One thing I loved most about “Three Points Masculine” is the authentic narrative voice, how the action and interactions flow in such a way that it leaves no doubt that the characters had lives before the story began and will continue when the story is over. How do you challenge yourself when it comes to narrative style and voice? Are there any forms of narrative you would someday like to use?
Frequently, I’ll see something in some specific work that hasn’t been done well, and I’ll try to do it better—whether or not I think I can actually do it better. First-person writing is something I often see done poorly, especially if it’s meant to come across as something people might actually say. I remember reading a story that was supposed to be a collection of people sitting around a campfire and telling stories to each other, but it was clearly all in written language and not spoken; you could tell, if you tried to read the sentences out loud, that they didn’t flow in a natural, conversational way.
So, one of the things I was trying with Three Points Masculine was to create something you could actually hear the narrator saying—maybe at a GAT review board, or something. This is a lot harder than it looks! I went through a lot of drafts, and a lot of reading out loud, and a lot of soul-searching and questioning where the balance lay between having a truly authentic narrative style and creating a structured, readable narrative on the page.
(That’s one of the things you learn, if you spend time studying how people really speak—fluency in spoken language is usually characterized by a lot of repetition, pauses, fragments, backtracking—unless you’re looking at someone who’s practiced and practiced their storytelling or oratory skills. Spoken language is terribly messy; written language almost always brings more organization to the table.)
“Three Points Masculine” is nuanced and layered, exploring the meanings of gender, identity, service, and perception. What inspired this particular story?
. . . GOOD QUESTION. I’m not sure I remember.
I went back and searched through my notes, and eventually found this in an email conversation with myself (. . . it’s how I organize my fleeting fiction ideas and story seeds) from 2010:
Everyone is required, as part of their eligibility to get a job, to take a Gender Assessment Test* which rates them on a number of things such as aggression, physicality, nurturing instinct, etc. and assigns them male or female**. Many employers, when listing job openings, use this gender assessment to screen for desirable psychological setups.
*This was actually set up in response to complaints about employers listing male/female preference on their job listings. It came out that they were using it as a shorthand for suitability in fields like security and care, and when people pointed out that some people of the “wrong” gender were suitable for the jobs indicated, a system was put in place to allow them to “test in” to those professions.
**There are people who try to hack the system, and a small subculture which tries to hit the perfectly androgynous band in the middle or otherwise combine traits. These people are generally considered unemployable in gendered jobs.
Someone eventually sued, based on a “one-man, one-woman is the only healthy parental set to raise a child” idea, to be allowed to marry based on gender assessment rather than physical sex, and managed to get it through the courts, though this is disputed and a lot of people think it mostly sailed through on legalese.
Basically, society’s entire concept of gender is splintering, but only because people keep trying to make it rigid and defined by rules.
. . . so that has some clues. To be honest, though, I have a hard enough time remembering my thinking on fiction projects from last month, let alone from six years ago. So anything further is speculation.
Still, I speculate that I was either annoyed at the “children need a mother and a father” argument against same-sex marriage or at the prevailing opinion that certain jobs are best performed by people of certain genders—nursing, for example, being heavily gendered as a female occupation; many roles in STEM being heavily gendered male. (It’s always interesting to note how these roles change as a matter of social convenience. Computer science was once heavily gendered female, and is now heavily gendered male. In both cases, people would tend to point to the gendering as something natural and inherent—so the reasoning would go, “Well, women are quiet and patient and detail-oriented, so they can do this quiet, patient, detail-oriented work.” And then the environment shifted, and now people go “Well, men are good at math, and they’re analytical. So they can do this mathy, analytical work.” The skillsets needed are the same, and the aptitudes of people are the same, but the narratives change, and our expectations and explanations as a society of what we see have changed.)
Gender is one of those things that people really want to pin down and make explicit, so that A Man has one defined set of characteristics and A Woman has another, different defined set, so that this distinction can be used as a fundamental building block in how we organize our society. The problem is, that’s never actually worked. You can bludgeon people into these categories if you try hard enough, but it does a great deal of violence to the nuances of human variation. You can find stories of people fighting against the categories for as long as categories have existed.
Anyway, the entire story probably grew up around that little core of irritation.
I’ve been on the receiving end of more than one concussion, and they are far from gentle. Here you capture the confusion and debilitation of a concussion and use it as a vehicle to explore the meaning of the story without sacrificing either character or plot. Have you had experience with personal injury care, either as a volunteer or recipient?
I have never had a concussion, and hope never to have one! I have had friends who have had concussions, though, and I’ve had some altered states of consciousness due to other medical annoyances. I remember passing out once in elementary school and waking up completely disoriented, lying on the concrete slab in the back of the school, and I was trying to parse the situation and the first thing my brain hit on was, “Wow, this is really comfortable. I bet I’m in bed.”
Another time, I was giving blood when I passed out in the chair. (These are all stepping stones on my way to discovering that I have chronic low blood pressure. Pro tip: If you have low blood pressure, pulling a pint of blood out of your body is not the greatest of ideas.) When I came to again, I had a good minute or two when I was just seeing colors and shapes, and none of them made any sense whatsoever. I think I thought I was at a carnival or something before I realized that it was a bunch of people clustered around me.
Recently, transgender rights and gender identity have received a great deal of attention in the press. From laws policing bathroom use to the legal and personal struggles of children speaking out against their birth-assigned gender, transgendered individuals are standing up for their rights. Many critics insist it is a writer’s duty to educate as well as entertain, and just as many feel writers should entertain and leave real life issues out of their works. Do you have any particular thoughts regarding such matters?
Leaving “real life issues” out of your work seems like it would be a losing proposition. After all, life is a real-life issue. Romance and marriage, war and political intrigue, new scientific discoveries made and new technologies launched, crime, and growing up, and meeting new people, and taking chances, and suffering accidents or betrayals—all of these are real-life issues, from which fiction takes inspiration. Banning real life from fiction means, ultimately, banning fiction’s moving parts.
But what I think what people generally mean when they say that isn’t to leave “real life issues” out of work, but rather to stick to things that aren’t contentious, or that they don’t find contentious. Or possibly, they mean that there are things they’d rather not read about. Which, okay.
Fiction is not monolithic, and people’s reasons for reading fiction are not monolithic. Sometimes, people read in order to find fiction which puts into words the things that they’ve experienced, so that they can feel less alone, or so that they can use that fiction as a way to communicate parts of their life to others. Sometimes, people read in order to step back from real life for a bit, to enjoy themselves and get away from everyday stress and real-world problems. These may be the same people, in different contexts. Neither response is wrong.
I think writing should be used to educate. And I think writing should be used to give people uncomplicated entertainment. I think there’s enough writing in the world that these don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
You are a Clarion West 2008 graduate, have been published in The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year: vol. 6, and in 2012 became a senior editor for the amazing Strange Horizons. If you could speak to new writers out there, the ones daring to dip their toes in the world of fiction, what would you say to them?
I’d say, hello and welcome! The best advice I can give is: Keep looking for what it is that gets you where you want to be, and doesn’t get you where you don’t. All other advice is contextual.
For specific, and thus contextual advice, I can offer these nuggets of accrued wisdom:
Keep trying new things. Do creative stuff for fun and out of spite and on a whim and to satisfy random urges that arise at two a.m. Don’t pay any attention to whether or not you think you can pull it off, or whether or not you think you can sell it. Play.
Find safe places to try new things. A friendly crit group or a bunch of writer friends can provide this. For me, it was fanfiction—I spent my early teens writing hundreds of thousands of words in an environment where people were predisposed to read my stuff and find good things to say about it. That let me play with voices and styles and plot structures and some really terribly bad ideas, like songfic (has there ever been a good songfic? Let me know . . .) and not once was I ever mocked off the forums and into the bitter wilds.
If you want to improve, keep an eye toward improvement. All that wonderful support in my fanfiction circles could have let me sit stagnant at my thirteen-year-old level of skill, but I kept reading authors whose skill I aspired to, and looking back at my own work with an eye toward seeing how I could grow. Having a body of old, unskilled work can help a lot: When enough time has passed that you can look at it with somewhat fresh eyes, you can say “Oh—my prose is purple. Let me look up ways to illustrate with words and not be overblown.” Or “Jeez, the structure of this thing is all over the place. How do you structure a story, anyway?”
If you want to move in professional circles, be professional. Don’t send off bitter rants to editors who reject your work or reviewers who don’t love it. Read the guidelines for anywhere you’d like to submit work to. Own the fact that you’ll make mistakes from time to time, and accept that other people will make mistakes. Don’t feel obligated to work with people who behave unprofessionally, and assume that no one is obligated to work with you if you don’t.
Figure out who to listen to. Never assume that all criticism is valid, but never assume it’s all invalid, either. Always allow for the possibility that you might have something to improve—even if it’s not what the people in your crit group, the editor who sent you a rejection, the reviewer who panned you, or some random person on the internet said it was. People will have different experiences of your writing. Some audiences, you’re just not writing for. But if you consistently fail to get through to the ones you do want to write for, set ego aside and consider that for a while.
And above all, don’t get discouraged! And if you do get discouraged, be kind to yourself. Take time if you need to; get support when you need to. Try to remember what brought you here in the first place. If you love the writing, serve the love before you serve the career.
And if any of this advice steers you wrong, ignore it.
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