Tag: process

The Myth of Entire

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The Myth of Entire

“My dear Sam, you cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole for many years.” I love Tolkien (and Lord of the Rings has been a huge formative experience), but in my head, I’ve always been arguing with this quote.

There is a persistent myth going around that I call “the myth of entire”. Its most common form is that to be a true artist, and write masterpieces, you have to devote your life to the art, without the constraints of financial rewards (else there is the risk of writing cutrate potboilers to pressing deadlines), a day job (which holds you back from having enough writing time), or children (because children eat books and childcare is an all consuming activity).

This is bullshit.

We are not whole. We are never whole. There are always other demands on our time, other things we need to do. I am an engineer and a writer, a mother and a child and a grandchild, a friend and a helper and a volunteer. My life is made of broken and small pieces, of snatches of time where I write or grab moments for myself. All our lives are made of snatches and pieces, because most of us don’t live in ivory towers. Because we are in the world in multiple places, with multiple people, doing multiple things–and that is the wellspring from which writing comes. We don’t write about writing. We write about life.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t write for pleasure rather than money (and it is true that writing to too punitive deadlines isn’t always conducive to producing quality work, though in my admittedly limited experience there is little correlation between the amount of time in which something is written and the quality or appeal). I’m not saying you shouldn’t leave your day job (because jobs are time consuming, can be crushing, can have expectations that you need to devote your life to them), if that’s what you want. I’m not saying that you’re a failure if you decide to set aside the writing for a time to take care of children (because children *do* eat books, and because while modern society expects us to juggle everything, it’s abundantly clear that we can’t be super parents, super employees and super writer at the same time). But to imply that people aren’t dedicated/motivated enough if they choose to do other things besides writing? That is harmful beyond belief.

And on that last… I could run on the other subjects for a bit (hey, future blog posts!), but let me talk about motherhood for a while. It comes pre-burdened with a set of powerful expectations, not least of which is that entirety: that it is a threshold beyond which you become a parent (and especially a mother, because let’s not kid outselves that is an ungendered thing) and should be only that–that you’re a bad mother if you don’t take care of your children 24/7, and that there will always be time for your own personal pursuits when your child(ren) is (are) older. That, in other words, you have to be an entire mother, or an entire writer, but that you cannot be both things at the same time.

At this stage I’m going to insert a series of choice curse words, but you already knew that.

See… the thing is, it is time consuming, to be a parent. There are periods when you don’t sleep more than a few hours at a go (aka the first few months). There are periods when you can’t keep your eyes off the child for fear they might inadvertently commit suicide (and it’s amazing the number of ways that kids can find to come to harm. It’s like they have a sixth sense for the worst thing to do at any given time). There are periods when they need you; periods when you play with them, read with them, talk with them, help them do homework… All of these are times when no writing happens.

But. But…

I’m a parent. I gave birth. Of course life is never going to be the same. Of course it’s going to be different; and so is the writing. Things get thrown out of whack for a while, but you know what? After a while, they settle in a new balance, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Do I write the same way I did before I had kids? No, quite honestly. The days of binge-writing for days at a time are not going to be back for a while, unless I take a writers’ retreat (and even then, those require arranging childcare). Do I have less time than I had before? Of course. There are no miracles, and I still need to sleep. But time is… different. I manage it differently–in smaller snatches, in stolen moments–stories in bits and pieces, novels written scene by scene on my commute (where I can be sure of not having to childcare), blog posts hammered together in minutes or hours spent in stations or in airports.

I write at night, a lot, after the toddler is in bed and I can breathe collapse for the day. And some days I just stare at my screen and decide I should go watch a silly (in the sense of “not engaging brainpower I no longer have”) TV series, or just hang out on twitter and chat for a bit. I’ve found that I can revise or blog or tweet quite successfully on small snatches of time, but can’t do that with my first drafts, which require more mental investment on my part.

I’m aware that I am very lucky. I have a supportive husband who’s quite ready to take care of the toddler when I’m travelling to cons, or when I need to hammer out a draft. I have family nearby and a support network to fall back on. I have fabulous friends, offline and online, who support me and read me and urge me to go on and on, even when I feel like giving up. And I know not everyone has that and that some people have a much harder time of it, but still? If you have children and you’re writing or painting, or doing any kind of creative work? This is your right. This is your leisure time and what gives you joy. And people who try to tell you otherwise can %%% right off.

(and again, there’s no harm in
a. not having children. This is an entirely personal choice.
b. taking a break from wiriting if the entire combination writing/parenthood is making you be perpetually out of spoons. If writing feels like a drudge and you’re exhausted all the time–and believe me, I have been there–then you don’t have to do it, and you’re not a failure if you don’t. Again, it’s a very personal choice)


This blog post is part of a roving blog tour on parenthood and writing/editing–a crack team of us have lined up to post on the subject, and I’ll be linking to other posts as they go live!
Follow us on twitter too, the official hashtag is #parentingCreating !
1. On Being a Creative Parent, Leah Moore
2. Writing and Parenthood: Scenes from an Exhausted Land, Patrick Samphire
3. Parenting(Creating).FailMode, Fran Wilde
4. Writing and Mothering: A Burning Path With Nice Morning Glory Flowers, J Damask/Joyce Chng

Deadlines, layered writing and breathing space

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Deadlines, layered writing and breathing space

So… a lot of what I write today is to deadlines–and I know I’m not necessarily in the majority here, but I like deadlines. I’m one of the world’s natural procrastinators, and without the focus sheer existential dread of a deadline, I would be writing a lot less.

Thing is… it’s very tempting to think that, with all the time in the world, I could write a novel/short story that I would be happy with, rather than having to rush to meet a tight delivery date. I’m also aware, because I’m one of the world’s natural pessismists, that the correlation between the time I have to write something and the quality of the thing is actually weaker than I’d think.

For starters, “happy with” is a complicated thing. I’ve read a quote somewhere that writers don’t finish stuff, that we merely abandon it, and that’s certainly very true with me. There’s always something I could do to a piece, always some revisions I could do that I feel would make it better. I’m not convinced that they *would* make it better, in the sense that I’ve also edited pieces to death. The late Jay Lake used to say that voice is the easiest thing to edit out of a manuscript, and he’s right. Prose shouldn’t be unformed, but equally being too polished is a sure sign that life has been taken out of it–I’m a big believer in the rawness and energy of it. Which is to say: I do edit my prose, but I’m careful not to go overboard. I also tend to think my stuff sucks whatever the stage it’s at (except possibly those very early stages when it’s still fresh and new and exciting)–yeah, impostor syndrome–and part of the reason I love the H is that he will just prod me into delivering the freaking thing already even if I feel terrible about it.

Of course, if the delivery date is ridiculously tight and I’m under high pressure to meet it, there’s going to be a strong temptation to do a hack job–to deliver for the sake of delivering what really is inferior work (and not what I consider to be inferior work, which isn’t necessarily representative, see above). “Inferior” means “not finished” to me, and my biggest “not finished” issue is complexity and layers.

My writing process is all about layers. I build my stories and my novels that way, on the slow accretion of completely unrelated elements–I just throw everything in, and at some point the magical alchemy happens and they all come together for a story (I’m serious about alchemy. My subconscious is in charge at that point, and it really does feel like it miraculously coalesces from a mess of unrelated things into an actual story). For that to happen, I need space, and some research reading, and some cogitating, before I can have the piece click for me–before it can unfold in all its glorious (and sometimes) messy complexity.

For a short story, I generally need two completely unrelated ideas: for instance, the latest one I wrote started with the image of a Vietnamese dragon flying out from the sun, and over it I layered the idea of a messy and protracted war between two nascent space federations. For a novel, I need more: I need a good idea of the setting, a bunch of characters I feel comfortable with, and a plot that has enough content and twists to keep me happy. The House of Shattered Wings‘s setting started as the confluence of Fallen angels whose flesh was being used to make magical drugs, and of a big, WWI-style magical war in turn-of-the-century Paris. But it didn’t actually gel together until I got all my characters lined up (most significantly, Philippe, the unexpected Vietnamese ex-Immortal and general wrench in the works), and my plot sketched in (I’m not going to give spoilers, but one major plot point involving the death of a visiting dignitary in Silverspires turned out to be the lynchpin on which I could hang part 1–and part 2 was, in turn, hung on a vivid image of Notre-Dame ruined in a very particular fashion). Accordingly, if I haven’t had time to get those layers/unrelated things, or to integrate them properly… Yeah, then it would be a problem.

But. But I’ve written stuff that was brilliant in a couple of days, and stuff that sucked over a period of nine months; so, again, it’s not like more time necessarily results in more brilliant stuff? I think past a certain incompressible time period I need to get the story together, more time just either gives me: a. more time to procrastinate (and lose some of the original passion and drive for the project as the excitement dies down), and b. more time to make the story into a Frankenstein mashup of intractable complexity. At some point I just need to put words down I guess? They might need to be heavily edited (or deleted), but they’re here. They’re not some abstract notion of what the story should be, which I can never do justice to in any case, because the story I write is *never* going to be as perfect as the vision in my head (it never is). They’re real, and they’re on paper (or on the screen), and I can work with that.

(yeah, my other motto is “you can’t fix what’s not written down”)

So, yeah. Mostly I work with deadlines and I love them (honest!). From time to time, of course, I need a break: I need some space for a personal project that I don’t feel I owe to anyone. Works like The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, the Xuya novella with the twined four POVs, or Of Books, and Earth, and Courtship, the courtship/caper between two characters of The House of Shattered Wings–I just write them for fun, and for a while it feels liberating not to have a deadline or the perpetual feeling I’m late. But only for a while, and because it’s a change–I need my deadlines, and if they didn’t exist I suspect I’d make them up!

What about you? How do you handle deadlines? Do you like them/hate them with a passion? Does it not make a whit of difference to you whether you have one or not?

(image credits: Shepherd gate clock at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, UK, retouched by CarolSpears, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Snippet

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Oh dear. I blame Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, D Franklin, Gareth M Skarka and Mur Lafferty for this snippet. I just. I don’t know where this story is going or even if it’s worth writing. Only that it has unicorns.

They bury you at the bottom of the gardens–what’s left of you, pathetic and small and twisted so out of shape it hardly seems human anymore. The river, dark and oily, licks at the ruin of your flesh–at your broken bones–and sings you to sleep, in a soft, gentle language like a mother’s lullabies; whispering of rest and forgiveness; of a place where it is forever light, forever safe.

You do not rest. You cannot forgive. You are not safe– you never were.

ETA: and I have a first draft at 2600 words. And no idea what to do with a dark unicorn story 0_0

Imagination, the cliché shelf, and the inner librarian

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Imagination, the cliché shelf, and the inner librarian

“We’re our father’s prejudices and our swordmaster’s dead men; our mother’s palate and our nurse’s habit of speech. We’re the books unwritten by our tutor, and our groom’s convictions and the courage of our first horse.”

This is a Dorothy Dunnett quote (from The Game of Kings, which I heartily recommend): it’s nominally about how the people who raise you influence what you later believe, but I’ve always thought it applies to other, more writerly things, too. See, the thing is… imagination doesn’t exist in a vaccuum.

I kind of feel like I’m barging through open doors with a battering ram–and I know everyone’s experiences are different–but I always think of my subconscious for stories as this huge, badly curated library which gathers all the books I’ve ever read, all the movies I’ve ever seen, all the words I’ve ever heard… And some books, some movies, some words are closer to the entrance, because they’re more recent, because I loved them more, or for whatever other reason. I go into this huge library with  a question (a half-formed idea for a novel or a short story, a plot point that I can’t solve, a character that needs a better personality): to continue the analogy, it’s like I’m looking for something in a book, but I’m really vague on what book, just that I’m adamant the book is in the library somewhere, and I’m not going out of said library until I have something to hand (aka “librarian’s nightmare” :p). And, if I brainstorm long enough or let everything rest long enough, presto! My subsconcious will provide me with an answer: my inner librarian will come back smiling and hand me a book, which I’ll use as an answer to my problems (until the next time, obviously!).

But the trouble with huge libraries and a crap filing system is that it’s very, very easy for the inner librarian to just hit the shelves closest to the entrance when you need a book–and the shelf that’s right by the entrance, the “recently returned books” shelf? It’s generally the one that’s full of clichés. It’s the tropes that I’ve seen over and over in media, the easy answers to complex questions; the archetypes of behaviour that feel so weighty because they’ve been reinforced by years of societal pressure (the encyclopedias in several volumes that insist that women really like pink and shopping and don’t have a brain, that real men don’t cry, etc.). Which means that I’m very, very wary of the cliché shelf: I have a habit of second-guessing the first things I come up with, because in 99.9% of cases they’re just lazy thinking. You have to go deeper into the library.

(by which I don’t mean you shouldn’t reach for tropes. Sometimes a trope really is what the story needs; sometimes you don’t want complex and you don’t want to question everything, and that’s quite OK! Not every story needs to smash all the things. But I feel like this should be a deliberate choice, and not simply a default because said trope happened to be the thing nearest to hand)

One of the reasons why I do so much research *before* I start writing a book? It’s because of this. Research adds books to the library (and adds them, very often, to shelves close to the entrance). Research means that I have things close to hand that are useful and relevant: it means that, when I need a random plot point in, say, a Confucian society, I won’t have my characters throw a large sports event (Confucians tend to think sports is best avoided); or, when I have a 19th-Century dystopic French society with a highly hierarchical class system (well, hello, House of Shattered Wings!), I won’t have a servant barge into the office of the head of the House and talk to them like an equal. And I need the foundations to be there before I start plotting; or my plot won’t make sense within the universe that I’m creating–I need my shelves to be filled with the right books to get the right answers when I’m brainstorming.

One of the funny things with the imagination-as-library thing, though, is that some things still end up being close to hand no matter what you do–it’s like my subconscious keeps making them bubble up (I have a thing for family as restriction vs family as loving environment, and also for evil trees in fantasy stories, apparently. Go figure. Clearly there’s a childhood thing there that I’m not aware of).

Again, it’s not necessarily a problem: some unity of themes is expected as an author, but I’m aware some of those continuously bubbling-up things could be problematic; and it’s useful from time to time to take a long hard look at them. It’s very easy to feel like I’m reaching deep within the library, but still getting the cliché shelf or its little friend, the “inverted cliché” one: the one where all women behave like men (which looks OK on the surface, but really means that you still attribute a higher value to maleness); where POCs rule the world and set up a racial segregation system that looks exactly like the ones in our world, except in reverse (again, looks OK on the surface; can be done very well, but can also end up playing into dominant folks’ fears that all POCs are secretly out to get there and/or promote the idea that “oh, it’s not so bad because everyone would be as bad as us, on the exact same terms, if given power”); where violence is committed by women/POCs/marginalised folks but still remains the driver of the plot (again, some stories are all about violence and that’s OK! It’s just that there is more than one way to skin a cat subvert a cliché).

So, anyway, that’s me and my subsconcious aka the inner librarian; and why it’s important to never ever trust the first, easy answer to a question :p What about you? Do you have an inner librarian? How do you feel your subconscious works? How do you use research in your books?


[1]We can also argue about what “strong” means and the different kinds of “strong”, but this isn’t the article for it!

Can haz first draft!

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10.5k words. Like pulling teeth all the way, I swear… Set in the world of the novel, around 60 years before actual novel, and temp title is “The Death of Aiguillon” (which I do not like, but will think of something better afterwards).

Snippet:

In the end, as she had known, Huyen crept back to the House of Aiguillon.

Dawn was barely breaking over Paris–a sick, vague pink tinge to the maelstrom of spells that filled the entire sky like roiling clouds. No sun, no stars; merely the acrid taste of spent magic that settled in the lungs like the beginnings of a cough; and a haze over the cobblestones that could hide anything from explosives to chimeras.

The great gates hung open. Through the haze, Huyen caught a glimpse of bodies, lying like discarded puppets in the gardens; and of what had once been the corridors, now open to the winds with the familiar peony wallpaper singed and torn–Huyen remembered running with one hand following the flowers, drawing a line through the corridor as a way to find her way back to the kitchens–another time, another age. The House had succumbed, and nothing would ever be the same.

Off to bed now, and then to catch up on all the other stuff that was running late…

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…

My favourite parts of novel writing

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So, actually, it turns out that my favourite part of novel writing (aside from the heady feeling when you’re a few chapters in) is revisions. Aka, the moment when I have finally understood why the novel is not working, have made a checklist of everything I need to fix, and am settling down in front of the computer with a cup of tea, and a determination to tick off those checkboxes one by one. Which is, I guess, another way of saying that I vastly prefer knowing where I’m going ^^

I am done with revisions, and have sent novel off to agent (also, the H rocks as a first reader, but we all knew that. We had a bit of a narrow brush when the snakelet attempted to chew the printed manuscript, but we’re good now). Also, I learnt entirely too many things about Belle Epoque etiquette from Baronne de Staffe (my favourite bit: men give way to women because women are vastly superior), and about servant hierarchy in big French households (I was only familiar with that time period through novels written during the era, so I hadn’t quite realised the ubiquitousness of the servant class. It was quite impressive to read up on who did what, and also quite fun to imagine how this would have changed a few decades after that, if WWI hadn’t quite happened the same way).

Anyway. In honour of the sending off of the manuscript, here’s a snippet of later on in the book:

He remembered a cold, cold Hall much like this one; a lieutenant in the red-and-gold of House Draken, telling bewildered boys about the glory of dying for one’s House, for one’s country; and him, standing in the riot of colours streaming from a tall stained-glass window, and struggling to remember the power that had sustained him in Indochina. 

Meanwhile, I’ll go off and grab my missing sleep…

First draft!

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First draft!

105 000 words. Sekrit project aka the sort-of-urban fantasy set in Paris. Of course, it’s a first draft and more full of holes than a colander, and my next task will be to fix those before lobbing the draft to my kind crit group so they can deservedly savage constructively criticise it.

But for now I will bask in the knowledge of a job well done.

Here, have a snippet:

It was Ninon who first saw her. Philippe, though, felt her presence first, but hadn’t said anything. It wasn’t a wish to protect the young Fallen so much as to protect himself–his status in the Red Mamba gang was precarious as it was, and he had no desire to remind them of how much of a commodity he could become, given enough cruelty on their part. And Heaven knew, of course, that those days it didn’t take much for cruelty or despair to get the better of them all, when life hung on a razor’s edge, even for a former Immortal.
They’d been scavenging in the Grands Magasins–desperate and hungry, as Ninon had put it, because no one was foolish enough to go down there among the ruins of the Magicians’ War, with spells that no one had had time to clean up primed and ready to explode in your face, with the ghosts and the hauntings and the odour of death that still hung like fog over the wrecks of counters and the faded posters advertising garments and perfumes from another, more innocent age.

(picture via Patron of the Arts)

Can haz first draft

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Aka, yipee, the snakelet let me write! Still no headspace for a novel, though I’m slowly getting back into my research and wrote a whole new scene in my chapter 5 (aka, all Hell breaks loose for one particular character, who really has no luck whatsoever).

Temp title “What the Sea Holds no Sway”. Snippet:

 In Bao Lan’s dreams, bots danced: they banked and dipped and turned over the red soil of Mars, moulding the clouds of dust they raised into ephemeral figures–the boy Cuoi and his banyan, the strategist Khong Minh and his crane-feather fan–they whirled and reared, tracing words in the flowing writing of calligraphy masters, poems like the ones hung on doorways for New Year’s Eve, bringing up memories of bygone feasts in a vanished land, in the days before the evacuation…

Sent it off to a couple readers, and meanwhile will go see what the %%% is wrong with our hot water supply…

Can haz first draft!

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6000 words, which I count a great victory (the snakelet being a major force for distraction). Temp title: “Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile” (just until I find something slightly less unwieldy).

Snippet:

In the old days, the phoenix, the vermillion bird, was a sign of peace and prosperity to come; a sign of a just ruler under whom the land would thrive.

But those are the days of the war; of a weak child-Empress, successor to a weak Emperor; the days of burning planets and last-ditch defences; of moons as red as blood and stars as dark as bile.

#

When Thien Bao was thirteen years old, Second Aunt came to live with them.

She was a small, spry woman with little tolerance for children; and even less for Thien Bao, whom she grudgingly watched over while Mother worked in the factories, churning out the designs for new kinds of sharp-kites and advance needle ships.

(am aware Thien Bao is a man’s name in Vietnamese–there’s an in-story reason for it, but am struggling to manage the related exposition. Might just give up and go for a more traditional woman’s name)

Hoping to level up into progress on the novel after that (but not wholly optimistic).