February 2016 Archives

I'm still in Boston, flying home tomorrow, and due to begin recovery from jetlag on Thursday. (This overlaps with recovering from both an SF convention and the chest infection that's currently touring the east coast, hence the lack of updates.) So that's when I'm planning to resume blogging, if I can think of something coherent to talk about. (What do you want me to talk about? NB: the BRExit referendum is specifically excluded from this question, because Depressing Politics/Too Many Idiots.)

Hey guys: Elizabeth Bear here, and I'm stopping by to talk about how even jobs we love can make us sick if we do them for too long without a break and with the wrong kind of rewards systems.

I know, because after fourteen years of working flat-out at my writing career, I'm taking a break. And it's not entirely by choice.

Between life stress and overwork, I hit a wall at the end of last year. I've been struggling with actually accomplishing my job for a while--hating to sit down at the computer, being avoidant, generally feeling not so much blocked as if every word was being taken off my hide with a potato peeler. I started feeling this way back in about 2007, a situation which I think is linked both to a bad reaction to an OTC medication that made me profoundly depressed for about four months, before I figured out what the problem was, and also my internalization of some criticism at a peer workshop I attended. (The workshop was great, and I got a Hugo-winning story and a major uptick in skill out of it. But it also turned me into the proverbial centipede who gets asked how she manages to run, and, well, I started tripping over my own feet left right and center.)

Because I had contracts and writing is how I make my living, I told myself that I had to write anyway, and I did, though I was late on a novel (CHILL, now published in the UK as SANCTION).

Somewhere in the process, though, writing went from being something fun--the job I'd always wanted--to a real misery, a thing I avoided and dreaded. I became hypercritical of my own work, and nothing I did was ever good enough. I'd gotten into the habit, in other words, of kicking myself over basically every element of my work and holding it to impossible standards. I figured if I just kept writing I would get through the stuck, and everything would be fine again.

Nine years later, I realized that Things Were Not Going So Well, and were in fact getting worse. I've been producing good work--my critical record speaks for itself--but I was incapable of identifying it as good work.I was disappointed in all of it, and no matter how hard I worked or how much I produced it never quite felt like enough. I started having clinical anxiety symptoms, and when a bunch of real-life stress including family illnesses showed up, I didn't have the spoons to cope with work and family and various other issues.

Anyway, the good news is, I got help. And I'm taking a year off from my production schedule and rejigging my deadlines into something more manageable. And I'm learning to say no. No, no, no, no.

Which is scary, frankly, because what if I say no and nobody ever asks me again? But honestly, when your reaction to being invited to a project is a spike of panic, that's when you need to back off yourself. Burnout is a real thing, and it's really prevalent in creative professions and ones with intense schedules.

Especially ones with a messed up rewards system, which publishing definitely has: you do a thing, and then there's intermittent reinforcement, which may follow on the actual completion of the thing by more than a year in some cases.


The other thing I'm doing, which I think is probably even more important than a little rest and taking the pressure off, is that I'm rewarding myself for work. This is the thing about mammals, right? If you punish us for a thing, we will avoid doing that thing in the future, and react to being forced to do it with anxiety and distress. But if you reward us for doing it, then we anticipate the opportunity to perform the task and get rewarded.

(If you really want to screw up an animal, sometimes reward it and sometimes punish it for the same behavior. Or keep increasing what it has to do to get a reward. You get real basket cases that way!)

So really, if you want to make yourself like your job, the best way to do it is to take some of the pressure off, and when the work gets done, to give yourself a cookie.

Cookies are really underrated as a means of motivation.

I don't know why it took me so long to figure this out, honestly. But it seems to be working so far!

People often ask me if I like writing fantasy for the freedom.

"What freedom?" I ask.

"The freedom," they say, "to do whatever you want."

At this point I either laugh or cry or pour myself a drink, because the presence of magic is not a carte blanche, a sudden permission to throw everything and the kitchen sink into a book. People who take it as such usually write sloppy stories. They might have a vivid imagination, but writing fantasy requires the mind of a technician as much as an artist.

That's because good fantasy, like all frameworks, requires RULES.

Everywhere you look, there are rules.

Everywhere you don't look, there are more.

Sometimes those rules are simple, and sometimes they are complex (and sometimes, imho, they are needless convoluted), but they are almost always there, and I'd wager, in most good books, they might not be on the page, but they're buried, in the foundation, creating a degree of cohesion you might not see, but will certainly feel. Worse though, is when you DON'T feel it. When the elements on the page feel random, or the appearance of a rule turns out to be nothing but that, an appearance, something set up only to be disrupted at the first issue of convenience (this is by far my largest pet peeve as a reader, when the rules become porous, dissolving and reforming as needed to suit the writer's whims).

My Shades of Magic series includes not one, but four parallel worlds, each with a different relationship to magic.

In Grey London, magic was forgotten.
In Red, it thrives.
In White, it's abused.
In Black, it killed.

In Red London, the relationship between man and magic is one of reverence, respect. They worship magic as a god, mind the checks and balances, do not take without giving back. They are stewards.

In White London, a fear of magic dominating man has led to the inverse, a situation in which man endeavors to dominate magic (and consequently precipitates his own destruction).

Breaking the systems down past context into base fibers, magic in my worlds is two parts nature, one part god. It abides the rules of the natural world, but is the common element in everything.

Rooting the nature of magic in, well, NATURE, means creating a fantastical system that in most ways adheres to a realistic one. Cycles of life, growth, power, action and consequence, energy neither created nor destroyed, the aspects of magic mirror those of the natural world at its most basic.

The goal is to make the rules flush with the surface of the world, and in so doing, to make it intuitive, believable. Every step we take away from reality requires a leap of faith on the part of the reader, and the fewer steps necessary, the less likely that one will trip, stumble, fall. Or worse, begin to disbelieve.

And that is the great risk of going off-book, of indulging in a system of whimsy, a place where anything is possible without reason or repercussion--the more you ask the reader to believe, the less they often will.

The converse tendency is to prove oneself and the sturdiness of one's world by putting it ALL on the page, in maddening detail, which can be just as problematic--sure, you've made a cohesive world, but if your rules distract from the actual story, few people are going to give a damn about the thoroughness of your systems.

When in doubt, I find it best to remember that the fundamental laws that govern a world are at their core simple, intuitive, and elegant. By applying those traits to any world, no matter how superficially fanciful, you ensure that most readers recognize the terms, and are game for the ride.


Hi there, I'm Victoria "V.E." Schwab, and Charlie has been gracious enough to let me join the party.

I'm the author of numerous books for children (Scholastic), teens (Hyperion, Harper/Greenwillow), and adults (Tor), and my most recent series, A Darker Shade of Magic, just sold TV rights. The strange bit there is that I'm attached to write the pilot script (and have been working steadily on that for the last six months. As well as a comic series. And a couple stories for anthologies.

The second book in the Shades of Magic series, A GATHERING OF SHADOWS, hits shelves in 8 days (not that I'm counting).

I often get asked about why I write in multiple genres, or how I write in multiple worlds. Do I sleep? Did I, at some point, sell my soul?

I can't comment on the last one, but I did make the conscious decision several years ago to diversify, not in order to snag more minions, or for my own creative edification, but because my career was in trouble. I'd only just started in YA, and already hit a major stumbling block when my editor left, and my profitable series was summarily dropped. When this happens (a friend told me once that if you stay in this business long enough, every thing--good and bad--will happen), you can really only do one thing, which is to focus on writing. But at the time, I wasn't ready--physically or emotionally--to sell another YA, so I turned my attention to an adult project called VICIOUS, something I'd been playing with for two years because it made me happy. It was totally unsellable, and I knew it, but I wrote it any way, and then it sold (publishing is a finicky little shit sometimes).

At the same time, I was tapped by Scholastic to audition for a small Book Clubs and Fairs package, a trilogy of books. The pay was almost nill, but I felt like exposure and experience were important, so I signed on, and the strange little series went and sold half a million copies.

I felt like a hydra. Or Hercules Mulligan, if you've seen/heard the Hamilton show.
With the sudden influx of flexibility came the new challenge of sustaining that momentum, which is arguably something I'm still trying to do.

Publishing is great at stoking fears not only of inferiority, but of irrelevance, and so over the last several years, I've done my best to keep the candle burning not only at both ends, but in the middle.

The simple answers to how I get things done come off as irreverent: I don't sleep; I work my ass off; I just do it.

But the thing I'm constantly reminding readers and writers of online is that these books, whether slight or massive, don't happen in single fell swoops, but day by day by day by day, over weeks, months, years. And whether you're writing one book or four, the process is the same. You make the time. You do the work. You accept that it's flawed. You demand better. You go on.

And sometimes you procrastinate by offering to blog about it instead of actually doing the work.

I'll be back shortly to talk about world-building in fantasy (my Shades of Magic series involves not one but four separate versions of London, each with their own relationship to magic), but for now, hello, and cheers.

I'm in another Storybundle this month--another of those "Women In" collections, this time Fantasy, and as usual it's a great communal experience. We all get together, help each other push the bundle, and read other's books. It's fun, it's profitable. It spreads the word about a variety of books and writers.

This one has me thinking about the whole "Women In" phenomenon, and where fantasy used to be versus where it is now. What goes around comes around, but there's always a new angle to it, one way or another.

It's been interesting watching fantasy evolve out of the primordial soup that was, primarily, Tolkien. There were other ancestors, of course, and other strains of fantasy, but by the end of the Sixties, Tolkien was the one name that ruled them all.

^^^^Me again. M Harold Page. I do books with swords and tanks in them. And writer memes piss me off.

You know what I mean. Stuff like this that pops up on social media:

If you fall in love with a writer,

They will forget normal things like anniversaries and cooking times

for salmon (which was quite expensive but will turn to sludge, then ash),

But they'll remember the important things,

Like what you wore and how it felt that night

And they'll make you immortal.

Jesus Christ! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!

Yes. It's all true! But - and you're already thinking this - not in the fluffy emo-hipster singer-songwriter way as pitched by this meme.

So, next Monday I'm flying off to New York and Boston for a couple of weeks. New York mostly for meetings (my agent and both my major US publishers are based there), and Boston because a week of meetings needs a week of R&R afterwards, and also, Boskone.

While I'm in NYC I intend to hit a couple of the local brewpubs next week; on the evening of Tuesday 9th I'll be in the Keg & Lantern Brewing Company (97 Nassau Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11222) from 6pm. All welcome!

I'll be holding a public pub session in Boston/Cambridge the following week. Again, details TBA.

On Thursday 18th, Pandemonium Books and Games will be hosting a three-way author event, in which I, Max Gladstone, and Walter Jon Williams talk about ... stuff, I guess. Maybe with readings, sarcasm, and irony? Or, more likely, an incisive exploration of the liminal intersection between the fantasy universes of Max's Craft sequence, Walter's Metropolitan, and my Laundry Files? Or perhaps we'll just throw plush daleks at each other for an hour. Who knows.

Yes, I'm on the program at Boskone. You can find the program grid here. I am too lazy to cut, paste, and reformat it just to highlight my own events: use the "Search" submenu in your browser if you really need to know.

In other news, we live in a world where police dinosaurs chase flying robots. I am not making this up. Truly, reality is weirder than anything I could make up. Who knew?



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