Archive for July, 2009


the magic of deadlines

I waited so late to post this because of the awesome conversation Nora’s post was generating and… because I am frantically trying to dig out of the pile of trouble I seem to dwell in of late.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I had a hell of a time getting my second novel right. This was especially frustrating because the first novel was so easy (well, in retrospect at least). I actually started my Eli novel as a break from my serious fantasy I was bludgeoning to death at the time. So to have hair pulling, teeth gnashing, entire novel re-writing problems on the second book of my light adventure fantasy series was almost an insult.

However, the novel is now written, through its first edit and well into its second, still, things are behind schedule, and so I was forced to ask my editor for an extension, which she kindly gave, along with a hard deadline of August 17.

Is this a wall I see before me?

It’s not that I can’t get the novel done. As I said, it is done. It’ s just not… done done. Like, “I am proud to let others see my accomplishment” done, which is funny because it’s way more polished than Eli novel 1 was when I first started sending it to agents. And then there’s the small matter of the MOUNTAIN of work I’m doing for my day job, all the times pregnancy is kicking my ass and making me sleep 10 frigging hours a day (COME ON). Bitch, bitch, moan, moan, etc.

And yet, funny enough, for all this in my way, that hard deadline had gotten me going like nothing else has. Right now I’m focusing on day job work because starting Monday I’m taking 2 weeks paid vacation to do nothing but edit my butt off (or my character’s butts off, depending on your point of view). I’m effecient, I’m focused, I’m… a bit of a raging workaholic, but I’m getting things done like I haven’t for weeks.

It’s the sight of the cliff ahead that has me really pushing like I need to push to do this, and for me, this is a big thing. I’ve never been someone who’s motivated by deadlines. I keep myself moving, mostly, and while deadlines are good for setting goals, I never put much motivational stock in them… until now!

I just hope all this gung-ho rushing doesn’t make me blind to the horror that is my novel, but I’m feeling good about my story and maybe, just maybe, I can finally… FINALLY be done with this novel that has eatten so much of my life.


Describing Characters of Color, pt. 2

This is something I was going to do on my own blog, as a followup to an earlier post on ways to describe characters of color in fiction. But since a) I was coming up short on something to write about for this week’s Magic District post, and b) this is International Blog Against Racism Week* (IBARW), I figured I could kill two birds with one stone.

I’m a Harry Potter fan, if you haven’t guessed it by now from my repeated references. I’m such a fan that initially I only wanted the British versions of the books, so the first one I read was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I did this because I found it suspect that the publisher had changed the name for the US release to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, completely ignoring the alchemical history that the original title evoked. If they were going to change something like that, I reasoned, who knew what else they would change?

So when I later got the US version and compared the two, I wasn’t surprised to see that a number of words and lines had been changed. Most of these changes were minor, for example clarifying Britishisms that USians might not have picked up on, like using the word “sweater” in place of “jumper”, since in the US a jumper is a kind of girl’s dress. But in several places I noticed a more curious difference. For example, at one point the character Dean Thomas is explicitly stated to be black in the US version — a line which doesn’t even exist in the UK version.

Now, note: Dean is described in the UK version in ways that strongly suggest his race, but it’s subtly done. His dredlocks are mentioned repeatedly, as is his love of a particular soccer (sorry, football) team which is known in the UK for having a lot of black players and fans. There are other clues. But somewhere along the way, some US editor for Rowling’s book decided that US kids just wouldn’t pick up on the clues, and decided to add that line to make it clear. Continue reading ‘Describing Characters of Color, pt. 2’



Following up on last week’s post: say you’ve just returned from the workshop, your story’s been taken apart into little twitching pieces, and you feel as if you’ve been beaten about the head with several dozen jellyfish. But you have a stack of critiques of your story, all of them with some important point that needs to be addressed. Now what?

Here’s where we get into subjective territory. Everyone revises differently, and everyone approaches their critiques in the way that’s best for them. So while I can describe the process I use — and will do so to fill up a blog post — I can’t state with certainty that this process will work for everyone.

Based on my experience, though, here are some things that I’ve learned about synthesizing your critiques. Standard disclaimers apply, your mileage may vary, etc., etc. Continue reading ‘Reassembly’


Confessions of a social media failure

One of the coolest, and most unexpected, side benefits of getting an agent and a book deal has been the opportunities to meet other authors.  Amazing things happen, like getting invited to join in a group blog (HAI GUYS), or writing fan mail and having it actually be answered, personally! And then getting invited to hang out with said writer at conventions!


But one of the number one things I hear from all the amazing new authors I meet is “Oh! Are you on Twitter?” or “Oh! Let’s follow each other on facebook!” and then I have to sort of hem and haw around the fact that I am not, in fact, twitterpatted, and while I do have a facebook, I only got it for work, and I never use it. It’s not because I’m old fashioned or some kind of social media luddite, far from it, it’s just that I don’t really like social media.

Part of it is that I’m really just not that interesting. Honestly! I get up, I go to work, I write, I play videogames, I have a stable relationship with my husband, not exactly high drama. I have to work myself into a froth to be interesting once a week for you guys, the idea of doing it daily makes me green around the gills, especially the thought of doing it on Twitter.

Now I love the idea of Twitter. It’s like the ultimate short form, except for the part where I’m really bad at short form anything.  I tried to write a tweet once, on a dare from a coworker, and I failed. Oh how I failed. I seem to be incapable of being clever in anything less than a paragraph (though whether I can be clever within a paragraph is yet to be discovered.)

So, Twitter is out more through my personal failing than any real objections, but facebook? You don’t have to be clever on facebook, right? So why do I take enormous pains to avoid even visiting the site, let alone logging in?

I think part of it is my upbringing. I come from a very old, southern family where talking too much about yourself was the height of rudeness. So when I see all the facebook apps and profiles full of personal information, I don’t see them as items of interest for my friends, I see them as a vaguely embarrassing overabundance of personal information. For example, in my day job, my company makes social networking sites on occasion (hence why I have a facebook for work), and while we were putting together the user photos section I noticed there was a tab for “photos of me,” even in your friend’s albums. When I saw this, I became offended cat. “What?” I screeched. “There’s a whole section just for pictures of me? That’s so narcissistic!”

My boss’s answer? “Facebook does it.”

The whole focus on the user as the center of their social universe, while the point of a social networking site, offends me deeply and, frankly, kind of stupidly. To steal a phrase of my mother’s, “they didn’t make it to offend you.” Social media may be narcissistic, but it’s also not going anywhere. Lots people love it, including people I love, and I just need to (to steal yet another phrase of my mother’s) get over myself and get on. After all, when my book comes out I would be an idiot not to take advantage of the ready made social platforms to try and shore up any slips into obscurity. In the end, not using my resources because I don’t like them is just another form of narcissism. A dangerous one that could do real harm to my carreer if I persist in my social media failure.

At the end of the day, I want to be a successful author more than I want to stay away from social media. What’s the point of working so hard on these books if no one buys them? I can’t guarantee that having a facebook/Twitter presence will sell my books, but it certainly can’t hurt. And with so many entertainment options out there jostling my poor little paperback, I’ll take everything I can get.



I’ve just gotten back from Launch Pad, a week-long astronomy workshop sponsored by NASA. The idea is that, since the American public seems to pay little attention to actual scientists (resulting in many, many misconceptions and outright falsehoods gaining traction), they’ll work through people who might have more of an impact — i.e., people who use science to entertain, like science fiction writers, prominent science bloggers, science comedians, and the like. The workshop helps those people get the basics right.

“But wait!” I hear you saying. (C’mon, play along.) “Aren’t you a fantasy writer? You don’t use science!”

Au contraire, mon strange doubtful random person. (I’m practicing my French for Anticipation.) First off, I’m not purely a fantasy writer. Like most writers, I do a little bit of everything. I’ve had science fiction stories published in a number of places, and I’ve even gotten an Honorable Mention in the latest Year’s Best Science Fiction. My first few novels, including The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, are fantasy — but the next project on my slate is a YA cyberpunk novel. I’m a writer who likes fantasy, not just a fantasy writer; the difference is mostly academic, but important.

But beyond that, who the heck says fantasy writers don’t use science? Some of my favorite authors — C. S. Friedman, in her Coldfire Trilogy; Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels — set their fantasy tales on planets settled by colonists from Earth. And while the distinction between magic and psi-power is a matter of considerable debate, there’s no doubt that these books are equally loved by readers of both genres. Frankly, looking at these writers’ careers, it seems clear that science fiction/fantasy blends can be very successful if handled correctly. So why wouldn’t I try? McCaffrey’s work accurately (for the time) explored genetic engineering and the sociological impact of planetary colonization in a time of crisis. I think that made her readers more willing to accept the frankly non-scientific dragons who couldn’t possibly fly in anything resembling Earth gravity. Friedman tackled evolution, introducing a unique ecosystem that adapts itself to intrusions (read: colonists from Earth) in non-Darwinian ways (read: magic). Understanding Darwinian evolution is crucial for the reader because in Friedman’s world, the most powerful magic users are those who manage to impose Earth rules on this fundamentally alien system.

All of these very fantastic novels are rooted in real, hard science, without which I believe they simply wouldn’t work as well. Nobody wants to read fantasy these days — if they ever did — in which Wizard X simply waves his hands around and causes Magical Effect Y. Readers want structure, plausible chains of cause and effect, conservation of energy and mass, consequences. Mercedes Lackey and other authors have been paraphrased as saying that any sufficiently complex magic/knowledge is indistinguishable from technology, and this goes for science too. One of the most effective recent fantasy novels I’ve read is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, in which the magic system is modeled on the principles of metallurgy and metals’ atomic structure. You don’t have to know inorganic chemistry to follow the book, but it makes for a more interesting experience if you do.

So I’m looking forward to incorporating astronomy into my fantasy in the future. I’ve dabbled in it a little already; one of the characters in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms can turn himself into a black hole at will. I had to research one scene, in which he transforms in order to destroy an oncoming army, by figuring out exactly what would happen if a 3-solar-mass black hole hit a planet. Unfortunately I didn’t discover this guy until after the book was done, so I think I got a few details wrong. Oh, well.

Next time, though, I’m totally going to get it right. Because nothing says fantasy like spaghettified unicorns!


Critiques, or how to throw your stories to the wolves and like it

First off, for those of you who are attending this year’s WorldCon — Anticipation in Montreal — there are a few spots open in the Writers’ Workshop. If you’re interested, go take a look at either the English description or the French description. I’ll be helping out with it this year (I’m a late addition), and I’m looking forward to it. Spots are disappearing fast, though!

And speaking of workshops (ha! I segue!), there’s a lot to be said for it, and a lot to keep in mind if you’re looking to either go to a one-time workshop or join a writers’ group. Workshopping is a difficult process, and if you’re new to it, it can be very, very painful. Hell, the first time I had a story on the block at BRAWL, I was blinking back tears through the crit. Second time too, come to think of it. I built up calluses quickly after that, but it really drove home to me that workshopping a story can be rough.

Granted, some of this is because BRAWL does not do the huggy, nurturing method of workshopping. (As you can probably guess from the name of our group.) The unofficial motto for BRAWL was “we’re cruel because we care,” and that has been the case. Never needlessly cruel, never harsh for the sake of being harsh, and always with an eye toward making our work better.

And without the help that BRAWL gave me, my stories wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Nor would Spiral Hunt and Wild Hunt, since the comments they gave me on these novels were invaluable.

So. How do you deal with a workshop? Continue reading ‘Critiques, or how to throw your stories to the wolves and like it’


Second book–mistakes I have made

by Diana

Well, Blood of the Demon, the second book in the Demonic Lords series, has been accepted and is now on the way to the copyeditor. I have a publication date (Feb 23, 2010!) I have cover art!

However, the second book ended up being a lot harder to write than the first. And by “a lot” I mean “holy crap is this thing every going to come together and not suck?” It didn’t help that I made a number of errors in judgment that almost caused me to miss my deadline.

I wrote the first book, Mark of the Demon, without a deadline, at my own pace, and with plenty of input from critique partners. From start (embarking on the first draft) to finish (the “final” version that was shopped to publishers by my agent,) it took less than nine months to write.

I started the second book as soon as the first book went on submission. (Sept ’07)  The first draft didn’t flow out quite as easily as the first book, and I ended up changing my concept several times before I finally settled on something that I thought would work. Also, my work situation had changed quite a bit since writing the first book, and I no longer had stretches of available time during the day to write. My writing routine had become: get up at 0430 to write for an hour before getting ready for work and getting the Kid up. Write for half an hour on my lunch break. Write for about an hour after work before picking the Kid up from daycare. Write for about an hour after putting Kid to bed. I was exhausted all the time, and at the same time my work situation had degenerated into Pure Suck, which meant that my creative energies weren’t exactly at their highest.   

By mid-February, I estimated that I was about ¾ of the way through the draft–and it had been a long painful slog to get even that much done. However, I was also looking at the calendar, taking note of how long Mark of the Demon had been on submission, and I was beginning to lose my nerve about spending so much time working on the sequel to a book that might not sell. After a lengthy conversation with my agent, I decided to put Blood of the Demon on hiatus while I switched to another project.

Well, a few weeks later, my agent called to tell me the terrific news about Bantam’s offer for Mark of the Demon and a sequel. That’s when everything changed. After deep discussion with my husband, we decided that the first and best move was for me to quit my job. Instantly, ten thousand layers of stress fell away from me. But I suddenly had another problem that I had not anticipated: For the first time in close to 20 years, I didn’t have a set work schedule. I had nothing to structure my writing time around. Once I’d dropped the Kid off at daycare, I had my day pretty much to myself. I had ALL day to write, and a book that wasn’t due until April ’09.

You can see where this is going, right? Yep, for most of the summer of ’08, I didn’t do much writing. I did a lot of other things–reading, relaxing, bicycling…  and then when I started to feel guilty about doing all of that, I’d open up the file for Blood and try to poke at it.  However, since I’d been away from it so long, I was painfully aware of how many serious issues the book had, which made it hard for me to figure out just where to attack it. It also didn’t help that, for a perfect storm of reasons, I didn’t have much in the way of feedback from critique partners. (As in almost none.)

When Fall rolled around, I was finally able to force myself into a routine that was fairly productive. I got back to serious work on Blood after chucking out nearly half of what I’d written. After about two months I had a completed first draft, with nearly five months to go until my deadline.

Here’s where I made my biggest mistake. Since my editor was out on maternity leave, I figured that there was little need to push to turn Blood in early. I also knew I wanted to take a couple of weeks and focus on something other then Blood so that when I started revisions I would have a somewhat fresh eye. Therefore, I (very foolishly) decided to go back and work on the project that I’d been working on when my book deal came in. I spent a couple of months working on that, then switched back to Blood, finished up revisions, and sent it to my agent with a month to spare before my deadline (which was also about the time that my editor was due to return from her leave.)

This is where my lack of feedback and my poor time management bit me in the ass. My agent read the book, then–in the nicest possible way–told me that it wasn’t good, and in fact had some serious problems. After the requisite crying jag, I read through his comments again, reluctantly accepted that he knew what the fuck he was talking about, and realized that I had to rewrite about half of the book in order to address the (quite legitimate) issues that he’d pointed out.

Remember where I said that this was a month before my deadline?

Yes, I ended up rewriting about half of the book in about three and a half weeks. I finally sent the new ‘n improved version to my agent, he expressed deep pleasure at the changes I’d made and asked for a few minor tweaks, and I sent Blood of the Demon to my editor on March 31st.  A year and a half after I began it. A day before my deadline. 

So, to sum up the mistakes/errors in judgment that I made:

Failed to have a solid writing routine.

Failed to get sufficient feedback.

Began work on a different project before actually turning the contracted work in.

Needless to say, I don’t EVER want to go through that again. Therefore, work on Promise of the Demon has begun, I have a schedule and a routine, I have critique partners, and I absolutely will NOT work on anything else until PotD has been turned in.

I’ll let y’all know what new mistakes I make during this process.


no one poops in fantasy

So, like I do every year, I’ve been rereading Diana Wynne Jones The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (if you have not read it, go and do amazon’s free sample, you won’t be disapointed) and, as usual, feeling deeply ashamed of myself. Aside from my usual crimes of color coding (what… bad guys like wearing black… right?) and footwear that not only never wears out, but never smells and never gets waterlogged until plot appropriate. And, as always happens when I’m ruminating on things I got wrong, I always come back to what I see as my worse crime as a writer, which is something both simpler and far more sinister than impossibly convenient footwear.

My characters, simply put, are not human. Over the course of 2 books, I have fed my primary cast of 4 healthy adults the following:

  • a sandwich
  • a handful of fruit tarts
  • one scrawny rabbit
  • a loaf of bread
  • a bottle of wine, which no one got the chance to drink
  • a bowl of stew

Forget final confrontations, my characters will die of starvation before they even reach the climatic battle. Also, as the title would suggest, I haven’t had so much as a mention of a restroom, out house, or latrine pit in almost 150,000 words. Realistic characters eat and sweat and poop just like people, right? I’m a bad writer, a hack, woe woe!

Then I stop woeing and think. How many people – scratch that, how would I like to read a fantasy where people eat regular meals and use the restroom… on screen, so to speak? Sounds like a weird mix of gross and boring. I mean, there’s still no excuse for not feeding my characters a little more realistically, but no one reads fantasy novels looking for a real life SIM. They read them for magic, larger than life characters, and engrossing world building.

This is the lesson I relearn with every novel. In the end, I’m not writing a realistic novel, I’m writing a fantastical novel. While details like stones in shoes and a love of fresh bread help make characters real, there’s such a thing as TMI, even in novels. We know people have biological needs, but we’re reading the book to see how the hero’s going to get out of this mess, not to see what he’s having for dinner.

In the end, the dragon is way more exciting, right?



I’d heard from established authors that this happened, but didn’t quite believe it. Dunno why. I know people can be schmucks. Yet in the past few weeks, I’ve been shocked, shocked I tell you, to encounter people who hear about my book and then ask me, point blank, if I’ll write a book for them. Or if I’ll read their partially-written magnum opus. I thought I would get this from friends of the family, or relatives — people who at least know me a little and feel they can presume on the relationship. But no! I’ve been getting it from total strangers.

The conversation generally goes like this:

Nora: Do dee do dee do…

Random Stranger: Hi!

Nora: Hello. Nice to meet you.

RS: Likewise! I hear you’re a writer.

Nora: (Looks around, wondering WTF, is it written on her forehead?) Yes…

RS: That’s amazing. Y’know, I’ve always wanted to be a writer too. I’ve got a great idea, you know — Tell me what you think of this: (launches into spiel)

Nora: (Looks around again, for rescue, in between polite nods and “uh-huh”s.)

RS: So what do you think?

Nora: (Makes some comment to show she was listening.)

RS: That’s great! Y’know, I’d be willing to share that idea with you, if you want to write it. Just be sure to credit me on the cover!

Nora: Well, I’m pretty busy at the moment… and it’s not really my style…

RS: No problem, no problem, just keep it in mind! And if you get some free time, let’s talk more!

Occasionally I try to point out to these Random Strangers that there’s a name for what they’re proposing: ghost writing. And when done by established authors with preexisting contracts, it’s actually a pretty nice deal; the ghost writer gets paid a substantial portion of the advance (or so I’ve heard), the established author gets a book, and everybody’s happy. When done by an unknown author with no contract, and no money, it’s a waste of my time.

They always look surprised when I say this.

A variation on it is that the Random Stranger will have written the first chapter or so of a book, and wants me to read it. At this point I’m more helpful, because a person who’s actually trying to write (as opposed to just trying to find a ghost writer) gets lots more respect from me. I won’t read the chapter — only friends get that from me — but I will attempt to steer that writer toward critiquing resources, like Critters or the OWW, or in-person free workshops like the one at Wiscon and other conventions. If they seem really serious, I’ll tell them about my experience with Viable Paradise, which I highly recommend, or I’ll encourage them to apply to one of the Clarion workshops — the six-week “boot camps” of the SF field.

But back to my rant. Seriously, what is it with people thinking that writers spend all their time mooching ideas from random strangers? Or even wanting to mooch? I bet that if I turned around and asked those people to write my upcoming book — for which there is a contract and money on the table — they’d look at me like I had a third eye.

I think part of the problem is that a lot of people have no real idea what writers do. They think we sit around all day at coffee shops with beanies on our heads, drinking black coffee laced with gin, and ranting about True Art ™. Or something. I don’t know. And apparently in between rants, we hit up random strangers for marketable book ideas.

I’m trying to master my anger at these people so that I can respond politely when they offer me the rare and precious favor of writing their unwritten novels, because of this — it’s not just that they’re self-absorbed and obnoxious, it’s that they’re genuinely ignorant, and I can’t really blame them for the latter. But good grief it’s tough to hold it in. Kinda makes me feel like this guy sometimes. Not that I have a Messiah Complex.


Stubbornness and recommendations

Stop me if you’ve been through this before: A friend raves about a book to you, and you mentally add it to your to-read list. Then another friend mentions it, and instead of making it a higher priority, you push it back a little further. Even when more favorable reviews come in, some perverse impulse makes you more determined not to read it. It’s not that you don’t trust the opinions of those who recommended the book, it’s just that . . . you don’t wanna.

And then, for whatever reason, you pick it up later on and . . . hey, they were right. And not just right; this book was just what you needed! You’ve got to tell someone about this . . . dammit, all the people you’d tell are the ones who recommended it in the first place.

For example, I’ve just recently finished Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, and I had no good reason for waiting so long. It’s a rich and fun story with swashbuckling to spare, and I sank into it completely. It was the first of his books I’d read, despite multiple recommendations, and I’m going to have to concede that yes, I probably should be reading more of his work.

So why is it that recommendations, even well-meant and accurate ones, sometimes have the opposite effect on me? And does this happen to everyone, or is it just a juvenile reaction on my part?

I know my father’s book recommendations were, for a while, the kiss of death as far as I was concerned; anything he liked, I stayed the hell away from. That’s passed as I’ve gotten older, for the most part, and while we’ll never have identical tastes, there’s enough overlap that I no longer treat books he recommends as if they were made out of nettles.

Some of it probably has to do with the initial recommendation — being told that I “have to see/read/hear this” irritates me for some reason, and if I’ve first heard of a work in an unfavorable light, it’ll take a while to shake that first impression, no matter how inaccurate it is. Another factor, for me at least, is reverse snobbery; I have a bad habit of ignoring “mainstream” or “literary” works out of some misplaced genre loyalty. And another part is just plain laziness — after the last few months of planning, I’ve been craving old favorites, comfort reading, over new and winding stories.

Whatever the reason, if it’s keeping me from more swashbuckling, then I really need to get over it.

Any recommendations that pushed you in the opposite direction?  What happened when you finally read the book?  And, uh, how do you go about admitting gracefully that you were wrong?