Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New Game of Thrones teaser

Oooh. Can't wait! Though before the series begins we'll have to figure out how we're going to get it. I loathe and detest Comcast and just can't bear to pay good money for their 'premium cable' package anymore. And we have the kind of TiVo that's not compatible with streaming video. So, hmmm, will have to learn more about this.

Still, I'm looking forward to it.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Oh, what I'd give for one of Hild's teeth!

Eadgyth and Otto, Cathedral of Magdeburg
Wikimedia Commons

I am utterly jealous of those who study or write about Queen Eadgyth (pronounced by many as Edith). Edith was a tenth century Saxon queen. That is, she belongs three hundred years or so after Hild. Anyway, thanks to the niftiness of tooth enamel and its propensity to sequester strontium ions, Dr. Alistair Pike in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Bristol has been able to confirm a few supposed things about Eadgyth.

From written sources, we know:

Eadgyth was the granddaughter of Alfred the Great and the half-sister of Athelstan, the first acknowledged King of England. She was sent to marry Otto, King of Saxony, in AD 929, and bore him at least two children, before her death, at around the age of 36, in AD 946. Buried in the monastery of St Maurice in Magdeburg, historical records state that her bones were moved on at least three occasions before being interred in an elaborate tomb in Magdeburg Cathedral in 1510.

(thanks, Lisa)

We know a few other things, such as she was peripatetic in her first few years, moving with the royal household from vill to vill, as courts did. Then her parents divorced, and she and her mother spent time in an abbey or monastery. This is corroborated by the analysis of her tooth enamel.

I would give a lot--perhaps even some of my special blueberry and apple crumble made by Kelley's fair hand--to see an analysis of one of Hild's teeth. It might tell us where she was born (we don't know), where she lived between the ages of 18 and 33 (we don't know), what kinds of things she ate (we don't know), perhaps even whether she had children (we-- ah, never mind). That last, the children thing, is pure speculation, but I'm guessing that nine months' pregnancy in the seventh century would entail a certain physiological demand that might show up in the enamel record. (Anyone know?)

But, oh, the things we could learn from a tooth. We'll never find one of Hild's of course: we don't know where she's buried.

But I don't have time to moon over what will never be. I have to crack on with my novel. Right now I have 800 pages, 166,000 words, of the first draft. Of the first of three novels. And I'm not nearly done. What we know of Hild could probably fit on one page. But I've never let that get in the way...

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dazed and dozy

I'm going to take the day off. Have a good one. I'll be back tomorrow with an update on Hild.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Evergreens and icicles

Thanksgiving morning: a closeup of the icicle frozen in mid-pour over the rhododendron bush outside Kelley's office. For some reason it pleased me inordinately.

For those who like the big picture, here are the icicles in full:

Within a couple of hours, they were gone. Seattle had reverted to its usual autumn palette of grey and green. The sky grey with cloud, the air grey with rain, the streets grey with gravel, but the rhododendron remains green. Yay for evergreens!

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Friday, November 26, 2010

"Your brilliant book, Always": a copy editing tale

From: Kit

Not really a question; rather, a sincere 'thank you'; I have just read Always while working in Grand Cayman, and I was moved to write you.

You write about love in a way that is more authentic than most; it spoke to me, anyway, directly.

Two small typos in the edition I read (Riverhead, 2007, paperback): psoas is the largest of the hip flexors; the others are ilacus and (for the athletic) the more important rectus femoris. Kick spells this muscle as "soaz"; this is the way it's pronounced (p. 498).

And an "EDL" is an Edit Decision List, rather than "Line"; it is a text file that tells the editing program what to do with the footage, and is what's stored in any non-linear editing program when you save a program file.

Trivial, of course, in the big scheme of things, but inferring your love of precision, thought you may care to know.

I will be buying all your earlier books as soon as I can find them; you are an excellent writer, in my humble opinion.

Anyone who likes my books has excellent taste and, therefore, no need to be humble. By all means, spread the word!

Thanks for the correction regarding EDL. That's absolutely a mistake on my part. So is soaz--though one I get quite cross about.

I knew, when I wrote soaz that I needed to check the spelling. It looked all wrong. It didn't look remotely Greek or Latin. But I was on a roll. I didn't want to stop. I jotted Check this on a sticky note and kept writing. And, of course, lost the sticky note.

Usually these things that the writer forgets to check get pondered and weighed at the copy editing stage. That didn't happen with Always. The process broke down in several places. First of all, I don't know who copy edited the ms, but s/he and I didn't see eye to eye. At all. So as I read through the first pass copy edit I despaired.

I am a truly terrible proof reader, especially of my own work (I try, but I'm hopeless, just useless). Despair makes me even worse. And on top of the despair, I was feeling the crushing weight of time pressure. I'd done a page one rewrite of the novel--absolutely disassembled it, turning three narrative time lines into two--in a very short time frame. I'd turned the final draft in late. Everyone was scrambling. I was exhausted and not making sensible decisions. (In future: I'll put the brakes on. Better delayed publication than faulty product. After all, I'm not J.K. Rowling. Corporate bottom lines and cash flows will not be at risk. A lesson for next time.) On top of that, I was ill. And my mother was dying. Foolishly, I'd also just started a new book (my memoir, a whole new multi-media challenge--but, eh, that's what writers do when our world is falling apart: we write). This combination of factors led to some degree of carelessness on my part.

Anyway, I told myself--as I always do, being lazy and, as I've said, useless at this anyway--there'll be the opportunity to catch the remaining mistakes in the second pass copy edit. Then, when all else fails, the galley proofs.

Oh ha, ha ha ha.

There was no second pass copy edit.

The proofs arrived four or five days before Christmas. Due date: first week of January.

On December 23rd, my mother died.

I did my best but, frankly, my best wasn't very good. It never is, even at the best of time (see above) but this wasn't even close to the best of times. You try doing proofs of a novel you've rewritten a dozen times when exhausted, ill, mad with grief, and on hold with British Airways for emergency flight information over the holidays.

I retained enough sense to tell my publisher, I need more time. They said, There is no more time. (And there wasn't--my fault for delivering late.) Well, then, I said, Check, oh please check, double check, triple check everything because I'm not in my right mind. They said, Of course. I believed them. (It was convenient to believe them. It always is.) I mailed the proofs back.

I can't tell you how awful it felt to open the hardcover and face so many errors. My beautiful book, all wrong. I've never experienced the like. I never want to again. That's my lesson: it's the writer's responsibility. I'm just glad that the paperback edition was cleaned up a bit.

But, hey (she says, with an airy wave of her hand), that's in the past. Hild will be the perfecter then that perfect that ever did perfect...

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A writer's Thanksgiving

I am grateful for the language, brought on boats across the North Sea, grown from the land, sliced and spiced by Normans (more Northmen), spoken over apples and wheat, spinning jennys and steam trains, Carnaby Street and the International Space Station.

I am grateful for the hybrid vigour of the language that meets on the electronic, photonic jetstream and mixes and jostles and flows, this way and that, over England and India, America and Australia, South Africa and Canada--and more, so many more: a communion of billions, whose verbs smell of wide rivers or red dust or stone canals.

I am grateful for generations of storytellers, who first learnt to stand by the flickering fire and frighten their audience; who sang their children to sleep and bad dreams with tales of wolves and woodcutters; who sucked on their goose quills and trembled with excitement because they could see, they could hear, they could feel what had not happened.

I am grateful for those who have learnt and made efficient the delivery of food (and heat, and clothes) so that I can live a life of the mind here in my house at the end of the road.

I am grateful for humankind, who meld electricity and plastic and brushed aluminium, stylised marks and animal metaphor, emotion and reason, to create the machinery which lets me think this, write this, say this, to you.

I am grateful that I breathe, that I think, that I love and fume and dream.

I am grateful that I am stubborn enough to wrestle the fume and dream into story.

I am grateful for readers, who allow the story in.

I am grateful.

I am thankful.

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UN says: Okay to kill queers

While the UN doesn't actually say, "It's okay to kill queers, go on, set 'em on fire, we'll watch," it no longer says it's not okay to kill us. In practical terms, there's little difference.

Every two years, the UN votes on a resolution condemning regimes for extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions of specifically-named groups such as human rights defenders, religious and ethnic minorities, etc. Since 1999, lesbian and gay people have been included.

Not anymore.

In a regressive 79-70 vote a few days ago, the reference to queers was cut. The new amendment was then passed by the General Assembly with 165 votes in favour and 10 abstentions. So congratulations, UN. You've just allowed places like Uganda to feel perfectly comfortable killing us for no other reason than we're us. Thank you very much. I feel so much better.

If you want to read more, the UK's Pink Paper has info. Funny how I haven't seen anything about this in general news reports. Oh, yep, very funny. Hilarious.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What a difference a day makes

So here's a shot of the garden outside my office window Sunday morning. (Taken through a screened and shut double-paned window therefore very blurred--my iThing camera really, really isn't this bad. Think, 'operator error', that is, playing with my toy in the morning before I've even had a cup of tea--like a kid at Christmas. Imagine me beaming with delight over this muddy little picture. Or perhaps half-mad due to lack of caffeine. Or, y'know, both.)

Now here's one taken Monday morning. (Yep, same camera, same window, but I'm awake. Apparently it makes a difference.)

Autumn to winter wonderland in twenty-four hours. Whap. What's so strange (to me; perhaps you worldly people have seen it a hundred times before) is seeing the snow on leaves. In my worldview, trees don't have leaves and snow at the same time. Needles, yes, because of the whole coniferous thing. But broad, deciduous, sherbet-coloured leaves? It's just not natural. (Here in Seattle, it's the coldest it's been in November for 20 years. So there: I'm not barking mad. No madder, at least, than any other stir-crazy novelist thundering towards the cliff end of her first draft.)

And, hey, no complaints about the craptastic photos. Just be grateful I'm not foisting on you video of snow falling. Which I took with my fantabulously awesome new iThing. I have several: minute after thrilling minute of snow falling. You have been warned...

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Monday, November 22, 2010

My iThing rocks the thunderdome

On Thursday, I got an iPod Touch 64 GB. I didn't have much time on Friday to play with it but yesterday, woo hoo, whenever I had to take a break from Hild I went to play in the app store. I downloaded all the mail and calendar wotsits, picked a nifty photo for my lock screen, got the digital Economist app, iGoogle, and uploaded my Janes Plane videos. (Oh, yes, I have edited those. Yes, I'm tormenting you again. Ha ha ha.) I played with the camera a bit--just enough to determine that it doesn't suck, and just enough to make me fear the notion of Face Time video calls--then I downloaded Scanner, the scan-barcode-get-comparison-prices app.

Then I lost time.

I got obsessed with scanning the bar codes of things I already own to torment myself with how much cheaper I could have got them if I'd had Scanner my whole life. Thankfully, the urge wore off. Still, it's forty minutes of my life I'll never get back. There again, I'm pretty sure I'll save a zillion dollars over the next year or so.

Then I downloaded the Kindle app. Bloody hell. More lost time. Books look utterly splendid on that jewel of a screen. And popping to the index or footnotes (I'm currently reading Schiff's Cleopatra: A life) is a delight compared to my Original Lumbering First Batch Kindle. (It's so old the battery only holds a charge for three or four days. It makes a horrible clunking sound when I hit the menu button.) I still prefer reading fiction on the Kindle; epaper is easier on the eyes than a back-lit screen. (Just downloaded McKinley's Pegasus, FYI.) But non-fiction, oh yep, iTouch 'r' us.

Speaking of the Kindle, the other day I saw that Dear Author had posted a just-in-time-for-the-holidays shopping comparison guide for ereaders. If you're not sure whether the Sony or Nook or Kindle or iPad is for you, read their guide. All the info you could possibly need.

But back to my current device: the iPod Touch rocks the thunderdome. I can't imagine how I got along without checking email from the sofa. Next on my wishlist? The newest Kindle, of course. And then a TV that will let me cut the Comcast cord. And then a car. And then--well, I have a list...

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

I declare a holiday

In which there will be no blogging except to say I'll be playing with Hild and then playing with my iThing (iPod Touch 64 GB for those who are interested). More on the iThing another time. For now, here's the lock screen I'm using:

It's Bainbridge Island across the sound, taken from Carkeek Park.

Then I'll be wasting half an hour of my life taking scans of bar codes on things I already own, seeing how much more cheaply I could have bought them if I'd had my iThing for years. Fun for all!

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

English people can't speak American

On this lovely November Saturday, three things for you delectation and delight.

A great review of Kelley's Dangerous Space by Terry Weyna, who loves the way Kelley describes art and how we make it--how, sometimes, we're helpless in the face of the need to make it and share it. "Eskridge can explain the process of creating better than anyone I’ve ever read." She thinks Mars is a boy but otherwise she's spot on. Kelley thinks so too.

Over at Sterling Editing we have lots of nifty links for writers, including a couple of blunt appraisals of I-wouldn't-trust-him-as-far-as-I-could-throw-him James Frey's latest scheme, and a great video of Kurt Vonnegut.

And speaking of video, here (from the Economist's Johnson) are some of the cast of Harry Potter trying to speak American. I feel for them extremely. If ever I want to make Kelley fall down laughing, all I ever have to do is say Turkey Burger. Some words are simply not meant to be shaped by English mouths.

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Carl Brandon Society drawing: win an eReader

Pay one dollar for a chance to win a pre-loaded Nook, Kobo Reader, or Alex eReader and support an emerging writer of colour:

The Carl Brandon Society is holding a prize drawing of five eReaders starting on November 5th and ending November 22nd, 2010. The funds raised will benefit the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship, a fund that sends two emerging writers of color to the Clarion writers workshops annually.

Entrants will have the opportunity to win one of two (2) available Barnes & Noble Nooks, one of two (2) available Kobo Readers (with Wi-Fi), and one (1) Alex eReader by Spring Design. Drawing tickets cost one US dollar ($1).

(via Dear Author)

Clarion and Clarion West are just about the best writing workshops on the planet: floating above all others like cirrus clouds. (Yes, maybe I am biased. Clarion is where I met Kelley. Kelley is now the Board Chair of Clarion West. We're invested.) Octavia Butler was a brilliant sf and fantasy writer. (That's just unvarnished truth.) The combination is absolutely worth your attention. But you have to hurry. Your chance to enter ends Monday 22nd November. The drawing is on Tuesday 23rd. You can buy as many tickets as you like. One dollar? Worth a flutter. Ten dollars? Ten times better. Twenty dollars? Now you're talking.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

DADT repeal to come to a vote?

So. Sen. Harry Reid has promised to bring Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal to a vote before the end of the year.

I wouldn't like to predict what will happen. On one hand, the repeal measure is attached to the National Defense Authorization Act which needs to be passed pretty soon. (It specifies the budget for the US Department of Defense. It has to be enacted every fiscal year.) On the other, Sen. John McCain has promised a filibuster if DADT repeal is attached to the NDAA. So the Republicans have the power to ensure it doesn't even get to a vote. But what happens if they use that power? The USDD needs its budget.

The people in the Senate are old hands at demand and counter demand, public bluster and private quid pro quo. Who is going to trade what? If this weren't so important for the future of the federal status of queer people, I'd find it all pretty interesting. As it is, though, I feel that weird mix of anxiety, fatalism, cynicism, and hope that US politics inspires in me. Which in turn makes me feel vaguely queasy.

I think I need some fresh air.

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Slate grey

This is the screen shot from my iGoogle yesterday afternoon. Clear and simple.

The morning, though, was beautiful and strange: slate grey sky, but the remaining leaves brilliant and the grass intensely green, like a filmic dreamscape. By late afternoon, it started to get cold. I think Google weather is wrong this time. I think we're in for some serious cold in the next few days.

Stay warm. If in doubt, eat a lot. I'm thinking chicken casserole...

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Always back in paperback, hurrah!

Always is back in town: finally, the trade paperback has been reprinted. Just in time to buy the whole three-book package for the holidays. Buy it from Amazon. Buy it from Seattle Mystery Bookshop. Buy it from the University Bookstore. Just, y'know, buy it.

More, much more--synopsis, first chapter, podcast interviews, readings--here (read the right-hand sidebar). For those who have been living under a rock, here's what smart, good-looking and in every way discerning people have to say about Aud:

Without Aud, it’s hard to see how there could have been a Lisbeth Salander.
--Val McDermid

One scary, gorgeous creature who loses herself in the beauty and balletic control of pure violence. An exceptional woman.
--Village Voice

Delicious... Wildly and exuberantly violent. Enthralling, utterly convincing, unique.
--Publishers Weekly (starred)

Knows how to fight, kill, survive and think... One of my favorite kick-ass, super-competent, coolheaded, hotblooded, semilegal girls.

Sexy and iconic.
--Voice Literary Supplement

White hot, an enigmatic heroine unlike any ever before.
--Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Sleek, sexy, and decidedly dangerous.

Aud Torvingen is the avenging angel inside us all. She's fast, frightening, startlingly sexy. I promise you, she'll haunt your days long after you've finished the book.
--Manda Scott

Tough, sexy, and alluring.
--Seattle Weekly

Smart, resourceful, cool as a cucumber
--New York Times Book Review

--Seattle Times

--San Diego Union-Tribune

Supremely capable.

Couldn't be more singular.
--Lambda Book Report

--Seattle P-I

The sexiest action figure since James Bond.
--Seattle Weekly

Plus, come the revolution Aud will be unleashed, and those who can't prove undying loyalty (with, y'know, a book) will be first against the wall and shot. So don't think of this post as shameless self-promotion, think of it as a selfless attempt to save your life.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

'Humankind' vs. 'Mankind'

In the battle that is Humankind vs. Mankind we all know who would win: for one thing, there are more than twice as many humans as men. It's a no-brainer.

But, er, no, that's not what I meant to say. I meant to express my utter delight at the fact that at last, in it's special report, "It's a smart world," the Economist has seen fit to use the word humankind instead of mankind. (The article is pretty interesting in its own right, a primer on cross reality or mirror worlds or smart systems, depending on your preferred terminology. Scroll down to the graph labelled 'The way to go' and read the paragraph next to it. Try not to pass out in shock.)

Yes, I understand the argument that 'man' encompasses 'men and women' but, y'know, it doesn't. I've written about this before, in Alien in Our Own Tongue:

Imagine being six years old and reading an anthropology primer about Stone Age Man: "After a hard day's search for food on the veldt, stone age man was probably glad to get back to the warm cave. No doubt he was comforted by the same everyday activities we are today: the heat of the fire, good food, his family about him. Can you imagine him laughing and tousling your hair? Can you see him picking up your six month old baby brother and breast feeding him--"

At this point, the six year-old might burst into tears in sheer confusion. He? Breast feed? "Don't cry," says the teacher. "It's all right. We all get confused at first. You just have to remember that he really means he or she. See? It's easy!" But it's not easy. It makes no sense to her. Why say "he" when you mean "she?" As she grows older, she will keep asking. No one will give her an answer she understands. Her tears of bewilderment will become ones of rage. She will get tired of reading about Man the Hunter, mankind's outward urge to the stars, the exogamous impulses of man, the man on the street, one man one vote.... She will be sick to death of continually being excluded.

"No, no, no," you might say gently, "she's not being excluded. He is inclusive. He means us all. She'll learn. After all, he is the generic pronoun in English."

If that truly were the case, if "he" and "man" really did mean "he and she" and "man and woman," our six year old would not have been confused. But at age six, she has already internalized the real architecture of language; she knows that he means he and she means she. The only thing she doesn't know is how to pretend otherwise, the way grown ups do. She doesn't understand why she shouldn't point out what seems so obvious to her: he-man language isn't wearing any clothes.

Before you start to sputter, answer the following question honestly. How comfortable would you feel reading this next sentence aloud from our hypothetical anthropology primer: "How long ago was it that man found himself available for sex throughout the whole of his menstrual cycle and not just during a clearly defined oestrus?"

Grammarians may tell us that when we read "man, mankind, or he" we are supposed to imagine "people, humankind, or he and she," but we don't. In our mind's eye we see men, or boys.

When we are toddlers we know little and care even less about the generic he. We say them/they/their quite happily. "The person in the blue hat looks happy, they're smiling!" Everyone knows what we mean. Then we get to school, and the rule books take over. It is dinned into us that he is the generic pronoun; it must be used. Anything else is sloppy, incorrect, bad grammar. At the same time, everything we see and hear contradicts this. In the written form, for example, we would never see a primer such as the one I have invented. Oh, we would read about Stone Age Man, about him hunting and protecting and inventing fire and all that, but as soon as the authors have to talk about things that only women can do (and no matter how hard they try to make it otherwise, they have to mention women occasionally), they switch pronouns. He, it seems, is only generic insofar as it means "one of us," and "one of us" means "one of us boys."

When we lift our head from our text books for a little conversation, we find that our parents, our friends, and the teachers themselves--even at the university level--do not use the generic he in conversation. Person to person, in every day speech, we all understand that "he" does not really mean "he and she."

I'll leave out the bit where I rant on about Latin grammars because, frankly, I don't know where I got that info, and I'm not (now) entirely convinced it's correct.

The rest is a little dated (from a long time ago in galaxy far, far away, when we were watching Xena and Buffy once a week) but still (sadly) true:

Language shapes our thoughts and therefore our imagination. When we read science fiction, or watch it, or listen to it, we are absorbing one person's vision of the future (or present, or past). Whether we like it or not, television now provides visions of the future for more people than all the SF novels put together. Of all the women who grew up on the original Star Trek, I doubt there is a single one who did not get a thrill, a frisson, the urge to shout Yes! when she saw the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation and heard Captain Picard saying they were all going to boldly go where no one had gone before. The future opened like a flower: women could think that maybe in the twenty-fourth century we were a bit more important than we are now. That is a very powerful imaginative tool for a young girl. She will watch that series (and Xena, Warrior Princess; and Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and know deep in her bones that women can. She will probably stay loyal to the series, the spin-offs, the novelizations. She will make the bottom line a lot more healthy for the producers. I suspect that Babylon Five's audience would increase significantly if they changed "The Third Age of Mankind" to words that included us. To me it doesn't matter if the second in command of B5 is a woman, we are still slapped in the face every time we hear those opening credits. Such a slip with the old he-man language, even once, indicates a certain lack of thought on the subject. It means the writers have not sat down and properly examined their attitudes to gender. It makes me wonder: Where else will they slip up with women's roles? Is this series worth my time and effort? It is such a little thing, the "Third Age of Mankind," but it sits like a rock in the road. People like me will be tempted to point the car in a different direction. [Two months after writing this, I discover that the opening sequence has changed. It will be interesting to see what happens with the ratings.]

Science fiction novelists and short story writers don't do much better. It seems that many SF writers can see men fairly clearly in their crystal ball, but women are obscured by a veil. When the spaceship is manned by cadets with IQs matched only by their height in centimeters we think: oh, did the women all die? When we read of the extinction of mankind, we think: oh, well maybe it was only the men who died...but in that case, where are the women? When we hear of man being in a death struggle with some alien species, we wonder: which side are the women on? Always: where are the women? What are we doing? How do we fare in this imagined world? It matters. Women need to be see their reflections shining back at them from the future.

After all, our six year old as she grows up will not see many images of herself in her science text books.

A while ago I was invited to go talk to a class at the Georgia Institute of Technology who were studying Ammonite and Russ's The Female Man. Students do not go to Georgia Tech to study the classics. They generally do not care much for gender studies, or literature, or the humanities. They go to learn about nuclear engineering, mechanical engineering, computers and other hardware-related subjects. But here they were, brows furrowed, trying to make sense of what I was trying to do in my fiction. The marvelous thing was: they got it. One man who was studying digital video something-or-other said to me, "I was a third of the way through Ammonite and it was making me more and more uncomfortable and I didn't know why and then I realized: all the characters are female. It's all 'she' and 'her.' There were no pronouns for me. It made me feel weird, as though I didn't really matter. And I realized that this is what it must be like for girls growing up, reading their physics books or whatever."

Exactly. Women and girls feel like that a great deal, and not just while we're growing up. I can't blame men for feeling uncomfortable when they get a taste of it. It's not very pleasant. It would be nice, though, if men could take a lesson from the feeling.

I was at a party recently and a man I had never met before buttonholed me. "When I got half-way through Ammonite I got really pissed off!" he said. I sighed and asked why he thought that was. "Because I was lied to!" By whom, I wanted to know. "The publishers! The back cover copy never said a word about the book being about women!" He was pretty het up. I asked him if he had finished the book. "Yes, I liked it. It's just that, well," he looked vaguely puzzled, "I was misled..." I pointed out patiently that the only person doing the misleading had been himself: the back cover copy did not lie. It talked about security forces, and natives, and deadly viruses. The only pronouns used were "they" and "them." If he went ahead and assumed that meant men, he had no one to blame but himself, had he? After all, women are human. We are people, too.

That man wandered off, not terribly convinced. Deep inside he knows--though he may not know that this is what he knows--that people are really men. Women are just, well, women: the also-ran, the other, the alien. This is what he-man language does, this is how it survives today when it is demonstrably unfair, inefficient and unnecessary. It forms part of a feedback loop: men (and women) condemn women as Other every time they say mankind. They may not mean to, but motivation doesn't matter. The result is the same. What we hear is: less than human. The very words we all use build a hierarchy in our heads and women always come in second. As a result of that internal hierarchy, we find it harder to point to the naked ridiculousness of he-man language. Which reinforces the hierarchy. Woman as Other becomes embedded in our very language. We become alien in our own tongue.

For now let me just say to the Economist: welcome to the future. Please don't backslide.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

My life on the intarwub: random numbers

As I've spent the last few days doing nothing but work on Hild, I have nothing of substance to say about anything else, so I thought I'd offer some random numbers about my life online.

I have 1,908 Twitter followers. Most of my Tweets, oddly, seem to be about food, weather moments, and TV. On Facebook I have 2005 friends. But Facebook is mostly a mirror of this blog and my Twitter stream. The comments are different, though, so I suppose it's not exactly a mirror after all. One of life's little paradoxes. In this incarnation of Ask Nicola, there are (so far) 941 published posts, dating from 3/29/08. However, I do occasionally add to the archives an old Ask Nicola question and answer from the original (and then second) incarnation of Ask Nicola (Which ran on my website and began in 1995--or was it '94?) See, for example, Are you a lesbian? and it's related post, There is no such thing as a lesbian book.

One day soon, yes, I really will redesign that webpage. Though soon, until I finish Hild, is a relative term.

Until then, are there any other numbery things you want to know about my life on the intarwub?

ETA: On Facebook, I was asked: how many pages do I have of Hild now, and how many words is that? While not strictly an internetly number, I'm happy to answer: 764 pp and 158,000 words. Yep, it's long.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Salmon are running!

(Thanks, Jennifer)

I haven't been to the park for more than a week. It seems the fish don't need my help. But, hey, just in case any of them are listening: stick around til I can get there, okay?

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Laburnum, Lilac, Laurel, RIP

all gone

Our neighbours have just cut down a whole row of trees and shrubs, so many I can't bear to name them all. Our privacy has been destroyed. This sucks really hard. No, the neighbours aren't evil; they have a groundwater/drainage issue. If they don't fix it, their house will slide into the ravine. But, still, we are suffering.

So now I throw myself upon the kindness of the intarweeb and ask the gardeners among you: what grows very tall very fast and doesn't cost too much? We're going to need something about 12' high (minimum), and, oh, twenty feet wide. And dense. A happy habitat for birds is a plus. We have drainage concerns and construction of our own, so we may or may not be able to plant deeply-rooted thing. (Tonight will be the night of rooting about in old documentation to find ancient blueprints and our Form 17, the real estate disclosure/declaration provided by the previous homeowners about Issues. Yeah, lotsa fun.)

I'd be particularly pleased if we could attract hummingbirds with the new plantings. We have a lot around here, but they seem very stupid--always trying to drink from the climbing roses at the front. So something brightly coloured and scented with droopy flowers would probably work. Mainly, though: tall and thick and fast. Evergreen preferred.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Gratuitous tree shot

Every autumn I take photos of the sherbet-coloured leaves on the trees outside my office window. Every autumn I end up with the same dull picture. The difference this year is that it's mid-November. And there are still green leaves on that tree.

If past seasons are anything to go by, salmon should start returning to Piper's Creek any day. Perhaps they already have and I just haven't seen them. Last year was disappointing--I saw two or three sickly looking fish, as opposed to the hundreds and hundreds of the year before. Given the weirdness of this summer and autumn I'm not sure what to expect. But I'll let you know.

Meanwhile, in Hild world it's late summer: still, hot nights, owls swooping out of the dusk to snatch away a singing greenfinch, the queen has just had a Big Idea that is going to end badly. Good times...

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

When a boy asks you if you like sci-fi...

Or, "How Others See Us." It was taken at Beth's Cafe on Sunday afternoon.

Beth's is a 24-hour greasy spoon, the kind of place where club kids go at four a.m to share fries and 12-egg omelettes, but also where local biz people pop in for a quick sandwich lunch and hipsters go to feel like they're walking on the wild side. Ha! Maybe 15 yrs ago... Yes, it's on Aurora: what, in the northern half of the city, passed for the Bad Part of Town (prostitution and drugs mainly). Yes, it's by Butch's Gun Shop, a body-piercing place, and Andy's Auto Repair. Yes, there are store front martial arts emporia, check-cashing establishments and Korean nail parlours. But gentrification has crept along Aurora from Green Lake, and the hot pillow joints have moved 20 blocks north. Now there's a PCC, the Duck Island Ale House, a chocolatier, and Seattle laptop. The occasional parked--as opposed to motor-running, dealing through the window--BMW or Mercedes or Lexus is not uncommon.

Beth's encourages patrons to draw, to take photos, to put their stuff on the walls. This one caught my attention. I was particularly struck by the pocket full of pens, the soul patch, and the unibrow. Then there's the rigid parting, the starting eyes, the, ah, complexion. It seemed very specific, most particular and finely observed. Clearly there's a story...

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

We did it! Thank you!

The Lambda Literary Foundation has reached its goal--two weeks early--to raise $10,000 for the Chuck Forester Challenge Grant. More than half the donations came from new donors--which means readers like you. In fact, in just four weeks you sent a total of $13,000, which means LLF now has $23,000 more than it had a month ago. This is just brilliant. It means the website (which is visited, on average, by three or four thousand people a day) will stay up. It means the Lambda Literary Awards will stay glittery and fabulous. It means planning can begin on the next Emerging Voices retreat.

So, once again, a really big Thank You. Queer books save queer lives. With your generosity, LLF can keep bringing together all parts of the queer literary ecosystem as a community. LLF is helping to creating critical mass. Critical mass is what moves the cultural needle. Your generosity means that, between us, we really are changing the world.

And if that should, y'know, go to your head and make you want to give more, you can still give money, and time, and expertise. (LLF needs everything from interns, to database geeks, to interviewers, to book reviewers. Go take a look. Have some fun. Get your name in lights: everyone wins.)

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I'm going to Hell (the sixth level, the City of Dis)

Hild proceeds apace. To keep you amused while I'm in the seventh century I give you the Dante's Inferno Test (via Jonathan Jarrett's blog). It looks like I'm going to hell, the sixth level, for lust, heresy, and violence (though, interestingly, not gluttony).

The Dante's Inferno Test has banished you to the Sixth Level of Hell - The City of Dis!

Here is how you matched up against all the levels:

Purgatory (Repenting Believers)Very Low
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)Moderate
Level 2 (Lustful)High
Level 3 (Gluttonous)Low
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Moderate
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)Low
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)Very High
Level 7 (Violent)Very High
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)Moderate
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)Moderate

Sixth Level of Hell - The City of Dis

You approach Satan's wretched city where you behold a wide plain surrounded by iron walls. Before you are fields full of distress and torment terrible. Burning tombs are littered about the landscape. Inside these flaming sepulchers suffer the heretics, failing to believe in God and the afterlife, who make themselves audible by doleful sighs. You will join the wicked that lie here, and will be offered no respite. The three infernal Furies stained with blood, with limbs of women and hair of serpents, dwell in this circle of Hell.

Limbs of women and hair of serpents. Oooh.

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Monday, November 8, 2010

Can queer authors write straight characters?

A few weeks ago I did one of those ten-questions-by-email roundup interviews (with Gena Hymowech) for Lambda Literary on the question of "Can queer authors write straight characters?" The answer of course is pretty simple: yes. But I spent an hour or so taking the questions seriously and doing my best to give clear answers. My work was reduced to two sentences in the final article. Other writers who contributed are Alex Sanchez, Val McDermid, Robert Rave, and Nancy Garden. No doubt they wrote a lot more originally, too.

I thought you might like to see my unedited thoughts.

Please give me a few examples of the straight characters you've written, telling me whether they are lead or secondary characters, a little bit about them, and which books they appear in.

Too many to list. The protagonists of my published novels are all queer but the majority of the other characters in my books, as in real life, are straight--though you wouldn't know that from the critical response, particularly for the early books. Reviewers focused on (freaked out about) 'all the lesbian sex,' which they confused with porn. Because, clearly, lesbian sex is always porny...

Why did you decide to make these characters straight, rather than gay? Please explain, for each character.
Simple: most of the world is straight. Family, work colleagues, siblings. Parents.

Some writers find it difficult to write about a character who has a different sexual orientation than themselves; while other writers don't find that difficult at all. Did you face any challenges or fears in writing about your straight characters' orientation? Give specific examples. If it wasn't hard, explain why.
It's not hard because I'm good at my job. I'm an expert writer. Getting inside people who aren't me is what I do.
Writers often speak about getting into their characters' heads. How did you go about getting into your straight characters' heads? Again, please give specific examples.
I'm surrounded by straight people. I grew up with them. They're everywhere. I've read their books, worn their clothes, eaten their food, watched their movies, listened to their music. I'm steeped in their culture. It's my culture. I know how it works. I know how they work. How could I not get in their heads?
Do you think straight readers care that a writer is queer when that queer writer creates a straight protagonist?
They seriously don't care.
Do you think the publishing industry cares that a writer is queer when that queer writer creates a straight protagonist?
They really, seriously don't care.
Why do you think so few gay writers write about straight protagonists?
Writing a novel is arduous. It's a serious commitment of time, energy, and attention. To write at novel length we must be consumed by the need to tell a particular story. We must burn with it. The stories queer writers want to write are for people like us. Our stories, generally, are queer stories. We want to see ourselves reflected in the world. We want to change the world.

One day, the world will treat queers and straights the same way. One day, there will be no difference between queer stories and straight stories.
Some gay writers might be intimidated at the thought of writing about straight characters: What advice do you have for them?
If your characters intimidate you, you're in the wrong line of work. Fear kills arts. We must act as though it doesn't exist.
Do you find you call upon more of your personal experiences when writing a gay character versus when writing a straight character, or does it depend on the character?
People are people. For example, straight people who love wine do so for the same reasons queer people do: it tastes great, it gets them wasted, they want to impress people, whatever. Queer people who are afraid of spiders are afraid of the wee beasties for the same reasons straights are: they're, y'know, spiders.

Good sex is good sex, no matter what the mechanics. And love is love. And we all, on some level, want more respect/money/privileges than we have. It's a human thing. So, mostly, nope, the sexuality of the character makes no difference to how I approach a character or to what degree I draw from my own experience. But because sex, in my opinion, if such a huge part of a life lived to the full, it's also very much part of my protagonists' lives. And I'm glad that, so far, all the sex I've really revelled in, fictionally, is dyke sex. Frankly, the thought of imagining detailed straight sex makes me feel a bit queasy. It's the whole gender and power differential--it just doesn't work for me. (But see my answer to your next question.)
Do you plan to write about more straight lead characters in the future? Can you talk in detail about any of them?
You'd better get comfortable because this is going to be a long answer.

The novel I am writing is about an historical figure, Hild of Whitby. It's set in the 7th century, in the north of England.

The little that's known about Hild comes from a single source (Bede's HE). He tells us she was royal, baptised at age 13 in York, became a nun at 33, and died at 66. For twenty years of her life, we know nothing about her. I could make up anything...

...and yet, to be realistic (and I'm writing realism, not fantasy), Hild has to be married (to a man). She was royal, a pawn in the constant power games and alliance-making of that time. Marriage was the premier diplomatic tool. She was a valuable game piece. The demands of the realm, the times, her kin would have made it impossible to refuse her role.

So, she marries: a king or crown prince. Given that royal men of that time were--had to be, it was part of the job description--warlords, Hild married a man of blood, a man who killed and raped. How do I imagine what it's like to be close to a person who is used to getting his way by the sword, who kicks open the door at the end of a summer's campaign, walks in splashed with gore, and bellows, "Honey, I'm home!" The answer is, I don't--because that picture is a cliché. Under the warlord's bloody armour would have beaten a human heart. That's what Hild would relate to. And, of course, I have no doubt she would have noticed women, too. As long as she was discreet, I don't think anyone would have cared. After all, the point of marriage was alliance, household management, and the provision of heirs. Married girls loving other married girls wouldn't have any impact on any of these points. And this was just before conversion to Christianity, so god wouldn't have entered into it.

So far, I've had it easy: Hild is only twelve, only just coming into her sexuality. (I've written 600* pages without any sex--an exceedingly weird experience.) But now she starting to notice the rich scent of a woman who's just woken up, the coppery tang of male adrenaline, the way her body thrills when she's near certain people. Very soon she'll figure out what it is she feels, and what she's going to do about it...

* Over 700 pages now
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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Strange light

The light is strange here this morning. Perhaps it's just the time change, but the leaves of the trees just outside my window as I type are sherbet and gold and raspberry, backlit by rain cloud.

My weekend has been and will be a combo of fatigue-daze and Hild-days. Plus food. Always food. Yesterday was nut and lentil loaf, with a lovely white white and mushroom sauce. We watched Regarding Henry and I just spent the two hours watching Harrison Ford playing a man whose brain has been pulverised, nodding to myself. All novelists can imagine how it feels to get shot in the head and feel muddled and then shot through the sub-clavian artery and feel drained. Wuss, I thought. We do it every day.

Today's food? Well, that's a mystery right now--or, as we say in our house, a strong literary work with wide popular appeal. Yes, another writer's joke. Yes, I'm going now. Have a wonderful day. Enjoy your extra hour. Hurt only bad people.

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Friday, November 5, 2010

Not today, Josephine

My mind is perfectly blank. Actually, that's not true: it's full of a field of flax and the 7th C occurrences therein. Also, this week I've found myself proceeding to my destination backwards via Cardiff. So nothing today.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

The New Media Writing Prize

Over at the Literary Platform, news of the New Media Writing Prize:

New Media Writing is a genre and a form, but the boundaries of both are still unclear. It’s much like jazz – you know it right away even if you couldn’t necessarily describe what makes it so.

I looked at the winner, Underbelly, by Christine Wilks, and runner up, The Winter House. The former was rather bewildering. Perhaps it was that I'd come straight from Hild World and found the transition too jarring. Perhaps I was just too tired. Perhaps it's just not my thing. On the other hand, The Winter House by Naomi Alderman, was fairly straightforward and deliciously atmospheric (big old house, crackling fires, hushed library). If you liked Myst, you'll like this. But, again, it's not what lights my touchpaper. It feels like a first step effort, not a mature art form. Not a high enough information density. Slow. Not really immersive. Definitely worth taking a look at, though. Let me know what you think.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The secret of life

Yesterday morning I discovered the secret of life: breakfast pastries. Before that, I thought the secret of life was butter. Now I know it's butter plus sugar.

I imagine many of you already know this. I am clearly a slow developer. This is probably connected with the fact that I grew up in Yorkshire, where breakfast (weekends) was bacon and eggs or (on school days) cereal in summer and porridge in winter. Both with appropriate volumes of tea, that is, enough to sink a battleship.

When I left home I mostly couldn't afford breakfast. Since I've been able to afford to eat almost anything I want when I get up I tend to stick to eggs with toast or fruit (work days), fish (trout! yum!--leisure days), and massively exotic decadence (a ten-course South-meets-history-of-England extravaganza with ten of my best friends and two dozen bottles of champagne; it lasted eleven hours--high days and holidays).

But that's by the by.

Monday night/Tuesday morning I had occasion to remark to Kelley that I had a yen for something...different. I fell into a reverie about croissants and scones I have known. (Usually encountered in hotels.) I fell asleep and dreamt of fatty farinaceous objects.

When I woke up Tuesday morning, magic had visited the kitchen. In the centre of the table was my favourite plate (you don't have a favourite plate? you need to learn to live) laden with, well, deliciousness. Croissants, turnovers, and other oddly shaped things I have no name for. (One looked like a strange bivalve.) I gaped. Kelley looked terribly pleased with herself. I looked terribly pleased with Kelley. Some time later, we weighed a few pounds more and felt terribly, terribly pleased with each other and life in general. And then, on a sugar and endorphin high, I wrote a zillion words of Hild. And then the sun came out. The world just glittered. And one of our day lilies bloomed. In November.

Clearly I've been operating under a disadvantage all these years. I now know that if I eat butter, sugar, and white wheat I can probably write three novels a year. I might die young but, damn, I'll die smiling.

For the record, my favourite was a peach croissant. My least favourite was a chocolate croissant. If you're going to eat chocolate for breakfast, it should either be chocolate cloud cake or Champagne truffles.

But, also for the record, any breakfast, or none at all, is just fine if I'm at the table with Kelley.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010


...something I've been promising to talk about. But, er, not today.

Hild is occupying all the thinking parts of my brain (yep, even the irrascible parts) so I don't have that rant I promised.

But here's the picture I was going to use with that post: me, in Pearson Park (Hull) in 1987. The jacket I'm wearing, vintage Daks, was, even then, probably twenty years old.

I bought it for 50p from a second-hand shop. I loved it, and still do--it's hanging in my closet. But more on that in a couple of days.

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Monday, November 1, 2010

More than halfway there

The Lambda Literary Foundation is more than halfway to its goal of raising $10,000 for the Chuck Forester Challenge Grant: $6,500 so far, thanks to you. There are 19 more days to raise the remaining $3,500. Chuck will match the money raised, dollar for dollar.

The exceedingly cool thing, if you work for the kind of corporation that matches charitable giving, is that your gift will end up being quadrupled. If you give $25, and your company matches it, for a total of $50, and Chuck then matches that, your $25 grows to $100. So, hey, at those rates you're practically obliged to give!


Chuck was one of my students at the Emerging Voices fiction workshop this summer. Another student, Eric Nguyen, is also asking for donations--but of stories, for the Better Book Project. I keep saying "Queer books save queer lives." It remains true. LLF is the premier organisation dedicated to that mission.

Give money, or give a story. Save lives.

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