Weekend Writing Warriors: Sunday 19 April 2015 (WIP: Ship’s Heart)

Mavra turned to Ferenc. “It’s a story, but yes, on Karis they did once cut throats on the altar of the Queen of the Snows. For treason and for disobeying clan-affiliation rules, but they haven’t done that in recent times, not for a thousand years at least.”

“Ick,” Ferenc said. “So the red sparkles were supposed to be blood.”

“That’s the old-fashioned way of presenting it. When I was at the Academy, though, they were going through a hyper-realist fad, buckets of stage blood. What a mess to mop up after, that’s all I could think at the time.”


Ferenc, age 8, is Jehen’s younger half-brother. This is the children’s first introduction to classical glam space opera, in holographic performance. Mavra’s wry observation about stage blood echoes George Sand’s sardonic letters home about the Paris theater scene of the 1830s.

Weekend Writing Warriors offers a selection of eight-sentence excerpts from many different writers. For the full selection, see here.

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Ship’s Heart: Naime the Shipwright (character interview)

Sick with a spring cold and/or allergies, and still struggling with nonfiction writing. So instead, another fictional excerpt which is more than a propos to some of our current questions.


Love is atmosphere, it’s safety, it’s the circle within which we can breathe easily, knowing that the warmth at our back means us well.

I remember, even after all this time. When I was a small child, each evening I rested in the circle of my fathers’ warmth. They sat on the balcony of our quarters in the Astok lighthouse tower to watch the sun set over the distant mountains. That last light shimmered bloody on the waters of the Inland Sea, then faded to dull silver. The headlands bulked up in darkness against the deep-blue sky. The breeze played around us, as the seabirds swooped.

Somewhere else in the house, someone picked out a tune on a stringed instrument; on the balcony below us, small children played.

My fathers sat with their arms around each other. I rested on the lap they made together. Warmth at my back, sea-coolness and breeze on my face: that memory is so pleasant it has not left me in seven centuries.

Then as I grew, love took in the fondness of my nest-mates; we might tussle and argue, but we were together. Our rivalries flared for the space of a game or a bout of grappling, and dissipated thereafter. I don’t know if that was a matter of our temperament or the atmosphere our parents created for us. Probably it was both; in adulthood, I saw murderous rivalries between siblings or cousins, that could be traced back through the decades to earliest childhood and the invidious comparisons of mothers or fathers or patrons.

Love feels as ordinary as weather, but like the weather requires great power and the appropriate conditions.

And beyond the atmosphere, above the sphere of weather: well, space taught me that, the Road of the Stars that I trod first as a human captain and then as one of the motive minds of the Ship. We make what we can, against the pressure of Void; if we don’t make well, we learn the face of annihilation.

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Ship’s Heart: Naime the Shipwright (character interview)

I am Naime-Martisset yr Astok. My parents and their marriage-patron are long dead, as am I.

I persist now as a memory, one of the Ship’s-Hearts, though it’s no longer a ship, really, but … that’s another story. Too long to tell now. Though you asked me for great detail, you did not reckon on my time scale.

A lot can happen in seven hundred years, and it has.

Naime was the name given me at birth, Astok my great-clan. No one alive remembers the person I was. They tell me that the ceremony is re-enacted every year in the Shipwrights’ Chapel, to the accompaniment of the recording I commissioned. That at least satisfies me. I meant that to make an impression.

I commissioned that statue of the god of war, Martis/Mortis, the ghastly wreck of the ancestors’ world.

“Carve it with my face,” I told the sculptor. “I’ll sit for you as model.”

I sketched it, I took the things they all meant to celebrate in their sentimental recollections of the heroism of war. The artist and I conspired to roll them all into one unforgettable image: ancient beyond reckoning, that conqueror on horseback with the hanging skulls of the conquered, weapons strapped across the back, sword in hand–archaic even then, before our distant ancestors left the Original World–but with my face in white stone, white translucent stone to stand under the circular opening in the dome of the Shipwrights’ Chapel and be brought to life under the rays of an alien sun.

I sat for the portrait, in the ancient fashion.

“Bring work while you’re sitting,” the sculptor said. “If you spend the entire time staring off into the heroic middle distance, you’ll just look bored.”

So I brought my tablet, and my Gate of Hours, and the treatises of the ones I meant to refute. Not only engineering calculations, but the words of my enemies. I plotted this performance, I stared them down, I worked out refutations in the margins.

And the sculptor took notes.

They could as well have scanned me, measured bone and flesh, built a simulacrum —

But the traditional art of the portrait is something else, still mysterious after tens of millennia. There is the measuring eye, and then something else — the intent, the exchange of energy between artist and sitter.

When I faced her finally, Martis/Mortis who was of several sexes on the Original World, she looked back at me with the face I turned to my enemies — my own face, in the mirror of the argument between us.

“Death has neither sex nor gender, no more than the sea,” the sculptor said.
Old wisdom. Like the sea, death–or our lust for war–takes the shape of its vessel.

And then, in public ceremony, recorded for posterity, I did obeisance to the victims, kissed the foreheads of the dead. Then I took up the sculptor’s mallet and smashed my own portrait, Martis/Mortis who bore my face and sat her horse just like me.

And that is why I bear the second name Martisset, child of the god of war.

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Weekend Writing Warriors: Sunday 12 April 2015 (WIP: Ship’s Heart)

Ferenc and the little ones darted between them, imitating the dancers who fell when the light stabbed across them.

The song rose to a despairing shriek; the scene changed, without warning, to a dais on which the sole survivor stood, under the watchful glance of an outsized figure all in white with a swarm of snow about her, a transparent blade in one hand and a red flower in the other.

Perhaps one of the Karis gods? “It’s the Queen of the Snows,” Mavra whispered. “Now things take a turn very much for the worse.”

Another figure, masked, took shape out of darkness, approached the combatant on the dais, pulled them backward by the hair and drew a long blade across their throat, scattering red glitter. Jehen heard a gasp; Ferenc was standing across the commons, where the dancing circle had been. His mouth was open in horror and wonder.


Out of order, temporally, from last week’s excerpt. Ferenc, age 8, is Jehen’s younger half-brother. This is the children’s first introduction to classical glam space opera, in holographic performance.

Weekend Writing Warriors offers a selection of eight-sentence excerpts from many different writers. For the full selection, see here.

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The Not Really SF Short Story Challenge, or Hard SF Invades Literatania

It’s a bright and sunny day, excellent for a constitutional stroll, but Your Humble Author has been noodling around on Twitter, aka the Devil’s Workshop.

Back in the halcyon Leaden Age of SF, mad scientists explained things at length and nobody got into their spaceship without an extensive tour of the engine room. Monsieur Verne has a lot to answer for.

Recently, the Melancholic Juvenile Canine Insurgencies campaigned for the Hugo ballot and raised the alarm about the Literati who have invaded the Fortress of Real Science Fiction and subjected us all to a merciless reign of metaphor, simile, thematic complexity, and actual characterization.

Alas, the train has left the station, the boat has been missed [insert transport metaphor of your choice]

To satisfy the repressed desire for Real SF, I am proposing a counter-raid onto the home territory of Literatania, the Realist Short Story. So here it is:

The Not Really SF Short Story Challenge: Write a short story, everyday setting, but in the style of leaden age ‘hard SF’. PROVIDE ALL THE CIRCUIT DIAGRAMS.

Rules (Basic Set)

  1. No character is permitted to interact with any technology without explaining it in exhaustive detail. Clarification: This includes the toaster, electric kettle, HVAC, plumbing, cell/mobile phones. Don’t forget titanium dioxide in the toothpaste, dyestuffs in clothes, air traffic control (for plane passing overhead), alien biology (cats, hamsters etc).
  2. Keep it to standard short story length, or at least under 10K words.
  3. Have fun.

Rules (Advanced Set)

  1. The story may NOT be explicitly about technology. (Per Kari Sperring’s comments on original Twitter thread, treat mathematics as Naughty Bits.)
  2. You must choose a theme/story typical of realist literary fiction. Historical setting is OK, but other rules still obtain.

If you take the challenge, link below.

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Writer Tech (Technique): Lev Mirov on self-care, artistic practice, music, and the writerly zone

Edited version of chat interview on Friday, March 20, 2015 9:45 PM

EPB: The first question, which I struggle with: what is the balance, for you, between artistic production and self-care? How has it changed over the years?

LM: Well when I was in high school I stayed up till 4AM working on collaborative projects with friends on the west coast almost every night, often at my computer 16+ hours a day because I was homeschooled.
Those are actually TERRIBLE working conditions. These days, my output is much, much slower but a much higher quality.

EPB: How long are your work bouts? What postures do you work in (seated, recumbent, standing)?

LM: I sit, either at my desk with its ergonomic keyboard, or with a small laptop if I am out (or occasionally reclining in bed), and I woke for no more than an hour before getting up, if that long. I tend to work in micro-bursts of mono-focus, 10 or 15 minutes of writing before I stop typing briefly. If I’m on a roll and the muse is relentless, I take 3-5 minute typing/attention breaks every 15-20 minutes.
I often work about a total of 1-2 hours over the course of an afternoon and evening in small doses.

EPB: What kind of signals from your body tell you to take a break? Do you have any particular practice for checking in with yourself? (disclosure: I am pretty terrible about this, even after injury AND practice as a bodyworker.)

LM: When the muse is damned insistent, or I’m under an external deadline, I often rely on a pomodoro timer app that allows me to set my own intervals, and force myself to stop if the timer goes off to take a break. It can also help me avoid the temptation to read twitter instead of write.
The rest of the time, my body is pretty annoying, I have a pain condition that gets worse if I stay slouched at the computer, so my body is pretty noisy about wanting me to get up, stretch my hands, etc. I’ve used browser extensions that tell you to stretch every 30 minutes before, but I tend to ignore those if the timing is inconvenient. My wife also can’t really get up that often because she has an acute knee injury right now, so I let her requests for things serve as reminders to move around physically. And my cats. If my cats are getting up to trouble, if I’m getting up anyway I’m going to refill my water and check in to make sure I’m not hungry and that sort of thing.

EPB: Tell me about your ideal workspace (and equipment).

LM: Ideally for me, my workspace has a full-sized monitor, a full-sized ergonomic keyboard and a mouse with a middle-clicker scroll, a very high padded chair (I am short) and, this is the crucial stuff for me: a place to put my feet up under the desk, and a heating pad. My muscles get sore very fast, and sitting actively bothers my sciatica, and a heating pad decreases my pain a lot. I’m also sensitive to sound and light, so a pair of over-the-ear headphones are necessary for me.
Out in non-ideal environments, at bare minimum I have to work with a comfortable chair, a full-sized keyboard, and headphones. I have made a rule that even if I want to I should avoid writing without a full-sized keyboard as much as possible, though I break my own rule sometimes and write on the touchscreen on my phone on the train.

EPB: oh wow. I have not mastered that. I only manage it with lots of misspellings for texts.
What other ways do you deal with non-ideal work spaces?

LM: If sound and light are really bothersome, I listen to dubstep or binaural beats and Gregorian chant, both of which drown out outside noises. I sometimes carry a small mouse to use when writing out of the house. I also designate low-attention writing tasks I can do if I’m tired or in pain — which means things like finding non-editing tasks to do, or world-building/brainstorming that doesn’t rely on getting it “right” the first time to keep going.

EPB: We have very similar taste in writing music! Lots of dubstep on my NaNo 2014 playlist. :)
and I have listened to Gregorian chant for a long time.

I remember  Gertrude Stein’s Making of Americans_ aloud. Literally felt my chest open up and resonate–“like I am a cathedral” was exactly how I felt – vast, full of music, stony and ancient. No drugs, just voice.

Somatic emotional resonance is so powerful.

EPB:  Following the example of my buddy Devin Harnois, I started putting together novel playlists.
for each project. I had my music/graphics/IT consultant curate one for NaNo 2014.

LM: Do you know about the website 8tracks.com ?

EPB: Yes! One of the fans of [my co-author] Vera’s big fanfic epic put together playlists for each of the main characters. :)
Here’s the playlist for my NaNo 2014 projects (on youtube):https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdComTp7KsA&list=PLBy6Vfa64gjVapNcn24LkfbgdN4_1THi2

LM: I use 8tracks to curate writing playlists, as well as character studies. You can follow me if you like   http://8tracks.com/thelionmachine

EPB: So cool!I describe music to my colleagues as “writer’s whiskey, real deal, no hangover & reuseable.”

It’s the truth. I need to update it, some tracks got mixed up or missing, but a character study you will probably like is here: http://8tracks.com/thelionmachine/the-hound-of-heaven

EPB: oh wow!

LM: It’s for Hugh, my pet immortal crusader, who has to take a back seat while I write a different novel.

EPB: Now I have even more things to listen to!

LM: 8tracks is a never-ending “listen to all the things” adventure.

EPB: Are there any rituals (aside from music and workspace) that you use to get into writing flow?

LM: Sometimes turning on a work-timer can be a ritual, if nothing else it forces me to stop dragging my feet and actually stare at the document window until words come.
The other, terribly unromantic ritual, is I put writing submission deadlines in my calendar and every time I get up to start the day I stare at the deadlines that are coming up next and try to figure out what will serve the thing next approaching, and set up all my notes and outlines and so on AS IF I am going to write that thing today, whether I actually do or not. Often I work on something totally unrelated but it is mostly because I have to come up with reasons not to work on the thing I planned, the productive procrastination model.

EPB: Yes! I do that too! It’s a way to fool the brain.

LM: I apparently have some deep knee-jerk-y un-desire to be published because I keep working on projects while blowing past deadlines for awesome calls for stories.

EPB: What advice would you give to young writers (or young Yourself if you could get in the time machine): about artistic practice, about self-care?

LM: Marathons are for emergencies. They are a bad habitual practice, and they hurt you.
It is more fun, and more productive, to plan to work in the smallest efficient dose at a go; 10 minutes of really dedicated typing every hour is better for your body than trying to marathon a huge number of words in an hour every day.I think writers psyche themselves out about writing by being slavish victims of the muse; either they must write, whether the muse comes or not, even if words are painful to produce and not in a good way, or, if the muse comes, it is a torrential waterfall they must capture before she goes again. If you show up to do the work, and give yourself a really small amount of time to work, work will happen. There’s this concept in productivity studies called resistance and everyone agrees, to overcome resistance you make your goal so small you no longer feel resistance — write 10 minutes, or 100 words, or whatever — and this concept actually works great for sustainable writing, too. Breaking the act of writing into small chunks isn’t romantic, and it’s harder to get swept away into the world for hours at a time, but it also hurts much, much less in terms of repetitive stress.

EPB: I remind people that the original marathon killed the person who did it. :(

LM: YES. I used to be strapped to a chair all hours of the day and night, and I am 27 and my body now hates me for those previous bad decisions. Young writers do not want to be me.

EPB: zomg… this year, I will be twice 27.

LM: I won’t tell

EPB: And I have done some grievous things to myself, but had the great genetic good fortune to inherit my grandfather’s Hero of Labor constitution. Enormous endurance.

LM: My brother compares me to a dwarf. My constitution is enormous, I can keep going through just about anything, but, alas, heroic endurance is required for ordinary life

EPB: Yes. The writing life is a long campaign, and we have to be wily guerrillas.

LM: I have a rare genetic disorder where all the soft tissue in my body is extra-elastic, and joints do not stay in place and dislocate on a daily (on bad days, hourly) basis.
I want to be creating a long time, so I have to take care of myself now, once my fingers start to dislocate they will never stop.

EPB: Yes. That’s an unmistakable signal.
Over the years, I noticed that my colleagues who either had disabilities or who were physically restless (that’s me) ended up having fewer repetitive stress injuries on average. Artists have a tendency to obsession–I think it comes with the territory–and it’s so easy to overdo, if something doesn’t tell you otherwise. Repetitive stress is really insidious.

LM: It’s why I tend to be the lone militant messenger of the “take breaks and be kind to your body & brain” army. I needed permission, when I was young, to stop while I was ahead, and nobody gave it to me.
younger, I should say.

EPB: When I was programming, I could lose hours at a time. i started drinking water so I’d have to take restroom breaks.
and I built myself a standing workstation — since I couldn’t get standard seated stuff to work for me (I am also short, or at least shorter than the 5’10” “average person” they design furniture for).

LM: One of the interesting things about my disability is my wife also has the same condition, though she hasn’t deteriorated as much as me (her symptoms appeared later in life) and so I am having to teach her how to listen to her body enough to work sustainably, to stop while she’s ahead, etc., because when she was asymptomatic she had been taught to just bulldoze through and get in the zone and spend 4 hours staring at research.
One thesis advisor literally advocated a method of strapping oneself into the chair with a seatbelt and not getting up until the day’s research had been finished and written on!! It seemed so harmless to him to suggest the work is the most important thing, but of course without bodies we can’t do the work, at least until our consciousness can be downloaded into a program that will execute research automatically in the background of a great virtual reality.

EPB: Graduate school has this sweatshop mentality…

LM: It’s terrible for people, and I loved it.

EPB: There is such a fine line between creativity and addiction… or rather, an extensive overlap.

LM: I definitely feel I write, and have written for such a significant portion of my life, because there’s something of a compulsion to it.
There’s a fabulous book called The Midnight Disease about the connection between psychiatric disorders, brains, and the urge to writing, which is full of food for thought.

EPB: I think I’ve heard of this book…

LM: The author is a psychiatrist who had a post-partem mental breakdown with hypergraphia as one of its features.
So it’s written with great sympathy. But not romanticism. I read it in college, during a period where my compulsion to write was keeping me alive (as in: I can’t kill myself, I haven’t finished [long writing project]) which may influence my feelings about it.

EPB: Yes. Sometimes it helps to find an outside anchor (yes, someone else has felt this, it’s real).
I’ve wondered a lot about the similarities between the immersion of reading and of writing.

LM: I have always found writing more immersive, personally, but I think it has to do with what and how I write.
Actually the two pieces that I stayed alive for I never bothered to finish. I do’t think I even could, now. I wrote an epic poem cycle and a Robin Hood retelling set in the Anarchy. I’ve never even re-read either, they were such products of the space where I needed huge, absorbing research-driven pieces to keep myself afloat. In a round-about way the novel became my undergraduate thesis, which was all about the 12th century.

EPB: I think a lot about the “false trails,” but really the undergirding, the architecture, the bones-not-seen of our ruling projects.
My own graduate research went back to age seven. I wanted to understand the shape of the universe.

LM: …what a question to drive you.
I can’t imagine that answer coming out of anything other than the context of a whole life.

EPB: Literally I wanted to understand everything. So by age 17 I wanted to be a systematic philosopher. By 27 I had moderated that to mathematical cosmologist.
My great act of faith is that it’s all one piece. Novelist is as close as I have ever come to my grand ambition.

LM: As a medievalist, the idea of being a systematic philosopher seems so logical to me, but my idea is still of philosophy and her sister theology as “queen of the sciences” even though that’s not my religious worldview.

EPB: Mathematics taught me to read for structure at multiple levels at once. It opened the doors of the mind to poetry, and later to the structure of novels.

LM: I sadly was not taught mathematics in a comprehensible way, it was classical music and poetry that taught me how to do math.

EPB: Mathematics is so poorly taught in this country that I cannot but believe it’s by design.
I studied both logic and martial arts to be able to defend myself with elegance and economy.

LM: I wonder, sometimes. Though in my case it was a flaw of the teachers; my parents were not equipped to teach me algebra and never let me move on to anything else when I was failing.

EPB: I hated algebra.

LM: I did fine when I got to college.

EPB: It was geometry that was the revelation.
Then logic. After a while I could come back to algebra and realize that it was a series of proofs about numbers and their relations.

LM: One of my dear little mental things is that I have a time-traveling architect who writes mathematical spells for traveling through the universe in 3-dimensional space as building schematics.
I should be going to bed, alas. The problem with interesting conversations is I want them to go on forever.

EPB: Same here! Take care of yourself. :)

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Writer Tech: cheap and easy skidproof work surfaces

20150307_135527Once upon a time, I had a cool folding keyboard that slid off my lap and never folded up as nicely again. So when I bought the current generation of cool electronics, I said: never again!

Here’s the raw material for one solution to the problem: skidproof shelf liner (photo of display from downtown Minneapolis Target store).

For your reference, here are ergonomic work station recommendations from USA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

wpid-20150223_160020.jpgTo create a really low-tech all-in-one phone/tablet stand and skidproof lap desk: cut lengths of shelf liner the same depth as your keyboard and twice as long. (This doubles as a layer of shock absorber when carrying the keyboard). 

If you want more stability for your tablet/phone, use longer/wider cut of shelf liner.

I carry one strip for tablet/phone stand and a separate one for lap desk. This enables me to separate phone and keyboard to create an ergonomic work station for optimal work in sitting, standing, and recumbent position.


Photo credit: Brian Zárate

When working in recumbent position: use any flat rigid surface (below we are using a small piece of Masonite) as work surface. Prop against a pillow in your lap to work at any desired angle. Place skidproof shelf liner to keep keyboard in place on the work surface.

Roll up a second strip to create a phone/tablet stand. This is pure analog and can be adjusted to any desired viewing angle!


Photo credit: Brian Zárate

What’s not visible in this picture: I usually work recumbent with a pillow under my knees, and a second pillow as a foot rest (to keep ankles in neutral position.

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