That “Ten Books” Meme

W. S. Long challenged me on Facebook to list ten books that have “stayed with me in some way.” I’m a sucker for memes about reading and writing, so I was definitely game to play. Then it occurred to me that this post would really go better here, where I might possibly point some people in the direction of fantastic books they’d not yet read. So here goes (in no particular order):

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
Mama Day by Gloria Naylor
The Lord of the Rings series–yeah, I’ll just throw all of them in as one
Ask the Passengers by A. S. King (Though I could just as easily throw Please Ignore Vera Dietz in instead)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Speaker for the Dead, Ender’s Game, and Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card
Ordinary People by Judith Guest
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub

I’ll tag people on Facebook, but if you feel like playing along, feel free to make your own list and ping me, either here or on Facebook or Twitter!

-o-

Aside: I’m conflicted about the fact that there aren’t any books by Latinos on that list. There are books I’ve read by Latinos that I was tempted to put on there, but it would have felt dishonest, because they were not among the top ten (or so) that had the biggest effect on me (that I could think of at this moment). There also aren’t, to the best of my knowledge, books by any sexual minorities on my list. It is what it is, but maybe this list tells me that I need to cast my net wider when looking for reading material.

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“My Writing Process” Blog Hop

YA writer and dear friend Marlana Antifit tagged me on the writing process blog hop that’s been going around, for which I’m so grateful—I genuinely love being tagged in things like this, and yet I seem somehow to be overlooked by a lot of my IRL writer friends, so thanks for thinking of me! Marlana writes cool YA and MG stories of all stripes, including a science fiction novel which was just breathtaking in scope. Her current project, a contemporary YA, sounds topical and from the heart and I can’t wait to read it! If you jumped over here from her blog, thanks for visiting! If you landed here some other way, then check out Marlana’s blog and/or follow her on twitter!

So the way this blog hop works is tagged authors answer four questions about their writing process, and then tag one or more authors themselves. Here goes!

1) What are you working on?

I’m not good at multitasking (who is?) and yet that’s what I seem to be doing right now. On the front burner, I’m working on a short story for Quarter Three of the Writers of the Future competition, due by the end of June. The story that my muse gifted me with is science fiction, and my writing muscles are much more at home with magic realism and maybe fantasy, so this story is kicking my butt every night.

What I probably should be more focused on is revisions on my novel manuscript, Goodbye My Exile. Revisions have been a bit of a slog, but if this book gets rejected, I really need to be able to say to myself that it was the best I could make it, that I gave it my all. GME explores themes that are near and dear to my heart about growing up in the Venn-Diagram-overlap between two cultures, and sometimes feeling like each one is looking at you with suspicion and questioning your credentials. I really want this book to find a home.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

GME is basically a YA contemporary, but my reading roots go deep into fantasy and science fiction, and so, as with much of my fiction, there is a healthy undercurrent of magic realism. My protagonist believes that she is in contact with her deceased father, and that he’s guiding her in certain directions, and ultimately she needs to decide how much overlap there is between pleasing her vision of her father and being true to herself. Whether she really is hearing from her father or not is largely left up to the reader to decide.

Also GME is different because of its focus on characters of color, in a genre where a shameful lack of diversity is quite well documented.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Such a deceptively simple question, but there’s a lot to unpack in it.

I write young adult books about teenagers experiencing and thriving through emotional upheaval because at a time in my life when I was in a great deal of pain and didn’t know how to reach out to anybody or how to get help, I stumbled across Judith Guest’s Ordinary People. This novel was the right emotional experience at the right time for me, and I sincerely believe it saved my life. Since then I’ve read other stories that have brought me to tears, or made me feel not alone, or made me want to be a better person. If I could do that for somebody else . . . well I can’t think of anything at all better than that.

I write magic realism because stories rooted in the real world speak to me more than purely fantasy and science fiction stories do, but I really want to believe in a world where there is more somewhere, just hiding beneath the surface. It’s a big, barely explored world, and those hidden mysteries are where all the fun and magic lie.

I write about latin@ characters, and about other minority characters, because I was shocked a few years ago to discover that virtually all my stories were about Anglos. Wondering why I didn’t write more about my experience, I set to looking at, well, damn near everything I’d ever read, and with a few notable exceptions, white people—and primarily white men—were the protagonists of most of the books life had thrown my way. And I realized that somewhere along the line, without really thinking about it, I’d internalized the notion that “protagonist” meant a lot of things, but that included among them were “white,” “male,” “straight,” “cissexual,” and “Anglo.” And it’s kind of messed up when a Latino kid internalizes the idea that heroes are not people like him, so I began to deliberately change that in my own writing. I do occasionally write about majority characters, but I’ve worked to question whether it should be the default in a story. I want young people who read my books and stories to see more than one kind of hero.

4) How does your writing process work?

Wow—this blog post was already too long before I even got to the meat of the question!

My writing process on GME was different from my writing process on other novels, so this isn’t so much My Writing Process as it is My Writing Process on This One Book. Like most writers, I wrote a ton of half-finished (or less) novel manuscripts before I finally completed one. What made the difference for me on that first, mercifully forgotten trunk novel, was it was the first one I plotted, instead of writing by the seat of the pants. So in the age-old war (it seems) between the plotters and the pantsers, I am a confirmed plotter. With this novel, though, I struggled to “see” the whole story. Plotting and outlining stories, rather than the actual nitty gritty of writing, are usually the most fun for me—usually the only part of writing that’s actually fun for me—but for the first time, I felt like I was suffering from writers’ block on the outline itself. I had some major plot points I knew I wanted to get to at particular points in the book, but trying to get all the plot points down was bogging me down and I felt like I was losing my enthusiasm for the project. So what I ended up doing was plotting out the first quarter of the book in detail, then writing that portion of the draft, then plotting out the second quarter, then writing it, and so on all the way through.

On a less macro level, I believe I experience an undiagnosed case of ADD. I find it very difficult to complete large tasks without, like, stepping stones along the way. When I grade a stack of papers, I put bookmarks at halfway through the stack, three quarters of the way, 7/8ths of the way, and so on, so I can keep my motivation by feeling like I’m getting closer to the end. When I draft, I am fairly crippled by a blank screen or page. So with this novel, I discovered/invented/whatever what I call a “zero draft” process. For each scene, I wrote a very bare bones draft that told what happened, along with my protagonist’s emotional and physical reactions to whatever happened, but had no pretty writing, no voice, just the facts, ma’am. I’ll show you an example within spoiler tags, so if you want to move on you can easily ignore it.

Here is my favorite scene from the book. In it, my protagonist, Alejandra Espinosa, sees a drowning man in the water while on a boating trip. But she’s got some, ah, credibility issues, and so nobody believes her

Spoiler SelectShow

Here is the zero draft of the same scene—the version I wrote before I wrote the above:

Spoiler SelectShow

It’s a lot shorter and more sparse, but the main thing is that’s the most effective way I have of doing that shutting-up-the-internal-critic thing that everybody seems to talk about. And boiled down to the bare bones of the scene, it allows me to check on something I’ve come to think is important for effective prose: a string of stimulus and response pulling you through the events of the scene. This is what Trey Parker and Matt Stone were talking about in that writing video that went viral a few years ago*—”therefore” and “but” are what pull you through a scene, not “and then.” (Or at least, this is my attempt to put it into practice, such as it is.)

So anyway, that’s way more than anybody really wants to know about my writing process—those four questions could easily have been four blog posts!—so I’ll move on to the next part of this blog hop and tag some people who are way cooler and more accomplished than I am, so you can see how they do it!

Up Next

The face of someone who's too clever for his own good . . . Michael R. Underwood is the author of the Ree Reyes series (GEEKOMANCY, CELEBROMANCY, ATTACK THE GEEK), superhero fantasy SHIELD AND CROCUS, and forthcoming THE YOUNGER GODS. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. Mike grew up devouring stories in all forms, from comics to video games, tabletop RPGs, movies, and books. Always books.

Mike lives in Baltimore with his fiance, an ever-growing library, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines & stuffed animals. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he studies historical martial arts and makes pizzas from scratch. He is a co-host on the Hugo-nominated Skiffy and Fanty Show.

Visit his website here!

One of these has plans for world domination. One of these is a writer. BUT WHICH IS WHICH???Erica L. Satifka is a writer of short speculative fiction who has over a dozen short fiction sales to prestigious markets including Clarkesworld Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and PodCastle. She also runs a very reasonably priced editing service.

Visit her website here!

Don't ask what he wears under the kilt. Just . . . don't.John A. Pitts is an agent sibling of mine and the author of the outstanding Sarah Beauhall series of urban fantasy novels: BLACK BLADE BLUES, HONEYED WORDS, and FORGED IN FIRE. He is also author of the short story collection BRAVADO’S HOUSE OF BLUES.

Pitts is a graduate of the Oregon Coast Writers Workshops with Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. When he’s not writing, you can find him practicing martial arts with his children or spending time with his lovely wife.

Visit his website here!

 

 

-o-

* The real gold in this video, for my money, comes about four minutes in.

Posted in artist's life, bookish life, close to home, rants, storytelling, teen issues, the latino thing, writing | 5 Comments

Why I won’t read your blog post

. . . because I do much if not most of my surfing on my phone, and when I click on your link, this is what I see:

TumblrYeah, no. I shouldn’t need to download an app to read your content.

Posted in first world problems, tech geek | Leave a comment

My first vlog!

The last week of school before finals, Lucienne Diver and Amy Christine Parker came out to Lisa’s school to talk to her students about all things authorial, and I got to hang out, help out, and just enjoy the company of other writers!

During a break in the action, Amy and Lucienne filmed an episode of the group vlog they participate in, the YA Rebels. We talked about what young people are looking for in books, as well as writing to trends. Check it out!

 

I pretty much cringe when I’m forced to look at a picture of myself, and that was tripled for seeing myself in video—How fat do I look? How monotonous is my voice? How many chins do I have? Did I say anything totally stupid? How huge is my bald spot?!—but I saw nothing I couldn’t live with here. ;)

I will also be in an upcoming episode of the Skiffy and Fanty show—unless they’ve decided to throw my interview away and stick to more articulate guests with more interesting stuff to talk about!—but this one went up first, and so I get to check “be a guest on a webshow” off on my Author Bingo card!

Posted in blargety-blog, writing | Leave a comment

To be fair, I WAS warned

Aaaaaaand we’re back!

If you’re wondering why this site went four months without a post, it’s not (only) because I’m lazy and a terrible blogger. It’s been broken from the back end and I haven’t had the time or inclination to wade through figuring out how to fix it.

Near as I can figure, this disruption was caused by BlueHost’s upgrading from PHP5.2 to PHP5.4 back in December. Around then, while the site remained readable and visitable, I stopped being able to add posts, edit posts, update WordPress, or anything. And to be perfectly fair to BlueHost, they did warn me that the update was coming and that it might disrupt some parts of my installation:

Should you experience any issues as a result of this transition, please contact a web developer or the developer of the errant software for assistance.

Um . . . okay. I’ve got web developers on speed-dial, dontcha know.

Then today I got it into my head to re-install WordPress en toto, which I’d been kicking around as a possible solution but afraid to try for fear of losing all my existing data. But I convinced myself that losing all my posts was no big deal because at this point the blog was dead anyway . . . So I installed from the BlueHost control panel, and that’s exactly what happened–I lost everything.  Once that happened, I felt an almost-visceral pain from the loss, and I realized those old posts were more valuable to me than I had realized.

That’s when I discovered that the backup plugin I’d been using was worthless.

Luckily, BlueHost had a backup option of its own, and it did work. By now I felt committed to fixing this problem today, though, so I went ahead and figured out which specific files to replace while leaving others alone. And Voila! Here we are. This will never be a blog I update daily or anything like that, but at least now I can update it from time to time.

Posted in tech geek | 1 Comment

Published at Last!

Christmas morning ain’t got nothing on the day I’ve had today. Within the last 24 hours, my first and my second fiction sales have gone live.

First came “Cabrón,” in Stupefying Stories‘s second annual horror anthology, Two. (Amazon link) (Barnes and Noble link)

Check out this amazing cover!

Cover Image for TWOIt will forever amuse me that this science fiction/fantasy/young adult/middle grade writer’s debut sale will go down as a horror story.

Anyway, the story I have in this anthology is a YA horror story, if that’s your thing. You can download a bunch of stories from some great writers–and also my story–for just four bucks!

Here’s what editor Bruce Bethke had to say about my story in the introduction:

“Do I rave about José Iriarte’s stunning debut, ‘Cabrón,’ and tell you to keep you eye on him because he’s going to be a writer to watch?”

And okay, he’s the editor, so he’s supposed to tell you the book is full of awesome stories, and okay, technically he never actually answers that question SHUT UP! IT’S STILL PRETTY AWESOME!

Ahem . . .

So I’m not gonna lie and say that my eyes didn’t fill with tears when I downloaded the anthology and cracked it open. Most writers either give up or succeed by now . . . it’s been close to thirty years since I got my first rejection, and I finally feel like I’ve figured out how to write salable fiction. For better or for worse, I’ve crossed a line: I’m a published author. There is so much more I want to accomplish as a writer, but this is something nobody can take away from me. Yesterday I was an unpublished aspiring writer, and today I’m an author. My friends outside of writing really can’t get how big that is to me, but most of my writer friends will know.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!!!

Less than twelve hours after my debut publication, my SECOND fiction publication went live. You can read my first SFWA-pro fiction sale, “Yuca and Dominoes,” at Strange Horizons Magazine here. And holy crap, I even have a podcast of my story! If horror isn’t your thing (don’t worry–it’s not mine either!) this piece is a bit more understated. It’s magic realism, and about the most carefully crafted thing I’ve ever written. And ohmygod, did I mention there was a PODCAST?! I can’t do justice to the experience of hearing my words read back to me in a professional recording. Anaea Lay’s rendition of drunk Carmencita Peña is worth the download all by itself!

So, yeah . . . I’ve been thinking about what to compare the day I’ve had to, and the closest analogy I can think of is Christmas morning to an eight-year-old. Honestly, I don’t know that I ever had a Christmas as awesome as today was!

Posted in artist's life, blargety-blog, writing | 1 Comment

Education Policy Courtesy of the OSS

On my internet rambles the other day, I saw someone quote extensively from what was purported to be an OSS manual on sabotage. The manual in question is quoted in and linked to from Wikipedia, and hosted on Project Gutenberg, so it looks legit enough. And the content certainly seems appropriate, but what shook me was I read it and had a totally different context come to mind:

(11)General Interference with Organisations [sic] and
Production
(a)  Organizations and Conferences
(1)Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
(2)  Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate “patriotic” comments.
(3)  When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible—never less than five.
(4)  Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
(5)  Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
(6)  Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
(7)  Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
(8)  Be worried about the propriety of any decision—raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the juris­diction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.

. . .

(b) Managers and Supervisors

. . .

(11.) Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.

(12)  Multiply paperwork in plausible ways. Start duplicate files.
(13)  Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, paychecks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

I don’t know if it’s possible to read that, as a teacher, and not get a little chill down your back. For my money, this is a pretty perfect description of the “education reform” movement of the last half-decade or so.

Early in my career I used to hear that education was cyclical; the fads of today would emerge, warmed over, in another decade or so. But after a couple of decades, maybe I have the perspective to say it’s not all cyclical—that this seems to be a special and unique time in the history of public education. We live in bizarro backward land, where teachers are vilified and most respondents to a recent survey say they’re overpaid, where teachers are graded by the performance of students they don’t teach, and where the way to fix an “underperforming” school is to reduce its funding until it gets better. I think this era is different because corporate-types have figured out that there’s gold in them thar hills—there’s money to be made in “fixing” education, but only if you break it enough to generate the demand, first.

Posted in teaching | 1 Comment

“Aren’t you supposed to hate everything you write?”

August was very good to me. On August 14th, I made my first professional fiction sale, and on the 29th, I followed it up with another short story sale. To say I’m riding kind of high right now would be a pretty massive understatement.

Last night I finished up a new short story. Only time—and other people’s reactions—will tell if I pulled off what I was going for, which led to the following exchange on Facebook:

Me: Nobody but me may ever like this short story, but for better or worse, it’s done.

A friend: But you wrote it… Aren’t you supposed to hate everything you write?

This is a pretty good lampooning of my usual attitude toward my art—what another friend calls my tendency toward “autofloccinaucinihilipilification.” My friends know I’m terrible when it comes to putting down my own work and have given me a fair amount of grief over it, but this comment made me realize I had unconsciously said something  positive about my work–I’d acknowledged that I liked it, even if nobody else did. I thought about it and replied, “No, I’m supposed to think everything I write is crap. Very similar, but not the same.”

But that got me to over-thinking and over-analyzing, because, hey, it’s what I do.

I think the thing that has be making me creep closer and closer to success for the last year or so is that everything I write is now consciously rooted in the things I’m passionate about. I hope I’m not making that flash of insight seem banal, because for me it was a watershed. I used to start from a place of, “Wouldn’t it be cool/interesting if . . . ” I think that’s a very typical place to have stories originate from, but maybe my cool-meter isn’t calibrated the same as everyone else’s, because those stories didn’t generally gain any traction when I shopped them around. (There’s other kinds of traction besides sales. There’s personal rejections, getting bumped up to the next editorial round, close calls.) When I finally started getting close calls, it was with stories that rolled around in my obsessions, my insecurities, my favorite themes—by accident at first and by design later.

And for a year now, I pretty much haven’t written any story that I look back on and don’t like.

I still beat up on myself as a writer, but now it’s not for telling crappy stories, but for not having the skill to do justice to the stories I care about. It’s for missing the target.

Missed Target

Artwork by Ilco.

The downside is it can hurt more, to care about a story and feel like it matters to me, and know I botched it.

The upside is that skill grows. So if all that’s holding me back is that I’m not as skilled as I want to be, well I’ll get there eventually.

All I have to do is write more.

Posted in artist's life, writing | 3 Comments

Hacking my own creative process

I feel like my road to being a successful artist is filled with dozens if not hundreds of RPG-like level-ups that I need to unlock. Learn how to finish what I start. Check. Learn how to write novels. Check. Learn how to write prose that is tight and polished. Check. Learn how to write a good query letter. Check. Learn how to keep short stories under five thousand words. Check. Learn how to tell stories that anybody besides me cares about? Okay . . . still working on that, though I think I’m making progress.

One area where I seem to be a long way away is unlocking what makes the words flow easily. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, but  other than putting myself in the way of inspiration by writing as often as I can, I haven’t found a specific set of cues that predictably results in productivity from me.

The closest thing I’ve found so far is pressure.

Chewed up pencil and computer keyboard.

Photo by Tracy Carpena.

Last spring I got one of my first clues. I took a couple of writing classes with Cat Rambo (which I can’t recommend enough, by the way). And though I learned a lot of great techniques and concepts, for me the price of admission may have been recouped in the beginnings of a glimmer of insight into my creative process: Cat would give us a writing prompt and five or ten minutes, and damnit, I would write. And I would get stuff written that I thought was more than halfway decent.

Back in January, I competed in my first short story contest within the neo-pro writing community of Codex. Everybody there has some sort of writing achievement to their credit, so I figured I’d be doing okay if I just didn’t get blown out of the water. Despite January being a pretty murderous time for me, I managed to get stories written four of the five weeks, and placed in the top twenty out of fifty-four or so writers–with one of my stories finishing in the top five for its week. I was pretty jazzed just to feel like I belonged on the playing field with these folks at all, but I also got some more glimmers into my own process (or lack thereof). Each week I struggled to come up with a story for the prompts we were given . . . until around ten or eleven the night before the deadline. (For me on the east coast of the US, the deadlines fell at 3 am.) I was stuck until I had four or five hours, when suddenly the words would start pouring out. It was seriously that predictable.

I think I could’ve done better in the contest if I’d gotten the stories written earlier and had time to polish, but in the end the most important thing is getting stories drafted at all. Polish could come later.

Scary clown.

Nightmare fuel courtesy of Daniel Perry.

So there seems to be an element of sheer unvarnished terror when it comes to unlocking the words for me. Maybe in ten minutes we’re all going to be reading our snippets out loud and by cod I better have something to read, or maybe there’s a deadline so I’ll get it written or else.

This last seems to work well with my writers’ group deadlines as well.  But the other thing I’m noticing is that sometimes it’s enough just to be up stupidly late. I do a fair amount of writing in overnight binges that begin in the evening and end after the sun has come up. I guess my muse only talks in her sleep.

None of this is ideal. Sure, it’s better than failing to write. But I’m never quite happy with the quality I get when I run up against a deadline, even though, sure, once it’s written at least it can be revised. But the other thing is it’s artificial. If I can write when under pressure, then I can write when I’m not under pressure. Either way the words are there, inside me somewhere. I refuse to accept artificial restrictions. I refuse to buy in to excuses not to accomplish what I want.

So I guess that’s where I am now . . . trying to unlock Writing Without Pressure.

Have you struggled to figure out the triggers behind your own creativity? Have you figured out the hacks to make your brain work on your terms?

Posted in artist's life | 4 Comments

Is everybody insecure?

Dipping toes in the water

Photo by Jesse Therrien

When I was in middle school and high school, it never occurred to me that other people might be as insecure as I was. I don’t think I assumed everyone else had it all together–I was just too absorbed in my own issues to give the idea much thought.

When I was in college, my girlfriend claimed that everybody was insecure, and the idea had the ring of truth to it. I had noticed that everybody I got to know well enough seemed to have survived some trauma. It was easy to imagine that we were all going around hurting inside, each of us thinking everybody else had it all together and that we were the only fucked up ones.

I found the idea kind of liberating. It put me on a level playing field. I could think, yeah, you look like you’re doing okay, but you’re really just as screwed up as I am.

I think it was something I needed to believe back then.

As the years pass, though, I find myself coming back around. I’m starting to think that insecurity is a product of over-examining things. It’s so easy to find evidence that you’re less, if you’re on the lookout for it.

But I’m starting to think that what I saw in college was selection bias. Like gravitates to like, and I surrounded myself with people who were like me. In my artistic life I guess I still do. But half my life is not artistic. So many people I know seem to live unexamined lives, and I’m not inclined to think they’re just faking it.

I don’t mean to make a fetish of being insecure. It’s crippling. The last half dozen short stories I’ve written have yet to be submitted anywhere. I am way too quick to decide that I don’t belong, that this or that person doesn’t really want me around, that my contributions are not valuable.

I think there’s got to be a happy middle ground somewhere. After all this time I’m still looking for it.

What do you think? Are you insecure? Are you faking it until you make it? Do you think everyone’s the same?

Posted in teen issues | 7 Comments