On the Need to Shelter Behind Books

I think the world is waking up. Around me people are talking and doing things and… all I want to do is sleep. It’s autumn here and my ear-worm isn’t some mad song about hyperactivity or achieving goals, it’s a poem by Paul Verlaine. I can hear the autumn violins.

Despite this, I’m busy. I had a wonderful time at an online science fiction convention over the weekend, but the time differences between me and them left me tangling days and dates and times. I’m still tangling them.

I had a deadline today and I met it and I am now looking around and thinking “Can I sleep yet?” Each deadline leads to the next and I’m still working late. Next week may be better. Next year my tax may be finished, all my essays done, and I may simply be doing research.

My research is very cool. I’ve finally reached the stage where I can see what shape it might take. After it takes its full shape, all I have to do is work through each section, methodically and carefully, and at the end of the research the writing will be done and lo, I shall have a book. Also another PhD. That’s why I’m not writing much fiction at the moment. My mind has two concepts for novels arguing bitterly with each other about which one will be written (or maybe written first, I don’t know yet!) but I can’t arbitrate or solve the squabble by scribbling. I have fiction coming out this year and a novel that needs a home, but the rest of the week is devoted to research and taxes. It’s just as well that the research is so very cool, given that the same does not apply to taxes…

Last week my research time was spent wrangling an approach to look at power differentials in a particular type of novel. This week I’m sorting out how everything fits together. Also I’m doing bibliographic work. My tables and chairs were piled high with books to help my brain work.

I do not know why I use piles of books, when most of my bibliographic work is on the computer. Maybe my brain needs three dimensions to think things through. Maybe I just like books. Maybe the books give me fort in which I can hide, when the world becomes frenzied.

Auntie Deborah Answers Your Writing Questions

Dear Auntie Deborah, How do I stick with my story idea and finish writing it?

Some writers can take an idea and launch it into a story while writing, but most of us can’t — or else end up revising many times to whip that shapeless manuscript into something that resembles a true story. Your description of losing motivation suggests that you, like me, need to have more structure in place before beginning.

What do I mean by structure? I need to have a hook or inciting incident — the action, situation, crisis, or decision that fuels the first part of the story. Then something goes wrong (or right, or unexpected) and spins the story in a new direction — that’s the first plot point. I need to know what it’s all building toward, and also the feeling or flavor I want to leave the reader with (sadness, triumph, satisfaction, chocolates on the pillow?). I need at least 2 or 3 characters I’m in love with, although I don’t necessarily need to know what happens to them. I write all this down, do flow charts and maybe a map or two. If I’m submitting on proposal, I’ll need to flesh it out into a proper synopsis plus the first 3 chapters, but for writing for myself on spec, that’s enough to get me going.

If these concepts are unfamiliar with you, I encourage you to learn more about storycraft and the journey from idea to plot/character/dramatic arc. Ideas aren’t a bad place to start, they’re just not enough.

Dear Auntie Deborah: My critique group keeps giving me contradictory advice. I’m at a loss as to which direction to take. Help!

Deborah: It is as important to know which advice to ignore as which to pay attention to! Without knowing the sources of your opinions, I can’t evaluate their validity, but — BUT — I am always leery of anyone who tells me how to fix problems in my own work. This was true when I began writing on a professional level 35 years ago, and it certainly is true now. What helps me are comments like, “I’m confused about x,” or “This didn’t work for me,” or “I don’t care what happens to this character.” In other words, careful readers marking where they had problems. Then it’s up to me, the author, to discern where I went wrong and how I want to remedy it. (This is how my publishing editor and I work together, by the way.)

My second point is that learning to write and working on a specific project are two different things. A project problem may highlight a skill you need to strengthen, but someone telling you how to improve it makes it their story, not yours, and isn’t likely to help you improve as a writer.

I wonder if you might fare better by not showing your work to anyone until it is completed to the best of your ability. Otherwise you run the risk of distorting your artistic vision to please others so much that you lose your authentic creative voice. When you are ready for feedback, seek out trusted readers (who need not be writers themselves but who have keen sensitivity to their own reactions) or writers a little ahead of you in their careers. Make it clear what kind of feedback you want: What worked for you? What didn’t? Where did you lose interest? Was the result satisfying? And leave the nuts and bolts of prose craft for a separate discussion.

Dear Auntie Deborah: I think my novel has way too much speech in it. What should I do?

Continue reading “Auntie Deborah Answers Your Writing Questions”

Pandemic Urban Renewal

Cities are palimpsests. Growing up in New York, I saw constant evidence of this: tear down a building and there would be a painted advertisement from the early 1900s, or the brick outline of an earlier neighboring building. Restaurants that were a feature of my childhood streets are barely a memory now: gone. In New York the only constant, really, was change.

I don’t know any city as well as I know my home town, but I’ve gotten pretty settled in San Francisco, after nearly 20 years here. So a few years ago I started potching around with an idea for a fantasy novel set in San Francisco, which gave me an excuse to go places I hadn’t gone, or revisit places I’d been before, and start weaving them into the book.

And then came the pandemic.

Continue reading “Pandemic Urban Renewal”

Virtual Life

Today’s post is brought to you live. I’m in Canberra at my computer and at a conference in the UK, both at once. This is not my first conference this week, and won’t be my last.

The first was Boskone. I felt very privileged to be able to meet old friends, make new ones, meet authors and readers and all kinds of fascinating people. The focus was on science fiction.

Today and tomorrow is all about Jewish history. I’m not on any panels, I’m not helping run any events, and it’s not even related to my current research. My first PhD was in Medieval History and I attend events whenever I can, to keep my knowledge up to date and to keep in touch. It’s so cool. Right now I’m catching up on Jewish Medieval England in what I’m listening to now is a discussion of whether or not Jews were actually permitted to own land. It’s complicated and one of those questions that can’t be answered easily. It sounds simple and is not. However… freehold agricultural land was unlikely to be able to be owned by Jews, but earlier… it may have been possible. One of the scholars pointed out that there may not have been a lot of interest in Jews owning land in the transactions on record. Canon law in the 1190s had a gloss concerning land belonging to a church being owned by Jews. This was documented because of possible problems in swearing fealty.

This is my Middle Ages. Not something simple. Complicated and tangled and absolutely wonderful. Not, however, something that is easy to write into fiction. Fiction has to give clear claims.

This leads me neatly to my third conference in a week. I’m in this for my current research, and I’m moderating a session and delivering a paper between 4.30 am and 6 am my time. Mind you, the UK conference finishes at 6 am my time and I don’t think I’ll manage to make the final session. Australia is not close to the UK or the US.

Why is the last conference of the week so important to my research and to my fiction writing self? It’s all about popular culture. Popular culture is totally critical for novelists. We use it to bring stories to life. My paper is on foodways in modern Australian fantasy novels.

My current conference has a tea break. I need to stretch. I also need to wash dishes. Last break I hung washing up to dry. Housework fits into gaps.

I may never get to do so much in a single week in my life again. This is a side-effect of all of us being closed into small environments due to COVID. In a few months time my night will be night and my day will be day and life will return to normal. This week, however, is a lot of fun and I am treasuring every moment.

Meanderings: parties and work and dealing with life

I’m sorry I’m a bit late with this fortnight’s post. By ‘a bit’ I mean it’s the right day in the US and a day later in Australia.

I’ve been working on two big things (more about them in a moment) and also discovering that the social life this season is a bit bigger than I expected. Every other year I am excluded from most social events, due to being from the wrong background, not being able to drive, not having children: the usual. I get just enough friends in my life for two weeks so that I know I exist.

This year, everyone else has movement restrictions and we’re meeting online and.. there are still events I don’t get invited to, because people forget that I can come, but every day (every single day) there are other events.

I appreciate this so very much that a friend is setting me up a meeting place on 25 December (that’s 24 December in the US, for I am UTC+11) so that I can return the favour and any friend who is alone that day can drop in and we can chat. It’s only a few hours, for that’s a work day for me, but it’s happening.

I have one thing to finish before then. In fact, I need to finish it today. The other thing is ongoing. Two friends and I are designing a world for gaming and for writing in. One friend is an artist, the other is a writer with military background and me, I’m an ethnohistorian when I’m not a writer. The ethnohistory is the thing: our cultures hold together and are sexy and we all want to venture into this world we’re creating. My current role is to work out how our fairy tales would work in these countries. I’ve already done a Cinderella. There is no handsome prince in this one: Cinders has to find her own way out using her specific background. This Cinders bears grudges…

The other thing (‘thing’ is a technical word for me, which is my only excuse for overusing it, and it’s a very bad excuse) is my non-fiction. The book I finished in winter is being thoroughly edited in summer. This book makes a lot more sense now, and I’m not unhappy with it.

Today I’ll be finishing it and then it wends its way and I shall worry for its journey. Publication takes forever, and even an interested publisher may not want a book, when they read it again.

I love telling people what this book is about. I’m looking at how science fiction and fantasy novels communicate culture and operate as cultural objects. I’ve developed a bunch of tools for the analysis and those tools are so handy that the talk I gave about a few of them at this year’s European Science Fiction Convention had people chasing me to get the talk published. I needed a home for it that was a place these same readers knew, but the editors were slow to answer (or, in one case, has just let it slide without even an acknowledgement) so I’ve had to give up looking. At least one of my regular publishers was willing to help, but I need to be careful how I overlap my academic self and my fictional self. Unless I hear back from the silent publisher (which has a history of not answering emails from me, so I wouldn’t hold my breath) everyone can wait for the book.

With essays in general and with short stories, I won’t chase beyond a certain point, because if I do, then I won’t have time to write anything else. I’m not alone in this, but my disabilities/chronic health problems do have an effect on my time and energy. If I want to see any of my work in print, I assess it for how much time and energy it will take to get it there.

This applies to most aspects of my life. If I don’t have a copy of a book of mine, for example, or a bookshop has said they want me to visit and I have not turned up, it’s because I’ve chased it a certain number of times and can’t chase it any more without it eating into core things. ‘Eating into core things’ means physical pain which affects absolutely everything.

When people chase me up or answer emails or fill all their promises without reminders, my life is better. It’s the work equivalent of those end of year/Christmas/other parties I have to miss most years.

This wasn’t really a post about parties or the work I’m doing. I wanted to show you how I balance my particular physical limitations. The other thing that delayed me yesterday, you see, was a visit to the hospital, where I found out why typing hurts so much when I do the hard yards of reminding everything of all the things they forget.

Every single one of us is balancing a lot of things this year. We all have to put our needs and other peoples’ needs into some kind of order to get as much done as possible. And me, I need to remind myself that I can share the joy with an online party, but when a delivery doesn’t come because someone has slipped up or if emails have not been answered, I am not always capable of being the responsible soul who chases everything for everybody and keeps whole communities of work together.

We all have to prioritise this season. I’m using that need to find ways of handling the impossible workload writers often have. In all the lists I have, reminders are, oddly, the hardest to handle. Everyone with illness/disability is different. I’m lucky I can still write books and design worlds and research. Very, very lucky. Where I need support, it turns out, is getting them out into the world.

My lesson of the week (for I’m in learning mode, being a student again) is to apply this same equation to everyone around me and to let things go when I can’t solve problems. I get told “You should’ve reminded me” or “I thought I did that” or “Oops – maybe next week” and every time, it creates physical hurt for me, and I want to be angry at the person who causes the pain. My resolution is to get through this more lightly than I have. I need less pain and less judgement and more understanding. And I need to work out for every person around me what difficult decisions they’ve had to make in this difficult time and give them the space they need to deal with it. Until now, I’d be the one helping them get through. I’d take on work for them and sacrifice.

Sacrifices are more difficult now and parties are easier.

I need to return to my book and to stop letting my thoughts become complicated. Or maybe I need coffee.

If you want to find me on 25 December, let me know and I’ll share the link when it goes live.

Interview on Writers Corner Live

In news with no political connotations whatsoever, I recently was featured on a talk show called Writers Corner Live with Bridgetti Lim Banda and Mary Elizabeth Jackson. They run a very polished operation and were great, welcoming hosts. I had a lot of fun talking to them about various aspects of writing novels and producing audiobooks. You can view it right here, or visit the Writers Corner Live page on Facebook.

Here’s the YouTube link to the interview if it’s not displaying properly for you.

Reading and Writing – an update on my book problem

I have so many piles of books in my living area (which is also my work area) that even I feel the clutter. The reason this post’s title includes the words ‘book problem’ is because occasionally they topple and I tripped over one yesterday and…

I love them all. It’s not a problem in any sense except the clutter. I’m not reading just one good book this month, I’m reading dozens. They are my building blocks for a three-year research project (1), and I’m already having fun. Gradually, the piles will diminish.

One pile is for putting away. “I’ve finished this – it was fun but not terribly useful. I’ve taken the notes I need from it but they’re not relevant to anything I’ll be writing. It can go away. No need to put it in the bibliography.”

Another pile is carefully marked up. Not the books themselves – I have special sticky paper that doesn’t harm books and I write on that. When I’m ready to write that book up, I go straight to the notes and lo, it’s ready to go. I know what page to refer to in my footnotes and I have my thoughts on the sticky paper. Then I put the details of the book in the bibliography, and then that book goes on the putting-away pile.

The third pile consists of one book right now, called Putting the Science into Fiction. It’s not a scrap of use for my research project, but has some stuff in it I want to use as a reminder for world building. The world building has nothing to do with the research project. Until last Wednesday I did it full-time, but now I’m doing it as a leisure activity. The book will be put away when I talk through what it contains with my co-conspirators in world building, which could be next Monday, or it could be in three months.

The three largest piles relate to three of the core focal points of the research project. One is on fairy tales, one is on own voices, and the third is on writing about cultures that are a bit alien or foreign.

The piles I’m working through right now, however, are none of those things. Some are on writing technique, some are on genre, and some are on what makes narrative, and some are on rhetoric or critical theory. These are my reminder piles: it’s no use launching into research without checking that you know what you’re doing. It’s not enough to know this stuff as an expert or generally. I have to know exactly what elements I need for this precise project.

That’s all for this project, for now.

A proposal I put in for an academic paper was accepted yesterday. I’m about to start an extra pile (which will link into the project, but is right now just for the paper) will be about food in speculative fiction. This one is quite dangerous. Whenever I write about food, I have to cook things.

When people ask me what I love about research I am stumped. What’s not to love about reading fiction and inventing recipes to fit the food mentioned in the story? Although in this case I’ll be doing a critical analysis. Mouthfeel has to play a part. Maybe I’ll have recipes as the slides that illustrate the paper? After all, I have a nice collection of cookbooks that I can match to the foodways in the fiction. The most mouth-watering paper at an academic conference. It sounds good to me.

Writing long fiction is on the backburner for a bit, obviously, but my reasons are impeccable, as are my piles of books. Also, I did that thing that chefs do on cooking shows. There are three objects I prepared earlier, one that is out in paperback and now affordable (earlier research!) , one that is out already and the other is coming in a very, very short time. The same applies to next year – work finished a while back means that I shall research away and books will appear and everyone will think that I work 36 hours a day.

I don’t. But I do have impressive piles of books stacked everywhere they fit.


  1. For all of you, a footnote. For anyone wondering, yes, this research project is for a PhD. It’s not my first PhD, however, and Australian PhDs are only three years long and we start the research on Day One. Also, I’m more interested in the research itself and in working with two tremendous supervisors than I am with shouting, “Hey, I’m doing a PhD.” Because it’s all about writers and what they put in their fiction, I shall talk about the cool stuff here, from time to time. Ivory towers are a fiction, and research relates to the real world. This research relates to culture in fiction. And I am one of those people who write stuff into footnotes that people need to read. I did it for my first novel and I refuse to stop doing it unless I’m writing an academic piece. This is due to a certain warped element in my personality.

Roger’s Rule for Writing

Roger Zelazny was one of the greats. I had the immense good fortune to be acquainted with him, and to learn about what I call Roger’s Rule for Writing.

Only one rule. If he had others, I didn’t know about them. But this rule is pretty perfect on its own.

It’s this: He had to sit down at the typewriter three times a day. Each time, he had to write at least three sentences.

If he did that, he’d done a day’s work.

The hope was, of course, that at least one of those three times, he’d write significantly more than three sentences. But if he didn’t, it was all right. He’d made the effort. It wasn’t a highly productive day, but he’d shown up, and that was what mattered.

Word count gets a lot of emphasis these days, and daily word count goals are a fact of life for many writers. I’ve been there, done that. I wrote four pages a day for years…literally. I think it was eight years. Every day, four pages. I wrote on vacation, when I was sick – every single day.

Continue reading “Roger’s Rule for Writing”

Auntie Deborah Returns From Wildfire Evacuation To Answer Your Questions

It’s been an exciting couple of months. Back in mid-August, Auntie Deborah and her household fled from the wildfires descending upon their small California town. After a month staying first with friends and then in a hotel, she and her people and all four cats returned home to a herculean clean-up job. Actually, the cats did not contribute, except in a profusion of shed fur. Order and cleanliness are gradually emerging, along with a return to writing her own work and advising younger writers.
Dear Auntie Deborah,
How can a literary agent tell from the first ten pages whether they want to represent a book?

Auntie Deborah: Most agents can tell from the first paragraph if they want to continue reading. Agents have read thousands of manuscripts by the time they’re in the pro league and they, like magazine editors who plough through mountains of slush, can spot right away if the author has the command of fictional techniques and language that are the bare minimum for a publishable story. It doesn’t matter what comes after that first paragraph if the author has failed to engage and intrigue, with every indication that if the reader places themself in the author’s hands, as it were, the experience will be reliably satisfying.
Dear Auntie Deborah,
Is it okay to write when I’m upset and not feeling like myself, or should I wait until I’ve calmed down?
Auntie Deborah: What makes you think that when you are “emotional, upset, or worried” you are not yourself? Passion is as much a part of writing as intellect. Let it all out on paper! Give yourself something intense and uncensored to then revise and mine for purest gold.

I am now revising a novel I drafted while caring for my best friend in the final weeks of her life. At the time, it was pure escape, a place to put all my strongest, most painful emotions. Only afterward did I see the amazing heart of the piece. It’s required several rounds of being taken apart and put back together the way fiction needs to be structured. This last round follows a long discussion with my agent, who is very excited about it. (As a note, I’ve been publishing fiction for over 35 years, with 15 novels and umpteen short stories, so I have experience with this <g>)

Dear Auntie Deborah:
Why do people advise me not to address an editor as “Dear Sir”?

Auntie Deborah: I strongly advise you not to address an editor as “sir.” The primary reason is the likelihood that the editor is a woman. In 2016, 78% of editors were women. (All 3 editors at my publisher are women.) Do you want to begin your letter with the assumption that an editor must be male?

Instead, say, “Dear editor.” Better yet, address your letter to the specific editor to whom you are submitting. (“Dear Ms. Jones” — not Miss or Mrs!) You should know this as part of researching your markets. Some publishers have a first or slush reader, usually anonymous, in which case, “Dear editor” or “Dear publisher” would be fine.


Dear Auntie Deborah,
What do I do when my main character simply won’t fit the scenario of the plot?

Auntie Deborah: You have a choice: let the character tell their authentic story, or promise to do that in order to keep the character quiet and happy, and stick another, more appropriate character in the current story. The fact that your character is talking back to you is an excellent sign, by the way. I’d go with that. You might discover you are an author who prefers character-driven stories, and this is a great place to start. Continue reading “Auntie Deborah Returns From Wildfire Evacuation To Answer Your Questions”

How Not to Win an Award

Each month, I ask my patrons what they’d like for their new essay. They vote. This month the vote was split, and I chose the one I wanted to write about, because no-one was asking me and I had stories to tell. You’ve seen the announcement here – that I won a prize for one of my novels. A not-unimportant prize. It struck me as odd that only my patrons want to know why I wrote this novel. Or maybe the oddness is that people are curious, but have not asked. Either way, I wrote that essay and it will go out tomorrow or Thursday.

The story of the novel may be cool, but I thought you’d like the story of what happened on the night of the award ceremony. It was the beginning of what promises to be a very interesting year.

The Ditmars are the Australian equivalent of the Hugos – awards for writing and art and criticism and more voted by SF fans. My novel was one of the finalists for best novel. I assumed I wasn’t going to win because I could see no reason why I should. I was fully expecting Eugen Bacon to win, in fact, so I didn’t worry too much about the award itself. My brain pushed all deep thought and lists of debts owed to the side, although I did wonder when the announcement would be made.

I only heard about the award ceremony three hours before, and that was a form invitation that all the finalists received. It was already Rosh Hashanah. My New Year.

If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I wouldn’t even have kept the computer on. Work was out of the question and for me, that award ceremony was work. It took me a while to puzzle this out. I did it on Facebook with many contributions from friends. I discovered then that a lot of people go to award ceremonies for fun. I don’t. I love it when people I care for get recognition, but I find the ceremonies themselves hard work. Speaking to a big audience about a topic I love, however, that’s fun.

I finally puzzled my way through the whole problem, sent an email to my publisher, and sent an apology to the organisers. The only reason it took me that long was that I was dealing with medical issues all that week. I had to decide through a haze and it was not comfortable physically or emotionally. My mother was happy with my decision, which was the big thing. I couldn’t tell her about it until afterwards, however. Three hours is not a long time.

When the three hours were nearly up, I was spending my new year with two of my close friends. Yaritji Green, in the middle of our chat, asked me if I knew someone and I told her they were on the Ditmar committee. I asked her if that meant she was at the online ceremony. Not only was Yaritji at the online ceremony, but she was willing to stand in for me if needed. 

She asked me for some dot points, in case. I didn’t take the need seriously, for that whole day had turned improbable three hours before. I told her “This was an impossible work and the award is in an impossible year and it’s impossible for Gillian to be here cos it’s Rosh Hashanah.” I tried to think about it more but, “I have heaps of things I would say, but I can’t think of them tonight. My brain is outside work zone.”

She asked me about the nomination and I explained, “I had my heart stuff then wrote that novel the following October/November, BTW, so it’s very appropriate that you’re (as a doctor) my sub.” (I’ve cleaned up the impossible typing – everything looked impossible at that moment.) “I cogitated on the conditions for the novel for 20 days in hospital, then while I was recovering, then when I found myself with no paid work because the uni was leading up to sacking me and then splurged and I wrote it very quickly. You don’t need to say any of this – I’m just remembering that this was the first time I sorted out HOW to turn garbage into fertiliser. Fruitcake was the first flower in my new garden.”

My mind didn’t have much time to dwell on the irony in what I’d explained to Yaritji. In fact, the moment I finished typing it, I sent it and two words arrived from Yaritji.

You won,” she typed.

She had been speaking on my behalf while I was trying to get my mind around why it was impossible to think lucidly about this novel. My immediate reaction to “You won” was “Wait…what!!!” Yaritji knows me very well and sent me a picture of her computer, with the announcement writ large on the screen.

That’s the end.That’s how it happened. I suspect I won’t believe I actually won until I see a trophy.