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Darkness notice

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Heading to the Rainy Writers’ Retreat in Brittany II with Kari Sperring, Kate Elliott, Rochita Loenen-Luiz and Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein (and the snakelet). Internet access will be present but I expect not much to happen on that front; so email, twitter etc. will be slow.Expect to be back Wednesday.

Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy

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Composed of Cold Magic, Cold Fire and Cold Steel. Set in an alternate version of Europe where Carthage never fell; where a sheet of ice covers everything north of England and Belgium; and where the Taino Empire still rules in the Caribbean, Kate Elliott’s most recent trilogy is a thing of beauty. It’s a very tightly focused fantasy: the narrator if Catherine (Cat) Hassi Barahal, born into a family of Phoenicians couriers and spies–who finds herself, quite unexpectedly, married to a cold mage from one of the most powerful Houses in Europe, and thurst in the midst of intrigues both political and supernatural.

In the world of Spiritwalker, magic comes in two flavours: cold mages can spread a cold strong enough to douse fires and shatter steel; whereas fire mages channel flames and conflagrations, often to disastrous results. But magic users must take care not to become too powerful; for once a night on Hallow’s Eve, the Wild Hunt comes from the spirit world, and kills and dismembers a powerful magic user. The cold mages are thus powerful, but not overly so; and they govern Europe in a loose alliance with the princes who wield temporal power. But radicals are agitating for equal rights, and the infamous general Camjiata (this storyline’s version of Napoleon), has recently come back from his exile and is busy raising another army to conquer Europe… Cat and her beloved cousin Beatrice (Bee), who both find they have more abilities than they suspect, flee as every faction attempts to lay hands on them and use them for their own purposes.

It’s hard to do justice to the worldbuilding in this: one of Kate Elliott’s great strengths is her ability to create a universe that truly feels lived in–that gives you the impression that it doesn’t solely exist for the plot, and that everyone and everything has an existence that goes beyond the narration of the trilogy. The magical system is also fantastic (magic based on thermodynamics! Entropy between the spirit world and the mortal world!). And the characters really shine: from impulsive and kind-hearted Cat to theatrical and pragmatic Bee; from the arrogant and magnificent cold mage Andevai to the canny and manipulative Camjiata, they all leap off the page–you might not always agree with what they do, but they’re all thoughtfully depicted; and I really loved that the story went unexpected places, and explored issues of consent, equality and power, and how revolutions might or might not be the best way to grant these. And special props to the Master of the Wild Hunt, who’s in a class of his own for manipulative bastard.  Also, the salt plague is one of the awesomest, most refreshing ways of doing zombies in speculative fiction ever (and I say this as someone who’s a bit burnt on the subject of zombies).

There’s a few extras, too: The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal features Bee’s POV, and lovely art by Hugo Award winner Julie Dillon; and “The Courtship” takes up the story a few days after the end of Cold Steel from the POV of another character.

Highly recommended, in case you had doubts.

Your hemi semi yearly Vietnamese poem

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Because it’s such a pretty, heartbreaking poem:

Yêu
Tác giả: Xuân Diệu

Yêu là chết ở trong lòng một ít
Vì mấy khi yêu mà chắc được yêu.
Cho rất nhiều song nhận chẳng bao nhiêu;
Người ta phụ, hoặc thờ ơ, chẳng biết…
Phút gần gũi cũng như giờ chia biệt.
Tưởng trăng tàn, hoa tạ với hồn tiêu,
Vì mấy khi yêu mà chắc được yêu!
- Yêu, là chết ở trong lòng một ít.
Họ lạc lối giữa u sầu mù mịt,
Những người ai theo dõi dấu chân yêu;
Và cảnh đời là sa mạc cô liêu.
Và tình ái là sợi dây vấn vít.
Yêu, là chết ở trong lòng một ít.

Rough translation (not my own)
TO LOVE
( Xuan Dieu )

To love is to die a little in the heart,
for when you love, can you be sure you’re loved?
You give so much, so little you get back –
the other lets you down or looks away.
Together or apart, it’s still the same.
The moon turns pale, blooms fade, the soul’s bereaved,
for when you love, can you be sure you’re loved?
To love is to die a little in the heart.
They’ll lose their way within dark sorrow land,
those passionate fouls who go in search of love.
And life will be a desert stripped of joy,
and love will tie the knot that binds to grief.
To love is to die a little in the heart.

Guest of Honour at Eurocon 2016

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Guest of Honour at Eurocon 2016

Very pleased to announce I’ll be a Guest of Honour at Eurocon 2016 in Barcelona, along with Richard Morgan, Jun Miyazaki, and Enrique Corominas. Dates are 4-6 November 2016. (yeah, you’ll have noticed I seem to go to Barcelona quite a bit those days. Not complaining, it’s a great city, the food is awesome, and I get to practise my–ailing–Spanish…)

My novel writing process, aka writing with baby

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There’s a fabulous essay by Ursula Le Guin (I think it’s “The Fisherwoman’s daughter”?) on writing and motherhood, which contains the following: “The point, or part of it, is that babies eat manuscripts. They really do. The poem not written because the baby cried, the novel put aside because of a pregnancy, and so on. Babies eat books. But they spit out wads of them that can be taped back together; and they are only babies for a couple of years, while writers live for decades; and it is terrible, but not very terrible.”

I read this years ago, and it’s stuck with me (though I’d forgotten that awesome last part). It’s all so true; and even more so when you have the actual baby. I stopped writing about seven months into my pregnancy, because I spent most of my time lying down with no energy, feeling very much like a beached whale. After the birth of the snakelet I went a bit insane with not writing, so I started doing it again in fits and starts; but it wasn’t until the snakelet was 4-5 months old, and I was almost ready to go back to work, that I started writing my novel again.

Novels, for me, are different commitments than short stories: I can research a short story for weeks and binge-write the actual first draft in a couple of days; I just can’t do that with a novel. With novels, I have to sit down and write consistently; a little at a time for a long time. The problem, when you have a baby, is that “little” can mean three minutes before something goes wrong ™ and you have to rescue a crying snakelet from whatever he got himself into.

I’ve seen people post about setting some time in the week for writing, always the same time: it never worked for me pre-baby, and it certainly didn’t work afterwards (when something does need your attention, it’s a choice of me or my husband; if my husband isn’t available it has to be me. In those circumstances, a set schedule is a bit like mission impossible). My philosophy was: “whenever there is available time, grab it”. Didn’t matter if it was ten minutes while the baby napped or while my husband played with him; I just used whatever I had.

“available time”, though, doesn’t get you very far with a day job and a baby. When I started up the novel again, I was 25k in, and needed to get to 100k in a couple of months: simple maths told me I would need to write more than 1000 words a day to make my self-imposed deadline. Given that there were a lot of days when I just couldn’t manage to write, this sounded like a lot cause.

Fortunately for me, I have a commute. And an alphasmart (a Neo 2 I think).

They don’t make them anymore (they stopped in 2013 I think), but those things are the best friend for a writer like me. Basically, it’s a keyboard with a small screen. I admit the attraction, put like that, is limited, as you could get the same mileage out of an iPad or a laptop. But the thing is, a Neo is totally distraction-free, boots up in a heartbeat, (you touch a button, it lights up, you touch a button, it turns off), and it keeps going *forever* (and I mean forever. I got mine in 2009, I put three AA batteries in it, and it’s still at 60% despite my typing up 1.5 novels, 1 novella and a bunch of short stories on it). You only get a chunk of 10,000 words or so (after that you need to change memory buffers, which is trickier), but given that you can’t really edit with it, it’s fine for me. I basically would type my day’s scenes on the Neo, transfer it to my laptop (it hooks up to computers by pretending to be a keyboard, which means it’s dead easy to set up), and do cleaning up and editing on my laptop.

The trouble with this method is that I need a lot more editing afterwards, because I make a lot more typos and because scenes easily get very repetitive (the Neo screen has about 6-8 lines of text on it? not ideal to get a large-scale picture). I did a lot of things in Word, and then imported the lot into Scrivener, where I searched for repetitions and moved stuff around (Scrivener is a very powerful tool that’s good for a lot of things; my use of it is akin to using a kitchen robot to chop up a few cloves of garlic: that is to say I label different scenes according to their POV, and move scenes around in my draft).

I didn’t *quite* make my deadline (of course), but I was still pretty darn close. Certainly, if you’d told me I’d write most of my novel while minding a very young child a year ago, I’d have told you you were insane ^^

At any rate, that’s my writing process. What about you? How do you make time for writing? Do you have any tips for writing with young children?

A quick debrief of our London trip

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So…

We have survived the London trip. We stayed in a small flat near Notting Hill, which was very conveniently placed (but very small); and tried to organise so that we actually went places (as opposed to staying in the flat while the snakelet napped). We got to the London Zoo (aquariums are wonderful things when you’re an 11-month-old), Hyde Park, and Marylebone High Street. I also made it to Nine Worlds (briefly), Fantasy in the Court (even more briefly), and Worldcon (extensively).

Nine Worlds sounded lovely for the six or so hours that I was there: a familiar haunt at the Radisson Edwardian hotel, a very diverse programming and crowd, and great panels (the food in SFF panel was awesome fun, and also I want to buy all of Sarah McIntyre’s books. Her jampires–vampires who eat jam–sound fabulous). I can’t really say much about Fantasy in the Court, because I was there really briefly, maybe 30 minutes or so on my way back to said Notting Hill flat (but many thanks to Lavie Tidhar who lent me his mobile phone to text a panicked H).

Worldcon… the actual con was fantastic. Great venue with lots of food places, hotels that weren’t too far away (I heard horror stories about the Ibis styles–the double rooms were apparently horrible, but we got an apartment for 4, which was basically three times larger than the one we had in Notting Hill. Greatly depended what you’d picked), great programming, and the fan village space, which gathered various bid tents, a bar, and a playing space for young children, among other things. I think it’s the first time that’s been done? Anyway, a great idea. I got to catch up with many friends (though there were people I managed to entirely miss :( ), was on fantastic panels, had a lovely signing (there was a queue!) and a lovely reading to a packed room.  The Hugo Awards ceremony was fantastic (aka OMG I got to stand within speaking distance of Peter Davison and David Tennant–even managed to talk to David Benioff for a few minutes before I fully realised who it was I was talking to). I’m sorry I failed to win a Hugo; but it was a well-deserved win for Mary, and overall I’m very happy with the results (*so* happy for John Chu, and also for Kameron Hurley’s double trick).

What wasn’t so great was doing said con with the snakelet. We had hoped to leave him in childcare for his afternoon nap, which would have freed us both to go to the con–it didn’t quite work, partly because childcare didn’t have a dark space for babies to sleep, and partly because the snakelet was in a really clingy mode of “I don’t recognise this place, I want my mommy and daddy”. When you factor in the distance from our hotel to the actual con (a good 20 minutes each way), you can guess what followed: namely, epic sessions of juggling between the H, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz and her son, and me to watch over the baby’s naps (including but not limited to: rushing out of meals, bringing takeaway to the room for both of us, skipping lunch altogether). And because I was working the con and the H was not, basically the H didn’t get much of a chance to attend… Much as I love snakelet, I think that next worldcon is going to result in us dropping off snakelet at grandparents and leaving without him.

All that aside, though, it was a great experience. Bring on the next UK con :p

(oh yeah, we seem to have con crud, too. Not a surprise entirely, but an unpleasant welcome gift)

WIP snippet, because I feel like it

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There was a sound, on the edge of sleep: Suu Nuoc wasn’t sure if it was a bell and a drum calling for enlightenment; or the tactics-master sounding the call to arms; in that breathless instant–hanging like a bead of blood from a sword’s blade–that marked the boundary between the stylised life of the court and the confused, lawless fury of the battlefield.

Aka, “Aliette writes a really ambitious novella that might unexpectedly turn into a novel” (I really hope not. Over 40k but below 70k is really a bad length for fiction). It’s a loose sort of sequel to On a Red Station, Drifting, with some of the same characters making guest appearances (basically set in the Imperial Court eighty years after the ending of the novella).

Since we’re travelling light (hahaha), I’ve left my research books at home, but I thought I’d recommend:

-Vietnam History: Stories retold for a new generation, Hien Vo, Chat Dang. Ok, here’s the deal. You emphatically will not get a history from this book–the authors aren’t historians, and it’s not a scholarly dissection of various motives and sources. However, what you will get is the kind of stories my grandma tells me, the “folklore”, or history as it’s perceived by the people who aren’t formally trained. It’s biased, of course; I wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything (particularly in the colonial era); but it’s a nice springboard for learning more about the major figures of folklore. As a bonus, it has a freak amount of the Vietnamese equivalents to Chinese deities and Chinese historical figures, which saves me the trouble of going through Wikipedia armed with a meagre command of the language…
-1587, a year of no particular significance: the Ming Dynasty in Decline, Ray Huang: I really like this book for its portrayal of court life in the tail end of the Ming dynasty. Really handy for those court intrigue bits ^^
-Monarchy and Colonialism in Vietnam: 1875-1925, The Anh Nguyen: I’m still halfway through it. It’s really hard to stomach, for obvious reasons (the sheer arrogance of the colonialists and the total lack of comprehension of the Nguyễn court of what they’re really up against, for starters; also, the slow encroachment of loss of sovereignty even as the colonial empire starts tightening up is heartbreaking). It turns out to not really pertain to the novella, so I’ll be going through it at a more restrained pace…

UK, here we come!

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UK, here we come!

We’re at the frantic packing stage, aka “how can we have so much stuff?” (answer: the snakelet collects it).
A reminder of where I’ll be at:
Sunday 10th August (aka “drop-in”): Nine Worlds, schedule here
Thursday 14th August to Sunday 17th August (we’re here Monday but probably running to catch a train back to Paris): Worldcon, schedule here (brief plug: come to my reading on Saturday morning and get an exclusive excerpt from the novel aka post-apocalyptic Paris with magicians).

As Kate Elliott says, I go to cons to meet people, so please don’t hesitate to introduce yourself and/or ask me to sign things. I’ll be glad to talk if not on my way to a panel or other obligation.