A Writer’s Education

Apologies in advance; not gonna talk about writing for the moment. Instead I’m going to talk about the writing life, in a way. See, I took the GRE on Saturday.

I did OK. Astounding on the verbal and abysmal on the quantitative, as I expected. I’ve been using my verbal skills steadily and with increasing intensity throughout my adult life, after all, and I haven’t done combinatorics in 20 years. No amount of short-term cramming can really make up for that, and I didn’t expect it to. All I really wanted to do was not embarrass myself, and I think I succeeded in that goal.

Still, I’m annoyed by the whole process.

I’m thinking about getting an MFA, see, in creative writing. I want to teach writing — and yeah, even with published novels, even with an extant masters’ degree, even with 10 years of experience teaching college students (albeit in a different area), it’s looking like I need the MFA to get a foot in the door. It’s not that I don’t like my current career; I do. But it’s mostly 9 to 5 work, and given that my writing career has taken off, I need the kind of flexibility that teaching would provide. I’m working on my next book already — no, can’t tell you about it yet — but I can’t move at the pace I need, which is almost as frustrating as writers’ block. It’s not a matter of money; I’ll likely make less as an adjunct or non-tenure-track professor. But I’ll gain time, and writing time has become my most desperately-needed resource lately.

We’ll see how that goes. But as I’ve spent the past few weeks’ writing time and a solid chunk of money on preparing for and taking this test, I have to say I’m finding myself really put off of any program that requires something like this for admission. I understand why they do it; in this day and age, American universities are under increasing pressure to prove that the expensive educations they provide are worth the money. They’re also facing the same struggle as every other part of American society: trying to find ways for the majority to do more with less while a privileged minority gobbles more than their share. No university admissions office has the time or resources to do an in-depth analysis of every propective student; most rely on numbers. Numbers are easier to explain, anyway, to people who don’t understand educational systems but nevertheless have power over them. As a result, some of the schools I’m applying to require high test scores from applicants so they can “objectively” say that they are bastions of the best and the brightest. Thus do they justify their own top-heavy existence.

But here’s the thing: the GRE tested me on absolutely nothing that I would need to survive an MFA program. In fact, it forced me to do things that made me a worse writer, from a creative standpoint. See, when I did the word-choice sections on practice tests, the words I tended to choose were those which had the right meaning, but which also added some accessibility or artistic elegance to the passage. But those choices were wrong. I kept getting terrible practice scores until I realized I needed to choose plainer, more obscure words. And this makes sense, given the purposefully dry and esoteric nature of scholarly writing… but in a creative writing program, I’m not going to be doing scholarly writing. It is by definition a program focused on artful writing. So in essence, I had to not write to the best of my ability in order to do well on the test, and thereby get into a program which would ostensibly teach me to write better.

I had a similar problem with the math. Problem-solving is an ingrained skill for novel and short story writers; developing a coherent plot requires it. But solving problems isn’t the point of the math component on the GRE; in fact, people who spend too much time actually solving problems are unlikely to finish. The GRE requires you to instead figure out the rules underlying the problems. A useful skill — but again, I had to train myself to do the opposite of what a good writer should. Which means I survived this test by avoiding the skills I actually need to survive an MFA program.

There’s no sane reason for an MFA program to require this of its applicants. It’s batshit that I have to prove my ability to be a fiction writer not by, you know, writing fiction, but by proving my ability to do something completely irrelevant. Other peoples’ experiences of late-in-life standardized tests have been similar: this guy tried some of the tests that kids in his state are required to take, and found that they tested him on almost nothing that actually applied to adult life.

And this whole experience has been costly, even though I pretty much took the cheapest possible path: the test itself was $160, and the test-preparation book I bought was $22. Taking a GRE test-preparation course from a company like Kaplan would’ve cost almost $1300; I can’t afford that either financially or time-wise. But there are people out there who can’t even afford the test itself, which means that this MFA program is unlikely to admit many people who come from poor backgrounds. Or people who are published trying to survive on a writer’s income, for that matter.

I’m going ahead with it, because at this point I’ve already put in this much effort; might as well not waste it. Only one of the schools I’m applying to — the most prestigious of them — requires the GRE. But I have to wonder what kind of writers are likely to emerge from a program that discourages competence, privileges those with cash to spare and free time in abundance, and is essentially unavailable to a goodly chunk of the populace. Just by throwing up this one roadblock, this school has moved from first to last place on my list.

ETA: So apropos: Graduate School Barbie!

The (not really) Deafening Silence

Apologies for being quiet here. I’m busy a) studying for the GRE, because I’m thinking about getting an MFA, and b) talking elsewhere, which has absorbed most of the free chat time I had available. Per the latter, I’m on a mailing list with some other authors, constituting the Locus Roundtable. Basically, our moderator (usually Karen Burnham) throws out an interesting question. Then she lets us do what writers do best (aside from writing), which is blather on about whatever tickles our fancy, while she collects the answers. The latest question actually spawned several subthreads of discussion, which will all be posted over the next few days. It’s good stuff, and I’m still amazed and honored to have been given the chance to blather on with these particular folks, many of whom are way more established and respected than me. And more importantly, they’re fun to talk to.

So check it out! And in the meantime, wish me luck.


FYI for all: there’s a fundraising auction going on right now to benefit author, artist, and editor Terri Windling, who’s going through a rough time right now. But even if you don’t know or care about her, you should care about this auction, because there’s all kinds of stunning stuff available. Like this custom “personalized” fairy tale poem from Jane Yolen! ::bites fingers, wanting:: And manuscript critiques, and art, and just… wow.

For my own part, I’ll be offering a signed ARC of The Killing Moon, book 1 of the Dreamblood, for the highest bidder (minimum $10). This book won’t be out ’til May 2010, and because of that I won’t be able to send the ARC to the winning bidder until January of 2012. But you’ll still get it a full 5 months early!

The Killing Moon prelim cover: an ancient city beneath a giant red moon

For those who don’t remember, or who haven’t read the sample chapter at the end of The Kingdom of Gods, “the Dreamblood” is me playing around with traditional epic fantasy tropes — though, since it’s me, it’s in a rather non-traditional epic fantasy setting. Ehiru is the most famous of the Gatherers — warrior-priests who keep the peace in the ancient-Egyptlike land of Gujaareh. When he uncovers a deadly conspiracy threatening both the waking realm and the land of dreams, the only way he can stop it is to risk his own corruption, and battle a creature out of pure nightmare: the Reaper.

The second book (The Shadowed Sun) doesn’t have an ARC, or I’d include that one, alas. It’ll be out in June 2012.

Anyway, check out the Magick4Terri auctions. Now this is something worth blowing your Cyber Monday cash on!

ETA: Whoops, missed that extra consonant in “magick”. Also, typo!

More Wow.

You should definitely click to enlarge this one:

color drawing of Yeine in front of Sky, holding a knife

Here’s another one from DubuGomdori, folks! This time she’s tackled Yeine, and it’s just as gorgeous as her last effort. The artist has this to say about the work:

What you see before you is my depiction of Yeine Darr with Sky City in the background. Yeine describes herself as short, flat and brown as the forest. She wears her traditional garment of her people, the Darre, from the north.

Amazing, isn’t it? I love the coloring, the expression on Yeine’s face, the detail. I love the hint-of-Greek, hint-of-Egyptian, hint-of-nothing-of-this-earth architecture on the palace in the background. DubuGomdori has captured the mood and strangeness of the story perfectly.

I’m stunned that every piece of fanart I’ve seen based on these books has been so good, you guys. Thanks to all of you who’ve chosen to share your fanart with me — or at least not freaked out when I pop up in your comments due to Google Alert Syndrome! You don’t have to share it with me, note; I’m of the opinion that fanart is for fans, by fans, and I’m happy to serve as nothing more than the inspiration for it. But if you want to share, I don’t mind. Quite the opposite, really; I’m hugely flattered that people pour so much time and energy and talent into stuff like this. And though I can’t enjoy the fanfic — for legal reasons, as I’ve explained before — I can’t draw squat and have no interest in trying, so fanart is perfectly OK.

Anyway, fanartists thrive on feedback, so if you like this, go tell DubuGomdori what you think of it!


Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow USians, both those of you who celebrate its intended spirit and those who regard it as the PR campaign that it is, and also those of you who think of it as National Football & Food Coma Day. Personally I regard it as a day to polish up my cooking skills and test various experiments on hapless guinea pigs friends and family members who dare to eat the results. Already mentioned on Twitter that I would be making rosemary-crusted standing rib roast as the main dish; I’m not a fan of turkey, so when I have control of the menu I tend to make stuff I actually like. This year, however, I am particularly determined to master my nemesis:

…gravy. ::breaks out soapbox::

See, I hate gravy. I believe gravy is something intended to hide dryness and lack of flavor in meats like turkey that are easy to cook badly (though as Tante Marie says, it never really tastes good, so don’t worry about it). Therefore making meat juicy and flavorful obviates the need for gravy. But. Certain members of my Dad family, who Dad shall remain nameless Dad, and are unfortunately Dad locked into Dad unnecessarily conservative Dad and restrictive old-world paradigms Dad, demand gravy every #$@%damned year. So I make it only once a year. Badly, due to the lack of practice. Usually I keep a carton of Trader Joe’s gravy on hand as a backup in case my own goes horribly wrong… and, alas, I usually use it.

But not this year. This year I didn’t buy the TJ gravy. I will make it myself! It will have precisely the right combination of flour or cornstarch or whateverthehell is supposed to be in it. There will be no lumps! It will not solidify into an oatmeal-like mass this time! IT WILL BE GOOD.


Wish me luck.

This is also a chance to see folks I haven’t seen in awhile, so I’m going to be offline most of the day. Hope it’s a good day for you guys too.

Character Study: Deka

I’ve heard a few complaints from readers about the fact that Deka’s role in The Kingdom of Gods isn’t advertised in the jacket copy. That’s my fault, partly; I do get a say in the copy, and it seemed more important to me to emphasize the novel’s plot rather than its relationships. All things considered, these books are marketed as fantasy, not romance, and Deka is more important as a love interest than he is as a mover and shaker in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Not that love interests are meaningless, mind you. Since love and desire are key drivers of plot in most ancient epics — and As You Know, Readers, ancient epics were my inspiration for these stories — it seems only proper to give the love interests their due spotlight here, if not in the marketing.

So, Deka. I intended from the beginning that he and Shahar would reflect some of the issues present in multiracial families — which, as I’ve mentioned here before, has been a part of my own family experience. Probably a part of most American families’ experiences in some way; race is an ever-present undercurrent in this society.

In my mother’s family, for example, my grandmother was half white — but wholly black, per the “one-drop rule”. Her facial features were closer to the African than the European template, so I doubt she could’ve “passed” as white, but she was so pale that she burned at the drop of a hat, she had blue eyes, and her hair was of a peculiar variety that I’ve only ever seen in mixed-race individuals: very black, mostly straight, so shiny that it always looked wet. Because of her looks, she didn’t have to take a job as a maid or nanny, like most black women of the time; she was able to get a job working in a (white kids’) school cafeteria as a cook. It didn’t pay much — she supplemented her income by working as a seamstress, and the family ate a lot of produce from her garden when times were tough — but it had a pension, which allowed her to stay independent until she died, and pass on a home as inheritance to one of her children. She married a black man who was similarly pale and straight-haired, who could pass — and possibly as a result of this, he got an even better deal: a union job down at the docks. In those days, union jobs were usually reserved for white men. (Granddaddy is rumored to have said, “They never asked if I was black, so I didn’t tell them I was.” The original Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell!) Between these two strokes of fortune, my grandparents were able to build a house (not buy it; in those days banks usually wouldn’t make home loans to black families) and send their kids to the local HBCUs. (While white universities became available to my grandparents’ and parents’ generation around that time, HBCUs were safer, and there was a better chance of a student there actually getting an education instead of death threats, etc.)

This is all relative fortune, note: the family was just poor instead of dirt poor, compared to their neighbors. But I share it to illustrate how even slight differences in racial composition, identity, and perception can matter in a racially-conscious society.

Shahar and Deka are like my grandmother and grandfather: both multiracial, but Shahar is able to pass for full-blooded Amn and Deka isn’t. Shahar, therefore, is more fortunate, at least on a superficial level: she’s the accepted heir, gets a nicer room and more toys, gets told at every turn that she’s beautiful and clever, and is named after the family’s greatest heroine. Deka, meanwhile, is named after the family’s most infamous failure: the Dekarta of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, on whose watch the Enefadeh broke free. He gets treated like most multiracial children in Amn society: barely acknowledged, blatantly treated and thought of as “lesser”, and eventually rejected. Also, he probably couldn’t help but notice that his sister’s fortunes improved once he was no longer around to remind their relatives that she wasn’t as “pure” as she looked. Deka’s a little worse-off than Grandma and Granddaddy, because he doesn’t know what his visible race is for most of KoG; this deprives him of someone to identify with. Instead all he knows is what he’s not: Amn.

Spoilers for The Kingdom of Gods from here forth. Continue reading ›


Illustration of Yeine meeting Dekarta for the first time by Dubugomdori

Please, please click for the full spread; depending on your screen size you may only be seeing a portion of it. It’s truly epic.

This beautiful and amazing illustration of chapter 1 of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms — the scene in which Yeine meets Dekarta for the first time, is called “Grandfather”. The artist is DubuGomdori on DeviantArt, who graciously allowed me to post this with permission. Stunning, isn’t it? The artist had this to say:

I’ve always been fascinated in mythology and symbolism. The world you narrated in the book was impressionistic yet left a strong, haunting, and strangely lucid ‘imprint’ inside the mind. Needless to say I was anxious to draw the people, costume, and world out. I had a great time conceptualizing the piece.

It is a lucky author who has such fans.

We Need a Hero! We Don’t Need Another Hero.

There was an interesting convo in the comments of the last post about how a writer’s background impacts writing — specifically re epic fantasy, but by extension pretty much everything. Foz Meadows summed it up best, I think:

Prior to doing this, I might never have stopped to consider whether a white author’s race were impacting their storytelling, but the more I read, the more relevant a question it becomes: not because there’s some obvious stylistic contrast between white and POC authors or anything like that, but because there’s something meaningful in asking why we authors choose to tell the stories we do – at the very least, we’ve cared enough to write them, and some of the reason why must necessarily be connected to who *we* are – and the more widely I read in terms of authors, the more diffuse and interesting those whys start to seem.

Emphasis mine. Anyway, I thought about this again thanks to playlist coincidence. For various reasons yesterday I was briefly stuck listening to a Totally Eighties! radio station — yes, I know, thanks for your concern, I’m okay really — and by chance this song came on, immediately followed by this song. OK, it probably wasn’t chance; either some playlist-assembler somewhere was having fun, or the playlist was put together by keyword. Anyway, then it hit me: A white woman yearns for heroes; a black woman says no thanks. (With the added nuance of the black woman saying it to Mel Gibson, figuratively, who’s since let his bigot flag fly.) I couldn’t help applying Foz’s analysis here, and wondering what each woman’s background — not just racial; consider Turner’s history as an abuse survivor, and also Tyler’s childhood as the daughter of a Welsh coal miner — contributed to these songs. More specifically, I wondered what those backgrounds contrib’d to why they chose these songs. It makes perfect sense to me that a black woman, given the usual patterns of racism and sexism in this country, would sing about the unreliability of heroes and the need to look elsewhere for rescue… but then, it also makes seems to me that another woman who grew up literally dirt-poor in a society with its own history of oppression would sing that same song. Instead Tyler chose the opposite.

‘Course, that’s the problem with trying to understand an individual choice in the context of broad cultural assumptions: you can’t. Backgrounds matter, but people are not their backgrounds. Gonna paraphrase Nahadoth here: we are certainly what our pasts and societies have made us, but the future is ours to create.

Anyway, then I thought about fantasy, and binaries — but not the Christian good/evil binary of Tolkienesque fantasy, which we discussed in the last post. I started thinking in terms of “we need a hero” fantasy versus “we don’t need another hero” fantasy. The pro-heroic stuff is easy to find; it calls itself heroic, for one thing, and it’s been around for quite some time (note that HFQ hopes to “hearken an older age of storytelling”). But there’s been a lot of attention paid lately to a newer, “gritty” sort of fantasy, a la Joe Abercrombie and Brent Weeks, both of whose works seem to start with the presumption that there are no heroes and roll from there. There’s been some discussion already about what all this gritty stuff means, and whether it’s just the latest iteration of sword and sorcery or something actually new. But I haven’t seen much discussion about why it’s so popular, and why so many readers seem to love it. I suspect a generational difference at work. The gritty writers I’ve met all tend to be my age or so — Gen X, supposedly a generation of ex-latchkey-kids who view the future with a distinct cynicism. I also suspect the biggest fans of gritty fantasy are in this age range or younger, too, though I have no empirical proof to support this belief. If it’s true, though, I wonder whether attitudes like this are the “why” behind gritty fans’ embrace of the “we don’t need another hero” theme. (Again, let’s try not to apply the broad brush too thickly: I’ve met two of the guys behind Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and they’re my age or younger too.)

So anyway, here’s your question for the day. “We need a hero” fantasy vs. “We don’t need another hero” fantasy — which is your preference? Or do you like both — and if so, are there times/situations in which you prefer one over the other? And why do you like one or the other, if you do?

If Tolkien Were…

Didn’t mention this here ’til now because I wanted to think about it a bit, though those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook probably saw it already. But anyway, last week I had an interview with columnist/critic Laura Miller from Salon, who talked with me and David Anthony Durham on the recent incursions of people of color into epic fantasy — which as she noted is a traditionally very Eurocentric sort of bastion. The interview was a lot of fun and the resulting article is phenomenal; she made me sound much more coherent than I actually am in everyday conversation! An excerpt:

Nevertheless, when Jemisin decided to write her own epic fantasy in grad school, she found herself abiding by some of the genre’s most shopworn conventions. Her main character was a man. “I was thinking it had to have a quest in it, with a MacGuffin of Power being brought to a Place of Significance,” she said. The book didn’t quite work, so she set it aside, and when she returned to it a few years later, she decided to start over. She made the main character a woman and, in an even more marked departure from the norm, she decided to have that character narrate the book in the first person. “I knew that what I was writing was inherently defiant of the tropes of epic fantasy,” Jemisin said, “and I wasn’t sure it would be accepted.”

After every interview and reading I do, I regret something. I think it’s just part of my writerly nature — I create, then critique — so I’ve learned not to angst too much about anything. But after this interview I couldn’t help wishing that a) I’d namechecked a few of the other authors of color doing fantasy of an epic nature, because the article gives the impression that there’s only two of us when in fact there’s maybe a dozen (a few offhand: Michelle Sagara/Sagara West; Saladin Ahmed; Charles Saunders; Carole McDonnell; Nnedi Okorafor; Eugie Foster; Karen Lowachee; Cindy Pon). And b) I kind of wish I’d hit harder on the point that a lot of PoC writing epic fantasy aren’t labeled as such, whether by themselves or their publishers or the wider literary community, for good or for ill, because the genre works so carefully to police itself. You may have heard the joke that magical realism is fantasy written in Spanish. It’s not true — there’s more to MR than that, IMO — but there’s definitely something to the way in which works which in every other way fit within the genre boundaries are consistently pushed out and called something else, when the major difference is the race, nationality, or first language of the writer.

Miller’s article hits on some of this, and I agree with her about the inherent conservativism of the genre. I’ve seen this tendency of epic fantasy readers to reject, say, works by women, or works by people coming from outside of the US or British Commonwealth (and even works by the colonized peoples of that commonwealth, rather than the colonizers). Or works set in lands too far removed from medieval northern Europe, like the slew of Indian, Japanese, and Chinese-set epic fantasy that’s come out in the past couple of decades. In some readers’ minds, it’s very clear that “Writing about brown people in Africa isn’t going to touch that child inside of us and bring back memories of our childhood when we could escape totally into that fantasy cocoon in our heads” (commenter “Ninaloca”, in response to Miller’s article). For those definitions of “us” who aren’t brown people, Ninaloca’s statement may be true. And even when a writer isn’t writing about brown people in Africa — I’m not (yet), David’s not — there’s some assumption on the part of readers that we are. Because of who we are. That this is epic fantasy’s purpose: to create new mythologies into which we the reader can escape… and that those mythologies must be ones which actually exalt our own cultural background. That’s why Tolkien did it, after all.

(There’s an extended and interesting discussion between several commenters to that exact effect in the Miller article, note, and exploring Tolkien’s intentional attempts to address bigotry re the Numenoreans. I’ve seen these arguments before and they never quite explain the LotR books’ bigotry re the Southrons and Easterlings, but maybe Tolkien didn’t intend that. Anyway…)

Stuff like this keeps me awake at night, sometimes. After all, in a few months I will be debuting a pair of epic fantasies featuring brown people in a fantasy analogue of Egypt (which is in Africa), and I suspect the Ninalocas of the world will decide to skip it. Which is why I have mixed feelings about articles like the one in Salon, which simultaneously confront the genre’s segregationist tendencies and yet by doing so, subtly encourage them. The article helps more than it hurts, IMO, because for every Ninaloca who writes me off because I’m black or whenever I write about black and brown people, there will be a reader who picks me up for those same reasons. And in addressing the issue, the article encourages epic fantasy to wake up a little more from its reflexive adherence to traditions that are underlaid by some seriously creepy assumptions.

And yet.

My race is relevant to my writing. Of course it is. Every writer’s race is relevant to their work, whether they believe it to be or not — whether they have the privilege of ignoring that relevance, or not. But my race is not the be-all and end-all of who I am, or why I write. That’s also true for every writer.

So I’d like to ask something of all critics, reviewers, interviewers, etc., who read this. Think of it as a challenge, maybe, or just a new way of looking at your work. A thought experiment. When was the last time you considered the impact of a white writer’s race on his/her work? Just curious. Maybe you can work that into your next interview, or something. Because I think there’s all kinds of nummy lit-crit goodness that’s come out of people considering Tolkien’s whiteness (c.f. that convo in the Salon comments). So try applying that brush to the whole genre, and see what comes of it.

Quick Question: What constitutes “hype”?

See the subject line. I ask because I’m genuinely curious: what’s hype? What’s “too much hype”? At what point is there so much hype that you’ll refuse to read something (“overhype”)?

When The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms first came out, I remember that the third review I saw complained about how much hype the book had received. I know this is a matter of perception and relativism. It’s entirely possible that the reviewer had been running in circles where everyone was talking about the book… but in my circles, no one was (at that time). And where did this hype come from? Like I said, it was only the third review. I’ve never been lucky enough to get the kind of ad campaign that I think of as hype — subway posters, Comic Con banners, TV commercials, full-page ads in schmancy magazines. But clearly my definition of hype does not match others’.

So what’s your definition of hype?

ETA: A great discussion popped up on Twitter (my feed) as a result of me posting this there, between myself, Cheryl Morgan, Niall Harrison, and several other bloggers, readers, reviewers, etc. Look at the Tweets of 11/8, from approximately 11 am EST.