Category Archives: Writing

Darkborn goes academic

Derek Newman-Stille, author of the Speculating Canada blog*, who previously reviewed Darkborn, has just published an academic article on “Where Blindness is Not (?) a Disability: Alison Sinclair’s Darkborn Trilogy” in the September 2013 issue of Mosaic: a journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature. He examines the trilogy in the context of literary portrayals and conventions of disability in general and blindness in particular, and compares and contrasts those with the descriptions of blind people themselves as to how they perceive the world. He points out the parts that worked, and the parts that did not, in places because of accommodation to genre and in places because, yes, I did not think something all the way through. It’s a very enjoyable read**, accessible to the non-English academic, and my one niggling criticism is that Mosaic is not open access. But I’m sure Derek has reprints.

* Which just last weekend won the Aurora Award for Fan Publication
** Which is not just authorial ego speaking!

Canada Writes – A Sci-Fi Odyssey

For the latter part of this month, CBC (Canada Broadcasting Corporation) has turned its Canada Writes pages over to the SFnal set, in “Canada Writes – a Sci-Fi Odyssey“.

I’m a bit late on this (one of those weeks when I growl “You did this to your own self,” at my own pathetic put-upon face in the mirror) but here are the entries so far.

And yes, my name is there! I get to stand under the Twitterfall on Wednesday as one of the readers for their Twitter competition. (Further details, including theme, coming soon).

Excuse me, is this my timeline?

In response to coffeeandink’s post on “The erasure of women writers in sf & fantasy“.

There are times I wonder whether, at some point when I was not looking, I slipped between timelines, and wound up in an alternative time-line where a whole body of fiction and criticism that I distinctly remember reading just didn’t exist.

I’m talking about the (yes, I am going to do it, I’m going to use the f-word) feminist science fiction of the sixties, seventies, and even the eighties.

I recall my first moment of wondering, reading a blog exchange bemoaning the lack of “women’s SF”, where strength was not defined by physical aggression. I pointed out that that “women’s SF” had actually existed for a long time, and gave some references, but had to stop and reattach my jaw when one of the respondents characterized “feministic SF” as being the very kind of “kicking butt” SF she didn’t want. Away, whisk, whisk, went the complex imaginative renegotiations of masculinity and femininity by both female and male authors.

Then this week, on Tor.com, an essay on dystopian fiction and control of reproduction, which discussed a range of novels without acknowledging that they were part of an extended dialogue by writers, literary scholars, sociologists, and bioethicists dissecting that very subject which went back decades. And of course the f-word was not mentioned.

And this gem, from the Independent (Title: “How women are winning sci-fi’s battle of the sexes“), which has had me doing a slow burn since it showed up in my twitter feed. I was reminded of a slightly exasperated review of a film about a woman leaving her unsatisfying marriage and seeking independence, where the reviewer remarked on the perpetual first steps phenomenon in Hollywood films – Liberation (what it was called back then) being constantly reset to the beginning.

Hello, women have been writing SF for as long as there’s been a field. Hello, we ditched the Barbarella stereotype in the seventies. Hello, we never went away. Hello, I was actually there, in the 90s.

Or maybe I wasn’t, not in this timeline.

Lessons learned along the way

In an exchange on a listserver I am on, the question of writing lessons learned along the way came up. This was my list . . .

  • Published novels are the finished product: one never sees the messes, failures and train-wrecks on the way, so one is completely misled as to how easy certain things are to execute. The downside of a diet of the best is that the emerging writer can become inadvertently overambitious and try things that are too difficult for them.
  • I did two dumb things and two smart thing in my first novel. Dumb things (ie, things I wasn’t developed enough to do): writing a quest novel, and using that past-present structure that Ursula Le Guin made work so beautifully in Dispossessed. I didn’t realize until a year or so after Legacies came out where I’d got it from, and why I was so wedded to it. The sort-of-quest structure is difficult to pull off because it doesn’t innately have a strong narrative drive behind it. Smart things I did: having a single viewpoint, and having a character I had deliberately written as attentive and extremely perceptive. Sometimes, wrestling with the need to convey something essential via a viewpoint character for whom it’s not in character to notice that, I miss Lian.
  • Certain plots are more bomb-proof than others – they carry their own structure and drive with them. Blueheart‘s initial plot is a mystery, and once I’d got that – the dead body in the ocean – it found its shape quite quickly, carried along by the central question of who and how. By midway through the book the reader actually knew everything, and it turned into a political novel, but by then the central conflict was established and on its way to the climax. I did myself an inadvertent favour, there.
  • Quest plots – frequently the first plot an SF&F writer tries – are not as easy as they look: certain choices have to be made to ensure the quest plot gets and keeps its narrative drive and doesn’t become picaresque (a right-on editorial comment about an early draft of Legacies). If I were writing a quest, even now, I’d make sure that what was being sought and who was seeking it were established in the first chapter, and not lose sight of that for a moment. I’m still not sure enough in my plotting to do the young man/woman goes off all unknowing and find his/her destiny on the way. I was unwittingly smart enough to have the quest front and center in the beginning of Legacies’ frontstory, interspersing it with the interleaved backstory in which Lian had to find his mission.
  • Passive, reflective characters fall under the heading of Advanced Work. Again, writers have pulled off the reluctant hero wonderfully, but life is much easier if a character wants something and goes after it. Lian climbing over the wall, throwing himself into the path of Lara and Rathla and the story itself, was a wonderfully liberating moment for me.
  • Sometimes the writer just has to give up and do what’s obvious – usually because they’ve set themselves up that way. In one of my unpublished novels I was resisting a particular idea because it seemed too obvious. When I finally accepted that it had to be that way, a whole lot of other problems were suddenly solved, because my characters’ repugnance (they didn’t like the idea any more than I did) prompted them to actions that led directly to the showdown. Moral: It’s a bad idea for the writer to argue with their own story.
  • Even after (almost) 9.5 novels, I still don’t get control of the plot until my second draft (or later). I’ve just had to do a massive overhaul to keep two of my main characters on the scene for a major action setpiece (this was Shadowborn). I also had difficulties setting up a crucial event in that conflict, because I needed not to surprise the reader, but I knew that if one of the characters knew about it, it would be out of character for him to leave. So overhaul. And it works. So. Much. Better. Moral of the story: keep the viewpoints where the action is. As long as the action is essential to the plot.
  • If I reach the end of my first draft, and it isn’t right (usual metaphor: large plate of spaghetti, stands slithering over the sides), I start cutting. I usually have a fixed idea of the endpoint from fairly early on in the novel, and I reshape the novel to line up with the end. I cut out everything that that isn’t related to the end. Then I put in everything that’s missing.
  • On the other hand, all the scenes that end up on the cutting-room floor mean that by the time I get the scene I need, it practically writes itself because all the decisions are made and I have the characters rounded out. Ibsen described his growing familiarity with his characters through successive drafts. In the first draft he knew them as if he had met them on a train (‘One has chattered about this and that’). By the second draft he might have spent a month at a spa with them (‘I have discovered the fundamentals’). By the third draft, he knew them thoroughly (‘as I see them now, I shall always see them’).
  • I try to obey Chekov’s Law (‘One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.’), which usually means I have to round up a certain amount of unused artillery during revisions. One of the downsides of writing a trilogy is that once Darkborn was committed to press, I was committed to firing off the guns lying around. Twelve of them, when I did the inventory in my notebook. I was delighted when I found a way to get four to pop off at once in the archduke’s breakfast.

Writing in the dark

When I first thought up the Darkborn, I never envisioned writing three novels about them (plus an assortment of short story beginnings scattered like crumbs – or maybe seeds – on my hard drive). I had Balthasar and Floria, and the paper wall between them, and I had Tercelle Amberley arriving in distress on Balthasar’s doorstep, and I had Telmaine coming down the stairs and encountering Ishmael. Who was a Shadowhunter, whatever that was.

I ought to know by now to watch those offhand remarks. I toss one off, and when I look again it has sprouted and ramified, and turned into a major part of the plot.

So I hadn’t considered the sustained exercise of writing a novel completely lacking in visual references. The Darkborn are born without vision: they have eyes, but the optic nerve is atrophied. They replace vision with a sense akin to sonar; however, although the liberties I have taken are considerable. The original reference is Howard C Hughes fascinating book, Sensory Exotica. Electroreception is going to work its way into a story, one of these days.

First of all, I couldn’t use colour. I couldn’t describe the colour of peoples’ hair, eyes and complexions. I couldn’t describe the colour of curtains or carpets or tiles or linoleum or wallpaper or trinkets or flame or … or anything. In one stroke I’d lost the use of every single colour-word I possessed – and I keep lists of them, even the ones so archaic or extravagant as to be inadmissible to modern prose. I lost all references to distance; it’s not merely indistinct, as it is for myopes such as myself, but beyond reach of their senses. I had to expunge all references to distance and things only seen at a distance, sky, stars, clouds, etc, though horizon works its way in there, via an outré piece of artwork. I’d to start thinking about living in a world composed entirely of echoes, sounds, shapes, volumes, textures, and smells. My first concentrated exercise in it was that scene in Darkborn where Ishmael is lurking and waiting to speak to Vladimer. Ish is an excellent viewpoint for an immersion in the world of the Darkborn, because he pays such close attention to his senses. Balthasar and Telmaine are both urbanites.

Next, eyes are irrelevant to the Darkborn. I couldn’t describe looks or glances, directed or exchanged, when I was in Darkborn heads. No-one’s eyes would meet another’s in a private moment. In my teens, I’d been given a boxed set of Jane Austin’s novels, and the introduction to one of them described Austen’s portrayal of the language of looks and glances in playing out relationships and social exchanges in that repressed and rôle-prescriptive society. Nothing else about Austen took (truly), but I liked that. With the Darkborn, I lost that vocabulary, too; I had to do much more with speech, tone, and timing. I think being a regular listener to radio drama helped

Furthermore, there’s no watching from the sidelines. A Darkborn can listen without being observed, but the moment he or she sonns, his or her attention becomes obvious to the listener. That changes the dynamics; passivity is less achievable. Sneaking around is challenging, since Darkborn are aware each others’ sonn. Scenes such as the one where Ishmael comes into Tercelle’s house required strategy, on my part as well as his. I wasn’t quite writing action with my eyes shut – because doing that has the tendency to produce output like piy[iy ;olr yjod, but I was deep in my head.

If I admit to doing this, someone’s sure to send me an email saying ‘you missed one’, but I did try to remove all visual references. I kept ‘visualized’, as a generic term for an internal representation of a reality, but I tried to round up and substitute for ‘look/looked’, ‘see/saw/seen’, ‘watch/watched’, etc, without getting into verbal contortions. There was a point late in the edits of Darkborn when I was so sensitized to the words that they distracted me in other people’s writing.

I got a bit odd, I must admit. One does – well, I do – when the writing becomes intense. If the phone rings, I’m not quite sure who’s going to answer it. I’ve experienced my characters’ dreams and the odd attack of social anxiety for violating imaginary customs. At one point during the revision of the Darkborn sections of Lightborn I could be found following a nervous pigeon along a side-street, trying to find the exact words for the softly opaque, greyish cream of its feathers. I’d go into a trance in the grocery store with a tomato in my hand, tripping on its pure redness. (When I was writing Blueheart, it was plums. Eight hours writing, and I’d be standing in Safeway thinking, ‘what is this thing?’, bewildered to find myself on dry land). I blame the need to go on restorative colour trips for my fascination with the graphics capabilities of R, and the vcd package – though I think the 20″ by 20″ mosaic plot that took 1.5 hours to render was carrying it to excess.