On hitting deadlines, writing a book a year, and subverting the limits of make-believe

For reasons various and sundry, I have just now released a draft of RAPTURE to my editor, agent, and first readers (yes, the book was due 4/30, and I finished it 4/30, but I had to hold onto it due to Boring Business Things).

I’ve been toodling around with it, of course, since I finished it. Throughout that process I’ve been alternately going, “OK, this isn’t so bad,” and “Oh God, this is total shit.”

Last night, after finally releasing my death grip on the draft which no one but me had yet seen, I plunged full tilt into OH GOD THIS IS TOTAL SHIT.

Now, to be fair, this is a pretty standard thing that happens to me when I release a book to folks. In fact,  I always feel the WORST about a book right after I’ve approved all copyedits and the thing officially goes to the printer and THERE IS NO TURNING BACK. That is the time of weeping and gnashing of teeth about how I will be denigrated as some foolish word hack by friends, fans and peers.

The term for this type of behavior that gets bandied about in writer circles is imposter syndrome, and because I’ve been listening to and learning from writers many epic years longer than I’ve been writing books that get published, I’ve been aware of it a good long while.

The thing is, even knowing that it’s just something I do every time doesn’t make me feel any better. After all, a lot of people write books. A lot of people write shitty books. HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU AREN’T THE ONE WRITING THE SHITTY BOOK? About all I can do to manage it is to wallow in my self misery with some good humor and hold on to the tenuous awareness that I’m a nutcake.

Some of this, I know, comes from the topics I choose to tackle in my fiction. When you’re writing books that dig deep into issues of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality, and all that on top of a seemingly innocuous slash-and-hack plot, you second guess yourself a lot. Especially when you’re writing fast, even if “fast” to fans, looks like a glacial speed. I wrote the first salable draft of GOD’S WAR over four years, and spent another two years in various revisions. INFIDEL was written in about two and a half years. By contrast, I wrote RAPTURE in about 14 months, and it’s nearly 30% longer than GOD’S WAR. That means EVEN MORE PAGES WHERE I CAN SCREW THINGS UP.

And, OK, let’s be real – much of the initial writing process of GOD’S WAR was stalled or rehashed because I spent a good deal of the ramp-up time doing research. With subsequent books, the core worldbuilding was done and characters fleshed out. So I could concentrate more on things like plot and character arcs. Research done during the other two books related to specific scenes or scenery or simply referred back to notes I’d already taken for the first book.

But writing quickly is not beneficial if you’re trying to subvert tropes and stereotypes. The first thing that passes from my brain to keyboard is often hackneyed tripe, and so I have to go back and question it, and rethink it, and go, “OK, how could this be read? What could somebody infer from this? Is this just lazy writing?”

I literally rewrote and then restored one character’s chapters three times because I couldn’t decide how badly I wanted him to suffer and at whose expense. In one version, he suffered by me giving his wife great agency, but that made him very unlikeable. In the second, he appeared on the surface to be more likable, but I’d stripped his wife of agency. The third time I put back in the scenario I had written the first time, I realized there was no more I could do on my own. I’d lost any pretense of an objective view of the book. It was time to release it into the wild for outside comments and a final rehash.

What constant tinkering also does is create massive inconsistencies throughout the book, and all of these will have to be addressed. When you kill a character at one point in the book, then take it back and put it in later, or go in and add a character THREE TIMES and then take them out THREE TIMES, well, yeah. And that’s not even getting to replacing terms and names because the first ones were lazy (“Maquis,” Kameron, really?).

I have been working very hard at writing faster this last year, because there’s this strangely insatiable need and expectation now that writers put out at least a book a year, if not multiple books. The thing is, we’re not all James Patterson, who now just writes outlines and then farms out the books to his stable of writers. Some of us have day jobs and freelancing work and family lives.

I recently broke down and finally budgeted to have somebody come in and clean the house once a month, because J. and I just couldn’t keep up. My taxes bounced back from the tax man this year because I’d stupidly put in the wrong standard deduction.  I just paid nearly $20 in library fines because I’ve got a rotating pile of over 40 books out from the library at any given time, and schlepping them all back after you’ve exceeded your number of renewals can be a chore. Then there’s my recent  A1c test, which was 7.1 (it’s supposed to be under 7).  When I’m writing quickly, and trying to be smart about it, other stuff starts to slide.

My brain, it squeals.

Let’s be brutally honest here: the stuff that I write isn’t stuff that comes out easily from my brain. There might be some folks who churn up weird and wonderful shit while relaxing at the spa, but I’m not one of them. Kameron Hurley books are dutifully researched books, and they should have an awareness of what the fuck they’re saying when two characters fuck, or the gay guy dies, or the folks who use Arabic words are chopping off peoples’ heads, or the aliens carry around crucifixes. If you say those things, you had better damned well know what the consequences are. You’re responsible for the images you put on the page, and if you’re going to go down paths that could be misread, you best do your damnedest to ensure that you’ve painted your people and situations as clearly and compassionately as possible.

But the real thing I have to achieve, and the moments I yearn for, is when I can actively manage to subvert reader expectations. I won’t give you a list of those here for RAPTURE, because, hey, spoilers – but those are the moments I push for, and they’re the hardest ones to think through. They take the most time. They take far longer than the potentially problematic ones, because as much as you try not to make them problematic and subvert them, at some level, people expect them.

And I have to do better.

Writing faster means a higher probability of failure for me right now. Some of that is because I still notice a lot of my knee-jerk sexism and racism as I write, and all of that has to be thought through and rehashed. I throw out a lot of outlines that include the first or second or third thing I thought of. Those are generally the lazy things, the things people have seen before. But when you’re writing fast, the impulse, and often, the necessity, is to go with the first or second thing you think of. You just don’t have time for anything else.

Sure, that’s what revisions are for. But if you build an entire book on three or four first-run ideas, untangling yourself from those first-run ideas after you already have a draft is an epic task.

So why do I care? I mean, really, that’s what it comes down to for me. Why do I even care if I do lazy stuff like have a heroine who’s raped for no reason but to say the bad guy’s bad (happened in the first draft of GW, believe or not; excised, thankfully), or the gay guy was molested by women (expunged from this draft, oh yeah), or the two abusive protagonists totally hook up and live happily ever after? (don’t ask).

I care because these aren’t the books I want to read. I’ve read these books. They are lazy books. I got into this biz because I wanted to see something different. I wanted to make something different. What I’ve found so frustrating throughout this process is how difficult it is to subvert expectations, to not go with the same tired stories. You get so used to building worlds on evil queens and strapping huntsman heroes that you forget there are more than just stereotypes at play here. These are real people reading your books, not cardboard cutouts, and the images you put on the page become a part of the way they view, see, read, understand, and interpret the world.

I know how media messages affect me now, and how they affected me growing up. I know what stories do, when all the ones you read are about how people like you are powerless. You internalize things. It twists you. Sometimes you deal with it by becoming even more femmy, to fit that role. And sometimes, like me, you just reject the label, and pretend you’re not one of those women-creatures. You pretend you’re a real person. Trouble is, you can teach yourself to identify with trash-talking 80’s apocalypse heroes, but nobody is going to view you as one. Because they watched the same stuff you did. They know you’re just meat.

I want to write books where I’m not meat. Where women are heroes. Where sexuality is fluid. Where things are very, very different – and not at all the way you’d expect.

But I write these worlds from a place firmly rooted in this one, and it’s a struggle, every fucking time, to cast something outside of myself, to haul myself over, to wrench free. Cause nobody wants you to hurl yourself outside the box. If there’s somebody over here blaring a different message, then you might have to question yours, too.

I have great empathy for storytellers who tell shitty, predictable stories full of what you know are totally lazy, knee-jerk choices. I have empathy for them because that’s my default too.  Hey, cool space battles ahoy! There’s some chick with a flamethrower and a black guy, so we’re good, right?

No. No, you’re not.

Some days I don’t know that there’s any difference between them and me, except for the fact that I actively look for it. I actively fight it. Oh, sure, I fail at it. I fail spectacularly at it. But I keep bashing my head against it, because the alternative is far worse. The alternative is shoring up the same old conversation. It’s being part of the problem. It’s writing yet another story that eight year old me would pick up that would teach her how much it sucked to be a woman. Another story that inspired some sort of mental head game of denial and internalized misogyny.

It’s so much easier to write those stories when I’m writing fast, though. So much easier to give in to random rape scenes and effeminate gay guys and evil lesbians and uncivilized nomads. I know these stories. I grew up with them. They start to seem normal.

Thing is, they aren’t.

Cause, yanno, we had an openly gay president here in the U.S., and women were the majority of early computer programmers, and  Shaka Zulu had an all-female fighting force, and… and… all these bullshit “stories” we’re told about “the way things have always been” actually don’t date back much past the 1950’s.

It’s a liberating sort of feeling, actually, when you realize that everything you think is normal is actually a recent invention. It’s all just make-believe.

So why is it so hard to make-believe myself outside of it, a book a year at a time?

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