Ann Leckie gives one hell of a talk

http://www.anneleckie.com

Ann Leckie might look docile, but her ideas are anything but.  She made this abundantly clear yesterday during a Q&A session on Microsoft’s campus, where she fielded everything from gender-norms to publishing to the mess that was this year’s Hugo awards.

Truth be told, my brother is the Leckie fan, and he asked me if I wanted to tag along since her books are gender-nebulous, and he figured that would be up my alley. He loaned me his kindle so I could check out her writing, and by the end of the first chapter of Ancillary Justice, I was like, yes.  This is a woman I want to hear from.

I had a couple of goals going in to the talk.

First, I just wanted to hear her talk about her ideas, because they are awesome, and as a budding fantasy writer, I need to be soaking up as much awesome as possible.  Second, I was hoping to hear a bit on the writing and publishing game–how did that all come together for her, and what was the process like?   And third, I was hoping to get a sense of how authors (as opposed to academics) field questions and market themselves to their audience.

Here’s what I learned from Ann Leckie:

Ideas

I was shoving as much cool stuff…into the book as possible.

When Leckie talked about her ideas, she lit up.  Like, she just grinned and giggled and talked about space ships like they were her best friends in the world.

After spending the past eight years at academic conferences where people are petrified that their work won’t fly or that they won’t seem smart enough, watching Leckie lean into the mic and say, “I wrote about tea because I like tea,” totally floored me.  It was so refreshing, to watch someone own their desire to have fun.  And it made me feel warm and fuzzy toward my own novels.  I was like, hey, I have ideas that I love, too!  You’re telling me I can just write about stuff I like? Holy shit, what a notion!

Her specific comments on larger concepts in the novel were also instructive.

She talked a lot about gender, since one of the things she is most famous for is the use of the pronoun “she” throughout the book, even in reference to male-sexed persons.  She said it took her quite a while to settle on this formulation because she didn’t want to create cardboard cut-outs that represented a blanket idea.  In the end, this was the pronoun that gave her the feeling she wanted–the most fully realized characters.  And she recommended that all authors play around with not assigning gender to characters until the last possible second, attesting to the fact that her characters experience a broader swath of emotions and opportunities when they are not gendered.

She also discussed the idea of collective consciousness, since Breq is one part of a large ship.  Leckie spent a lot of time preparing to write this being into existence, trying to figure out how to create a non-humanoid that was both individual and collective and also totally relatable.  She went to neuropsychology for guidance and did a lot of reading about clinical studies where people lost or changed their sense of self.  Over all the studies, what remained constant was the way that patients discussed their emotions as physical reactions, and so that’s what stuck for the book.  Even if it’s unclear what “I” means when Breq says it, we know she has physical feelings.

And finally, Leckie reflected a bit on some of her language choices, telling us that writers have to be very careful about word and meaning as they frame the narratives that your characters are able to understand.  Someone asked her specifically about how the Radchaai do not have a word for “civilized” or “civilization” because to them they are the meaning of the word.  To answer that question, she called up early-20th-century history (BOOM) and talked briefly about empires and the way they made it their mission to spread their way of being around the world, making their very existence synonymous with “civilized.”  She made it very clear that words, themselves, can be life-changing.

All told?  I’m taking her lessons as follows: first, take deep joy in your writing; second, read widely and learn from what you read (and also hell yes history); third, don’t be afraid to experiment.

Publishing

Well, as I expected, Leckie did not offer up the secret to getting published.  Her own experience seems a little bit extraordinary, in that she somehow already had friends with agents, and just asked them all for emails.  (My guess is that she made friends like this in the Clarion West Writers Workshop, which is a super competitive, expensive, six-week intensive deal out here in Seattle.)  And then she sent out precisely five query letters, got positive responses from all of them, and had her pick of the lot.

This seems a little charmed…

But on the other hand, my conclusion might be totally unfair.  Leckie had to be good enough to get into this workshop, solid enough to make connections, and sharp enough to write a winning query letter.  So…I guess I would have liked to hear more about how she did that.

She did say that even if you have a trilogy or series in mind, you should write your first novel to stand alone as much as possible, because you don’t know going in if your publishers will want multiple books from you.  In her case, they did.

Her other piece of publishing advice–which she admitted seems a bit cute coming from an esteemed, award-winning author–was to not think about awards while you’re publishing, because if you don’t win any it would be easy to become embittered.  It’s a lot of work to write a book, and if you go into it expecting “to have something to show for it” you’re probably doing it for the wrong reasons.

Her reflections on this point likely have something to do with the Hugo Awards scandal this year.  I hadn’t read much about it, because I think less about winning awards than I do about buying groceries and paying back my student loans.  But it apparently boils down to the following:  an author, who felt he was unfairly denied an award due to the voting habits of “the liberal cabal,” rallied his conservative readership and got them to flood the ballots for the Hugos, nominating him and all of his friends for the available awards.  Leckie didn’t seem to have a problem with an author rallying his readership–what pissed her off was the fact that in the process, he attacked her readers, accusing them of reading her books solely because it was the politically correct thing to do.

“You can say whatever you want about my books,” she said, “but don’t you dare attack my readers.  I love my readers.”

And her final comment on the whole debacle?

Don’t build a private hell where everyone can see you.

Lessons learned: finish things, submit things, write for the love of your work, not for recognition, don’t be an asshole

Marketing

Leckie didn’t spend a whole lot of time on marketing.  She commented that social media is the new method of referral–that instead of browsing the shelves at the bookstore, we’re looking to blogs and twitter to recommend new writers and new books.

She also noted that about half of her readers were very disappointed with the second book in the trilogy because while they expected her to launch an enormous space opera civil war, she followed a different story arc and chased an idea she wanted to tease out.  She did this, she said, because she purposely wanted to duck under the grand cinematic sweep of the trilogy and follow the arc that most interested her as a writer.  But, in doing this, she had to be ready to defend her decision.

What I really got out of this talk, as regards marketing, came from my own observations.  I mean, she totally won me over as a reader.  Even if I hadn’t enjoyed her first chapter, I would have given it another shot after this talk.  Why?

Because I like Ann Leckie.

She was friendly, intelligent, eloquent, and not even a little bit condescending.  She struck an incredible balance between revealing cool stuff about her books, while also leaving key plot points as mysteries for those of us who haven’t yet devoured her writing.  She didn’t drop names to show how smart she was or who she was friends with.  And she didn’t shy away from openly celebrating how much fun she has as a writer.

*****

Update: As of October 08, 2015 you can listen to her talk online here!

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Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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