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!

**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.

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.


Who walks away


When I was 27 my then-husband introduced me to his editor. Ray Roberts was also Thomas Pynchon’s editor, and a truly lovely man: soft-spoken, thoughtful, and endlessly patient with the foolishness of youth. Back then I didn’t want to be a science fiction writer. I had cut my teeth on science fiction in books and onscreen, but much of what I saw on the genre shelves in the mid-1990s was deeply disappointing to me. Most of it I had no wish to emulate.

Maybe that right there is where I went wrong. I wanted science fiction to be a literature of possibilities, of imagination, of human progress, not just a collection of tropes.

In 1996 I had sent my second novel, Someone to Watch Over Me, to Russell Galen. He pounced on it, read it like lightning, faxed something like, ‘This book has so much potential. If you changed X to Y, foregrounded the Japanese scientist, made it into a thriller and took out the Z, I could get you six figures and a movie deal in a heartbeat. As it is, you’ve got a mass-market original and I’m just not interested in that.’

I did what anyone with a pulse would do, and set about trying to rework my book to make it into the kind of thing Russ wanted. I could see what he saw in it. I wanted it to be that thing. That exciting, streamlined, grabby kind of thing that people would really, you know, really go for. Wouldn’t it be cool to be cool? So I tried. But within a very short time I found myself falling hard into what Justina Robson calls ‘Trope Valley’. I was up to my eyeballs in clichés, and I couldn’t seem to swallow my own bullshit. Everything in my being was screaming, no, these things they want are just too stupid. Don’t do it.

At the same time, I could see the wavering outline of what I might be able to write if only I had the chops. I knew didn’t have what it took; I was too inexperienced. I couldn’t write something that operated on multiple levels the way the idea demanded. I couldn’t write something with literary values and science-fictional ideation and thriller pace all at the same time. I didn’t have the muscle back then.

I showed the book to Ray. He was so nice.  I said, ‘Tell me what to do. Do I try to turn it into a literary novel? Or do I try to do this commercial thing? What?’

I wanted him to tell me, ‘You have the potential to be a deep and meaningful writer.’ I wanted him to say, ‘What are you doing stuck in with the space pirates? Come on over here where the serious guys are.’

He read it. He said, ‘Leopard can’t change her spots.’

So I rewrote the book to make it the best I could make it with the skills I had, on my own terms. Then I sold it as a mass-market SF paperback, and when it came to the next book after that I decided to go full-on Space Pirate* and wrote Dreaming in Smoke, which won the Clarke.

Leopards. Spots. All good, except that despite the Clarke both books sank like stones in the marketplace. (It’s not unusual. Most books sink.)

I then went into fantasy so I could make enough money to buy food. Halfway through my fantasy trilogy, the Spots began to show through. Russ sent me the fax (still faxing in those days, yes) from my German publisher, refusing to publish the second book. It said, ‘You sold us this author as the next Marion Zimmer Bradley and she gives us time travel and brain worms. It’s not acceptable.’

Around this time China Mieville asked me for a blurb for Perdido Street Station, which I gladly produced.

I know, right? I blurbed China. How funny is that. I didn’t have an entry in the SF encyclopedia until around 2014, though. Maybe this is my claim to fame: blurbed China Mieville’s first edition, then VANISHED from the Earth.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Maybe a little?

Here’s how it played out publicly: Tricia Sullivan won the Clarke and then Abandoned SF. She made a Triumphal Return with Maul that despite being multiply shortlisted and getting publisher support, didn’t sell that well and then…er…a mist passes over. Wrote two more books that nobody reviewed or read. Wrote a third that nobody reviewed or read until by some freak chance the pesky thing got on the Clarke shortlist again.

When I say ‘nobody reviewed or read’ I don’t mean those few of you who did review or read the book, obviously. I appreciate you guys so much. What I mean is that I was being paid modest advances but didn’t come within miles of earning any of them out. My royalty statements would make your eyes bleed out of sheer pity.

After Lightborn my publisher told me, ‘We can still work with you but it has to be something Completely Different because people found Lightborn hard to get into.’

I don’t know why other people walk away, but when I walk away it’s because to stay is a form of self-harm. I had written Lightborn to be accessible, and it was.

I walk away because I’m not a victim. I will go where I must go to survive.

I wrote a YA, again Abandoning SF. I also took on a physics degree, initially to improve my employability in the UK but also because the itch scratched by science is in fact related to the itch scratched by science fiction, although they are not the same. People sometimes ask me if I study physics to assist with my writing. That’s not why. I’m studying physics because I need to get a good, solid job with which to support my family and make a contribution to the world.

I’m doing physics because physics is crying out for more women, and I go where I’m wanted.

As for contributions, I do not feel I’ve been able to make one to SF, although I have sincerely tried. I have always been interested in SF, but SF as an entity does not seem particularly interested in me. I felt like I was pounding on a door that wasn’t going to open for me. It opened for many others, though. I did not know the secret knock.

And now my new book, into which I poured my heart, soul, and a very great deal of sweaty graft and intellectual grit, will be sold as a Return to SF. It is not a return because I never left SF. Science fiction abandoned me. Science fiction pushed me out the door. Science fiction left me begging for scraps.

I don’t beg. I don’t want your scraps. I go and hunt down my own food.

My new book is SF on my own terms, with Leopard Spots intact, with no apologies to any tradition, expectation or canon. It is the book I couldn’t write in 1996 when I was first trying to break in. It is the book that represents the cumulative effort of twenty years learning to write in a professional environment that offered very little encouragement, but frankly much gaslighting and convenient overlooking of my work.

Here is what SF needs to understand when it deigns to mention my name. I never left. I have been here all along. Oh, and one other thing:

I am not the next William Gibson or the next Philip K. Dick. I am the one and only Tricia Sullivan. You can’t get rid of me because I’m strong as fuck and my ideas are incomparable. I own the page.


*No space pirates were harmed in the writing of this blog

N’or ur spores

Thought of this in the shower, writing it very fast. Contains exactly one shower’s worth of insight, but compiled over 20 years’ experience.

All this talk of the canon, its straight-white-Western-male bias. All good talk. I have a bigger problem tho. Problem isn’t that the canon is bad, but that it exists as a thing. It isn’t a thing, it’s an artificial construct. IRL it was living, breathing. Now dead weight.

The problem isn’t what the canon is, it’s what it blocks out.

This piece by Sandra Newman  pissed me the hell off when I first read it. I thought, here she comes into SF on a literary ticket, has so much to say, has no clue the wars we have all been fighting for women and minorities to be recognised. Was mad. Ears: steam.

Well, she’s rite about what’s wrong–shit was crazy then but not now–but she’s wrong about why.

I think why is because commercial system has got us by throat. Diversity means also diversity of artistic forms and visions. System wants ‘there can only be one’ , plus clones of course. Clone legions ftw.

THIS IS NOT HEALTHY. It reinforces racism, sexism, ablism, all the vectors on which ppl can be excluded and also it excludes their IDEAS. Everybody’s ideas. Especially the wild ones.

The marketing system we have starves the creative genome of opportunities to mix, too. Why do you think there are so many mash-ups? Because it’s the quik & easy way 2 make something new.

Why are there so many reboots? Hedgehog obvs, rite? Bc our marketing system has sucked the life out of our ecosystem. There’s no oxygen or food for the tender, new, different, and strange.

We need to diversify in all ways, guys. We need to stop grabbing sugar and go for fruit. We shop and live like f&cking pawns.

We won’t do it, but it’s what we need.

I get told: ‘If you would just rite this kind of thing and not that’ all the time. So do my friends. We get told, implicitly, ‘If you would just hew to our mold, U could hav nice things.’

We get told this because nobody will buy outside the mold. Well, no. There’s me gone down in flames. Guess I can’t be sold, because your molds don’t interest me, nor your spores, SF 😉

I went to a conference at Oxford for undergraduate women in physics. One of the luminaries of contemporary astronomy, Prof. Katherine Blundell, gave us a talk about how to succeed in science. A question she asked over and over, in different contexts, was this:

‘Are you free to think?’

Science fiction, I don’t think you are. U make me crai because I don’t think ur free at all.

There you go, kids. When I write down my shower musings it comes out same as if me drunk. Hav a niceday.



Gollancz Festival 2015

I’m greatly pleased to announce that I’ll be one of the authors appearing at this year’s Gollancz Festival at the Manchester Waterstone’s on 16 October. Other authors at this event are: Ben Aaronovitch; Joe Abercrombie; Stephen Baxter; Aliette de Bodard; Adam Dalton; Joanne Harris; Alex Lamb; Elizabeth May; Ian McDonald; Simon Morden; Richard Morgan; Sarah Pinborough; Al Robertson; Justina Robson; Brandon Sanderson; Gavin Smith; Mark Stay; Tom Toner. That’s a lot of SFF writers in one place! There will also be digital shenanigans. I’ll give you more details when I have them–meanwhile, tickets are available at GollanczFest2015.

gollancz festival 2015

News about the new SF book

Here’s The Bookseller’s announcement of the sale of Occupy Me to Gollancz. The book is out 21 January 2016 in the UK.

The cover reveal is at the Gollancz blog.

There’s loads I want to tell you about this novel, but I’m going to save it for nearer the release date. All I’m going to say for now is that Occupy Me was conceived in 2011 during a phone conversation with my mate Karen Mahoney in which I complained about paranormal romance in general and the angel trend in particular. Kaz challenged me to write my own angel book.

Not-so-shocking disclosure: I can’t write paranormal romance. I did try. This other thing is what came out.

Here’s some pre-order information.

If you do Amazon, it’s here

At Waterstone’s it’s here

At Book Depository it’s here

what mid-career slump?

It’s no secret that I have been having a mid-career slump for approximately the last thirteen years. That’s so long I’m not sure it can even be called a slump anymore and probably needs a new word. Slough, maybe? Anyway, because of the remarkable length of my slump–and I’m not exactly out of the marsh yet–I feel like I’m qualified to talk about this.

Here’s what I want to say to my discouraged mid-career slough-slogging comrades:

You have the power.

The system has a lot of stuff. The business side of things–the bookstores, publishers, media outlets, marketing system, all clumsily milking the collective will of the human organism for profit—those guys are loaded with stuff they can  do. Judgements. Money. The lists, awards, mentions, invitations. The (free) lunches. All the apparatus of industry like a thicket of spears and you are but a morsel.

When these guys talk to you and tell you you’re finished or hint that maybe you should think about selling shoes instead of writing or make reassuring noises but don’t return your calls, you may be tempted to feel like the people in this system, being in control of things like they are, must therefore know something you don’t. It’s natural to cling to authority—any authority—when times are hard. And sure. ‘They’ may know something you don’t. Maybe. But they don’t know everything.

This ain’t Delphi. There are no oracles. Shit happens and a surprising amount of the time, people don’t know why. Hey, we don’t even know what dark matter is made of and it’s fundamental to the Universe but I digress.

I don’t know what’s possible for me or for you, for any of us who are good enough to get published but not able to break through for whatever reason. I don’t have any answers.

I know you have the power, though.

You have the power. You. Because you choose to make something out of nothing. You choose to let in the wind and the rain. Everybody else puts up an umbrella and you stand out in the weather and build sandcastles in it. That’s what we do.

And that madcap optimism is what the human spirit is about. Taking risks. Falling down. Refusing to accept the things our rational minds tell us we must accept; if we did, we may as well lie down and die. No. We make things even though we know it’s all sort of futile, because there’s a tiny chance that something good–we know not what–may come of it. And a tiny chance is better than no chance. A tiny chance is everything.

Creativity is a radical act because it claims the power that each of us has within ourselves to do something real. It means that for that moment, we don’t belong to anyone. To create is to be hopeful. And that is a huge high–you know it is because you’ve felt it.

There are really big forces at work in the world that don’t want people like us to have hope, much less express or share it or in so doing, free others to feel it. We are easier to control when depressed, miserable, defeated. Have you noticed this? I have. Fight back.

To create is to express freedom. To create is to express hope.

Hope is contagious.

Take some from me. And pass it on.


Dragon fight

If the reason I write SF could be embodied in one person, she would be Anne McCaffrey. I loved her early Pern books, literally to pieces. The older I get, the more I appreciate what she did as a writer and as a person. If I’m honest and put aside my various pretensions, I can clearly see the ways that Anne McCaffrey gave twelve-year old me nothing less than a road map to how to live.

I wonder what she would say if she were still with us. On Pern, the different factions that share the planet go through all kinds of conflict as their seemingly-stable society is forced to evolve. There are fights. But the one truth that the protagonists all adhere to is this: Dragon must not be allowed to fight dragon.

That has really stayed with me, all these years. I’m thinking about it now.