Have you ever touched a bear?

Our daughter will be starting middle school next year, and because we live in New York City, we’re in the process of going to open houses, filling out applications, and having tours and interviews. It’s a tough decision to make. Elementary school has been great, and we want the transition to be as smooth as possible. We’ve had to take a hard look at our priorities in education, and we’ve decided on the only ranking method that makes sense to us: the quality of the brownies the school puts out at their open house.

School brownies will be judged on moistness, density, flavor, size (4 bites is optimal,) add-ins, and variety. As a service to other parents who are or will be going through the same process, we intend to publish our results in graph form. This may encourage some of the lower-ranking schools to step up their game. No need to thank us; we see it as our civic duty. Also, the presence of oatmeal raisin cookies on the same tray will negatively impact a school’s score, particularly if they are posing as chocolate chip.

Being interviewed can be very stressful for a fifth grader. The kids get a little coaching from their current school to help put them more at ease, and one of their suggestions was to have questions ready to ask the admissions director. When she couldn’t think of any, my husband Lou suggested she ask, “Have you ever touched a bear?”

Part of the evening at the school we visited last night included a mini English class. During the session, we reviewed William Carlos Williams’ poem, “This Is Just To Say.” At the end of the session, we were encouraged to write our own poems. Here is Lou’s poem in its entirety. Judge for yourself, but I consider it a masterpiece.

This Is Just To Say
by Louis Flees

This is just to Say
That I touched your bear
He was so soft and so furry
Please don’t be mad
I think he liked it.

This might be the pose you’re looking for

If you follow the SF/F blogs and so forth, you’re probably aware of the “discussion” being waged over the depiction of women on our covers. I use the quotes because what could be an important exchange of ideas usually goes to strident name-calling and wild accusations at warp speed. I’ve stopped reading the posts and the comments because they make me angry. I’m starting revisions for FORTUNE’S BLIGHT and I’m already angry enough at myself for a thousand points of sucking to tack anything else on.

It’s hard for me to jump into these forums and yell, “Here’s my cover! Someone’s getting it right!” without looking like a super-icky self-promoter, so I want to take a moment here to raise a cheer to Tor, art director Irene Gallo, editor Stacy Hill, and artist Kekai Kotaki for getting the cover of BLOOD’S PRIDE so very, very right. The depiction of the character is amazingly true to the text, right down to her wardrobe (not at all something to be taken for granted); she’s in a perfectly natural and quite powerful pose; she’s compelling, and I think pretty damned sexy without being objectified.

In fact, if you tried to objectify her, I’m pretty sure she’d cut you. With your own knife.

Of course not everyone likes this cover, which is ABSOLUTELY FINE. People like what they like. No biggee. Really. I know for a fact that there are people out there who have chosen not to read the book because the cover was such a turn-off to them. But if you’re looking for an example of another way to depict women on SF/F covers, I think this is an excellent one. So have at it.

Seriously, though – she will cut you.

Bam! That happened!

So, last Friday night was my first ever book signing, in the friendly confines of the Barnes & Noble on East 86th St. in Manhattan. In addition to these signs peppering the store, you could also witness my giant, disembodied head floating across an LCD screen against a red background. Apparently, several neighbors from the building where I’ve lived since 1998 learned my name from walking past it, which is nice in a weird, New York kind of way.

This is me signing a book. For reals. People bought them and everything.

We had a little party afterwards, and this was our amazing cake, provided by Glaser’s Bakery on 1st Avenue, a family run business since 1902. Pretty sweet, isn’t it? It was a two-layer vanilla cake with chocolate buttercream frosting. I was looking forward to leftovers. There weren’t any.

Writer Unplugged

This morning I came to the conclusion that the only way I’m going to get through the next few weeks is to stop looking for trouble. That means staying off Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, googling for book reviews, and otherwise going after information that’s not going to do me the slightest bit of good right now. It’s not just a question of negative reviews; the positive ones are just as bad, and more insidious.

I started off reading the reviews because after so many years writing in isolation, I was eager for the feedback; but another reason is that I grew up with theater people, and theater people love to pull things apart. After a show, whether you were in front of the footlights or behind, you went out to the bar and broke it down: what worked, what didn’t, what could have been better, what was a surprise. We drank beer, threw our opinions into the mix and collectively tried to learn something that we could take out on stage when it was our turn. Discussions were passionate, smart, contentious and a hell of a lot of fun. I miss them like crazy.

Book reviews can’t be like that. They’re one-sided. (I agree with the writers who say commenting on your own reviews is a spectacularly bad idea, and that sock puppets get their own circle in hell.) So to me, it’s like throwing down a conversation starter and then walking away. I want to ask questions, lots of questions. If someone’s really had a button pressed and has gone off on a rant, I want to understand where they’re coming from – it’s most likely a perspective I don’t have, and could learn a thing or two about. If someone’s interpretation of the text doesn’t make sense to me, I want to know their line of thinking. And if someone has just made stuff up or is behaving like a troll, I want to call them out for it. We probably wouldn’t end up agreeing, but that’s not really the goal: I’d have learned something, or made a case for my side. I’d have closure. What I end up doing now is constructing a dialogue in my own head with someone I don’t know and whose motivation I cannot possibly understand. It’s stressful, pointless, and with no hope of closure, these things rattle around in my mind as endless distractions.

As I said above, positive reviews are no less troublesome. They might put me in a happy bubble for little bit, but bubbles burst. If I gave in to the temptation to tie my self-worth to positive reviews, I’d be doomed. First of all, I’d need a constant supply, like an addict. Second, I’d be imbuing the reviews with a power they should not have. Either reviews have power over you, or they don’t. If a positive one can bump you up, then a negative one can push you down. You can’t have one without the other, unless your ego allows you to dismiss anyone who doesn’t like your work as a moron, but I’m afraid (or glad, really) that’s not me.

Another problem for me – now that I’m in the middle of a series – is when a positive review singles out a particular element for praise. Consciously or unconsciously, that raises the idea that the next book is going to disappoint if it doesn’t also have that element, and to the same degree. Again, that’s fatal. I need to be true to the characters above all – always, always, always the goal – and that means there is no way to shoe-horn elements in to the story to please imaginary critics without serious detriment to the work.

Until quite recently, I believed that I had the necessary detachment to sail through this. Discovering that I do not – at least, not right now – has been a major disappointment. I hope my skin will toughen over time, so that I can glean the grain and leave the chaff. In the meantime, it’s time for me to unplug, log off, and get the hell off Goodreads.

And That’s How You Get Intricacy

A few years ago, my friend Jenny Lytton and I went to see an exhibit of mixed media works from emerging artists. We discussed our responses to the different pieces, and as we were nearing the end she said, “I get you now. You’re drawn to intricacy.” I was delighted, not only because it’s a wonderful feeling to have someone tell you something about yourself that’s actually true, but also because she articulated it for me so beautifully. I used the phrase verbatim in my author bio.

Even so, with BLOOD’S PRIDE I didn’t sit down with the intention of writing an ‘intricate’ book. In fact, the original plot I had conceived was quite straightforward, and had more than a little spaghetti western in its DNA (you can still spot the traces easily enough, if you’re looking for them.)

Intricate happened because I couldn’t stop asking questions, going further back, looking deeper. I wasn’t able to work with any character who was, to quote James Thurber’s THE 13 CLOCKS, a Mere Device. I had to know their backstory, and it had to be rich and believable. I had to know the workings of the society that produced them and how the exigencies of survival had shaped that society’s attitudes and morality. I had to know their relationship to the other characters – since BLOOD’S PRIDE is a story that begins in the middle, very few of the characters are meeting for the first time –so that their behavior in the moment is a continuance of that relationship and not something happening in a vacuum. I had to know the realities of the physical world down to its most minute details and the extent of their sensitivity to it. I had to know all of these things in order to know the most important thing: what they want.

There are six ‘point of view’ characters in BLOOD’S PRIDE and I went through this – grudgingly, more often than not – for all of them. There are many more secondary characters and I did this for most of them, too. Even some of the servants and soldiers who may only have a line or two and then disappear forever have histories that you will likely never see.

Intricate is the thousands of unique points of intersection of all of these details; not so much an orderly weave as a ball of string after the cat’s been at it. Because these characters are so inextricably connected, a detail that might not emerge until the very end might give me cause to rethink whole relationships or plot points. It’s a laborious, slow, messy, iterative process and it’s just the beginning, because the real work is to find the shapes, to coax out the important parts and let the less important ones sink into the background. Otherwise, you’ll end up with impenetrable instead of intricate, and nobody wants that.

August

I’ve never been overly fond of parties. I usually avoid them, particularly if I don’t already know most of the people who’ll be there. It’s the uncertainty that gets me. (I have the same issue with blueberries, but I’m saving that for my much anticipated four-part series on my relationship with fruit. And don’t even get me started on legumes.)

In a few hours it will be August. In a few weeks my first novel will be launched, and as the month ticks over, I’m getting that familiar heart-thumping, standing-on-the-threshold feeling.

Well, this is one party that I’m not going to miss. Inside are friends who deserve to be celebrated and new people that I’m desperately excited to meet. Thankfully, I’m not standing on this threshold alone. I’m here because of the people who’ve come over to my house, helped me pick out an outfit, refrained from comment while I put on eyeliner that makes me look like a tipsy raccoon, and then shoved me into the car.

I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I am most definitely showing up. I’ll even eat blueberries, provided they’re served in pie form.

Love, Evie