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Masterclass with Margaret Atwood

***This is not a sponsored post. I am writing this blog post because I want to***

 

One day as I was scrolling through my personal  (as opposed to my DN page) Facebook feed I saw an ad for something called “Masterclass.” I saw things like Shonda Rhimes teaches writing for television, which sounded cool, but didn’t speak to me. Then one day there was an ad for Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing. Maybe it came up with this because I like the Red All Over fangroup of The Handmaid’s Tale. Or it showed up because I talk about writing a lot. Regardless, I saw it and I was intrigued.

I went to the Masterclass site, and saw that the online course of twenty lessons cost $90. This is obviously a limiting factor for a number of people, and it sucks if it is a limiting factor for you. I grew up poor and even though I was a teacher, I have massive student loans–the only reason I can afford this sort of thing is that via my partner, our family has economic privilege. But full access to the site for a year was 180, or the cost of two classes. Was there at least one more class I wanted to take? There’s also a Judy Blume Teaches Creative Writing class, and that appealed to me. I also want to study cooking with Gordon Ramsay. Other cooking classes. Maybe watch the videos for the Shonda Rhimes or R.L. Stine because whether I want to write for tv or young audiences or not (it’s not) I can probably get some useful writing information. So I paid my 180 and started my Margaret Atwood class.

I am on lesson five and I find it really helpful that I can take the class at my own speed. One day I got through two lessons, but I haven’t done any for almost a week because life stuff came up. I love learning, but being a mom can be limiting sometimes–a college class sounds both wonderful and like too much commitment all at once, for example.

Each class has a 10-15 minute lecture by Margaret Atwood, and then there’s a pdf reviewing what she talked about including an assignment. The videos don’t cut perspective as much as the trailer does–the trailer is a bit irritating that way, tbh. What I find most helpful, though, is listening to Margaret talk about writing. Is it news that you should do revisions? No, but hearing her talk about it as re-vision-ing instead of revision reframed the concept from onerous chore to an opportunity (that is still kind of onerous, but less emotionally taxing that before).

If it is something that has interested you, feel free to ask questions in comments and I’ll answer them to the best of my ability.

Worldcon 76

In my last posted I noted that I would be at a conference over the weekend, focusing on writing. It was actually a sci-fi/fantasy convention where they give out the Hugo Awards (the biggest literary prize in the genre, if you’re unfamiliar). While I am not primarily a SFF writer–I identify as a romance writer who dabbles in the genre–I have been a SFF reader since I can remember, more on the Fantasy than Sci-Fi side. I mean, never say never–I’ve been considering turning Dumped into a longer piece, but I think that I’m more likely to make romance a central plotline, which would mean it would be marketed as a paranormal romance, more or less.

The classes I took were specifically for genre writers, but a lot of the lessons translate. Classes like the one I took on contract negotiations were incredibly useful, as was the lesson that I probably will never write children’s/middle grade/YA books, apart from what my children make me write for them. The class on wounds you can get from various weapons was useful for me specifically to help me think about a fencing match Bree engages in while on the Ghost in Plunder.

One of the things that comes up again and again is word level polishing, which is an area where I could definitely improve. Do you do it? If so, where in the process do you do it? Is it its own round of edits, or is it part of your revision process as you’re simultaneously doing chapter/paragraph level fine tuning? Come to think of it, how many drafts do you go through?

Another topic that was referenced more than once, and was even the subject of an entire panel, was that of imposter syndrome. We all have it, and it’s both comforting and exhausting to realize that there probably isn’t a writer out there (person, but today we’re focusing on writing) who doesn’t suffer from it. Which means that no matter how successful I become, I will probably always have imposter syndrome.

I’m starting to plot out my next book, a contemporary romance. I’m usually a pantser who knows the goalposts I need to hit, although I leave such big gaps between the goalposts that my characters sometimes wrest control of the book away from me at time. This is still a goalpost sort of planning, but I’m fleshing out the world, figuring out the characters, etc. Which is relevant because the main character owns a gaming company.

I did a bunch of panels on gaming, specifically women in gaming because as a woman my MC will face a set of barriers and gatekeepers that a man in her position wouldn’t. I’m not much of a gamer, which is why when my new laptop arrives I’m buying World of Warcraft and a few other big games to get to know them, and am also adding a bunch of mobile games that have commonalities to the sort of games my MC would develop. I also took a class on writing interactive fiction, which a layperson would call writing video games. I’m now well informed enough to be intimidated by my choice, but not so intimidated that I’d scrap the idea.

There was also a class on roads to publication. I’d thought indie publishing wasn’t easy, but I didn’t realize how expensive or challenging it really is. Thus far I’m traditionally published and I think at the moment I’m planning to keep it that way. If you self-pub, you have my respect.

If you get a chance to go to a convention with writing panels, check it out. Like I said, even if you rarely write in that genre, there is so much useful information to take away.

Why Did My Story Get Rejected? — Stephanie Andrea Allen

I’m sharing this post by Stephanie Andrea Allen, who is an excellent editor. Why did your story get rejected?

My short piece, “Why Did My Story Get Rejected?,” was originally published on the BLLC Review. Rejection is hard, and let’s face it, as writers, we’ve all been there. We’ve worked tirelessly on a new story, only to be rejected from what we thought was a the perfect medium for the piece. Why? Well, no […]

via Why Did My Story Get Rejected? — Stephanie Andrea Allen

 

Wicked—or it’s okay to play with (some) characters

Wicked the Musical is the child of the Oz books by Frank L Baum, the movie, the book Wicked by Gregory Maguire, and is something new altogether. It’s a great example of taking something old and making something new out of it.

There are a lot of derivative works–some of them are based on characters like Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, and a thousand other cultural icons. When you sit down to write, if you are inspired to play with those (as long as they’re not under copyright–DON’T DO THAT) go for it. If they’re under copyright, then fanfic is a great way for you to play with those characters, but I caution you not to monetize someone else’s characters.

As someone who has been writing for over thirty years, I’ve done my share of writing fanfic and with messing around with characters not under copyright.

My most recently published story “For Love of Snow White” in Myths Monsters Mutations (edited by Jessica Augustsson) is a take on Snow White. Many years ago, I was inspired to write a story where the “evil queen” was actually not evil at all, but the victim of a smear campaign. When I sat down to polish it for Jessica, she talked to me about what was my story really about. Sure, it was Snow White, but what was really my angle? Sure, the evil queen wasn’t really evil, but then why was she there? Why would she stay? What made my Snow White story different?

I realized what my story was actually about was the idea of beauty as a curse (in the end, a literal one), and the struggle between pagan and Christian traditions. (The “new religion” in the story isn’t ever actually called out as Christianity, but it’s somewhat obvious that that’s who I’m talking about.) It grew organically from there. Yes, it’s a Snow White story, but the bones of the Snow White story are just that–the bones.

The Mists of Avalon is also about paganism and Christianity, but told through the framework of the Arthurian legends.

I collect Cinderella tales, and one of my favorites (for children) is called Cinder Edna, which contrasts the eminently practical Edna, who lives next to Ella. But rather than depend on a fairy godmother for everything, Edna does things for herself. There are also countless YA and adult versions of the Cinderella myth, not to mention all the movies.

I just finished Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai. In some ways it’s another take on the Romeo and Juliet story, but it’s also it’s own thing. Livvy and Nicholas are nothing like the very young Juliet and Romeo.

One of my favorite fanfic stories is Harry Potter and the Eagle of Truthiness, written by an author I knew on Literotica when I was more active there. It places the Stephen Colbert persona from the Colbert Report as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts, and is hilarious.

So don’t worry about being derivative, as long as you’re original.

Which brings me back to Wicked, the musical. (From here on out Wicked is the musical, Wicked is the book). I am seeing it for the fifth or sixth time today, and my youngest daughter is seeing it for the first time. Sure Wicked is the story of Glinda and Elphaba (aka the Wicked Witch of the West) before Dorothy shows up. But it’s also a story of a power hungry government suppressing its citizens and creating scapegoats (gee, how timely it feels today). It’s the story of railing against the system from the outside versus the inside. Sure it’s also a story about a love triangle, but to boil it down to that is to rob it of its complexity.

Wicked is very different from Wicked, which is a far more overtly political book. Personally I found Wicked to be a slog, and was disappointed in how little character development there was outside of politics (IN MY OPINION, DON’T @ ME.) Those of you expecting the book at the musical and vice versa are bound to be upset. Each is its own thing. Which is okay.

I will, however, admit to being a hypocrite, because if we’re talking Ella Enchanted (my favorite intermediate fiction Cinderella story–I’m a former teacher, so I’ve read a lot of children’s literature, and I’m very involved in the books my children read), I adore the book and think every copy of the movie should be burned. Sure the movie is it’s own thing, but I HATE it. Sorry, but even Anne Hathaway can’t save it.

So when you write, don’t be afraid of putting your own spin on a myth, legend, fairy tale, or story in the public domain. But know that you’ll probably never make everyone happy (hi, Ella Enchanted the movie), and that’s okay, too.

Thoughts on writing stories set in “exotic” Southeast Asian locations

As someone who lived in Asia for seven years and has written stories set in Asia, I have some thoughts about do’s and don’ts about doing so. I think some of this is applicable about writing about any location you are unfamiliar with, but I’m focusing on my former home.

Do’s

  • I hope this is an obvious one, but DO YOUR HOMEWORK. To use an example from the TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale”–in season two June spends some time hiding out in the former headquarters of The Boston Globe. She asks where she is and is told the Back Bay. Three seconds of Googling told me that the headquarters an in the financial district and the printing presses (which are in the story) were in Dorchester (another neighborhood in Boston) but have since been moved to Taunton (another town far away). The show is set somewhere in the mid 2000’s based on the soundclip they used of the Red Sox winning the World Series. This isn’t a detail that would’ve been hard to get right. The Back Bay is a district that is famous for it’s beautiful historic brick townhouses, and would never be knocked down for a building like that. Does them getting that detail wrong affect the story? No, but it’s irritating and could have easily been done correctly. Things like weather make a difference–Singapore is so humid that it feels like a slap across the face everytime you exit a building like a mall which is over air-conditioned.
  • As a follow up to doing homework–bookmark things you will need to refer to again. If your research doesn’t involve physical books (like my research for Plunder), bookmark websites and photos that inspire you. Or create a Pinterest board, if that’s your style. I’m using a mix of physical notes with topics and stars to indicate something that my research has inspired for my revisions. When I wrote Capturing the Moment I referred to not only my guidebooks and art research books (for info about the temples and their carvings) and my memories, I had a file of photos I took that were going to show up in the book whether as actual photos Meg took or just places that she and RJ would visit.
  • Try involve a local character, if you can do so without resorting to stereotypes (more on that later in the don’ts section). Singapore, from the outside, is a rigid country full of laws like no chewing gum (it’s actually more nuanced than that) with the death penalty for drugs (but moreso if you’re poor and not white–white people get deported for the most part, not executed) and is famous for canning Michael Fay in the 90’s for graffiti-ing (again, more nuanced than that). It’s anti-lgbt. BUT I have queer friends, including a drag queen. BUT I have a good friend who is an anti-death penalty activist and independent journalist. BUT there are plenty of parents who worry about the test culture. Make them a well-rounded person. They don’t have to be a main character, but they should be there (see Darany and Saroj in Capturing the Moment).
  • Do slip in some education. Details like Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW’s, more frequently colloquially called maids or helpers) in Singapore are women who are from poorer countries (the Philippines, India, Myanmar, and Indonesia) and often who have children of their own only have the right to go home for a week every two years. If they switch jobs, the clock resets and sometimes they request the money it would cost to send them home instead of actually going so they can send it home to pay for homes or education. These women take care of other people’s children while almost never seeing their own. I mention that temple children can’t afford to go to school for the most part, so the children who are riding their bikes and wave to Meg are the lucky ones in CTM. You can do this without being didactic.
  • Accept that you’ll fuck something up. I’m sure that an expat from Cambodia could rip apart parts of Capturing the Moment, and that a sailor will be able to rip apart parts of Plunder. Doing homework doesn’t mean you’ll get it 100% right. Aim for your mistakes to be smaller ones like the location of the Boston Globe and not a racist stereotype.

 

Don’ts

  • Try to refrain from the word “exotic.” It’s a word with a lot of loaded meaning and is offensive to many people. It defines the world as white and western, often American=normal, and everything else as foreign and something to gawk at. As an example, it is often applied to my elder daughter who is too dark to pass as white and not dark enough for people to accurately pinpoint the other side of her heritage as Indian. (Which in and of itself is a stereotype. She’s darker than my father-in-law who isn’t half white, and Indian can range from white-passing to people who in the US would get classified as black). It is hurtful when I hear her called that, because it is dehumanizing. Food is exotic when it’s not what you’re used to, but it’s plain old everyday food to the people who live there. Same with the weather, the flora and fauna, and facets. You can describe how alien the environment is to your MC without using the word “exotic.” Do better.
  • Do not use stereotypes about countries. When talking about Singapore, it’s cheap to just say gum is banned. Note that having the trains run on time is key in a city that largely depends on public transit (cars are six figures plus another six figures in taxes), and that when people kept putting gum over the sensors, the doors weren’t closing properly and the trains got all fucked up. The easiest solution was to prohibit public consumption of gum–you can bring gum into the country from abroad (and abroad is a 30 minute drive into Malaysia, for example), and you can purchase smoking cessation gum with a prescription, but you can’t chew it in public. Talk instead about how complex the city state is–there are giant parks to protect the natural flora and hence fauna, there are sky scrapers, there are wet markets where you can buy live frogs/halal meat/fresh fruit/etc, there are diverse neighborhoods, and vast economic disparities. Even books like Crazy Rich Asians, which portrays life in Singapore is rife with its own problems–like ignoring non-Chinese characters–Singapore is incredibly ethnically diverse, but only Chinese people figure in CRA. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
  • Do not use racial or language cues as shorthand. Darany in Capturing the Moment does not speak perfect English. But his English isn’t broken either. This is a bit of a departure from real life as my drivers’ English was not as solid as Darany’s, but using broken English to show that someone isn’t a native speaker is cheap and disrespectful. Keep in mind that due to class or history, some people in Southeast Asia *are* native English speakers. English is the main language in Singapore. Parsis in India speak English as a first language. Wealthy families throughout SE Asia may speak English as a first language, or speak it fluently enough to pass for a native speaker. Darany is from a lower class, so his English is not perfect, and doesn’t include idioms that he wouldn’t know, but it’s not broken either.
  • Don’t forget that there is significant history in SE Asia. Colonizers like the British left their mark (especially see places like India/Pakistan, and Singapore/Malaysia) and is why English plays a bit part in the lives of SE Asians. The Japanese occupied a lot of SE Asia and the oldest generations remember what it was like to live through that occupation. When Lee Kuan Yew died, the entire country went into mourning because he was the founder of Singapore–the country is only just over 50 years old but at the same time, some institutions and history predate the independence by hundreds of years. History will play an important part of your story. I mention the civil war in Cambodia briefly because there are places like Artisans Angkor which uses the funds generated by the sale of handicrafts to train young people in the art forms that were almost lost because of the civil war. So even the existence of a store can mean some within it’s historic context.

None of this is meant to discourage you from writing about Southeast Asia. It is a wonderful part of the world in which to set a story. You don’t have to visit it to write about it. But you do need to do your homework and stay respectful.