running around trying to get all the things done.