Dojo Summer Sessions: The Writer’s Rituals

I think most of us who write, no matter how skeptical or non-superstitious we are, have our little rituals to summon the Muse (not that the wretched entity comes when called). Consider this an invitation to regale us with yours.

I’m not picky when it comes to blogging. I’ve done it in my PJs, but usually sans Cheetos, thus not fully confirming stereotypes. Something arises I wish to pontificate upon, and so pontification occurs. I can blog any time of day or night, in a variety of settings, in various stages of dress or un, with or without prior preparation depending on the subject.

But fiction, that’s a different beast. I’ve successfully written a few times in places outside my home, but that’s a rare thing. Generally speaking, in order to summon the storytelling, I have to be ensconced in my comfy chair in my living room, within sight of my Yoshitaka Amano prints of Morpheus. I must be fully dressed. I’ve never felt comfortable writing fiction in my jammies, although I’ve managed it a few times when the Muse has rousted me out of bed. I must have music playing, and the music must be agreeable to the characters I’m writing. I’ve gotten involved with quite a lot of musical genres I had no use for simply because a particular character required them. Strange, perhaps, but there it is.

Some stories require a clean house. Some require sobriety, some a nice mixed drink. It’s nice to know these things in advance so that writing can commence.

There must be darkness. I have a terrible time writing in daylight, which is why Seattle winters are such a compliment to my writing and its summers make it nearly impossible. That’s fine. A writer needs to get out occasionally, experience life in order to create lifelike worlds, so I just use the summer to accomplish that feat.

I have a special hand soap I use, a very deep floral scent that washes away all traces of the day. I plug in a nice jasmine scented oil. Scent is an important component of emotional states, as science has proved, and those particular scents signal my brain that it’s time to shake off the remains of the day and get on with the real work.

Some stories are helped along by particular shows or movies, even if they aren’t the same genre or atmosphere as what I’m writing. So I might spend an hour or two watching one, before the real work starts. Then, shot full of adrenaline, I have one final preparatory smoke out on the porch, look at the stars (if the Seattle skies have obliged), and sit me down in the chair to invite further forays into the realm of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

It may sound a bit complicated and unnecessary. To non-writers, it probably smacks of madness. But there you are: without at least a handful of those rituals, I sit staring at a blank screen, and words too often refuse to come. I’m sure neuroscience will one day be able to calmly and dispassionately explain all in great detail. It might even come up with ways to persuade the Muse to work even on nights when the rituals have failed, and the brain remains as stubbornly blank as the screen. Until that day, I just stick with what’s worked so far, like a pigeon performing a crazy little dance in the belief that this is what makes the food appear.

Creativity is a weird and wonderful thing, innit it?

Dojo Summer Sessions: Connie Willis on Comedy, Tragedy, and Getting Married via LOTR

Comatose from traveling, I’m afraid. However, I have Connie Willis here to delight, surprise, and teach you. She’s one of the best SF authors in existence. Also, funny and surprising. Watch!

Don’t miss this next one for sheer geeky hilarity. Lord of the Rings has changed a lot of people’s lives, but I don’t think any of us knew quite how powerful it truly is.

Dojo Summer Sessions: The Pleasures of Longhand

I’ve just spent the past two nights taking notes longhand from various books and websites. I’ve got notebooks full of such scribblings, deep black ink on white paper, handwriting that changes according to mood, caffeine levels, and whether or not the cat wanted attention. It’s a dramatically inefficient way to take notes: using a pen takes far longer than typing. I can’t shuffle things about in various folders on the desktop; I can’t do keyword searches. So why, in this digital age, would anyone choose a pen and put it to paper?

I can’t answer for other writers, but I know the answers for myself. It forces me to slow down, pay attention to each word and phrase, rather than skim. When one is struggling to learn alone, to draw disparate bits together and forge them into a coherent whole, make sense of things barely understood, slowing down to that degree is immensely helpful. I’ve read one of the sections I took notes from several times, but it wasn’t until I started copying out the sentences that their meaning became clear. Things began to make sense. What I saw on the page began merging with what I’d seen in the field. And when I add to those notes ones taken from other sources, and can then read them as a unit, matters become even more clear.

I notice things and question things I wouldn’t have paid attention to otherwise. In one of the books I’m mining, the authors keep mentioning radioactive dates. Fine, yes, I know how that works, how ages are determined by the decay of radioactive minerals – but which ones? Was this potassium-argon, uranium-lead, something else? Taking notes longhand, walking the slow road, keeps me from missing such subtle omissions, and alerts me to where the gaps in my knowledge are. Not merely the great gaping chasms, mind, but the little cracks. And that prompts me to pay attention when something comes along to fill those cracks in later readings.

There’s also the aesthetic sense. There’s something sensual about writing longhand. I can feel the words in a way I can’t when I’m typing. Forming each letter is a kind of art. The physicality of it, the inability to erase mistakes without a trace, the gleam of fresh wet ink, brings me as close as I’ll ever get to more visual arts like painting. It satisfies the need to create something more like a drawing. And trust me when I say you’d much prefer I fulfill that desire in this way: my drawing skillz are teh suck.

Copying out longhand also puts me closer to other writers. I’m not just reading what they’ve written, but feeling it. I start to notice little quirks each author has, particular habits of word choice, signature turns of phrase. Even the strictest formal prose has an individual mind behind it. When you’re merely reading, or cutting and pasting blocks of text, or scribbling out a key concept or two, it’s easy to miss those subtleties. Not when you’re copying out each sentence word-for-word by hand. At this point, I can just about write a dissertation on David Alt and Donald Hyndman’s quirks. That kind of thing can be extremely useful to a writer. Getting a feel for how different writers employ language in prose helps you develop a style of your own. It’s another way of learning the good tricks that turn you from apprentice to master wordsmith.

And then there’s the purely practical matter of having all of these various bits and pieces collected in one place, in a form that fits easily on the arm of a chair, where they can be referenced without having to switch screens. And those notes stay collected, easy to refer back to for future missives on similar areas or issues.

Some idle thoughts have tickled my mind while I’ve been doing this. I wonder if kids a few years from now, with their pad devices, will find people like me hopelessly anachronistic. As I form the letters in my own personal mix of cursive and print, I wonder how much longer it would take to write longhand if one had never learned cursive at all, and whether anyone aside from specialists will be able to read cursive letters in the future. I wonder if any pad device with a stylus will ever allow me to do this longhand writing electronically, and convert my scribbles into nice clean lines, and if it would feel as right as this pen gliding across this paper. I wonder if I can ever train a cheap optical character reader to read my handwriting so that the next time I move, my entire collection will fit on a corner of a hard drive rather than taking up several boxes, and so that I can actually organize this crap. I mean, yes, I could scan it, but if I’m going to go that far, I want a program that will turn my notes into things I can search and manipulate, not merely stare at as one monolithic ensemble on the screen. I’d like it turned into neat and clean Times New Roman.

The way technology’s going, there’s probably something already out there, but I haven’t bothered looking for it. I’m enjoying my old-fashioned dead-tree-and-ink methods too much right at the moment. That stack of notebooks beside my chair is a nice physical reminder that yes, I’ve been working me arse off. And the cat likes them. All reasons enough, I should think, to keep on despite the glaring inefficiencies.

Dojo Summer Sessions: Taking Stock, Going With the Flow

Here’s a post I think all writers should read. It’s got important concepts and questions we need to keep in mind if we wish to succeed. It takes the economic concept of stock and flow and turns it into a metaphor for writing:

But I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

  • Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
  • Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.
I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: Oh man. I’ve got nothing here.

But I’m not saying you should ignore flow! No: this is no time to hole up and work in isolation, emerging after long months or years with your perfectly-polished opus. Everybody will go: huh? Who are you? And even if they don’t—even if your exquisitely-carved marble statue of Boba Fett is the talk of the tumblrs for two whole days—if you don’t have flow to plug your new fans into, you’re suffering a huge (here it is!) opportunity cost. You’ll have to find them all again next time you emerge from your cave.

Now, seriously, go read the whole thing. Then you can come back here and continue the discussion. I’ll wait. I’ll even put the rest below a fold so you’re motivated.

That post has stayed with me for some time, now. Very useful stuff.

There’s another aspect of flow, too, that may have been outside the scope of that post, but which I think is important enough for us to jibber-jabber about. And it’s this: flow isn’t only about keeping yourself in front of people. It’s also about inspiration and knowledge. It’s about staying connected to a community that can help you write.

My Twitter stream went from a begrudged necessity for keeping up with Erik Klemetti’s migrations to most valuable resource ever. I’m drinking from a firehose of wisdom. The folks I follow constantly post links to things that make my writing brain go “Oooo I could use that!” If I get stuck, there’s someone around who can unstick me. If I have questions, I can get answers, or get pointed in the right direction. If I run out of motivation, I can ask for a righteous prod to the arse.

My blog keeps me writing even when I haven’t got any desire to write. It provides me readers, Wise ones, who will upon request tear apart anything that needs tearing down in order to be built back up. And it’s a huge motivator: I can see people are reading what I write. I can see my words matter to them. When I fall prey to doubt and despair, the readers of this blog are there to remind me that no, really, I’m a good writer and I can write things people enjoy reading.

If I neglected flow to invest all my time in stock, I’d have none of those things. And it’s possible, although not likely, I’d give up the lonely enterprise of putting one word after another, stop courting carpal tunnel syndrome, and wander off to do something else. What, I don’t know, because without flow, who would I share all the lovely adventures with? Most of my meatspace friends get sick of me showing them pretty rocks after the first dozen.

As in all things, the trick is finding the right balance. The right mix in ye olde portfolio, if we wish to continue the economic metaphor. There are times when flow threatens to take over completely. There are others when stock is nearly all. But that’s okay. I can put a lot of stock in stock while going with the flow, and being kept constantly busy means less time staring in despair at a stubbornly blank screen.

So them’s my thoughts. The floor is now yours, my darlings, and it’s not just a writer’s forum: most of you here have stock (your work) and flow (your Twitter et al). How has each fed the other for you?

Maligned Minerals and Serpentinite in Sun

Sunlight in Seattle has been hard to come by, and my poor beautiful chunk of serpentinite has been languishing in the house, unable to show off its colors. But the clouds cleared this afternoon, so I schlepped her out to the porch poste haste. Just look at her:

Hard to believe California tried to dethrone her as the state rock, isn’t it? In a way, I’m glad. When a clueless legislator slipped in language that would’ve nixed the category of state rock entirely, all because some people had no bloody clue where asbestos actually comes from, what it really is, or the fact that for it to do you any damage in its natural state, you’d have to crush and inhale it for years, the geologists went on the warpath. As a happy result, we got tons of excellent posts defending serpentinite, collected with an intense introduction by Silver Fox.

How could you not defend something this beautiful?

And special. You see, serpentinite isn’t just another pretty rock: it’s got a hell of a lot to say about plate tectonics. Read this gorgeous ode to the stone by Chris Rowan and this fact sheet by Brian Romans for its geologic and human history.

Do you see how her appearance changes as I turn her? Some rocks seem the same from every angle, but not this one. She reveals a different texture, a new bit of fascination, with every angle. No wonder Andrew Alden adores serpentinite.

I find myself adoring everything about her: her colors, her history, even her name. Serpentine. The name for her family of minerals comes from Latin: serpentinus, serpent rock. The smooth, sleek greens that sometimes form scale-like patterns do look like a serpent’s skin. And I’ve got a soft spot for serpents, after having done research on serpent mythology for a story I wrote. Those who limit themselves to Christian mythology are really missing out: serpent stories are cool. Serpents in many cultures were wise and wonderful, guardians of knowledge, and those are suitable myths for a rock that reveals so much about how our oceans open and our mountains rise.

For paens to her, you can read Garry Hayes’s series of posts celebrating and defending her. You’ll find that she’s more than just a stone with stories: some very unique life depends on her.

Get close to her.

Look in to her blues and greens, her faint traces of red. Look at her patterns. These next two photos will link you to Flickr, where you can enlarge her, explore her, and even download her if you wish.

And then, for a truly wild trip through texture, read Callan Bentley’s post on serpentinite and mélange. If you don’t start drooling, I’ll know you have no concept of beauty.

If California attempts to malign her again, I swear I’m filching her for the Washington state rock. We haven’t got one. How sad is that? All this glorious geology, and we haven’t got a state rock. Something in my soul is deeply offended. Luckily, I have this glorious chunk of serpentinite to cling to for some comfort.

And for those who want a little world serpent with their serpentinite, I’ve included an excerpt from that story below the fold.

This is from a story in which the Eternal Tarlah, masquerading as a human calling himself Anysos in 5th century BC Ashkelon, finds a hint that a fragment of one of his former allies still exists, and goes in search of him. He finds him in the guise of Níðhöggr, the Norse dragon (in some legends, serpent) who gnaws at the roots of the world tree Yggsdrasil. He takes on a Hebrew name in this discussion.

If this bit leaves you wanting the whole, I shall post it for you on ye olde writing blog. Those without access have only to ask, and they shall receive.

“Nahash, the serpent? Are you the same serpent they reviled in Israel?”

“They react rather violently to a little knowledge, don’t they?” Nahash grinned. “Imagine what they would have done had I been able to finish the business and give the woman wisdom as well. Of course, they say life, but those with wisdom know that wisdom and immortality are the same.” He patted the Tree. “I’ve given that gift of mine to many, some who appreciated it and some who didn’t. I’ve created many gods here, some who even turned on me later, thinking to keep wisdom for themselves. Which will you be?”

“None,” Anysos said. “I came to learn the truth of you. I have no need for your other gifts.”

“So it’s not fear that keeps you from tasting my fruit?”

“I have never feared you, Nahash. Not you, and not your gifts.”

Nahash took his hand from the Tree. “Well, then. The truth. Not many come here seeking that, at least, not that they’re aware of. They get a bit of it anyway, pity for them. The truth? The truth is, like you, I have many names. I was once Ningizzida, Lord of the Tree of Truth, and the Sumerians came to my garden without fear, without guilt, and with a healthy measure of respect. Perhaps too healthy: they respected me too much to partake too freely of my gifts. So things are.” He twined his arms around the trunk of the Tree, staring up into its higher branches. “In Egypt, Isis sent me to retrieve knowledge from Ra. Devious woman, that, stealing a man’s secrets. Thoth carried my symbol, and they worshipped him as knowledge. Such I was in Egypt, among other things.”

He unwound his arms, and spread them wide. “I am Shesha, the serpent bed of sleeping Vishnu, as he dreams the world. I once loosened the great mountain Mandara, and became Vasuki: they wrapped me around the mountain, and we used it as a churn for the milk of the heavens to make Soma, which some drank for immortality but the best used for wisdom.” He spun himself side-to-side, drew his arms in, and stopped. “We drank deep, in those days. We lost the making of Soma, but they still remember and honor me there in India. In fact, it was beneath this tree-” He slapped the trunk, and it became a Bo tree – “that Siddhartha sat those seven weeks, eating of my fruit and drinking of my waters. As Muchalinda, I spread wide my hood and guarded the future Buddha from the storm. Those are some of the places I was revered. There are others, older, before the coming of the heroes, that I was wife and mother, daughter and consort, the dark earth and the mystery. But they have mostly forgotten me as such. Go to some in Lydia, they will tell you of me: they still see me as the woman. Talk to others, and they will show you I bite my tail. I am the Ouroboros, circling the world, eternal.”

Anysos felt a shiver, deep in his mind. “You were, and are.”

“Of course. So what is Yahweh’s jealousy to me? He forbade mankind my fruits, and yet they still find their way to me, some in guilt, some in awe. And there are aspects of me even in Yahweh, much as they try to deny it.” He raised his fists to either side and shook them. “Heracles denied me – wisdom was his mortal enemy – but the snake goddess of Crete brandished me in either hand, and welcomed me. What does it matter, then, that Apollo cast me out of my oracle? Let him believe it’s his – the Pythoness could tell him otherwise.” He flung his hands at the ground. “They even sent Chronos against me: I let him cast me into the sea and take my crown. They hoped Time would defeat me, but what is Time to the eternal?”

-Excerpt copyright Dana Hunter. All rights reserved.

Dojo Summer Sessions: What To Do When the Muse Is On Vacation

I think my Muse has headed south for the summer.  The wretched dominatrix has this infuriating habit of vanishing about the time I need her most, and I get the impression she’s in one of those Mexican hotels that’s got a bar in its pool and a nice view of the Sea of Cortez, drunk off her ass and laughing at me.

Where My Muse probably is right now

So here I am, left behind, doing the dirty work of cleaning the house and feeding the cat and working ye olde day job, with nary a useful literary thought in my head.  Staring at the blank page results in tension headaches and perpetually blank pages.  Attempts at research end early and badly, as an overwhelming sense of, “WTF was I thinking?  I can’t do this any justice!” destroys any bits learned.  And it just seems so much easier to give up, go laze about in the sun and do my damnedest to imitate my cat (sans random attempts at homicide).

Almost every writer goes through these phases.  Your Muse, in fact, may be partying it up with mine right now.  And they’re not physical entities, so we can’t exactly hop a plane to Mexico (don’t we wish!) and haul them back by their scruffs.

What to do?

Well, for one thing, have a blog that you must regularly update.  Because then, it won’t matter how uninspired you are – you have to post something because you have readers, and your readers expect you to write.  Even if you only have one reader, that’s still a reader.  Don’t let that reader be all understanding about your inability to provide content.  Advise them when they try that, “It’s okay, I understand you’re not feeling up to it, blog when you’re ready” shit that it’s not acceptable.  They’re supposed to be your cattle prod, not your enabler.  So even if they think it’s okay for you to slack off, ask them to lie to you and say that it is not.  This will force you to come up with some words.

Do some reading while you’re stuck.  Or watch a movie, or go for a walk, or hang out with friends, or take in a lecture, or just about anything, really.  Walk away from the blank screen and get some life experience.  Do those things you’re not allowed to do when the Muse is standing over you with a whip.  Those things will, eventually, feed back in to your writing, and might just spark a little something.

Do something completely random and new, that you have not done before, while you’re at it.  Novelty may not always be pleasant, but it can shake loose some creativity.

Do creative things other than writing.  Edit photos, play with collages, build models, sew, paint, make music, whatever.  I’ve gotten myself through some dry spells by doing that.  It takes the pressure off the writing side of your creativity so it can recover, while still building your creative muscle.

Make a little list.  Break out the things you must write or do in order to write into manageable chunks, and do them.  Force yourself to spend an hour working on said task, no matter how badly you feel you’re doing it.  Then walk away and do something else.  Come back and take on the next thing on the list (or just pick the next thing that looks doable, no matter what order it’s in).  Lather, rinse, repeat, until hey presto – you’ve done some writing!

Organize your shit.  If you’re one of those writers who lets things get chaotic, now’s a good time to put your writing house in order.

Read up on the bidness.  Plenty of blogs and books out there that talk about everything from the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling to finding agents (if you’re going the traditional route) to self-publishing to marketing and all points in between.  If you ever want to make a living writing, you’ve got to keep up with the business side of things.  During a bout of writer’s block is as good a time as any, even if you feel you’ll never ever write a worthwhile word again (you will).

And if you have to, if nothing’s working, go do one of those writing exercises that are so often plastered all over popular how-to-write sites.

The Muses will return from Mexico.  Eventually.  And now you’ll have at least a handful of pages to wave in their faces and scream, “While you’ve been drinking yourself into oblivion in the hotel pool, some of us have been working!”

That’s always rewarding.

Dojo Summer Sessions: Freedom to Explore

Some of you in the audience are probably quite a bit like me: mildly OCD.  We build up habits and concepts that are terribly difficult to change.

Here’s how bad I am: I cannot use any other program than Microsoft Works to write books.  I know there are people out there who use and love Word, or use it and hate it but use it because it’s the program everybody uses.  But I got my start with Works, and nearly had a breakdown when I got my new computer and had a horrible moment thinking that my old copy of Works, the one without the bells and whistles that made it look like that horrible icky Word, would not install properly.

It’s not that Works is a fantastic program.  It’s not bad, but it’s no great shakes.  It’s just that it’s what was on my first computer.  We’ve spent a lot of years together.  I’ve got it organized just so.  I know its foibles and how to deal with them.  I’m not distracted by the way it looks or acts.  It allows me to sit down and simply write.  Everything else I looked at didn’t have enough advantages to outweigh the fact that it looks weird compared to Works.  Because of all that, I’ve been extremely reluctant to try anything else.

Same thing with ebook publishing.  Fine for them as wants it, I told myself, but my magnum opuses and I are going the tried-and-true route.  We’re gonna write the book (eventually), then we’re gonna find an agent, and someday a publisher, and it’ll be just like we’ve always dreamed.  Unless, of course, something breaks down along the way, i.e., every agent and/or publisher hates it.

But this year’s different.  This year, I’m doing something I’ve never done before: writing a non-fiction book.  And I decided, seeing as how I’ve never written a non-fiction book before, I might as well branch out a bit.  It’s new enough I can use it to play around with other ways of doing things.  For a start, I don’t plan to shop it out to any agents or publishers.  No, we’re going to try this new-fangled self-published ebook thingy.  Because, frankly, I think it might suit me.  However, I refuse to use my magnum opus to beta test this crazy idea, because it’s too precious to me to potentially fuck up.  My lovely Lingua Lithica is also important, but we haven’t spent the last ten or twenty years with each other.  If something goes horribly awry, it’s okay.  The situation can be rescued without seeing my entire writing life burnt to ashes.

That’s a very freeing thing.  That makes my writerly OCD slink off and sulk in a corner.

And then my coblogger Steamforged told me that Scrivener’s now available in a beta version for Windows.  I’d heard of it through Ed Yong and other professional writers who sing its praises to the highest heavens, and I’d wanted to try it, but there was no way I was going to drop a few thousand dollars on a Mac just to give it a spin.  But a beta version for Windows?  Sign me up!  I’ve never beta tested anything in my life, and I’d never ever ever put my magnum opus into a beta version of a program, but Lingua Lithica won’t mind the risks.  So I’ve downloaded Scrivener, and aside from not knowing what the hell I’m doing and its distressing tendency to crash every few minutes when I’m editing a line of Japanese text, I love it.  So what if it’s got some weird foibles and it’s completely unfamiliar?  It’s beta.  So is Lingua Lithica.  By the end of this little experiment, the full version will be out, writing Lingua Lithica in it will have given me the confidence to dump my magnum opus in and continue on with a far superior writing program, and things should be all unicorns and rainbows, with a possibility of champagne and roses.  Unless it’s not, in which case we’ll have an amicable divorce.

The point is this: a project completely outside your usual fare is not only a good way to build up your writing muscles, but an excellent way to give yourself some freedom to explore.  You go into the thing knowing it’s an experiment and knowing it might fail, and so the stress level is quite low.  It gives you the chance to try all those things you’ve wanted to try but couldn’t because you are, when it comes to your precious baby of a writing project, too risk-averse to so much as step a toe outside of your well-worn rut.

You may never want to, and that’s okay.  As my coblogger told me when I shame-facedly admitted to still using Works, “Also, it’s not silly to use old stuff if it’s what you know and what works.  Even when upgrading to a ‘better’ program, it takes time to adjust to the new workflow and design of it, and that’s time spent not writing!”  Well, exactly.  So not experimenting with an established project is perfectly valid, and like she said, it’s not silly to use your old stuff.  But when you’ve got a brand-new type of project that’s an experiment to begin with, and you’re going to be adjusting to a new workflow anyway, you’ll never have a better opportunity to say, “Oh, what the hell,” and download something potentially better.

Dojo Summer Sessions: An Imaginary Reply to Tim Minchin

During Neil Gaiman’s appearance at Seattle Town Hall, Neil mentioned a discussion he’d had with Tim Minchin the night before.  Tim wanted to know why, since Neil was a rational sort of person, everything he wrote was fantasy.

Neil made a suitably witty reply, which I shall not attempt to transcribe as the audio was teh suck at that point and big portions of it are unintelligible.  But it got me to thinking.  It’s a good question, actually: why would otherwise rational people write fantasy?  Terry Pratchett is a rational man, Douglas Adams was; SF is filled with atheists running around writing about myths and gods and so forth.

Why not write about the real world instead?

I know my gut reaction to Tim’s question was, “Are you kidding?  Why wouldn’t he write fantasy?  He’s bloody brilliant at it.”  I’m sure he’d have been very good writing about really real things and doing very realistic fiction and such like, but no way that could have had the power of Sandman, say, or American Gods.  Myth is enormously powerful.  And you can use it to say real things that may be a little too real.

I’ve never met Tim Minchin.  Possibly never will.  But let’s imagine, for a moment, that after I have achieved some modest success and have some SF books out that don’t suck, Tim Minchin and I sit down to dinner under some very odd circumstances, and he asks me that very question.  “Dana, you’re a rational woman.  You’ve written non-fiction and you’re good at it.  Why are you writing fantasy?”

Because I love it.  That’s first and foremost: I love speculative fiction.  I love science fiction, and I love fantasy, and I love mythic stories, and I love creating worlds.  I love my story people and want to do them justice.  That’s the first thing.

The second is this: the stories I want to tell are human stories, but they can’t be told here on Earth.  That’s just the way it is.  I can’t force my characters into an earthly skin; they wouldn’t fit.  I don’t want to write stories about the real world.  If I’m doing that, I might as well write non-fiction and be done with it.  But the real world deeply informs my imaginary worlds, and there’s the turn.  There’s the prestige.  You see, I’m working a little bit of magic, here.

Because I realized something long ago: people sometimes need imaginary things to help them see what’s real.  We’re surrounded by real things all the time and very much want to escape sometimes.  I do.  When I pick up a novel, I’m not looking for a perfect reflection of the real world.  I don’t want to read about ordinary lives.  I want a mirror held up, but not just any mirror: it must be one that doesn’t reflect reality faithfully, but twists it around a bit.  And I know there are a lot of people like me.  They want something fantastic.  They want something imaginary and weird and wonderful.

But we only think we’re escaping reality.  That’s the turn, you see.  The little magician’s trick to make us think we’re getting something we’re actually not.  But reality slips in, sometimes very difficult reality.  I could go through each and every fantasy novel I own, the ones with staying power, and I could point out to you a place or two or several where very difficult truths got told.  I can show you where something I had no interest in became interesting.  Things I wouldn’t have touched in a non-fiction book or looked in to on my own because I thought they were too boring, or too grim, or irrelevant, or I simply didn’t know exist.  They are things that made me think about very difficult issues, like prejudice, or torture, or morality, or politics.  They are things that introduced me to science.  I would not be sitting here with you, an atheist with a passion for science, if I hadn’t read fantasy first and started dreaming of other worlds, which in turn led me to explore this one.  I didn’t know it was going to do that, but that’s what the very best fantasy does: it changes your perspective.  It makes you think, and it makes you wonder, and it makes you explore.

Let’s take my peculiar passion.  If I write a book about geology, people who are interested in geology will read it.  And there the matter will rest.  But if I write a fantasy novel that has got geology in it, people who thought geology was just dull old rocks, people who never would have in a billion trillion years picked up a book about geology, will find themselves reading about geology.  They may not realize that.  It’s just part of the milieu of that novel, and what they’re reading about is characters in very interesting situations.  But they’re getting exposed to geology in the process.  And some of them, perhaps a lot of them, will find themselves intrigued enough by the geology bits to go out and explore on their own.  Same thing with the biology and the chemistry and the physics I slip in there.  Same thing with the other things: myths and legends and religions and atheism.  Same thing with the politics and the psychology and the moral dilemmas and – well, I could continue the list, but I think you’re getting the point about now, so I’ll stop.

Because it’s fantasy I’m writing, I can get away with a lot of things that might have sent readers away screaming if they’d been in a more realistic work.  That’s the beauty of fantasy: people expect something strange and different in it, so they’re not much fussed when I expose them to strange and different things.  Things that would’ve had them howling, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, you’re not going on about that?” if I’d presented it in another format.

We need fantasy.  We get very comfortable seeing the world in certain ways, and it all becomes very ordinary.  What fantasy does is changes our perspective.  We can use it to explore things from a different angle, perhaps an angle we’d never considered before.  It invites us to turn things around and upside down and inside out.  And when we do that, we may notice things we’d never noticed before.  It makes us think in ways we’re not used to thinking.  That can lead to all sorts of things.  That’s how discoveries are made.  That’s how the world is changed. 

And that’s the prestige.

Haven’t you heard those terms before?  What we fantasy authors are doing is a kind of magic, so let me explain.  Actually, let me let someone else do it and save myself the work:

The Pledge: wherein a magician shows you something ordinary, but it probably isn’t. The Turn: where the magician makes the ordinary object do something extraordinary. The Prestige: where you see something shocking you’ve never seen before.

That’s really what fantasy is, in the end.  That’s what it comes down to.  The ordinary, extraordinary.  Something shocking you’ve never seen or thought before.  All in the form of entertainment, because even those of us realists most passionate about reality like a bit of entertainment now and then.

The real world is phenomenal.  It is brilliant and beautiful and endlessly fascinating (as well as awful and terrifying and ugly, let’s not sugarcoat), but sometimes we have to get out of it a while so we can approach it afresh.  Fantasy takes us far, far away.  We go on a journey, and we see incredible things, and then we come back with our imaginations refreshed.  We can see the world with new eyes and new minds.  Fantasy can help us gain perspective, one we never would have had without.  That’s its power and its glory.

So that’s the speech I’d give.  The bugger then might turn around and ask me why I’m not writing pure science fiction, then, but that’s an imaginary question and reply we’ll leave for another day.

Dojo Summer Sessions: Neil Gaiman’s Sage Advice

A brief intro for those who have been a) living under a rock, b) out pounding on rocks (hey, most of my friends are geologists, so it’s distinctly possible) or c) brand new to the cantina: Neil Gaiman is the writer I place at the head of my personal pantheon of writers.  He gives outstanding writerly advice, which writers of fantasy and literary fiction and even non-fiction science stuff shall find very useful indeed.  And he was at Town Hall Seattle on Sunday night, wherein much wisdom was shared and laughter flowed freely.

I hereby pass along his wisdom, and maybe a few of the laughs.

Writers get this impossible question, “Where do you get your ideas?”  And maybe you’re a writer already and now have that “oshit how do I answer that/I hate that question!” face, the one where everything twists up like you’ve just stuck a whole and very sour lemon in your mouth.  Or, perhaps, you want to be a writer, and you’re thinking, “ZOMG please tell me where do they come from?!”  In that case, you’ve got that please-please-ooo-pick-meeee! puppy-in-the-window face on.  Either way, Neil Gaiman can answer that question.

Here’s where the idea for American Gods came from: “And it was a scene, I didn’t know what it meant, which is often the best place to start any story, is with something that you don’t actually understand.”  He saw a fragment merely: a man on an airplane, who’d gotten there via a crazy sequence of seemingly random events, sitting down at last next to a man he couldn’t possibly know, who then turns to him and says, “You’re late.”  Neil didn’t know who they were.  But he found out, and a lot of other things, random and scattered things, bits and pieces from previous works and various experiences with the weirdness that is America and sleeplessness in Reykjavik and so much else besides, came together and became something magical.

Remember that, when you’re beginning a story or novel or any other project: you do not in any way have to understand what it is just yet.  There’s just this something making your mind itch.  You write to find out why it’s making your mind itch.  Because if your mind is itching, it’s quite possible the readers’ minds will itch, too, and they’ll need to scratch just as much as you did.

Or perhaps your story will come from somewhere else.  Neverwhere and Stardust, for Neil, were both books about homesickness.  He’d just come to America from England, and these books were ways back for him.  He loved re-imagining them, he said.  And that is an exile’s tale.  Perhaps there’s something in you trying to get back to, a place you knew well and deeply miss.  Perhaps you’ll faithfully reproduce it, or, perhaps, like Neil, you’ll imagine the way it never was, but could have been.  Fertile ground, that.

Neverwhere also emerged from a board game of the London Underground he’d known as a child.  He’d look at the stations and try to figure out what they were like from the names: were there knights in Knightsbridge?  These are other places ideas come from: childhood imaginings revisited and remembered, familiar things seen through new eyes, taking things literally that aren’t meant to be literal and figuratively when they’re meant to be actual. 

“The point of fiction for me,” Neil said, “is that it allows you – not necessarily intentionally, you shouldn’t start out going ‘I’ll take a metaphor and make it real’ – but it allows you to do that.  And it allows you to do that with power and passion and talk true things.

“Imaginary things are often the most powerful.”

You know that.  You’ve felt that.  It’s why you love fiction.  You’ve felt those characters live, you’ve immersed yourselves in their lives and their worlds, and hasn’t it at times seemed like those people and places are far more real than the ones you know?  Even if you’re writing non-fiction, if you’re a scientist doing science and you plan to write about it someday, it’s imagination that drives you.  Imagining what things may have been like back in deep time, imagining how atoms behave, imaginings that arise out of data points and mathematics and, in one famous case, the image of a snake biting its tail.  Imagination drive stories, and discoveries, and stories about discoveries.  That power is yours

Whether fact or fantasy, you’re telling a story.  And as for storytelling, “[I]t’s always about magic,” Neil said.  “It’s always about the way you take reality and you turn it forty-five degrees so that you could show people things that they’re very, very familiar with, and show them these things in a way that they’re not familiar with; you show them things that they’ve seen a thousand times and show them to them for the  thousand and first time, if you can.”

Do you see why I want all of you, fiction and non-fiction writers alike, to pay heed?  Because that’s the essence of telling a story.  Take the familiar and show it to your readers again for the very first time.

As for research, there’s always this ongoing debate as to how much or how little an author should do.  For a non-fiction work, of course, research is essential.  What about fiction?  What research did Neil do for American Gods, for instance?  He had his research assistant find out populations of various towns (this was before the intertoobz could provide those answers in an instant).  He drove around and looked at stuff.  Remembered stuff.  He must remember a hell of a lot, because the only gods he did much research on for this particular book were the Slavic ones.  He couldn’t find much: only about three pages’ worth of useful material.  So he resorted to making stuff up.  For instance, he added Zorya Polunochnaya to the other two Zorya known in Slavic mythology, just made her right up.  He says he felt faintly guilty about that, but thought, “Who’s gonna know?”

And that is why this Wikipedia page has three Zorya rather than two.

I can see three lessons here.  First, when you’re writing fiction, and your research has gaps in, you can indeed make stuff up.  That’s rather the point of it being fiction, am I right?  Don’t be afraid to add the odd goddess or non-existent city or what have you, if the story calls for it and everything hangs together as a whole.  Second, if you’re doing research for, oh, say, a book on mythology, don’t use a fiction novel as an authoritative source.  And lesson the third: check the copyright date on the sources Wikipedia cites, to see if maybe the only mythology book to mention a third Zorya came out after American Gods did.

Toward the end, Maria Dahvana Headley asked Neil for his advice to young people who want to write fantasy.  Let’s rephrase that a bit, because it applies to all writers who are at the beginning of their careers: what is his advice to people who want to write fantasy?

He started with general advice for all aspiring authors: write, and finish what you write.  He said people stare at him like he’s withholding some big secret, but that really is the secret to a successful writing career.  You must write, and finish what you write, or you won’t get anywhere at all.

“But if the question is, ‘What would I tell a young fantasy author,’ I’d tell you a bunch of things,” Neil said.  “I’d tell you, ‘Stop reading fantasy,’ or at least, not to derive inspiration from fantasy….  Fantasy’s wonderful and you should know what else is going on in your genre, but you should read everything else.  That’s Number One: read everything else.

“Number Two is read primary sources….  Go for primary sources wherever you can.  Go for as primary as you can possibly get.  And read everything, read outside your comfort l

“And then, write.  Tell the stories.  Don’t do that thing of going, ‘I really like Lord of the Rings, I will write Lord of the Rings.’  Somebody else has already written Lord of the Rings, and has done it better than you ever could.  So, when you’re writing, try and tell the stories that only you can tell.  That’s the one thing that you have as a writer: any young writer has this special thing, which is you’re not anybody else.  Nobody else has had your life, nobody else sees the world from the place that you see things.  And, as a writer, the only thing that you have – there will always be better writers than you, there may be better plotters than you, there may be people who put a sentence better together than you – but there’s nobody else who can tell your stories better than you.  So the quicker you move from writing other people’s stories – and every young writer starting out starts out writing other people’s stories – and the quicker you write your own stories, the better.

“And that is the piece of advice I would give to any young writer of fantasy.”

All of those things are important.  All of those things are true.  And they’re useful for any genre: just adjust the terms a bit.  So, if you want to be a writer, if you want to tell stories, the very best stories you can, listen.  I’ll even embed the video I shot of that bit so you can listen.

Okay.  So you’ve written the book.  You’ve re-written, and re-re-written, and written the book again.  Let’s say you’ve done all that, and actually got it published.  Now what?  Promotion, of course!  And this is where Maria Dahvana Headley really brought the house down, because she announced the idea of the Author Sex Tape.  Alas, the audience was laughing so loud and so long through her subsequent explanation that the audio’s mostly unintelligible, and I was laughing so hard I can’t remember half of what she said.  But it’s a genius idea.  Drum up interest by leaking a sex tape.  There’s something very important said sex tapes must have: a catch phrase.  George R.R. Martin, she said, has a catch phrase: “Winter is coming.”  She waited for us to finish laughing our lungs out, and then asked Neil, with an amazingly straight face under the circumstances, what his catch phrase was.

“You’re asking somebody who’s written something out there on the table next to you that the end of Chapter One [next bit unclear due to audience hysterics] a gentleman disappears inside a prostitute,” Neil said.

And Maria, without missing a beat, shot back, “You could shout ‘American God’!”

If laughter is the best medicine, the audience is likely immortal.

Neil is a writer who can (and has) written very nearly everything: fiction and non, screenplays, comics, children’s books, articles – he’s a writer well worth listening to.  Never mind that he’s a bit skeptical about the whole “Author Sex Tape” idea.  We writers who want to achieve great things with our writing learn from those who came before, those who have already mastered the art, and Neil Gaiman is one of those authors who will never let you down.  So listen.  Then write.

And absolutely do not ever miss the opportunity to see him live if you can.