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[sticky post] An introduction

Apr. 30th, 2013 | 04:02 pm

Hi!

To quote my profile, "I'm Alena. I write speculative fiction, mostly fantasy. I am a college graduate with a degree in Physics (and a minor in Critical Social Thought). I usually don't have very much hair."

Most of the entries on this journal are friends-locked, but I usually add people back.

If there are two things I love, they are books and science. While in undergraduate I worked in Special Collections, which was phenomenal. (You can find me talking about it here and here.) Now I have a paraprofessional library job. Eventually I'll go to library school.

I will probably always write novels.

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Writing Questions meme

Jun. 6th, 2014 | 11:52 am

Blair tagged me a while ago, and then my life got ridiculous for a bit, so here goes!

long post is longCollapse )

I am tagging Brackett and Steph to carry on! I've been having fun reading people's answers to these questions and look forward to theirs.

This entry originally posted at Dreamwidth. See comments there.

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where I exist on the internet

May. 16th, 2014 | 04:58 pm

I have gone and gotten myself a website: alenamcnamara.com.

So far it's just a tiny thing, with links to my blog and to my story at Crossed Genres. Mostly I've put it up so that people who read Kaleidoscope and want more like that can find their way to my Crossed Genres story, and so that I can expand upon it later. I have no particular plans to enwordpressify my blog (it would take too much work and I like LJ/DW). But, well, who knows what the future will hold? At the least I have the domain name.

This entry originally posted at Dreamwidth. See comments there.

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one I can't look away from

May. 1st, 2014 | 12:08 pm

I am excited to announce that my story "The Day the God Died" will be appearing in Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories!

The full table of contents (and cover!) can be found here. It is stuffed chock-full of absolutely wonderful writers whose stories I am so looking forward to reading--if you haven't already, you should check it out.

("Day the God Died" is the first story I wrote after attending Viable Paradise in 2011. I don't think you can tell, mind, because one of the things I hoped to learn from VP was how to make plots and this story has very little in the way of plot. Let's just say it's a case of knowing the rules so you can break them.)

I am extremely happy for my story to be a part of this anthology and, even more than that, for this anthology to exist. It's going to be amazing.

This entry originally posted at Dreamwidth. See comments there.

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The Emotional Weight of Revision

Apr. 25th, 2014 | 09:26 pm

At this point it's been AGES since twitter-people were talking about this but whatever, I'm still gonna talk about it. (Also, someone on my tumblr dash was asking about revisions, which kicked me back into thinking about it.)

So. Revisions. A lot of common advice about revising comes from a specific emotional experience of the revising process, ringed around with caveats sometimes but solidified into cultural touchstones that reify a particular emotional landscape. All of these must work for some people, or they wouldn't have come into usage, but none of them work for everyone—case in point, they don't represent my experience. But we have this idea that these are The Right (Easy) Way To Put Things, and that makes it seem like it's the Only Way To Go.

Here are some of those cultural touchstones of revising:

Take "Kill your darlings." It implies brutality, pushing past caring, doing the best thing for the story even if it's hard. But "doing the best thing for the story you want to tell, even if it's hard," doesn't have to be violent. You could frame the same thing—take out the lines you love if they aren't contributing to the story—as looking at the forest, not the trees; as focusing on the big picture; as lots of other things.

Take the idea of "tearing everything apart and starting over." Think instead about throwing clay on a wheel. I have not done this since I was much younger but according to my memories of it: if you are trying to make a specific thing, and it doesn't work, sure, you push it down into a lump again. Sometimes you put the clay aside and start with fresh clay, working toward the same goal. But reworking clay, to get at the same structure or shape you were trying for the first time, bears a very different emotional weight from "if it's not working, just tear your story apart!"

Take the inner editor. NaNoWriMo (and plenty of other people) tell us to "turn off our inner editors" for the first draft—implying that then you can let them out for the second draft. It is sometimes possible to just type and not think about it. My favorite (least favorite) of the things I've done this with is the "novel" I wrote in 24 hours for NaNoWriDay when I was in high school. It is about spoons carved out of cheese, road trips, and a performance of the musical CATS. It is completely and utterly awful and I am glad it got lost somewhere on a hard drive years ago, because I am never ever going to show it to anyone. Ever.

....okay, tangent. Anyway. Inner editors! The idea that, emotionally, you can and should separate out the part of your brain that critiques stuff as you write it...is an interesting one but in the realm of wish-fulfillment fantasy for me. It sucks to be writing something and have your brain telling you it's terrible. But for me, that's not an inner editor; that's an inner troll, the youtube comments section of the brain. The youtube comments section of the brain is pretty much never helpful—in drafting or revising. The bit of your brain that says "This description isn't working, let's come back to that later" is, for me, not really turn-off-able and is also somewhat helpful. I'm partway through drafting a novel first draft right now and I have lots of piles of Stuff I'm Gonna Fix Later.

But if I treat that part of my brain as Inner Editor Do Not Touch, Ignore, then when I go back and look at the first draft I'm probably either going to fall over under the weight of noticing all the terrible stuff all at once, oh my God, so much, or...my brain's going to be in the habit of ignoring the terrible stuff and will continue to not notice it. Both of which don't work for me.

Take the phrasing that you have to "develop a thick skin" for critiques. "Don't take it personally!" is another of these. The secret is that for many, maybe most, writers it is impossible to not take it personally. Stories are your babies except better, I mean, I'm never having actual babies, that would be far too much responsibility, what? (Practice does help. It doesn't make perfect. Practice getting short story critique and rejections kind of carries over to novel critiques and rejections but not really.)

As far as I can tell, this means, don't vocalize your first automatic defensive reactions about what people say about your story—to the people who are saying things about your story. This is because they are doing you a favor by taking the time to read your work and think about it and tell you what they think, but (unless you have that kind of relationship) they did not sign up for also helping you deal with your emotions about revising. (See also that Night Vale quote: it is not Monday's fault you are emotionally unprepared for your professional life. You can complain to your friends about this lack of emotional preparation—it is arguably impossible to be prepared—but don't blame Monday for its opinions about your short story! Er.)

...but that says nothing about what your personal internal emotional life has to be.

Putting that all together? I think we need a change in language. Because the way that I revise stories is, emotionally, more like carving stone (polishing down to the story I want to tell) or re-throwing clay (shaping and re-shaping a story until it comes out just right) than it is any of those phrases above.

With the difference—of course—that whenever I finish a draft (whenever I've finished going around the sculpture taking bits off, whenever I've shaped the clay again) I have a deep-seated emotional need to get it somewhere that is Not Mine. Otherwise I get antsy, and sometimes start fiddling with it again, but that's a bad idea. That impulse to throw it somewhere Not Mine is the indication that I'm done with it for now, so I send it to a friend or a reader or two (depending on what stage of revisions I'm at) (readers are also friends, I'm speaking more of what I request from them—this is a thing I wrote vs. I want comments vs. please critique this thoroughly).

If I didn't have that emotional response, I'd probably fiddle with it forever, and I think that would be a bad thing. It's usually an indication that I've fixed what I can fix, and that I need a new perspective now. But it manifests in me as a desire to throw it as far away from myself as possible, a desire for it to exist somewhere off of my laptop.

Emotions are important. Sometimes they're telling us things that we don't or can't understand logically (or acknowledge consciously). So I wish that the language around revising wasn't organized to deny any emotions except the approved, significantly violent ones.

But we can't just change the language to what works for me. We need to acknowledge the variety of Things That Work for different people and also different projects (my experiences of revising novels and short stories are different from each other too). Unfortunately, there's no snappy way to summarize all that.

This entry originally posted at Dreamwidth. See comments there.

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Expectations, Surprise, and the Realm of Possible Story

Mar. 30th, 2014 | 02:05 pm

A week or two ago, people on Twitter were talking about the experience of revision, and the intuitive sense of Story and Shape that one gets after a while—and possible ways to shortcut that process. This led me into thinking about what underlies my personal sense of Story and Shape, and henceforth into Expectation.

(Note that all of this is my own opinion. Some of this comes from my experience reading slush for Ideomancer, but only as accumulated over nearly five years; not any one story, or even any group of stories, in particular. And some of this comes from my recent reading of the archives of various online magazines, some of it from reading stories for critique, and some of it from writing stories myself and then looking at them and saying, "Hm.")

Expectations are important. They're what turn a story from "oh, well, okay" to "oh, cool!" They're especially important because once you set them up, you get to break them, and the more times you do that, the more interested I'm going to be in what you're doing.

Expectations are the reason that people will often say "Twist endings are a hard sell for us". The "and then it was all a dream!" is maybe the most egregious of the twist endings—it completely invalidates everything that's gone before—but when I talk about twist endings I usually mean something different. A twist ending, for me, is when the ending is the first time that the reader's expectations are subverted.

If you make a little line map of a story, the twist-ending goes a bit like this:
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...where the red lines indicate the direction the story goes. The straight lines at the beginning and middle are probably some set-up of open-ended questions, gradual gaining of context and answers for the questions, character development, worldbuilding, etc.

The sharp turn at the end is the twist: a drastic reversal of fortune, a revelation about the world, a revelation about the characters, a revelation about the narrator...any big subversion of an expectation we as readers have been carrying along. It's often, but not always, a subversion of an expectation set up in the very beginning.

As a reader, I don't find this kind of story very interesting because it doesn't surprise me. There's a limited range of ways one can subvert an expectation, in my experience, so if the story only subverts one expectation, there's a limited Realm of Possible Story that it lives in. After you've read a lot of stories, you know the boundaries of this Realm pretty well.

On the other hand, if the twist comes out of nowhere, I don't find it surprising because there's no context or contradiction—and since it's the story's ending, there's no time to unpack the consequences of, "Okay, but what if a spaceship did attack neanderthal Earth out of nowhere?" (Or whatever—I am pretty sure I just made that story up. Except it probably exists somewhere.)

There's a variation, which is the two-twist ending:
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Or:

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But here again there's only two subverted expectations, and frequently the second subversion is the antithesis of the first, so that you end up where you were heading in the first place anyway. This also has a hard time surprising me, sort of like when you're watching a 45-minute cop show episode and they catch someone at the half-hour mark. Oh no! The real killer's still out there! we cry, with no actual shock in our voices.

There's also, in the graph above, only three possible story-paths. The more stories you've read, the more you expect all three of these results (and not being surprised).

The lesson here is: the earlier you start setting up expectations and subverting them in interesting ways, the bigger the Realm of Possible Stories gets. The number of possible story-paths grows and grows. And the bigger the Realm is, the more I enjoy seeing where inside it this particular story goes.

A few notes here: you do need to also satisfy some expectations, otherwise the story can go quickly off the rails entirely and nobody has any idea what it's doing. Expectations can be micro- or macro-scale; most successful stories have, and subvert/satisfy, both. Also, open-ended questions are not the same as expectations. Open-ended questions are also important, to intrigue readers and keep them reading for more information. But that is not what this post is about.

I'm going to use my own stories as examples, not because I think I'm so great but because I want to talk about how I think of/use expectation in terms of my own writing—and also because I want to talk about flaws as well as things done well, and I feel weird using others' stories in that regard.

So! My one so-far-published story, "As Large as Alone", does not subvert a ton of expectations. However, the one BIG subversion happens pretty early on: this girl tells Mandy she's a mermaid, Mandy's sister figures out that the girl is not a mermaid but rather a dead person. The rest of the story is mostly Complicated Emotional Things about Growing Up—but there's also expectations woven into those Emotional Things, like Mandy's expectations of what being a mermaid means, and what Julia thinks the girl knows (i.e. that she's not in fact a mermaid). These characters' expectations collide in (hopefully) interesting ways, despite the fact that the reader knows what's going on fairly early in the story. This is an example of a pretty small Realm of Possible Story that ideally is a different-enough Realm from other Realms that it is still interesting.

I wrote "As Large as Alone" several years ago. Hopefully, I've gotten better at writing since then! Certainly I think I've gotten better at expectations. The more I write, the more this becomes intuitive rather than a thing to work at carefully.

Here's an example from a story I just recently drafted, in one morning, in a white-heat blaze of inspiration. The first sentence is: "They told us they were here to build a road." Expectations implied: they were not there to build a road; probably they didn't build a road. Open-ended questions: who are "they"; why were they really here?

The next sentence begins, "And build a road they did." The next few paragraphs are about the road, and add context about the setting and characters; hopefully that and the lingering open-ended questions are enough to get readers to the fourth paragraph, where at least one of them is answered (sort of) (in a way that gets subverted later—an example of the answer to an open-ended question becoming an expectation that can then be subverted/reversed/further played with).

In revisions, I can work on these further. Can I make the expectations clearer? The questions more urgent? The answers more convincing, so that the later reversal is more powerful and interesting? How close together can I get the original expectation-and-reversal pair? (Not much closer than first sentence and second sentence, probably.) If I have a revelation down there, what expectation does that depend on up here? How can I emphasize that?

Some of this is expanding the Realm of Possible Story. Some of it is building up trust. The more satisfying the initial subversion or confirmation of expectations and assumptions is, the more I trust the writer and the more (I hope) readers will trust me as a writer—to take them on an interesting journey through a large and multifaceted Realm of Possible Story.

Now, none of this is new. Expectations are a thing that writers often talk about when they talk about craft. But I'm not sure I've heard people talking about it in this way, so hopefully some of this is new (and useful) to some people. If nothing else, I know I've learned from hearing the same thing twice in different contexts.

If anyone else has thoughts or questions or further examples, I'd be interested in hearing them!

This entry originally posted at Dreamwidth. See comments there.

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livin' the dream

Mar. 9th, 2014 | 01:47 pm

Dear ten-year-old self:

Not that you don't know this already, but you were totally right. You will be a writer when you grow up (heck, you're a writer already) and, yes, writing doesn't pay very well, so you will in fact have another job. (Spoilers: it has more to do with books than with science. But majoring in physics was a solid choice anyway.)

Actually...everything you told your parents that evening? Is completely accurate. Just thought I'd let you know. Good job with that. And good choice. So far it's a pretty awesome life.

Love,
your twenty-two-year-old self
(me)

This entry originally posted at Dreamwidth. See comments there.

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self-promotion post, theme: "As Large as Alone"

Jan. 30th, 2014 | 02:04 pm

I was going to make this post earlier and then I was waiting for some of these things to happen so I could do it all in one fell swoop. Giant post of eligibility and links and self-promotion, go!

- I had one thing published last year, a short story titled "As Large as Alone" in Crossed Genres.

- As this was my first sale, 2014 is my first year of Campbell Award eligibility. (So that's a thing.)

- On account of which, you can also find "As Large as Alone" in the 2014 Campbellian Anthology along with one million awesome stories by other Campbell-eligible authors. It's a free download, only available until April. Hooray for M. David Blake for organizing that!

- I also participated in the Campbell Eligible Writer Surveys--mine is in part 6, here, but there are five earlier parts with lots of excellent people in, so if you are nominating for the Campbell or just interested in newly-published writers, you should check it out. (The great bonus here is, everyone summarized their qualifying sale piece in 5 words so you can get an idea of what they're like (and then find it in the Anthology, maybe).) Kudos to Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam for coordinating all this.

- And finally, someone put "As Large as Alone" on their list of Cool Reads from 2013! (Lots of great stuff on that list too--I am honored to be in such company.) How neat is that?

This entry originally posted at Dreamwidth. See comments there.

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A New Year's wish

Dec. 31st, 2013 | 05:34 pm

2013 has been a hard year, a weird year, a year of changes and failures and disappointments and--occasionally--towering joy. It's been a year of holding on. It's been a year of getting what you want (sometimes) and discovering that you aren't sure of the reasons you wanted it in the first place (usually). It's been a year of curling up, a year of unfurling tiny silent leaves in the dark, a year of transplantation and of hesitantly putting down roots.

So my wish for next year is: let this prove a foundation. Let 2014 build on what has come before, let it bring us certainty (but not too much) and light (but not too much; there must always be shadow). Tonight let us sweep out the year's doubts, the year's awkwardness and loneliness and second-guessing, and let surety and companionship and blissful solitude in at the door.

This entry originally posted at Dreamwidth. See comments there.

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all the vampire novels!

Sep. 7th, 2013 | 10:04 pm

Today I baked apple crisp. I also went to Holly Black's event for her new novel (which has vampires), and I cooked carrots and black beans (with honey) for dinner, all orange and black in the frying pan.

I think it might be autumn.

I've written a bunch of letters lately and sent them off. Hopefully, people will write back! I am going to write to more people, too--I would like to have a big group of correspondents, but ideally spread out so that I'm not writing all of the letters at the same time.

It's been a good couple of weeks for reading, too, what with the part where I have a commute now. I've been rereading a lot of Dorothy Sayers lately, and my roommates and I finally finished (re-)watching Season 5 of Buffy. I got Starglass, too--which is by my VP XV classmate Phoebe North, and really an interesting contribution to the generation ship genre. I am definitely intrigued to see what the next book is like!

I also got Caitlin Kiernan's Blood Oranges out of the library, which with Coldest Girl in Coldtown makes an interesting point-counterpoint. Blood Oranges is the gritty horrible side of paranormal novels, along the lines of Sunshine except even less romanticized and (if possible) with even more gross visceral stuff. Coldest Girl is much more in the romanticized vein (ha), even though there is--as Holly Black noted today--a lot of blood in it. Though perhaps not in the romanticized vein so much as examining the romanticization?

Anyway, an interesting pair of novels to read together.

I haven't been writing much, despite good intentions. My brain hasn't been producing many new exciting ideas recently. But at the Holly Black event today I started thinking again about The Urban Fantasy Novel (which I wrote a first draft of lo these many years ago), and how maybe now that I have actually been in college, and through college, and have some small modicum of outside-of-college living on one's own--and tangentially have learned some things about plot and so on--I could attack it and actually rewrite it to be decent. Maybe. Possibly. Though it really would need a lot of work... but I am itching to start doing something, working on something, so why not try this? It may not catch, but then I guess I can just go on to a different defunct project, and yet another, until my brain gets bored enough to generate fresh concepts.

This entry originally posted at Dreamwidth. See comments there.

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