Raising the Stakes

Note: the following post is mostly about my own writing, but it contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War. Proceed at your own risk.

Got that?

Spoilers.

 

S P O I L E R S

 

Okay. Phew. Look, I know it’s been two weeks but I don’t want to be the one who ruins it for you, okay?

Right.

So, I’ve been thinking about stakes, lately.

The main reason I’ve been pondering this is that I’m about 3/4s of the way through writing another novel. (At this point, I’ve written 6 or 7 novels; I’m not great at quantifying them because of how often I’ve *rewritten* some of them from line one on, and how much that really counts.) They never go anywhere; I’m not great at writing them; that’s not the point.

The point is I’ve spent fifty thousand words inside a single universe with about 20-30 more to go, and so I’ve been considering conflict, structure, and all that jazz.

And then Infinity War came along.

Now, I fucking loved Infinity War. Saw it twice on the opening weekend, even knowing what I was in for the second time. I’ve never seen Doctor Strange, despise the Guardians of the Galaxy (that’s another blog post. I’ll spare you.), knew going in that there were too many goddamn characters and the plot was going to be fucking stuffed and even with all that, I thought it was pretty masterfully done. Quibbles with pacing and plotting put aside, it got the characters right, and gave them all space to shine for a little bit, and had some of my favorite Marvel moments to date.

I’m not entirely up on the Discourse; I don’t read a lot of thinkpieces. From what I see, most people out there seemed to like it too. But one criticism I’ve seen lobbed a couple times is that, in killing off half the universe, in erasing characters like Black Panther and Spiderman who we know are going to come back for sequels, the MCU has erased the stakes. That knowing these characters are going to “survive” whatever Thanos ultimately did to them (and they’re going to–Spiderman 2 is due out within months of Avengers 4, and Black Panther made All The Money so he’s not going anywhere anytime soon) means no one will have any investment or real interest in Avengers 4.

Which is some bullshit.

I mean, if that’s you’re opinion, if you have no interest in seeing what happens next because you don’t think the stakes are real anymore, then that’s you’re opinion and you’re welcome to it. But.

It got me thinking.

And I think that, a lot of times, people get stakes wrong.

We assume that stakes have to be life or death, the big bad villain against the good guys, and who will prevail?

But what about how they prevail?

What does it do to a character who was “dead,” and then is not? Where did they go, and what did they experience there? What has to be sacrificed to get them back? What assumptions about themselves, or beliefs that they held, change or disappear through their ordeal? What happens to their relationships, when they have gone through an experience others haven’t gone through?

Those are just some of the particular stakes I see resulting from the end of Avengers four. And expand it to half of the damn universe–because yes, the whole universe is getting fixed, here. What will it mean, when half the population disappeared, and then they came back? What will that do to religion, to political systems, to personal relationships?

Those are some pretty big fucking stakes, as far as I’m concerned.

So, this novel I’m writing, it’s pretty “low stakes.”

I’m not great at external conflict. I don’t write battles, or fight scenes, or really anything in that vein. I’m all about the internal stuff; if I could get away with keeping characters in a white-walled room ruminating on their insecurities and sad pasts, I would totally do it. I keep trying to write the exciting, adventurous stuff, but it’s not really my wheelhouse, and I’m learning to lean into that.

So the novel I’m working on is about a boy and a girl. It’s a retelling, so the basic shape of the plot is set (I wanted to do this because I’m Not Great with plot, and I wanted to see how working in the constraint of a retelling would go.) Anyone familiar with the source material (and I’m not saying what it is here, but most anyone who grew up with Disney will know the source material) will know how it’s supposed to end, and probably guess a lot of steps in how it goes in the middle.

Does that mean that there aren’t any stakes?

I don’t have any big battles. No one dies. The conflict is all about the relationship between these two people–will they come to trust each other, can they come to love each other–and internally. How do their experiences make them mature and grow?

I think that those things can translate into stakes, provided that I am able to make people care about the characters to begin with.

And therein lies the challenge.

Stakes are all about characters. If you care about them enough, if you root for them enough, then something as small as a papercut can have huge consequences, and huge stakes. The work of the writer is to get the reader to feel that level of investment.

 

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I wrote a thing!

The brand new issue of Luna Station Quarterly is out, and includes my story “There’s No Need to Fear the Darkness.” (CW: child death)

This is one I’d kind of given up on ever finding a home and tossed out on submission *one more time* before I was going to put it in the trunk. (Don’t self reject and keep on submitting, is what I’m trying to say.) I’m so glad to finally see it out there in the world. There are structural things about it that I think I might have done better, were I to write it today, but on a prose level I think it’s maybe the best thing I’ve ever written. I’m nervous about how this one will be received in a way I haven’t been for a while. I just don’t know if people will like it. But *I* like it. So.

It’s about a polyam thruple who can raise the dead, and a woman who has a lot of damage and imperfection but is trying to use her powers the best way she can. For more than that, you’ll just have to head to Luna Station Quarterly and check it out.

By the way, I don’t know if my content warnings are really effective for potential readers. But the past few stories I’ve had out, in particular, had elements that I knew might make some people uncomfortable, and I’m trying to be up front about that. I’m trying to be more mindful of how people might interact with my work and words; it’s a process. So tl; dr if you have comments on my use of content warnings, think I don’t do enough, or think they’re overkill, drop me a line.

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I wrote a thing!

Beginning the year off with a brand new story, that’s the way I like it.

A Slip in the Slice” is up in the newest issue of Kaleidotrope. [CW: eating disorder.]  I don’t quite know what to say about it, but I hope you all check it out along with the rest of the fabulous Kaleidotrope issue, and I hope you enjoy it.

Happy 2018!

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2017 in Review: Music

By now, I should be compiling my lists of favorite novels and short stories of the year.

Unfortunately, in November my laptop decided to go to the great electronic scrap heap in the sky, and I am a complete idiot, and I didn’t have my reading list backed up.

Of course.

I am waiting at this moment to see what pieces of my data can be retrieved (at a prohibitively large cost that I will still gladly pay because there are so many things I need–back up your shit, kids), but my best of reading lists may not happen until January. Or ever!

So, in the meantime, while I try to avoid a complete nervous breakdown (that about sums up 2017 as a whole pretty well, don’t you think?), I thought I’d take a minute to talk about my favorite music of the year.

It’s been a really good year for music. At least, for things I like. I tend not to pay too much attention to the greater popular music scene: I know what I enjoy, I strive to find new things that I like, I don’t care who’s winning awards or on the cover of magazines. But in any case. This year has had some excellent standouts.

My three favorite albums this year have all been by amazing women.

K. Flay- Every Where Is Somewhere

The first words I ever heard K. Flay sing were “The boy I love’s got another girl/he might be fucking her right now.”

Immediately, I was like who the hell is this woman? and went to find everything she had ever done.

I fell in love with her early songs and EPs, alternately charmed and wowed by her hip-hop/alternative sound. Her 2017 album, Every Where is Somewhere, certainly sounds different from much of that earlier work, but it rapidly became one of my most listened-to albums of the year. It landed at just the right moment to feel timely and timeless. Something about it manages to encapsulate all of my anxieties and angers and fears, each song hitting harder than the one before.

Take “Black Wave,” a song that has literally made me scream. For me, this is all the feelings of fear and betrayal and distrust I feel as an American in 2017 wrapped up in three and a half minutes:

The songs on Every Where is Some Where cut deep, but they aren’t without hope and beauty.  I don’t know if this album would have reached me so well in any other year, but it’s a good one in any case. I want everyone to know K. Flay. I want her music to be everywhere. Because she’s truly a great talent.

Lana Del Rey- Lust For Life

Look, I love Lana Del Rey beyond reason. There was no way I wasn’t going to like Lust For Life. So it’s hardly an objective judgement, but I still think this is one of the best albums of the year. If I have any criticism, it’s that it feels a bit uneven, almost like two different albums shoved into one (more on that in a sec.) But honestly, if I had a chance to collaborate with The Weeknd and Sean Ono Lennon and Stevie Nicks and A$AP Rocky then I would too, no matter how uneven the results might end up.

So, there’s the first half of the album, the one that sounds like the Lana I’m used to:

Vintage sounds (in the case of “Lust For Life,” there’s a lot of play on fifties girl groups), doomed love, cheeky call-outs to her old songs.

But then there’s the second part of the album. Lana gets political.

She’s always used symbols of Americana as an aesthetic. “God Bless America-and All the Beautiful Women In It” fits right into that stylistic tradition. But it feels to me like for the first time she’s struggling, like a lot of us are, with what America means, now.

Sometimes it doesn’t quite work. “Coachella-Woodstock On My Mind” is a silly, shallow clunker (not sorry). But to me the earnestness, the simple attempt to reckon with 45’s America, is enough. This is an artist who has been all about image and aesthetic (as so many artists are) suddenly trying to say something deeper.

So, yeah. I’ve listened to Lust For Life approximately eleven billion times already. At the moment my favorite is “Heroin,” a long, wandering song about Charles Manson and mental breakdowns and addiction, with a kick that lands hard for me. But really, they’re pretty much all great. I think Lana has perhaps the most beautiful voice in modern music, and she does some unexpected and really interesting things here.

Kesha- Rainbow

Kesha’s mostly been a ‘workout’ artist for me–someone I put on when I’m at the gym and I need to get pumped up and don’t listen to otherwhise. So I’m not ashamed to admit that Rainbow was a total surprise. I knew she’d been through a lot of terrible things. I didn’t know she could put out an album like this, powerful and heartbreaking and fun all at once.

First of all, who doesn’t love “Woman”? It’s the empowering, takes-no-shit song I think all of us need this year.

Rainbow has a couple of empowerment songs like “Woman.” songs about brushing off the haters and learning to love yourself instead of what people want from you. But it also has love ballads and countrified bops and some beautiful, unclassifiable oddities. “Spaceship” made me cry the first time I heard it.

A lot of Rainbow made me cry, actually. In a totally beautiful way.

So if you haven’t listened to Rainbow, if you think Kesha’s not your style, I urge you to give it one try. She’s a really amazing songwriter with a powerful voice, and while I think this is her best work I think it points to even better things to come.

Other albums I loved in 2017? 

Well, thanks for asking. Sylvan Esso- What Now? Declan McKenna- What Do You Think About The Car? Run the Jewels- Run the Jewels 3 Bishop Briggs’ self-titled EP (put out a full album already!)

Some songs I dug: 

Sir Sly- & Run:

alt-J- Deadcrush:

 

BORNS- Faded Heart:

Bishop Briggs- Dream:

& probably a hundred other things I’ve forgotten that I will remember when I press publish.

But anyway.

That’s my 2017 in music.

Hope you find some new stuff to like!

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I wrote a thing!

Today my story “Sparks” is available at Electric Spec.

This one’s a little weirdo that I don’t quite know what to say about. I sat down to do a worldbuilding exercise and suddenly it seemed to look almost story-shaped by mistake. So I thought I’d try to fit it into a story structure, and I let myself listen to the character’s unusual voice, and this is what came out.

Anyway, I’m thrilled that the people at Electric Spec liked it and I hope maybe you will to.

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Another day in America

In general, I try to keep this blog at least vaguely on topic. Books, writing, etc. But I need to share this somewhere and this blog seemed the best place for me to do it.

What follows is a letter I sent to my Senator yesterday in the wake of yesterday’s massacre. I am ideologically opposed to my Senator on most every issue. I have never voted for him. My feelings are not warm…they cannot even rise to the level of neutral. Not in this toxic climate, not when there is so much to resist. I know whenever I contact him it will be like running straight at a brick wall. But I try. As much as my mental health allows, I try.

This is what I said yesterday:

Dear Senator Burr, (or, more likely, the overworked Aide who will be the only person to see this letter: hello, overworked Aide)

 

I am writing to you tonight because I am, to be blunt, pissed off. I am saddened and exhausted and bewildered but mostly, at this moment, pissed off.

Sixteen months ago in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub massacre, I wrote to you begging for you to address gun control. I received an empty, meaningless form letter, fumed for a few days, and we both went about our business, while you collected thousands of dollars from the NRA for your 2016 campaign.

Well, here we are again. Both America at large, in the wake of yet another devastating act of domestic terrorism, and me, with this little email box that will probably spawn nothing more than another form response. So be it.

I am pissed off.

59 people are dead tonight who shouldn’t be, and a staggering number of hundreds more injured, because people are able to access assault rifles by the dozen and huge stockpiles of ammunition while people like you take blood money from the NRA and scream about second amendment rights. What about the right to live, the right to not be gunned down for going to a concert, or sitting in church, or shopping at the mall, or going to school? Where is that right? Why is my right to live secondary to someone else’s supposed right to hold weapons of mass destruction?

We’ve been here with Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, and Aurora, and Orlando, and so many other places I could name but I know you will not care. You offer “thoughts and prayers” and continue to do nothing while the violence gets worse. I wonder what will happen when it’s Charlotte’s turn for the next big mass shooting, or Asheville, or Chapel Hill, or Winston-Salem, or Raleigh. Will you offer empty platitudes and meaningless “thoughts and prayers” when North Carolinians are bleeding out in the streets? How much money from the gun lobby will it take to make you look away, to say “now is not the time to talk about gun legislation”?

Senator Burr, now is exactly the time.

You have a platform. You have a voice. You are supposed to be *our* voice. So once again, I am begging you, give back your blood money and turn your platform to solving this American crisis. What steps will you take to stop this wave of senseless and preventable gun violence? Stand up. Use your voice. Say something for once other than insulting and empty words without action.

To borrow the words of the great American musical: if you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?

You have shown through your continued inaction that American lives mean less to you than campaign funds. Now is the time to change that. Prove me wrong. Stand up. Stand for something. Or I guess I’ll be emailing you again the next time we have a new deadliest mass shooting in American history. They seem to happen about twice a year these days, after all.

 

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Some slight maintenance

I’m in the process of removing my Short Story Sunday posts from the blog. It’s a feature I haven’t been able to focus on in a long time, and it’s the number one attractor of spam to this site (pretty much all my views are spam anyway, so I’m not quite sure who I’m writing this for, but it is what it is.)

My hope is that the short story posts were helpful for some of you in finding new writers, new venues, and new worlds to explore. Maybe I’ll figure out a way to incorporate my love of short fiction back into this blog at a future date.

In the meantime, I have a few things planned for the future, but I still don’t have the spoons to be back at this full time. Until you next see me, happy reading.

-Heather

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I wrote a thing!

People, I have written a novella.

It’s a really short one, so it feels kind of weird to call it that (stories are typically categorized as novelettes until 17,500 words, mine just bumps over the 18K line), but that’s what it is.

It’s called “The Heartless Knight,” and it’s included in the wonderful queer fantasy anthology Heart of Steel. The anthology is officially out on Wednesday September 20th, but you can preorder it right now and get a bit of a discount, if you are so inclined.

So let me tell you a little bit about “The Heartless Knight,” and where it came from.

The story’s about Isi, a young man of color who has been a slave for most of his life and is now trying to navigate a world where he is not. He’s stuck between cultures, and pulled in different directions depending on what different people expect of him. He’s also aroace, and he is suffocating under the pressure of both performative masculinity and performative sexuality. He doesn’t know he’s suffocating. He’s just trying to be “normal.” But he doesn’t know how to do that.

Then he ends up on the run with a princess who forces him to confront all the things he’d rather hide about himself.

Isi has been a character in my head for quite a while now, one of those quiet ones who hides in corners that you don’t much pay attention to. For a couple of years now, I’ve been trying to write a novel about Anne, a character who you’ll meet briefly in “The Heartless Knight.” I was even making something like progress when I decided to finally settle down and work on it as a NaNoWriMo project…at least, until November 9, 2016 happened. Anyway, that project’s still going to happen some day. In some form. But like I said, Isi’s been on the edges of that in my head for a long time, and at one point I thought, hey, wouldn’t it be fun to write something to get to know him a little?

BAM!: novella.

(It didn’t quite work like that. It never really does. I’ve been living in this piece for something like 18, 19 months by now. And it’s far, far different now than what I initially conceived it to be. Still, let’s go with BAM!)

“The Heartless Knight” was written mostly to alt-J’s “Nara,” which I ended up listening to on many repeats through the drafting process. Later, it was edited to a godawful amount of Sylvan Esso, particularly “Dreamy Bruises,” and “Coffee”  (I don’t think you’ll necessarily find anything of those songs in the text, but I thought someone might find it interesting)

I’m more nervous about this one than I have been for a while. There are a lot of things that I need to get right and I don’t know if I fully suceeded. But it’s finally time to let it out in the world and let other people decide.

So that’s it. I hope you all like it!

Be sure to check out Heart of Steel and the rest of the great queer stories on offer from Less Than Three Press.

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I wrote a thing!

…I know. Been a while, ain’t it?

My story “Maps of Infinity” is in the newest issue of Shimmer, which is super, super exciting! The whole (excellent) issue is available for purchase now, and “Maps of Infinity” will be available online on August 1st. I’ll update this post with a link then. For now, feast your eyes on some cover art:

Update: “Maps of Infinity” is available online now.

I hope you all enjoy!

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I wrote some things: nonfiction edition

While my regular blogging has trailed off, I’ve spent a lot of 2017 trying to focus on some new directions for my writing, namely nonfiction and personal essay. Now when it gets to the “personal” in personal essay, a lot of the things I’ve been writing about have been really hard to put out there. I’m still learning how to pitch them, and where to draw my personal boundary lines on how I talk about myself. Many of those essays may never see the light of day, but some might, eventually. But the process of learning how to write these types of pieces is valuable in its own right.

However, when it comes to less personal nonfiction, I have had a couple things out this year. And since I’m an eternal dope, it just occurred to me now that I might want to post these reviews to the blog where I actually, you know, occasionally still review things.

So. Both of these pieces were written for the ever-wonderful romance review site Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (seriously, I was a dedicated reader of this site before I even started reading romance, they are so fantastically funny.)

I wrote about one of my favorite books as a teen, Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel, right here.

And I wrote about my newest favorite binge-watch, Harlots, here.

And who knows? Maybe getting used to writing reviews again will help kickstart me into more consistently reviewing books here again. As always, stay tuned.

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