2016 is here and I am not riddled with anxiety.
This is a big deal, for me.
I’ve resigned myself to my anxiety and fully expect it around milestones. I had panic attacks when I was 10 years old and again at 20, because suddenly the remainder of my life was so cleanly quantifiable. 2016 is the year that I will turn 25, so you’d think I would be a walking mess, but I’m somehow not? I don’t know whether to attribute this to a warmer clime, a steady regimen of vitamin D pills, the happy light I’ve brought into the office, or if it’s because, finally, I feel like instead of reacting to things in my life, I’m making moves.
I’ve cut away things that I’m not invested in. I’ve decided/realized that I’m probably never going to like writing short stories (SORRY NOT SORRY) and I’ve (re)started writing novels. I’ve decided that I want to make goals that are short-term, adaptable, and anti-fragile enough that I can shrug them off in a few months if it turns out they aren’t working for me. In short, I’ve removed the sense that if I don’t measure up to arbitrary goals set at the beginning of some project or some point in time, I’ve failed.
I’ve let go of the idea that failure is toxic and all-consuming. I’ve failed a bunch. I’ve moved past failure multiple times. Failure has no hold on me, anymore.
I’ve found a magical area of study that could possibly meld all of my most favorite disciplines together into a wonderland of learning. How? How did I do that? Who knows? Anyway, I pulled some hectic maneuvering off this past fall and ended up applying to a bunch of graduate schools. I feel like this choice has opened up a world of stability – a strange and elusive thing, for me. I’ve mentioned, before, that I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a teenager, and always assumed that would mean scraping by (admittedly more because of my pride than anything else), but there are other possibilities, now.
I’m sure plenty of this security has to do with the fact that 2015, while hard, was solid. I didn’t have to move in 2015. I kept my job, and I’m good at it. No late-breaking disasters managed to upend my life, because when late-breaking disasters did occur, I handled them like a competent (???) adult (???). And I have a supportive and very even-keeled partner. We complement each other.
And maybe part of this is because the past several years have been hard. I moved multiple times, flirted with deeper wells of anxiety than probably I even realized at the time. And, of course, those were the years where the previously mentioned failures kept cropping up.
Somehow, though, I’ve ended up here: firmly okay, happy, and excited for the future.
I’m reminded of something my mom once said, when I was less happy, more frightened: “Once you’ve conquered this, you’ll never be scared again.”*
My anxiety has always come when I feel myself grow smaller; it emerges when the borders of my life contract. But now I am experimenting with optimism. I feel like the borders are spiraling away, and I’m not scared.
*Yes, my mom really does talk this way.
I’m putting on my editor hat for a second to tell you that your short story doesn’t need a synopsis.
I used to be completely confused by synopses until my buddy Michael explained why they’re necessary. My slapdash version of his explanation is as follows: The synopsis, as a document, has only one purpose, and that is to reassure people who are reading that you can finish a plot. Not a story. A plot.
So why do you not need a synopsis for a short story sub? Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me listicle.
1. Synopses are for novels.
Novels are a completely different beastie from your short story. An agent or editor reading a novel might stumble upon a slow chapter or two and wonder, Do I really want to read on? And that’s what the synopsis is for. They can read it and realize that maybe, you know, the novel has a genius twist at the end, or that the character that they really liked and has been gone for 3 chapters is going to come back at some point, or that this bizarre scene actually has important ramifications down the line. When they know the plot isn’t going to peter out, they can make a judgment as to whether they want to keep reading.
They need a synopsis because novels are huge. They’re long. It can take several days for even the quickest reader to finish a novel. A short story, I can probably finish in 20-30 minutes. I don’t need a synopsis, because after 20-30 minutes I know if you can craft a successful plot.
2. Synopses are hard to write.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, natch, that synopses are the worst. things. to. write. ever. They’re horrible. I say this as a writer. I hate synopses. They are literally the worst. I’ve never written a good synopsis (meaning, I’ve never written a technically competent and compelling synopsis), only passable ones that kind of clonk the plot (not the story) together. If you put your clonky synopsis in your cover letter, you’re displaying bad writing before good writing. This is not a good idea, because it invokes dread in the heart of your reader. It also brings me to another point…
3. Synopses do not go in your cover letter.
Even when you include one with a novel submission, it’s a separate document. This is because synopses are dry, not enticing or interesting. They do not = query letter, because a query letter is supposed to grab your reader and make them want to read more. A synopsis doesn’t do that. Instead, it outlines your plot in a dry and workmanlike way so you can prove that you can write a complete plot. When you include one in your cover letter (which isn’t even a query letter), you’re smooshing two different things into one thing. And it’s not a good smoosh.
4. Your short story should accomplish everything that a synopsis would do.
When you write a short story, there shouldn’t be any slow spots or issues with plotting that might require a synopsis to clear up. And as I said before, I’m going to be reading this in 20-30 minutes. Am I really going to need a synopsis? If I want to request a revision, or reread the material to get a better feel for it, that would only take 20-30 more minutes.
Also, your story needs to be able to stand on its own. If it doesn’t, and you need a synopsis to explain what’s going on, there’s probably something wrong with your story.
Bonus: 5. It’s probably more trouble than it’s worth.
Take the time you’d spend writing your synopsis and use it to write another story.
Obviously, if a magazine is asking you to write a synopsis, you should send one. Always obey the submission guidelines! But it would be a pretty rare request, and it’s by no means the standard. Don’t think it is! It’s a trap. A traaaapppp.
In summary: short story + synopsis = NO. Novel + synopsis = terrible but necessary. Happy submitting, everyone.
Brace yourselves, guys, this post is wandering.
I’m heartened by SFF’s enthusiasm for portryaing the “other.” The “other,” in the context that we’re seeing it emerge in SFF discussions, is really a sociocultural other – some person or somebody who does not fall under the umbrella of, frex, the imagined “self” in America (white, male, if you’re reading this, you know the drill). (“Imagined” because have you seen America lately?)
It’s difficult to come at this word for me, because I feel like I end up crouching in the weird liminal space between cultural self and cultural other A LOT, and that kind of fluidity can make it hard to have a conversation about what it means to write the other. Especially when the dialogue of self and other is pretty much couched in racial terms, and like, I have more than one race. WHAT DO I DO.
(Please don’t give me suggestions for what to do. That was a rhetorical question.)
But despite all this, I wanted to talk a little bit today about how I’ve been thinking about writing people who are not like me.
I really want to talk about specifics, today, because I think that the moments that are most othering, the most vibrant depictions of what it means to feel out of place, are small ones.
A term that you might be familiar with, and that I think is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about, is “microaggression.” Wikipedia can break this down a bit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microaggression
So basically what I’m thinking about is the idea that the small things, built up over a long time, are what really differentiate experiences.
This is important when we write about people who are not like us, I think, because too often we try to pinpoint why those groups of people are different, even when we’re in those groups. There’s something that goes on even when writers say, “Just write people,” that makes me feel like we aren’t thinking about writing people. We’re still thinking about writing groups. Maybe instead we should be thinking about writing a person?
When I think about my own personal development, I can pinpoint a handful of moments that create a kind of context-web, whose nodes provide these guidance-points that I use to figure out I feel about whatever weird tiny Racialized thing just happened to me. Or Gendered thing. Or, Whatevered thing. But the context-web doesn’t only crop up when I’m reacting to some problematic thing. It’s always there, free-floating around my brain.
That’s why specificity is important, I think. “Being Asian” or “being white” doesn’t particularly influence me because I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT MEANS. The only thing I know is that sometimes people decide that they are going to call me a chink, and sometimes people are going to stop talking to me because they find out that one of my parents is white, and sometimes I eat kimchi on pizza, and sometimes people tell me that when I eat kimchi on pizza I’m either parodying my family’s culture or making it more easily consumable for other people or whatever. Dammit, kimchi on pizza is delicious. Especially white* pizza. That tomato sauce gets in the way.
So as we all embark on this super cool mission in our SFF to talk about people who are not like us, I’m wondering – can we think about our context-webs and apply that to what we talk about in our writing? Can we make those webs for our characters? Can we create moments where lapses of understanding occur because of the webs of different characters? Can we create moments where suddenly two people connect because of their contexts?
(These are also rhetorical questions. Obviously we can.)
Aaaaaaand because I’m talking about specifics, an anecdote about specifics, and contexts:
Angry Roommate and I bond regularly over our shared love of Margaret Cho. During the first stand-up movie of hers that we watched, Margaret was talking about growing up as an Asian-American child of immigrants.
“I didn’t have things that other kids had,” she says. “I didn’t have – I didn’t have tape. Or any kind of adhesive.”
Angry Roommate shrieks.
“That’s true!” She’s practically shaking me by the shoulders. “Sophie! I never had tape! We never had glue! We used rice!”
It’s the small things.
One of my resolutions this year was to blog more frequently. I’ve realized that I’m one of those writers who gets stoppered up pretty quickly, but a constant schedule of writing, reading, and various benchmarks actually keeps me producing at a rate that I feel comfortable with. So, I’ve decided to try and blog twice a week.
An inevitable consequence of this is that my posts are probably going to be shorter and less complete, but since my posts tend to be on the long and rambly side, that’s probably not a bad thing.
2013 was kind of a stupidly busy year for me. I graduated from college (argh), moved, got a job, traveled A LOT, wrote a book (argh argh), and had serious thoughts about my goals, short term and long term, and what I’ve done to reach them and how I’ve managed to sabotage myself.
I realized that leather pants are probably going to cycle out of my closet and that I should have shaved my head when I had the chance (ANY COLLEGE STUDENTS READING THIS: SHAVE YOUR HEADS NOW, YOU WILL REGRET NOT DOING IT LATER), and watched how strange and chaotic life can seem when everyone you know suddenly has a schedule that is no longer variations on an academic quarter.
I started reading all the books that I missed reading while I was in college because I had SO LITTLE TIME and every, every scrap of free time I had was spent either sleeping or furiously trying to stitch together a story or something so I still felt like a writer. I quickly realized that I have way too many books to read. Too many.
Still, the days of 2013 that are most vivid to me are the ones I spent in the summer, lying on my roommate’s bed while she was in China, staring at the AC and willing it to cool the air faster. I would stare out the window at the sun and the trees (on the third floor in certain areas of Chicago, all you can see out the window is sun and trees) and think, I should really put on sunscreen.
In 2014, I should get back in the habit of putting on sunscreen. I should also try to figure out how to write every day. Or close to every day. Maybe I’m going to have to do that thing where you wake up an hour early to do work. (argh) I’d like to find a volunteer opportunity that I’m passionate and excited about. I’d like to go on a writing retreat (a write-cation? idek what you would call this tbh). I want to see my friends get settled into jobs that don’t suck, into living situations that don’t suck. I’d like to find a kind of exercise that I can do indoors because damn it’s cold outside. I’d like to spend more time thinking and less time being tired.
Also: more chocolate.
On Saturday, June 15th, I graduated from college. My family drove up to Chicago, attended the ceremony, indulged my weird eating habits, and then Mom returned home while my dad and sister went to her college orientation at a nearby midwestern university. This weird reverse-bookending thing happened after high school, too – as soon as I graduated, my sister was ready to start. So you’d think it wouldn’t seem so novel. But, yanno, it does?
I think part of the weirdness is going to be a result of the fact that our experiences will be very different. For one thing, her orientation is happening months ahead of the start of classes (and includes events for parents) instead of happening during the week before classes start. By contrast, we went to the same high school, so I thought I knew what she could expect (I was wrong, but the delusion was nice to have).
Another thing is that I really hope her college experience (omg that phrase is starting to sound incredibly meaningless) is markedly different from mine. Not because I regret what I did and how I did it, but because I recognize that for her, and maybe even for me, there are other ways to get what I got.
A lot of the last four years have been frustrating. I’ve been frustrated at my classes, at the demands of picking a major, at my total lack of time to work on any of my own projects (a glance through this blog will show you how many small blogging projects I wanted to start and just could not finish because I didn’t have the time). I think the main reason I decided to major in English (beyond, like, the amount of frustration I developed for certain social sciences) was that I could take writing workshops, meaning that at least once a year, I’d write something creative. That way I could try to avoid the self-loathing that many writers know comes with unproductivity.
At the same time, I recognize that the frustrations I felt were temporary, and maybe even necessary. They definitely helped me gather up my thoughts, made me even more dedicated to the little writing I could do, when I could do it. I also had some really positive experiences – I got to know a lot of amazingly intelligent people, professors and students, who challenged me to think harder about things, and who took me seriously. I can’t tell you how much that meant, and still means to me. Because of those people, I know that there are always new challenges ahead, always new things to consider, always new questions to ask. I hope I don’t forget that.
Anyway, thinking about my sister going into college (along with the rest of her classmates, who are probably the last cohort of students entering college that I’ll know for a long, long time – CONGRATS YOU GUYS!!!), and thinking about my own four years, and talking nonstop for weeks about What College Meant to Me, I’ve realized that there are some things that have just been affirmed and reaffirmed by my experiences. I wanted to write them out, mostly as a reminder to myself. These aren’t new ideas – a lot of them I got as advice, or I read somewhere – but they’re good ones. I think.
So here are some things I know are probably true.
Another piece of advice that I want to write down here is something that’s been said to me in exactly the same way by two brilliant women, both professors here: Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it.
Think about that one for a while. The first time I heard that, it basically blew my mind. “You’re not obligated to do anything unless you want to.” The second time I heard it, I interpreted it a little differently. “There are always ways of using what you’re good at to do something that you’ll enjoy doing, even if it means that you don’t take the route that people think you should.”
And finally, something that I learned that I think might only be applicable to me, but is also something that I’ve had to keep in mind, and something that’s helped me through a lot of rough times. It’s something about writing: Come back to the blank page. It loves you.
I know that sounds insane. I was just writing about how unproductivity drives me crazy, and the blank page should be a reminder that I’m not doing anything, right? Well, it turns out the opposite is true. The blank page is a happy little cradle for your baby ideas. It’s a void that needs your filling. It’s a place to put the racket in your brain. It wants you, needs you, loves you. Always remember to go back to it.
Good luck, future me. Try not to forget too much?
You know how writing and colleging are basically the same thing? How you think they’re going to involve lots of crazy parties with fashionable people doing drugs and whatever, but mostly it’s just drinking tea in your pajamas and wondering whether you have the energy to go to the library today or not?
I’ve definitely noticed. And because I’ve been writing seriously for 6 years and attending college for almost half of that time, I’ve realized that the equipment you need for both of these arduous processes is more or less the same. Barring the obvious (like computers or pens, for god’s sake people, bring your own pens), here are 5 things you need to survive writing (or college).
I have a reading list for my BA, and even a potential thesis. This is very exciting. Expect me to blab on about that in the near future, hopefully before the quarter starts, so I don’t sound like a total idiot when I talk to my advisor for the first time.
Okay, I was doing this series of posts with photos from my France travels, and I’m still totally going to finish that, but I’ve returned to America and recently started a new project I’m going to call My BA Paper. It’s not a very creative name, I know. But it’s functional. I was lucky enough to secure an advisor a few months ago, so all I have to do is read all these books and short stories and then write the paper.
My selected research interest is postcolonial speculative fiction, which has been getting more and more discussion lately. I’ve noticed the topic is discussed more and more recently, and I think that’s partially because of the vibrant community of SFF writers and readers who take a critical approach to what they write and why. Actually, I was a little hesitant to address this topic in an academic setting, because so many of the best discussions and critiques of postcolonial SFF have been in non-academic settings. Specifically, they’ve been in settings that are directly tied to the genre somehow (blogs!), and given the fact that academia hasn’t always been kind to SFF, I wasn’t sure if this was the best approach.
However, there’s also been a growth of academic literature on the topic, and I felt that if I was going to write a BA paper, spend a bazillion hours of my life on it next year, I wanted to write something meaningful not only to me, but I wanted to write something about a topic that was new and invigorating. At least to academia. (No more Shakespeare papers, plz.)
The topic probably became fully realized when I read this article on io9, about the book above by Jessica Langer (PhD), which I saw several months ago, way before I started to think about a BA topic. I had already been fairly involved in postcolonial studies, taking a smattering of classes on the subject in school. My favorite has been a course on pidgin and creole languages, which will become important later.
Langer’s book wasn’t available to the public yet – and I’m still working on securing a copy to read (UCHICAGO LIBRARY WEBSITE SO CONFUSING HELP) – so when I mentioned the book on Facebook, my dad decided to buy a copy of So Long Been Dreaming, an anthology edited by Nalo Hopkinson, instead.
My parents. Always indulging my bizarre weekly obsessions.
It turns out that was a good move on my dad’s part, seeing as Nalo Hopkinson is one of those writers who’s well-known for doing exactly what I wanted to study. She’s kind of who everyone talks about when they talk about postcolonial SF. And specifically regarding my interests, Hopkinson addresses issues of language imperialism and supremacy in her work, and I’m a language and language policy dork.
Seriously. The world’s biggest dork.
I guess a big question for me, which I’d like to address over the course of my paper, is, “What’s the significance of writing in the language of the colonizer?” Hopkinson writes in patois, occasionally, and also has some of her characters speaking creole-flavored Englishes. (I told you that class would be important later!) So then we also have to consider – “What is the significance of writing in the language of the displaced and the colonized?”
This question is particularly interesting to me because of a point Hopkinson makes in the introduction to So Long Been Dreaming, where she talks about the major genre conventions of SF. I’ll paraphrase: SF has always been a genre whose themes include war and conquest. Can writers of color, writers of the diaspora, use SF to tell their stories?
And then, because I have to ask: What complicates this project? Are any of these obstacles insurmountable? How does a writer manufacture a “self,” either for herself or her characters, using the tropes and language of colonizers? Is this self-project sustainable, or will it eventually crumble?
Oh my Jesus, I used the word “self-project” in a blog post. This is too much.
But seriously, this is a fascinating phenomenon for me. (I am, after all, a child of colonialism. I’m an American, and, you know, biracial.) It’s also increasingly important to the SFF community, I feel, which is becoming more interested in embracing non-Western voices and viewpoints in what it wants to read.
I hope I’ll be able to address these questions in my paper, but ultimately I can’t and won’t know until I’ve given a lot of attention to the literature I want to address. But I hopefully will! And it’ll be SUPER AMAZINGLY AWESOME and I’ll get to be a huge dork all next year.
So today, as part of our French culture experience, the University loaded us on buses and drove us to the Loire Valley, which is famous for all these châteaux that kings and other rich, important people used to live in. The Loire Valley is about 3 hours outside of Paris, according to how long it took to get there via bus.
On the way there, I spent about equal amounts of time sleeping and staring out the window. It’s funny how much French countryside looks like Maryland countryside. I guess farms look pretty much the same everywhere, especially when the fields are in fallow.
So there was the picture of the Château Chambord up there, and here’s a cool picture taken from the terrace. External spiral staircases were big when the château was being constructed, probably so everyone in the courtyard could see when anyone important was ascending/descending. I kept wondering about assassination attempts.
Like, if you had a gun and you just stood there in the courtyard and waited for the governor to come along?
Here are some rooms in the château. It was surprising to see how many of the rooms were completely bare. It looked like they had lost their insides during some point in history and only a few of the rooms had been restored. It was also cold as a polar bear’s bitchslap in there. The top picture above was a writing/study room for the lord of the house, and the bedroom below it was for the lady, who was apparently a good friend of Marie Antoinette’s.
And these two are of the same room, again. I really liked the chairs and matching chair/sofa duo up in the first pic.
I would have taken more pictures of Chambord, except as we were taking our tour there was a fire drill and we had to be evacuated, so we spent the next half hour of the tour on the lawn outside, where I didn’t take pictures.
I did, however, buy a cookbook of Loire Valley recipes, which I’m pretty excited about. I wanted to get something that talked about historical meals and how they changed through time. There were books like that, but they were all in French (a little too advanced for me, I think), and also more expensive.
This trip also included a lunch and another stop at Château Blois, so stay tuned for those posts (especially the pictures of the delicious delicious food).