The Dull Knife

My second week of Clarion, I stayed up all night writing a short story about a women who leads a group of desert fighters on behalf of a foreign man she’s sworn herself to. There were two kinds of women in this society – “women,” who were the fighters and occasional mothers, and “ladies,” who were the breeders/property of both women and men.

I got some flack from my colleagues for my heroine’s use of a dull blade in a mercy killing (my Clarion buddies still make jokes about me bringing out the dull blade whenever I rip into somebody verbally or in writing), and more flack for creating a society where women only seemed to fight or fuck, so who was doing all the grunt work (um, the men?)? Overall, however, the reviews were positive. I had good characters, a good setting, some good worldbuilding, and a suitable plot.

I’d come out of my week two crit session with a pretty positive list of minor revisions. I was pretty confident I could sell this one.

Then it was week two’s instructor’s turn to speak about the story.

“I find this story personally offensive,” he said. “I think it suffers from a failure of the imagination.”

Imagine being 20 years old and having Geoff Ryman tell you this.

He was the first – but certainly not the last – person I offended with some piece of fiction during my six weeks at Clarion.

I thought I was fine with the “offensive” part. I figured that if I wasn’t offending someone, I wasn’t trying hard enough. But tell an SF/F writer their story suffers from “a failure of the imagination,” and that’s something else entirely.

Week five, David Hartwell had us all choose one story we’d written earlier in the workshop to rewrite. I chose my dull knife story, because it was the most successful and still the most well received of all my stories. And it had a special place in my heart. I loved the heroine, the world, the choice between loyalty to her patron and loyalty to her child. Choosing death and doing the right thing over life and betrayal of kin, and etc. I’m a sucker for sacrifice.

I smoothed and sanded down and sanitized that story, changed a few names, toned down a lot of the grittier scenes, and turned it in.

The response from my colleagues was lukewarm at best. The overall reaction seemed to be, “What the fuck did you do to this great story?”

I think it was my buddy Patrick who said, “What you’ve done is taken a story that was offensive to some people and made a story that’s not offensive to anybody.”

I’d started out with a story that had a few rough edges and some neat spiky bits. What I needed were better spikes and clean edges.

What I ended up with was a wad of playdough.

One of the huge wake-up calls I had after Clarion was realizing that I wrote salable stories that weren’t selling. Before that, I’d assumed everything I wrote was just sub-par. I was aping MZB S&S stories, and writing them badly, because my heart really wasn’t in it. I hated the Sword & Sorceress stories MZB put out every year. I thought they all sounded alike. Yet here I was, trying to write something just as generic (note that I’m 26 – by the time I was reading these stories, they were generic. No doubt at the time the first few were anthologies were published, they were new and different).

What writing my blood-and-sand story taught me is that is was OK to write stories that offended people, that made people uncomfortable. I’ve written a number of those since (one of the ones that offended another Clarion classmates is in round 2 over at Intergalatic Medicine Show. Yes, I would take a LOT of delight in getting into an Orson Scott Card mag, if only because I can think of oh-so-many lovely things I could put in my bio…). I’ve written some stories that I realize could be considered really, really anti-feminist (“The Women of Our Occupation” will be out in Strange Horizons sometime this summer, and when I explained the premise to a friend, he said, “So, you’re basically writing a story about femi-Nazis.” Oh, shit. Well. I suppose it could sorta be interpreted that way…). But ultimately, what I found once I freed myself of the “I need to write stories just like X” rule (which stifled my writing, made me unhappy, and didn’t produce any salable stories), was my voice. I write Kameron stories. They may not all sound alike, but they all have some pretty clear pet themes. They may take forever to sell or not sell at all (one of my favorites, “Body History,” has yet to find a home. What, getting oral sex from a disfigured body text is icky, or what?).

I got to thinking about this process after reading some of Kelly Link’s writing advice:

The only thing you have to offer an editor, and readers, is you. Your voice. Stories and characters and narrative twists that only you are strange enough to want to write. Take risks.

It might take some time to start selling anything, but I think that in time, you will. Because in the end, all you’ve got is you. Writing another MZB story isn’t doing anybody any favors. I like writing Kameron stories. I love writing stories like “Body History” that make me uncomfortable. I want to find out how far I can go, where and how I can push, explore what I’m interested in.

Not everybody’s going to like it. They’ll take your writing and try and infer a lot about you. They’ll challenge your ideas. They’ll call you a twat, a twit, delusional, weak, stupid, and anti-feminist (or “feminist,” in that way that lets you know they think that’s a bad thing).

And I think that’s where the courage comes in with writing out stories that are so obviously pieces of yourself (they can’t be pieces of anybody else, in truth). Taking risks means bleeding yourself all over the page, even if you don’t think that’s what you’re doing. It means getting flak for things you may have done wrong, or things you did right but that other people think you did wrong. And you have to be prepared for that. You either need to defend your position or alter it based on the enlightened arguments you get from others (every writer gets to change their mind. Even LeGuin says she was wrong in using the “he” pronoun for everybody in “The Left Hand of Darkness.” It’s OK to realize you’ve made an error. It’s called learning).

It’s scary, it’s risky, as scary and risky as putting out so many things about myself in this public forum. Perhaps even more so, because I think my fiction may say more about my underlying beliefs than anything I’ve said here. The subconscious works in mysterious ways.

The one thing you’ve got on everybody else in the writing world isn’t talent, and likely isn’t persistence, either. There’s always somebody more talented and more persistent than you.

What you’ve got is you. Nobody else has that.

If you’re lucky, you’ve got interesting things to say, and you’re always reading, conversing, studying, traveling, to learn more, be more, do more, to have more to say, to formulate better opinions.

Because there’s nothing so dull as a talented or persistent writer whose fiction is stale as old toast. Those sorts of writers might sell a handful of fiction, but they’re not going to break out. They’re not going to be names. They won’t be loved.

Open yourself up, show us the world, and I believe people will respond. Maybe not in the mass millions, but enough to make every bloody word worth it.

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