Monday, October 31, 2011

Conversations with the restless dead


"Ravens and jays heard calling after the owl was abroad: in conversation with the restless dead
..."

That's the kind of thing Hild, the main character of the novel I've just finished, tells those she wants to frighten into listening to her advice. It works, mostly. Given her situation--young woman in a dangerous age--she finds it expedient to play the role of seer and prophet. She isn't--there are no fantastic elements in Hild, no magic but that of the natural world--but she becomes an observer of people and nature. She learns to predict behaviour--of people and systems (the weather, for example). She builds herself a reputation. (No, not like Miss Marple. Unless it's the alternate universe in which MM kills people, has wild sex, and plots more intricately than bishops and kings. That would make a cool TV series...)

Birds are a favourite indicator. One of my favourite research texts was a PDF a kind reader sent me a couple of years ago of a century-old book The Birds of Yorkshire: A historical account of the avifauna of the county, by T.H. Nelson. It's a wonderful book, full of just the kind of nifty oddities (albino magpies, nest-sharing doves and starlings, oddly-coloured eggs) a seer might need.

It's been interesting writing about a world utterly ignorant of science. (A useful book was Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, by Alaric Hall. I discussed the text and the thoughts it triggered--about elves and gender and fantasy--at length here.)

Hild is a naturally suspicious child, not inclined towards belief of any sort. But she does occasionally make up reasonable-sounding stories that fit the facts as she knows them: Swallows hibernate in a vast underground cavern all winter and emerge only when it's warm. Rainwater is some god's tears. The north wind comes from the great black cave of Arawn. (She lives in a world of Germanic and Celtic and, later, Christian belief.) And of course she can't know anything about death.

Hild's contemporaries find Hild uncanny--she's unnaturally tall, unnaturally clever--and suspect her of being, variously, part hægtes (witch) or part etin (giant), and occasionally possessed by an ælf (wicked and terrible, nothing like the diminished creatures of Santa's workshop) or wight (ghost). She is not above using these rumours to her advantage, although this choice comes back to haunt her. It's a dangerous thing to be other in a marginal culture.

But that's a whole other blog post. Happy Halloween.

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Writers' tools: social media addresses

The other day, Kelley and I agreed to do a presentation, with our friend Colleen, for the Pacific Northwest Writers' Association. The point was to discuss social media and other digital tools for writers. I'd like to distill my thought on that topic here. One chunk at a time.

Today I want to talk about the names/addresses writers choose for social media.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, Colleen updated me on a couple of things for the event, and signed her email: Don't forget to bring business cards! I blinked. I don't have such things. But I had about half an hour and a B&W laser printer. I made three cards: one for me, one for Kelley, and one for Sterling Editing.

Here's the Sterling card:

It won't win any design prizes but it does three important things:

  1. It exists: it's a handy note card on which to jot something, and a mental (or physical) bookmark, a reminder for those who go to the event that there is such an entity as Sterling Editing.
  2. Those of you who live in an almost paperless world (you know who you are) can just scan it with your phone's QR reader and throw the card away.
  3. It's simple. There's only one line of text, and it encapsulates three of Sterling's major communication tools: email, webpage, and Twitter handle.

Sterling has a Facebook page, too, of course. But as Kelley runs that (Facebook isn't my metier) and as one of the pearls of wisdom I was trying to convey at the event was, Play to your strengths! I just sort of forgot that. Besides, those who go to the SE website (either by typing the URL into their browser or scanning the QR code with their phone) will immediately see links to Facebook (and Twitter, and RSS feed, and PO Box, and phone number) and so on.

As I say, I don't usually carry business cards. I'm easy to find on the web if you know my name. And, as a novelist, I think, If you don't know my name, why on earth would you want to talk to me? (I'm not a hard-sell kind of writer.) But Sterling is different, it's a business not a personality. So a card makes sense.

What I like about this card is that it's plain and it's packed with information. What I don't like about it is that, well, it's plain. If I'd had more time and a colour printer I would have found a way to make the three addresses--email, URL, and Twitter--more obvious, perhaps by doing slightly offset colour block backgrounds for each address. I'd use a different font (something better than American Typewriter). And I'd put our logo on there (I didn't have time to make it look nice in grayscale).

But I really like the one-line-doing-three-things text. I did that for Kelley's card, too. Sadly, I couldn't do that for myself because my Twitter handle is not a shorted version of nicolagriffith.com. It's @nicolaz. I chose that because it's short--an important consideration when you only have 140 characters. But if I had to choose again, I'm not sure I'd made the same decision.

So, if you're just starting out building your online presence, consider keeping your addresses coherent:

  • http://www.yourname.com
  • you@yourname.com
  • @yourname
  • facebook.com/yourname

The same is true for LinkedIn, about.me, Google+, Skype, and any other services that shimmer into being in the next year or two. Avoid upper case, dots, and underscores where you can. Keep it as plain as humanly possible. It saves confusion, makes you easy to find on any medium, and, graphically speaking, is enormous fun to play with.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fun with ghosts

I just happily wasted the princely sum of $.99 on an app called Ghosthunter M2. It seemed like just the thing to prepare for Halloween.

So, ghosties and beasties, ghouls and zombies, I am armed. I also have lots of delicious wine so if you do intrude via non-door portals, you'll have to forgive me if I'm not massively alarmed--or even invite you to sit, put your feet (or whatever) up, and tell your story.

Or perhaps you'd like to be special friends with the newest member of the household:

Skeleton (I think her name is Clementine) by Oleana Perry, of Kraken West.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Send me 'lame' links for new Tumblr blog

I've started a Tumblr blog, the Lame Wall of Shame, to showcase links from media outlets who use 'lame' as an insult.

They should know better. (If you don't understand why, please read Lame is so gay.)

If you would like to help, please do one of two things: send me links to add to the wall, or drop a comment on one or more of the linked posts to object (nicely, politely) to their use of the term 'lame' to mean 'pathetic' or 'inadequate' (or 'laughable' or 'foolish' or 'naff' or 'poorly written' or...) Or you could do both. I, for one, am so thoroughly sick of feeling punched in the stomach everytime some writer who couldn't be bothered to find a better word unthinkingly reaches for this insult.

Thank you.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lame wall of shame

A while ago I wrote a rant, Lame is so gay, about why using 'lame' as an insult is not cool. But for months now I've been immersed in Hild and haven't been paying much attention to the world. However, my agent now has the book, so I'm catching up.

This morning this caught my eye, a piece from MSNBC's Technolog, written by Helen A. S. Popkin:

Don't you just hate it when your lame friends and/or family members email you links to Hipster Mermaid or Damn You Auto Correct or the Crazy Nastya** Honey Badger or some other ancient meme, website or viral video you saw, like 10 million years ago?

As an editor I would have improved this sentence in several ways, not least of which would be to substitute a non-discriminatory word (clueless would be perfect) for this insult. I encourage Helen Popkin to try harder. If you feel like encouraging her, too, feel free to add a comment to the Technolog piece. (Sadly, it wouldn't let me leave a link.)

If you see any other egregious instances, please send me a link. I think it might be interesting to do a regular roundup, a Lame Wall of Shame.


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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Anglo-Saxon Twitter button

Yesterday, via Laura Miller on Twitter, I came across the new Mysterious Press website, and their clever Twitter and Facebook buttons:

I was overwhelmed by icon envy. So I made a button of my own, in honour of my just-finished novel about Hild of Whitby. I wanted it to look like something from Sutton Hoo or the Staffordshire Hoard: hammered out of gold wire and blue glass and cut garnets. I allowed myself forty minutes:

I blurred it a bit, so if you squinted (and maybe hung upside down from a hook wearing a bag over your head) you could pretend it looks like a real thing taken with crapcam through a museum glass display case. The clumsy look is deliberate, though: the handmade style of seventh-century jewellery.

I forsee much happy time wasting ahead: Facebook, Blogger, RSS, Google+...

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Coming soon...

Hild, the novel (yes, that's it's new title--it just made sense), complete with map, glossary, and family tree have just winged their way to my agent. Now I curl up in a heap and sleep for a day.

Coming soon, a spiffy, gorgeous, luscious map of all things Hildish. Meanwhile, over on my research blog, Gemæcce, there's a readable version of Hild's family tree, complete with a long discussion of my name choices.

Enjoy.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

The word 'wife'

I found out yesterday that someone has been messing with my Wikipedia entry. Kelley changed from being my partner to being my 'girlfriend'. Wikipedia doesn't let you alter your own entry, so there was nothing I could do. I checked Kelley's entry, and, Lo!, I too was now a girlfriend.
I tweeted, and many kind people leapt in, fixed things, and are now starting a process to build nomenclature guidelines.
This is just one example of the problems--thankfully a minor one--that stem from lack of equality regarding same-sex marriage. If my relationship with Kelley were federally recognised, she would be my 'wife'. I would be her 'wife'. Wikiloons wouldn't mess with that. (Or maybe they would, but they wouldn't be able to hide behind any notions of Good Intentions.)
But when--and I mean when because I think this will happen soon--we are legally married, I will have the hardest time using the word 'wife', whether for me or Kelley. There's so much cultural baggage attached to the word. But 'spouse' sounds so...bureaucratic.
Maybe, given that we have a marridge, not a marriage, we should be wyves.
So, here's a question for you: how do you feel about the word 'wife'?

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

New pictures of the Staffordshire Hoard

I've posted about the Staffordshire Hoard before. But now National Geographic has done a spread, complete with new photos, a map, and some text by Caroline Alexander:

One day, or perhaps one night, in the late seventh century an unknown party traveled along an old Roman road that cut across an uninhabited heath fringed by forest in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Possibly they were soldiers, or then again maybe thieves—the remote area would remain notorious for highwaymen for centuries—but at any rate they were not casual travelers. Stepping off the road near the rise of a small ridge, they dug a pit and buried a stash of treasure in the ground.

For 1,300 years the treasure lay undisturbed, and eventually the landscape evolved from forest clearing to grazing pasture to working field. Then treasure hunters equipped with metal detectors—ubiquitous in Britain—began to call on farmer Fred Johnson, asking permission to walk the field.

The rest, as they say, is history. But history itself is just a story that people tell to explain the facts. And the story Alexander tells is at odds with itself:

The British monk Gildas, whose sixth-century treatise On the Ruin of Britain is the earliest surviving account of this murky period, describes the ensuing islandwide bloodshed and scorched-earth tactics at the hands of the invaders: "For the fire of vengeance … spread from sea to sea … and did not cease, until, destroying the neighbouring towns and lands, it reached the other side of the island."

According to Gildas, many in the "miserable remnant" of surviving native Britons fled or were enslaved. But archaeological evidence suggests that at least some post-Roman settlements adopted Germanic fashions in pottery and clothing and burial practices; in other words, British culture vanished at least in part through cultural assimilation. The extent of the Anglo-Saxons' appropriation of Britain is starkly revealed in their most enduring legacy, the English language. While much of Europe emerged from the post-Roman world speaking Romance languages—Spanish, Italian, and French derived from the Latin of the bygone Romans—the language that would define England was Germanic.

Historians used to believe Gildas and Bede, used to accept their marauders-ravage-the-earth perspective, but nowadays most scholars put more stock in material culture--archaeology--than in text. All text, after all, is just a story. And sometimes the narrators are very unreliable indeed.

I posted a while ago about Robin Fleming's book, Britain After Rome. (And I'll have more to say about it one of these fine days. Really.) But she shows how the burn-and-steal version of Anglo-Saxon settlement has been thoroughly debunked. So why is Alexander even mentioning this disgraced theory? I can only imagine that it's because it adds a bit of spice to an article about pretty war gear.

She confuses periods, too. I doubt very much that 'heriot' was a custom in the mid- to late-seventh century. It would have been a later development. The members of the king's warband at the time of the hoard would, I think (bear in mind I'm not a professional so could be horribly, miserably wrong about all this--but, hey, I won't let that get in the way), have been more like independent contractors, at least until they gave their binding oath to some king or other.

But don't let my nit-picking get in the way of your enjoyment. It's a fun piece. With pretty pictures. Though, again, I want to shake my head over the main illustration (a painting by Daniel Dociu) of a mounted warrior. That horse and its accoutrements would have glittered, too: jewelled headstall, fancy saddle, tooled leather, and so on. The Anglo-Saxons were gaudy people. Display and status went hand in hand. The better the warrior, the more loot he would have scored in his career. And he would have worn it all. It was his portable wealth. Now that's a painting I'd love to see!

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Kraken of the deep!

I read a week or so ago about a new hypothesis (getting a mixed reception) that, 200 million years ago, giant krakens, up to a hundred feet long, lurked in the deep and grabbed passing icthyosaurs to use as playthings and snacks. Bear in mind that icthyosaurs were large, fast, and predatory:

Wikimedia Commons

So this had to have been a spectacular monster, at least twice as big as the biggest known cephalopods. But the thing is, squidish things are soft; they don't fossilise well. So the evidence is scanty. Or should I say the indicators. Basically, a paleontologist called Mark McMenamin (try saying that three times at speed) took a look at a weirdly organised jumble of marine fossils and decided a good explanation could be a giant kraken behaving like its smaller, extant cousin, the octopus.

Here in Seattle, in the aquarium, Giant Pacific Octopuses have been known to kill sharks. (Bad octopus!) Perhaps they're also playful art collectors:

Some of the most intelligent creatures in today's oceans, says McMenamin, are cephalopods -- particularly octopuses and squid. In large aquariums, octopuses are known to collect unusual objects and even play with them. McMenamin imagines that during the Triassic period, his proposed kraken would do battle with ichthyosaurs. When it was victorious, the kraken would drag the ichthyosaur's corpse back to its den for a feast.

In McMenamin's purported midden, the kraken would play with the bones of the unfortunate ichthyosaurs, perhaps even arranging them into deliberate patterns. The double lines of disc-shaped vertebrae in the death assemblage closely mimic the arrangement of suckers on a cephalopod's tentacles -- which could make the patterns seen in the ichthyosaur fossils the world's oldest self-portrait, McMenamin suggests. (Scientific American)

I don't have a picture of a hundred-foot kraken, but I can show you a picture I took today that brought all this to mind:

It's from a friend's garden, freshly pulled today. It's now washed and safely in the fridge. I just hope it's not throttling the milk.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hild's family tree

I've just finished the third Hild rewrite. I'm feeling good.

Now I get to have fun with supplemental material: glossary, family tree, map. All that cool stuff. For now I'm keeping things fairly barebones, as plain as possible. So the glossary has only about seventy terms on it, and no pronunciation guide. For example, the word Gesith is described as member of king's personal warband, elite status. But it doesn't explain that gesith is supposed to be pronounced (if my admittedly small of understanding of Old English is correct) something like 'yesseeth'.

The map is going to show relief features--mountains, valleys--and a handful of rivers important to the story. Plus deliberately vague territorial names. (The boundaries changed all the time, and historians argue vigorously; I'm not setting myself up for that one. No no no.) And mostly-accurate settlement and/or royal vill names. In this round I won't be adding roads or nifty little pictures of the kind commonly found on ye olde anciente mappes. But I'm happy to take suggestions for the published version.

Hild's family tree is interesting. I just drew it out for the first time (literally drew, with a pen and yellow pad) yesterday. Some of it is speculative, some of it is just flat invented. Let me tell you, it took a bit of thought to fit it all neatly on one page. It... Ah, fuck it, here you go:

click to enlarge

I'll be making this prettier with some cool graphics programme or other. Er, that is, a friend will be, because I'm seriously crap at this kind of thing. I'm still happier with pen and paper. Hey, at least I now have an iPhone to take pictures and you don't have to cope with the iPod's crapcam anymore.

I'm guessing medievalists will have some quarrels with this. Bring it on.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Inside and out, a contrast in pictures

So that's what my office looked like this morning. Which is why I fled here:

Oh, it's so nice not to have to use crapcam anymore!

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

More on superhero with MS

From: Lorimayb

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "MS dissident." Can you elaborate? I'm in favour of things that put MS in the "spotlight" but I'd prefer it to be more realistic. Would this superhero be able to fly with a spastic bladder?--look out below! A "young boy"? Many people think they know what having MS is like but until you've had it for awhile--no clue.

I was diagnosed in 1990 and became "secondary/progressive" before any of the drugs were available so escaped being co-erced into suffering the side effects. I'm extremely happy to say I had venous angioplasty for CCSVI in March/2011 and even though I was told I would never get better--only steadily worse--I defied the neurologists' prediction and have improved greatly. Please see my before/after video and my 6-months after treatment video.

Lori

First of all, I'm delighted that CCSVI has worked so well for you. I hope it continues to be helpful.

I doubt I'll attempt CCSVI until the root cause of the disease has been addressed. (It's my belief that venous stenosis is a symptom of MS, not a cause.) But that doesn't mean that others won't find it tremendously helpful--though some, of course, don't get any help at all, and others gain only temporary relief until the vein closes up again. (ETA: And, of course, the trauma of the procedure itself can trigger exacerbations.)

So, anyway, to answer your question. By dissident I mean someone who doesn't swallow the CRAB drug (e.g. Copaxone, Rebif, Avonex, Betaseron) Kool Aid. It's my belief that the autoimmune disease theory of MS isn't the whole story and that, therefore, immunomodulatory drugs address a symptom and not a cause. I've had a lot of experience with immodulatory and immunosuppressive therapies. They don't work for me, the treatment is unpleasant, and the side effects terrible. They cost a fortune, too. So I don't do those anymore. I eat well, exercise as I can, and take the supplements I find useful: fish oil, flax oil, evening primrose oil, and vitamin D--lots of it.

Back to the film. It's my impression that the hero is a boy with MS who turns into a grown man with superpowers and without MS. But does he turn for months, or does he turn on a schedule: part of his day or week or month? I don't know, but this decision will have an impact on the tone of the film.

How are they going to keep the film light? I don't know that, either. But I'd guess by avoiding the kind of realism that will upset American audiences, such as incontinence, slurring or confusion, spasming at awkward moments, or the inability to swallow. Will they show him struggle, or will he be tucked tidily into a wheelchair? Again, I just don't know. This all matters, of course, because of the general distaste of this culture for bodily functions. (I wrote a whole essay on this, "Writing from the Body.")

However, I cheer up when I remember this film will be made by the team that brought us Kick-Ass. So my guess is they won't be shy about some of the realities; I just don't know which ones.

If I had input, I'd suggest they use a batch of symptoms very like mine because (a) that would be cool (I've always wanted to be a superhero) and (b) it wouldn't trigger the American distaste for the messy body. So I'd go with muscle weakness, particularly in the legs, some pain (always good for sympathy), numbness, fatigue, and very occasional eye problems. (Truly seeing double is an interesting experience, and I can imagine how it could be adapted to a superpower.)

But mainly I hope it has some jokes, and some cool superhero sequences, and that some Bad People get what's coming. Because it's, y'know, a movie.

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Monday, October 17, 2011

How not to run an award: National Book Award debacle

Last week the National Book Foundation announced the finalists for the National Book Award. Oddly, the Young People's Literature category listed six books instead of the usual five:

The NBF cited “miscommunication” between the NBA judges and staff for leaving out Chime by Franny Billingsley (Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Group) in the original selection. After the judges heard the broadcast, they told the NBF staff of the omission. The addition of a sixth nominee in YPL’s makes a total of 21 NBA finalists this year. (PW)

Well, now it turns out there will be only five nominations in the YPL category, after all:

After receiving a request from the National Book Foundation that she withdraw her book from nomination, Lauren Myracle consented, a move that dropped Shine from the list. Last week, Chime by Franny Billingsley was added as a sixth nominee to the category, and Harold Augenbraum, NBF executive director, confirmed Monday that NBF staff had originally misheard Shine for Chime when the list of nominees was read by the judges over the phone. The mistake was not caught until the judges heard the announcement on last Wednesday’s radio broadcast. The YPL judge’s panel is chaired by author Marc Aronson.(PW)

I think this is pretty shabby of the NBF. I think this request to an author has done more damage to the 'integrity of the award' than having an extra title ever could. I feel for Lauren Myracle extremely and applaud her grace (and her negotiating skills: screwing $5,000 payment from NBF to the charity of her choice). I sincerely hope that NBF has better processes in place next time.

If I were in that situation, would I withdraw if asked? Of course. How would I have any choice? Everyone would know I'd been listed in error, that I was an imposter. To refuse to withdraw would make me an object of derision. But, oh, I'd be so angry: all that joy smashed flat, and insult piled upon injury. Just because no one checked before releasing the results. And then because no one had the simple human decency to just let it stand and put a brave face on it. So, yes, I'd withdraw. But I'd be making a wax doll and sharpening the needles. Also I'd be phoning Clarion West to tell them to expect a big donation.

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Washington--the music, not the state

I'm Hilding today, so here, for your Sunday entertainment, is Washington (via Autostraddle).

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

iPhone 4S intelligent agent, Siri

Siri's house

Yesterday I got an iPhone 4S. It has an AI interface called Siri. I am living in the future.

To access Siri, all you have to do is raise the phone to your ear. It chimes. You ask it something like, "Where am I?" and it presents a map with a red pin showing your exact location. You ask it, "What's the temperature?" and it says, "It is currently 52 degrees outside." You say, "Email Kelley," and it says, "What's the subject of your email?" It will take notes, do long division, and tell you the capital of France, without any typing involved.

I'm carefully saying 'it' because if you select English (United Kingdom) you get a male voice and if you select English (United States) you get a female voice. I'm guessing they use exactly the same algorithms, I'm guessing it's programmed with multiple answers to the most common questions. But on first pass, I'm getting a different attitude from each one.

Me: What's the meaning of life?
American Girl Siri: I find it odd that you would ask that of an inanimate object.

Me: What's the meaning of life?
American Girl Siri: I give up.

Me: What's the meaning of life?
English Boy Siri: I can't answer that now, but give me some time to write a very long play in which nothing happens...

Me: Why did the chicken cross the road?
American Girl Siri: To get to the other side, ha ha.

Me (getting punchy): Open the podbay doors.
English Boy Siri: That's it, I'm reporting you to the intelligent agents' union for harassment!

Is this gendered? Is this cultural? Is there really any difference at all? It's surreal.

Oh, and the phone has a great camera. I'm sure you'll be relieved that I'll no longer be subjecting you to crapcam.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

The Literature Prize: snobbery or a good thing?

Announced yesterday by a group of publishers and agents: the Literature Prize, designed to counteract the dumbing down (I'm paraphrasing) of the Man Booker Prize. The advisory board of the new prize sent out this press release:

We are delighted to announce the launch of a new literary prize.

The Literature Prize will be for the best novel written in the English language and published in the UK in a given year, and a writer's country of origin will not be a factor. Our aim is to establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence, and the prize judges will be selected in rotation from an academy of experts in the field of literature.

The prize will offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of these expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition. For many years this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly the Man Booker) Prize. But as numerous statements by that prize's administrator and this year's judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of 'readability' over artistic achievement.

We believe though that great writing has the power to change us, to make us see the world a little differently from how we saw it before, and that the public deserves a prize whose sole aim is to bring to our attention and celebrate the very best novels published in our time.

The Literature Prize has been enthusiastically endorsed by numerous people in the publishing industry, as well as writers including John Banville, Pat Barker, Mark Haddon, Jackie Kay, Nicole Krauss, Claire Messud, Pankaj Mishra and David Mitchell, with an additional number of high-profile writers offering strong support behind the scenes.

We are currently procuring funding for the prize and will be making an announcement about this soon.

For further information please contact: Andrew Kidd (andrew@aitkenalexander.co.uk or +44 7525 210 780)

There are many articles on this new prize (see, for example, the Independent and Publishers Weekly). None of them explores one of my concerns: funding. Who's going to pay for this? The Man Booker is prestigious because it has serious money behind it: payment for judges, for publicity, for the prize itself. Not cheap. I'm guessing the Man Booker annual budget is not too far off $100,000. Litfolk are notoriously cheap (partly because we're notoriously bad with money). They/we will lend our names, but not our cash. I'm not convinced this prize will thrive.

That would be a pity. I believe in literary prizes. They make a difference to careers and income. (I speak from personal experience.) The more the merrier. Having said that, I'm not impressed by the tone of this one. Insulting another award is not a good way to begin.

There's nothing wrong with readable novels. There's nothing wrong with challenging novels. But the real artistry of literature is to combine the two in one package and to do it so that it looks effortless. That's what I aim to do with every single novel I write: challenge the reader with concepts, relationships, and thought experiments, while helping the reader into those concepts, relationships, and thought experiments. The writing that changes the world is more about the feather on the arrow, not the feather in the cap.

Many so-called difficult books are difficult, frankly, because the writer isn't very good at helping the reader. Many so-called easy-read books are easy because they give readers exactly what they expect and so don't challenge their thinking. Truly great writing takes years to learn, decades to practice. (No one ever 'perfects' writing.) Easy books and difficult books are written by the mediocre and talented beginners.

I could go on about all this at length. Except, oh wait, I already have. If you want to read more, take a look at the following essays and/or rants:

Meanwhile, I'll get back to my novel-in-progress. When I come up for air, I'd love to get your opinion on this.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Abbay which shee had built in this place

Thanks to a friend, this week I've spent some happy time with layered historical map data for Whitby. Part of the joy was zooming in and getting info (graphics, text) from different eras. One chunk of text, by one William Camden (late 16th century, guessing from the spelling and the headshot painting), was fascinating:

From thence the shore, endented and interlaced with rockes, bendeth in as farre as to the river Teise, and by a compasse that the said shore fetcheth there is made a bay about a mile broade, which of that outlaw Robert Hood so much talked about we call Robin Hoods Bay. For hee (as John Major the Scotishman writeth) flourished in the reigne of Richard the First, and the said Author setteth him out with this commendation that, hee was in deed an Arch-robber, but the gentellest theefe that ever was. Then Dunus Sinus, a creeke mentioned by Ptolomee, streightwaies by giving backe of the shore on both sides sheweth it selfe, neere unto which standeth Dunesley a little village, and hard by it Whitby, in the English Saxon tongue Streaney-heale , which Beda expoundeth to bee the Bay of a Watch-towre. Neither will I call that interpretation into question, although in our language it doth resemble Sinum Salutis , that is the Bay of health , so that I would say this very same was Salutaris Sinus , that is, The Bay of safety, but that the situation in the Geographer did perswade mee otherwise. Here are found certaine stones faschioned like serpents folded and wrapped round as in a wreathe, even the very pastimes of Nature disporting her selfe, who, as one saith, when shee is wearied as it were with serious workes, forgeth and shapeth some things by way of game and recreation. A man would thinke verily they had beene sometime serpents, which a coate or crust of stone had now covered all over. But people to credulous ascribe this to the Praiers of Saint Hilda, as if shee had thus transformed and changed them: who in our Primitive Church withstood to her powre the shoring and shaving of Priests and the celebration of Easter according to the order of Rome, when a Synod was helden touching these matters in the yeere of our Lord 664 in the Abbay which shee had built in this place, and whereof her selfe was first Governesse. Unto whose holinesse also they ascribe that those wild geese which in winter flie by flockes unto Pooles and Rivers that are not frozen over in the South partes, whiles they flie over certaine fields heere adjoyning, soudainely fall downe to the ground, to the exceeding great admiration of all men: a thing that I would not have related had I not heard it from very many persons of right good credit. But such as are not given to superstitious credulity attribute this unto a secret propriety of this ground, and to an hidden dissent betweene this soile and those geese, such as is between wolves and Squilla rootes. For provident Nature hath infused suchlike secret mutuall combinations and contrarieties, which the learned terme Sympathies and Antipathies, as all men acknowledge, for their preservation. Afterwards Edelfleda King Oswins daughter enriched this Abbay with most large revenewes, where also she solemnized her fathers funerall obsequies. But at length the Danes, robbing and spoiling wherever they came, utterly overthrew it, and although Sir Percie reedified it, being immediately upon the comming in of the Normans head-ruler of the same, yet now it scarce affordeth any footing [vestige] at all of the ancient dignity. Hard by upon a steepe hill, howbeit betweene two others higher than it, toward the sea, stood by report the Castle of Wada a Saxon Duke, who in that confused Anarchie of the Northumbers and massacre of Princes and Nobles, having combined with those that murdred King Ethered, gave battaile unto King Ardulph at Whally in Lancashire, but with so disasterous successe that after his owne powre was discomfited and put to flight, himselfe was faine to flie, and afterwards by a languishing sicknesse ended his life, and heere within the hill betweene two entire and solide stones above seven foote high lieth entombed: which stones because they stand eleven foote asunder, the people doubt not to affirme that hee was a mighty Giant.

And you know what those certaine stones faschioned like serpents folded and wrapped round as in a wreathe are, right? Two guesses, and the first doesn't count:

So, yeah, looks as though I'm never, ever going to stop talking about ammonites, whether I'm writing historical fiction or science fiction.

By the way, in my novel, Whitby is known variously as Streanæshalch, Bay of the Beacon, and Mulstanton.

At some point soon I'll show you the map I've been working on. But because I like to torment you (there, I said it), first I'll just talk about it, then I'll show you the bare-bones version, then I'll show you... Ah, but you'll have to wait and see.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Everything a writer needs to know about social media

On Wednesday, October 26th, Kelley and I, and our friend Colleen Lindsay (Penguin Group), will be talking to local members of the Pacific Northwest Writers' Association about social media:

These days, it isn’t enough to just write a compelling novel. Agents and editors are looking for writers who are also engaging potential readers online, building strong virtual communities and using social media to build a platform before they’ve even gotten published. Tonight we’ll talk about how to get started in this scary new digital world, best practices for using social media, balancing the personal and the professional online, and - most importantly - what you do to make sure that your writing doesn’t suffer in the process. Q&A session to follow!

This is a huge topic. I could probably talk for a week--but right now I'm planning to speak to just one aspect of the subject, which is Hild: how and why I've approached social media in and for a genre I've never played with before. But I imagine a lot of other stuff will come up.

This is a members-only event. But whether you can be there or not, here's your chance to ask questions. What would you like to know? All three of us are experts in slightly different corners of the publishing socialverse. So fire away. If I don't know the answer, I'll make sure to find out. And, later, in a blog post, I'll try to summarise what was discussed here in the comments and live at the event.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why do my characters talk about love so fast?

From: Josleyn

I was just reading the post on Elvis and cream cake (which, incidentally, I've been craving for a while. Thank you for helping me get on that) and, at the end, you made a mention of the death of John Lennon, somethingsomething, and then...end of blog post. Are you intending soon to write a post on that?

As for the lavish praise and guiltless fawning from me to you, I have a rather sad story to tell you: I'm a huge fan of Aud, and only recently discovered your personal website. I was so excited when I saw that Always had come out, I immediately rushed to the library to borrow it. I took my booty home, flopped myself on the couch and, savoring every last second of it, flipped open the book. It landed on the copyrights and information page, and I practically smacked my forehead in exasperation when I saw that Always had been published in 2007 and it's now 2011...I was woefully behind the times. All in all, I sped through Always like a crack addict mainlining coke and my dear girlfriend had to pry the book out of my cold, starving fingers to get me to eat anything. It was a great book. I practically had a coronary when I saw that Aud had come to Seattle...I'd never dreamt it possible! Then reality hit, and I remembered once again that she's a fictional character. I'm rambling again. I apologize for that.

Well...in a nutshell, is there going to be another Aud book soon?

Also...I've a request, if you will. Your books are all rife with gold star lesbians, but...why does it never take them long to drop the L-bomb on each other? With Julia it was five or six weeks, in Ammonite with Marghe it was about six months, probably less. With Kick, it was about a month. And the DGF and I were both wondering if we're the only lesbians on the face of the planet who took longer than a year to start saying that. Uhm. Is there a particular reason they never take long?
I'm sorry, this letter's been dreadfully long...but I hope your day is going well, and enjoy the overcast day! Yesterday's sunshine was so pleasant...um.

Thanks so much for reading, if you do, J

I always read email from readers. Every single one. I reply to most--sometimes here, sometimes directly. (Sometimes both.) Part of the point of having a website and blog (and Twitter and Google+ accounts) is to interact with other people. If they're readers then, wow, icing on the cake (or cream...).

So, will I tell the story about the death of John Lennon one day? Yes. But today is not that day.

Today I want to get to the question of why my characters say 'love' so fast. The answer is simple: my characters recognise what they feel very quickly, and then don't have a problem saying so.

Something I've never understood about other people is this weird reluctance to say what they feel. What is so frightening about it? I find it utterly mystifying. I told Kelley I loved her just a few days after I met her. She didn't believe me. Actually, she patted me on the hand and said, "Yes, sweetie. I love you, too," in a tone that meant, Whoa, foreigners are really, really strange.

In general, I think it's a bad habit to speak for other people, but Kelley and I have talked about this often over the last 23 years. So, just this once, I'm going to make an exception. (Because, hey, if I get it wrong, K will no doubt correct me in the comments.)

That night, long ago, when I said, "I love you," Kelley thought I couldn't possibly mean it, that I must be using love to mean like or want to be friends with. But I meant it. I meant, You said hello and my world changed. I want you, want to know you, for the rest of my life. To me it was blindingly simple: I knew what I felt and told her so.

I'd known how I felt from the minute I saw her. (Read the whole story here.) But I'd done the decent thing and waited a few days and for a moment sitting alone in a restaurant with a glass of wine.

Not everyone is like me, I know. But the thing about fiction is readers don't necessarily want characters to dither and agonise in ways they themselves might dither and agonise in real life. Sometimes readers want characters to have different problems (saving the world, blowing it up, whatever) and they're relieved when the people in the book know what they want and just...do it.

Oh, alright, here's the truth: it would fucking drive me insane to live inside the heads of characters who are either too out of touch with themselves to know what they feel and what they want, or who know but are too frightened to say so.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that all those in real life who don't know/feel/say/do are out of touch or frightened. I understand that modern reality, with its layers and gender games and careful poker play around relationships, is not so simple. But I don't want to spend time with that kind of reality. It doesn't suit me. I get grumpy. I've built my life around the ability to just say, fuck it, and to then just do it. If the world doesn't like it, then I'll change the world. It's worked for me so far (except for MS--but, hey, I'm on that, trust me). It might not work for others.

I've just finished a thousand-page novel in which my main character has to be terribly, terribly careful, politically, because lives are at risk. If I'd made her careful around sex and love, too, I think my head might have exploded. Oh, wait, it turns out she is careful about love and sex, because lives are at stake there, too.

Yes, I'm being deliberately confusing and mysterious. Hey, it took me a thousand pages to figure out what happens. I don't see why you shouldn't wait, too.

As for another Aud, well, I never say never. But right now I'm focused on Hild. And in book two she isn't going to be careful. Not one bit.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

SF Gateway and Encyclopedia of SF go live

Gollancz's ambitious project, the SF Gateway, has just gone live:

The SF Gateway is your portal to the classics of SF and Fantasy, where we hope you'll renew acquaintances with old favourites and discover new guides to strange and wonderful worlds . . .

And look, for one brief shining moment, Ammonite is number one! Chortle. It's the first time in years Ammonite and Slow River have been available outside the US. I'm pretty happy. All writers want to be read. That's the point. This is a pretty damn good Monday for me.

More importantly, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction also just went live. Lots and lots of luscious information: all free. These two portals combined are going to be an incredible resource. Hats off to all those involved.

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ooops

Flowers, just because they're there

Ooops. Time flies. I've been busy. (All good. Well, almost all good.) I just sort of forgot to post.

Yesterday was an absolute gift of a day: enamel-blue sky for two hours in the middle of the day. We got to eat lunch outside, the last time for 2011. Unless, y'know, we zoom off to foreign climes. Which isn't currently part of the plan.

I spent a happy morning footling with Photoshop to make my Hild map. I got progressively less happy, of course: I don't much care for Photoshop. I long for an iPad so I can just manipulate the thing with my fingers. Maybe Santa will bring me one. Hmmn, I wonder what of apps Kindle Fire will have.

The afternoon was spent putting together a glossary. Not much about this is pleasing. I find Excel tedious in the extreme. And after three years with Hild, it's difficult to remember what most readers might not know. Doesn't everyone know what I mean by sidsa or gesith or gemæcce? This reminds me of when I got an offer for my very first novel, and the editor said: "We'll have to change the title." I said, "Why?" And she said, "Because most people won't know what an ammonite is." And I said, "They can fucking look it up." And turned down the offer. But I know readers like glossaries to peruse for their chewy historical novels. I just don't like building them. But, hey, it's half done now.

The really tricky part is doing the humongous family tree. First of all, sources disagree about how, exactly, one or two key figures were related. I know, in my own mind, how they connect, but to show it all will reveal things I might not necessarily want revealed just yet. So it's tricky. And then there's figuring out ways to make clear which sibling was born first--while still making it all fit together prettily. Yeah, I think so too: I'm spending too much time on this stuff. But it's weirdly addictive. Besides, it lets me pretend I'm working, a great excuse to avoid the part that really is going to be difficult: rewriting an eighty-page chunk from the middle of the book. Besides, creating the supplemental material (or, as my folder is labelled, Fiddly Bits) makes the whole enterprise feel very, very real and therefore dreadfully exciting. I'm finally beginning to believe in this book.

I can't wait for you to see it!

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Superhero with MS

No, not me. Well, not only me. This guy:

From Comic Book Resources news of a big film about a superhero with multiple sclerosis:

Award-winning comic-book writer Mark Millar is empowering people with MS with his envelope pushing latest character Superior, the first superhero ever to be diagnosed with MS. And he is sharing him with the National MS Society (www.nationalMSsociety.org) to help raise awareness for MS and the work of the Society.

The hugely popular comic Superior, which is part of the Millarworld line, follows the tale of a young boy living with multiple sclerosis who's granted a magic wish. He asks to be transformed into his favourite big screen action hero and uses his new super-powers to right the real world's wrongs. Whereas most superheroes fight criminals and stop bank robberies, this little boy uses his abilities to end the war in the Middle-East, feed the starving, rescue people from natural disasters and anything else the public wants. But have these incredible powers and worldwide adulation come at a price? This dark, magical tale has been described by critics as Big meets Superman, a unique take on the superhero mythos with a magical element that appeals to Harry Potter fans as much as the traditional superhero audience. The movie rights to this book were snapped up by Kick-Ass and X-Men director Matthew Vaughn with a view to turning this into a Hollywood blockbuster. (via @kelleyeskridge)

I wonder if Superior's first mission will be visit his wrath upon those who fudge drug trial data? Or those who disseminate said data? Or those who pay neurologists kick-backs for prescribing the drugs so trialled? Or the the national organisations who have, upon occasion, made some poor judgement calls regarding their advertisers and their editorial direction. I would pay to see that story.

But I'll probably pay to see this story, too. I'm intensely curious about how they're going to portray a boy with MS. I wish Mark Millar and Matthew Vaughn the best of luck--and hope they'll consult MS dissidents like me, not just the big organisations with a lot of money in the game.

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Workspace show and tell

In May, when I finished my first draft of Hild, I tidied my office. I was so pleased with the result that I took some pictures. Once I had pictures, I felt the need to talk about it. (I'm a writer, not a photographer.) So here you go.

I have two desks in my office. The corner desk is just big enough for keyboard, Mac Mini, speakers (Klipsch, with a humongous subwoofer hidden at my feet), and monitor (plus a pile of 3x5 index cards and a pencil). The theory is: keep it tiny and it won't get cluttered. It works. Mostly. It's at this desk that I write my first drafts, do my email, Tweet from boredom, and pump the volume so high rats flee the neighbourhood and mosquitoes fall down dead. Oh, and that black towel you see peeking out from beneath the keyboard? It's a Don't Panic towel, a HHGTTG promotional item. It's too small to use as a towel, but it turns out to be a nifty keyboard pad (and handy reminder when the To Do list threatens to overwhelm the earth).

On the wall next to it you can see a bit of the two-map set, Britain in the Dark Ages, south sheet on the left, north sheet on the right. We don't call it the Dark Ages anymore, of course. It's Late Antiquity, or Early Medieval, depending on the century. Hild's time and place, seventh century Britain, is definitely EM. And I own it. That is, I own seventhcenturybritain.com, chortle. Expect some much niftier maps on that website.


The big desk is where my first drafts gets turned into novels. There's the first draft ms. of my current WIP: the first of three novels about Hild of Whitby (976 pages first draft; not many fewer in the third). A phone (rarely turned on; I hate--hatehatehate loathe and detest--talking on the phone). A pencil (and pencil sharpener--hate phones, love pencils): number 2, or HB as we say in the UK. To go with it: probably the biggest pencil box in the world, which started out life as a beautiful dovetailed, brass-bound presentation box for a 1973 Baron de Lustrac Armagnac (which I drank last year). You'll also see a cork mat for my mugs of tea (Irish Breakfast, with a splash of 2% milk; couldn't get anything done without tea and music--currently listening to my MainHild playlist, specifically "VargTimmen" by Hedningarna). The yellow legal pad is for my rewrite notes, usually jotted with a Pilot Precise V5, blue, extra fine. The problem with that (and fountain pens) is that when I spill my tea on my notes, the words all wash away. (When is the operative word here, not If. But I keep doing it.) That black thing leaning on part of the Hild ms. is my Kindle--one of the original batch, getting on for four years old now. Hild is so huge, so unwieldy in manuscript form that I uploaded it to my Kindle to read around the house. Problem: no page numbers, just location numbers, so when I have a note on the yellow pad saying This is boring, cut cut cut! or Oh, bloody hell, this is happening way too early! (both real examples) I have to figure out where it is in the printout. But the weird brain rubberyness I have to maintain to make it work seems to help.

Pride of place on the bookshelves goes to the Oxford English Dictionary, which was my present to myself for my forthieth birthday. Possibly the best thing I ever bought myself. I know, you can access it online now if you have a library card--but what if the Big One actually happens, eh? What if there's no more intarweb, no more handhelds? You'll all be banging on my door bringing me drugs and beer and other valuables in exchange for a definition or two. Oh, yes. I plan ahead!

Also peeking out behind the chair are a bunch o' Ordnance Survey maps of the north of England, 1: 50,000 scale. You've no idea how useful they've been for Hild.On the wall you can see two styrofoam boards I stole from book signings. Between them is an exceedingly cool Unshelved review of Always. (My first and only cartoon-as-review. Why don't more people do this?) In the corner is my microphone and stand--outdated now. Much easier to use a headset. But of great sentimental value. The window looks out onto our back garden. Here's a closeup, complete with late blossom and the stained-glass-and-Chambered-Nautilus (it's a real shell) dangly.

So, there you go. Anything else you want to know about my workspace?

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Update

Well, it turns out that I don't have time for any fancy new projects after all. I've had some feedback on Hild and need to do a quick (two weeks, maybe) rewrite and then create some supplemental material. (Can you spell 'maps'?) Onward! Upward! (Sideways! Inside out!)

But, hey, send me ideas, questions, or requests anyway. It's always good to plan ahead.

A note to Facebook people: it turns out that all my email notifications were turned off for a few days so I've been remiss about commenting and responding. I haven't been ignoring you--well, uh, I have, but not, y'know, on purpose. Sorry about that.

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Monday, October 3, 2011

Creative concussion

Finishing a big project can be a shock to the system. Certainly a shock to my system. Odd going from eight or nine hours a day, seven days a week, to zero. It's like hitting a wall of nothing. I'm all revved up and nowhere to go, just spinning my wheels. I imagine it's like this for all artists. But novelists tend to get focused on a single project for longer than most.

Which is my preamble to saying: I feel utterly blank. Running into a wall of nothing gives a person creative concussion. I keep thinking, I should do a blog post, and then I get to the keyboard and have no idea what I want to say.

So here's your opportunity: ask me questions. Or tell me what you'd like me to talk about.

I do, sadly, have a massive To Do list...but all those things on the list have been on the list for days or weeks, and I'm not in a mood to tackle stale stuff. (I will. Just not right now.) So this is the perfect moment to make suggestions, via either the form, or the comments. [ETA: The form isn't working. So send email to asknicola2 at nicolagriffith dot com.]

Fire away.

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Weather drama

Yesterday morning was full of sunshine. We immediately scrapped our plans and went to the park--because at the end of September, every moment of sun here in Seattle is a gift. And this, I thought, might be the Last Day of Sun for the year.

Apparently ten billion other people, mainly families with young children--mainly mothers with young children--were there, and someone had built a huge bonfire. (The crackle and heat of fire outdoors, when it's not night and not cold, made my danger receptors flare; I got over it.)

We found a place to sit in the glittery sunshine, overlooking the beach and sound and began to bask in the slish and whisper of surf, the mewl of a gull, the heated caw-conversations of a bunch of young crows. Then, as though someone had thrown a switch, weather came boiling out of the south.

I opened my eyes, blinked. Here's how the sky looked facing northwest:

Here's how it looked facing southwest:

It was like sitting in the cinema on a warm day: bright and cheery, then the lights dim and the AC flips on, and suddenly it's dark and frigid and the ominous music begins. By the time we got home, the rain was lashing the house and wind gushing through the trees in the ravine. Lovely. We ate lunch and, poof, the sun came out again and the wind died. The whole thing was as good as a play.

Today the world is dark and dim. Definitely autumn.

Annoyingly, in the UK, where I should have been for my birthday--for a variety of reasons we had to postpone our trip until early next year--Yorkshire is baking under record-breaking heat. It's the hottest October since records began: nearly 90°. In Yorkshire. In October.

Weather drama: something the Pacific Northwest and Yorkshire have in common. Also: tea, good beer, and luscious chocolate. What, you thought it was a coincidence we moved here?

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