When You Can’t Write

For a long time, I used to joke that I couldn’t afford writer’s block. I began writing professionally when my first child was a baby and I learned to use very small amounts of time. This involved “pre-writing,” going over the next scene in my mind (while doing stuff like washing the dishes) until I knew exactly how I wanted it to go; when I’d get a few minutes at the typewriter (no home computers yet), I’d write like mad. I always had a backlog of scenes and stories and whole books, screaming at me to be written. The bottleneck was the time in which to work on them.

I kept writing through all sorts of life events, some happy, others really awful and traumatic. Like many other writers, I used my work as escape, as solace, as a way of working through difficult situations and complex feelings. I shrouded myself with a sense of invulnerability: I could write my way through anything life threw at me!

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

I hit an immovable wall during a PTSD meltdown following the first parole hearing of the man who raped and murdered my mother. For weeks at a time, I battled flashbacks and nightmares. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t stop crying. Also, I couldn’t write. That creative paralysis added another dimension to the crisis. If I couldn’t write, who was I? Where were my secret worlds, my journeys of spirit and heart where people healed and things got better? Gone…and I didn’t know if I’d ever get them back.

I was fortunate to have a lot of help, professional and friendly, during those dark weeks and months, some of it from fellow writers. No pep talks, just friendship, constant and true. Eventually, as I recovered, I was able to return to fiction writing as well, although by then, I found myself a single working mom and had a new set of demands on my time.

Writers stop writing for all kinds of reasons. In my case, it was personal and emotional, part of a larger crisis. Other times, however, the well runs dry when the rest of life is going smoothly. Quite a few years ago, I ran into a writer I greatly admired (at an ABA convention), and I’d not seen anything from this writer in quite a few years. I introduced myself and asked when the next book would be coming out. Only when I saw the change in the writer’s expression did I realize how difficult the subject was. I was probably the hundredth person that weekend to ask. (Eventually, this writer came out with several new books; I wonder now if the appearance at the ABA wasn’t a way of trying to get the head back into writerly-space.)

Sometimes, a writer feels they’ve said everything they have to say. Or that one book or one series is it; there are no new worlds begging to be explored. They can rest on their laurels with a feeling of satisfaction and closure. For the rest of us, though, not writing is anywhere from excruciating to devastating.

I  think it’s not at all helpful to try to “cheer up” a writer in the middle of a dry period. The specific reasons–creative paralysis, personal crisis, discouragement–vary so much. I think it’s safe to say that each of us has to find our own way through. For me, it’s helped immensely to know I’m not the only one to go through it–and that’s the operational term “go through it.” Come out the other side. Talk about what happened, in the hopes of being the light in the darkness for someone else.

Of books and migraines and dancing

I am drinking a triumphal cup of tea. A very weak and immensely huge triumphal cup of tea. There is a story behind this cup of tea, and the triumph. A tiny story, but a story.

I’m in the middle of one of my longer migraines. This one is in its fourth day. As migraines go, it’s very mild. I find it hard to see things and almost impossible to sleep, I’m sensitive to sound and my emotional peace fractures easily. I’ve had worse. Much worse. The low pain levels (for a migraine) are due to the wonder of becoming older. Some things improve with age, oddly.

None of this is the story of my triumph. It’s the backstory.

I have lost so much worktime to this migraine that I had begun fretting about deadlines. I have a thesis to finish: the biggest chapter was supposed to be in a complete draft by Monday, and where I am it’s Tuesday. I need to get some edits to an editor (who else would one send edits to?) urgently, and can’t find a bio to go with the edits. I have a really cool piece to write in the next two days. And I have a short story to finish. I need to deal with 100 emails by bedtime tonight. Plus, as soon as I finish that chapter, I’m onto the next one. This PhD is in its final months and deadlines aren’t as porous as they once were.

Now you have most of the backstory. I’ve brought you to 4 am today, when I finally admitted that the migraine would not go away and that I had to find a way to deal.

The triumph is perfectly simple. Skip most of today, and let’s move to ten minutes ago.

I have a section of a bookshelf. It holds maybe 80 books and is ¼ of the whole (very large) bookshelf. This section is my working shelf for any research. It had gaps and space because I had not yet returned all the books for this chapter. I have finished with all but one book and the shelves are very full. One day I’ll have to return the books I won’t need again for this project to their real homes on other shelves, but right now I only have one book to return and two tiny sections of the chapter to write up and lo, I’m caught up with one big deadline.

I needed something to take the edge of the migraine before I delve into the last two thousand words, and the triumphal cuppa is that something. Small things matter. So do the simple tasks that enable one to work through this lesser-stage of such a long migraine.

I was going to tell you about a cousin of mine today. A folk dance teacher who taught people to deal with problems of right and left foot by wearing different coloured socks and shoes. On the day I heard he died, I watched Easter Parade with a friend. The “I do not know my right from my left” made its appearance there, hours before I heard the sad news. I haven’t seen Robin for years, but as soon as this migraine is past, I shall dance something in his honour: it will be a short and simple dance because dancing is difficult for me these days, but it will be joyous. We talked about death many years ago, you see, and Robin wanted people to dance joyously when he died. I told him that same day, that I wanted to be remembered with stories. I wanted friends to get together and talk and eat and laugh and tell stories. I shall miss him.

Competition

My favorite sports story (myth? metaphor?) is the one where two competitors fight to the bitter end in very close competition and then fall into each other’s arms. One has won, one has lost, but in the moment it doesn’t really matter which one did which, because the whole thing was about the fight or the game or the process — the doing with each other.

I wrote a story about that once: “Blindsided by Venus in the House of Mars.” It’s sort of a love story, but it’s also about how winning isn’t what anything’s about, even when everything is on the line. It was published quite a few years back in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.

Maybe I should send it out to reprint markets.

I’m not particularly competitive. I like to succeed, don’t get me wrong. I want to be read, to be listened to, for others to admire my work, to get accepted by magazines and publishers, and I realize that when I get accepted someone else gets rejected, as a rule.

But I don’t do it for the joy of beating someone else. I do it for the joy of doing. If I succeed, I am not thinking about all those people who lost when I “won”; I’m just thinking about the fact that someone liked what I did.

I’d feel something similar if I was competing in karate or tennis or road races or something, though it would spoil some of my pleasure if a person beat me and then engaged in taunting.

(I really don’t like taunting.)

I want to be good and I want to be recognized as good, but I’m not doing it so that I can call someone else a loser.

I mean, some artists, athletes, musicians and so forth do transcend the rest of us — sometimes just once, sometimes over a long period of time — but that doesn’t mean the others are losers. Continue reading “Competition”

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!

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.

Ghosts

(2008-02-23 19:10)

My mind is dwelling in deep places today. I’m thinking about issues of trust and how far you can let someone into your life before expecting them to take some responsibility for their actions in relation to you. It struck me that this is something I need to write about and it might belong with my ghosts. This is either going to be a very funny novel or a deeply pensive one. It might end up both.

I’ve been on the verge of writing it for over a year. I’ve done most of my worldbuilding (all those map-thoughts for Canberra, exploring cinema food in the 40s – all that stuff) but even when I had a good idea of my characters’ lives, they hadn’t come alive for me. When that happens I sit back and I wait.

The first thing that happened when I sat back this time was that I changed one of the main point of view characters. I need someone with ghosts for a whole part of the narrative stream, otherwise the ghosts my characters meet are only interesting supernatural beings and are in danger of being plot devices. I need ghosts to resonate more deeply than that.

We all carry particular burdens and some people carry the burdens of the deaths of others. I don’t mean that these people are murderers, I mean that they live with a constant feeling of work unfinished, or of missing someone, or of not having done something when the time was right, or of being observers at a time when distance hurt. I think the only ghost I carry of someone who I was able to say a proper goodbye to is that of my father. This is why I want to write about ghosts, to be honest: I need to understand my own.

The trust thing is a different matter, but it is most definitely related to the fears that bring forth ghosts for some people. As you have probably realised, I’ve been thinking for a long time about racism and sexism and how the disabled can be victimised or made helpless, and how people with mental health conditions are often excluded from perfectly normal decision-making and activities. One of the big barriers for any of these groups (and for a bunch of others) is trust. How much can they tell people about who they are, and still be treated as themselves and as full human beings? Think of Showboat, and the complete change to a couple’s existence when the woman has to admit to being of mixed race.

Trust honoured and used well is one of the biggest gifts a human being can give another, and trust abused is one of the most frightening.

That trust abused doesn’t have to be on a grand scale to be frightening. It can be someone making a decision for someone else because of an unexamined assumption that the person isn’t capable because they’re in a wheelchair or on medication. I see that a lot in my work. I get it a bit from my health conditions. At the heart of it is an assumption about what society is and how people ought to work together. When societies become scared, this type of trust is one of the first victims.

One of the reasons I have done the activism thing is, in fact, because of the biggest cause of fear and hurt in society usually being trust abused. I feel very strongly that it’s the responsibility of each and every one of us to find out where we’re going wrong and to deal fairly with others. A higher level of trust in a society means a lower level of fear and hatred. It’s that simple.

There are ways in which abuse can be minimised – through education, through legislation, through enough money to provide neutral assistance for people with physical disabilities so they’re not dependent on friends or neighbours for everyday needs. I know I retired from all this because of my health, but I keep thinking that the issues are too important and that one day I’m going to have to go back. Maybe this novel is the beginning of me going back.

Right now, though, I want to examine those issues at a very personal level. Not my personal: my characters’. What happens after divorce, or instance? Do the changes in life you experience when you retire mean you have to learn how to defend yourself against well-meaning invaders of your quiet places? What happens to a 12 year old girl when she is thrust out of the family circle of caring? When can you admit to being different without friends thrusting you away or making decisions for you or reading the life you’ve always led as suddenly unstable?

Trust issues at a personal level lead to judgements. We all make judgements. How far do we let people into our lives? How far can an individual abuse that acceptance into our lives without doing anything they feel is wrong?

I don’t want to go down the heavy racism path. I want to think about less well-trodden ground. I won’t go into it here – I need to work out just how far any character will let anyone else into their life and what the effects are. I feel incredibly mean, because this is going to hurt them. The ghosts are going to be fun and delight by comparison with death by a thousand needling doubts.

So I have my stable of ghosts. And I have some very big issues for my main characters to deal with. Now I have to be patient and let it all come together. I can’t write until it has all come together. If I do, then the book will be all about issues and not about telling a story. Waiting – for me – is what shines enough light in the deep places so I can find the stories there.

Q & A On NaNoWri Mo

In which I interview myself on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

What are you doing National Novel Writing Month* this year, Deborah?
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.

How does NaNoWriMo compare to real writing?
Writing is writing! Every writer does it a little differently, and I think most of us change from project to project and also over the course of our careers. Challenges, whether novel-length or short-length, can be fun or oppressive, pointless, or a marvelous way to jump-start a new story.

Doesn’t it bother you when hundreds of thousands of people every year turn your career, the dream job you’ve worked at for 16 years, into some kind of game?
You say “game” as if it’s a bad thing. If some aspect of writing isn’t fun — and there are wonderful professional writers who hate to write but love to have written — then why do it? The community-building that happens during NaNoWriMo is one of its more attractive aspects. Writing is a solitary activity, so it’s wonderful to have those “hundreds of thousands” of compadres cheering you on.

Sorry. Do you think it’s possible to write a good novel in 30 days?
Yes and no. Some writers can produce a solid first draft in a month, so that’s the yes part. On the other hand, I’m skeptical of any first draft, no matter how long it takes, being “a good novel.” I suppose some writers do so much planning and so much reflection on each sentence that their first drafts-on-paper are really third-drafts-in-the-mind. In the end, though, the goal is not to produce a good novel but to write quickly and and consistently and to push through to the end.

Isn’t the emphasis on quantity over quality a bad thing, teaching participants to write crap?
Most writers don’t need to be taught how to write crap. We do that very nicely all on our own, thank you. However, writing challenges can teach us to get the story down on paper (or phosphors), which is a necessary first step to a polished final draft. The rewards of actually finishing a novel draft, no matter how much revision it will need, should not be underestimated. Even if that novel is indeed crap, it is finished — the writer now knows that he or she is capable of completing it. That in itself is worth celebrating.

Another thought on crap. If you aren’t writing it and you never have, you aren’t doing your job. You aren’t taking chances or pushing edges or just splatting out what’s in the back of your semi-conscious mind. You are allowing your inner critic to silence your creative spirit.

Eric Rosenfield says NaNoWriMo’s whole attitude is “repugnant, and pollutes the world with volumes upon volumes of one-off novels by people who don’t really care about novel writing.
I seriously doubt that what is wrong with this world is the surfeit of aspiring novelists. And I can’t imagine why anyone would put herself through NaNoWriMo if she didn’t ‘care about novel writing.’ Good grief, if you want to be irate about Bad Things In The World, there are plenty of issues out there, things that actually impact people’s health, liberty, and lives. Too many one-off novels is not one of them.

Well, what about Keith DeCandido’s post, wherein he says NaNoWriMo has nothing to do with storytelling; it teaches professionalism and deadlines, and the importance of butt in chair?
Can storytelling be taught? I’m not sure. Yep to the other parts.

Fine, what do you think NaNoWriMo is about?
Why is it about anything than a community of people hell-bent on crash’n’burning their way through a short novel in a month? That makes more sense than it being a nefarious conspiracy.

Any last words of advice, Ms. Very Important Author?
I’d love there to be a parallel track for those of us who have other deadlines, such as revisions or finishing in-progress novels. Certainly FiMyDaNo (Finish My Damned Novel) fits the bill, and I encourage anyone in mid-draft to jump in. Revisions, at least mine, mean taking notes, cogitating, making flow charts of structure, correcting maps, ripping out chunks and shoving them around, not to mention generating piles of new prose. These all count. The thing with revisions is that sometimes a lot of thinking and a small amount of actual wordage change — if it’s the right change — counts for a solid day’s work. It’s exhausting, too. So maybe the goal is, “I will think about my revisions every day this month.” 


Okay, Ms. Interviewer, if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, what are your goals for this month?

*November 1 – November 30

National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo is a month-long creative writing challenge that takes place every November. During the month participants from all over the world are challenged to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel.

Where the past comes to my aid…

I’ve had my COVID update jab today. This means I’ll be clear in a few weeks and can maybe be a bit social. Unfortunately, I’m also one of those people who are COVID-vulnerable and who has a charming long and painful reaction to the vaccine.

Instead of a real post this week (and maybe next week and the week after, it depends on how long it takes to get through this) I thought you might like something from my past. Three things, in fact. If you scratch below the surface you’ll see a suggestion about how I approach the terrible things happening this month. The posts aren’t about that, however. The posts are about what I was thinking 15-16 years ago. The novels I was writing then were “The Time of the Ghosts” and “Poison and Light.” Both of them are still in print (“The Time of the Ghosts in its umpteenth edition, and “Poison and Light in its first) and the cover of “Poison and Light” contains artwork by Lewis Morley, who entirely understood my thoughts and dreams about the world of the novel. For a change, instead of saying “This book may be out one day, if I’m lucky” I can send you to the exact stories I wrote about, way back then. There aren’t many advantages to getting significantly older, but this is one of them…

(2007-11-26 21:45)

I need to tell you a story.

Once upon a time I was still active in the Jewish Community. At work on Friday afternoon I answered the phone and at the other end was a frantic community leader. “Gillian, you have to come to synagogue tomorrow, it’s very important.” He couldn’t tell me why. All he knew was that he had received a phone call from a well-known Melbourne rabbi (who had never met me) saying that Gillian Polack had to be at synagogue on Saturday morning. The rabbi knew I didn’t usually go to Shul, too, and he had said very firmly to “make sure she’s there”.

I couldn’t arrange a lift, so I hopped on my two busses very early and walked the half mile or so at the other end and found the Progressive Service and looked around for any reason I might have been summoned.

In front of me was a visiting cantor (but visiting from overseas – no links with me or mine), the backs of heads of the usual congregants, and about thirty aging pates. The usual congregants kept sneaking back to me to find out why I was there “Is there something happening this afternoon that wasn’t advertised?”

I whispered a question about the thirty heads to one of them and he whispered back “visitors from Melbourne, doing a tour – nothing to do with the cantor.” Somewhere in that crowd of heads probably lay my answer.

The service ended. Everyone stood up. The visiting group turned round to survey the back of the hall. I heard a woman’s voice cry, “There she is,” and one elderly lady ploughed out of the mob and towards me. The others all followed, like sheep. Some of them knew me, most of them were simply following their natural leader.

Valda is a friend. Except that it’s now “Valda was a friend”. I don’t believe it yet. Mum told me about her funeral just fifteen minutes ago.

She was nearly ninety and we just got on well. We snarked together at conferences and we stirred her kid brother (a close friend of my father’s and another friend of mine – the two of us have stood to the side at parties and brought down the tone of the proceedings since I was a teen) and we did a lot of very good volunteer work together. She died in her sleep, her life a resounding success.

I will miss Valda for a very very long time. And I will always remember how many people went into operation to make sure we got to chat when she was in Canberra. She could have rung me or she could have told my mother, but Valda simply told everyone she wanted to see me and – because it was Valda and we all loved her – everyone made sure it happened.

I will also never ever forget that horde of touring retirees descending on me. I was a whistle-stop for the Canberra part of their bus trip. And I bet Valda knew this when she called out “There she is.”

For the record, the questions were mostly about my Melbourne family. Also for the record, I asked in response “You’ve been away for a week and you miss them?” Valda hasn’t even been away a week and already there’s a hole in my life.

Is Literary Fiction Dead?

According to a recent essay in The Nation by Dan Sinykan, an English professor, literary fiction might soon be dead.

I’m probably one of many who will be glad to dance on its grave. While it is certainly true that not all fiction is great literature, the implication that only “literary” fiction is the truly good stuff made me furious long before I started writing science fiction.

Sinykan defines literary fiction as “fiction that privileges art over entertainment.” I find that definition ridiculous, given how much art I have found in science fiction and other work relegated to “genre” and how little I have found in some supposedly literary works.

I mean, are you really going to say that Ursula K. Le Guin didn’t create art? Or, for that matter, Joanna Russ or Octavia Butler?

And while F. Scott Fitzgerald had a lovely way with words, his subject matter was less than enticing. I remain unimpressed by The Great Gatsby, though I suppose the struggle between grifters and the more established rich is still a ripe subject for exploration.

When I was at Clarion West, Chip Delany told us that literary fiction was just another genre. It was a revelation. Of course, Chip’s work certainly reaches the standard of art.

I began to read science fiction at about the time literary fiction became a term – which Sinykan says happened in 1980 – because so much of what was supposed to be good fiction back then was boring the hell out of me. Continue reading “Is Literary Fiction Dead?”

Talks and ducks and coots and swans

I writing several talks this week. I didn’t used to write talks: I used to simply deliver them. Because of the health issues I have, though, I can’t guarantee that, on the day I give a talk or when the talk is recorded for later delivery (this latter is what happens this evening) I will be able to think effectively and to speak cogently. Most of the time, now, then, I write things down. So many people want to read it as a written word, too, that I often have a small audience (this month through Patreon) that wants to see what I say.

I have two pieces for finish today. One is an academic paper. My academic self is quite different to my fictional self when it comes to talks. The academic self is more intense and only sometimes includes bad jokes. The paper is about where the history comes from in Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver and is for a conference in Melbourne on Monday. I need to complete the overheads today and to do that, I need to know what I’m going to say, so it’s wise to finish the whole paper.

I have written almost all of the paper (and it’s already in the hands of someone who won’t be at the conference on Monday, but who needs to see it). All I need to do today with it is finicky finishing and the Powerpoint presentation. Academic work always contains much finicky finishing.

To do these last bits, I read the written word aloud, over and over. Each time I read a sentence, I listen to discover it makes sense in its place and whether words need switching or the sentence needs moving or if the whole thing has to be crossed out and replaced with something more sensible.

This is why most of my academic papers relate closely to my current research. I used to deliver more entertaining papers, but then I realised that the closeness of the editing for a good paper advances my thought on the research. Often it’s subtle advancement, but it’s always useful. My papers are less fun, but way more useful.

After the conference, I’ll take the paper and compare it to the chapter it relates to and the chapter will suddenly make a lot more sense. Editing today, then, means editing next week and the week after. This is a good thing.

What about the talk? The talk is for Octocon, which is in Ireland over the weekend. On my Monday morning I will technically be in Ireland having delivered the talk and in Melbourne, delivering the paper, mere hours apart. This is why my talk is being pre-recorded. I will have pictures for the Octocon talk, and these I still have to find and put in order. Mostly, though, with the talk, I need to make it make sense for people who have not read the books I’m talking about (by Tolkien, by Australian writer Leife Shallcross, by Irish writer Peadar Ó Guilín, and by Naomi Novik), who haven’t studied the subject I’m talking about and who want a bit of lyricism or humour to entice them to keep listening. The subject is how space and boundaries are important to fantasy fiction. Right now there’s too much lyricism. It’s easy to wax lyrical about forests and rivers and borderlands. However, I don’t want the words to ripple and flow and to create an abstract design: I need them to make sense. I have 800 words to add, then the rest of this talk lies in the edits. More reading aloud. More making things make sense to people who don’t live in my brain.

At 10 pm tonight, I have a long meeting with someone in Montreal. She will walk me through the tech side of Octocon, sort out all the tech issues related to the talk, record the talk and… my day will finish early tomorrow. Tomorrow I have 2 meetings (one for work, one for fun) and need to finish the first draft of another talk. I have five conventions/conferences this month, only one face to face. I’m short on time because all this is as well as my research. It’s work I love, but it’s not paid, also, so other things have to happen to keep me in food and electricity. This fortnight those other things are my research (for which I have funding) and Patreon.

Also, if anyone thinks that chronic illness and disability disappear in weeks like this… they do not. This week is a very exciting juggling act. Furthermore, most of this work is not paid. It’s just part of the life of a writer. Each of us have different things we do. Because I’m partly an academic (mostly unemployed, but not entirely) and partly a writer, much of my life is spent explaining awesomely interesting subjects, but without the support of an academic salary. It’s not always terribly easy.

Welcome to the life of many writers. Some of us are ducks, some of us are coots, some of us are swans, but we all paddle madly just out of sight in order to stay afloat. Many of us (me, for example) battle significant everyday issues as well. Every book of ours you buy, every Patreon you support or Ko.Fi you buy, makes the paddling a little less frantic.