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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

I return to the teaching fold!

Temporarily, at least. 🙂

I’m currently slated to do two teaching stints in 2020. The first is coming up soon: Pen, Paper, Action!, a one-day workshop at Clarion West in Seattle on February 8th. There I’ll be covering not just fight scenes in specific, but action more generally.

The second is later this year, during the Sirens Studio that takes place before the main conference. I’ll be teaching a writing intensive on creating religions for fantasy worlds — going beyond deciding who the gods are, and delving into how beliefs can be integrated into the daily lives of the characters. Sirens is a beautiful event focusing on women in fantasy; I haven’t been to the Studio before, but I was one of the Guests of Honor at the conference in its second year, and had an amazing time.

Registration for both of these things is limited, so if you’re interested, sign up soon!

A different short fiction resolution

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times here, in both 2018 and 2019 I set myself the goal of writing six short stories. I came up one short in 2018, and then in 2019 succeeded despite making a mess of that count with flash fiction and a novelette that wasn’t intended for the submission treadmill and etc. etc. etc.

I’ve decided to change my goal for 2020.

My reasons are threefold: First, I have quite a lot of novel work pending for this year, which is going to eat a fair bit of my time and energy. Second, I rather expect politics will send me into at least a few mental tailspins before we ring in 2021, and allowing some slack for that seems like a good idea. And third, the best way to head my overachiever tendencies off at the pass before they can tell me I Have to Write Even More Than Last Year is to deliberately aim lower.

So my goal for 2020 is actually just three stories — but three specific(-ish) stories. See, a few years back I sorted my short fiction into groupings based on subgenre, and discovered that basically every grouping was either in the range of 30-40K words, or could reach that easily if I got off my duff and wrote some of the ideas that had been hanging around unwritten for years. Three of those — Maps to Nowhere for secondary-world fantasy, Ars Historica for historical fantasy, and The Nine Lands for stories in that setting — are out now. A fourth, the urban fantasy collection, is on the road to publication later this year. (Monstrous Beauty and Never After are a different ballgame, being micro-collections rather than novella-sized.)

That leaves me with three within striking distance of completion: one for folksong retellings, one for stories inspired by other kinds of folklore and mythology, and (in a surprise speed-run) another secondary-world collection, because I’ve accumulated nearly enough since publishing Maps to Nowhere in 2017 to hit that topic again. All of these are still pending the sale of multiple stories — with the exception of Never After, which was a special case, I’m only collecting reprints — but more to the point, they also each need me to write one more story for them to be complete.

Ergo, that’s what I’m going to focus on this year. My goal is not merely to write three stories, but to write stories that fit the following parameters:

1) One story based on a folksong. I have a song in mind; I just need my subconscious to cough up some interesting answers to the questions the song leaves me with. Technically I only need this to be 620 words long to get myself across the self-imposed 30K bottom limit, but I’d like a full-length story, since there are already two flash pieces in here (and those are why, despite writing two new pieces, this collection still isn’t complete). Given the song in question, though, and what I feel like the story it produces might be, I don’t think that will be a problem.

2) One based on Near Eastern mythology. This technically isn’t necessary, since the collection’s currently at 33K. But the story I unexpectedly wrote before Christmas left me in a situation where the regional groupings within the collection have four stories each, with the exception of the Near Eastern one, which has only three. So dangit, I want one more. Not sure what, though — so hey, if there are any Near Eastern myths or bits of folklore you think are crying out for poking at in fiction, feel free to suggest them in the comments!

3) One secondary-world. This is wide open; it could be anything, as long as it’s at least 3700 words long. (Which usually isn’t a problem for anything that requires me to do worldbuilding.) I have an idea I originally thought might go here, but further thought made it apparent to me that it’s going to be at least a novelette and maybe a novella, so . . . probably not? Because my imagination is fun of playing annoying and self-inflicted games, my inclination is to not have the additional story be a repeat in any of the settings currently slated for the collection, even though I have multiple ideas in that direction. I might take a crack at the story that’s the sequel to “Love, Cayce,” but that presumes I can figure out a way to write it without the sequel-ness being an obvious barrier to entry. But on my way to bed last night I realized I could take the opening incident of a potential future novel that currently has nothing but an opening incident and turn that into a stand-alone story — what I think of as a “proof of concept” story, poking at a setting and a character in short form before attempting a novel — so despite being a brand-new concept, right now that’s leading the pack.

Those are my goal. Let’s see if I can make ’em happen.

If You Ain’t Got That Zing

There are a lot of TV shows I try and just sort of drift away from, because they aren’t doing enough to hold my attention. The latest in this series is Black Lightning, which surprised me, because there are a number of things I like about its characters and its story. But in the end, its dialogue doesn’t have much of a particular element for which I can find no better term than “zing.”

Thanks, brain. “Zing.” That’s a real helpful way of describing it. >_<

Zing is not the same thing as witty banter — though many shows have mistaken the one for the other, and fill their scripts with dialogue that’s absolutely leaden in its attempt to be light. You can have zing in a deadly serious conversation (as Game of Thrones has proved). It’s a cousin, I think, of Mark Twain’s comment about the difference between the right word and the almost-right word being the difference between lightning and a lightning bug: it’s the lightning lines, the ones that leap off the page or the screen, the ones that don’t just get you from Narrative Point A to Narrative Point B but make the journey between them memorable. You see it in The Lion in Winter, which along with Twelve Angry Men made me wonder if this is a quality especially possessed by older stage plays — I haven’t seen enough older stage plays to be sure. At its apex, it’s the feeling that no line has been wasted or allowed to do the bare minimum of work. Think of The Princess Bride, and how many lines from that movie are quotable. It isn’t just because the lines themselves are good; it’s because there’s almost no flab in the script, every word simultaneously developing character and furthering the plot while also being entertaining.

Zing gets my attention, in a TV show or a movie or a book. Without it, my attention wanders a bit; I scrape a general sense of the story out of the mass of words used to tell it, but don’t engage on a moment-to-moment level. With it, I lose track of the world around me because I don’t want to miss anything in the tale. Zing makes me decide, before I’m two scenes into the first episode of a show, that I’ll give the second one a shot. Zing is what makes me plow through thousands of pages of Neal Stephenson making an utter hash of his plot, because he can describe a room in above a tavern on the seventeenth-century London Bridge in such riveting terms that I wind up reading it out loud twice, once to my husband and once to my sister.

I think this is what some people, when teaching the craft of writing, describe as “voice.” I’ve been known to rant about how I find that term completely unhelpful . . . but, well, here I am talking about “zing,” because my alternative is to wave my hands around in the air and make inarticulate noises. That thing. Over there. Do you see?

These days I’m reaching for it more in my own work, especially in one of the things I’m noodling around with right now. A character is hiding in a palace full of baroque decorations and complaining about the discomfort. There’s something jabbing into my back. No. There’s a carving jabbing into my back. No. There’s a gilded carving grinding into my kidney. Better. There’s a gilded figure of the South Wind imprinting itself on my left kidney. Better still.

Doing that for every sentence is exhausting. I have no idea how Stephenson keeps it up, especially while writing books that could double as foundation stones. But I suspect that, like many things in writing, after you’ve pushed at it for a while some parts of it just settle in as habit. I hope so, anyway, because I’m going to keep trying.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

When writers talk about questions they get asked too often, “Where do you get your ideas?” is often high on the list.

Which is odd to me, because I’ve rarely been asked that.

“Where did you get the idea for this book?,” sure. Got that one a lot with A Natural History of Dragons and the Memoirs of Lady Trent in general. But as a broad inquiry into my work as a writer, no. Still, it seems that other people do get asked about it frequently, so lately I’ve been pondering it, that I might be prepared when the question comes my way.

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Concentration

I’ve lost my ability to concentrate.

I think a lot of us have. We live with countless electronic devices that are constantly demanding our attention, beeping alerts and notifications and even without that there’s a little niggling part of our minds that wonders if we have any new email or anybody has posted something to that forum or surely we ought to take a look at Twitter, don’t pay attention to that thing, pay attention to me. But only in bite-size doses, because there are a hundred other things you could be checking and probably should.

Even without that, we’ve got a society that encourages multi-tasking — despite the mounting pile of evidence that it isn’t good. Multi-tasking does not, contrary to what we’ve been told, make us more productive. It makes us less so, because we’re devoting less of our attention to each thing, and we pay a cognitive cost every time we switch our focus. And part of that cognitive cost is that not switching gets harder, even as it drains us.

(True fact: just now, my phone rang a soft little alert. It’s taking effort not to look and see what that was for.)

I can tell this is taking a toll on me because I can feel it in my work. Writing is not, in its ideal conditions, something you do for five minutes here and ten minutes there. It benefits from sustained attention, from getting myself into the state psychologists refer to as “flow,” where I stop thinking about the world around me and instead sink into the zone for an extended period of time. I can’t get there if I’m tabbing over to look at my email every time I pause to consider my next sentence, if I’m keeping a portion of my mind attached to the discussion I’m having on a forum or whatever and breaking away to update that. It’s an exaggeration to say I’ve lost my ability to concentrate . . . but I know it has declined, and substantially so.

That’s why I’m taking steps to fix it.

My steps are twofold, at least so far. The first is to get back to meditating: I got into the habit of doing that for a while in 2015 (true fact again: I made myself just drop some square brackets there and check the year after I finished typing this post, because I needed to check my email to find out which year it was, and that threatened to distract me from this), but I fell out of it after a while, and now I’m working to make it regular practice again. Meditation, mindfulness, learning to let go of all the little dancing monkey thoughts that want my attention NOW NOW NOW — that helps.

The other, weirdly, is to watch TV.

TV as a tool of concentration? Yes — when you put it in the context of what I was doing before. See, I’ve gotten into the bad habit of only really listening to TV, while I play solitaire or sudoku or something on my tablet. The result is that I only give the show maybe half my attention.

But when I started watching the Chinese drama Nirvana in Fire, the combination of subtitles + intricate politics meant I couldn’t get away with that. If I tried to focus on something else at the same time, glancing up to catch the subtitles as they skittered past, I wound up not even knowing who half the people were and what was going on. The only way to understand that show, let alone appreciate it, was to put things down and devote my full attention to the screen.

Subtitled shows are great for this, but I’m managing to extend that habit to English-language TV, as well. And you know what?

I’m enjoying it more.

And it’s getting easier to leave the tablet closed.

What other tricks do you all have for encouraging yourself to pay attention to one thing at a time? What helps you keep your ability to concentrate? I know some people shut down their internet connection entirely while writing, and there are lots of programs out there which exist to block other programs so you can work, but I’m also interested in the non-technological tricks — the things that are just about structuring your life in ways that help you focus.

my publications in 2017

A fairly busy year for me, all things considered. And a reminder that I need to go through my bibliography page and clean up all the things that still say “forthcoming” when they’re already out.

Novels

Novellas

Short stories

Collections

Nonfiction

Gaming fiction

The world’s most scattershot progress

I haven’t said much here about my work on the current novel — the one that’s a followup to the Memoirs — in part because it is so unlike the process of writing any other novel so far, I’m too busy figuring out what I’m doing to spare much attention for reporting in.

But hey, it’s useful to talk about what happens when you write a Totally Different Kind of Book. So here goes.

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Announcing . . . WHAT’S NEXT

Those of you who were at Borderlands on Saturday already heard this; now I reveal it to the rest of the world.

Many people have pleaded for the Memoirs of Lady Trent to continue. I have always responded by saying the series was planned to be five books from the start, that I had a set arc in mind that I wanted to tell, and that having brought that to a close, I am done.

That’s still true.

. . . but it doesn’t preclude other stories in that world.

I don’t have a good working title for this yet, but my next novel will be the story of Isabella’s granddaughter, rapacious private art collectors, black market antiquities smugglers, and the translation of a lost epic from the Draconean civilization. The book will be structured like a mosaic novel, interspersing segments of the epic with the lives of the people translating it, as recorded in diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, and more. So it will once again have the intellectual rigor of Lady Trent’s memoirs (this time aimed in a predominantly linguistic direction), the pulpy adventure of its time period (the antiquities market is a lot more colorful than you might think), and the meta-textual setup that lets the heroine’s voice come through so clearly. Plus, the epic will let me put on my folklorist hat with full panoply of ribbons and bells and run cackling down the streets make good use of my folklore background: my research right now consists of reading or re-reading the Mahabharata, Epic of Gilgamesh, Popol Vuh, and more.

This idea is literally less than two months old. At the Tucson Festival of Books in early March, someone asked me a question about other books set in the world of the Memoirs, and inspiration mugged me out of nowhere. Over the next couple of days it morphed around a bit until it arrived in this form, at which point I pitched it to my editor, saying, “I really think this is what I ought to be doing next.” She agreed, so here we are: setting a personal record for shortest time elapsed from “huh, there’s an idea” to “okay, let’s do this!”

So now you know. And now I need to go read the world’s collection of epics to gather material. 😀

Two kinds of research

I’m starting to think there are two kinds of research — or rather, a spectrum with two ends. Quite possibly it’s a more multi-directional spectrum than that, but there are two ends that seem particularly applicable to my life.

The first kind is reading for facts. This is the type of research I did all the time for the Onyx Court books: I’m writing about a specific thing, and so I need to know stuff about it. What route did Elizabeth I’s coronation procession take? Where were the imprisoned members of Parliament held after Pride’s Purge? When did somebody calculate the moment of perihelion for Halley’s Comet in 1759? What actions were taken by Fenian terrorists in the later Victorian period? This extends to more general questions; a lot of my reading was to fill in broad topics along the lines of “what was life like in this period,” not because there was a specific detail I knew I needed, but because I needed a large mass of specific details to draw from in shaping my plot and laying out my scenes. And often one of those elements would suggest a new dimension to the story, so then I’m off down a new fact-reading rabbit hole; rinse and repeat until my deadline starts breathing down my neck and I have to quit adding to the pile.

The other kind of research is one I used to do all the time — but I didn’t really think of it as “research” back then. It was just, y’know, my life. I took an odd assortment of classes and read an odd assortment of books, and they all poured material into my head, and out of that came stories. This is reading for fodder, and I’m finally back to doing it, because I have several projects in the hopper that are all secondary-world, as opposed to urban fantasy (the Wilders series) or historical fantasy (Onyx Court) or what I think of as world-and-a-half (Memoirs of Lady Trent, halfway between historical and invented). It isn’t that I won’t wind up using specific details out of what I read; the difference is that in the end, I’m not actually writing about those things. Lately I’ve been reading a book on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, Everyday Things in Premodern Japan, the Mahabharata, a book on the Sumerians, a bunch of Wikipedia articles on ancient Greek philosophy and society because I finished Jo Walton’s The Just City. Am I planning on writing anything set in Georgian England, Tokugawa Japan, ancient India, ancient Sumer, or ancient Greece? Not necessarily. But it’s all going into the mental compost heap, to intermix and break down and become fertile soil for ideas.

Some subconscious part of myself feels like I’m skiving off of work reading these things, because it’s been trained by nine books of historical or quasi-historical fiction to think the only real research is the kind done for facts. I need to do this, though, or else the worlds I invent will stay firmly in the box of “modified analogues,” places that can easily be mapped to single real-world origins. I need to throw a bunch of different things into my head at once, so that I come up with a society where there’s a deified emperor (a bit Roman, a bit Egyptian) and a caste system (a bit Indian) with a meritocratic way of changing your caste (a bit Chinese) and a clockpunky tech level (a bit Italian Renaissance) and so forth, without it being straightforwardly any of those things. If they wind up having an architecture a little bit like Tokugawa Japan or a schooling system like ancient Sumer, it will be because that happened to click into place, not because I had to use one of those societies for inspiration.

As I said at the beginning, these aren’t clearly divided types. “What was life like in this period” is closer to being a fodder-type question than “how rapidly did the plague take hold in 1665,” because it’s designed to help me come up with ideas for that specific period. And you’ll see the Mayan calendrical system with a minor fictional paint job showing up in Lightning in the Blood because years ago I read about it for fun and wound up incorporating it into a story more or less wholesale, complete with fiddly little details about Year-Bearers. But it helps me to remember that fodder-type reading is a form of research, and one that’s very necessary for my job.

my work in 2016

Man, 2016. It’s been such a . . . thing . . . that when I sat down to write this post, I thought, “should I bother? I mean, I didn’t have much out in 2016.”

Uh. This was actually one of my busier years, in terms of publications. But the first half of this year might as well be the Neolithic, it feels so long ago. Thank god I have a website to remind me what I’ve done! Courtesy of my own bibliography page, I give you the list of the things I published that came out this calendar year:

So that’s two novels, a novella, and three short stories, not counting the three backlist ebooks I put out (Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, and the omnibus In London’s Shadow). All in all, I’d call that a pretty good pile.