Hello all you strange and dear people somewhere out there in the vast, sprawling web of intangible interconnectedness. It’s always tricky to write about a new book release, because I am rather allergic to self-promotion, and while I want readers out there to experience the book, it is hard for me to try and sell you anything. So instead of crafting a half-hearted sales pitch, I am going to try and just be authentic and talk a little bit about my process writing this little-big sci-fi novel that is so important to me. Maybe you’ll get something out of hearing a little about my journey and maybe you’ll relate to some of it.
I started out writing Binary Stars at some point in 2017 as a loose sequel to my first novel, The Rise of Saint Fox and The Independence. Back then the book was this huge, sprawling thing beginning with the vastest world-building I had ever attempted—not only did I have to develop two entirely new species from which my main characters would stem—I had to invent an entire planet!—complete with its flora, fauna, societies, religions, and economic structure. It was a much more ambitious undertaking than anything I had written so far—so much had to be unearthed directly from my imagination and from research rather than relying on the easy satire of the near-future, or fictionalized versions of places I had visited. I often doubted if I was up to the task—there was so much to keep track of. Still, I kept plodding away at it and crafted an unusual narrative of love and malfunction between Jensun—a translucent, bigender farmer with depressive tendencies stemming from his residual guilt from his previous lifetime as a charismatic and insidious cult leader (a.k.a. Janus Jeeves of Saint Fox and The Independence), and VV—a biosynthetic android with a sharp tongue and a penchant for installing illegal software updates into themselves that end up triggering an “accidental” electronic enlightenment. The back cover copy goes on to tell you that Jensun and VV work together at a high-tech agricultural facility called mTac, that Jensun is reluctantly placed under VV’s supervision, and oh, that a global frost is threatening to destroy the planet—because even if this story is really about reincarnation, the metaphysical reality of our true nature, and finding love where you least expect it—it is still Sci-Fi!
So, why did it take me until 2022 to release this book into the wild? Well, shortly after releasing Saint Fox, I got into grad school, and let me tell you, if you think your creative writing MFA is going to give you time to work on your novel, you may be surprisingly mistaken. I did workshop some of it, and got some incredible feedback from my peers, but the length of my thesis would not accommodate a full novel, the workshop format better accommodated short stories, and the program itself, while masquerading as one open to different types of work, was not terribly accommodating to speculative fiction work—although I did find some support among peers and faculty alike, and their responses to what they saw of this book were overwhelmingly positive. Not to mention I had a huge work load from both teaching and taking classes, and then graduated in 2020 into a pandemic, followed by a new job as a university professor and a move to a different city.
Now, even without the snafus, a book taking five years to get published is hardly unheard of. And I’m particularly proud of this one, as I not only wrote the book but curated the entire experience from start to finish. I had worked with a small press before on my previous release, but also have years of graphic design experience under my belt and really wanted to be involved in every step of the process—nothing makes me geek out like selecting fonts for the layout of a book or getting the hair’s breadth of white space around an em dash just right—I knew I could create a stunning book, this time for myself rather than others. With my spoon in every pot on the stove (apologies for the metaphor I was trying to avoid saying “with my fingers in every pie…”), I feel I can truly be proud of the end result—a sweet, sad, funny, and edgy story in a galaxy far, far away that I truly believe in and that shares my unique vision of the world more vividly, honestly, and chaotically than anything else I have put out into the world so far.
I’m here on my oft-neglected blog to share an article I’ve written in partnership with Shepherd Books on the 5 Best Speculative Fiction Books for Dismantling the Patriarchy. Shepherd pairs with authors to promote their work and found Saint Fox and The Independence through their network of recommendations. As you may know, I quite lack in the area of promoting my own work, but this opportunity came at the right time, and it was nice to champion some of my favorite spec and LGBTQ+ authors alongside Saint Fox.
Meanwhile, I continue to be challenged and rewarded within the world of teaching writing, though looking forward to having some more free time to focus on my own work soon. Hope everyone out there in the stratosphere is doing okay. Here where I am now in Northern California the sun is finally out. Hoping it’s a sign of new and better things on the horizon.
As I embark on a new teaching assignment, I’m grateful for any reminders that I’m also still a writer. The pandemic has taken its toll on many areas of our lives, and I for one have barely written lately as my story well appears to be dry and my energy is drawn outwards into the creation of educational materials for both my day job as a university instructor and a side project intersecting tea, writing, and witchcraft. That is to say, I feel far removed currently from my own work as a fiction writer, so it was nice to see this shout out from Tor.com in their list of short fiction recommendations for December 2020, where I was surprised to see my story “Separation Theory” from the most recent issue of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet included.
Thanks to Tor and to all the spec-fic loving weirdos hanging out there/in there somewhere in the ethersphere~
My first short story published under my multiracial, gendered legal name (Kristin Yuan Roybal, as opposed to my ambiguous pen name Corin Reyburn), is out now in Issue 42 of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, the speculative fiction magazine carefully and lovingly crafted by Gavin Grant and Kelly Link. This story happens to be the opening piece of my MFA thesis, and is a short and strange tale about star-crossed love, particles, remembering and forgetting, and bittersweetness. It is available through Small Beer Press as a print zine or ebook, and features fellow writers Sarah Langan, Vandana Singh, Stewart Moore, Jack Larsen, Holly Day, and Nicole Kimberling.
I’ve come a long way. Thanks for being there with me.
So, you’re a writer. And you’re serious about it. You’ve heard about this thing called an MFA. You’re doing research, trying to find out if it’s right for you. In doing your research you’ve stumbled upon this article by a recent MFA grad. This MFA thing, you ask, what’s it really about? What am I in for? Hopefully my rundown below can help clarify a few things.
Things to do and consider before applying for an MFA
Research the faculty. I cannot stress this enough. What books have they published? What styles are they partial to? What basic stats are represented?—gender, age, ethnic background, areas of study. How old is the program itself? Who founded it? These are the people who will make or break the experience for you. They are making every decision regarding your experience. Forget the rest of the marketing materials on the school’s website. Research the faculty.
Talk with alumni. They’re the ones who are going to be frank with you. If you’re wondering where to find them, scour the university’s website, also MFA Twitter is particularly active, and we’re writers, we love to talk! Sometimes in great detail. Many of us are happy to share our good and bad experiences with you.
Are you a person of color? LGBTQ? Seeking an MFA past your twenties? Research is all the more crucial. Not all MFAs are friendly spaces for underrepresented student populations, and it’s fairly easy to spot the ones that aren’t with a little digging. Some institutions will cull you into their program for diversity points, then fail to support you or your work. This is particularly problematic for Black students in this very white, male-dominated industry—please take a moment to peruse the #BlackintheIvory tag on Twitter. If you can, visit the campus, talk with current and past attendees, find out what their experiences were like. If possible, perhaps juxtapose “traditional” students’ experiences (Read: white, fresh out of undergrad) with those of non-traditional students—their stories will often be vastly different.
Do you write literary fiction or speculative fiction? Does it matter? At an MFA, hell yes. The literary industry sees these two things as binaries based on the commercial market—and MFA programs do, too. Traditional MFA programs are literary programs—that means realism—divorce, alcoholism, deep introspection into your relationships with your parents—warning: aliens, dragons, magic, etc. may confuse your faculty and peers. If you write primarily sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc., look specifically for any mention of speculative fiction or genre-bending on the program’s website, ask questions about genre when contacting faculty or alumni. I found it a bit odd that my MFA program primarily treated spec fic as if it were a different beast altogether, one they had never encountered—had they lived their whole literary careers without reading classics like Frankenstein, 1984, TheLord of the Rings for fuck’s sake? My spec work was accepted, even lauded at times, but not always understood in workshop by faculty or peers who were unfamiliar with genre nuances, and there was no one on the faculty who really specialized or had any experience with genre work—my bad in part for failing to do more thorough research. Some MFA programs cater specifically to spec fic writers and might be friendlier places—and no, it shouldn’t be binary—my work was often cross-genre, a hybrid between literary and speculative—again this false binary stems from the marketplace—but that’s the way it is.
Know that these programs are typically a little behind-the-times. For some institutions, that’s putting it mildly. Your professor may not have read anything new since their 1991 copy of The New Yorker. Tenured faculty sometimes do the work of staying up-to-date, sometimes they don’t. Some of their syllabi are outdated, some attempt to be diverse and current with different levels of success. Again, research the faculty, and/or reach out to them via phone or email. Try and gauge whether they will do the work to support your work, that is being written here, now—not 30 years ago.
Other key questions to ask
Are they funded? How much funding will you receive? Does fully funded really mean fully funded? Do some calculations and compare the estimated salary to the cost of living in the area. Remember to account for taxes. As a grad student, you will be paid poverty wages. I survived by having a second job. Personally, I do not think an MFA that isn’t funded is worth it, going into debt over an MFA was not an option I even considered, but it depends on your financial situation.
Do you get teaching experience out of the program? Do you want teaching experience? Besides the friends, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the two years of teaching experience my MFA gave me was the part of the program that was worth the most to me. If you don’t want to teach—don’t apply to a program that will make you teach, although some programs that fund you through teaching will also have alternate work assignments involving research and office work, but these can be in limited availability.
Low-Residency or Full-Residency? Are you older and financially stable enough to pay for your MFA?—Probably a low-residency. Are you fresh out of undergrad?—Probably a full-residency. That’s the tea. Somewhere in-between? Again, research and find out what might be the best fit for you. (Not sure what these terms are?)
Have you been accepted into an MFA program? Congratulations! Now you get to decide whether or not you actually want to go—it’s time for Phase II of your research. The high of the excitement of acceptance can often compel us to take whatever’s offered to us, but at least in a full-time program, this is going to fully encompass the next two or three years of your life—treat it with the utmost care and consideration.
Grad school is hard. You’ve heard it before. Do you like lots and lots of work? Do you want to be fully immersed in the world of the MFA? Between classes, teaching, and school-sponsored literary social events that were more or less mandatory, I personally found zero time for a life outside the MFA, though having one would have been a great asset to my mental health. Finding the time for self-care, even maintaining a proper eating and sleeping schedule became a failing uphill battle during grad school—the first year I got sick more times than I can count, and my stress levels were through the roof due to a combination of work and social pressure. Also, workshopping with the same group of people for two or three years can be amazing or it can be a nightmare depending on who’s in your cohort. I highly recommend taking courses at a local college first to at least get a taste of a more formal workshop space, as compared to writing groups which may be a bit more low-key. Imagine workshopping with the same group of people for years, reading and critiquing their work over and over and having them critique yours. Some in your workshop may be the best readers for your work you’ve ever encountered, but a few drama queens/kings can ruin a workshop space fast, and guess what? You’re stuck with them.
Do you need an MFA? Are you wondering where you might begin your search for the right program? See this post. My verdict—the world is changing rapidly, we all know that. The publishing industry is evolving, more indie and DIY opportunities are available. My personal experience, sample size of one at one institution—a traditional, full-residency MFA is not on the cusp of change, but rather a pillar of a decades-old institution which abides by very traditional writing standards and modes of operation while trying to understand and incorporate more progressive ideologies at a surface level, but again, just my personal experience at my MFA. It really depends on your goals—do you just want to write a book? I actually had zero time to work on either of my two novels-in-progress during my MFA—I turned in a collection of short stories for my thesis because my workshop more readily catered to short stories over novels, something I did not know going in. Do you want to workshop your writing with the same group of people for an extended period of time? Do you want to make friends in the literary industry? Do you want a Master’s degree so you can teach at the college level?—This was my primary motivation for attending an MFA, and in that regard, I got what I came for. What I also got were lifelong friends and some beautiful, cherished memories, along with a deeper understanding of the craft of writing and of the industry. What I got were some faculty members who understood and supported my work. What I got were some faculty members who did not understand and support my work. What I got was a rigid, underprepared administration who made things like interdisciplinary studies, understanding the logistical parts of the degree, and filing complaints difficult. I will not go into some of my more alarming experiences with my department here—that is for another article, saved for another day. Just know that I was alarmed—and that is a soft word choice—by the systemic issues within the university I attended.
All in all, would I do it again? The jury’s still out. I do know that two years ago, I wish I knew then what I know now, and hopefully, by passing some of that knowledge on to you—you can make a more informed decision when considering an MFA.
A series of five connected flash fiction pieces that have been sitting around since before I began my MFA. I’ve decided to publish them here.
The Art of Physics
Matter – Atoms – Molecules
Kenso stands on the bank of a sea where the water has no color, the sand beneath his feet the same. Clear as glass. Weightless as light.
He has stood on the bank of every sea on earth, and here is the only spot where all colors are absent. On the Southern tip of Africa the seas were a summer green. Off the coasts of the Mediterranean isles, a teal mirror. In the biting lands of the Arctic the waters were grey.
He has travelled many years to find this exact spot. He crouches down, cups his hands in the water, lifts. As always, the water comes out clear. Wherever the water is green, where it is blue, where it is red—it never matters, for whenever he touches it, the color disappears.
Here the water does not lie, does not pretend to be something it is not. Here not only is the water colorless, but the drape of the sky and the distant bodies pinned against it do not appear, do not hint at something he can see, but never reach. The expanse above where the sky might hang is not even black, it is not any other non-color—it is simply not there.
Kenso wonders if there is oxygen on the bank of this shore. The absence of sky must mean the absence of atmosphere. He does not feel the ebb and flow of his own breath, but he does not suffocate.
In this moment, he tries to remember the faces of ones once important to him. He sees the faces, can pull out distinct features—a plump lip, thick eyebrow, all painted in colors like the sea and sky. He lets the images float through his mind as though watching a passing sailboat.
The water in the sea changes shape. A sphere, a star, now a bird—a phoenix, symbol of fire and rebirth. The water phoenix spins in a circular motion, then dissolves back into the sea.
The sea is clear, his hands before his eyes are clear. Hands as formless as the water. His body is bright light. Light with no color.
The sea dances into a river, takes him along with it. Past many wavering shorelines, through thick forests, above the highest mountains. Color, color everywhere. Bright bright light and blackest dark. His lungs expand as he drinks it all in waves.
Before his eyes now, a colorless fire. He breathes.
And the fire catches the water.
Motion – Force – Gravity
He walks along the ceiling to sit in a chair that has been freshly stuffed. Faux leather upholstery, black and sticky. Sips a drink—amber liquid with two large ice cubes.