Precedent and learning Martian

I received my BSc(Hons) from the Open University today.

This was possible for me because of precedent in my family.

I’m the youngest of five children. I have two older sisters. One of them turned down a scholarship to Princeton to get married. She worked as an accountant to support her husband through his MBA, then when her younger son was a toddler she went for a gruelling five-year degree in Pharmacy, full-time. I watched this unfold with my jaw on the floor. My other sister put herself through her BSc (magna cum laude) and then a Masters, a nurse practitioner-ship, and eventually a PhD while working crazy hours in urban ER departments and bringing up three children. Her ability to outwork the toughest person while keeping a smile on her face is something I will always admire.

So when my application for QTS was turned down in 2010 and the efforts I’d made to earn money through writing had come to bupkus, I thought: I got this. I’ll go back to school like my sisters and I’ll grab enough credits to get on a PGCE for physics and then I’ll be able to get some work because STEM. I was 42. I had no idea how hard it would really be, but I’d seen them both do it and I knew it was possible. I jumped in with both feet.

When I started my kids were 4, 6, and 8 with all the attendant noise and mess. I was haphazardly running Steve’s business, and though I was writing I had virtually no money coming in for my work. My mathematical background consisted of Cs and Ds in high school math and no pre-calculus or trig whatsoever. I thought I had enough raw brains to see me through, but for the first couple of years even when the house was quiet I struggled to control my mind. Mathematics takes a very narrow, sustained focus, and I had to learn that. At first it was like Martian.

You know what? Even Martian is learnable. It’s possible to learn to do things you never thought you could. I’m telling you: you are not too old and you are not too stupid or weak or whatever. You just have to be willing to fall flat on your face a few times. Or a few hundred times. After the first few hundred times you fail at something, it’s not that big of a deal anymore. Take it from me.

The other thing it’s important to know is that sometimes it’s just about taking that first step. One step leads to another step. I ended up going well beyond the credits I needed to teach secondary school physics and I’ve stretched to the honours degree. Now I have the QTS I set out for, and I may use it, or I may set my sights a bit higher—at the moment I’m on a part-time MSc that I was allowed to begin last year because I had the chutzpah to blag my way in the door. I won’t lie: it’s pretty hard. I don’t know where it will lead. I’m putting one foot in front of the other, and that is how you do this stuff. You take the first step and build your courage as you go.

But it helps a lot to have precedent. So I’m here saying, I did this. These things can be done. People will help you—the generosity of support and kindness I’ve received from friends, family, colleagues, tutors, and sometimes even strangers has been amazing and humbling. My partner Steve has been a fucking rock. More tears have been shed on his shoulder than I care to admit.

The inspiration and example set by my sisters gave me the nerve to set out on this journey. It’s a big mountain. I’m standing on this little ledge of an honours degree and it seems like a good time to pause and thank both of my sisters for showing me how it’s done. Kathy, Chris: thank you.

And I’m saying to anyone standing in their kitchen surrounded by a life that’s not going to plan, to the person with the responsibility of little people looking to them, to that person with maybe some regrets thinking, ‘WTF am I going to do? It’s too late to make a radical change’—it’s not too late.

There’s precedent. You can do it—whatever it is you are scared to begin. It won’t be easy but it will be worth it. I promise.

All flowers in time bend towards the sun

Mahvesh Murad very kindly invited me to be a part of Midnight in Karachi last week. I was a little nervous going in, and from my recollection I babbled discursively. This is why I prefer writing to talking!

In the interview Mahvesh asked whether I had a playlist for the book, and I told her how one specific song contains the entire emotional realm in which Occupy Me was put together. It’s not a long piece of music, but for me it opens up vaulting internal spaces.

This is a book that was written in little tiny bursts and then put down for long stretches. One of the ways I’ve learned to deal with this heavily punctuated process is to use specific music to trigger the mood of the book. Now, proper writers will create playlists for their novels, but I never have time. I usually have a bank of material that I will draw on ad hoc; Lisa Gerrard features heavily. For Shadowboxer I was using Warpaint, but I needed something different for OM and my main musical sources, Coltrane and Miles Davis, were too complicated and distracting. So I went to see what I could find of the old Cocteau Twins recordings that my ex used to play to death in college, because I thought their otherworldly atmosphere of guitar and voice-without-real-words might help me. Searching You Tube, I stumbled on an astonishing duet by Elizabeth Fraser and Jeff Buckley.

In my ignorance, I had never heard of Jeff Buckley. It turns out that he was the son of the late Tim Buckley, composer of the elegiac ‘Song to the Siren,’ which Elizabeth Fraser had interpreted so hauntingly back in her Cocteau Twins days. The story goes that many years later Jeff Buckley, now famous himself and very much on the rise artistically, met Fraser and they recorded together a series of songs that were never released. The songs were left unfinished because Jeff Buckley drowned in a freak accident in the Mississippi River at the age of 30. Jeff’s mother subsequently let the song go out, and it has been widely circulated on You Tube, which is where I found it.

The first time I listened I was blown away. I think this may be the most beautiful piece of music I’ve ever heard. It unlocked such intense feelings that had been unexpressed—or maybe they were just inexpressible—until this music brought down the floodwalls. In terms of writing the book, this song unlocked everything.

Whenever I lost my way (which was often), I’d put on this track and sit under the headphones, tears streaming down my face, until the music had put me back on the road to what I really wanted to do. I’m so grateful for this recording.

Talk for writers this Saturday at Waterstones Banbury

I’ll be at Waterstones in Banbury this Saturday 30 January at 2 pm.

I’m going to talk about writing, offering some of the perspective I’ve acquired over the twenty years I’ve been working professionally, and taking questions. I’ll talk a little about Occupy Me and the methods I used to put it together, but mainly I want to be useful to the audience and I think a lot of the people who come to these talks are working on their own writing, so that’s going to be my focus.

If you’re in the area, please drop in and say hi.

 

Knees up for the tea ladies

Back around 1994 when I was living in New Jersey and working as a teacher, A Glorious Accident came on TV. It was a roundtable discussion about the meaning of life, the Universe, and everything, featuring a number of the great thinkers of the time: scientists of one kind or another. And what a lineup—Stephen Jay Gould, Freeman Dyson, Oliver Sacks! Also Daniel Dennett, George Page, and Stephen Toulmin. Rupert Sheldrake was in there too, annoying the others with his mobile pigeon unit and morphic resonance theory while being terribly entertaining and interesting. And they were talking about the actual meaning of life. It was nothing short of riveting.

Yet, strangely, what has stayed with me over the years, apart from the imagery of a truckload of pigeons careering around the Home Counties in Sheldrake’s experiments, are the tea ladies.

The conference was held in the Netherlands. It was in a dark room containing a big table around which the Great Thinkers sat, and everything was very austere and Important. And every so often these uniformed tea ladies would come in and serve coffee or clear up—that is how I remember it, anyway, and if I’m remembering it wrong I’ll be very embarrassed. I clearly remember watching this with my then-partner and I can remember being all ‘WTF! Look at them being waited on! Can’t the geniuses get their own tea?’

Because, of course, the only women in the room were the servants. Not even one. Token. Woman. So much, so obvious. We all know this is bullshit, and the absence of any women at that table right now would not pass unremarked. I hope.

And yet. The tea ladies. In many situations, I find I like to take care of people. It means a lot to me to be able to do for someone, to feed them or make them feel better, to give them some kind of shelter. I dislike being waited on in most circumstances (maybe as the youngest of five children I’m still trying to prove ‘I can do it myself!) but I am usually glad to do small, helpful things for others.

I can also kick you in the head.

See? I mean, look at me. Look how I just had to put that in. Just in case you were to mistake me for a stereotypical woman with a high voice and soft hands who likes to go shoe-shopping. I struggle to accept certain parts of myself because I’ve been trained to see them as weak. You don’t have to know me very long to realise that I feel really vulnerable when it comes to being vulnerable. I’m afraid to be weak.

But I shouldn’t be. And neither should anyone. The bottom line is that we all need to be cared for at some point in our lives. At the beginning, at the end, and sometimes in the middle, too. Why is it that our culture so deeply devalues those who look after others? Money and other kinds of support for caregivers of all kinds is withdrawn even as we have more and more technology to save and extend life—or to end the lives of those we disagree with. The human touch still cannot be replaced by drugs or technology. And if you’ve ever been seriously ill or loved someone who is seriously ill, you know very well what those small yet immeasurable acts of compassion mean. There are no car chases in those stories. But sooner or later those stories come for us all.

There’s a reason why Pearl’s occupation is flight attendant. There’s a reason why Alison is a vet. There’s a reason why Occupy Me is dedicated to the caregivers, the tea-ladies at the symposia, the stitchers of wounds, and holders of hands. It’s because they are the ones who get us through the night.

So I raise a glass to the tea ladies. I’d like to see them get to party. I’d like to see them celebrated.

What I stole and who from

 

Occupy Me didn’t have a title for a long time. I just called it ‘Pearl’ after the character name given me by my mate Kaz when she heard what I wanted to do with the angel trope. At the time I was just beginning to study maths at a very basic level to prepare for physics. Some years before, while nursing my first baby in the middle of the night, I had read Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. By ‘read’ I mean that I had looked at all the pages and picked up the occasional, probably-misguided idea through the fog of new-parenthood. I was attracted to the idea of higher dimensions, though, and in 2011 I got a copy of Lisa Randall’s book Warped Passages.

warped passages

I have to confess that I understood only a fraction of what Randall was saying, and probably I should re-read Warped Passages now that I have a little more science under my belt. (Randall has since moved into dark matter, and her new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs looks incredibly exciting and interesting.) Despite my limitations, I was able to grasp enough to realise that the ideas being talked about seriously in theoretical physics make a lot of SF novels seem dull as dishwater.

Of course, to write a convincing story you need to get the reader to come with you. I was really afraid to move beyond what I’d written in the past. Most of my books are about consciousness, which is an ontological subject in its own way, but not the same kind of ontology as cosmology–or so I thought at the time. It’s not like I wanted to write space opera. I wanted to write stories that have their roots in some of the strangeness of modern physics. So I went to another physicist’s popular work:

physics of hte impossible

 

Here I was very encouraged, not to mention liberated. Michio Kaku takes the attitude that the impossible is a set of shifting goalposts. And it is thanks to this book that I was finally able to let go of my various science-fiction induced hang-ups about what I could or could not write. I took a few ideas straight out of Physics of the Impossible and gleefully road-tested them in Occupy Me. I already had higher-dimensional travel , and this book only encouraged me to go to town on it. I also used Kaku’s plasma shield for a small but crucial scene. But the big thing I took is the waveform generator. I hadn’t yet done any quantum mechanics when I read this book, but Kaku explains how all matter can be described by a waveform—or, rather, by the superposition of a lot of waveforms. If you had the technology, you could build an object from the ground up. Build a person from the ground up. Or something more than a person…

And so the Rockford Files briefcase was born, and that gave me the title of the book as well.

The other thing that I took from Michio Kaku was a willingness to be playful. I had struggled for years trying to play by the rules of science fiction, even when those rules  made no sense to me. Reading this book gave me a sense of freedom that I haven’t felt for a long, long time. I stole that mischievous feeling, too.

Finally, when I was working on the idea of the ghosts in the crude oil I read as much as I could about encoding information at nanoscale. This is a fast-evolving area, but when I spoke with my brother (an electrical engineer) about the practicalities, he encouraged me to be as simple as possible and use a version of a trusty, durable carbon nanotubule. I fudged this a lot—what I wanted was the crackle and pop of the idea, the resonances of the metaphors, so I went for an allusive approach rather than a descriptive one that surely would be out of date in twenty minutes no matter how carefully I might stick to known engineering. My work is inspired by science without being science. How successful this approach is probably depends a lot on one’s willingness to mix fantasy and reason.

Anything in my work that you don’t like, blame me. But if you want to read some great popular science, Lisa Randall and Michio Kaku are two physicists who are extremely skilled at framing hardcore science in terms that the rest of us can grok. I recommend them both to you.

 

*by the way, several years later, I’m a lot farther along but still at a very basic level, because physics is a deep and steep discipline and also I’m a little flakey even on the best of days.

Funds for Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

On Friday I was shocked to learn that writer Rochita Loenen-Ruiz had lost her husband and the father of her children. Rochita and I have been friends since meeting online in 2010 or 2011, and she is a person very dear to me and I writer whom I respect and admire enormously.

Rochita has not had an easy time in the years I’ve known her, and I keep hoping that something good will happen for her, to allow her to really spread her wings as a writer and as an activist. She has a great and selfless heart, and anyone who has met her knows what I’m talking about. This is someone who shines.

And now this blow.

Aliette de Bodard and other friends of Rochita have set up a fundraiser to help her deal with her family’s immediate and urgent needs in the aftermath of a devastating loss. As part of my own contribution I am giving two ARCs of Occupy Me into the ‘thank you’ pot for supporters, and I’ve donated two unpublished stories to the stretch goals. I wish I could do more.

Here is the link once again. Please support this effort if you are able to, or share it on social media if you can.

Rochita has published many stories; here is one of her better-known pieces, Song of the Body Cartographer Among other things, it shows how luminous she is.

Impetus, impetooses, impetooseses

I’ve just been whingeing to a friend how I can’t be bothered to finish a short story because I’m without impetus. This isn’t like being up a creek without a paddle. I got paddles. It’s more like being in a big, still lake with no sign of shore in any direction. I mean, I could pick a direction and start paddling and hope for the best, but tbh a nap seems more attractive at this moment.

Where this story is concerned, I’ve at least worked out why I drag my heels. (1) I can see no market for it, and (2) the last two short pieces I’ve written have been sold but not published for upwards of two years. I had made this sort of big surge in technical ability and felt it was on display in these stories, but after two years of nothing I started to feel demotivated to produce more short fiction. (The circumstances of why the stories aren’t out isn’t the point—reasons are legitimate.)

So this got me thinking about what it was like when I was out of contract for novels after having been continuously in contract for many years. It was unpleasant, not just practically, but psychologically. In terms of impetus. It’s much easier to push through the difficult bits of a piece of work when you know someone wants it. It’s like, you’re pushing and someone else on the other end is pulling, and it’s easier to get the thing out.

Several weeks ago, I got an e-mail from an editor soliciting a short story for an anthology. Unusually, I had something appropriate sitting in my hard drive that I’d worked on quite a bit but it kept sticking at a critical point and I really didn’t know what to do with it. I think I started it in 2013, that’s how long we’re talking. I got the e-mail and thought, ‘Hmm, I could finish Story X’ but I have a lot on my plate so I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down with excitement.

But by coincidence, very soon after this Patrick Ness put up his Save the Children fundraising appeal.

Folks, I don’t have any money. Three kids, Steve and myself both self-employed in difficult fields, and we’re funding my MSc with money we really don’t have, just making it up as we go. But I really wanted to put something in that pot, for a lot of reasons. So I did. But it was money I didn’t have, so I had to drop everything and hit this story hard, in the hope that this editor would take it, or else significant problems paying for the school dinners, etc. The story was difficult to finish; there were reasons why I hadn’t nailed it and laziness wasn’t one of them. Most of it was already written but it still took me two full days to figure out what it was really about and pull all the strings tight and get it working. If I hadn’t really needed to knuckle down, I’d have spent that weekend doing my physics homework, taking out the recycling, working on my novel, helping my kids with their math, and mowing the lawn at the very least. Because all of those things are always crying out to be done and are important. Our lawn is tiny but it looks like the Serengeti.

Anyway, I did it and the editor bought it immediately. So gratifying! I thought: wow, so this is how the other half lives. I like it!

No one that I know started writing because they were given a deadline or had to pay the gas bill. We start writing because we want to, because something inside is driving us. We keep writing, around and over and through obstacles, sometimes stopping and starting, sometimes changing direction. But there’s always an innate drive. I do think, though, that for the professional writer that innate drive gets messed up by the need to produce on demand. When you have a project due you have to do it whether or not you want to, and if you are rushed or just plain out of steam, you have to live with the fact that it probably won’t turn out half as well as you hoped. You have to let go of it anyway. This can be a real grind, especially if your ‘career’ is on a downward trend but you’re fulfilling contracts anyway. [See ‘flogging dead horse’ in the AD&D Writer’s Handbook.]

But the other thing that happens—at least to me—is that without deadlines I find it difficult to push hard enough to really make the thing happen. I wrote two complete novels and various partials on spec during the years I was between contracts, and that was how I found out what my personal impetus feels like, without any carrots or sticks from outside. Just me, wanting to do it. Wanting very badly, yes, but no guarantees and no incentives. I had to produce my own impetus: go out in the woods and find dead trees, chop and carry my own wood, put the sticks together, make a spark, breathe on it, get the fire going, cook over it, gather more wood, keep the fire going…wow, it’s a lot of work. Unpublished writers know this. Published writers, I think, sometimes forget. I know I had forgotten. It’s a lot of work to sustain your own impetus.

I find it much easier to write knowing that what I’m writing already has a home, or at least a good prospect of finding a home, at a publisher. I find I spend more of my energy on the actual work and less on having to motivate myself to do the work. The motivation is obvious: I’m expected to turn something in, and if I don’t there are going to be negative consequences.

But I’m grateful for having had that long period of time when I had to reconnect with my natural drives. Learning to build your own fire is a good skill, and it gets rusty with disuse. Sometimes building a fire in the current publishing climate is a bit like camping in a hurricane. Even Sam Gamgee probably couldn’t get anything going. (Maybe it’s just as well. Canoes and fire don’t really mix, do they?)

I think it really helps if you have more than one impetus for working. It’s not either/or, you know. You don’t have to say, ‘I write for money’ or ‘I write for love’ or ‘I write because I have something I desperately need to say’ or ‘I write because I’m competing with X’ or ‘I write because I want to read this kind of thing’ (insert your reasons here). You can replace every ‘or’ in that sentence with an ‘and’ for better results. The more drives you have, the more reasons you have, then the more resilient you are when one aspect of writing goes away.

It’s not about impetus, it’s about impetus plural (pronounced impetoose) in Latin. (Because impetuses just sounds like a cross between an octopus and an imp…hmm…maybe impetuses works, too).

So will I finish that story I mentioned? Yeah, I’ll get it done. Sooner or later I’ll get fed up with myself and I’ll put everything else aside and I’ll sweat my way through it. And the other two stories that I wrote and that I’m so proud of and that nobody apart from close friends has read? Those will eventually come out.**

It’s probably worth remembering when you’re in dead water that currents do change. The water will eventually start to move. It’s the nature of nature. Until then, I guess all you can do is pick a direction and paddle. Bring a big bag of impetuses.

*For more about the word ‘impetus’ check out this amusing article about the Latin fourth declension. We can talk about ‘aparatoose’ later! https://medium.com/@followyourfates/us-es-a-plural-revolution-1187fc773ebb

**The new one I wrote for the Syria appeal is called ‘The Psychometry of Tuvan Currency’ and it’s for an anthology by Ghostwood Books called Haunted Futures. http://www.gwdbooks.com/haunted-futures.html

Gollancz Festival 16 October

I am remiss in not mentioning this sooner! I’ll be at the Manchester event of the Gollancz Festival on 16 October. Unlike the London event, which is sold out, there are still some tickets available.

I’m doing two panels:

6.45 – 7.15
Predictions of the future in SF: does reality matter?
Stephen Baxter; Ian McDonald; Justina Robson; Gavin Smith; Tricia Sullivan (mod)

8 – 8.30
Human modification in SF
Stephen Baxter; Ian McDonald; Justina Robson; Gavin Smith (mod); Tricia Sullivan

So, I’m moderating the one on ‘Does Reality Matter,’ which is a bit of an old chestnut but I don’t think it ever gets tired, because predicting the future is widely thought to be synonymous with science fiction. So we have to keep answering this question again and again in different ways in every generation and from many different viewpoints. It’s a lovely open question to be working with and I look forward to hearing what everyone has to say.

House of Shattered Wings

The US edition of Aliette de Bodard’s House of Shattered Wings just dropped. Both of Aliette’s editions have beautiful covers. Here’s the US one:

aliette cover

I’ve got the UK edition, to read as soon as I finish Court of Fives.

aliette uk cover

Aliette is an outstanding writer of short science fiction and her long form fantasy is always a breath of fresh air–her first trilogy was an Aztec murder mystery. I’m really looking forward to this new mystery, set in a devastated, magical Paris. Aliette talks about her inspirations here. I also hear there are going to be Vietnamese dragons in this book. That’s all I need to say, right?

 

 

 

Am I OK?

I just got an e-mail from a friend saying, effectively, ‘Wow, read your blog–are you OK?’

And then I thought, oops, maybe I’ve been a little bit intense lately, here and there.

So, PSA: I am OK! I am better than OK. I’m doing great.

When I rant online it doesn’t mean I’m sitting at home lining up my automatic weapons. I am a very lucky person and I enjoy all kinds of advantages in life–maybe not money advantages so much right now, but even there I’m not complaining. I consider myself blessed as a person.

But as a writer? We all live in a system that treats people like chowder and every so often I feel I need to point that out. I don’t blame individual people for the system any more than I blame myself. We’re all in this boat.

Hope that makes sense.