Writing

Island Quest at Viable Paradise

It begins with an ocean.

You cross the water, waves nipping at your ankles, salt stinging on your face. You have hopes, but you don’t know it yet: this is a real transition. You leave familiar shores behind, and all certainty about what kind of creature you are, what you are allowed to do, what you are able to achieve. What you thought safe. What you thought sound. Your concerns that this endeavor was maybe just an error, a misapprehension. Now you are here, on a boat.

You’re entering new, unexplored terrain.

You are welcomed by kind spirits. And while they tell you in no uncertain terms that you are on a quest, that you have challenges before you and obstacles to overcome, they assure you that no harm will befall you in their domain, nor shall you ever go hungry or cold. They care for you, heart and mind and belly, and they provide you with the strength to push on when things get rough.

There are giants on the island. You might be nervous about meeting them, a little bit afraid even. Then you discover that what makes them giants is not something that separates you, but something you have in common: a shared passion, a disposition to strive for better words, better tales, a will to explore and learn and marvel. And they want you to grow into a giant, too.

You find companions, true soulmates. They are on the same quest, and you’re in this together and get to know and love each other until you can be sure you have each other’s backs. You form a fellowship of the pen, a fellowship of quiet keystrokes, a fellowship of sealed plot holes and salvaged story arcs. You share meals and songs and ideas. Sometimes, you also share the horror, because there are times of plight.

But you are given tools to take paths you didn’t risk before. You are encouraged to mold your perception and find new ways to see yourself, your work, and all the stories you encounter. Most of all, you are given a place of acceptance, of companionship, of belonging. You are right where you are supposed to be, and this is a powerful gift.

Time behaves strangely on the island. Hours glide languidly into everlong midsummer-like days full of adventure. One night can stretch into an eternity, enough time to get you to the edge of the galaxy and back. But all too soon it will compress and accelerate and rush madly towards the end.

Things have to end, to circle back, to move onward, you know this by heart now. You cry, there is no way around that. You leave, eyes swollen, heart full. A multitude of ideas in your head, but they won’t form into something coherent until you are less overwhelmed, less miserable because you have to go.

It will take some time for you to discover: part of the island stays with you. The winds, and the knowledge you’ll smile at them again after all you have mastered. The waves, rocking your old shell off of you to make room for growth, rippling with ongoing change. The hearth fire, telling you you are not alone in this. The jellyfish, glowing in the darkness when you need a spark of inspiration. You set out on an ocean of possibilities.

This, you know, is a beginning.

———

I spent a week on Martha’s Vineyard at the Viable Paradise writing workshop in October, and this might have been one of the best things I ever did. Viable Paradise 22, squinting in the sunI’ll probably get back to this with a more practical and down-to-earth post at some point in the future. Because if next year’s chosen ones are like me and my classmates, they will google every scrap of information, and they’ll need to know to bring warm socks without holes and such!

New novelette: When We Were Starless

My new novelette When We Were Starless was published in the October issue of Clarkesworld, and I wanted to provide a little bit of trivia and background for readers with an interest in such things. There may be mild spoilers. If you want to read the story first, here it is – you could go chasin’ ghosts among the ruins of a fallen world with Mink right now!

Clarkesworld 145

It is my second story set in a world I call the Shrouded Earth. It’s not a direct sequel to How Bees Fly, but they follow a shared trajectory, and WWWS holds some spoilers for things that are revealed in the course of HBF.

When We Were Starless had a rough start. I was struggling with what felt like the certain knowledge that my first story had been a fluke, and I wasn’t convinced it would be a good idea to revisit this world. But the image that stuck with me was nomad herders with 3D printer spiders!!! I imagined a trickster story first, about a stranger shaking the tribe up and inducing change, before leaving them again. It took me some time to realize I didn’t want another outcast story. So the only thing I kept was Mink’s ability to change her color. The trickster goddess whom this would have been attributed to (as well as the ability to drop tails) sadly had to go.

My main source for research was Vanishing Footprints: Nomadic People Speak by Ann Perry and Anthony Swift (not a perfect book, but it makes an effort to feature the voices of nomadic people). As I figured out the plot, I visited a planetarium (for the first time ever!). Huge parts of the story clicked into place while I was there.

Nikolaus-Kopernikus-Planetarium

Nikolaus-Kopernikus-Planetarium, Nuremberg: For a very brief moment, I thought this might be the ghost Mink meets …

There are some direct inspirations: part of the opening was inspired by the framing narrative of Clifford D. Simak’s City; and when I began to think about the exhibits in the dome, I couldn’t resist the urge to write a happy ending for xkcd’s super sad Mars Rover episode.

The music was a happy accident, more or less: I always envisioned Mink’s people as musical, but the strong focus on music snuck into the text almost without me noticing. The moment I found out how it would play into the ending, I knew I could make this story work. I also listened to a lot of music and have my own Paean of Manifest Horizons (more of a Paean of Manifest Finishing Line, because it took me forever to get there …).

Last but not least: Many thanks for encouraging me, and your brilliant ideas and editorial help, to Juliana Socher, Maike Claussnitzer, Catherine Brennan, Miriah Hetherington, and Sonia Focke! <3 And thank you, Clarkesworld, for publishing me a second time!
And thank you, readers, for spending time with my stories! Your comments, shares, and reviews mean the world to me!

There might be more of what I secretly call lizardpunk coming up at one point, more Shrouded Earth to unveil – or maybe space nomads? Or something else altogether. I’m not decided yet. Gotta go writing now to find out which egg will hatch next (or, you know, at all)!

Thou shalt have no other stories …

After another few months spent in translator-bot mode, producing daily word-counts I can only dream of as a writer, I have some thoughts about writing and having a day job as a freelancer in the publishing industry at the same time. It seems like a dream situation – to gain a foothold, to learn the business … and when I started this line of work over 10 years ago, it was a dream job. Second best thing to publishing my own stuff. A chance to work with words, with languages and their intricacies, in the genres and with the authors I loved. Translating has always been very close to my heart – it’s a special kind of approach to a text and can be extremely rewarding (for everyone involved, yay!).

Some aspects didn’t turn out quite the way I had hoped for, but that’s a different story. A job closely connected to writing is, in some ways, a major boost for writing. I learned a great deal about language and how to construct stories while translating superb novels, and then some more by editing not-so-superb-yet novels. The moment you have to propose a solution when something isn’t good enough, a vague feeling of “I don’t like it” just doesn’t do. You have to get to the root of the problem, and that makes you see what will work and what won’t.

So I doubt I’d be able to write the way I do without my job, without being surrounded by professional words and stories daily.

But.

My own words inevitably dry up when I am deep in the translating game. I’m surrounded by another person’s story and strive to get into its style, mood, tone. If I try to start writing then, I might end up emulating the thing I’m working on at the moment.

Mostly I don’t even try: I simply can’t bring myself to hack out another word on my keyboard after I already spent 6 hours straight doing just that. Braindead. Daily amount of words used up. Instinct for stories vaporized.

I’m aware that the majority of writers out there are writing in their free time, and surely there’s no shortage of jobs eating your brain. I’m in awe of everyone who sits down to tell their story anyway.

I seem to be at a point where my day job isn’t producing synergies for writing anymore, or even just some (mildly lucrative) background noise; it has turned counterproductive. I guess that’s mostly because I’m working and writing in exactly the same genres. It’s just so close to my own words, and if I want to do it justice, I have to live the to-be-translated text in the same way I have to live my own stories. So my own writing is always relegated to the backburner.

Add in the precarious nature of freelancing, which makes you inclined to always take on another rush job, another project, because there’s no way to know whether and when the next thing might come up. And soon there is no room left for your own stories to unfold. I can relate to every writer who just wants an unobtrusive, not-too-demanding job.

What I do now, accompanied by a lot of anxiety, is decline some jobs. And try to shift a certain portion to other modes and genres, mostly non-fiction, to create synergies again. (But who am I kidding here – offer me a cool science fiction or fantasy project, and I’ll bite).

So, fair warning: having a second dream job apart from writing might not be the best strategy for producing a lot of words, especially if said dream job is, well, also writing, just for other people in another language.

Do what you love and you'll work super fucking hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries and also take everything extremely personally

This has been all over the place recently … I simply had to add it. (from adamjk’s Instagram )

Reanimation

Hey, what have you been up to since November, Simone?
November, huh? It’s been so long, I even need a lousy fake interview set-up to get these rusty gears going.
Mostly, I’ve been a good little translator-bot. I translated a net total of 532,000 words of text, fiction and non-fiction, one of them an epic MCU in-universe encyclopaedia which nearly killed me with its legions of weapons and gadgets, half of them real things, half of them Marvel inventions (yeah, thanks for nothing, Captain America!). I copy-edited a smaller amount, about 364,000 words, also fiction and non-fiction, one of them an epic DC Comics encyclopaedia which nearly drove me crazy with its (sorry, DC) stupid timelines. Superheroes galore for me!
I read 25 books as a judge of the Seraph (original works) and the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis (translated works), both German sff awards. I co-conceptualized and co-hosted an awesome three-day workshop about storytelling as a tool for photographers with my camera-wielding partner in crime Chrononauts Photography.
And I last-minute-applied for Viable Paradise, because it sounded like pure workshop goodness. Which turned out very well so far: I don’t think I have ever experienced such a warm (virtual) welcome anywhere.

Did you write stories?
I wrote a thing for my VP application. Next step: improving my miserable story/workshop ratio. Feeling like the fraud of frauds here …

But you did write something, somewhere, didn’t you?
I didn’t even do much social media. Just work, eat and see to it that my back won’t give out, work again and then some more, sleep, repeat. Every single day (I had three free days over Easter, yay!). It felt like a never-ending nightmare, and that’s why I’m taking some time off now. Otherwise things would become an endless slog towards self-annihilation. Not cool.

What about stories, passive mode?
I didn’t read much apart from the nominated titles for the awards. There was T. Kingfisher’s romance/rpg adventure novelization hybrid Clocktaur Wars, which I thoroughly enjoyed (gonna write more about that one). I went to the movies a few times, to avoid becoming a hermit and such: I liked The Shape of Water – not the deep story about encountering the Other I expected from the trailer; but a beautifully shot film about misfits. Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok where my favorite MCU movies so far, one for its vision and coolness, and the other for combining heroics and fun.
I played some Overwatch. I also played Fortnite, but that was for a job (and it’s probably not my cup of tea). Ah, but now, as this full-frontal march towards burnout is at its end, I’ve been reading nice things again. A short story collection by Roger Zelazny. What a feast! I started reading the Sword and Sonnet anthology recently. And after that, Murderbot vol. 3 is waiting for me. Oh, and I picked up Divinity 2 again, so good (gonna write about it).

What now?
There’s still some editing work and small jobs to do. Probably should be looking for bigger jobs, too, but apart from that, I feel like I could sleep a whole month.
Most of all, I miss my lizards and robots and powerful ladies, and my random ramblings about stories and stuff. But I’m beginning to find back to my own words, so stay tuned. Winter is coming! Again! Ugh, this has been a long time off …

My Primal Apocalypse

It all began with Gremlins.

When I was a child, VCR was the shiny new gadget you needed to have. Well-meaning, but ill-informed, my father brought home Gremlins as one of the very first rentals.

I wasn’t old enough to read stories on my own then (and to choose from any shelf I wanted to), so I had mostly encountered children’s stories. Gremlins might have started like a totally acceptable children’s story, but it soon turned out to be pure horror for me.

Gremlins movie posterI didn’t even make it very far, and my father, who must have felt that I was a little bit too terrified, sent me to bed before it got wild. Which was a bad decision. I knew that suspiciously cute Gizmo would turn into something nasty, and I had learned the rules: The thing with the water and the thing with the feeding. I got it all mixed up when I applied my own logic to the concept: So they turn nasty and grow bigger and multiply when they get wet and eat? You can get wet anytime. And they are monsters, so they’d want to eat people, and BAM! They become even bigger and nastier!

I didn’t only lie awake the whole night in terror. Over the next few days, my imagination led me into a desolate, dark future, where fat, ugly, grown-huge-as-houses Gremlins roamed the streets, looking for more people to feed upon. I thought about how I would sneak through the shadows to hide from them. I felt a little better when I realised that at some point, they would have eaten most of us. Then they wouldn’t find anything else, and the cycle of feeding and growing and multiplying would come to an end. But most of the time, I was half crazy with fear. It could happen anytime. It would be the end.

It couldn’t have been too long until my father noticed something was wrong, but as I remember it, I spent something like a fortnight silently descending into fear and depression. At some point, my father reassured me it was just a movie. A funny movie, even. And it had a happy ending.

But it didn’t matter. I knew now. I knew that something like this could happen, that the world as we knew it could end. That everything could (and would) be gone. And it terrified me.

But it also fascinated me. It was my first what-if extrapolation, my first post-apocalyptical world. I don’t think my final disaster scenario had a lot to do with Gremlins anymore. But until today, I haven’t watched the whole movie, and every time I see a picture of those little pests, they give me the creeps. Even the “real” gremlins, the mechanically inclined imps, make me shudder because they remind me of them. But I’m not entirely sure whether I should condemn director/writer team Joe Dante and Chris Columbus (and my father, I guess) for introducing existential crisis into my life, or thank them for fueling my doom-driven imagination.

Of Cats and Chickens

Writing buddy Sam of Moyas Buchgewimmel passed the baton of the Versatile Blogger Award, so I guess that’s what you get this week: 7 random (yikes!) facts. And I’ll gladly pass it on to whoever likes to share their own random facts. I must admit I love to read those from time to time, so go on and jot something down!

1: I like limits
I don’t like to follow them to the letter; on the contrary: give me a limit, and I will test it and stretch it and try to break it. But I think I get inspired by the challenge, by having something to chew on. Form, length, theme, or character constraints – anything is better than starting with an anything goes premise.
So, first of all, this list needs a limit. Seven facts about me finding words.

2: I’m wordy
I could drone on and on about those facts. Tl;dr is my worst nightmare. Social media and the need to have your say in way too less characters or as a caption for a picture (to stand in for the remaining 995 words) go against my instinct to get to the bottom of things. But I learned to cut. See?

3: Copy-Cat
Clever ways of saying things, phrasings, lyrics, and expressions get stuck in my head like blueprints. I try to be aware of that.

4 (copy-catted at Sam’s place): I only write when it’s dark
Not entirely true, but also not completely false. I am the night. Leave me to my own devices, take away dependancies on other people’s schedules and opening hours, and I’m guaranteed to mutate into a nocturnal creature.

5: The chicken is IN
All words are great in the night. So it’s best to re-evaluate them in the morning. As. If. I. Could ever read them again. So many brilliant ideas lost in the realms of chicken scratch. Woe is me!

6: Chicken out
I tend to leave things unfinished for lack of a perfect ending. Maybe it would be better to put them out anyway, instead of chewing on them forever or letting them perish incomplete in the drawer/drafts folder/wip shelf?

Worldcon & Work Done

Attending Worldcon 75 in Helsinki made the deadline of my last translation project a real challenge (and I had to switch to translatorbot mode upon my return). But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Welcome in HelsinkiHelsinki was quite welcoming, giving out free public transport rides and a warm, fuzzy feeling in between the frequent showers. While it felt a little bit disorganised in the beginning, Worldcon got better by the day at managing its huge crowds of fans.

A workshop about societies in post-apocalyptic fiction taught by dramatist Taj Hayer was a great way to start the con and meet new people. It wasn’t only fascinating to learn about all the different backgrounds people brought up that got them interested in post-apocalyptic settings. We also did a cool group exercise about world and plot building and ended up with a world reminiscent of Mary Rickert and Octavia Butler stories, where only children are able to communicate, and form an anarchist society. I wonder which one of us will end up writing it … Anyway, I really appreciated Taj’s teaching, so if you’ve got the chance to attend one of his classes, go for it!

I could totally relate to the things stated in a panel about writing while multilingual (with Ken Liu, among others), fell in love with the sheer display of knowledge in “The Times that Shaped the Science” (mostly about the birthing age of modern science and how it came to pass), and had the best of times with an epic snark battle-panel between Babylon 5 and Star Trek, shortly before rushing back to the airport (no big spoiler: Babylon 5 won).

But my favourite panel was “True Grit: The Appeal of Grimdark Fantasy”. So much thoughtful input here, especially from Scott Lynch, on a fascinating topic. You can watch it on Youtube, too (with appropriately gloomy lighting).

Posing with Major Ursa

Posing with Major Ursa

Apart from that, there was a small Taos Toolbox meet-up, a visit to a glorious steampunk bar, meeting old and new friends, and discovering cool Finnish artists and a really flourishing sff scene. I didn’t know that so many books are translated into Finnish (and they’re beautifully designed, too).

Oh, and the Hugos were a blast, of course: I loved the fact that many of my favourites won, and they were dominated by women this year! Bam!

Aestivation is serious business!

This blog went into unannounced aestivation and might have slept away a few summer weeks, but me, I was far from lazy.

The Narrows, Zion National Park

The Narrows, Zion National Park

I visited some places that spoke to my storyteller’s heart: I was in the USA for the first time and went to the Southwest and all the canyon National Parks. I have dreamt of seeing them for a long time. I used to imagine all those people leaving Europe and looking for some place new; how they came upon harsh lands and geological wonders that simply didn’t exist over here. And now I did, too.

I came for the sublime landscapes and the vastness, for the stars and the red earth, and I was not disappointed.

I also came for the writing lessons of Taos Toolbox, taught by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress, with guest lectures from George R.R. Martin, Steven Gould and E.M. Tippets, and I wasn’t disappointed either.

I had two incredibly intense weeks of critiquing and being critiqued, with classes focused on some of the problems I always struggle with when plotting or constructing scenes and fleshing out characters. It was all about craft and business, and amidst all this heavy lifting GRRM dashed in upon us in his purple Tesla and told us to be artists.

I felt very welcome even though I was the only ESL writer in the group (although ESL speaker tends to be the real problem for me). The accumulated teaching experience of the Toolboxe’s lecturers really shows, and what you take home is a whole new range of methods and approaches, and precious, precious knowledge. I’ll sure need some time to work through it all and apply it, but I already feel the workshop’s impact in the way I look at stories.

Taos Toolbox 2017I met fabulous new writer friends and didn’t get to know most of them half as well as I’d have liked to, because I was busy writing/critiquing until one or two in the morning nearly every day. We read an insane amount of material during these two weeks, and got tons of advice and guidance.

So I feel I could use a few days off now, but no rest for the wicked. I’ve already dived into the leftovers of my recent translation, and I’m editing a super funny LEGO encyclopaedia for my favourite licensing client.

I can’t wait to write new stories based on what I learned at Taos Toolbox. But first, some rewriting of half-finished stuff is in order. Did anyone mention aestivation? Not for me, obviously.

Trickster Syndrome

Like many creative people I know, I suffer from a severe case of Impostor Syndrome. No matter my achievements or my experience in my field of work, I always feel like I just tricked everyone into believing I’m performing okayish. But deep inside, I know I’m fake, and sooner or later, it will show. If you just look close enough, you’ll see it.

I feel I’m quite lucky to be able to earn my money with things I like more often than not, and sometimes even with things I love. That might be fueling my problem, because as I told earlier, I was raised catholic, and like every good ex-catholic, I constantly ask myself: What have I done to earn anything at all? When will I fall for having been so lucky?

So I’m proceeding with my words, pretending to be a translator and writer and storyteller and linguist and whatnot. I’ve done this for years, so I guess I’m quite good at it. As absurd as it sounds today that someone will jump out and triumphantly announce: We knew it! You were a fraud all along!, occasionally I still have a dream about my university entrance diploma being disallowed. (Almost 20 years later … and it wouldn’t even matter, because I’m my own boss. But my impostor nightmares don’t care.)

Recently, though, I’m observing a shift in my perspective. What if I (and all my creative impostor friends) are drawn to the arts because we are resourceful tricksters? What else is a storyteller, if not a trickster, pretending to be what she is not, shapechanging and dazzling and manipulating? All of these trickster qualities are traits you need to tell good stories: To trick the audience into believing anything. To mold your voice into different shapes and perspectives. To convince people to follow you on a trail of imaginary breadcrumbs. To trap them in your net of entertaining lies.

Tricksters are my favorite protagonists. And my favorite trickster is Coyote, with all his clever, dumb, selfish, and heroic ways. So, my favorite Coyote story is about Coyote stealing the stars*. And isn’t every star a promise of something new, a new world, a new story, a guiding light that shines in the void? It’s a very trickster-like thing to bring story into nothingness, and shaping, even disheveling reality in the act. In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde’s ultimate trickster compendium, Michael Chabon (a very talented trickster himself) says so in his foreword, about creating story out of our random endeavors …

[…] as if they mattered, as if they had a beginning, a middle, and an end. They don’t, but there is neither joy nor art nor pleasure to be made from saying so. Coyote wouldn’t waste his time on a paltry truth like that.
– Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

That’s the kind of trick I’d like to pull off, the kind of lie worth telling. And if it means suffering from insecurity because you’re pretending all the time, losing yourself in changing shapes, and your fragile lies are about to collapse, so be it. Those dark moments will pass when you steal a new set of stars and make them shine.

Impostor Syndrome is lame. It keeps you on your toes, sure, but otherwise it just makes you anxious and overly self-conscious. But I guess I could live with Trickster Syndrome. There are realities to dishevel and purposes to be found!

*Actually, there are more stories about Coyote stealing the sun or the moon, but I made the stars sound convincing, too, don’t you think …?

First person problems

Some of my favorite stories and novels are told from first-person perspective, and I love to employ first person narrators myself. I’m intrigued by the instant narrative situation they create when they come along and say: sit down and listen, I’m going to tell you a story.

But they sure are special snowflakes. I struggled to make a story work with a first person narrator these days, trying to find the voice of an unruly protagonist, and a beginning that didn’t suck. While ditching dozens of approaches, I again learned a lot, so why not put it on record for future reference?

First person narration is so different from third person narration that a certain amount of readers simply doesn’t like it. It is the original, primal storytelling mode (someone experienced something and goes on to tell the tale), but in fiction, third person has become the default mode. For me, third person narration is like hitting play on the media device of your choice, while first person narration is like sitting down with a storyteller. Some people enjoy being steered and sometimes overpowered by a narrator, some people just want to see how the events come to pass without a guide. But don’t be fooled; the storyteller may be hidden behind the ‘camera’ in third person narrations, but she’s there, deciding what you get to see.

As a writer, I feel like entering no-rules-country with a first person narrator, and you don’t even have to install an unreliable narrator for that (although it’s debatable if they aren’t all unreliable per default). While in third person you seem to have a limiting frame, looking through the eyes of one person at one time, you don’t have to tell one thing after the other with a first person narrator who may know the whole story. Tenses become arbitrary, and you have to decide, decide, decide: Why put this element here and not there? Why show it at all and not do a charming summary? Anything goes, except when it doesn’t. Of course you don’t have to do anything at all in third person narration either, because there are no rules if you can pull it off. First person narrators may be a good training ground for your storytelling antennas. You’ll have to make sure to sort out what’s really important and how and when it is best presented.

The distance between first person narrator and reader is anything but zero. No one thinks of himself or herself as the “I” in a story. A story is not a pop song, like a one-size-fits-all representation of your everyday joys and worries. You experience a different perspective, and for me, first person narrators even create a greater distance: while they are undeniably present in shaping the flow of the story, they seem to vanish from the events themselves. The narrator is at the same time inside the story (unless she tells about other people’s adventures) and outside of it. When she stands beside the reader, whispering in his ear, she just can’t be completely in the thick of the things she’s describing, only an aspect of her can. So you close one kind of distance, but open up another. This distance will also show in the places where first person narration appears to be artificial (as in: whoever remembers every single word of a years-old conversation?*).

There is, of course, a trick to avoid this. Well, there’s certainly more than one, but this one is very obvious: why not put the narrator in an ongoing now moment and tell the story in present tense? No distance at all, and you’re breathlessly rushing alongside your protagonist all the time and experience everything in real time. Expect that real time creates bloated abominations of stories. And while breathless rushing is fun in action scenes, it tends to suck when it whips you through a whole novel. At the moment, only two authors who did this with grace come to my mind – remarkably using a very similar plot device: Matthew Stover in Acts of Caine (first person narrator in present tense whenever Caine’s adventures are broadcasted to an audience, but third person when he is offline), and Linda Nagata in The Red (first person and present tense all the time, and there are hints that this is a show broadcasted to an audience).

There are brilliant first person narrations out there. I’m reading one at the moment and will recommend it fervently next week. In my own story, I opted for third person in the end. But I think messing around with various first person approaches helped me find the voice I needed.

*She’s making it up, of course. She’s a storyteller, not an archivist.