I have been reading Linda Nagata‘s fiction since her mindblowing novel, The Bohr Maker came out and won the Locus Award for best first novel. She’s written any number of short stories and books since then, and her novella “Goddesses” has the distinction of being the first online publication to receive a Nebula award. Though best known for science fiction, she writes fantasy too, exemplified by her “scoundrel lit” series Stories of the Puzzle Lands.
Her newest science fiction novel, The Red: First LightThe Red: First Light, is a near-future, high-tech military thriller, just released under her own imprint, Mythic Island Press LLC. Here’s the back cover blurb:
There Needs To Be A War Going On Somewhere: Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for.
To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear. (Hazard Notice: contains military grade profanity.)
Today in Off My Lawn! she tackles the idea of ending your writing day before you’re ready, even if you’re on fire. And, in her way, I think she beats a nail into the coffin of all One Size Fits All writing advice. See what you think here, and let her know!
I’ve lived on the island of Maui for many years and I can say with fair confidence that this is not a “bookish” community. There are readers here of course, but compared to literary havens like Portland, Oregon, we don’t have a lot going on, particularly in the speculative fiction.
We do, ironically, have a large and thriving community of visual artists. Go figure. At any rate, around here writers don’t tend to be held in high esteem, and there aren’t a lot of myths about us. We are generally perceived as dreamers who don’t make money—and I have to admit that’s usually a fair assessment.
But myths about writing? Those are universal.
The one that annoys me the most has several variations:
* Stop writing for the day when you still have things left to say.
* Stop writing for the day before you want to.
* Stop in the middle of a sentence and pick it up the next day.
What? That’s insane! This is one of those rules made up by prolific writers who assume that everyone else’s muse operates just like theirs. May I say, “NOT!”
For some of us (many of us?) there exists the elusive “flow,” the “zone,” that place of writing nirvana where the words are simply there, in mind, waiting to be poured into the word processor of choice with only a few corrections along the way. When operating in the flow, the outside world retreats and even the Internet ceases to be a distraction. The page, the story, becomes the focus, and good things happen.
Some of us only occasionally reach this point of writing nirvana. Perhaps you’re not one of us. Perhaps you’re one of those writers able to slip into the zone and produce a thousand words a day, every day. Let me qualify that: a thousand of the right words, every day. (Because a thousand words of useless nonsense don’t really count.) Some of us find the zone elusive. We are faced with many days when cleaning the bathroom sounds like a delightful alternative to writing; when we have no clue what is going to happen next and who cares anyway? It might take us one, two, three days or more of forcing ourselves to write—during which time we produce mostly rubbish—before we find the zone and the words begin to flow.
To cut off that flow early, to reject the gift of it—sacrilege! ingratitude! If life calls us away, that’s one thing—if the kids are starving, or the dog needs to be walked, or we must be at work promptly at eight AM, well fine. But to reject the zone simply on the premise that doing so will help us find it again the next session—no! Because for some of us, it just doesn’t work that way, which is why I ride the flow as far as I can every time I find it.
Don’t hold back. Give everything you’ve got when you’ve got it. That’s my writing advice.
Although of course my advice is only good advice if it works for you.
Cat Rambo and I met doing Broad Universe Rapidfire Readings at a bunch of conventions through the zero years, mostly Pacific Northwest events like Orycon and Norwescon. I’ve thus heard her read fantasy, horror and science fiction, and one of the things I admire most about her, besides her multi-genre range, is her ability to tell a story quickly that will cut right through all defenses and into the hearts of her audience.
Cat has a new collection of SF stories out… really, it’s more properly two collections. It’s called Near + Far and here’s the NEAR half of the cover:
Today on Off My Lawn, Cat’s tackling the difference between writer’s block and waiting for your Muse to come.
Ah, writer’s block. Writers in films certainly seem to suffer from it, whether it’s Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction or Billy Crystal in Throw Momma From the Train.
They can’t get started, the words don’t come. The muse is out to lunch, and has left no forwarding address.
I’ve got mixed feelings about such portrayals, because they make me feel guilty. Sure, I acknowledge there are valid sources of writer’s block: illness, mental trauma, general life upheaval. But the truth of the matter has always been that even when I’m languishing at the keyboard playing Bejeweled Blitz in an attempt to get my creative juices stirring, I still know: I could be writing, and should be.
Yes, writing that comes easily, breathlessly, spilling onto the page as though you were channeling Calliope herself, is sometimes wonderful. And the writing that comes with difficulty, as though you were scraping the words out of the top of your skull with a melon spoon, may not be great. But there are always words to write, even if they’re “I don’t know what to write,” over and over again.
Part of the my philosophy of writing grows out of Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bone. For Goldberg, writing is the most important thing. It is the act of having written that matters, not what you’ve produced. And I agree, because the day after I’ve forced to write, it’s easier to do so, while the day I spent conquering the world in Civ 3 made me, if anything, less fit to write.
The blank page is scary. It’s a large and unguessable territory. It’s easier if you go in with a plan of action, a list of sights and scenes and senses you want to hit. But sometimes you have to trust yourself just to write and see what comes out. Because the brain gets bored with saying “I don’t know what to write” over and over again. It starts tossing out wild and entertaining notions, comes up with odd and unscripted moments. That’s often when you’re best in touch with that unknown side of you, that side that will never face you directly but will manifest best and most brightly in your writing. Learn to trust that hidden side to supply you with details you can excavate in rewriting. Learn to collaborate with yourself.
I don’t have the time or patience for writer’s block. Writing is what I do and unless I do it every day, I’m not happy with myself. Sure, some words are crap. But some are good, and the more I write, the better they are.
When I was at Hopkins, one of my teachers was Stephen Dixon, who had something like 14 or 15 books at the time. Whenever you talked to him in the hall, you knew what was going on in his head: “We could both be writing.” It was sobering how devoted to producing the text he was – in those pre-computer days, he just typed his manuscripts over and over, refining them with each pass, until he was done. Think of how much easier we have it now.
So yeah. Writer’s block? Maybe. I don’t want to offend anyone with categorical denunciations. Let’s just say sometimes it might be real – but sometimes it’s an excuse. And I just don’t have a lot of patience with that, anymore.
Near + Far is full of stories. I could have had twice as many in it. They’re stories that could have stayed in my head, much more perfect, elegant and beautifully realized than their actuality. Or I could do what I did: write them and get them out of the way, making room for more to come.
Palmatier’s most recent anthology is The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, which he co-edited with Patricia Bray. It includes stories by Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear, Jim Hines, and a whole array of the hottest writers working in urban fantasy today. Meanwhile, his January novel, LEAVES OF FLAME, is the sequel to the well-received Benjamin Tate novel WELL OF SORROWS.
I asked him…
How did your dual career evolve–are you a writer who became an editor, an editor who became a writer, or some other manner of creature?
Oh, I’m definitely a writer who became an editor. In fact, I’m still kind of shocked that the editing thing happened. It wasn’t something that really crossed my mind as part of the publishing industry I could/should pursue. Basically, I was at a multi-author signing and afterwards we all got together for drinks (as authors are wont to do), and during the animated conversation someone brought up writing short stories centered around a bar. This evolved into the idea that the bars in the story were actually the same bar and it was simply shifting through time. And then Patricia suggested that the bartender be Gilgamesh, and lo! the After Hours: Tales from Ur-Bar anthology was born. Of course, we still had to sell the idea and that’s where all of these grand ideas that occur to writers at bars usually die. But I decided the idea was worth pursuing and so I asked someone at Tekno how we could get our idea pitched to DAW, since that’s what Tekno does. They asked me to pitch it to them right then, which I did, and they liked it enough they asked for a written proposal by the next day because they were doing a batch of pitches to DAW then. I scrambled to get the proposal written and (months later, of course) we heard that DAW had bought the anthology. This is when me and Patricia panicked, because neither one of us had ever edited anything before, but we did what authors always do in such circumstances: cracked open a bottle of wine, opened a box of chocolate, and got to work. We enjoyed the experience so much that we pitched some ideas for additional anthologies and sold The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, our latest anthology, coming out March 6th, 2012.
Tell us a bit about this latest anthology: how did it come together?
Ha, well, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity didn’t come about in a bar. Once we’d had such fun putting together AFTER HOURS, we decided we wanted to do another anthology. I had this idea for a short story that involved the fae, but in a modern setting, and I thought having an entire set of such stories would be cool. I told Patricia about the story and we put together a proposal based on that. However, during the course of writing the proposal, the concept slipped into something slightly different and so my story no longer fit the anthology. (Basically, the anthology is much more urban fantasy in nature, and my story wasn’t.) But that was fine; it was only driving the idea and I’d only planned on using it in the anthology if we needed it to fill up some space. In any case, we pitched the idea along with a few others and that was the one DAW was interested in. Once sold, we asked multiple authors to submit stories (a much wider pool than for the AFTER HOURS anthology since we felt more comfortable being editors), and of course got a slew of great tales. We actually had so many we had to pick and choose which ones to include. This was the first time we had to deal with rejections, which was hard, but it’s all part of the business.
Do you find that fiction writing and editing are easy roles to keep in balance? One assumes there’s a time crunch–because many of us live in a perpetually time-crunched state–but are there any challenges involved wearing both hats? What about benefits?
Actually, I was surprised how easy it was to switch from one role to the other. I was only dealing with one anthology per year, so it wasn’t as intense as what our editors at Tor and DAW deal with on a daily basis. Most of the heavy work involved came when the stories were handed in and we had to read them for either inclusion in the anthology, or for potential edits. After that, we had to reread them all for the copy edits and page proof phase of the publishing process. But overall, it was something I could easily balance with my continued writing. Mostly, I worked on the writing in the afternoons (and mornings when I wasn’t teaching), and did my editing in the evenings after the gym. Patricia and I would get together after having read the stories individually to discuss our thoughts on what to include, what needed additional revisions, etc. I think it helps tremendously that both Patricia and I are incredibly organized, so nothing got lost or misplaced, and we were always on schedule, if not ahead of schedule during the entire process. The most challenging aspect was choosing the order in which the stories would be placed in the anthology. For AFTER HOURS, that was easy (chronological order); but for MODERN FAE, we wanted to make certain there weren’t two similar stories (two humorous or two dark) back-to-back. We wanted to stress the variety of the stories by having it switch back and forth. But even then you want the stories to slow well into one another so the transitions aren’t jarring. As for benefits, I really think it gave both Patricia and I an appreciation for what our own editors have to deal with one a much larger scale every day. I also think being a writer made it easier for us to talk to the other authors and discuss their stories, what we thought would make them better, etc.
Your latest Ben Tate novel, Leaves of Flame, opens with your wizard character Colin having mastered three of five possible magical disciplines. Can you tell us a little about how you structured this magic system–why the divisions exist, and what the pitfalls might be?
Ah, the magic system. I like things that aren’t quite so set in stone, so my system isn’t based on something like “throw two pinches of orcbane into ground swallow’s bone, mix with fairy blood, then drink.” It’s much more . . . metaphysical, I guess. I have five essential magics, although they all interact and blend with each other at the edges. I think of the five as sort of a continuum, like the spectrum of light, and each person falls into that continuum in some place. Where they fall determines what kind of magic they have an affinity for and how strong they will be when using that magic. It’s more complicated than this, actually, because people can have an affinity for more than one magic (as Colin does), but that’s the basic idea. Someone really strong with the magic I call the Rose will be centered strongly on the part of the continuum. If Rose corresponds to red in the light spectrum, then someone strong in the Rose will be a deep, dark red in color. Then, of course, there are some people that have no affinity for any of the five magics. And the magic itself is also ethereal in nature. For example, in the Ben Tate books, I play around with the magic I call the Lifeblood—the water in the Well of Sorrows that (as far as Colin can tell) makes someone immortal and allows them to manipulate time. There are obvious limits to this power, which Colin discovers through experimentation, so there are obviously “rules,” but it isn’t as solid or obvious what those rules are as it might be in some fantasy novels. I like this sense of an unseen structure, but with enough freedom for the characters to explore and for the magic to expand. The obvious pitfall is that as the series continues (and the world expands), you have to be careful that you keep all of the so-called “established” rules from previous novels in mind in the later ones, so that you don’t accidentally violate some principle that you established earlier on. I hate when this happens in novels I read (where a rule becomes “inconvenient” for the current plot and so the author “changes” the rules so that things will work like they want), and so I’m extremely conscious of it in my own work. However, the more books I write, the harder it is to keep track of everything! Copious notes are necessary.
Do you ever think about a dream project… the book you’d write or edit if you had carte blanche and a magically guaranteed audience? What would that look like?
Hmm . . . well, I’d have to say that I’ve been lucky in that DAW has supported my writing dreams to the extent that they’ve been interested in pretty much everything I’ve wanted to write up to this point. So in essence, the books I’m currently writing are all ones that I really want to write. What I’m missing in all of this is the magically guaranteed audience. I could always use more fans! *grin* But seriously, I think the only thing I dream about right now is the continued chance to write the books that are flitting around in my head. There are probably 15 ideas for other books demanding attention at the moment, so I have plenty of projects to look forward to in the future . . . if I can find someone willing to buy them. I’d also like to continue editing anthologies. Patricia and I have a few proposals ready to be pitched when the opportunity arises. I’d like to get the chance to wrangle authors again in the near future.
Joshua Palmatier (www.joshuapalmatier.com), otherwise known as Benjamin Tate (www.benjamintate.com) is a fantasy writer with DAW Books, with two series on the shelf, a few short stories. As mentioned, he is co-editor with Patricia Bray of two anthologies. Check out the “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy—The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, and The Vacant Throne—under the Joshua Palmatier name. And look for the “Well” series—Well of Sorrows and the just released Leaves of Flame—by Benjamin Tate. His short stories are included in the anthologies Close Encounters of the Urban Kind (edited by Jennifer Brozek), Beauty Has Her Way (Jennifer Brozek), and River (Alma Alexander). And the two anthologies he’s co-edited are After Hours: Tales from the Ur-bar and the upcoming The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity (March 2012). Find out more about both names at www.joshuapalmatier.com and ww.benjamintate.com, as well as on Facebook, LiveJournal, and Twitter.
I will be interviewing Guest of Honor Stephen Baxter at Norwescon this April 6th and to that end I’ve started Stone Spring, first in his most recent series, The Northland Trilogy. It’s an alternate history about dike-building stone age Britons. The main character is a teenaged girl, Ana; of course, among a people whose life expectancy is in the thirties, this means she is in no way a kid.
I love AH and haven’t read as much of it in the past couple years as I did when I was reviewing for Locus, so it has been a lot of fun. And I’m looking forward to the interview. If you’re gonna be at NWC, it’s at 2:00 p.m. on the Friday.
My previous read was also a novel, Stephanie Burgis’s Kat, Incorrigible, which is a thoroughgoing romp. Kat’s twelve with two marriageable sisters and a family disgraced by their dead mother’s very public use of magic. Her eldest sister is thereby feeling very much obliged to buy into an arranged marriage with the obscenely rich Sir Neville, and naturally it falls to Kat, who has no gift for being ladylike, proper, or even especially inconspicuous, to find a way to save her.
The book is available now and there will be a sequel, Renegade Magic, out in the spring. I’d say they’re appropriate for kids ten years or older, and I found it thoroughly fun.
Finally, I will be mostly unavailable for today, as February 29th is when I and 28 other writers from four cities are participating in the International 24 Hour Book Project. It’ll be #24hourbook if you want to follow the Tweeting fun.