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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

“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.



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.



Short stories



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.


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.

Real and unreal names

Rambling thoughts, as I try to name a character.

Lots of fantasy and science fiction feature made-up names. Some of them look more made-up than others — but there are ways and ways of looking made-up, aren’t there? When The Tropic of Serpents came out, I recall reading a review where the person complained about having difficulty with the made-up fantasy names in that book . . . in a way that strongly suggested they had no trouble with Dagmira, Vystrana, Drustanev, or any of the other equally invented names from the first book. But of course those are all recognizably European in style, while names like Ankumata n Rumeme Gbori are meant to look African instead. I don’t recall anymore what Smithsonian article I was reading at the time, therefore can’t look up the place name I came across in it, but it was something from a Pacific Northwestern Native American language, and it looked like the kind of thing beginning fantasy writers get told to avoid at all costs: a mash of “unpronounceable” consonants and apostrophes. But it isn’t unpronounceable, of course; it only looks that way to your average Anglophone reader, who isn’t used to dealing with phonemes in that configuration. Result: a name of that sort often looks fake and made-up, even when it isn’t.

And then there’s the other direction — what I’ve mentally dubbed Babar names. CVCVC, consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant. There are a LOT of these in fantasy, because apparently when an Anglophone brain is fumbling for letters and trying to arrange them into a name, this is the pattern it’s most likely to default to? Or else strong influence from somebody in the genre, but I don’t know who; Tolkien was not very prone to Babar names at all. (Rohan, sure, but you can’t say it was a dominant pattern with him. He was too much of a linguist for that.) These can be perfectly real too, of course, in a variety of different languages. But they’ve started to look fake to me in fantasy novels simply because I’ve seen so many of them. There are so many other ways to put phonemes together! This character I’m trying to name, he was originally Khimos and now he’s Ilan and I’m not happy with either of those in part because they’re just one step away from a Babar name, CCVCVC and VCVC. There’s someone else in that story whose name comes from the same language and she’s Vranatzin Iskovri. That looks like a real name to me. It has internal logic, even if I’m the only one who knows what it is. And yeah, it’s more difficult to pronounce, but if I only stay within the zone of what’s familiar and easy to an Anglophone reader, I’m ignoring a whole swath of possibility. I just wrote a series where people have names like Iljish and Yeyuama and Heali’i and Nour and Thu Phim Lat. I intend to keep that kind of variety going.

I just need this guy to cooperate. You’re important to this story, dude; you need a name I’m going to be happy with, something that will look real to me. Aadet took forever and a day to accept a name, but even he had one by the time I got to him in the story. You? I’ve got a complete first draft and I still don’t like yours. C’mon. We can do better than this.

transitions, blech

There are certain kinds of transition scenes I detest writing. One of them is the “holy shit, the supernatural is real!” scene common to so much urban fantasy; it was a source of great pleasure to me that I could more or less skip that scene in Midnight Never Come, on the grounds that the reaction of a sixteenth-century gentleman would not so much be “there are faeries under London?” as “there are faeries under London?” (You’ll note that nearly every pov character for the remainder of the Onyx Court series already knew about the fae by the time they showed up in the story. This was not deliberate, in the sense of being a thing I consciously decided to do . . . but I wouldn’t call it an accident, either. The sole exception that leaps to mind is Jack Ellin, and I had more than enough going on in the story to divert him, and me, while that transition happened.) It’s boring to me because the audience already knows the supernatural is real (or at the very least has no reason to be surprised by this fact), and we’ve seen that conversation so many times, making it fresh is really difficult. Your main hope is to undermine it in some fashion, like the time on Buffy when they told Oz vampires and demons were real. “I know it’s a lot to take in –” “Actually, that explains a lot.”

I’m dealing with a similar kind of thing in the fifth Memoir right now. The scene isn’t about the supernatural being real; it’s a different kind of transition, one I don’t really have a name for. And of course I can’t get into specifics, but it’s one of those deals where something very complicated is going on, only the complication is of a type that doesn’t actually make for great narrative. After the initial drama of the moment is over, there’s a lot of explaining that needs to happen, and a lot of very tedious suspicion that can’t be laid to rest with the right words or a single decisive action. Inside the story, the whole thing is going to drag on for days — probably for weeks. Making the reader sit through all of that would be dire, starting with the fact that I would have to write all of that.

It’s at moments like these when I love the retrospective, consciously-framed first person viewpoint of this series. Because I can 100% get away with Isabella saying “what followed was very tedious and dragged on for weeks, because there was nothing I could do that would resolve it with a single decisive action. But X, Y, and Z got settled — not without a great deal of wrangling and suspicion, but settled all the same, and now let’s move on to the next interesting bit.” Any viewpoint can skip over things, but this one gives me greater latitude to summarize what I’m skipping, without making it seem like the elided material is simple to deal with in real life. Isabella can acknowledge all the complications without getting bogged down in them.

I had no idea, when I started writing this series, all the advantages that would come with framing the entire thing as a series of memoirs. It just seemed like a period- and subject-appropriate way to approach the whole thing. But my god . . . it’s probably the best craft decision I’ve made all series long.

The Onyx Court is coming to the UK!

I’m delighted to announce that Titan Books, publishers of the Memoirs of Lady Trent in the UK, will also be bringing the Onyx Court to its homeland!

Long-time readers may recall that the first two books of the series were published there by Orbit UK back in the day, but the mid-series publisher shift meant the latter two never saw UK shelves. Titan have picked up the entire series and, as you can see from the above, are reissuing them with splendid new covers — not to mention UK spelling and date formatting, like God and the Queen intended. 😉 My understanding is that they’ll be coming out in rapid succession, on a three-month cycle, so by early 2017 you’ll have the whole set. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to hold ’em in my hands!