A Month of NaNoWriMo posts (highlights)

November 1: Happy November! It’s @NaNoWriMo time! Will you join this year? NaNoWriMo is a yearly event that challenges participants to write a novel in a single month. The #writingcommunity spirit, online tools, and general cheering one another on can be awesome. But it’s not for everyone.

Here’s what I’ll be doing for NaNoWriMo: Cheering on my friends. I’ll be finishing up revisions on the next Darkover novel, Arilinn. Revising is a very different process from drafting. I find that drafting goes better when I do it quickly, so I don’t get caught in second-guessing myself or editing as I write. Both are recipes for disaster and paralysis. Revising, on the other hand, does not reliably produce any measurable result in terms of pages or words. I dive into it and call it quits every day when my brain won’t function any longer.

November 2: Happy @NaNoWriMo month! Whether you participate or not, this is a great time to review your writing goals. If finishing a novel is too much, how about a single chapter? Or a short story? While it can be helpful to set ambitious goals, for many it’s overwhelming. We fare better with short, manageable goals that allow us to succeed, sentence by sentence, word by word. What are YOUR goals for this month?

November 3: Happy @NaNoWriMo! Candles, music, hot drinks, snacks, a purring cat on your lap… What helps make the words flow for you?

I like soft instrumental music, an occasional spearmint candy, and lots of kitty vibes!

November 5: Happy @NaNoWriMo! Is it possible to write a novel in only 30 days? What do you think?

  1. Why stop at only one? Let’s write a trilogy in 30 days?
  2. Hell, no! I can barely manage a sentence in that time–but it’s a perfect sentence!
  3. Yes, if the voices in my head keep dictating to me.

November 10: It’s time for a break! Rest is important – even during @NaNoWriMo. Writing a novel in 30 days is pretty intense. Knowing when and how much to rest is tricky. Are you a fan of rest or do you find it difficult to switch off?

November 12: Supporting characters can provide comic relief when things get heavy. Do you have a favorite, one just begging for their own story What would a writing session look like if some of your supporting characters were keeping you company?

November 13: Doing something as demanding as @NaNoWriMo can teach you things you didn’t know about yourself. Tackling a novel, regardless of time, teaches me humility and patience. And that I have a wacky sense of humor. Does this surprise you? What are you learning about yourself this month?

November 15: During a project as big as @NaNoWriMo, it’s normal to feel tired, to doubt yourself or run low on creativity. So it’s good to have a few go-to accounts that lift you up, brighten your day or remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing. What nourishes you during those moments? What keeps you inspired?

November 26: @NaNoWriMo pals: Are you old school or ultra-modern? Whether it’s keeping track of your ideas, staying on schedule or actually putting words on the page – do you prefer pen and paper, your trusty typewriter, color-coded post-its, a giant whiteboard, clever apps… or something else? Ask your readers: are you traditional or high-tech?

For organization, I use a writing paper schedule and a spiral notebook for each novel. For writing, I mostly use Word (or Google Docs), but if I’m stuck, I write my way through with that handy notebook.

What about you?

November 27: Into the home stretch of @NaNoWriMo, there’s a good chance you’ll run low on energy at some point this month. When that happens, do you take a break or push through? What restores your energy and momentum?

November 30: On the last day of @NaNoWriMo, you may need a little extra help to get across the finish line. Feel free to be honest about that and ask for #encouragement.

Here’s some from me: You’ve done an awesome job, whether you finished a novel or not. Your words are precious, so keep writing!

A Nothing-Day

I lost a chunk of today because of stormy weather. That means this post is late. Very late.

Storms affect some folks more than others, and I am one of their number. I rested for ten minutes when everything hurt too much and I woke up two hours alter. This means the storms are long and enthusiastic. When they’re sharp and socking, I get migraines. It’s all a bit too exciting, to be honest.

It took me a long time to discover that I (and a group of friends, likewise affected by storms) all have difficulties with inflammation. I’ll know this lot of storms has passed when I suddenly lose over two kilograms of weight. That’s about four and a half pounds for those who distrust metric measures. When there’s weather like this I make jokes about rolling down hills rather than walking because the weight change is mostly around my legs and my middle.

I’ve also been known to tease people who think I need to lose weight. I’ve not encountered anyone today to whom I could say, with a high pretence of seriousness, that if they think I need to lost a lot of eight in a hurry, then they should drop in tomorrow. Today wouldn’t’ve been a good day for this joke anyhow, as tomorrow looks as if it will be just as rotund and just as inflamed and just as stormy. On Thursday, however, I shall probably lose 3 ½ kilograms. My body is telling me this.

It’s hard to settle down to work when I’m round like a balloon, but I can’t just leave things. What I do is make a list of the minimum I need to get done. Today my list contains this blogpost, a supermarket delivery, several hours of research, many emails sorted, and 2 applications finished. I’m a bit under a third of the way through, and it’s almost 4 pm. Hopefully the storm will ease off for a few hours and will allow me to furiously catch up. We’ll see.

While we all sit back and watch the weather to find out what the rest of the day will bring, I might make a giant cup of tea. Then another. And, while I’m drinking that tea, finish with some emails and one of the applications.

I don’t want to. My body is telling me to sleep off the inflammation. What I’m hoping is that you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and slept everything off on my behalf. Australia is not a Thanksgiving country, so really, I have no excuse to go back to bed. I rely on you…

Getting Out of Town

sunset on the Pacific Ocean.

My sweetheart Jim and I went up the coast of California north of San Francisco to celebrate his birthday. We spent the night in Bodega Bay, a small town where a lot of people fish for a living and the tourism is focused on fishing, kayaking, and other water-related recreation.

We drove over to Sonoma Coast State Park to watch the sun set on the Pacific. (I will never get tired of seeing sunsets and trying to take good pictures of them.) It had a been a rainy day — and in fact rained more after sunset — so we had the right mix of clouds and sun for spectacular show.

It got dark quickly and the restaurants were about to close, so we picked up a fish dinner from one of the restaurants along the harbor and sat in our car (because it was drizzling) alongside a small marina to eat. We could see a heron and perhaps another bird or two, but it was too dark to see any creatures that were not next to a light on a boat or the pier. Jim thought he could see something else, though.

When we started the car and turned on the light, we could see seven harbor seals along a plank coming off the pier. They didn’t appreciate the light — they were trying to sleep — and it was really too dark to get a good picture, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

We’d had a good day, but the seals were the best part.

Then we went back to our room and the power went out! Life on the coast.

Here’s a picture of me and the birthday boy the next day at his sister’s house in nearby Guerneville.

Nancy and Jim on a porch with trees in the background

Some Thanksgiving Thoughts

In the United States, we all grow up with the story of the First Thanksgiving between the Pilgrims who came from England and settled at Plymouth Rock and the Wampanoag, the people who were already there. There was probably some kind of feast celebrating survival and harvest and the Wampanoag did join in.

But while there were various proclamations holding thanksgiving celebrations throughout the colonial years and in the first years of the United States itself, the root of the holiday we celebrate today comes from the Civil War and is a celebration of the victory over the enslavers’ rebellion. Since I grew up in Texas, which was part of the rebellion, I don’t know if this was ever mentioned in schools in other parts of the country, but it certainly wasn’t in mine.

As we reckon with our true history, it seems more appropriate to me today to focus on the celebration of defeating those who set out to undermine our democracy rather than myths from early colonizers that try to sanitize their relationships with the people whose land they were on. This is particularly true today when we are struggling with efforts to destroy all that’s good about our country from people who share the views of the enslavers who rebelled in 1861.

Heather Cox Richardson has an excellent essay on this. Go and read and ponder how we should protect our democracy today.

And give thanks for democracy while you’re at it.

It’s Not Halloween

… and yet I just turned up this photo, which made me think of the weird things I–and my kids (and in the photo, my brother) have worn to costume events.

The photo is of my brother wearing the “Bat Fink” costume my father made him. The Bat Fink was made with plaster-of-Paris-permeated muslin over a wire armature, in the shape of a raven with a three-foot wingspan. It had yellow marble eyes that caught the light, and a bloody skull in its beak. It was built onto massive shoulder straps (I’m not sure if it also belted around the chest), which is why there was an additional breastplate of plaster-of Paris skulls which covered the straps, and black fabric that draped from the bottom of the raven over my brother’s shoulders and down to about his knees. He wore a skull mask to finish up the look. I suspect that, wearing the Bat Fink, my brother would still have been under 6 feet (he was 7 or 8 that year), but it was imposing, and likely to scare the teeth out of our small neighbors in Greenwich Village. A couple of years later I wore the Bat Fink on my shoulders (carefully draped with black fabric, but no skulls) to open the door and dispense candy to Trick or Treaters.

Okay, my family–all of us, but particularly my father–had no problem with standing out in a crowd. Continue reading “It’s Not Halloween”

Sultana’s Dream and other matters

I nearly let my purple sparkly sorting hat decide what I would talk about this week. If I’d had just a little more energy, I’d have written a list of all the subjects (I’m thinking about so many things right now, ranging from whether I should write a vampire cookbook to how to deal with silencing in the current political environment) and chosen one at random. This is the first day in two weeks where the morning began with merely moderate pain, however, and fatigue is ever-present, so I played Solitaire. This was entirely the right thing to do.

The postie just rang my doorbell and she had a little package for me. In the package was something I’ve been after for a long, long time. Let me tell you about it.

The book is by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. It’s two novellas, Sultana’s Dream and Padmarag. Hossain wrote Sultana’s Dream in 1905. Padmarag was translated in 1924, but Hossain wrote it in Bengali. Hossain was a feminist bilingual writer of speculative fiction, how could I not want to read her work? And it’s the hundredth year of the publication of Padmarag very, very soon. I shall celebrate, with food, music and with a reading. Whether that reading is for myself alone or online to share depends. If you’re reading this and would like to be a part of it, let me know!

One last note. It’s Mizrachi Heritage Month right now. Reading the writing of Mizrachi Jews or cooking delicious Mizrachi food doesn’t mean you support what Netanyahu’s doing. It does, however, help us understand a bit about the cultures are of the those Jews who never left the Middle East. Last year I read (here’s a list in case this appeals to you), and this year it’s all about the food. Next year it will probably be both. Right now, though, I’m playing the music of Ofra Haza: my favourite song (“Kirya”) changes the rhythm of my typing.

My background is mostly from Ashkenaz, with a bit of Sephardi. That’s different music and different food. Now, if you will please excuse me, I’m very excited about finally getting a copy of Hossain’s works and I need to read them at once!

Remembering Michael Bishop

photo of Michael Bishop

One of the things I always liked best about Michael Bishop is that he came across as so supremely ordinary. A slender guy with glasses, short-haired, wearing button-down shirts, who ate tuna-fish sandwiches for lunch and was politely friendly to strangers.

Looking at him, you might not guess that he had an outrageous imagination or the gift of writing effectively about the darker sides of human life. And you definitely wouldn’t know of his wicked gift for satire, one that came through in most of his books.

You might not also guess just how much courage he had, but that was something else he displayed in the same quiet way he did most things.

Most of the remembrances I’ve seen of Michael, who died November 13, mention what a good human being he was, and that was very true. But if you’ve read his fiction, you are aware that there was nothing naive about his goodness. He knew the darkness of the world and was good anyway.

He was our first teacher at Clarion West in 1997, an excellent choice to ease us into that intense experience. That’s where I first saw his courage, because he not only challenged us all to write a flash fiction that week, he wrote one himself and let all of us read and comment on it.

That seems a small example compared to the way he spoke out against gun violence after his son Jamie was murdered in the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. He spoke to people who had the nerve to say to his face that his son would still be alive if he’d been armed.

I am not surprised that some people think that way, but I am still appalled that anyone would say something like that to a human being grieving such a loss. That Michael persevered in the face of such evil — and I have no other word for it — is yet another testimony to his courage.

He was, of course, a brilliant writer. I think Brittle Innings is my favorite of his books. That book combines his love of baseball — and he did love baseball — with his deep understanding of U.S. culture and, of course, with Mary Shelley.

There are very few people who could combine all those things, I think. I once wrote a flash fiction in which he was hired as the general manager of a flailing Atlanta baseball team, one that referenced the book. I think he appreciated it.

To me, he was a teacher, mentor, colleague, friend. He blurbed my first novel and later on asked me to blurb one of his books — a greater compliment.

He leaves behind a legacy of written words and an example of a life well-lived.

But he also leaves a hole in the lives of many of us. This is not new to me, now. One of the realities of getting older yourself is that you lose people and the number of losses gets larger every year.

This isn’t going to change.

All we can do is appreciate people and be supremely grateful for all the things they’ve given us.

Michael Bishop gave us a lot. We’ve all got a lot of work to do to live up to his example.

SFWA’s Statement on Artificial Intelligence

On October 30, the SFWA Board and the SFWA Legal Affairs Committee sent the following letter to the US Copyright Office in response to their August 2023 Notice of Inquiry regarding copyright law and policy issues in artificial intelligence, which is part of their AI Initiative.

We are aware that there is a wide range of opinion on the subject within our community, but the issues of known damage to fiction marketplaces and threats to original IP copyrights that these new AI tools pose must be made known to bureaucrats and lawmakers recommending and making policy. By doing so, when consensus emerges about the proper use of generative AI in art, we can ensure that such AI is created and utilized in a way that respects the rights of creative workers.

In the near future, we’ll have the opportunity to read other letters submitted to this call for comments, and both SFWA and individuals will be able to review them and respond. We invite all our members, but especially those writers working in gaming and comics, to make known the effects you are seeing of artificial intelligence on your careers, for good or ill.

We will continue to study this issue and speak up where we feel we can do good. The more we learn from our membership, the more effective we will be.

The SFWA Board




The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA), formerly Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is, in part, to support, defend, and advocate for writers of science fiction, fantasy and related genres. Formed in 1965, SFWA currently has over 2,500 commercially published writers in those genres across various types of media. Its membership includes writers of both stand-alone works and short fiction published in anthologies, magazines, and in other media. SFWA is not a subsidiary of any other entity. SFWA has no subsidiaries or other ownership interest in any other organization that may be affected by the Copyright Office’s policies on AI.

It is in that capacity that we write this letter in response to the Copyright Office’s call for comment on issues raised by artificial intelligence systems. As creative writers who have long had an eye on the future, we are no strangers to the concept of artificial intelligence; indeed, the work of our members is frequently mentioned by the people who over the years have made progress in that field. We have long anticipated these developments and have thought deeply over the years about its promise and pitfalls. With this in mind, it is with much regret that we cannot yet speak in favor of using AI technology in the business of creating art.

The current crop of artificial intelligence systems owes a great debt to the work of creative human beings. Vast amounts of copyrighted creative work, collected and processed without regard to the moral and legal rights of its creators, have been copied into and used by these systems that appear to produce new creative work. These systems would not exist without the work of creative people, and certainly would not be capable of some of their more startling successes. However, the researchers who have developed them have not paid due attention to this debt. Everyone else involved in the creation of these systems has been compensated for their contributions—the manufacturers of the hardware on which it runs, the utility companies that generate their electrical power, the owners of their data centers and offices, and of course the researchers themselves. Even where free and open source software is used, it is used according to the licenses under which the software is distributed as a reflection of the legal rights of the programmers. Creative workers alone are expected to provide the fruits of their labor for free, without even the courtesy of being asked for permission. Our rights are treated as a mere externality.

Perhaps, then, creative workers uniquely benefit from the existence of these artificial intelligence systems? Unfortunately, to date the opposite has been the case: SFWA has thus far seen mainly harm to the business of writing and publishing science fiction and fantasy as a result of the release of AI systems. Continue reading “SFWA’s Statement on Artificial Intelligence”

My Worldbuilding Weekend

(2008-09-07 10:23)

Folks must be writing New Ceres’ stories – I’m getting asked lots of stray questions about the universe.

For the record, Matt’s questions are the best [New comment: Matthew Farrer – whose story was published in the New Ceres anthology.] This is partly because he understands the nature of shared universes so deeply and respects them; it’s partly because he is such a good writer; and it’s partly because he pays attention. The worst questions (and I won’t name names) are from someone who wants a high tech story and wants to superimpose it on a static backdrop and even some of the physical fundamentals of the world are expected – in this particular writer’s mind – to change to fit plot needs.

This made me think.

This is hardly the first time I have had lots of people ask me about universes and worldbuilding. I get Medieval questions all the time, in fact. I’m doing a Sydney workshop on the stuff of the Medieval imagination in October, which just shows this sort of question is a regular part of my existence.

Each and every writer who talks to me brings with them a set of assumptions. Some of these assumptions are about the way research fits with writing. Some are about the way a given society works.

Some of them are about the story line and characters. The writers who frustrate me are the ones who assume that they can twist everything to fit. That static backdrops make for perfect fiction.

Why bother attempting proper world-building, whether it’s for historical fiction or speculative fiction, if your attitude is going to undermine your writing (and your world building) before you begin? Because that attitude does undermine the believability of the world. It carries through to the reader, always. [New comment: the problem is that New Ceres wasn’t designed for static backdrop, not that static backdrop is never suitable for fiction. In using the world as a painted cartoon background, the world would have been shifted from something dynamic and tarrying to something for pop adventure ie New Ceres was colour, not part of the fabric of the story.]

The reason for good worldbuilding and asking the right questions and understanding the answers is the reader. In an ideal book, they have enough clues to the world on enough levels so they are able to accept it and its implications and enjoy the book. So that there’s no “Well, it was OK, but something niggled.” Or so that they don’t have to race to check out “Could that really have happened.” It’s a trust thing.

Reader trust is built up with little clues and with the approach to the writing as much as it’s built up through getting ‘facts’ right. There are other ways of creating that trust than by using solid worldbulding, if your writerly soul can’t deal with solid worldbuilding. Read Alice and Wonderland again and you’ll see one approach. Most fiction, however, of any genre (including literary) has a consistent universe lying beneath it, reinforcing what it says and making it more convincing for the reader. The reader can immerse themselves in it for the duration. It’s one of the reasons I love reading – it takes me to other places and other times (tonight I might visit Alaska, tomorrow, Narnia).

Sometimes, it’s hard to convince writers of this, especially if they’re at the stage where they’re moving from short stories to novels. I don’t know why this is so. If the person was writing fiction set in a media tie-in universe, I would say “You know, making Darth Vader Luke’s son won’t work, don’t you?”

At the level of settings (and without making gratuitous Star Wars jokes), this sort of thing is harder to explain. Bringing the wrong approach to your world building questions can produce a high level of discomfort in a reader. A reader may not realise that the reason why they didn’t enjoy a New Ceres story as much as they ought was because the etiquette used was modern or that the sunlight had different effects in this story to all the other ones they’d read, but the feeling of “I just don’t like this story as much” still remains.

It’s even more complicated with Medieval settings. With any historical setting, in fact. New Ceres has solid world building behind it (you should see the files on my computer!), but, compared with actual human history it’s infinitesimal.

Think of how much we each lived yesterday. Think of all the humans in history having a full lifetime of yesterdays. Then think, if you’re writing about all those yesterdays, how do you choose what you need so that you can convince the reader everything is real, without convincing the reader they need a nap rather than finishing your book? I might choose the bit of my particular yesterday where the symptoms of cutting down cortisone hit because it was funky and funny. If I were writing it as fiction, I’d emphasise how jumpy I was and how exhausted and I’d tell it in such a way as to betray some of my secrets. I’d use it to bring a character to life, not as a straight description of a day.

Then there’s the matter of the notions of history we carry with us. I just discovered that a pop article I wrote on those notions (as applied to modern Arthurian fiction) has been put onto an undergraduate reading list in Germany. Not something I would have expected to happen, but it does highlight that finding out how we package our thoughts and how other people package their thoughts is terribly important.

If I want to use background to betray a character’s private longings and fears or to give a particular emphasis to an action scene (heighten the action, or enhance its significance, perhaps) then the shoddy “I’ll just add this to my story – I know what I’m doing” approach is just not a good idea. A writer might be strong enough to carry off a generally convincing story without that extra level of understanding, but they’re still undercutting their own taletelling on other levels.

A good writer takes a lot of care with words. They make sure that those words reflect the deep and precise meaning they need to convey and that those words link to other words and add to their meaning as well. Words are more than the sum of their parts: we all know this. World building, too, is more than the sum of its parts. This is all old hat.

I find it entirely fascinating that it’s possible to tell just how effectively a writer will use a world from the type of questions they ask subject experts. The type of question helps elucidate a universe that can underpin a whole novel – or undermine one. This, for me, is new hat.

The Joys of Infrastructure

cover for How Infrastructure WorksI just finished a wonderful book that explained what it would take for everyone on Earth to live the good life. It was all about infrastructure.

Don’t stop reading! Infrastructure is far from boring, I promise you, especially when the person explaining it to you is Deb Chachra, an engineering professor who both understands how things work and how to explain them. (I’ll just note right here that she has read some science fiction and philosophy along the way.)

The book is called How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems that Shape Our World. And no, it’s not a treatise on pipes or wiring or highway construction. It’s an overview of how all those things come together to make modern life possible.

Even if you’ve thought a lot about infrastructure — most of us only think about it when ours fails — this book will give you some deep insights into just how important it is and, even more importantly, how infrastructure design sets in place all our lives.

One of the first things I got from the book is that modern infrastructure is what makes our lives comfortable and possible in the United States and other highly developed countries. We have power at the flick of a switch, water when we turn on a tap, phone service (land lines even still exist, though most of us are using mobile phones these days). The wastewater gets taken away and treated.

Further, we have roads that go everywhere. In some places, we also have other transit options besides cars.

Most of us have access to good food even if we don’t live near where food is grown. That’s due to shipping systems, which also bring us other things we need.

That’s the point: all these things make modern life possible. We don’t have to dig our own wells or fetch water from the nearest creek (if there is one). We don’t have to cut up logs and feed them into a wood burning stove to cook and keep our homes warm. We can be in touch with people all around the world without leaving home or even waiting for the mail (and of course, mail is an infrastructure).

A couple of hundred years ago, people didn’t have most of these things. There were roads and there were shops and some supply systems, but they were not nearly as convenient as they are today.

Despite the fantasy of the “freedom” of living off the grid, the truth is that living in a system with modern infrastructure gives people a great deal more freedom to do something beyond just survival. Continue reading “The Joys of Infrastructure”