Archive for Ada’s Fiction
On 11th January 2018, Ada did a marathon “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit. This post collects the questions and answers that are about language, gender, and music in the Terra Ignota world. There may be minor spoilers, but I’m not reproducing the specific spoilers that were marked as such (partly because they’re impossible to cut and paste…) I’ve done some rearranging to put the questions into related topics just to make it more coherent to read.
Partoffuturehivemind: I’d like to know about translations of Terra Ignota into other languages. What translations are planned? It seems particularly challenging to translate, doesn’t it?
Ada: Yes, very hard. French, Spanish, Polish and Hungarian versions are underway. All of them make me very excited. For the French and Spanish I’ve offered to write special in-world afterwords from Mycroft addressing the “European” and “Humanist” editions but I don’t know if they’ll take me up on the offer.
There are lots of reasons to make it difficult to translate. It’ll be hard to figure out how to work out the gender in French and Spanish where even tables and chairs have gender. But there are also subtleties of the political end.
I had a great conversation recently with my Polish editor about a gender challenge I hadn’t anticipated. In the English-speaking world at the moment, using gender neutral language is associated with the progressive end of the political spectrum, so whether it’s the singular they, or saying “flight attendant” instead of “steward/stewardess” and “server” instead of “waitor/waitress”, when you encounter that kind of language it invokes the liberal/progressive side in gender politics. But in Poland at the moment the political associations of gendered language are the reverse. In Poland it’s the progressive and feminist side that’s pushing for always using gendered language for everything, always having a male and female form (i.e. professor/professoress, driver/driveress or the equivalent) to make the presence of women hyper visible. So translating the gender word for word would make the future of Terra Ignota seem, in Polish, to be a future in which where the reactionary side of gender debates was victorious, rather than what I intend in the English which is to make it seem that the progressive side of gender debates was victorious. So fascinating to see the meaning of the language and the politics of the language produce such an amazing challenge with localization.
Subbak: I wanted to ask a question about language. Mycroft, Sniper, Martin and 9A all write in something very close to modern English (which is good, otherwise we probably wouldn’t understand it). However you state that Masonic Latin has little resemblance to classical or medieval Latin, and from the few snippets of French we get (either from EU officials or from Madame’s) it looks like its grammar has evolved quite a bit (which would be necessary anyway to accommodate for a genderless society, as French is horribly gendered). I don’t speak Spanish so I can’t tell if the same is true with the Spanish peppered through the book.
Did you try to imagine as well how Mycroft and others “really” speak English? What are the most prominent changes to the grammar (besides obviously the generalization of the singular they)? Are there dialects among Hive languages? Is the Cousin English significantly different from the one used for inter-Hive communication, or inter-strat among the Mitsubishi?
Ada: I made the conscious choice to keep the English standard because the books are already so challenging that adding one more layer of difficulty (which I did experiment with) was just too much. Realistically Mycroft should either be writing in 18th century English or in 25th century English but I just didn’t want to do that to the reader. I didn’t let myself think heavily about it because I knew if I did I would be tempted to use it!
U-speak is the only major dialect. Everyone else, including the Cousins who are the other Hive that has no unique language, speaks a fairly homogeneous English. But every bash’ on Earth develops its own customs, and often a few words from other languages will enter a bash’es English if the bash’ has lots of members who speak another lanugage, just as polyglot households sometimes borrow a word that doesn’t have an equivalent, like prego from Italian.
Injygo: The Utopian Hive is your love letter to the sff fandom of today. Is the Utopian jargon related to or inspired by in-jokes you have with your friends today? Could you tell us more details of Utopian speech and customs?
Ada: It’s a bit related to in-jokes, or at least to how terms from fiction or other languages enter conversation within friend groups. Most of my close friends don’t speak Japanese but a few Japanese words are heavily in our vocabulary that fill niches English just doesn’t. So U-speak is a development of that forward. And a big function of it in the narrative is to distance them from the other Hives, showing how, unlike all the others who speak a standardized version of English, the Utopians are more culturally isolated, setting up Mycroft’s observation that one majority in this majority-less world is that the majority are not Utopians.
Injygo: That sounds interesting — can you give examples of specific Japanese words?
Ada: The one we most use is “Saa” which is a fabulous generic answer word that sort of means “I politely decline to answer this question.” It’s often translated as “I don’t know” or “who knows” but it’s really a question closer.
“Do you think he meant to do that terrible thing?” “Saa.” i.e. I decline to answer
“That’s so stupid! What were the writers thinking?!” “Saa.”
“Are you going to give Terra Ignota a happy ending?” “Saa.”
(Proviso: that is not how it’s usually spelled but that’s the easiest way to get the sound across.)
We also use “dozo” a fair bit, equivalent of the Italian “prego”
Injygo: Do you speak all the languages that Mycroft does?
Ada: I speak French, read Latin, read a little German and ancient Greek (though not modern Greek), and understand spoken Japanese a bit and have studied Japanese linguistics a lot but can’t read it. I don’t speak Spanish, so for that one I have to ask for help from friends, and I often do for German or Japanese too, to make sure I have the nuances right. When I’m writing Mycroft’s narration I sometimes intentionally flip back and forth between iambic meter (comfortable in English) and more dactyllic meter which is comfortable in Greek, to suggest when he’s thinking in which language. But the most language work I do is writing J.E.D.D. Mason’s dialog, since there I try to think through how He’d structure the sentence in all his languages before rendering the English but making it awkward in just the right way. It means it sometimes takes me a whole day to do a couple sentences of his dialog, but it’s worth-it!
Kmar81: Do you speak any other language to any degree of proficiency or fluency?
Ada: I speak French and Italian, read Latin well, and read German and ancient Greek and Gothic, plus I’ve studied some Japanese linguistics and picked up a lot of spoken Japanese from exposure, and I am a linguistics geek and read up on the tricks of lots of languages.
Madscientistninja: I’m a huge fan of Terra Ignota and I’m so happy I found this series. I have a couple of questions. Do you have specific genders (born or chosen by themselves) in mind for characters? Or do you play around with it even in your mind, so as to be in a Mycroft-adjacent mindframe?
Ada: I do have sexes and genders (not the same) in mind (also Mycroft’s pronoun choice is separate from both) but I also make sure to play around with it. Usually when a new character develops in my mind the character develops with a sex and a gender in my head, but then part way through development I always try imaging the other sexes and genders (the opposites and nonbinary) to see how it makes the character feel different, and how it affects the way the story flows in my mind. I also think hard about how Mycroft’s pronoun choice will affect the reader. Then I often decide to change the sex and/or gender and/or pronoun because I like what I find when I try it a different way, or I keep it the same but feel more confident that I like what it does to the story. So I do have a bodily sex in mind for them, and a gender identity in mind for those who would have strong gender identities. For some I have planned in advance whether the sex will be revealed to the reader at some point or whether it won’t, and for others I leave it and let it be revealed if I feel it comes up naturally in prose and remain ambiguous if it doesn’t. I’ve had some readers start keeping careful track and make charts of which characters we do and don’t know for certain what the character’s bodily/biological sex is. I find it fascinating that people care that much, and one of my goals in the book was to give readers the opportunity to notice when a revelation about sex or gender makes them reevaluate a character and when it doesn’t, giving readers the opportunity to learn more about their own responses to gender.
Injygo: It seems like gender haunts the world of Terra Ignota. Is this just Mycroft’s bias? Do you think it’s possible or desirable to abolish gender?
Ada: In Terra Ignota I’m depicting a future that tried to abolish gender but did it badly. I don’t think it can’t be done, I just think it’s really hard since it’s ingrained very deeply in our culture, so there are lots of ways that an effort to do so could fail. I talk more about this in my essay on queership about what I’m doing with gender in the series.
Haverholm: Do you listen to music while working on your books? And do you use music actively, choosing it depending on what you’re writing (achademic or fiction) or what mood you need for a specific passage?
Ada: I find music very immersive so I can’t work while listening to music, except when I’m doing a copy edit for which I sometimes listen to Renaissance instrumental music to keep me relaxed.
But to get myself into the mood for writing, I have a “Bridger” playlist with songs that remind me of the story, or characters from it. I find it very intense and often cry listening (I listen while on an exercise machine, to get myself ready for writing and relaxed through exercise at once). It’s a mix, and not the sort of music I listen to for pleasure (I like Renaissance music for that) but it’s songs that resonate for me. The main one is Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” (which I first heard via a Gundam Wing AMV) and I have a whole imaginary music video of the four books worked out that plays through my head as I listen. A lot of the others are anime songs. The Stellvia opening which is the Utopian theme, the FLCL ending which is Sniper’s theme, the first Gundam Seed ending theme (Anna ni Isshodattanoni) which is Apollo Mojave’s conflict with Mycroft, the 3rd Gundam Seed opening for the war themes of the first two books and the 4th opening for the second two books.
MayColvin: As both a writer and a musician, have you thought at all about what music is like in the world of Terra Ignota? (Is “Somebody Will” an actual Utopian song in-universe?)
Ada: I speculate about Cannerbeat a bit but haven’t worked out music in huge detail. Somebody Will I play with as a Utopian thing and it certainly captures their values, so I think of it as their anthem in my head, but it’s too sad to be an anthem really. It’s something else.
On January 11th 2018, Ada did an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit, and I’m extracting the most interesting questions and answers and preserving them here. The ones in this post are about life, work, work-life balance, imposter syndrome etc.
A Space-X engineer: I’ve been at SpaceX for about two years now. My actual, real-life experience since graduating school has been voking 50-60 hours a week for the Great Project. I don’t really have a question; I just wanted to say thank you, thank you so much for the Utopians, and for the world that created them <3
Ada: Thank you. A friend mentioned to me that he’d seen a SpaceX engineer post online with great enthusiasm for Terra Ignota, and I was so happy it made me bounce in my chair and tear up. The Great Project is a profound act of love giving such a gift to the future, and also a profound act of teamwork with so many parts. For some of us the challenge is that our contributions feel so distant, that (as my song Somebody Will says) we are contributing to the civilizational path to the stars but at such a distance that the connection between our efforts–running a store, marketing a device, standing in a classroom–can be dishearteningly invisible. But at the same time I know that friends on the other face have a different kind of disheartening experience, the slowness of it all, as you work on improving rockets, or mapping Mars, understanding fully how huge the task is, how long, how certain it is that what we’re working for is not for our generation. So thank you so much for keeping at it, that wonderful, invaluable, difficult work, and also thank you for telling me you found Utopia and Terra Ignota so powerful. A world where the project and its interconnections are no longer invisible. A world where we, and the fact that we are a we, is no longer invisible.
logomaniac reviews: As someone with a literary bent entering academia, I’m interested in how you balance your careers day to day. I imagine it’s a lot of writing, for one. And it’s clear that your research influences your fiction – in what ways does the influence go the other way (has your fiction work changed the way you teach/write for academia)?
Ada: Career balance is really hard and I’m really struggling to balance academic obligations with writing time with disability, but I feel I’m getting better at it all the time (the Utopian oath printed on my desk helps! So does taking lots of breaks to rest and mentally refresh by watching anime or playing Pandemic Legacy with friends). The history work absolutely transformed how I think about the change and development of worlds over time and is a huge part of how I world build, the questions I ask about how institutions got to be the way they would be. I’m so incredibly fortunate to be at a university where colleagues are supportive of my fiction and don’t see it as taking time away from my other work.
Logomaniac: What’s your favorite course you’ve ever taken or taught?
Favorite course Alan Kors’ intro to the Enlightenment, which is now immortal on DVD so you can enjoy it too!
Logomaniac: I’d also love to hear a little more about your project on censorship throughout history, what inspired you to do that, what your goals are, etc.
Ada: On Censorship I just managed to upload these videos of my GoH talk at Chessiecon where I talk about it. Very exciting!
Injygo: You’re the Ur-Fan, the Alpha Nerd, filker, historian, novelist, and sff fan. Can it be that you, like us mere mortals, have been frustrated or demotivated? How have you managed to become as cool as you are, and do you have advice for aspiring Alpha Nerds?
Ada: Yes, I absolutely struggle with frustration, demoralization, impostor syndrome, all of it. I talk about it a bit in my author’s note at he end of “Too Like the Lightning” and also in my blog post about how I sold it: (also has a lot of my advice, the big one being to keep doing and making and writing more and more things, not getting stuck on one attempt)
A lot of people don’t believe I could feel impostor syndrome with how much success I’ve had, but I absolutely do, despite the books’ success, despite awards, despite getting tenure here at the University of Chicago. But impostor syndrome isn’t rational so it doesn’t go away no matter how much counter-evidence you have. It still stuns me sometimes how one negative from someone who doesn’t like the novels can make me gloomy for days even if there are fifty sparklingly positive ones in the same time. So one big piece of advice is to remember that everyone struggles with motivation and frustration, and that struggling with it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.
I also self-monitor very carefully, which helps a lot. There is a history of depression in my family so from early childhood I learned about it and learned to watch myself carefully for symptoms, to talk to friends about it and ask them to keep an eye out, etc. I learned to observe my mood and listen to my body, to notice what small environmental changes can help me concentrate better, work better, feel better (I concentrate better when slightly chilly, for example, which is why I usually wear sleeveless shirts , and I feel happier when I exercise semi-regularly and when I’ve washed my hair recently. Why? Who knows, but now that I know that I can use it to keep my spirits up.) Fortunately I’ve never had bad depression the way my family has, despite being at great risk and extra risk because chronic pain, which I do have, so often brings depression with it. But I think learning about it young and watching myself carefully, and surrounding myself with supportive friends, has done wonders for giving me healthy work habits. I make sure to have meals with friends often, to take breaks for board games or interactive fun often (studies show that interactive fun like a conversation or watching a show together is more emotionally restorative than passive fun like vegging out with the TV). It’s not for nothing that the Utopian oath mentions taking the rest and leisure you need to be your most productive, which can be a lot! The oath really means that working is your default, rest/play your mandatory assignment, rather than the other way around.
This got rather rambly, sorry. But above all I recommend going forward and doing and making and writing more and more, always having a next project in mind, never stopping to dwell on one. As Jo put it in her poem “Go away and be more awesome.”
On 11th January 2018, Ada did an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. I’m preserving the most interesting parts of it here. In this post, questions about reading and writing.
quite_vague: It’s amazing to me that Terra Ignota is your fiction debut; it’s so ambitious and accomplishes so much.
How did you manage to write Terra Ignota as your first published work? What other writing have you done along the way? Do you have any thoughts or observations on a debut that’s managed to be ambitious, unusual, and popular as well?
Ada: First, yes, it’s unusually polished and ambitious for a first novel. One fact that helps is that it isn’t the first series I planned or the first novel draft that I finished. In fact this was the fourth series I planned, and I’d already written complete drafts of three earlier novels, each the first of a different series. So, unlike people whose first published novel was their first full novel-length project, I’d already had the experience several times of planning a world, creating an outline, following it from beginning to end, giving it to beta readers, polishing it up etc. That experience helped a ton, and is definitely a big part of why these books came out so well. I may someday go back and (now that I’m a better writer) write better versions of those story worlds; something for my long to-do list.
This is also why, whenever I talk to an aspiring novelist who has written a first novel and is stuck in the frustrating phase of sending it off and getting rejection letters, I always encourage the person to go write novel #2. I have a big fat folder of rejection letters for my first, second, and third novels/series, many generic, some encouraging which, as I look at them now, I can tell meant that the drafts were already pretty good and that the editors who rejected them saw potential in me, enough for them to send personalized, encouraging rejections instead of form letters. Though I got my share of form letters too. But what I’m infinitely glad of is that I didn’t get discouraged with the rejection of the first one, nor did I get obsessed with selling that one project and stuck in a rut polishing it over and over, or getting angry that people wouldn’t take it. I always held on to the conviction that the next one would be better, the next one better than that, and that eventually one would be good enough.
My academic writing also definitely helped. Academic writing often has strict length limits, which require me to communicate complicated ideas in limited words, and forced me to learn the art of concision. The Terra Ignota books are pretty long, so most people wouldn’t associate them with concision, but I do think a lot about being concise in every line and paragraph, since the more information you pack into fewer words the more powerful prose becomes. That doesn’t mean I don’t take plenty of time off for little touches, descriptions, Mycroft tangents etc., but when I do so it’s because I’ve thought hard about the content I’m trying to convey there, and determined that it’s valuable, not just for that sentence, but for the mood, the character development, the reader’s emotional arc. Whether it’s a “she sighed” or a description of the glittering water outside a harbor, I really have read over every line carefully to make sure every word matters. Learning to do that helps so much.
One time in my third year of grad school I had to cut a 16,000 word paper down to an 8,000 word presentation, so I paused my then-current novel project for a while and worked and worked until I got the paper short. And then when I went back to writing the novel draft it’s amazing there’s this line, what I’d written before I did that and what I wrote after, and suddenly BOOM the prose is better. IT’s the only kind of exercise I’ve ever found that really improves writing quickly. That’s why I always recommend the “Half and Half Again” exercise to people: take an old thing you wrote (an academic paper, a chapter, a letter, anything) and make yourself cut it down to half the word count without removing any content. It’s agony but it’s so good for learning where the slack is in your writing, how you can make it more powerful. After you do it, put it in a drawer for six months, then get it out and make yourself do it again. It can do wonders for your prose. Of course it can go too far, and you don’t want to cut all descriptions or all adverbs or something crazy like that, but it teaches you to think through every word, what it achieves, and whether another tighter way of putting it might give you more power.
Other writing: academic articles and books, historical notes for the Hetalia TV series DVD release and the Mythical Detective Loki DVD release (those sure required concision since they have to fit on a screen!), and blogging on ExUrbe.com and Tor.com
Scottynuttz: After Terra Ignota, do you have other science fiction ambitions?
Ada: Yes, first a more fantasy series with Viking Mythology, and then a couple SF things planned for after that. It’ll be a few years, because I worldbuild slowly, but they’re coming!
Madscientistninja: What other books (fiction and nonfiction) would you suggest for someone who has completely fallen in love with the French Renaissance period because of the way you have portrayed it in Terra Ignota?
Ada: Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist is always my top pick. This won’t sound flattering, but it’s like Terra Ignota with no plot. It’s like Mycroft’s narration but with no story, just pure narration. It’s gorgeous. I also can’t overrecommend Alan Kors’ lectures on the 17th and 18th centuries.
Praecipitantur: Given the content of Apollo’s Iliad, I have to ask: What are your favorite mecha animes?
Ada: Gundam is my favorite Mecha, and I have a whole bookcase of Gundam in my anime room. I really love how it comments on war and whether individuals can make a difference in war, and I love comparing the series to each other, looking at how the same archetypes and events are re-framed in parallel narratives in original MS, Zeta, Wing, Seed etc. My single favorite is probably Gundam Seed, which was new as I was finishing writing Too Like the Lightning, so the parallels kept making me extra happy. I also love the moral and theological parts of Evangelion (I have a big collection of figures of Nagisa Kaworu), and I absolutely love the original Gunbuster, not quite a normal Mecha but in the space. And I like Nadeshiko, Escaflowne, Gasaraki, Shingu… I have RahXephon and Gurren Lagann in my to-watch stack but have been sidetracked doing a fresh pass through Double Zeta and am excited to finally watch Turn-A, so those are backburner for a while.
Also does anyone know if the new rerelease of Gundam Wing is a better translation? I want to show it to a friend but only have the horrible dubtitled old US release and am desperately hoping the new deluxe one has a new translation. I phoned Right Stuf but they said they weren’t sure.
Also, if there’s one other anime that was a big influence it was Reign: Obsession of Alexander. Especially the relationship between Alexander and Olympias for the relationship between J.E.D.D. Mason and Madame.
And Kenshin had a non-negligible influence on my concept for Mycroft Canner, especially the domesticity, and the sudden switching to the old dormant personality.
Chtorr: What were your favourite books as a kid?
Ada: When I was little I read a lot of Brian Jacques novels, a lot of Sherlock Holmes, and Tolkien. Also, through my father’s recommendations, Heinlein, Bester, and Asimov. I also had the Derek Jacobi audiobook of Homer’s Iliad (Fagles translation) and listened to it over and over.
Injygo: What’s the most recent book you’ve fallen in love with?
Ada: The manga Ooku, by Fumi Yoshinaga. BRILLIANT. Such exquisite storytelling, use of history, characters, art, gender stuff, just so good!
On 11th January 2018, Ada did a Reddit “Ask Me Anything”. I’m going to be extracting the most interesting of her answers and posting them here. Most of them I’ll be grouping thematically, but this one stands alone.
Injygo: What’s the most effective way for someone today to encourage space exploration and colonization of other planets?
Ada: Probably by passing on aspiration. Our world is saturated with messages telling people to give up, to settle, to take whatever path will make ends meet, to expect to face a grim job market when we reach adulthood, to expect the hours from 9 to 5 to be sacrificed to drudgery, to expect closed doors. When kids are in kindergarten they’re encouraged to say they want to be an astronaut, or a race car driver, or a president when they grow up, but by the time young people reach High School the negative messages have usually won out, that the world is unfair and against them, that dreams are unrealistic, that aspiration is naive, that optimism should be mocked, that cynicism, criticism, and the realism of a pessimistic norm are the smart path. I think the best thing we can do to brighten the future is to stop telling people that it can’t be brightened, that they can’t brighten it. We can all lay down stepping stones in the long road to the stars, but we can lay down exponentially more by telling other people that they can do it too, that they don’t have to waste themselves for the present, that there are a hundred thousand paths open to all of us that let us lay the vital stepping stones.
I spoke recently with a couple of reps from Oxford and Cambridge universities who work for the programs designed to offer scholarships to underprivelaged students, to help kids raised in poverty have a shot at being anything the want to be. They told me their biggest problem is lack of applicants, that young people in that situation don’t apply. Their worlds are full of messages that telling them that all the doors are already closed, that there’s no path forward, no way out. As one rep put it “The level of aspiration is appalling.” So if we can combat those messages, the messages that kill aspiration, I think that can unlock so many paths forward.
But, and this is important, I don’t mean just giving empty encouragement. Recently on the phone with my Dad I mentioned that a former undergraduate friend of mine called Angel is now a veterinarian. He cried out in astonishment, “I can’t believe it!” “What?” “When you were undergrads you wanted to be a novelist and she wanted to be a vet and you both just did it!” And it’s true, we did, out of so many people who want to be a XXX when they grow up, we really did it. Because we kept that aspiration. And because those around us took that aspiration seriously, and when we told teachers and friends and parents, I want to be an XXX when I grow up, they didn’t say we couldn’t, but they also didn’t just blithely say “Great, go for it!” They helped us plan. They helped us see the steps. You want to be a writer? Okay, you need to do writing exercises, and give hours of training this. You want to be a vet? Okay, you need to take these classes, and look into these schools, and take these steps. You want to be a Renaissance historian? Okay, you need Greek so you need to transfer to a school that has it even though you really like the school you’re at. That’s what kept the door open for me. I think that’s the key, that we need to turn encouragement into a path with concrete steps, whether it’s a path we make for ourselves by looking into what we want, what we need to do to get there, and making a plan, or whether its a path we help make for others. Because all doors are open when we’re little, but as we grow up they close. That’s hard to understand. They close more and faster for some people than others, depending on poverty, race, gender etc., but for everybody some doors stay open and some close. I don’t think we’re very good at teaching young people to understand that. When I was seventeen advisers told me that, if I wanted to be the kind of historian I wanted to be, I had to make a hard choice, leave my college, give up my friend group, to get the Latin and Greek and training I needed to get into a grad school. And because I knew that was a step on the path, I did it. And it hurt, but I’m so glad. And every year I see several dozen applications from students who want to become historians who can’t because they don’t have the languages and background they need to do it well, they didn’t take the right steps at the right time. That door is closed to them. That’s something no one tells you when you’re ten and you want to be an XXX when you grow up. Sometimes people say “Go for it!” and sometimes people say “You’ll never be an XXX, you should be a computer science major so you have a secure job.” But very rarely do people say “That door is open, but it will close if you aren’t careful, so let’s sit down together and work out the steps to get you there.” So I think we need to do that more.
This is mostly advice for how to treat others more than advice for one’s self, because the self is difficult, but no matter what path you’ve ended up on generally you have a few hours you can give to the stars, whether it’s through work or through hobby time, or just through encouraging people. And sometimes, as I say in my song “Somebody Will” we’re already laying those stones, in ways we can’t quite see.
So I think the best thing we can do to lay down stepping stones in the long road to the stars is to tell ourselves and others that we don’t have to waste ourselves toiling for the present, that we are laying the stepping stones. Sometimes we can make that be our work, our vocations, our 9-5, our 40+ hours. Sometimes we can’t do that so it’s an avocation, something we do on the side. Sometimes practicalities of life mean it can’t be more than an attitude, an idea. But it’s all one project, real and succeeding. And Utopia is real already, so long as we keep aspiring to disarm death and touch the stars.
I want to share an essay today, one of the most personal things I’ve ever written, and one of those I’m proudest of. It’s about how I sold my first novel.
I’ve been stunned since I learned Too Like the Lightning is a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo. This really is the highest honor I can imagine, my work being recognized as one of the most valuable contributions to the community of conversation which drives us forward through speculation about other worlds to touching and creating them, both here on Earth and out among the stars. The community where the Great Conversation thrives. While I always intended to contribute to that conversation, I never expected this kind of reception for a very difficult and intentionally uncomfortable book, one which I had imagined as finding an excited but niche audience, never a large one. I haven’t known what to say other than “Thank you!” but a common “Thank you!” feels mismatched, like paying the same 50¢ at a rock shop for a shiny hematite one week and the Philosopher’s Stone the next. And I’ve also been swamped with final exams, colliding deadlines, three European conferences, research travel, illness, editing book 3, preparing a new project on the History of Censorship (more on that later), all the usual time-eating co-conspirators that make it easy to put off anything difficult. And it is difficult to figure out how to write a world-sized thank-you to match this world-sized joy.
But I think one appropriate thank-you is to share this essay. I wrote it for Shannon Page for her brilliant collection The Usual Path to Publication (Book View Café, 2016), which contains 27 different authors’ stories about how we sold our first novels. The volume’s variety succeeds in showing what it set out to, that there is no “usual path,” no consistent method, no one piece of advice that always helps on the path that no two people ever walk the same way. I suspect I’m not the only contributor to the collection who found that the story that came out, when I tried to tell it, was so personal, so saturated with the most intense emotion, that I was more than a little nervous sharing it at first. But I also think telling the story means even more now that it has a Hugo nomination at the end of it, and a Campbell nomination, and the Tiptree Honors List, and the Compton Crook Award. Because I grew up in Maryland, so I’ve seen the Compton Crook Award given out to a Best First Novel in the genre every year at since I was a little girl, every time thinking “Maybe someday it will be me?” So this is how I got to Someday.
The Key to the Kingdom, or, How I Sold Too Like the Lightning.
by Ada Palmer, 2016
Some people say revenge is living well –
I’ve found it sometimes works to go away
And be more awesome. Let him sit alone,
To watch your wildfires leaping as you play.
-Jo Walton, “Advice to Loki” 2013.
The midpoint first, then the primordial darkness, then the ever after.
It was 2011 (remember, this is the creation myth of a book that won’t come out until 2016). I was in Florence, sitting in the top of a 13th century tower between Dante’s house and my favorite gelato place (extra relevant in an un-air-conditioned August!), and talking to Jo Walton about whether or not I should start a blog. It was the beginning of a year in Florence, a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Villa I Tatti, Harvard’s institute for Italian Renaissance studies. Life as a Renaissance historian had granted me long stays in Florence twice before, once on a student Fulbright, and once taking a shift as I Tatti’s resident grad student mascot (#1 duty, be introduced to rich donors and look bright-eyed and promising). During my earlier stays I had written a series of e-mails describing my Italian experiences, and sent them to a list of friends and family. The list grew over time as the recipients recommended them to more distant cousins and acquaintances, until I had nearly a hundred people on my list. In fact, those e-mails were how I knew Jo. One of my then-roommates, Lila Garrott (a poet, author, book reviewer, and now editor at Strange Horizons) had posted a few of what, in neoclassical style, I called my “Ex Urbe” e-mails on LiveJournal, where Jo had enjoyed them. In 2008 Jo had invited Lila and the rest of our eclectic household to visit her for Farthing Party in Montreal. Jo was with me in Italy that August because the question “Do you want to come stay in my apartment in a 13th century tower in Florence?” has one correct answer. “I wonder if it would be less work to just post them on a blog,” I said, overwhelmed by trying to assemble the new list of people who had asked to receive my e-mails. Jo looked at me very seriously. “If you make a blog, I’ll send the link to Patrick Nielsen Hayden.”
I did make a blog. (This blog.)
In three months, it was in the sidebar of Making Light.
In six months, Patrick asked Jo if the author of this ExUrbe blog had written any fiction.
In two years (almost to the day, August 2013) Patrick bought Too Like the Lightning.
My appetite to see my fiction in print had been overwhelming since elementary school, and I vividly remember the thrill of standing on tiptoe to watch my first typed story (a single paragraph, about blue-and-silver alien raccoons) crawl its way out of the astounding new dot matrix printer at Dad’s office. I had begun a novel by fourth grade, three by tenth, and I devoured summer writing courses, of which the courses on essay writing (Johns Hopkins) and prose poetry (Interlochen) proved far more valuable than the fiction ones. I remember once thinking to myself at fifteen, bored during a school convocation, that if I hadn’t published a novel by twenty-five then… the end is vague. Then I should give up? Then I was a failure? Then I should curse the heavens? It was my first serious college writing mentor Hal Holiday who helped me understand how absurd that was. He made me cry in his office, with my first-ever B on a paper. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong. “Writing is a long apprenticeship,” he said. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but writing well—not well for your age group, but well in an absolute sense—was hard to achieve. It took real time. Spending every childhood summer and weekend writing, taking every summer writing course, those were good steps, they helped, but they were a beginning. I finished my first novel draft that year, flipped back to page one, and started writing it all over again.
In 2002, at twenty-one and with Mom to stuff the envelopes, I sent my (totally-rewritten) first novel-length manuscript winging its optimistic way to slush piles at agencies and publishers. I sometimes think, if we could harvest the emotional energy in all the fat manila query envelopes aspiring writers entrust to the post office every day, we could move planets. I have a folder of rejection letters from that first volley, and, looking over them now, I can see the good signs in them, the peppering of personalized notes, praise and encouragement among the form letters. I didn’t understand then how many queries editors, agents and interns read, how generous it was for them to sacrifice precious seconds to write these extra lines (thank you!), but it did a lot to keep me going. And in the back of the folder I always kept a printout of Ursula Le Guin sharing a very grim rejection letter she received for The Left Hand of Darkness, with her note “This is included to cheer up anybody who just got a rejection letter. Hang in there!” Thank you. After eight months of agonizing suspense, and the sporadic gut-punch of rejections, that first volley got me an agent. She was not an F&SF specialist, but was game to try, and spent the next years doggedly marketing what neither of us realized was an unsaleably long fantasy novel.
I don’t remember where I received the wisdom that it’s better to go on and write Book 1 of a new series rather than write Book 2 of a series when you haven’t sold Book 1 yet. Wherever I got it from, I obeyed it, and soon my plucky agent was shopping two series, then three. Despite loving to sleep in, I followed the old advice and wrote in the morning, every day, an hour or two, giving my best hours to fiction and the rest of the day to the demands of grad school, and thereby wrote close to a million words of fiction over seven years. Looking over those practice projects now, I can see my writing improve with each, the sentences, the pace, the plot. Every paragraph was a step in that long apprenticeship. The wait stretched on—three years, four—and it hurt—the growing, gnawing appetite. Sometimes I would lie awake at night just from the pain of wanting something so much. But I had an agent, and that gave me confidence, and comfort.
Meanwhile I was working on my Ph.D. The single best thing that ever happened to my writing—looking at the novel I was working on at the time you can see the very chapter break where it happened, like lightning struck and *ZAP!* the prose was finally good—was in 2005, when I had to cut down my 20,000 word dissertation prospectus into a 7,000 word conference paper. Without knowing it, I had stumbled on “Half and Half Again,” as it’s called by people I know in journalism, a training exercise in which you go through the agony of cutting an old work down to half length, then half of that, learning to spot the chaff and bloat in your own work, and how to make it tight and powerful. Lightning. I published other things—my first academic article, blog pieces for Tokyopop about manga & cosplay, a Random Superpower Generator for Maple Leaf Games, but none of them eased the wanting. I also learned more about the world of genre publishing, from going to conventions and chatting with author friends made through Lila, and through my science fiction clubs, HRSFA (the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Society), and Double Star (at Bryn Mawr College). F&SF specialist agent Donald Maass spoke to us at Vericon, a great little con HRSFA runs at Harvard every year, and I learned from his talk about the field, the extreme oversupply of submissions, the challenges of length and salability. I had queried Donald Maass (unsuccessfully) way back in 2002, but in 2006, with my writing much improved, preparing to begin a new series which I felt in my gut was leap above the others (and eventually became the Terra Ignota series), I decided to break off my relationship with my first agent (with much gratitude and good will) and to try fresh to get a new agent at a major F&SF specialist agency.
I finished the first draft of Too Like the Lightning (Book 1 of Terra Ignota) in 2008, my penultimate year of graduate school. Between 2002 and 2008, plump manila envelopes had evolved into instantaneous e-queries, and my generic cover letters had acquired the varnish of name-dropping. I had recommendations from random people in the publishing world (Walter Isaacson, Priscilla Painton) whom I had met through Harvard. And, while my first 2002 volley had showered queries on dozens of doorsteps (many quite inappropriate), I sent Too Like the Lightning to only one press in 2008, my great hope: Tor. The more I learned about the world of genre publishing, the clearer it became that Tor was one of the only (if not the only) press that had the stability and resources to gamble on a big, fat science fiction series (four long books!) by a first time author, books which were dense and highbrow, and totally not similar to anything—trends are a safe investment; oddities are a gamble. Plus, I had an ‘in’. There were people at Tor who were friends of friends, alumni and associates of both Bryn Mawr and Harvard, some of whom knew my Double Star and HRSFA connections. (Yes, I tried nepotism for all it was worth, anyone would—I still lay awake at nights, just wanting.)
After another year of lying awake and wanting (and finishing my Ph.D., and facing the academic job market, which in 2009 had just entered its sudden death spiral), a Tor contact told me (I think at Readercon?) that the book had advanced from the “slush” pile to the “shows promise” pile. This was good news, but an un-agented manuscript, which the editor knows has been sent to no other press, can stew in that pile forever. That November I queried Donald Maass, hoping a kind word from Tor would help me get an agent, and that a good agent might prod along the literary glacier. I even got a Harvard-made mainstream publishing contact to e-mail Donald Maass with his endorsement to accompany my query. (Roll for nepotism! Did it achieve anything? Not really!) On December 31st, I received an e-mail from Donald apologizing for losing my query and getting back to me so late (apologizing for a delay of only 2 months! Such professionalism! Such sanity!) and saying he loved the beginning of the book, and was eager to read the whole thing. I sent it right away. I waited. I shopped other, older projects with a YA agent recommended by a friend (no luck). I published other things—more academic articles, critical essays, introductions to manga and anime releases. I stayed up nights. Sometimes it was so bad I couldn’t go into a bookstore without feeling sick to my stomach. In November 2010 (a full year after Donald had asked for the book) Amy Boggs, then a fairly new member of the Donald Maass Agency, wrote to say that Donald—swamped by unspecified and mysterious stuff—had passed the book on to her, and she loved it. We finalized the contract by early December, and Amy started shopping the book around in the beginning of 2011.
That spring I received my I Tatti Fellowship, and that summer I sat in a tower in Florence with Jo Walton, contemplating a blog. Jo had talked to me about Patrick Nielsen Hayden, though I also knew of him from other sources; legends of such titans echo far through our little magic kingdom.
There is a fresco by Perugino in the Sistine Chapel, which shows St. Peter, in a beautiful neoclassical square, receiving the Keys to Heaven from Christ, with a group of apostles and others gathered around to watch. It’s a deeply tender moment, Peter’s awe at the sight of the divinity which is also the friend he loves so much. But I can never see it without imagining the next panel of the comic book, where Christ has gone back to Heaven, and Peter is left in the square holding these enormous gold and silver keys, and everyone is standing around awkwardly, trying not to stare, and someone sidles up saying, “So… can I get you a cup of coffee?” You can’t put them down, that’s the thing, once you have the keys to Heaven, no one on Earth can forget it, not for an instant. And that’s very much what it’s like being an acquiring editor (I’ve described this to Patrick, he agrees), because you have the Keys to the Kingdom, and people around you—at conventions, at talks, online—want it so much. So much they lie awake at night. There are infinite horror stories about editors being harassed and chased at cons, having manuscripts shoved under bathroom stall doors, repeated e-mails which get weirder and more desperate. So, from childhood (picture me scrawny and eleven, following Dad and Uncle Bill to a Doctor Who convention, with my boy-short bright blonde hair, dressed as the Peter Davison Doctor) I had it drilled into me that you should never approach and bother an editor (or published author) about your manuscript. Q&A when they were on panels was OK, but outside that sphere verboten! In fact, I had met Patrick at Farthing Party back in 2008, but, knowing who he was, I was an emotional wreck just being near him, racked between the Scylla of my desire and the Charybdis of the taboo, so I spent much of the weekend actively hiding around corners and behind pillars to avoid looking at him. But Jo knew I had a manuscript, and passed it on to Patrick for me in spring of 2012 when he asked her if the author of ExUrbe had written any fiction.
And I waited. And I lay awake at night. On a trip to New Orleans, an editor friend of Jo’s told a story about a query which had taken twelve years to be accepted, which actually made me throw up. I tried to start another novel series, but I couldn’t. Terra Ignota meant too much to me, so I broke my own law and wrote Book 2. And Book 3. So many heartfelt eggs in that basket. Amy had occasional non-news for me, and I was overseeing the publication of my first nonfiction book, the academic history Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, which will hopefully (knock all the wood you can!) get me tenure here at the magnificent I-dare-you-to-prove-it’s-not-Hogwarts University of Chicago. (Where I teach history of magic. Really.) I had submitted the monograph proposal to Harvard University Press way back in 2009. Given the infamous snail’s pace of academic publishing, I often thought of Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance and Too Like the Lightning as twins fighting to see which would be the first to make it out. But Tor, wonderful, infuriating, experimental, ambitious, field-shaping Tor, is slower.
In March 2013, Jo reported to me that Patrick had said positive things to her about the first page of Too Like the Lightning. One page down, 333 to go. That spring and summer were the madness of producing and recording my two hour close harmony a cappella Viking stage musical Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, and its demands were exhaustion enough to let me mostly sleep. As August came along, Patrick told Jo to tell me (in our surrealist game of telephone) that he and Teresa wanted to have dinner with me at Worldcon in San Antonio, and I should have my answer then. This was more than a year after Patrick had asked for the manuscript, and five years after I had first submitted it to Tor.
I was working a booth at that Worldcon, an outreach display for the Texas A&M University Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, which has one of the world’s great science fiction collections, an impregnable treasure vault full of rare pulps, fanzines, first editions, and the archived papers of authors from Star Trek scriptwriters, to George R.R. Martin, to (now) me. (Are you a writer? Do you have random papers and notes from old projects cluttering your house? Cushing’s awesome librarians totally want to take your clutter, index it, and preserve it for posterity! Win-win!). The first morning of Worldcon, I was walking through the dealer’s room on my way to our booth, when Jo Walton gestured me over to the table where she was doing a signing. I gestured back that I didn’t want to interrupt the people who were waiting patiently in line, but she flailed emphatically, so I came. She told me that Patrick told her to tell me “Yes.” I remember hugging, and crying, and intense crying, and gasping out a vague apology to the guy who was in the front of the line, but he said “It’s OK, it’s clearly important.” Jo smiled at him and said, “She’s just sold her first novel!” A keen, satisfied, brightness entered his face, like when you taste an unexpectedly excellent sour candy, and he said, “So, it does happen.”
Most of the rest of the San Antonio Worldcon is lost in the mists of bliss amnesia. I remember staggering back to the Cushing booth all puffy and red-faced, and struggling to communicate to my colleague Todd Samuelson that I was OK, just overhappy from yes! Yes! YES! I remember I couldn’t find my phone to text my dear friend Carl Engle-Laird (a HRSFA alum, who was then a new editorial assistant Tor.com, and sharing my suspense) so I borrowed a phone from Lauren Schiller (my singing partner and roommate of 10+ years), only I couldn’t see through my tears, so the message came out all garbled and full of typos and r5and0m nuMB4rs. I was on a panel right after that, with Lila Garrott (whose online connections had been so instrumental in all this), and I had no time to break the news before the panel, so I just typed it on my then-recovered cell phone and set it on the table in front of us: “Patrick said yes.” Lila glowed.
After Jo’s signing, we found Patrick in the concessions area, and there ensued perhaps the most absurd conversation I shall ever have. I was still paralyzed by the aftereffects of Scylla and Charybdis, so shy and overwhelmed that I could barely force myself to look directly at the legendary Patrick. But Patrick is himself a naturally shy person, and skittish after so many years carrying the Keys to Heaven, so he couldn’t look at me either. And there we were, both trying to hide behind Jo (who is a head shorter than both of us), unable to make eye contact while trying to talk about how we wanted to work together for the rest of our careers. That was when I started to see the absurd flip side of it: all the while that I had been terrified of approaching this incredibly important editor who had power over everything I ever wanted, in his world I had been the intimidating one, this distant Harvard Ph.D., with all these impressive publications, this learned and authoritative tone on my blog, and I had everything he wanted, great science fiction that it would be a pleasure to publish. In Settlers of Catan terms, I had bricks, he had wood, but we were so mutually overwhelmed neither of us could get the words out: “Shall we make this road?” We had dinner with Jo and Teresa at one of those Brazilian Barbeque places, where they hunt the great beasts of the plains and serve them to you on spits carried by excessively statuesque young men—at least that’s what Jo says, because bliss amnesia has erased everything except a vague memory of asparagus and a beige tablecloth. I remember Patrick said he and Teresa wanted to audition to edit and shape my career. Audition? I would have begged!
Patrick took me to the Tor party that weekend. I know he introduced me to Tom Doherty and fifty other genre VIPs, but I genuinely don’t remember a thing except recognizing Liz Gorinsky from a distance by her hair. Patrick forgot to give me his business card, so I almost left without the ability to contact him. It took three weeks to stop feeling like a dream. No, that’s not true—it still feels like a dream. I signed the four book contract by crackling firelight, huddling over the hearthstone during the power outage caused by a New Year’s blizzard, which absolutely feels like a dream. I have a release date now (that took two years), and cover art (same), and the Advanced Bound Manuscript in front of me (well, a defective ABM missing the last three chapters—oops!), and I have a fantastic recording of Patrick—the Patrick—playing guitar with me while I sing my ode to fandom’s support of space exploration “Somebody Will” (super ultra win condition!). But I still feel prepared to wake up tomorrow, back in my old bedroom, and discover it was all a dream. Maybe there will always be that edge of doubt, the scar of how intensely I worried that the door might never open. Sometimes it doesn’t. But if it did open for me, it wasn’t because I kept pounding on the gate with the same desperate query. And it wasn’t the favor-trading, or the Harvard connections, or my attempts at nepotism, or even (honestly) my agent (though she’s done so many great things for me then and since). It was that I set forth to be more awesome. I kept honing my craft, starting new projects better than the last, producing other works, articles, music, essays, research, the blog. I made my fire burn bright in the dark. People do see.
From The Usual Path to Publication, ed. Shannon Page, Book View Café, 2016.
If anyone hates cliffhangers so much that they have been waiting to read Too Like The Lightning until Seven Surrenders came out, you can safely now read both, because there’s a proper pause at the end of Seven Surrenders before the other two volumes. You’ll still really want the other volumes, but it has satisfying volume completion.
The series will be complete in four books. The third book, The Will to Battle, is currently scheduled for December, and Ada is presently writing the fourth and final book.
Seven Surrenders is available in hardcover and e-book form, and is also now available as an audio-book, narrated by T. Ryder Smith.
Links to interesting and worthwhile reviews, interviews, and blog posts Ada has written about the book will be added to this post — so more links will appear here as time goes on.
There was a Crooked Timber seminar on the books.
Me Talking About Seven Surrenders
Reviews of Seven Surrenders