Writing Groups

So when I teach, one of the things I really try to emphasize to my students is the value of a good writing group.  They’re hard to find, but when you get one in place, it’s pretty awesome.

The folks over at Booklife Now seem to agree.  I’ve written a two part guide to finding and shaping a good writing group and they’ve put it up.  The site is a great resource for writers in general.

Part 1

Part 2

I’m happy to say more on writing groups – I think they’re incredibly important – so if you have any questions or want to share your own experiences, please do so, either on the booklife now site, or here, or on my facebook fan page (where a lot of discussion seems to be happening these days).  I’m going to have spotty internet over the next week or so, but I’ll try to answer any questions and respond to whatever.

Think of this as a write in column, like those ones about dating or ethical dilemmas, but instead it’s about writing groups.  I hope to get a lot of great questions, and then post them with the answers when my internet is more stable.  And in fact, finding a great writing group can be a lot like dating.  I’m also happy to answer more general writing questions, like how to find good readers for your work, or if you should show it to your mom, and so forth.  So… any questions?

The Casting Game!

First off, I’d like to thank those of you who voted for my book to be included on Gail Carriger’s “What to read while Gail is writing” list.  Gail has a huge fanbase, and getting their attention is a big goal of mine, as I think her books and mine have a lot in common.  So thanks.  And feel free to talk All Men of Genius up to her fans.  I think they’ll like it.  Likewise, if you haven’t read her books, but have enjoyed mine, give hers a try.

But onto why you’re really here: The Casting Game.

We all do it.  If you ever meet an author who says they’ve never thought of their book being made into a movie, they’re either lying or incredibly pretentious or unambitious or have written something really odd, or without people in it, but something else, like magical talking houseplants.

So yeah, I cast my book in my head.  Not in a “yes, this person for this role” sort of way – often I switch people out and such, but I recently saw one of the lesser-known actresses I sometimes think of playing Violet, and she was on TrueBlood!  So I thought I’d share.

Violet:  As I said, I just saw one of the actresses I think of playing her on TrueBlood.  Her name is Lucy Griffiths, and she’s joined the cast of TrueBlood playing Nora.  I know her from Collision, a really great British miniseries (on Netflix streaming).  I think she’s great, she can do both smart and naive, and she has the right sort of wit in her eyes.  My concern since I saw her on TrueBlood is she seems to have lost a bit of weight (or maybe that was just her lack of clothes), and while I think she should be whatever weight makes her happiest and healthiest, I do picture Violet as having a more Victorian figure.  The other contender in my mind is Emma Watson.  We know she can play smart.  We know she can do fierce.  We know she can rock short hair.  But I have doubts that in this highly hypothetical movie situation she would even take the role, as it might be too Harry Potter redux.  Theres also Gemma Arterton, who is talented and beautiful, and has the perfect figure and coloring… but I just can’t see her in the role.  I’m not sure why – feel free to argue with me.  So what do you think?  Lucy?  Emma?  Gemma?  Someone else?

           

Ashton:  Obviously, he has to be believably Violet’s twin, so that’ll depend on who gets cast there, but let’s be honest, how often do siblings look related in movies?  The main problem I have here is I don’t know many young British actors.  And I think it would be better if it were all Brit actors, right?  Cause when Americans do British accents, it can be very hit or miss.  That said, I will say Josh Hutcherson comes to mind.  I haven’t seen him in anything, but he looks sort of how I picture Ashton, and he’s really big on gay rights, which I appreciate.  Plus he has a huge fanbase.  But that’s a half-hearted effort on my part.  I should watch more British shows about young people, I guess.  How about you folks?  Who do you see playing Ashton?

Ernest:  Ah, Ernest.  Broody, sexy, and I think that that scene where he’s in the bath, when filmed, should maybe show a little naked behind.  I confess, the name that comes most readily to mind is Jamie Bamber, of Battlestar Gallactica.  My only concern is that at 39 years old, 29 might be a bitch of a stretch.  Still… he is sexy and broody.  Okay, maybe casting the men is becoming more of a candy-shop scenario for me.

So let’s get back to the women.

Miriam: This is a hard one for me.  Ideally, I’d love to see her played by a French women of Persian Jewish Heritage.  That said, I know no actresses who fit that description.  I also think accent is less of an issue with Miriam – her accent is so weird and complex the actress will need a vocal coach to help her get all the nuances, no matter what her natural accent is.  So, who comes to mind?  For a start, the fantastic actress Bahar Soomekh, who is a Middle-Eastern Jew… but again, at 37, I wonder how viable it is for her to play someone in their mid-20s.  My other idea, and I know this is going to be offensive, and I’ll get into that in a moment, but my other idea is Erica Cerra, of Eureka.  She looks how I imagine Miriam, and on Eureka I’ve seen her do both the stern, button up persona and the sexy, devil-may-care person – Miriam’s two main sides.  The problem with Ms. Cerra is she’s not of any sort of Middle-Eastern decent.  As far as I know, she’s Italian.  And I think that that would rightly offend some people.  Cinematic whitewashing isn’t cool.  It implies that people of color aren’t good enough to play themselves in film, and it keeps them from landing leads when they deserve them.  But I will admit, Ms. Cerra looks uncannily like how I picture Miriam (although she’d have to bind a little – Miriam has a boyish, almost curve-less figure), and would play her excellently.

     

Cecily:  Again, we run into the “Lev-doesn’t-watch-British-Shows-About-Young-People” problem.  And Cecily is the youngest of them all.  Cecily should be ridiculously beautiful, in a porcelain doll sort of way.  Blonde, pale, short, but again the Victorian figure.  And sixteen.  So, the only 16-looking British actress that came to mind was Bonnie Wright, who was Ginny Weasley in the Harry Potter films.  I gotta say, she looks lovely, these days.  Possibly a little tall for Cecily, but now I wonder if I shouldn’t move her to the Violet section.  If she played Cecily, I don’t know how she’d look as a blonde, either.  The other name that I thought of was Emilia Clarke, best known for playing Dany on the HBO Game of Thrones series.  It’s hard to tell in the role, with the crazy white hair and the often being covered in dirt/naked, but she is sort of adorable and young looking in a carefree Cecily sort of way.  But she’d have to be a gold blonde, not the ash blonde she is in Game of Thrones.  Also, though I know both these women can do fierce and strong, I’ve never seen them do traditionally “girly,” which is a key component to Cecily – that being girly can also mean being smart and strong.

                       

Jack: Ah Jack.  Goofy handsome.  Mischievous.  There’s really only one name that comes to mind, and that’s Matt Lewis.  He’s best known for playing Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter movies, and the boy has grown up good looking, and every time I see a photo of him, he looks like he’s about to cause trouble.  They’d need to lighten his hair for Jack, but I always pictured Jack as dirty blonde, anyway.

Fiona: I know, she’s a more minor character, but there’s really only one actress I ever envisioned as Fiona.  An actress who inspired Fiona, in fact.  Michelle Gomez.  If you don’t know who she is, go watch the amazing Green Wing.  She’s hilarious on it.  No one would do Fiona better.

In fact, I’d mine Green Wing for lots of actors: Mark Heap for Professor Bunburry, Steve Mangan for Professor Bracknell, Julian Rhind-Tutt for Professor Valentine, Olivia Colman for Mrs. Wilks.  Why?  Cause they’re all hilarious.  I want to write more characters just for the rest of these actors.  Alas, none are quite young enough to be Toby or Drew, two more characters in need of casting.  But that’s enough for today.  What do you think?  Who should be cast? How about a voice actor for Oscar?  (this just in: Green Wing is now on netflix streaming.  Go watch it)

*I found all these images through google image search.  If you took a photo and would like credit, please indicate so and I will gladly credit you.  If you took a photo and would prefer I not use it, I will gladly take it down at your request.

So what am I working on?

Hello, darlings.

I’m trying to blog more regularly, I really am, but the truth is I can’t imagine anyone would find anything I have to say, outside of my fiction, at all interesting.  So I thought I’d talk a little about what I’ve been working on of late.  I figure that will be a good enough start to launch myself into discussing other things.

First, I’m planning my wedding.  This has been… interesting.  For example, with the invitations, I had to go over three proofs.  They got half the stuff right on the first proof, and then on the second, everything they’d gotten right the first time was wrong.  But, I’m pleased to say, that although I was convinced it was all going to go horribly wrong, we have the invitations and they are gorgeous.

We also have a photographer – Weddings by Two – who seem amazing and exactly what we wanted (and trust me, finding a wedding photographer who understands you when you say “no lovely dovey crap” is hard).  We also have a band – The Manhattan Dolls – and I am crazy excited about them.  And a Florist – Mimosa Floral – the florist there, Lilli, is amazing.  Like, I want her to be a guest at the wedding not just the florist, because she’s so much fun to talk too and so creative and clever.  So everything seems mostly set… but really I feel as though I’m waiting for the next disaster to occur.  Fingers crossed it’s nothing major.  We do have to get our suits.  So there’s that.  The whole wedding is hopefully going to have a very classic, NYC, art deco sort of feeling.  Lilli is even doing an escort card table arrangement inspired by some of the art of BioShock (one of the most beautiful video games ever).

I’m also teaching fiction writing at Gotham Writers Workshop these days.  I don’t want to talk too much about classes, since I think that violates the privacy of my students, but suffice to say it’s been incredibly rewarding.  Some of my students are just amazingly talented and it’s awesome working with them.  In a hilarious twist (that my boss arranged), I also teach the Gotham classes in the school I went to k-8 in, and where my mother is still on the board, so I know a lot of people there.  It’s fun.  My 1st grade teacher is now the vice-principal, and I swear she gets a look of panic every time she sees me (I wasn’t the best behaved 1st grader.  I wasn’t bad, per se, I just felt I knew more than everybody else, including the teacher, and that they often did things incorrectly).  Anyway, if you’re in the city, I highly recommend taking a Gotham class.

And finally, there’s writing!  I have a lot of projects going on: For starters, there’s the sequel to All Men of Genius (and the book after that).  I have a rough draft.  It needs work.  I confess I took a break from it a while ago, right around when the book first came out, because I was feeling a little steampunked out.  I can tell you that the second book revolves more around Cecily and Jack, the third revolves more around Ashton and his romantic interest*, and the fourth is about Miriam solving the Jack the Ripper case… sort of.  So while I have some rough drafts, alas, it’s not looking great for the sequel to get off the ground, due to sales.  The paperback comes out November 13th, and based off those sales I’ll make the decision of whether to go ahead with revisions or if it’s just not worth it from a work/return standpoint.  I’m as disappointed as you in this, I assure you, but the plan I have for making All Men of Genius a series is extensive (at least 6 books, ending in 1901) and to embark on it, I need to know it’s going to be a worthwhile use of my time.

There’s also, if I’m being honest, the problem of having too many voices in my head.  All Men of Genius was my first published novel, and that meant my first reviews and my first sort of interaction with the reading world.  I wrote the draft of the sequel before All Men was officially released, but now, when I go back to it and I try to focus on what I loved about it, and who I should be writing it for (me, mostly), I keep hearing critics, reviewers, my agent, my editor… It’s overwhelming and my own voice is just a whisper next to this.  Like, to the point where I’ve almost forgotten it.  This makes going back to the sequel both terrifying and emotionally exhausting, especially since it’s in need of such dire rewrites.  I don’t entirely know how to get these voices out of my head; I don’t read reviews anymore (there aren’t many happening these days, the books been out so long), I try not to talk with anyone about the sequel if I know they have opinions, but the voices persist (to be clear, I mean this metaphorically – I don’t literally hear voices).  I need to make the sequel have more suspense and action, I need to focus on character, I need fewer characters, steampunk needs more commentary on colonialism and it’s my job to do it, it has to be funnier, but don’t use those modern language/victorian language jokes, people didn’t like those, and so on and so on.  They tell you being published will make you crazy, but they never really specify how.  And no one will really talk to me about it, either – I’m not sure what could be said to make me remember my own voice for this series, but all I get are either their voices or “ignore the other voices” which is way easier said than done.  I don’t mean to sound like a neurotic writer, and I apologize if this seems like whining; I am incredibly grateful for my book having been published and for all the incredibly positive responses to it from all of you.  It’s possible I just need to sit down and read a lot of Oscar Wilde plays.  Or maybe actually read All Men of Genius, which I haven’t done since it came out.  I think I’m a little afraid to do so.  What if it isn’t good?

So currently, I’ve been working on other projects.  Those are easier, and much more pleasurable to focus on.  And what are those other project you may ask?

Well, there’s the Noir Sci-fi.  That takes place in the future, where the ice caps have melted and NYC is a city of building tops, bridges and permanently moored boats.  It follows a detective, Simone Pierce, as she gets wrapped up in a case far more complex than she had originally suspected.  I’ve taught classes on film noir in past, and studied it extensively, so I really enjoyed playing with the genre conventions, both in putting them in a futuristic setting while keeping them feeling steeping in classic noir, and also in some genderplay.  The tone is pulpy and dark, and it’s another sort of retrofuturism.  I’m feeling really good about it.  A friend in my writing group was reading the most recent draft on the train and missed her stop, which tells me I’m doing something right.  My agent is currently looking it over, so hopefully she’ll have some good things to tell me soon.

I also just finished a draft of a book for 7-10 year olds, a chapter book, about a brother and sister (and their pet capybara) whose parents die in an accident and who go to live with their aunt in a very odd town, where nothing ever seems to change.  And then they find a crank, and a hole to put it in, and begin winding…  The plan is for this book to be heavily illustrated by my extremely talented brother.  I’ve only just given him the book, though (right after he graduated with his MFA), and we have yet to discuss the way we’re going to do it.  I think it’s going to be a great book, though.  It deals with themes that I think are important; fear of change, dealing with the death of a loved one.

And finally, I’m working on a YA book.  I don’t want to say too much about this, as I only have about 80 pages, but it’s about a teenage boy whose mother has early onset Alzheimer’s, and it’s also about videogames, race and identity, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  My fiance, who is something of an expert in the field of YA lit, has been reading the pages and says its good.  It’s nice to have an at-home consultant.

So that’s what I’ve been doing.  Was that incredibly boring for you?

*This is a spoiler, so stop reading if you’re not up for it: sadly, Anthony doesn’t stay.  Anthony was based on a lot of the straight boys I fooled around with in college – they enjoyed experimenting with a guy, and even were sometimes sort of romantic (on the DL), but there was really never any doubt in their mind that they were going to marry a woman someday.  But I promise Ashton’s new gentleman is fantastic and funny and nervous and sexy and in my mind, played by Hugh Dancy, which is a plus.  And a much more developed character than Anthony ever was.

Ashton and “flamboyant homosexuals” (my first blog rant)

So this is one of the things its somewhat difficult for me to talk about.  I don’t want to be known just as a queer writer, but I am, and I do think queer visibility is important in books and I try to work it in.  So let me talk a little bit about something that bugs me, as a queer writer:  when I see people call Ashton (that’s a character in my book, if you’ve not read it) a “flamboyant homosexual.” Also: “flaming” or the somewhat more well-intentioned, but still meaningful “fabulous.”

Whenever I see someone do this, my first reaction is “that person has never met a real life gay man.”  My issue with these words is that they’re coded.  What they really mean is “stereotypical,” or “effeminate,” or something even less polite than that.

I worked hard not to make Ashton a stereotype.  He’s a dandy, yes, and so he has some attributes that folks might characterize as stereotypical (cares about his clothes, is an artist, is witty like all the other characters in the book), but to me, Ashton is just a very worried elder brother.  That’s the role he fills most of the time.  He also has a romance, and it’s with a dude, which I will grant you makes him queer, although I don’t think flamboyantly so.  He’s somewhat secretive about the relations with the dude after all.  Sort of the opposite of flamboyant.  I think what people read as “flamboyance” (gods that word is getting annoying) is the aforementioned stereotypical qualities.  But those come more from his status with the historical subculture of dandyism.  Dandyism is about performance, about aesthetics.  But it was a subculture of the Victorian age – and a very popular one at that.  Gilbert and Sullivan wrote an entire operetta about the subculture.  That would be like Spielberg doing an entire movie about goth subculture today.

I tried to show that the dandy subculture was prevalent in the novel through the character of Professor Valentine, who is even more of a dandy than Ashton, wearing makeup, with long hair and frilly jackets – an EXTREME example of dandyism, next to which Ashton is positively staid.  And yet I don’t see anyone calling Valentine “flamboyantly heterosexual.”  And, frankly, he’s much more open about his pursuit of women.

I don’t mind if people don’t know the history and don’t understand Ashton’s character traits that way, but with a character like Valentine also in the book, I have to ask myself what they’re thinking about him.  Is Valentine’s demeanor somehow excused by his non-traditional sexual desires for somewhat older ladies? (desires which, it bears noting, many a heterosexual man has today.  Just google GMILF)  Does being non-traditional in his desires allow him to behave in a fashion which such a reader would characterize as “flamboyantly homosexual”?  I don’t know.  It’s very interesting, though.

I suspect that what happens with folks who view Ashton as flamboyant, flaming or fabulous is that they see a few traits they associate with the stereotype, see that he is queer, and fill in the rest themselves.  Which is fine – every work of art is shaped as much by the viewer as by the artist.  I have no control over how you picture Ashton’s voice in your head.  I may not have given him a lisp, but maybe you have.  In fact, one of the few things I’m not 100% about in the audio version of the book is how Ashton is sounding (but I’ve only listened to the sample, not the whole thing, so I don’t know for sure).

When I picture Ashton, it’s as a rake, in a stylish, and maybe slightly weird, but not gaudy outfit, hands in his pockets, naughty half smile on his face.  His long hair is parted down the middle, slightly wavy and ends at about his mouth.  Were he in a movie today, he’d probably play a bad boy rock star, someone who is attractive because he appears so naughty.  I thought that was how I wrote him, too.  But I think a lot of folks place another character on him because of his sexuality, give him traits and characteristics that I didn’t write.  And I get it, that happens with literature.  But it still annoys me.

So, why does it annoy me so much I’ve taken to my seldom-update blog to rant about it?  Because it happens to me all the time, too.  There are people – most often women, but more than a few men as well – who, upon finding out I’m queer immediately want to go shoe shopping with me.  I loathe shoe shopping.  I have one pair of shoes for winter and one for summer and I wear them for years until they break and then I go online and buy something as close to that pair as I can find.  But, I’m queer, so I must love shoe shopping, right?  People who make these assumptions aren’t homophobic.  They are often passionately for gay rights, and I thank them for it.  But they are, as was said (and possibly coined, though I don’t know) on the TV show “Happy Endings,” Gaycist.  That is, they make assumptions about a person based on their sexuality.  Just as it is wrong to assume all black people listen to rap, it’s wrong to assume all gay men love shoe shopping or all lesbians love flannel.  That’s gaycism.

I once knew (and really we were just in a program together, I didn’t *know* her) a girl who literally assumed everything I said was somehow related back to my sexuality.  I asked who a guy was, she told me his name and said “but sorry, he’s straight,” though I had no attraction to him and just wanted to know his name, as I’d forgotten it.  Another man came up to me and asked me if I thought he could pull of pink, from a dude’s perspective.  She interrupted to point out I was gay and so wouldn’t really have a dude’s perspective, and would in fact love pink, as all gay men do.  I deeply regret being too polite to have said anything to her at the time.  Because I would have been very very rude if I’d let myself. (the dude in question, to his credit, seemed confused by her statement and asked me again).

So yeah, Ashton is queer, and he has some qualities you might think are stereotypical.  But he’s not a stereotype.  He’s a (fictional) person.  Don’t let your vision of him be clouded by assumptions based on his sexuality.  And don’t do it with me, either.

(And, as a side note if you’re wondering about “fabulous” – I think when you describe a gay man as fabulous, you’re pretty much describing him as flaming, but while flaming implies you disapprove of his personality because of those characteristics you’d call “flaming”, fabulous implies you love those characteristics.  And that’s kind of you, really, but keep in mind that when homophobic people talk about flaming homosexuals or “I don’t mind them being gay, I just wish they wouldn’t be so flamboyant about it” what they often are referring to is two men holding hands.  I don’t know what is so flamboyant about that.  Just like I don’t know what makes a gay man fabulous for holding hands with another man, or saying they find some guy cute.  It’s not a bad word, provided you really know the person you’re ascribing it too.  At least, in my opinion.)

So, I’m going to stop ranting now.  I’m sorry if I’ve offended anyone.  But sometimes this stuff gets to me, and look, I suddenly have an outlet to express why.  If I can make just one person see something from a new perspective, then that’s awesome.  And if you post something homophobic or hate-filled, I will, naturally, delete the comment.  Hope you all have a wonderful day.

(also, feel free to check out the episode of Happy Endings where the term Gaycist is explained.  It’s good.  The whole show is good.  That episode is called Of Mice & Jazz-Kwon-Do)