Guest Post: D. B. Jackson on Top Ten Things I Do To Help Me Write

I would like to welcome the fabulous D.B. Jackson (in 2012 he wrote a fine guest post on “the history that isn’t taught”). Today he tackles a rather different topic about tricks of the writing trade.

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Top Ten Things I Do To Help Me Write

by D. B. Jackson

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Let me start by saying that I love my job. I get to make up stories for a living. That’s an actual job; I get paid for doing that. It still blows my mind whenever I think of it. I would never dream of complaining about my job in any way.

Except to say that sometimes being a writer kind of sucks. Not a lot, mind you. I mean, I did just say that I love my job, and I even meant it. But there are a few things about it that I love less than others. And there are a VERY few things — one or three or seven — that I love less than I do, say, going to the dentist, or paying parking fines. Writing can be lonely (except for all the voices in my head, which never seem to pipe down). We writers work in isolation most of the time, and that can be difficult; it can also make us a little funny. Not in a ha-ha way, but more in a when-you-see-us-coming-you-really-ought-to-cross-the-street-and-avoid-making-eye-contact way.

The writing profession is not lucrative, at least not for most of us. Sure, there are a relative handful writers who make A LOT of money, and most of us (I’m really not supposed to say this, but you won’t tell, right?) hate those guys. A lot. And while the business end of writing doesn’t make us much money, it does come with more than its share of annoyances. Someday, when you’re at a bar with a writer (we spend a good deal of time in bars) buy him or her a drink and then ask about things like “reserves against returns,” “basket accounting,” and the way publicity dollars are distributed among authors in your typical publishing house. Actually, you might want to buy the author two drinks.

For these, and a variety of other reasons that none of us really understands, writers are pretty idiosyncratic. Or put another way, we’re all just a little weird. And every writer has his or her own habits and rituals that help us get through the work day.

Joking aside, we all do little things that allow us to be more productive, to stay healthy and sane, and to ensure that writing continues to be something we love.  And so, here is my list of “Top Ten Things I Do To Help Me Write.” Enjoy.

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1. I keep stuff on my desk — creative talismans of a sort — that help me maintain my focus. The most important item is a small ceramic sculpture of a Storyteller, the legendary figure of the Southwestern Pueblo cultures. I bought it in Acoma, New Mexico, in 1994 from a young girl whose mother was selling pot and bowls. At the time, my career was just starting and I didn’t know if I would make it as a professional writer. This Storyteller has been with me ever since. I can’t look at it without smiling and feeling fortunate to be a author.

2. Every book I have ever written has a bird of prey in it. Why? Well, I’m an avid birdwatcher and I love hawks and owls. And birds of prey figure prominently in my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle (written as David B. Coe). It is another way of reminding myself that I’m here; I made it to where I want to be, and I should never, ever take for granted whatever success I’ve enjoyed. So, for whatever reason, I always put a raptor or owl in my books. Look for them — you’ll find them.

3. Lots of authors listen to music when they write. Lots don’t. I do, but only certain kinds — either bluegrass or jazz. Always instrumental. I find that the improvisational quality of the music actually feeds my creativity.

4. Every weekday, before I sit down to work, I spend an hour at the gym working out. For most of my day I am pretty sedentary. That workout in the morning makes me feel better, helps me look better, and keeps me sane. For the same reason, I only allow myself a single snack in the late afternoon. No snacking before lunch, and no snacking after lunch before 3:00 pm. I do keep myself hydrated all day, but I don’t use food as a form of procrastination. If I’m not healthy, I can’t be productive.

5. I set concrete, achievable goals for every day I write, and I make myself meet them. I write fairly quickly — not as quickly as some, but at a good enough pace that I can generally write a book of 100,000 words in about three months. I didn’t always write that quickly — when I began, I wrote about 1000 words (or 4 double-spaced pages) per day. My pace today is about 2500 words per day (10 pages). But the actual number of words is not what’s important. The key is finding a pace that works for you, that allows you to get your work done at a good clip, but that doesn’t set you up for failure each day by demanding too much.

6. Another of my desktop talismans is a horoscope that was published while I was writing my first book. Essentially the horoscope said that I should pursue my passion and dreams, and that I should ignore those who don’t think I can be successful. That’s pretty good advice, and having that horoscope on my desk ensures that I don’t forget it.

7. I write full time. I’m very lucky that way — it’s my only job. And I treat it like a job. I work Monday through Friday — I do relatively little work on weekends. And I also work regular hours — I usually knock off from work in the late afternoon (unless I haven’t met my word count goal for the day). My point is that I reserve time for myself, for my kids, for my wife. If I didn’t, I would have burned out long ago.

8. I keep moving forward. Sometimes I will be working on a scene and I’ll realize that there are things that need fixing in earlier chapters. But I do not go back and fix them then; instead I make a note in an “Edits” file and I keep moving forward. For me, momentum is crucial. As soon as I stop to revise, I lose my rhythm and energy and my work in progress begins to languish. Make notes and keep moving forward. That’s what works for me.

9. I always — ALWAYS — write with a dictionary and a thesaurus by my side. It’s not that I use a thesaurus incessantly to come up with new, novel, innovative, fresh words. (See what I did there?) But sometimes I’m stuck for a word. Sometimes I want to know the precise meaning of the word I intend to use. Sometimes I need to know when the word I’m considering entered the language. Between the dictionary and the thesaurus I can usually find the information I need.

10. Sometimes I don’t write. Sometimes I take a few hours off to hike or birdwatch or take my camera out and shoot some pictures. Sometimes I take my guitar out and play some music. I can’t write well if I’m not fresh, and I can’t stay fresh if I don’t do things that I love to do.

So there’s my list. Do you have one, too? What does yours look like?

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D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, will be released in hardcover on July 8. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

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Writing Through

I posted this as a sequence of Tweets and wanted to log it here as well.

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Finally printed out my 4 single spaced pages of note from 2 hour phone call with my editor. I added these notes to the 20 page edit notes she subsequently emailed me (but which she had already written before she made the phone call).

This is the glamorous writing life, people. An editor who makes you dig and dig and dig is a treasure.

I wrote the bulk of BLACK WOLVES (my new epic fantasy) after my father died last fall because I had to do something. The 1st draft is a mess. In fact, I spent much of the time writing it wondering if I should just dump the whole idea, or dump writing in general. But I couldn’t stop. Stopping would have been like dying. Or like facing grief.

I forced myself through to a 200,000 word first draft because I had to, whether I kept the story or not. Because I knew I couldn’t trust the negativity in my head. I had to get it out regardless of the end result.

When I finally sent it to my editor I didn’t know if she would say, “Um, can we start over?” OR “Okay, let’s dig in.”

She said, “DIG IN.”

Sometimes being told you have work to do is the best gift someone can give you. Because it means the work is worth doing.

Jaran: When “what if” deals with gender and culture

Recent discussions in the SFF community reminded me of this post. It is adapted from the introduction I wrote to the 2002 10th anniversary edition of JARAN, published by DAW Books. It was previously posted on Live Journal in July 2011, before this WordPress blog existed. I’ve made a few minor changes.

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Science fiction is often defined as a “literature of ideas,” and many famous SF stories can be identified by the idea, or nifty concept, or “what if” speculation that lies at their heart. Is my sf novel JARAN just a rousing adventure story with a romantic element, or is there some kind of science fictional speculation involved?

Glad you asked. Because I’ve discovered that people usually don’t ask. Too often they seem to just assume there isn’t because nothing in the book (if they’ve even read the book) fits the received and accepted definition of a sfnal “idea.”

What if, in a low-tech, chieftain-level pastoral society in which labor remains divided along a (fairly traditional by Western standards) gender line, women had real authority?

Not lip service authority. Not a lot of talk about women being the repository of honor in the home, or the teachers of the next generation, or the keeper of the house in a way that specifically limits them to the house, or the biologically equipped nurturing machines whose scriptural mandate is to be mother and helpmeet, but real authority: “The right and power to command, enforce laws, exact obedience, determine, or judge.” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1976)

As authority, that is, held over all members of society and not just over children and social inferiors. And not just some women, those who by birth or accident or exceptionalism have managed to wrest authority for themselves out of a patriarchal society by being “as good as a man,” but all women.

What would such a society look like? How might it function to grant equal dignity to women and men and yet at the same time fit realistically into a broader world and with an understanding of human nature and the needs of survival in a low-tech world with a high mortality rate?

Over the course of envisioning and revising the book, I had to ask myself a lot of questions. Am I reinforcing notions of biological determinism by splitting labor along traditional gender lines as the average USA reader knows and expects them to be observed even today but particularly in our view of the past? Yet if I can only write women as “free and powerful” by freeing them from their “traditional” roles, am I not then implicitly agreeing with unchallenged cultural assumptions that devalue women’s labor and women’s experience? How can I mediate between these two extremes?

I don’t have an answer to these questions, although I can say that over time I’ve learned how fluid division of labor by gender is from society to society (as well as how fluid conceptualization of gender itself may be and how easy it is to fall into a binary definition of gender).

In terms of division of labor, for instance, in the jaran I made men the ones who embroider, but of course embroidery is not a universal female occupation; most USAians just tend to think it is.

In any case, in JARAN and the other volumes in the sequence I explore what respect and authority mean and how they might interact through and between genders and, by doing so, shape how the culture of the jaran tribes developed in the past and continues to develop when a disruptive new force begins to alter the social fabric of the tribes.

Yet I didn’t want to create a “matriarchy” in which women rule and men submit–an inverted patriarchy. I wanted to explore the idea of a culture in which all adult roles are truly respected. So I started with an assumption: For women to maintain authority, institutions within the culture have to support that authority.

I made the tribes matrilineal, and in addition borrowed from certain Native American traditions in which the right to hold certain offices and to inherit property follow down the female line.

I also made the jaran matrilocal: Under most circumstances, a new husband goes to live with his wife’s tribe. The locus of power within any given tribe centers on extended families of sisters. A woman’s relationship to her brother is considered to be the most stable female-male relationship, based on a shared mother and upbringing, and within extended families, cousins related through sisters or a sister and brother are considered like siblings (however, this is not true for cousins related through brothers).

In addition, women have possession of the tents and wagons, and they manage and distribute food and labor available to the tribe. As with the Haudenosaunee, jaran etsanas (headwomen) have the power to install or depose male tribal war leaders.

These familial, economic, and political relationships give women a network of support as well as a respect and autonomy that reinforces their authority.

Another aspect I played with was the cultural norms of sexual behavior. The hoary old cliché of male sexual aggression contrasted with female sexual passivity is still with us in American society in a multitude of forms. I chose to make jaran women the sexual initiators: They choose lovers at will when unmarried, and are free to continue to (discreetly) take lovers once they are married. However I gave men the choice in marriage. Although in practice almost all men (at the instigation of or with the assistance of their mothers and sisters) would negotiate with the other family first, it would be possible for a man to marry a woman whom he wanted but who did not want him. This contrasting pattern assured that neither sex had complete power over the other. Even in a strongly patriarchal society that is highly restrictive toward women, women will seek avenues of balance and redress when they can, including underhanded ones. History is full of such examples. I wanted to place mine right out on the table.

I catapult my protagonist into this culture without preparing her for it. Since she comes from a future Earth where the dregs of our patriarchal past still hold some sway over her way of thinking, she often has the opportunity to misinterpret what freedom and authority mean among the jaran.

When I look back at the book now, over two decades later, I can see ways in which my own thinking has changed, things I might have written differently but which reflect the era and attitudes with which I grew up and the ways in which my thinking has changed since then.

Ultimately, looking back, I wish that discussing my speculative ideas behind the jaran society weren’t still timely. To quote sff writer N. K. Jemisin in her excellent post on “The Limitations of Womanhood in Fantasy,” “Here’s the problem with this wholesale rejection of both societally-imposed and self-chosen “typical” women’s behaviors — in the end, it amounts to a rejection of nearly all things feminine. And that’s definitely not good for women.”

That’s the idea I was trying to explore, back then. We’re still struggling with it now.

Writing Update w/ News

As many of you know, the Spiritwalker Trilogy is complete, together with two coda stories: The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal (with the most awesome illustrations by Hugo-nominated artist Julie Dillon) and The Courtship (told from the point of view of Andevai). I have a few more Spiritwalker short stories in progress, including one that involves . . . babies (for those of you that like that kind of thing). Again, thanks to all of you who have so enthusiastically read Cat’s story (and to those who read it and were more lukewarm; honestly, I appreciate people reading my books however it goes.)

For my two latest projects I have been working on a YA fantasy (which will be published as a YA and not in the adult sff field) and a new epic fantasy (first of a series).

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COURT OF FIVES is now the more official title of the YA fantasy formerly known as MASK (not yet fully confirmed but I think this is going to be it). It is fully revised and in production for a Summer 2015 publication date (the wheels of production grind slowly in YA publishing; they like lots of lead time to promote their titles).

This is the “Little Women meet the Count of Monte Cristo in a fantasy world loosely inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt” story that I’ve mentioned before. I wanted to write an epic fantasy that centered around girls, and telling it through the story of four sisters struck me as absolutely the way to go. In my dry, laconic way I am TOTALLY EXCITED about this book. It is definitely the fastest paced and most streamlined thing I have ever written, without losing the details and (I hope) complexity that I love.

(A younger) Hideo Muraoka would be pretty close to my head canon for the love interest:

 

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Meanwhile, I have turned in a draft of THE BLACK WOLVES to Orbit Books. This is the first volume of an epic fantasy series and, again, I wanted to center a story around women (3 of the 5 point of view characters are women and their points of view get about 75% of the page time in this volume). Having said that, I should note that I believe all the characters are great and (I hope) varied.

Here is the current description:

SOME CHOICES CAN NEVER BE UNDONE.
He lost his honor long ago.
Captain Kellas was lauded as the king’s most faithful servant until the day he failed in his duty. Dismissed from service, his elite regiment disbanded, he left the royal palace and took up another life.
Now a battle brews within the palace that threatens to reveal deadly secrets and spill over into open war. The king needs a loyal soldier to protect him.
Can a disgraced man ever be trusted?

I know, I know, it seems like it’s all about a dude, but trust me on this. Not that I have anything against dudes! I am sure that 50% of the characters in this book are men and I love each and every one of them. Especially Captain Kellas.

THE BLACK WOLVES is also currently scheduled for 2015.

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Finally, I have a forthcoming collection of short fiction (and four essays) coming out with Tachyon Publications, to be titled THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT. (Truth in advertising: it is actually “all the short fiction Kate Elliott has written in her career so far except for a couple of Spiritwalker-related stories and with the addition of two new novelettes to sweeten the deal”).

Much more on that later.

In Defense of Unlikable Women: Guest Post by Kameron Hurley

I am excited to welcome writer Kameron Hurley with this excellent guest post.

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IN DEFENSE OF UNLIKABLE WOMEN a post by Kameron Hurley

 

A fall-down drunk who’s terrible with relationships and makes some selfish, questionable choices, goes in search of love, and fails at it.”

This is actually the general plot to two films – the well-received, critically applauded film Sideways and the much maligned, controversial film Young Adult.

One follows a drunken, frumpy loser who steals money from his mother to enable his soon-to-be-married best friend to cheat on his soon-to-be-spouse; the other follows a drunk, frumpy loser who drives to small-town Minnesota to try and hook up with her happily married ex. Both films created stark, harrowing portraits of their protagonists’ pathology and inability to connect to others. Both protagonists are even writers! The biggest difference in the reception of these films, I’d argue, is that one featured a male protagonist – and thus was critically celebrated. The other told the story of a deeply flawed woman, and become instantly “controversial” because of its “thoroughly unlikable” heroine.

I see this double standard pop up all the time in novels, too. We forgive our heroes even when they’re drunken, aimless brutes or flawed noir figures who smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship. In truth, we both sympathize with and celebrate these heroes; Conan is loved for his raw emotions, his gut instincts, his tendency to solve problems through sheer force of will. But what we love about many male heroes – their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim –become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded “unlikeable character.”

Author Claire Messud takes this issue head on in an interview when her interviewer say her female protagonist is unbearably grim, someone the interviewer wouldn’t be friends with. Messud responds:

“For heavens’ sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”

 

Male writers, and their male protagonists, are expected to be flawed and complex, but reader expectations for women writers and their characters tend to be far more rigid. Women may stray, but only so far. If they go on deep, alcoholic benders, they best repent and sober up at the end. If they abandon their spouses and children, they best end tragically, or make good. Women must, above all, show kindness. Women may be strong – but they must also, importantly, be vulnerable. If they are not, readers are more likely to push back and label her unlikeable.

I actually wrote a recent guest post where I noted that in grad school, I sometimes drank two bottles of wine in a sitting and smoked cigarettes. A couple of commenters on another forum said I must be an irresponsible alcoholic. I couldn’t help but wonder what their reaction would be on hearing a 23-year-old male college student occasionally drank two bottles of wine in a sitting.

Boys will be boys, right? But women are alcoholics.

And so it goes.

But why is this? Why do we read the same behaviors so differently based on the presented sex of the person engaging in them?

I’d argue it’s because women have been so often cast as mothers, potential mothers, caretakers, and servants, assistants, and handmaidens of all sorts that’s it’s become a – conscious but also unconscious – expectation that anyone who isn’t – at least some of the time – must be inherently unnatural. And when we find a woman who doesn’t fit this mold, we work hard to sweep her back into her box, because if she gets out, well… it might mean she has the ability to take on a multitude of roles.

Let’s be real: if women were “naturally” anything, societies wouldn’t spend so much time trying to police every aspect of their lives.

I like writing about complex people. I like writing about women. Hence, the women and men I write are flawed and complex. They have their own messed up motivations. They don’t always do the right thing. There’s not generally a rousing ending where everyone realizes they were a jerk and has a big hug. Life is messier than that, and so are women. We’re not any better or worse than anyone else. I’m flawed. I often make poor choices. I’m very often selfish.

So are many of the people I put on the page. And to be dead honest, I like them a whole lot better that way. Roxane Gay gives several examples of successfully unlikable heroines in fiction in her article “Not Here to Make Friends.” (which I strongly recommend you read). As Gay writes:

“…(this is) what is so rarely said about unlikable women in fiction — that they aren’t pretending, that they won’t or can’t pretend to be someone they are not. They have neither the energy for it, nor the desire….Unlikable women refuse to give in to that temptation. They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading.”

There is something hypnotic in unlikable male characters that we don’t allow women, and it’s this: we allow men to be confident, even arrogant, self-absorbed, narcissistic. But in our everyday lives, we do not hold up such women as leaders and role models. We call them out as selfish harridans. They are wicked stepmothers. Seeing these same women bashing their way through the pages of our fiction elicits the same reaction. Women should be nurturing. Their presence should be redeeming. Women should know better.

Female heroes must act the part of the dutiful Wendy, while male heroes get to be Peter Pan.

Pointing out this narrative, of course, isn’t going to fix it. But I do hope that it makes people more aware of it. When you find yourself reading about a gunslinging, whiskey-drinking, Mad Max apocalypse hero who you’d love if it was a guy but find profoundly uncomfortable to read about when you learn it’s a woman, take a step back, and ask why that is. Is it because this is truly a person you can’t empathize with, or because somebody told you she was supposed to be back home playing mom to the Lost Boys, not stabbing her land lord, stealing a motorcycle, and saving the world?

Stories teach us empathy, and by limiting the expression of humanity in our heroes entirely based on sex or gender does us all a disservice. It places restrictions on what we consider human, which dehumanizes the people we see who do not express traits that fit our narrow definition of what’s acceptable.

Like it or not, failure of empathy in the face of unlikable women in fiction can often lead to a failure to empathize with women who don’t follow all the rules in real life, too.

Stories matter. Fictions matter. It all bleeds out.

Be careful what you cut.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR Kameron Hurley is the award-winning author of the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as LightspeedEscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.    Visit kameronhurley.com for upcoming projects.

2014: In Which My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Stomach

2013: Not a good year.

The new year is a hopeful time for me even though the calender’s change is to a great degree arbitrary. The difference between December 31 and January 1 in terms of the time of sunrise and sunset is small but in my mind I can create a transitional zone that helps me make sense of moving forward.

I always have too many goals at the beginning of the year but I’ve learned that it is okay to embrace the idea that my eyes are bigger than my stomach, that I pile too much on my plate and maybe leave some things unfinished.

In the new year I have a lot of work to do.

I’m slated to be one of the Guests of Honor at Fantasycon 2014 (York, England, Sept 5- 7).  AND I plan to attend Loscon 3 (Worldcon 2014) in London on August 14 – 17. This is all intensely exciting!

So far this year I have

1) turned in the revised manuscript of my forthcoming (2015) YA fantasy, MASK. This is my Little Women epic fantasy in a setting inspired by (but not specifically derived from) Greco-Roman Egypt.

 We four sisters are sitting in the courtyard at dusk in what passes for peace in our house. Well-brought-up girls do not fidget or fume or ever betray the least impatience or boredom. But it is so hard to sit still when all I can think about is how I am going to sneak out of the house tomorrow to do the thing my father would never ever give me permission to do.

 

2) battled intense self doubt regarding the epic fantasy manuscript I am working on, mostly brought on by a crisis of confidence about writing epic fantasy at all. It’s complicated. The most important thing is to persevere past the negative internal voices, and not hate on yourself that you have those voices (and sometimes lose ground to them). That’s human. I have to remind myself that it is okay to believe in yourself. It’s not rude, or cocky, or unseemly. Confidence belongs to everyone.

I have 175,000 words written and a lot of revision to do plus some chapters to write and insert, but in the end I decided that to make sure the layers worked and to understand the story’s architecture I needed a plot board outline, which I finally finished today. At the same time I color coded the five points of view (one per chapter). You can see both the plot board and the post-it tagged manuscript below:

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I am in the process of finishing and revising this novel now.

Beyond that I have

1) a Spiritwalker novelette very close to being finished that I hope to post for Valentine’s Day

2) a few more Spiritwalker universe short stories that I would really like to finish. My ultimate goal is a short story collection set within the universe.

3) Two novels on deck. No timetables I can share yet.

4) a short story collection coming 2015; I have more work to do on that.

5)  How much I will post over the next few months remains up in the air but I hope to post more regularly and especially I hope to answer some of the many questions I have backlogged. My apologies for not getting to them sooner. I also want to highlight work I’m reading/viewing by others.
As for non-writing related things:

Get more in shape (I have an entire regimen planned and in progress for this).

The other usual things (eat better, spend more relaxed time with people, read more, you know all that).

But if I had to say ONE THING I hope to accomplish this year, I would say: Have a successful trip to Europe (as per above) By my way of thinking success in this context means: hang out with friends, make new friends, spend time with people I’ve been longing to visit, talk talk talk, avoid exceptional hassles, stay healthy, and pick a couple of places I’ve not yet seen that I really want to visit. Also: people!

I don’t know if a new year means the same to everyone — but for me it is a chance to let go of some of the burdens I carried the previous year, to set goals I won’t fully achieve but keep striving for regardless, and to aim for one or two carefully chosen accomplishments or events, however large or small. I’d be interested in hearing how you approach the new year.

 

Centering the Narrative at Smugglivus

I’ve written a post about centering the narrative over at Book Smugglers.

I really love epic stories. Whether film, tv, or fiction, I am deeply drawn to epic action-adventure with a fantastic or science-fictional element and really good emotional story arcs. In filmic terms, these are the stories whose trailers use stirring music and big, bold, vivid cinematography. In such trailers there is usually a woman somewhere, maybe in the background, maybe as a villainess, maybe as a love interest. When the stirring music really pumps up, the visual centers a man or men in an exciting altercation or a powerful confrontation.

Where are the women in these scenes of powerful confrontation?

My 2013 In Writing

For 2014: GoH at Fantasycon 2014 (York, U.K.) I’m super stoked! If you can make it, do! (September 5 – 7)

I also plan to attend Loncon 3 (London Worldcon), which is shaping up to be quite an event.

It’s unlikely I’ll be attending any conventions in the USA in 2014.

 

As it happens, 2013 was a remarkably packed year for me, publication-wise:

February 2013:

Apex Magazine‘s Shakespeare-themed Issue 45 included a reprint short story “My Voice Is In My Sword” and an interview.

 

May 2013:

Fearsome Journeys edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris/S&S) with an original novelette for this sword & sorcery/epic fantasy anthology, “Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine.”

 

June 2013: (the Big Event of my publishing year)

Cold Steel: Spiritwalker Book Three (the final volume of the trilogy)

Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and said “Elliott pulls out all the stops in this final chapter to a swashbuckling series marked by fascinating world-building, lively characters, and a gripping, thoroughly satisfying story.” Yes, that makes me happy. There are a number of reviews of the novel I really adore but I will spare you quoting them all because I am humble and polite that way.

 

July 2014:

Open Road Media published 8 of my backlist novels in ebook form. Whoo!

(The 4 Novels of the Jaran, the Highroad Trilogy, and The Labyrinth Gate)

 

August 2013:

The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal.

[The link is to the PDF version. The print version is currently out of stock BUT more copies are in and it should be available in the print version again by January 10.]

An illustrated short story, text by Kate Elliott and AWESOME black & white illustrations by the spectacular (and Hugo-nominated!) artist Julie Dillon. This was a blast to write and I love the illustrations SO MUCH. Let’s call it “Bee’s version of the events, with a coda.”

 

Fall 2013:

The audiobook for Cold Magic came out from Recorded Books.

 

October 2013:

Unexpected Journeys, edited by Juliet E. McKenna, an anthology of fantasy stories for the British Fantasy Society. An original novelette, “The Queen’s Garden.” This anthology is only available to members of the BFS, but I hope to reprint the story elsewhere in the upcoming year.

 

Also: ALL of the Crown of Stars novels (DAW in the USA and Orbit UK in the UK) are now availlable in ebook versions as well as print. Because The Crossroads Trilogy is also in e-format, all my published novels can now be easily obtained. E-books are changing the field in massive ways whose fall-out we cannot yet predict, but in terms of a backlist it has been a great thing.

 

That covers publication of fiction. My favorite posts of the year (ones I wrote):

The Creole of Expedition: Part One and Part Two

Strength

Charles A Tan kindly did a Storify of my tweets about “SF Civility

Love and Infatuation in the Spiritwalker Trilogy

Spiritwalker Inspirations and Influences.

The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building

On Fan Art (and how it inspired The Secret Journal).

I’ve missed something I should have listed but if I’d remembered what it was I wouldn’t have missed it.

Liz Bourke did an interview with me on Tor.Com that I quite like.

And Aidan Moher (A Dribble of Ink) and I did a re-read of Katharine Kerr’s excellent DAGGERSPELL that I thought went really well.

 

What’s ahead for 2014?

The two convention appearances in the UK. And a lot of writing.

Forthcoming projects:

A short story collection with Tachyon Publications. (2015)

A YA fantasy (Little Women meet epic fantasy with a dash of Count of Monte Cristo) from Little Brown Young Readers. (2015)

An epic fantasy with Orbit Books.

I’ll keep you posted.

I have two more Julie Dillon illustrations, these in color, that I will be releasing into the wild ASAP.

Most importantly, thank you to all of my readers. This can happen because you are all reading/listening/etc, and I treasure each and every one of you.

 

On-Line Hiatus + RT Awards Finalist

As may be obvious by the lack of updating I am on hiatus and will remain on hiatus until January. I’m working on deadline and am OFF-LINE except to check email.

Feel free to email me or leave a comment on this site (here or on another post) if you have something to say! I am genuinely happy to hear from readers, seriously. At the moment I need to stay away from the timesink of on-line however in order to get two major projects completed.

Blogging should resume in January 2014 with answers to the wonderful questions I was asked back in the Cold Steel Giveaway of May 2013.

Meanwhile, in other news, COLD STEEL is a finalist for the RT Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2013 (together with novels by Paul Cornell, Mary Robinette Kowal,  Stella Gemmell, and E.C. Blake). The contenders answer two questions here on their favorite fantasy novel of 2013 and how they think the field is changing.

 

As always, thank you for reading.

The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building

The imagination is not context-less.

The words and conceptual markers a writer puts on the page arise from thoughts and perceptions and interpretations rooted in our experiences and knowledge and assumptions. Writers write what they know, what they think is important, what they think is entertaining, what they are aware or take notice of. They structure stories in patterns that make sense to them. A writer’s way of thinking, and the forms and content of what and how they imagine story, will be rooted in their existing cultural and social world.

Now consider the genre of science fiction and fantasy. Creators place a story within a setting. In the literature of the fantastic, this landscape must be explained to some degree so readers can situate themselves.

Some writers describe this landscape in extensive detail while others use a minimalist approach. To quote fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed: “Some readers/writers want scrupulous mimesis of an otherworld. Some want impressionistic wonder. No inherent right/wrong/better/worse there.”

Complaints now and again arise about obsessive world-building and how such dorkery has ruined modern fantasy. Recently on Twitter Damien Walter (writer and critic who, among other things, writes about the sff genre for the Guardian), stated, “Obsessive world building is [a] common cause of crap books. . . . Like some other acts pleasurable to the individual, it shouldn’t be done in public. Or in a book.”

Too much detail, too clumsily employed, is an issue of bad writing and should be addressed as such.

But complaints about depicting a detailed world in fantasy have potential sexist, colonialist, and racist implications. These implications are more damaging and pernicious than the alleged disadvantages imposed on literature by detailed world-building.

Why?

Let me explain.

The status quo does not need world building.

It is implied in every detail that is left out as “understood by everyone,” in every action or reaction considered unimportant for whatever reason, in every activity or description ignored because it is seen as not worthy of the doughty thews of real literature.

There are many ways to discuss elaborated world building. This post will focus on material culture and social space.

Material culture can be defined narrowly as any assemblage of artifacts in the archaeological record but here I am thinking of it more as the relationship between people and the physical objects used in life by those people and their culture(s).

Social space refers to the ways in which people interact in social spaces  and how these interactions enforce and reinforce custom, authority, and social patterns and kinship.

What follows is an obvious statement that I am going to make anyway: Different cultures have different material cultures and different understandings of social space, just as they have different languages and language variants, different religious beliefs, different kinship patterns and household formations, different aesthetic preferences, and so on.

As well, every culture tells stories about itself and its past. These stories work their way into that culture’s understanding of the cosmos and its place in it.

Just to complicate matters further, cultures are not themselves purely discrete things. There can be cultures that live between and woven into or half outside of other larger and more dominant cultures so that they partake of elements of both (or more). I know this in part because I am the child of an immigrant and grew up in a household that was both part of and in some ways separate from the dominant culture.

The more minimal the world building, the more, pace Jenny Thurman, the status quo is highlighted without anything needed to be said. This doesn’t mean that minimal world building can’t work in narrative: Of course it can.

But minimal world-building championed as a stance against “obsessive world-building” veers dangerously into the territory of perpetuating sexist, racist, and colonialist attitudes. It does so by ignoring the very details and concerns that would make a narrative less status quo in terms of how it deals with social space and material culture as well as other aspects of the human experience.

When people write without considering the implications of material culture & social space in the story they are writing, they often unwittingly default to an expression of how they believe the past worked. This is especially true if they are not thinking about how the material and the social differ from culture to culture, across both space and time, or how it might change in the future.

Which details a writer considers too unimportant to include may often default to the status quo of the writer’s own setting and situation, the writer’s lived experience of social space, because the status quo does not need to be described by those who live at the center of a dominant culture.

For example, consider how many a near or far future sf story uses social space that is modern, Western, and in some cases very suburban American–and how this element of the world building is rarely interrogated by writer or critic or readers when meanwhile other elements of a story may be praised for being bold, edgy, ground-breaking, or brilliant. Compare how deliberately Aliette de Bodard uses social space in On A Red Station, Drifting, an example of far future sf not focused on a Western paradigm and which needs–and relishes–the elaborated detail as part of the story’s unfolding.

The implied status quo becomes a mirror reflecting itself back on itself while it ignores the narrative patterns and interests of most non-Western literatures, which often tell their story in a way different from much Western narrative (as Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Joyce Chng, and Sabrina Vourvoulias among others have pointed out).

The implied status quo in denigrating descriptions of daily living & material culture denigrates the lived experience of so many people. It judges these details as unworthy of narrative in the same way colonialism, racism, and sexism dismiss other cultures and life-ways and life-experiences as inferior or exotic window-dressing. It does so by implying that a self-defined and often abstracted “universal” (of subject matter or of mostly-invisible setting) trumps all else and can thereby be accomplished with none of this obsessive world building, none of these extraneous details. This imagination is not contextless.

In the US/UK genre market, for example, it is exactly the marginalized landscapes that need description in order to be understood and revealed as  just as expressive of the scope of human experience as that of the dominant culture whose lineaments are most often taken for granted.

Of course there is plenty of detailed world-building that emphasizes the status quo and expands on it, not always in a deliberate or thoughtful way.

Regardless, a well-described setting is good writing. There is nothing wrong with using (say) medieval Europe for your inspiration if you have a story to tell there. Judith Tarr‘s deeply-imagined medieval landscapes attest to that. The point of this essay is not to suggest what any person is required to write or how much or little world building they should deploy. A story needs to be the story that it is.

Meanwhile, as I don’t have to tell most of you, there is an entire world literature of the fantastic, works of imagination set in the past, the present, and the future, most of which are embedded in the status quo of their particular culture and era. The examples are legion, such as the magnificent Sundjiata cycle, the Shah-Nama, the Journey to the West, the numerous syncretic versions of the Ramayana that spread from India throughout Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago, the Popol Vuh, and so many others including all those I have never heard of and the many works being written today. However, speaking as I must from an American perspective, few of these works have penetrated into the Western consciousness to the degree that, say, Harry Potter has become a worldwide phenomenon.

So who chooses what amount of world building is acceptable in fantasy literature? More importantly, from what place can such a demand be made?

The world can and will speak for itself, in a multiplicity of voices, not just in one.

 

 

 

***

Thanks to Daniel J Older, Liz Bourke, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Joyce Chng for reading and commenting on early and late versions of this post. Special shout-out to this recent Strange Horizons roundtable arranged by Dnaiel J Older: Set Truth on Stun: Reimagining an Anti-Oppressive SF/F. And a final link to N.K. Jemisin’s excellent and important Guest of Honor speech at Continuum earlier this year: “SFF has always been the literature of the human imagination, not just the imagination of a single demographic.”