Monday, May 30, 2011

Sick days?

So I spent the entire weekend being sick, and now that I'm perking up a bit, I'm starting to feel the words revving up again. Does anybody else find that getting sick makes it hard to write? And if so, is there anything that seems to help?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Break it or burn it

I had an astonishing revelation today: I've got writing burn out. And I've had burnout for a while now, like since October. Not only have I rarely felt that words-straining-at-the-seams feeling that used to inflict me with an itchiness to write, but every single day I've been able to write fewer and fewer words, and I feel more tired after laying them on the page. Needless to say, I decided I needed to be more serious about taking break time from writing.

I spent the afternoon cleaning and reading out of an anthology of French reading exercises. Why? I'm not planning to go to France any time soon. I don't know anyone who speaks French. The only reason to try to read a book in French is just because it's something I always enjoyed and it was something I had no reason to do. Absolutely free goofing off.

I've still got plenty of editorial work to catch up on, but this weekend? I'm going to go nuts. I might even play VIDEO GAMES. Nothing says "slacker" like sitting in front of the tv shooting zombies.

Sometimes it's hard for me to admit that writing isn't the end-all and be-all of who I am. I will still exist if I turn off the word tap for a couple of days. There's no shame in it.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Rescue Remedy

Today was the kind of day that required some kind of serious pick-me-up: I had a blister, a stomach ache, a headache, and my brain was spinning in a post-work fog (this is the Noisy Season at work). A nap was out of the question, what with an influx of playful children racing around my front porch and yard (there's a reason I hate summer). I needed coffee and chocolate, stat.

I've reached a point in my life where I no longer like sticky-sweet chocolatey treats. More often than not, they leave me feeling queasy and unsatisfied, the bouquet of the chocolate overpowered by the fats and sugars. (Dear heavens, did I really just use the phrase "the bouquet of the chocolate"??) When I buy chocolate, I buy a Theo dark chocolate bar and nibble my way through a stick at a time. But I didn't have a chocolate bar handy. I had cocoa powder. So I whipped up a quick and dirty microwave cup of cocoa.

You've made cocoa a hundred billion times--or at least, I hope you have. There's something profoundly meditative about blending the dry ingredients (2 Tb cocoa powder, 2 tsp sugar, dash of salt, and if you're in our household, about a tsp of nondairy creamer) and slowly dripping in the liquid (I usually start with coffee). At first, the liquid beads up on the surface of the powders, finally seeping in and creating clumps. With a little stirring and a few more drops of coffee, everything turns into one awkward ball of fragrant mud. I always feel a little nervous at this point, because it feels like the ingredients will never come together, and I will have wasted all my efforts to make a lump of sludge.

But with a little more coffee and a bit more elbow grease, the lump becomes a paste, the paste becomes smoother, and soon there's something akin to chocolate syrup at the bottom of the mug. At that point I'll usually add a little more coffee or hot water, filling my mug halfway before topping off with soy milk and a spin in the microwave. A dash of vanilla--or better yet, a teaspoon of Kraken rum!--rounds off the flavor profiles.

I'm revising a story right now that's currently at the "lump of sludge" phase. I'm nervous and a little terrified that I've killed the poor thing. I can only hope that with a little more elbow grease, it will smooth out and turn into something delicious.

I might need a few more cups of Rescue Remedy first, though ...

Friday, May 20, 2011

Process & Practice: the Writer in Savasana

It's been the kind of busy week that makes a gal's head spin: an article due, revisions coming back from various editors, career opportunities throwing themselves in my path, changes at the day job, invitations to fun social events five days of the week. And behind it all, the constant pressing knowledge that queries and submissions are out there, my work under evaluation and my future on the line.

Hey, it sounds melodramatic, but dang it, that's how it feels! You know it. You've subbed to big things before, things that could have a significant effect on your life. If you let yourself think about it, your brain might explode. You can't work, because the pressure and excitement sucks the words out of your brain like a Dyson vacuum cleaner--and we all know those things never lose suction. The only solution is NOT to think about these things and try to focus on the work in progress.

But if you're anything like me, burying my thoughts is hard. They have a way of knotting inside me and settling like lead into my gut. I've always had a lot of issues with my thoughts bursting out as physical manifestations, and it's part of the reason I spent a lot of time being sick as a young person. Interest in the mind-body relationship took me to yoga and yogic philosophy, and at one time, I actually planned to be a yoga teacher.

That's right. Me. The lady who creaks when she tries to touch her toes, the lady whose Reubenesque physique is more aptly associated with Polynesian royalty than fitness instructors. I was a yoga junkie--Bendy Wendy, beloved children's yoga class leader! And I quit yoga for the same stupid reason a lot of people quit writing: I forgot to focus onprocess, not results.

You see, I've always been a chubby kid, and I've always been sensitive about being overweight. And one day, after two years of reading and studying and pretzeling, I saw a picture of myself and realized I looked nothing like what a yoga teacher should look like. My limbs were stocky, my ankles blocky. A predisposition toward a pear shape gave me the requisite prominent ribs, but my thighs never got the memo that I was supposed to be skinny. My confidence crumbled. And one day, I walked into my yoga class and realized that every woman in the room, put together, would fit into one pair of my pants. (Hey, it seemed completely possible at the time!) I ran out of the building crying.

Little by little, I left my yoga practice behind. Dropping into Downward Dog was just too emotionally exhausting, and it was easy to push yoga time out of my schedule: I'd made a commitment to writing more, and I could justify any amount of time sitting in front of the computer.

What I forgot is how great yoga feels when you're doing it and not thinking about anything else. Like writing, it's easy to fall into a magical space where your inner essence is perfectly aligned with your activity, where you're just you, and nothing else matters. Whatever happens once you roll up your mat or click that "submit" button doesn't really matter. That you you find when you hit that magical space? That's the gold. You have to let the crap--the recycled pop-bottle mat carrier that everybody else is carrying to the studio; the rejections from the agents; the good reviews of your latest story--fall away from that place. You can't let it touch the you you've worked so hard to find.

In the last few months, I've started to forgive my body for being itself. I had a realization one day, and Regina Spektor says it best in her song "Folding Chair:"

I’ve got a perfect body, though sometimes I forget
I’ve got a perfect body cause my eyelashes catch my sweat

My body is perfect because it does the things it's designed to do. Instead of resenting its shape, I've started treating my body better, revisiting the healthy recipes I used to love, taking those long walks. Setting up a standing workstation, like Christie did. Even doing some yoga. It's amazing how the old lessons come back, all the training for clearing the mind wiping away the tensions my writing life piles onto my mind and body. After doing something physical, it's usually much, much easier to come to the keyboard. The monkey mind, with its constant need for reward, is settled. Instead of feeling neurotic about seeing results, you can enjoy the process of writing.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Book giveaway: Way of the Wizard!

Mr. John Joseph Adams is giving away copies of The Way of the Wizard over on his Goodreads page! If you're interested in getting your hands on this fantastic anthology, featuring a story and a handful of headers by yours-truly, check it out!

Monday, May 09, 2011

How to Write a Bio--for SF/F/H writers

I realized something the other day: most of the writers I know hate writing their bios. Every time a friend makes a sale, I hear a round of misery and sympathy on Twitter as they share their struggles to create a concise blurb that will encapsulate their career and draw readers' interest. But it doesn't have to be that hard! Writing your own biography is one of the easiest tricks you can put in your nonfiction writing magic kit. (And just so you know--I'm going to focus on nonfiction tips and tricks for my next blog post over at If there's anything in particular you'd like to know, let me know and I'll try to address it in that 5/20 post.)

Start by collecting your material.
Many spec fic writers like to begin exploring their work's characters by filling out a character sheet, very like the sheets role-playing gamers use to create their gaming character. When you begin writing your bio, you need to construct yourself as if you were the character. (If you think about it, your persona as a writer is a fictional character. You're drawing this persona out of your real life experiences, but you're not selling yourself. You're selling Writer You. It's like an alternate universe self!)

Check out the character sheet I've linked to and think over some of the answers. Answering someone else's questions can really help reinvigorate your sense of perception. When I think about my personal identity, I think of my family, my core values, my favorite activities. But honestly, these are really, really boring. A bio about me would include: "Wendy Wagner is a mom who is constantly riled up about social causes and therefore must restrict her consumption of all news, save for Vogue and Boing Boing. 80% of the time, Wagner is thinking about coffee or eating sweets." Kind of a dud.

But when I look at the character sheet questions, I come up with thoughts like:
I was born in Eastern Washington. Great. Nobody cares.
I grew up in a town so small the Bookmobile came only ever two weeks. Quirky--and life-changing.
Our house sat across the street from the cemetery. Hey, I can use that for horror markets!
I don't have any pets. I better leave that out or no one will believe I'm a writer.
I have practiced using a shotgun in order to better prepare myself for zombie attack. If I rephrase that, that could be perfect for horror markets!
I used to believe the back door of our house opened into Narnia. Hey, I can use that for fantasy markets!

Focus on audience and market.
You'll notice that many of my thoughts about my character material were focused around markets. That's because there are different kinds of bios, and they all their different size and tone, depending on where you'll be sending your work. Here are some examples:
  • Basic bio, added to bottom of story or article. This bio usually runs 3-4 lines. It will have a clever opener, a line about your writing credits, a second line that includes any awards or critical praise, and a final line about where you live, where you blog, and/or something witty.
I write a new basic bio for every author spotlight I do for Fantasy Magazine, because I think it's fun and clever. My latest reads:
Wendy N. Wagner grew up in very rural Oregon, where she dreamed her family would abandon her to be raised by wolves. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the anthologies The Way of the Wizard and Rigor Amortis; her interviews and poetry have run in Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine,, and Abyss and Apex. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her very understanding husband and daughter, and blogs at
Because the author spotlight is nonfiction, I thought it was worthwhile to include my nonfiction writing credits in that second line. If I was doing a basic bio for a short story, I would leave that out. If I wanted to sound like a blow-hard, I could have said "Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (this piece is actually forthcoming, but it will be out before anyone reads the bio) and the anthologies Rigor Amortis and The Way of the Wizard. Publishers Weekly described Wagner's story 'The Secret of Calling Rabbits' as 'melancholy and deeply affecting.'"

I made sure that the hook--the clever first line--of that bio connected to the theme of my article. You don't have to do that, but I think it is a good idea to write a hook that is in the tenor of the market you're writing for. If it's a horror market, I'll usually reference growing up next door to the cemetery. If it's fantasy, I'll mention the Narnia connection. If it's for more general consumption, I'll talk about the summer I read 125 books in two weeks.

  • "I am a human" bio. This is the bio you'll use on your blog or webpage to make people like you, and it can short or long. The master of the short human bio is Blake Charlton, whose "About" paragraph on his webpage says it all:

Debut novelist and medical student, Blake Charlton is a new face in both fields working to establish a dual career in fiction and medicine.

Currently, Blake is writing fantasy novels, science fiction short stories, and academic essays on medical education and biomedical ethics.

Blake's extended bio is also a great example of the human bio, although he leaves out his writing credits. He has a bibliography page--which you should have on your webpage, too--but your bio will often be lifted wholesale from the about section of your site. So do yourself and anyone writing about you a favor: have it put together tidily in one spot.

I need to update my human bio now that Her Dark Depths is no longer forthcoming, but you can still read it here. It mentions a bit more about my past and how I got interested in writing, and the hooks are less focused on the particular market, and more on general interest items in my life.

  • The really big bio for guest appearances. You probably won't need this one until you win some awards and get invited to be the guest of honor at a convention or workshop. Most of these run 300-500 words, a full page about yourself. You'll want to focus on creating three or four paragraphs, instead of three or four lines. You can include more about your non-writing life, as well, so if you have an interesting day job that you feel okay talking about, this is a great place for that information. If you have a quirky hobby that has helped your writing career, mention it. If you were mentored by a famous author, mention it. If you went to an awesome workshop ... hey, you get it.
Now that you've got a sense of what each kind of bio requires, and you're certain about what flavor and tone your bio will need, it's time to begin crafting your piece. And like all nonfiction works, you'll need to focus on mechanical details. They are your only hope to be interesting.

What do I mean? Well, when we write spec fic, we have the advantage of creating a special, unique world populated by fascinating characters. When you're writing your bio, you are writing about a chump who can never, ever compete with the people you make up. I mean, think about it: who's more interesting, you or Wolverine? Or anybody from Game of Thrones? Even the most caricatured spec fic bad guy is about 95% more interesting than your average writer.* But you are lucky. Unlike that bad guy, you have words on your side. And there are some cheats that will can you sound much, much better those muscle-bound fictional heroes you're writing about right now.
  • Use active verbs. It's the same advice you've been struggling with in your prose, but it can make a huge difference. Look at my bio. I've got grew, dreamed, appeared, runs, lives, and blogs. There's not a lot of "she was," "she is" action. And that's good. Those constructions aren't bad, but in a short space, you don't have room for not bad. You're trying to make people share their beds (hey, most folks read in bed!) and hearts with you. Rock them!
  • Use a little colorful language. It's okay to sneak in a drop of alliteration or a fun idiom. In a short story, colorful language can be too distracting from the action. But remember, there's nothing going on in your bio. It's not an adventure. A dab of colorful language will not hurt. That's why I shared about being "raised by wolves" or I've talked about "preparing for the zombie apocalypse." These phrases sound fun. In real life, I'm not actually entertaining, but I'd really like my readers to think I am. Maybe I'll sound so fun to be with, my readers will buy me a drink at a con!
  • Variate sentence constructions. Easily the most important factor. If you start every line of your bio with "He was xyz. He does abc. He likes def," your bio will be boring. Make sure you have a variety of sentence structures: "A constant thrill-seeker, John Remy finds himself drawn to high risk rock-climbing. His work draws on his adventurous life, and his thrilling short fiction has appeared in Y & W. He lives in Town X, State, and blogs at blah blah." That's variety. That's the spice of life.
It's not hard to write a bio and you shouldn't be frightened of the process. It's a simple matter of doing your research, focusing on your market & audience, and playing your best tricks--which are the three base-points of writing non-fiction. It's actually pretty fun!

* Average writer. People like Blake Charlton and Mary Robinette Kowal are not average. Their regular lives are actually cool. I mean, CNN did a feature on Blake. I totally wish I could write his bio instead of mine.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Super Heroes

Sometimes when I think about current events and the future of humanity, I get pretty damn depressed. Our natural resources are steeply depleted. We're overpopulating the globe. The weather just keeps worse. Sometimes I think that the future can only be a terrible god-awful hell, an apocalyptic wasteland full of bandits pillaging the earth for water and fuel. So ... basically Mad Max.

But the truth is that our world would already be in a state of war, starvation and hunger if it weren't for the brains of one man:

Fritz Haber.

Because he invented a process that would bind nitrogen from the atmosphere so it could be added back into soil, we were able to reinvent agriculture, radically increasing productivity. The agricultural boom has provided for the massive growth of the human population--population thinkers suggest that one-third to one-half the human beings currently alive on this planet would not have anything to eat without the Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixing process. By stretching our nitrogen resources, we have pushed back the some of pressures which lead to fighting and misery in animal populations.

[Yes, I'm aware of the military applications of Haber's work. But I think his fertilizer work has probably had a larger effect on more people.]

In many portions of the world today, people lead better lives than they did in the Dark Ages. There's much less violence, especially in First World nations. People live longer. People have more opportunities to explore their world and to be creative. And that's not because we have more resources. It's because we've had more education. We've drawn on the brilliant ideas of scientists like Haber. We've nurtured thinkers of all stripes to create a cultural climate of innovation and curiosity. It takes experts in the arts and the sciences and the humanities to make a culture that can create a new future.

Our world is better because of the work of an elite team of Heroes. Super Heroes. Super Thinking Heroes. They're scientists and writers and painters and philosophers and other folks who are committed to feeding ideas, nurturing thought, and stimulating the world around them to be a better place.

Here are pictures of some of my favorite core members of this remarkable League of Extraordinary Thinkers. Can you name them all?










1. Jane Austen

2. Albert Einstein

3. Karl Marx

4. Charles Darwin

5. Jules Verne

6. Rachel Carson

7. Beatrix Potter

8. Benjamin Franklin

I'll put up the answers tomorrow. In the meantime, just imagine: who are the thinkers today working to change the world? Do you know them? Are you one of them?

Edited 5/6: I've had some problems with the answer post, so I'm just adding the answers here:

a-5, the pioneering SF & adventure writer Jules Verne, whose imagination has stimulated generations of explorers and dreamers ; b-2, Albert Einstein, the man who gave us the General Theory of Relativity, one of the fundamental underpinnings of contemporary physics ; c-Beatrix Potter, whose illustrated children's books have been urging children to love nature and reading for more than a hundred years ; d-3, Karl Marx, a political philosopher whose realizations about the co-evolution of society and the economy led to the creation of the postmodern outlook--oh, and Communism; e-8, Benjamin Franklin, inventor, political philosopher and US Postal pioneer ; f-6, Rachel Carson, a marine biologist whose writings about pesticides' affects on the natural world challenged human ideas about the environment and our responsibilities within it; g-Jane Austen, a writer whose witty romantic novels skewered the social mores and structures of her times ; h-4, natural historian Charles Darwin, whose writings on natural selection changed our understanding of individuals within their environments ; i- .