Molly Tanzer: Five Things I Learned Writing Vermilion
Gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise “Lou” Merriwether might not be a normal 19-year-old, but she’s too busy keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si to care much about that. It’s an important job, though most folks consider it downright spooky. Some have even accused Lou of being more comfortable with the dead than the living, and, well… they’re not wrong.
When Lou hears that a bunch of Chinatown boys have gone missing somewhere deep in the Colorado Rockies she decides to saddle up and head into the wilderness to investigate. Lou fears her particular talents make her better suited to help placate their spirits than ensure they get home alive, but it’s the right thing to do, and she’s the only one willing to do it.
On the road to a mysterious sanatorium known as Fountain of Youth, Lou will encounter bears, desperate men, a very undead villain, and even stranger challenges. Lou will need every one of her talents and a whole lot of luck to make it home alive…
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Thinking Carefully about Representation—and Choosing to Write Inclusively—Doesn’t Make Books Less Fun
This is kind of a cheat. I knew this before drafting Vermilion. Most of my favorite novelists do this, after all. But, at the same time, I learned some valuable lessons related to the topic writing my own novel. And, in the wake of the consummately ridiculous Sad/Rabid Puppies claiming a “victory” re: this year’s eyebrow-raising Hugo slate, I feel inspired to discuss this issue.
One of the talking points beloved of the Sad Puppies is that their campaign was intended to put “fun” back in the spotlight. These Puppies claim that the Hugo is no longer the Academy Awards of good old-fashioned fun SFF, but rather a politically-motivated exercise in championing dreary, literary, “politically correct” works of speculative fiction. Where, they wail, has all the entertainment gone in SFF? Where’s the praise for novels about thewsy barbarians conflating rescue and consent? What’s up with how in all these award-nominated books about spaceships, said spaceships are full of career girls instead of cosmic bimbos? Why, they ask, must speculative fiction concern itself with homophobia, racism, transphobia, misogyny? The Sad Puppies have declared that it’s fine to have a little of that stuff, maybe sometimes, but spec fic at is core should be: worldbuilding, exposition, pew pew pew/chop chop chop, oh thank you for saving me, giggity giggity, the end—or is it?!
This argument is as disingenuous as it is fraught, and it is, to me, perhaps the saddest part about Sad Puppies. Thoughtful, inclusive writing just isn’t ever going to be “fun” to certain people. And that’s regrettable.
To bring this around to what I learned from writing Vermilion—eventually—I am a feminist who enjoys reading, watching, and experiencing art produced by and about women. And I’m pretty easy-going, in general. I certainly notice when a book or film or whatever passes the Bechdel test, but it doesn’t determine my enjoyment or approval.
But, in spite my love of and commitment to representation of women in fiction, at some point during the drafting of Vermilion, I realized that Lou, my protagonist — a woman — did not have or develop any truly meaningful, life-changing relationships with other women. This gave me pause. The novel passed the Bechdel test, multiple times over… but even so, it didn’t feel inclusive — didn’t feel complete, didn’t feel like it really represented the wealth of experiences a young woman might have on her first adventure. I did some serious soul-searching about this, including analyzing whether my impulse to rectify what I perceived as a lack was motivated by feminist impulses or writerly ones.
In the end, I realized it was both, and remedied the situation by extensively rewriting the last third of the novel to include and privilege a friendship Lou develops with a young woman named Coriander.
And you know what? The novel is way, way more fun now. Lou’s friendship with a Coriander ended up being an absolute gas to write, and then to read. I don’t usually laugh at my own writing, even when humor was my intent, but during edits I found myself snickering at their interactions. They play off one another in ways that made me excited about rewriting; they bring out one another’s characters that felt naturalistic and comfortable and vibrant. The adventure felt more adventurous, the thrills, more thrilling. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but to me at least, the end of the novel feels livelier and more satisfying for rewriting due to specifically considering issues of representation. If I hadn’t pushed myself to go further, do better, be more inclusive, I don’t think Vermilion would be as strong, as entertaining, and even—yes—as fun.
It Might Be Done, but It’ll Never Be Finished
Vermilion is now a real, actual book that people can hold in their hands, and choose or choose not to read. That’s an amazing feeling! But while I hope you read and enjoy Vermilion, the chance that I’ll sit down and read it cover to cover is slimmer than a shadow’s toot.
I find it impossible to read my writing without editing it. Heck, even after edits, copy edits, and page proofs, I really wanted to read Vermilion another time before returning the final version of the novel to my editor. Probably I would have refined it even further if I had. But I also knew I needed to be done.
There were several times during the drafting process that I knew I needed to be done, for whatever reason. It was difficult for me, acknowledging at those various points in the process that the book would never be perfect. But, in the end, the only reason it’s a real, actual book is because I forced myself to be done, even if I knew in my heart I’d never feel the novel was finished.
I’m a huge fan of directed research, but today I’d like to talk about curiosity.
A few years ago I had an opportunity to tour the death facilities at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The what, you may ask? In short, DMNS has an agreement with several wildlife organizations, and whenever a creature dies, they get the corpse to play with. I mean, preserve. They strip the meat using carnivorous beetles, bleach the bones, preserve the skins or furs or feathers. It’s really cool. Cool… and pungent.
I went on this tour because when I was just starting to draft Vermilion, and in Vermilion, my main character deals quite a bit with death. She’s a psychopomp, a soul-guide, who helps unquiet ghosts and vampires and other undead find eternal rest. I figured the tour would be good research.
Well… I learned a lot on that tour, but not a single fact was relevant to my novel.
But! Afterwards, we were at our leisure to tour the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. So, I did. And what I found there actually make it into the novel.
Talking bears were always part of my vision for the weird western landscape of Vermilion. When I toured the DMNS, I learned that sea lions are related to bears, evolutionarily speaking. Well, Vermilion starts in San Francisco… and just like that, talking sea lions seemed like a really neat addition to the landscape of Lou’s hometown. They run the ferries, compete with human fisherfolk, and snooze in piles on beaches and piers when they’re not working.
I really can’t say enough good things about directed research, but in this case, stepping back and taking a little extra time to be merely curious helped me create a richer setting for my novel.
Listen, But Also Don’t Listen
I wrote the first draft of Vermilion in 2010. Over the past five years I received a substantial amount of criticism and did quite a few revisions. I showed the first draft to a ton of people, and I listened to them all, even a beta reader who told me the novel would never be published in the form it was in. (To be fair, he was right!) Two agents gave me feedback. I had a huge notebook filled with ideas, suggestions, notes, rewrite ideas…
And at some point, I stopped listening, and just followed my own heart when it came to making Vermilion the book I wanted it to be. Only I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I had to trust I knew how to tell it. While the often extensive, and always thoughtful critiques people gave me were helpful in getting the novel to a certain place, I had to go alone into the final draft. At times, I had to go against the advice of people I respected to keep Vermilion the book I wanted it to be. And in the end, I’m glad I did.
Be Proud of What You Do (And Act Like It)
Talking about one’s own writing can be weird. There are times when it is more and less appropriate, and that can sometimes be difficult for an early-career writer to navigate. But, one of the times when it’s absolutely appropriate is when an editor asks you directly about what you’re working on. Then, go for it. Be excited, be proud. Speak confidently (and succinctly!), even if it feels completely terrifying.
I ended up seated next to Vermilion’s publisher, Ross Lockhart, at a big breakfast event at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival back in 2012. We were already friendly; he’d been excited to republish my necromancer picaresque “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins” in his The Book of Cthulhu. During the breakfast he asked the dreaded question… What I was working on?
After years of conditioning to never babble about one’s in-process novels, even though he’d done the asking I struggled to confess that yes, I had a novel, and yes, it was about some stuff. It turned out that Ross is a fan of the subgenre of Hong Kong films that first inspired Vermilion, and he got super excited about the project right then and there. Lesson: learned. If I hadn’t pushed myself to speak proudly about my novel to an editor whom I knew I liked to work with, well… it might not be coming out this week, and through a publisher who really “gets” what I’m doing.
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MOLLY TANZER is the Sydney J. Bounds and Wonderland Book Award-nominated author of A Pretty Mouth (Lazy Fascist, 2012), Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations (Egaeus, 2013), Vermilion (Word Horde), and The Pleasure Merchant, forthcoming from Lazy Fascist in the fall of 2015. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and a very bad cat. When not writing, she enjoys mixing cocktails, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, experimenting with Korean cooking, and (as of recently) training for triathlons.