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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.

Reminder: Hugo deadline voting

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A customary reminder that today is the last day to vote for the Hugo Awards at Loncon: you have until 11:59 PM PDT (Friday 1 August 2014, 2:59 AM EDT; 7:59 AM BST; 4:59 PM AEST) to hand in your votes. The ballot is here.

And a quick link back to my thoughts on the nominees, which also includes some useful links to the voting process (certainly stuff I wish I’d been told when attending my first Worldcon back in 2005).

(it goes without saying that I’d be pleased as punch if you found yourself inclined to vote for my novelette “The Waiting Stars”–and the snakelet would be suitably grateful for his chance to be onstage with a suit at the Awards ceremony– but there’s also plenty of excellent stuff on the ballot that is well worth reading
In the meantime, my many many thanks to everyone who’s been reading and commenting on the nominees; the traffic to this website has been great, thanks in part to the excellent signal boosting)

Vita Nostra, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

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Vita Nostra, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Sasha is a normal, straight-A high-school student; until, on a holiday with her mother, a strange man with dark glasses approaches her, and asks her to get up at 4am every morning and swim to a buoy on the beach. She tries to ignore him, but when she does so, time stops passing: the same day loops over and over, trapping her in a morass of impending dread. When she finally takes the man’s advice and swims, she finds herself vomitting gold coins on the beach–and, before she knows it, onboard a train to a university in the middle of nowhere, where she will learn Specialty. The nature of Specialty is unclear, the textbook abstruse; but the penalty for failure is all too clear, ranging from the death of the students’ families to the impairment and death of the students themselves. Specialty is a book filled with incomprehensible sentences; but as the students read it, they find themselves changing in mind and body–and Sasha, who is ahead of her peers, is destined for something both huge and frightening…

The parallels between this and Harry Potter are hard to ignore (magical school, specially picked students), but you should probably put them out of your mind. Vita Nostra is a different, darker book: the students are university-age, with more adult preoccupations; and the magic, far from cookie-cutter spells, is impredictable, incomprehensible, and wildly dangerous; and Sasha’s position as a special student is far from enviable. There’s a palpable, oppressive sense of doom and dread throughout the entire novel, building to a very satisfying climax (which nevertheless leaves a lot of questions dangling in the air: this isn’t a book which will do a point-by-point explanation of its worldbuilding, but it’s a book that works as it is). I read this cover to cover in an evening (which should tell you something, as any free time those days is generally against my better judgment): the book draws you in, and, especially in the last quarter or so, an accelerating build-up towards the placement exam that is meant to seal the students’ fate, is darn hard to put down. Recommended.

This is my first book from the Dyachenkos, a Ukrainian husband-and-wife team, but it certainly won’t be my last: Tor published their epic fantasy The Scar, and I have every intention of trying it…

The book itself is a bit fiddly to find: it’s available in the US and UK only (I was lucky to get a copy from the translator in the hopes I’d signal boost if I liked it), and only via amazon. It also, for some reason, doesn’t show up in search results if you try by author/title, so the direct link is your best bet. This limited distribution (as well as the somewhat bland cover) probably do it no favours; but it certainly deserves wider recognition.

Final Worldcon schedule

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So, I got my final Worldcon schedule, and I’m going to be busy (in a pretty awesome way). As a reminder (taking a leaf from Kate Elliott’s book), I go to cons to meet people, so don’t be shy if you see me and want to talk. I’m also quite happy signing stuff and/or talking outside of panels (provided I’m not running on my way to elsewhere, of course!).

Below is where you can find me:

Autographing
Thursday 15:00 – 16:30, Autographing Space (ExCeL)
I will have signed postcards featuring the On a Red Station, Drifting artwork, and possibly a few other books: notably, I’m working on a POD edition of On a Red Station, but am not at all sure I’d have those with me.

Universal Language: Good or Bad?
Thursday 18:00 – 19:00, Capital Suite 14 (ExCeL)
Is a universal language possible? How might that be achieved and would achieving it necessitate destroying our own languages and way of thinking? Would we want to create one in addition to our own languages and if so, should it be spoken or signed?
Michael Burianyk (M), Dr. Bettina Beinhoff, Aliette de Bodard, Anna Feruglio Dal Dan, Jesi Pershing

Feeding the Imagination: Food in SF/F
Friday 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 3 (ExCeL)
The food in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is described in such detail that cookbooks have been published in response. What other genre works have focused heavily on food to develop the world and characters? What does food say about an invented society? Are stories that lack an exploration of the diet of their characters lacking something?
Shana Worthen (M) , Aliette de Bodard, Gillian Polack, Jo Walton , Fran Wilde

Content and Form: Writing SF/F in non-Western Modes
Friday 13:30 – 15:00, Capital Suite 8 (ExCeL)
Sofia Samatar recently suggested that SF genre writers and readers have “a tendency to focus on content rather than form”, even or especially when engaging with marginalised perspectives. Does our genre inevitably tend towards the form and structure of western, English-language stories, regardless of what cultural tradition(s) are reflected in the content? How can a non-western or non-Anglophone writer engage with science fiction and fantasy while also operating outside of the conventions of western-style storytelling? Is it possible for western writers to engage with non-western traditions in an authentic way and produce a story that a wider audience will recognize as science fiction or fantasy? What are some of the different forms offered by non-western cultures that need to be told?
Amal El-Mohtar (M), Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, JY Yang, Nick Wood

Kaffeeklatsch
Friday 17:00 – 18:00, London Suite 5 (ExCeL)

Reading
Saturday 10:00 – 10:30, London Suite 1 (ExCeL)
I haven’t made a firm decision on what I’m reading, but it’s likely to be an excerpt from the novel aka fantasy set in sideways version of Belle Epoque Paris–your chance to find out more ^^

Always Outside, Looking In?
Saturday 15:00 – 16:30, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)
How do writers from non-Anglophone countries relate to so-called “traditional SF”, and the expectations of Anglophone publishers and readers? What are the processes and considerations behind writing in a language that is not your first, or in seeing your work translated into English? While it’s often assumed that non-Anglophone writers all want to see their work reach the English audience, are there any circumstances under which a writer might choose not to? In a 2013 interview on the World SF blog, UAE writer Noura al-Noman said about one of her novels: “The whole idea behind ‘Ajwan’ was to provide Arabic content for teens … The subject matter [sci-fi] made Arabic seem more approachable to them … I am going to wait a bit before I publish it in English.”
Thomas Olde Heuvelt (M), Jesús Cañadas, Aliette de Bodard, Ju Honisch , Floris M. Kleijne

Environmentalism in Anime
Sunday 10:00 – 11:00, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)
Images of environmental destruction — or the complete replacement of nature with metal and concrete mega-cities — are common in anime. But there is also a tradition of anime and manga that preserves and honours nature: think of MuShiShi, or Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Where else are ecologically-aware narratives found, and what is their focus? Is the environmentalism of anime primarily one of nostalgia and conservationism, or technological conquest?
Anushia Kandasivam (M), Adrian (Ade) Brown, Aliette de Bodard, Ian Murphy

Sunday evening, from 6pm onwards: Hugo Reception, Hugo Awards and Hugo Losers’ Ceremony.
I am ready to deliver on my promise to bring a snakelet in a suit onstage, should I (against all odds) find myself in a position to give an acceptance speech.