Tags: writing


On fear, permission and writing.

I don't like to write about writing.
I don't like to talk about writing, much of the time. There is a reflex in me that makes me close down whenever anyone asks me about what I'm working on, how I write, how I'm getting on. Oh, I can talk about the generalities -- voice and pace and dialogue and so on -- if I have to, but even then, I'm not really comfortable.
You see, in my head, writing and fear are all tangled up. And I do not like to be afraid.

If I have a single talent, it's fear. I'm really really good at it. I can fill myself up, inch by slow inch, until my skin is no more than a thin boundary on terror and every single part of me is sparking with alarm. I can turn enjoyment into duty and duty into fear in a matter of moments.

It doesn't really matter why this is so. Let's say it's how I'm wired, and move on. There are lots of things that scare me, mostly irrational (it's a fact that I am far more afraid of zombies than I am of being run over. When it comes to things like that latter, I'm fairly calm). And when the spiral, the heavy dead grip of fear takes hold, I find it almost impossible to break free. Once that shiver is under my skin, it takes over.

And writing is scary. People say this a lot, and there are endless lists as to why. Fear of being exposed, of failure, of taking risks... I understand all of those and I sympathise, but, for all their familiarity within the language of writers, they are not really what I mean when I think about the intersection of writing and fear. What I mean, what this fear means to me is this: I am afraid to lose permission.

It sounds ridiculous put like that. And, on the scale of real fears -- of being murdered for one's race or gender identity or sexual orientation or faith, of famine, of flood, of homelessness, of loss of freedom, of persecution -- it is a tiny, unimportant thing. It's ridiculous. I know it's ridiculous, and yet there it is, making me unsafe in my skin.

I'm not good at permission. There are lots of reasons for that. Some of them are socio-cultural, to do with class and gender. Some are personal, to do with lived experience. Many of them are just plain irrational. But in the end, most of the time I hover on the edge of feeling I am not allowed to write, that me writing somehow takes away from others, that it's wrong. I've felt this about writing since long before I was first published. It isn't about public space (though I worry about that too, because there are enough white writers already, and I'm nothing special). It is, quite simply, about whether or not it's okay for me to set down words in a line on a page. Even if no-one will ever read them but me and a handful of my friends.

This looks nonsensical, even to me. But for whatever reason, because of how I'm wired, because of the things that have happened in my life, I find it incredibly hard to give myself permission to do things. And writing matters. I've written since I was 7 or 8. It used to be easy. No-one minded me writing stories for myself and my friends. It was only in my 20s that I discovered how competitive some people can be, how confrontational, about writing -- which is not a competitive activity. And, well... if there is something I can do that others want, I'm wired to think its my duty to step aside and let them have that space. And once that happens, I find it very hard to try and find any new space for myself. Someone else wants it. So I mustn't have it. And I stop writing. Even just for myself, because someone else might not approve.

It's ridiculous. Writing is not a competition, though equally it is far from a level playing field and there are many many writers out there, probably far better than me, who face huge institutional, social and cultural barriers. It matters hugely that writers who face fewer barriers -- writers like me -- boost and support those voices. They matter far more than my nonsense.

But fear is funny and it smothers us. When that inner place where my writing, at least, comes from, is bound up in fear, it paralyses everything else, too. I stop feeling like me. And I am doing it to myself. Those other people are not withholding permission. I don't matter to them at all. And so I'm writing this, to remind myself that this is my fear, not something external to me. To expose the fear to the open gaze of the web, to remind myself of my own ridiculousness. To expose it, even, to anyone who does think I shouldn't have permission.

Because it isn't up to them. It's not up to anyone but me to grant that permission. And, well... I need to learn how to do that by myself.

Skirt of the day: blue cotton print.

Strange Horizons

I'm over at Strange Horizons today, as part of a roundtable on representing marginalised voices in historical fiction and sff, alongside two writers I admire a lot, David Anthony Durham and Joyce Chng (aka J Damask). I loved getting to do this: Joyce and David are very insightful people and I learnt a lot; and our moderator Vanessa Rose Phin asked excellent questions. You can find it here:

In other news, the cats are planting themselves in the flowerbeds where the sun is warmest, the wip is progressing slowly and the lilac bush just outside my window is coming into bloom. I like April.

Skirt of the day: denim

On political agenda in sff (and other fiction)

So, over on twitter, I have a personal hashtag of #redwriter. I use it for those moments when I'm explicitly talking about my socialism, and sometimes when I realise that something in whatever I'm working on is bouncing off that. I do it, because I am of the age and type that agrees with the slogan 'Politics is life.' And it keeps me thinking, which matters to me. I want to be mindful, in my work, in my words, in my actions, in my life. I fail all the time -- I did so earlier this morning. But I try.

And I'm following the debates about politics in books, and whether they 'belong' and the calls for 'just good stories' and so on, and, well.... Politics is life. We are soaked in them, we are created by them. As with gender and race and class and ability and sexuality, our political assumptions and the political assumptions that we grew up with help to shape and form who we are, our way of being, our expectations, our interpretations. Which means that there cannot be such a thing as a politics-free book. Every decision the writer makes in their work -- who the protagonist is, what the latter wants and approves, the nature of the threat or problem they face, the types of backgrounds depicted, who is left out -- all of those are marked by the author's own expectations and experiences. We all do it. Most of the time we don't even notice. But as a result, how a book plays for different readers depends on how close those readers' experiences and expectations are to those of a writer. 'Just a good story, no politics' is not a simply a call for books to be entertaining. It's a call for books to make specific readers comfortable. But all readers are different: we all have different levels of comfort and familiarity. The easier it is for you to find a book that mirrors your experience -- a 'politics-free' book -- the chances are, the closer you are to the hegemonic centre of society.

None of this is new: people have been saying this for years, usually in response to other people complaining about politics 'spoiling' books. People who are highly privileged are most likely to complain if they meet something that's not comfortable, not because they are necessarily bad people, but because they're used to seeing themselves at the centre of everything, and they're startled. People who are less privileged, less central to social norms are used to reading about characters and ideas and foods and places that they don't recognise, because mainstream books tend to reflect mainstream expectations.

It takes work to notice this, especially if you're one of the privileged. We don't notice things that to us are 'normal' and we expect what we read to reflect that. When we write, we often write to our internalised norms without noticing it. I can see that everywhere in my own writing. I'm a feminist and a socialist, but most of the characters in my first book are rich and powerful. The plot is mainly driven by the male characters, and the three main characters are all men. I made a conscious decision that most of the characters were not white, but I did not, in my own opinion, do anything like enough work to back that up, and I failed. Thew female characters have a lot of political and social power, but at least three of them are self-sacrificing, placing duty and the welfare of others above their own needs and survival. My internalised misogyny was speaking: women cannot succeed without sacrifice, pain and loss. I worked harder of breaking out of misogyny and Euro-centrism in my second book. I made a conscious effort to depict foods and traditions, landscapes and buildings and ways of organisation that were not just versions of what I grew up with. And I still didn't succeed. I really struggled to write Aude as a person with agency: inner training steered me towards making her weaker, more dependent, more timid and diffident. I've never found a character so difficult to depict. (The twins were easy. Ferrets do what they like, regardless of gender. Writing them was hugely freeing and great fun.) But I'm sure there are many places in the book where I failed, because I am marked by my culture, I am trained and shaped by it and it infects everything I do.

We can always find excuses for defaulting to our norms. Let's take an explicitly political book that is also a good fun read -- and often marketed as a children's book -- Watership Down. I love WD; I read it when it first came out (I was 12 or 13) and it was a big part of my teens. It's an adventure with rabbit heroes. It's also an analysis of different political systems and their good and bad points. Richard Adams comes down on the side of a sort of democratic anarchy, with a charismatic leader setting the tone. He set out consciously to write a political novel.

And yet, his assumptions and training show through. The characters are nearly all male, and such female characters who are present are weaker, more anxious, less able to act with agency -- and presented as potential mates. The rabbits are monotheists. Male leadership is assumed as natural. Threats come from outside, not within. Creatures who are not like you are dangerous. Now, most of this is based on the fact that the characters are rabbits. It's natural for rabbits to fear predators, for instance, and wandering bands of young rabbits tend to be male. But at the same time, Adams -- and the scholars whose work he used -- were affected by their social training when they wrote and researched. Humans live in a society in which behaviour is heavily gendered. It feels natural. So when we look at other species, we assume they do the same. Yet more and more research is now questioning this -- researchers have broken the bonds of their social conditioning -- and finding that in fact, many species do not express gendered social behaviour in the ways humans do. I don't know explicitly what has been observed in rabbits since Adams wrote, but I suspect that the norms his sources detected were refracted by ingrained gender bias. And he was writing a fantasy, in which rabbits have a religion, tell stories, invent political systems. He could have made some of the active central characters female. He didn't. He was comfortable with his own status quo. And he had the excuse, if needed, of 'Oh, but the book I read said...' That books said stranger danger and few women; it did not say religion, but he included the latter anyway. He made an unconscious political choice, just as I did with how I depicted Yvelliane and Iareth and Firomelle in Living With Ghosts.

And here's another thing. Of all my characters, Iareth is the one closest to me. That drive she has to do her duty, come what may, and the problems it causes her, is mine. One of the hardest scenes for me to write in that book was the one where she agrees to stay with Valdarrien. All my instincts -- and thus hers -- were screaming at me that she must not, that it was not Good Behaviour. The first time I wrote it, she said 'No' to him despite the plot. I had to argue with myself for two days before I could rewrite it. And I still think that, had he lived, she would have left him again, in a few months or years, because of that iron sense of duty. That's my own internalised female guilt, right there. I am not supposed to put my own wishes at the centre of my life, because good girls live for others. Like Yvelliane. Like Firomelle. Not at all like Aude, who I struggle to write.

What about 'non-political' books; books in which our personal cultural comfort zone is the default? Let's take Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight, another book I read and reread, and loved as a teen. There is no over political agenda in the book: it's the story of a young woman having adventures, finding love and saving the world. At 14, it was the best book ever for me, because it was a fantasy (my favourite type of book) with a female lead who was always right. Usually female heroes are corrected by men several times in a book, but Lessa talks back all the time, does what she wants -- and the men climb down. It was wonderfully liberating. And yet.... Though the role of Weyrwoman is important, Lessa is a Unique Heroine. She is explicitly different to all the other women around her, she is special. And there can be only one of her (6 by the end of the book). Her life is very, very unusual. Everyone else important in the book is male: the other female characters are minor, unimportant and occupy gendered space: wives, servants and sluts. The political structure assumes male leadership -- and aristocratic, born-to-rule leadership at that -- and the solution to the poverty, suffering or distress of the 'common people' is not more agency in their lives, but having a better Lord (or Weyrleader). Bad lords are overthrown by good lords. Everyone is white, and the trappings of their culture reflect that. The book normalises and even romanticises sexual violence, to the point that it's almost unnoticeable. (When in the sequel F'Nor rapes Brekke, I noticed, and I was never entirely happy with their love story, but I accepted that to Brekke the rape was minor, even good, because the writer said so.) As far as I know, the only agenda McCaffrey had when she wrote Dragonflight was to put a women at the centre (just the one). But the other things are there, because they were part of her cultural norm.

All books are political. All books have agenda, conscious or not. Because we are all products of our cultures, and those cultures show.

Skirt of the day: blue cotton parachute (in non-parachute mode).

The confidence trick: skiing and writing

So, I'm most of the way up a French mountain, watching the cloud come down and the wind make waves in the snow, and I'm thinking about confidence and courage and technique. We're here, the marquis and me, to ski, but I am not skiing: I'm here in the hotel room with my tablet while the marquis skis out there in the wind and cloud.

Because for me, skiing is all about confidence and courage and, yes, technique. I'm an okay skier. I'll never be good: I started too late and I don't ski regularly enough and I don't have the confidence and only sometimes the courage. The marquis, who *is* a good skier, says I have the technique to cope with most of the conditions I might meet. Several ski instructors have said the same. But the thing is, I don't believe them. I've skied steep runs and icy ones, moguls and unpisted runs; in mist and thick cloud, in strong winds and in snowstorms, in flat light and, once, in almost no light at all. I've skied narrow tracks which are full of people. I've found myself alone on steeps and bumps and coped because I had to.

None of that killed me. None of that left me with anything worse than bruising (so far, touch wood). In that sense, I suppose the marquis is right: I have the technique I need. But the thing is, you see, I don't do any of these things perfectly -- and if I'm not perfect, then my head knmows for certain sure that I am not good enough, insufficient, wrong and not allowed.

And then there's other people. Ski runs are full of other people. The rule of the piste is that you look out for and ski to avoid worrying, inconveniencing or harming those who are downslope of you. Those who are upslope are not your responsibility. But I can't make myself believe that. I have to be the perfect skier to avoid inconveniencing anybody, up- or downslope. I have to be neat. I have to ski well enough so as not to cause the marquis to be ashamed of me and not to look too stupid in front of others. I have to be perfect in order to avoid causing harm, or doing wrong. And in my head, any failure of perfection is a potential wrong.

Writing is the same. In my head, always, there is a perfect book, the book of my dreams, the book I am writing towards, reaching towards, hoping to write. It's shaped just right: it says and does all the things I want to say in precisely the right way. It feels right -- and feel is a big thing for me in writing. If the words on the screen, the paper, give me that same tingle I get from my favourite parts of my favourite, most-admired books (the 'Place Royale chapter in Vingt Ans Apres; the death of Porthos; the end of Dying of the Light or of Ancient Light), then I know I've got it right. But it almost never happens. Like skiing, most of the time, the words -- the turns -- are not-quite-there, not shapely enough, not neat enough, not perfect. And the book -- or the properly skied challenging run -- remains something that, in my head, I essentially failed at.

And then, when it comes down to it, people do judge. And -- in the case of published work, at least -- that's fair enough. It's irritating and sometimes hurtful when strangers call out comments about my skiing (or my face or clothes or age or body). Reviews are fair game. But the art is avoiding inintended harm. One reviewer labelled Gracielis a Mary Sue, which irritated me, because a) how to suppress women's writing 101 and b) hello, reviewer, *Thierry* is my darling. Another however noted that in , the womenn suffer more than the men. I hadn't noticed that nor intended it, but the culture that made me taught me that women with power are at greater risk and I reproduced that. Right until the point where I started writing in the hope I might produce something publishable, I had always written female characters as the main protagonist. But first Valdarrien (in a drawer) and then Ghosts placed men at the centre. Aude was harder to write than either Valdin or Gracielis, because with every page I was fighting the script that told me she didn't belong in the limelight. (Aude herself disagrees profoundly with this statement.) Women's writing is policed and judged at every turn, and the definitions of perfection change all the time, vary between cultures -- but women, in particular, seem sometimes to be expected to satisfy everyone while simultaneously removing themselves from sight and hearing because public writing space remains gendered mostly male and women's work is inferior, imitative, irrelevant and, of course, much more likely to be failed and broken and evil. It would take a perfect writer to avoid that -- and I am not, never will be, a perfect writer. And then, this kind of perfection -- the perfection that satisfies others, avoids harm, does not take up space etc etc -- is closer in type to that perfect skier I cannot be than the author of the perfect book I sometimes glimpse. The perfect book is in my head, after all, but these other perfections are all about the needs and wants and demands and angers of others.

All this is, frankly, a pain in the rear. The marquis doesn't expect perfection and I've only met one ski instructor who did (and he was more interested in lunch than teaching anyway). Those upslope skiers have other things on their mind. I know perfectionism is a bad habit. But I can't break it. I can't break it because I have never yet in all my too many years managed to work out how I can possibly ever allow myself to be good enough, imperfect, without that being deadly wrong. (And it does sometimes feel like it's about life and death.)

I don't have these standards for others. Other people are allowed, most definitely, to be good enough. They can be rubbish, if they want (they usually don't). It's only me. And mostly, it's so that I won't be in the way, inconvenient, in someone else's light.

I'm told, over and over, the trick is to be more confident. That solves everything, it seems. A confident skier says, 'I have the technique, I can handle these conditions.' A confident writer says... Well, they say something. It just that, well....

What do people mean? What is confidence, anyway and where is the border with entitlement? And if I'm supposed to be confident for my own good, how come the request that I be so is so often phrased in ways that suggest it's really all about others. "You need to be more confident. It makes the department look bad." "Your underconfidence is really annoying." "Why can't you be more confident, then, if you don't like it when you get overlooked?"

And if I do speak up, things are inclined to fall (metaphorically) on my head. If I was perfect, presumably, they wouldn't fall; I'd have done confidence right and all would be well. I might never reach the perfect book (I don't think that's possible) but I might get to be that good enough skier who wasn't inconveniencing *everyone* just by being there and feel permitted to write without too mkuch fear.

But confidence, like perfection, is just out of reach.

SKirt of the day -- blue wedgwood (of course a skirt has come with me.)

Writing and silence: under the skin.

I had a lovely time at Picocon last weekend. It really is an excellent convention: enthusiastic, lively and full of energy and imagination. I'm very grateful to the committee for having me back. I enjoyed talking to them, too, and the joint panel I did with Ian MacDonald.

Even so, I came away anxious. Here's why: in the questions part of the panel, someone asked us both about gender and power and external pressures and how that intersects with writing. And I found myself saying, "I let them silence me. I let them cut off my hands."

This is the language that Requires Hate used regularly about writers, particularly white women, that our hands should be cut off or broken. And I understand where that comes from, I really do. The damage done by cultural appropriation and misrepresentation is incalculable. I believe to the core of my being that writers -- and especially white writers -- have an absolute responsibility *not* to appropriate, to misrepresent and distort and abuse the culture and lives of others. I do not believe I as a writer have any right whatsoever to help myself to the cultural property of others. It's wrong.

But when I answered that question at Picocon, I wasn't thinking specifically about cultural appropriation. I was reacting out of instinct and fear. Because what my 6 years as a published novelist have taught me above all else is to be frightened. There are those out there who will consider this a good thing, for good reason (there are too many white writers already, and the British have too much space). I was reacting to the internalised voices that tell me I have no right to write. But suddenly I was using the language of violence in this context.

Those voices have been with me a long time. Many writers are riddled with doubt about their writing. It seems to go with the territory, as well as being a product of each writer's particular experiences. They began, as far as I can remember, at university, when I first met the concept of the Important Unpublished Male Writer. Up to then, I'd written in mainly female space and felt safe enough -- I was young in my fanfic circles and the women in their 40s upwards who populated it were wonderfully kind and supportive. My mother was enthusiastic and always encouraged me to write. I had a couple of supportive English teachers, too (thank you, Mrs Parnham and Mr Buck). It was something I did, something that was mine, something I enjoyed and valued.

My Cambridge writing group contained some lovely people, but it was structured around the talent of men. I learnt fairly fast that I would never quite be good enough, because no woman could be. The published writers who were discussed and approved were all men: the women writers were spoken of with a faintly patronising air. They were a bit.... soft, weak, lesser. My boyfriend of the time all but patted me on the head and told me it was sweet I tried to write. I learnt to be silent about writing. When I found wider sf fandom, the atmosphere was exactly the same. Women were not expected to write, and if they did, they should be quiet about it. Selected women were okay: Bujold, McAvoy, Cherryh, but they weren't quite.... There was always a knot of men who were loud and ready to explain why a man would have been better.

I was born before the 1973 Equal Opportunities act. My formative years were in a context in which I officially inferior. My education continued that, even after the law changed. My experiences in employment continued it. As an academic -- and I am a good scholar -- I was nevertheless Not As Good As A Man. And writing.... Everyone knew what my writing was like, without reading a line. Syrupy, conservative, romantic, weak, slush. By 25 I knew I wasn't good enough and never could be.

I learnt to keep quiet. To this day, I hate to talk about my writing and feel deeply unsafe doing it. And then the internet got involved.

I have a bad habit of recalling and internalising negative comments. Fan space and university space had enough of those already. The net.... The second I was published, my writing became public space. Now, there are good things and bad to that. Published books belong to their readers and I am fine with that. The inside of my head, though... I wasn't ready to have that handed over to the world. I'm not talking here about regular reviews. Those are part of the profession, and academic reviews can be much harsher than fiction ones. I've had years of dealing with those. No, the problem was the people who demanded access to my thoughts or told me they knew them better than me, for all sorts of reasons. Some meant well. Most, however, spoke out of existing social and cultural assumptions.

Women aren't quite the same as people.
Women are inherently dangerous.
Women's thoughts, like their bodies, must and should be policed for deviance, and wrong thinking.
Women are public property.
Women have no right at all to any space that is not accessible to anyone at all who wants to see inside there.

I've learnt that, as an Anglo-Welsh woman, I have no right whatsoever over my native cultures -- they belong to the higher social classes, to men, and, alas, to many Americans and I have no right to mind. because that minding is in itself inherently evil.
I've learnt that even as an adult, I must never, ever, speak back to those who are more important than me, because they have more rights than I do.
I've learnt that every word I write is simultaneously both utterly worthless (because female and older female to boot, urgh, disgusting) and subject to complete and utter policing, because without having read a line (sometimes) complete strangers can judge me just because they want to.
I've learnt that it's true, I have no right to write, because I might be in someone else's way.
I've learnt that I should cut off my own hands. As far as RH is concerned -- and as I've said before, I bear her no animus at all in respect of myself, though I am very unhappy about how she has acted to others -- she doesn't need to police me. I've internalised the message. I need to be silenced.

Which leaves me precisely where? I don't know. There are days and weeks on end when I feel like I should stop writing altogether. There's hardly a day at all on which I feel safe to write. I used to feel it was okay to write just for myself, that I could if necessary go back to that private space and give up trying to be published. Now, I don't know. A Fire of Bones is under contract. I'm struggling to get a 100 words a day and I feel the book is worthless. This blogpost feels to me like the unsafest thing I can say, and yet I feel obliged to say it.

And the language I use of my writing has been turned against me. I am sitting here waiting to cut off my hands..


Edited to add: FFA, if you see this, there have been weeks when your comments have been one of the few things holding me together as a writer.

Skirt of the day: denim.


I'm looking at my hands on the keyboard, the hands that are, so much, the way I speak. Words written down, with pens and pencils; school work and university work, childhood stories and poems, the Star Trek fanfics I wrote as a teen, and the files and pages of the research that built my PhD -- and the drafts of the final work. The chapters and scenes from the novel I was writing at 14 (epic fantasy); at 18 (shapeshifters and clans and cold mediaeval politics); at 20 (the obligatory university novel). The short stories I finished and those I did not. The painfully-typed pages of my first complete original short story and my undergraduate dissertation. The sonnets in English and French that no-one sees. Articles and papers. Letters and spoofs for newsletters. The four notebooks that hold Valdarrien and the ten that are the two first drafts of Living With Ghosts. The word-processed drafts of these, typed up on an Amstrad PCW. Lecture notes and, later on, lectures. Drafts of my academic books. MY editions and translations of The Annals of St Davids and the The Annals of Boyle with all their accompanying notes and analyses, the great unpublished underside of my academic career. The typed versions of the two novels and the non-fiction. The manuscript of The Welsh Kings, the first thing I composed fully on a word-processor. Emails and blog posts. Later drafts of the novels (and the bones of Warriors of the Wind and Sweet Nightingale, left abandoned. The Grass King's Concubine. Musketeers and Nest, and the half-written The Drowning Kings. Two drafts of A Fire of Bones plus the one in progress. Words from fingers, words translated through the movement of my hands.
I talk with my hands: my PhD supervisor commented on this regularly. When I think out loud, when I talk, my hands draw pictures in support.
A few years back, I found myself behind a person who had hearing loss in a queue at the supermarket. She was talking to her friend, several lanes away, their words signed clearly across the intervening space, untroubled by noise. It was like watching magic at work. I cannot speak so clearly with mine, except perhaps via pens and keyboards.
Hands that clean and cook, hold, caress the cats, embroider, empty washing machines, carry bags and cups and trays. Hands that work.
I am looking at my hands.
My hands translate my words, but my words --written down, held between covers, on screens -- are silent unless looked at. My words can be ignored or not, as each individual chooses. My words can be judged, read or unread. "I don't read books by women." "I only have time for important books." "I don't like that kind of thing." Everyone has a right to choose what they read. But choices come with baggage. Choices are framed by societal definitions of importance and significance and value, by prejudice and bigotry, privilege and position. "I don't read books by women." My words are qualified in their value by my race and class and gender and age and sexuality. My words are only welcome sometimes. And as I age, the requirements pile up. Work in silence, do not be seen, do not ask to be seen. The weight of them loads my wrists and fingers, makes it ever harder to write my words, my words that do not deserve to be seen.
I am looking at my hands, that carry trays and sign chits, put up signs and make hot drinks, my hands that serve others, have served others, year after year, at work, at home, at cons.
My body, these days, is for hiding, as is considered proper in our culture for older women. No-one wants to look at *that*. My written words are judged, by some, by my age and appearance. They don't need to read me to know what I think, for older women are a uniform class. Our bodies, like our words, are not worthy.
My hands, though. My hands are always welcome, as long as they serve. As long as they work for others. My hands and the hands of so many other older women. My hands carrying trays in Green Room. Older women's hands looking after grandchildren and paying for teen children's treats; cleaning up after spills and administering comfort in conflicts. Caring for the sick, the young, the old, doing the background work, silently, silently, silently.
Our hands over our mouths, knowing our place.

Skirt of the day: blue batik print.

A snippet, just because.

" His name was Blais Begart, and he was an Eschappé. A troublemaker, the mayor would most likely call him, a rabblerousing criminal dedicated to nothing more than destruction.
The mayor might have been surprised to learn that Blais agreed with him. It was only their views on the value of that destruction that divided them. The mayor and his friends clung jealously to their wealth and property. The Eschappés sought to tear it from their grasp."

4k into the rewrites, and this book is nailing its socialist colours firmly to the mast.

In other news, spring/summer seems finally to have arrived and, along with it my summer SAD. Oh, well. The majority will be happy to see the sun, I guess.

Skirt of the day: gold silk wrap
Living With Ghosts

Why I started #Womentoread

So, yesterday I decided to indulge in another round of that intermittent habit, poking the internet with a stick, by starting a hashtag -- #womentoread -- over on Twitter. I asked people to recommend sff by women. The response was astonishing: I'd hoped that some of my friends would pick it up, but... One of the very first to do so was seanan_mcguire (Thank you, Seanan!) and it just took off. All afternoon (my timezone) and well into the evening, people were naming their favourites, exchanging names and recommendations and ideas. It was huge fun and the enthusiasm and engagement and excitement was just wonderful. I am profoundly grateful to everyone who joined in and help this happen. Towards the end of the day (my time) writer Harry Connolly (burger_eater) gave me the idea of capitalising on all this momentum by linking it to a series of blogposts about specific women writers and post links to these pieces on twitter using the hashtag. (You can read Harry's article here.) I've written about women writers whose work I love before, of course, but the problem has been that relatively few people saw them -- mainly my existing social circle and readers. And that is a key issue for many women writers: underexposure. But the hashtag, as I said, has some momentum, so this seems like an opportunity to try and raise the profile of writing by women and to address that underexposure to some degree.
But why now, exactly. I've done something like this before (last year with the fantasy by women thing). That's part of it. I am an activist to my bones: it's coded into me to try and *do* something when I see an injustice. And I know far too many really great women writers who are underrated, under-reviewed, under-recognised. I see male writers praised for doing things in books which women did before them, which women are doing as well as them -- but the women are ignored and sidelined. It is a fact that books by women are reviewed less frequently than books by men, and that prestigious review locales pay less attention to women than men.
This year's review survey came out two days ago. During the day, my twitter feed was full of men -- many of them high-profile and influential -- decrying the under-representation of women writers in reviews (and I am very glad to see them recognising this and commenting on it) but immediately going back to talking about, promoting and praising works by other men. Last week, jemck found ourselves in a major branch of a major UK book-chain in Oxford and noticed a promo table for fantasy. We're both fantasy authors, we took a look. The theme was clearly 'If you like George R R Martin, try this". It was a table about 4 foot x 4 foot square, piled high with fantasy. Great.
Except... all but three of the writers represented were men. And of the remaining 3 -- the women -- two were not epic fantasy writers but established Big Name Bestsellers -- Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins and the books by them on that table were both sf. That's fine. I love sf by women. But those two books -- The Host and The Hunger Games weren't there because they were 'like' A Game of Thrones; they were there because they're already bestsellers in a related field. The other women present was an epic fantasy author and a good one -- Robin Hobb. Who has a gender-neutral name.
I'm not saying the men on that table aren't good: there were some excellent books there, by excellent writers. There were also books by men I've never heard of, which are quite probably also excellent books. But the overall impression was 'This is A Man's World'. Jules and I started making a list of who was *not* on that table, of women who are epic fantasy writers and published in the UK.

Kate Elliott
Judith Tarr
Freda Warrington
Gail Z Martin
Trudy Canavan
Karen Miller/K E Mills
Glenda Larke
Cecilia Dart-Thornton
Gaie Sebold
Juliet E McKenna
Tanith Lee
Amanda Downum

That was in about a minute. Now, you can argue, very reasonably, that some of those women are out-of-print here (but you might like to think about how they came to fall out of print in this context, given that contracts depend on sales, sales depend on exposure -- and women do not get the exposure).
A table that censored women from a genre.
A twitter feed that decried a wrong -- and then went back to the male default
I saw red. At some point on the 22nd April, I asked, rather wistfully, if we could declare the next day -- yesterday -- promote women writers day. I got two responses, both from women, saying, yes, lets, and so...
I did.
You can see some of the responses and recommendations here. You can find more by going to twitter and hunting for the hashtag #womentoread.
You can share the idea. You can write a review of a book by a woman. You can blog about a woman writer you admire. You can post a list of links to the websites of women writers you love. It doesn't have to be ep;ic fantasy or even sff. It can be any genre. And then, please, go to twitter and tweet that link with the #womentoread hashtag. If you're not on twitter, post the link here in the comments and I will tweet it for you.
This isn't about me. I know how it can look, I'm a fantasy writer. But really, it isn't. This is about all those fantastic women writers whose books I've treasured for years, about Tanith Lee and Evangeline Walton, Judith Tarr and Kate Elliott, Anne Gay, Storm Constantine, Sherwood Smith, Rumer Godden, Juliet McKenna, Barabar Michaels, Elizabeth Goudge, Liz WIlliams, Dion Fortune, Sheila Gilluly, R A McAvoy, Barbara Hambly, Leah Bobet, Sarah Monette, Justina Robson, Amanda Downum, Claudia J Edwards, Sharan Newman, Freda Warrington, Stephanie Saulter, Lisanne Norman, Jaine Fenn... I could go on and one and on. Some of those writers are long-established, some are out of print and out of contract, some are new, some are dead. But they are all great.
And me? Later today I'll be blogging here and on my website about a woman whose books were a lightning bolt to my writing world, Nancy Springer.

PS: another interesting piece on the gender imbalance in reviews here

The Next Big Thing

I've been tagged to do this at least 3 times -- by Kat Richardson over on Google+, by Jaine Fenn on Facebook and by kateelliott here. And I've procrastinated, because I'm not really sure what to write about. However....

1) What is the working title of your next book?
Death and the Madwoman
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
It's the sequel to The Grass King's Concubine, concerned with what happens when Aude and Jehan return to the Brass City.
3) What genre does your book fall under?
Fantasy (with socialism)
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Aude -- Indian actress Vidya Balan.
Liyan -- the great Yuen Biao c.1989, with the long hair from his film The Iceman Cometh, but with red and orange streaks.
Qiaqia -- Brigitte Lin Qin-Hsia c.1982 (think Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain)
Madame de Faumont -- probably Farida Jalal
Remi de Faumont -- this is a tricky one. Maybe Sharman Joshi, but less handsome than usual!
Monsieur des Roces -- Jean-Hugues Anglade
Jehan -- argh. I can never cast Jehan, though I'd know him if I met him. He's one of those pleasant faced ordinary people; a plain Saif Ali Khan, maybe, or Atul Kulkarni (without the usual moustache).
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Umm, the title, with added revolution
6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It's under contract to DAW, and was sold by my agency (Zeno)
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
A year.
8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Oh, help. The Anubis Gates, maybe, or The Labyrinth Gate but with more revolution than those to.
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Dumas! (As ever.)
10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?
No ferrets, this time, but a lot of it is about Liyan and Qiaqia and their story. And about revolutionary politics, workers' rights, and the awakening of the dead.
Goth marquise

We are the zombies

I do not, if I'm honest, care much for zombies. They squick me. I'm not keen on anything which seeks to eat me alive: call me a coward, call me atavistic, but when it comes down to it, the idea of being ripped to pieces simply does not appeal. Nor would I wish that fate on others. As anyone who knows me well can attest, I'm just not keen on the whole being chewed on thing. Sharks? Beautiful creatures, in need of respect and protection. Alligators and crocodiles the same. But do I wish to share space with them? No, thank you. I will fight to protect their environments, but I will not get into that water. (Nor the swimming pool, until I've checked it thoroughly. And as for blue bedsheets... Well, let's just say that the marquis has a wicked sense of humour sometimes.)
And at least sharks and alligators would have a reason for eating me. They are living creatures, they need to feed. Zombies, in popular culture mode, not so much. The mass market zombie exists to create fear. It's a mindless, unreasoning thing, without scruple or thought or code, its sole function is to consume.
Which was, of course, the point George Romero was making when he filmed Night of The Living Dead all those decades ago. Across the western world, human volition, human agency, is stripped away by advertising and big business, replaced with desires for more possessions, more wealth, more for the self. They consume, therefore they are. It's a 70s vision of a world in which the culture of mending and making do was slowly being replaced by one of throw-aways and expensive, often false, short-cuts. Capitalism eats itself and looks for more.
And yet, even in the disillusioned 70s, Romero's films were cult, not mainstream. The vampire, the ghoul, the werewolf remained mainly in the realm of Hammer Horror and straight-to-video.
I don't know what changed. I'm not that clever. I don't have a clear-cut explanation for our twenty-first century Dawn of the Undead. And yet, and yet... Vampires and werewolves have minds and wills, can be spoken with, reasoned with, can be projected onto ourselves. Zombies? I'm not so sure. If the vampire is the secret lover and the werewolf the troubled misfit self, what is the zombie, that mind-stripped, ever-hungry, massed, unrelenting threat? What are we afraid of in our bubbles of things, our palaces of possessions? What lurks, just out of sight, trying -- or so we fear -- to steal our comfort? What haunts the heavy type of the tabloids?

The poor.
The immigrants.
The foreigners.
The stranger.
The have-nots.
The people who aren't like us.
The excluded.

They -- and it's always they, not us -- want our comfort. They want our privilege. They want homes and jobs and health care. They want food and clean water. They mass at the gates of the rich man's ghetto, on the steps of the corporation headquarters, on the refugee boats, at the soup kitchens and food banks, in the dole queues and on the street corners, hoping for their share. When they go through legitimate channels, we call them scroungers. When they reach out and take, we call them looters and thieves. When they ask why they can't have a share, we talk of deficits and boundaries, cuts and social necessity, responsibility and 'we're all in this together'. But we don't open the gates. Some of us want to, but are prevented by others with more power. Some of us stumble and are thrown out to join the mass outside. Many of us read the words of the red-tops and identify ourselves as the inhabitants of the mansions and the boardrooms, not realising that, to those who really do, we are just another type of danger, another hungry mob to be barred.
To be turned into demons. They are never counts or earls, those zombies. They aren't beautiful, they don't tug at our heartstrings. They're dirty and nameless, the mob, the crowd. They're the underclass of the undead world.
They're the underclass. The recent obsession with them speaks too closely, to me, to the fears that we are encouraged to feed, the interests we're encouraged to support, the image we're supposed to uphold -- that property is sacred, that rights are only for the few and that anyone new or different asking for help is out to eat our brains.
They're the midnight fear of big money, the Paris mob at the doors of Versailles, the poor asking for a fair wage and decent working conditions and decent treatment.
And popular culture -- that huge consumerist money-making machine that sucks in the beliefs and possessions of other places and peoples and times and turns it into Product -- popular culture gift-wraps that fear of loss of privilege, that fear of having to share, and transforms those asking for change into a mindless crowd that will eat our brains.
They're a metaphor. But they're no longer the anti-consumerist image Romero offered. That appealed to the few. This new version appeals to the many, to everyone who does not want to share, to help, to support healthcare and a social contract. This new version is the capitalist nightmare, that the poor might ask for some of the wealth, that immigrants might want to live next door. It's our fear of change, of difference, of loss of those things with which we keep ourselves safe. I doubt that any of the writers who write zombies currently have any of these things in mind when they right them. Most of them, indeed, seem to me to be concerned with ways of rebuilding society, of improving and reshaping it. But the zeitgeist, the ubiquity of zombies concerns me.
Because in the end, we are being told we are right to fear those things which differ from ourselves, we are right to label them dirty, dangerous, wrong. The words of the writer are overwhelmed by the weight, the mass of the cultural load.
And that is why I don't like zombies.

Skirt of the day: cream, black and white tiered.