A Psalter for Our Times

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

A few years back, when Becky Chambers was a guest of honor at FOGcon, I checked The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet out from the library and promptly got hooked. We ended up with a complete set of the Wayfarers books.

So despite the teetering piles of unread books cluttering every flat surface in our place, I got a copy of her new novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, which is the first in a new series of Monk and Robot stories.

The dedication page reads:

For anybody who could use a break.

And while I knew I needed a break, I don’t think I realized just how important that was until I read this book.

There are two good reasons why this book provides just the kind of refreshing break that we all need these days. Continue reading “A Psalter for Our Times”

I Have Been Somewhere Else

The pool at the Hotel Bonaventure has a guardian owl.

Specifically, I have been in Montreal at the World Fantasy Convention. It was lovely. Not like any other WFC I have been to but there are plenty of reasons for that. For one thing, it’s in a Francophone area of the country, and my French is wobbly at best (fortunately, everyone I encountered spoke English, but I like to at least make the attempt). For another, the convention was a hybrid in-person/virtual format. WFC is usually a smallish convention–membership is generally capped at 1,000, but I don’t think on-site attendance for this con was more than 300. So it was… intimate. In a responsibly socially-distanced sort of way.

And soooooo safe. You cannot enter Canada without proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test. I was also selected for random testing at the Toronto airport (and it turned out the tech who entered my information writes SF, and was deeply envious about my destination and sent me a sample of his work). Continue reading “I Have Been Somewhere Else”

Making Things Different

The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could just as easily make differently.

— David Graeber

This is important. This is why I’ve been reading economics. I’m trying to understand the difference between our assumptions of how things work and what the actual constraints are. There are some limits on how we can make the world, but they’re rooted in the basic laws of physics and biology — neither of which we completely understand.

From my study, I’ve begun to understand that most of the rules of economics that are currently in use are built on faulty assumptions. If we toss out those assumptions and build on ideas that are much closer to actual reality, we can, as Graeber said, make a different and better world.

Living things die. Even if we discover more and better ways to extend life, living things will still die. I don’t think we’re going to get around that one. I’m not even sure we should, despite the fact that I would still like to live forever because I want to know what happens next.

But there are environments that are good for living things, ones that are bad, and some that are toxic. To apply Graeber’s thinking here: we have allowed systems that put people in bad and toxic environments for the financial benefit of a few. We do not have to do that. If all living things die, we can’t prevent that, but we can prevent them from dying prematurely of illnesses brought on by toxic environments.

A recent study points out that four million people die prematurely every year because of air pollution brought on by making things for the consumption-oriented wealthy countries.

Many of those people are elderly and have health conditions aggravated by particle pollution, but that doesn’t mean their lives weren’t valuable. Also, while the study doesn’t mention it, I suspect many of the health conditions were caused by the air pollution in the first place.

We can build a world in which healthy lives for all is more important than profit and the assumption that those with money can do whatever they want. That, of course, means a potent environmental protection program. Continue reading “Making Things Different”

A Few Thoughts on Technology and Transitions

It’s always amazing and heartening how much inspiration we can draw from the next generation, whether they are our own children or someone else’s. In my personal life, my younger daughter dragged me, kicking and screaming, into the world of social media, into getting my first stupidphone, and later into video chatting (during her  years of medical school on the other side of the country). Now these technologies are part of my everyday and work life. They’ve saved my sanity during the pandemic.

I think it’s good to keep learning new things, to use our minds and bodies in different ways. One of the challenges of these new computer-based technologies is that they require us to use different methods of thought. The transition, for example, from keyboard-based word processing programs (like WordStar for DOS, the one I first used) to graphics-based (Windows) programs entailed a different logic and hand coordination. And both of them are a far cry from the typewriter I used to write my first published stories.

My very first stories (actually, my first umpteen attempts at novels) were written by hand in composition books or on scratch paper. I remember reading an interview with the British mystery writer Dick Francis, in which he described writing in ink in composition books (and that it had never occurred to him that a story, once written, could be revised!) so the method is definitely a time-honored one. Once I learned to type (in high school, on those really heavy manual typewriters) that became my preferred method, although when my children were small, I always carried a spiral-bound notebook on which to work on the Story of the Day in odd moments. Retyping a revision was a major chore, since I had to do it myself. I became expert in the application of white correction fluid. At least carbon copies were no longer necessary, but I had to take my finished manuscript to a copy shop because in those days no one owned a home copier.

I am of several minds about whether the ease of making changes as I go, being able to print out a manuscript at any stage, and so forth, have really changed how I write. I love the saying that the most important word processor is your brain. Perhaps I splat over the page, as it were, more spontaneously when I use a computer just because it’s so easy to tidy up my prose later.

That can be a good thing as I follow whatever wacky idea pops into my mind. Some of them are truly best expunged but others are quite juicy. In some ways I am more focused now than in 30 or 40 years ago; I know much more about how to put a story together, even if it isn’t one I’ve outlined.

Having multiple writing media available to me is a great thing. I often go back and forth when I’m stuck, especially between dictating and typing or typing and longhand. Dictation using voice recognition software is especially great for dialog or speeches (can you see me acting out the parts of the various characters?) Just as we don’t all write in the same way, I don’t write in the same way all the time. Sometimes words flow and then I want the medium that allows me to best keep up with them. But other times I’m stuck (or sulky, or distracted, or tired) and switching can help get things rolling again.

In the end, though, the only version that matters is the one in the hands of the reader.

Something worth celebrating

I’m sorry I’m a bit late this week. Instead of a long post, you get a short thought.

I was totally caught up in meeting deadlines and then I met them and I took a break and I found myself asleep before I’d written my post. Why did I need to do so much catching up? I’m just emerging from a stint with the historical fiction side of things. I was at the Historical Novel Society of Australasia’s conference. It was wonderful and has set me thinking a great deal about what I need to do with my own research.

I’m taking a break from my own research at this precise moment: I will return to it in fifteen minutes. Instead of reviewing literature that analyses fantasy and fairy tales and rhetoric and related subjects, I’m thinking about the research I did on historical fiction and fantasy, a few years ago. It’s one of the reasons I attend the HNSA conference every two years.

The conference itself reminded me that different genres require different styles of research and use different techniques to integrate that research into their fiction so that the novel reads like a novel and not like a failed academic treatise. I got to see some wonderful writers talk about their work and gently I realised that it’s about time to admit to a terrible truth.

Writers who successfully cross genres and write mysteries as well as historical fiction as well as science fiction as well as different kinds of fantasy are doing something intellectually very difficult. Hidden beneath the entertaining novels are some frighteningly good brains doing amazing amounts of exactly-the-right research and thinking.

I’m taking a moment to toast all these writers. I’m toasting them in very fine coffee.

Do You Outline Your Novel? Should You?

It cannot be repeated often enough that there is no single right way to write a novel (or to compose a symphony or design a house). All these artistic endeavors require certain elements (plot, characters, tension rising to a climax, or motif and variations, harmony, contrast, or foundation, walls, plumbing, etc.) They vary in the point in the creative process at which those crucial elements must be in place, of course. Within those parameters, there’s a great deal of flexibility that allows for individual differences. What matters is not when a writer nails down the turning points, but that they are present and in balance with the rest of the book when it ends on the editor’s desk.

Many writers attempt their first novels by the “seat-of-the-pants” method, that is, writing whatever pops into their heads. Sometimes they end up with dead ends (disguised as “writer’s block”) and don’t finish the work. Other times, they do finish, only to discover (either through their own perceptions or feedback from others) that the book has significant problems. So they write another draft and go through the same process until either the story works or they become so frustrated they give up, or they refuse to accept further critiques and self-publish it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a spontaneous approach to the first draft. A good deal of the pleasure of writing is in discovery, in not knowing what will come next as the adventure unfolds. This is how children play. It does require a separate editorial, self-critical phase, at least for most of us. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just part of the process. If you want to “pants” your first draft, you accept that you’re going to have to revise. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Some writers loathe revision. I happen to love it.

At some point, it occurs to many of us that if we maybe thought about what was going to happen in our novel and how we were going to portray it, that we might save ourselves a bit of revision time. We might even jot down a few notes, reminding ourselves that this is just a tentative sketch and that nothing is carved in granite. We may and most certainly do change our minds when we discover that the actual story has diverged significantly from our strategy. I’ve been known to rework my notes, negotiating the borderlands between spontaneous writing and ill-thought-out plan. Continue reading “Do You Outline Your Novel? Should You?”

I Got Plenty of Outrage…

I really do. Naturally occurring, home grown “Oh, my God, REALLY?” outrage in response to the news, or bad behavior I encounter in the wild, or things that hurt my friends and family. The outrage in these cases is real, and often leads me to do useful things to help the people who are being affected by… well, whatever it is. These are outrageous times, after all.

But… There’s so much manufactured outrage in email subject lines. And it does exactly what it’s NOT intended to do, which is to make me click DELETE. Which means I’m not getting to the really important part of these emails, the fundraising part. The way to loosen my purse-strings is not to make me angry, and I wish more email campaigns got that. Outrage (and its cousin, Mind-numbing Fear), and combative team spirit don’t work on me these days. I’m not sure they ever did. How do these subject lines hit you? Continue reading “I Got Plenty of Outrage…”

Algorithmic Grammar

Google Docs and I do not have the same understanding of grammar. I know nothing about the skills of whoever programmed the Docs algorithm, but since I learned grammar from my mother, who was a great copy editor, I have a great deal more faith in my opinion than I do in theirs. 

Here is an example of a sentence where Docs wants me to change the words “is more”: 

Why do we believe
the solution to violence
is more violence?

Maybe the reason is simply that I’m using the haiku form to write that sentence, because the blue line under “is more” disappears when I write it without line breaks. 

I should note that the blue lines appear whenever Google Docs finds something “wrong” even though I have “suggest changes” turned off. Apparently you can’t really turn off “suggest changes.”

Here’s another line from one of my daily senryu:

Build your healthy life.

Docs doesn’t like my use of “your.” Since that is a perfectly good imperative sentence, I do not understand it. This one isn’t related to the formatting; Docs marks something wrong either way.

Docs also doesn’t like my use of “doesn’t” as a verb in the first sentence of that last paragraph, since Docs looks like a plural even though I am using it as the name of a program, which makes it singular. Docs is also inconsistent in its application of this rule, because it has no objection to the “is” in this sentence. 

I had thought that capitalization of Docs alerted the algorithm to the fact that I was using it as a proper name (for the very program I’m writing about). When it objected to “doesn’t,” I thought the problem was that it was the first word in a sentence and the algorithm couldn’t tell whether I meant docs in general or Google Docs. 

But the lack of objection to “is” destroys that theory. Now I don’t know what the hell it’s doing.  Continue reading “Algorithmic Grammar”

Gossip and Community

The internet is practically an engraved invitation to indulge in gossip and rumor. It’s so easy to blurt out whatever thoughts come to mind. Once posted, these thoughts take on the authority of print (particularly if they appear in some book-typeface-like font). Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to question something when it appears in Courier than when it’s in Times New Roman? For the poster of the thoughts comes the thrill of instant publication. Only in the aftermath, when untold number have read our blurtings and others have linked to them, not to mention all the comments and comments-on-comments, do we draw back and realize that we may not have acted with either wisdom or kindness.

To make matters worse, we participate in conversations solely in print, without the vocal qualities and body language that give emotional context to the statements. I know a number of people who are generous and sensitive in person, but come off as abrasive and mean-spirited on the ‘net. I think the very ease of posting calls for a heightened degree of consideration of our words because misunderstanding is so easy.

I’ve been speaking of well-meaning statements that inadvertently communicate something other than what the creator intended. I’ve been guilty of my share of these, even in conversations with people with whom I have no difficulty communicating in person. What has this to do with gossip?
Gossip is either one of the forms of glue that bind a community together“news,” as it wereor else a pernicious form of social control, of putting people down/who’s in-who’s out/of taking glee in the misfortunes of others, of basking in reflected and unearned glory.

Where this is leading is that such statements can be hurtful and damaging whether they are true or not. They are particularly embarrassing to the tellers when they are false and that falsehood is revealed. Human beings are peculiar creatures. When we have injured someone by passing on a rumor, false or not, instead of doing what we can to ameliorate the situation, we set about defending ourselves. “But it was true!” is one tactic, or “I didn’t know!” or “Blame the person who told this to me!” Or we find some way to shift responsibility to the person who is the subject of the gossip. Even well-meaning people, people who see themselves as honest and kind, people who should have known better than to spread rumors, do this.

I believe that when we engage in gossip or rumor, we damage not only the person we have spoken ill of, but the bonds of trust in our community. We divide ourselves into those who are safe confidantes and those who are tattlers, between those who are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt and those who will use any excuse to criticize and condemn us. Continue reading “Gossip and Community”

Not a Fairy Story

I’m researching fairy tale retellings right now, so I want to start this post with Once Upon a Time. The story has a fairy tale element to it. It starts with a dream and ends with a happy surprise. It is, however, no fairy tale. Let me start it with the right words anyhow, because I can.

Once Upon a Time I had a dream. It was only a little dream. I woke up with an image from it so firmly imprinted into my vision memory, that, even before I had coffee, I went to my computer. I looked to see if I could find a picture of Io, because my dream was looking up at Io through an old telescope and seeing it as if it were our moon.

I found the picture almost immediately. Io looked the way my mind had dreamed it. I don’t remember if I took time for coffee, or if I wrote the story immediately, but by the end of the day I had a first draft of a story set in a far-distant planet, where a society re-enacted the eighteenth century.

I was chatting with a friend and told her about it. She read my draft. Then she told me her dream, which was to run a magazine. I let her have my story to use to build that magazine. She set up the organisation and edited everything and I and a couple of other friends built a world writers and artists could play in. That world was New Ceres. My story was its backbone and its heart, but it was never published. Life got in the way.

I took my version of New Ceres because I had new dreams about what could happen on that planet. Alisa took hers and she published a lovely anthology. She then started a publishing house and that publishing house has put out amazing book after amazing book. I watch to see where her dreams taker her next, because they’re always to fascinating places.

My dreams took a while to realise. First, I wrote them into a novel. An editor from a well-known science fiction press asked if I could send it to him. Whenever I asked about how he was going with it, I was told that it would be read the next week, that it was a priority, that I should not worry. Eight years later I took my manuscript back, and resolved to try elsewhere.

The novel was accepted somewhere else almost immediately, but that publisher imploded. Another publisher took it on. They asked one of my favourite artists to do the cover and he built (literally, built) a scene from the novel, and photographed it. A street from New Ceres lives in the Blue Mountains.

My novel was released straight into the first COVID inversion, where no-one looked for new novels by small press on the other side of the world. It was going to be celebrated at WorldCon in New Zealand. New Zealand is so close and so friendly and… the pandemic changed that, too. At least, I thought, it was finally published. I could close that chapter on those dreams and move on. Its final name was Poison and Light. Here, have a link to it. Admire the cover.

Tonight I had news about the novel I thought no-one could read because all the publicity and distribution were hit so hard by the pandemic that it simply wasn’t very visible. It’s been shortlisted for an award.

In that short-list are novels by wonderful writers whose work was issued by that first publisher. The editors won’t remember the eight years I had to wait, nor the emails that went unanswered in the last year, when I tried to find out what was happening. I remember. And now, finally, I know that the initial request to see the novel was serious. That it was an unlucky novel, but not one that was poorly written. And that readers are finding it, despite its travails.

I shall dream again tonight of that acned moon. And, finally, I will move on.