Itchy fingers

I took a break from writing this month, in part because I’m dealing with a lot of stress from some family issues, in part to recover from the breakneck pace I poured into the end of The Obelisk Gate and launching The Fifth Season, and in part to cleanse my mental “editing palate” for when the edit notes come back on TOG and I need to start revising. I’m working on another project right now — a mental palate-cleanser, just as I needed to write “The Awakened Kingdom” after finishing The Fifth Season — but I’m still at the brainstorming and outlining stage, not writing yet.

And… my fingertips itch.

It’s weird. I am not a “write every day” kind of writer. I write most days, and blow it off when I’m so tired that I’m just going to write crap anyway. But it’s rare that I’m completely without something to write when I want to write, and I’m finding the frustration manifesting in some truly weird physiological ways. Itchy fingertips. A weird need to sit at my computer every day even when I have nothing in particular to do. Disinterest in social media. Daydreaming, to the point that I think, “I should probably stop staring at this cloud/blade of grass/random object” and then I literally can’t look away from it. Restlessness, even when I’m physically and emotionally exhausted.

Most of this is normal for me; I always got dinged for daydreaming when I was a child, until I learned to channel that wild creative energy into writing. But the itchy fingertips are new. ::looks suspiciously at fingers::

I’ll talk about the new project — pardon, projects — shortly; just waiting for some paperwork and an OK from Various People. One of them is something I’m stupidly, fangirlishly excited about, is all I’ll say for now. But until then… writerly folk among my readers, so what kind of weird symptoms do you get when you need to write?

The Obelisk Gate cover reveal!

If you haven’t seen it yet via Twitter or Facebook, the Mary Sue is today featuring an exclusive (well, except for here) reveal of Book 2 in The Broken Earth trilogy: The Obelisk Gate. Of which I just finished the raw “zeroeth” draft about two weeks ago. Should be turning in the first draft today or Monday. After that it’s anyone’s guess as to the release date, but considering I’m turning it in literally a year after the publication of the first book, my guess is roughly a year before Book 2 actually comes out. I’ll tell you when I know more.

So… behold! Click to enlarge. Lovely, isn’t it? This one was done by Wendy Chan, a senior designer at Orbit.

Cover shows a stone floral motif embossed into a stone wall.

Descriptive copy uh doesn’t exist yet, but I can cautiously tell you that Essun’s story will of course continue; you’ll find out what happened to Alabaster and why he Did The Thing; and you’ll find out what’s happened to Nassun, Essun’s daughter.

Tricking readers into acceptance

OK, to start this post off, I have to say that it is only for people who have already read The Fifth Season. Haven’t read it yet? This post is not for you.

No, seriously. If you haven’t read TFS, scram.

Clip of Bruce Lee glaring at people

Oh, so you wanna be hard headed.

clip of the olsen twins as small children asking ARE YOU SURE?

OK. But I am not responsible for any damage done to your reading experience, if you continue. And if I may say, TFS is a lot more fun with its surprises unspoiled. But from here forth I’m going to assume you’ve read it.

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Midnight in Karachi interview

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately, and it’s been hard to keep track of them. I post them on Twitter or FB usually, but I wanted to point to this one in particular since it contains a lot of behind-the-scenes info on The Fifth Season and the Broken Earth trilogy. MASSIVE SPOILERS HEREIN, and I strongly do NOT recommend you listen to it if you haven’t read TFS. But for those of you who’ve read the book, you might find it interesting. A great Skype-based interview with Mahvesh Murad of Midnight in Karachi.

Creating races

So, now that The Fifth Season is out, I can finally talk more about the making of. Over at Scalzi’s I blogged a bit about why and how I chose to use second person, among other things. Now I’m going to talk about creating the Sanzeds, the orogenes, and the stone eaters.

BTW, after further thought on this topic, I’m going to use the words “race” or “people” rather than “species” in talking about these groups because all three are obviously people. It used to bug me to see “race” used in lieu of species, particularly when the human race is depicted as consisting of a single race (nearly always white people). That approach seemed to encourage treating orcs, demons, etc., as substitutes for human non-white races, which is super-problematic. But I think using “species” may feed into the tendency of fantasy to treat groups that are equally sapient as somehow lesser because they’re different. “Race” emphasizes personhood, IMO, where “species” emphasizes inhumanity. And in the case of the Broken Earth trilogy, personhood matters. (Also, I’ve played a lot of Mass Effect, and once you’ve romanced Garrus someone of a different species, you start rethinking words like “dehumanize” and how they apply within a secondary or far-future world. But I’ll save those thoughts for another post. Also, Garrus is the best space dinosaur boyfriend ever.)

Anyway. Let’s get to it.
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The Stillness, in all its glory

So, I still don’t like the idea of maps in fantasy novels in general. But I needed one as I wrote The Fifth Season, so after I scrawled something hideous in a Microsoft Word file and sent that to Orbit, and the collective screams of horror died down, they worked with artist Tim Paul to create something much better (click to embiggen):

Map of a continent designed by Tim Paul

Yeah, OK, I could get to like maps a little now. Maybe.

Seriously, Tim did an awesome job, especially considering he got a lot of vague guidance from me like, “I can’t remember if those pokey things are mountains or canyons,” and “Can you make the tundra more tundra-y?” (I’m not kidding when I say I don’t do maps. Just not a very visual person; I have trouble transforming what’s in my head into a two-dimensional maybe-to-scale unavoidably distorted rendering.) I love the end result.

ETA Paul’s actual maps site, instead of his illo blog!

It’s a(nother) book!

So strange and amazing to be here at the publication of my sixth novel.

cover of The Fifth Season, a novel by N. K. Jemisin, shows a stone wall and decoration embossed with flaking gold

I remember being a newbie writer and struggling just to imagine myself publishing one book. That was only… hmm, eight years ago? I got my agent in 2007, as I recall. I remember despairing, as it became clear that my first book wasn’t going to sell first, and giving serious consideration to quitting all this shit. Wow.

Confession: I had a despair moment again while writing The Fifth Season. Convinced myself that it was just too strange, too dark, too hard to write, and no one would ever want to read it. I actually called my editor and discussed whether I could just turn the trilogy into a standalone, wash my hands of the whole thing, and go cry in a corner somewhere. Fortunately, Devi had the sense to tell me to calm down and go think about it first, which I did. And more fortunately, friends helped talk me back from the (artistic) cliff. Now as the positive reviews roll in, all of them are giving me “I told you so” attitude, and that’s okay. They were right. I’m glad I listened. Thanks, guys.

Well, enough maundering. I’m currently about 90,000 words into the second book of the trilogy, which means it’s just about on schedule to be turned in at the end of this month. Going to be tough to make good progress this week, though, because I’ve got a crapton of Launch Week activities lined up — like a launch party tonight, if you happen to be in the Brooklyn area and want to drop by. The next sample chapter of The Fifth Season is up, if you needed another taste to help you decide. If not, and you’re sold, then links are in the sidebar. I can’t promise you’ll like it, but I can say we’re all in for a wild ride.

ETA: Yes, I’ve given up my foolish resistance to maps. Here is the Stillness, rendered beautifully by artist Tim Paul.

Worldbuilding 101

I did a recent talk for the Writers’ Digest Online Workshop and Annual Conference on worldbuilding, in which I basically explained how I do what I do, and led participants through an exercise in creating their own world. I’d hoped to actually do the exercise in realtime, using some poster paper and audience participation, but alas, ran out of time. There’s a good example in the Powerpoint, though. Note that if this doesn’t make sense in places, remember that it was meant to be shown alongside me talking and filling in conceptual gaps. But hopefully you can figure it out. PDF file for download.

The Fifth Season is coming!

And I’ve got some stuff lined up in the next few weeks. I will not be doing a book tour; I’m still in Deadline Hell on book 2 of the Broken Earth trilogy, which is due at the end of August. So this is it for big events… but I’m amenable to the occasional podcast appearance or phone interview. (No guestblogs or text interviews, sorry; those eat up too much writing time.)

Week of July 27th: Goodreads giveaway

Some lucky people will have a chance to win a free signed copy of any of my novels, including The Fifth Season. (Seriously, you guys, I’m drowning in author copies; gotta do something with ’em.) Unfortunately this will be US-only; I can’t afford to mail things to other countries right now. Sorry! Will post those on Twitter when the giveaways begin.

Saturday, August 1st: Growing Your Iceberg: Crafting a Secondary World that Feels Ancient at the Writers’ Digest Annual Conference, New York City

I did an online version of this talk a few months ago, but it’s much more fun in person. You have to join the conference to attend any of the sessions! Mine will be Saturday morning at 9 am.

Tuesday, August 4th: The Magical Seismology Launch Party at WORD Books

This will be open to the public, so if you’re in the Brooklyn area, feel free to drop by. Books will be available for sale and signing!

Thursday, August 6th: Big Idea blog post

As I’ve usually done when launching a new series, I’ll be talking about the ideas behind the Broken Earth over at John Scalzi’s blog.

Saturday, August 8th: Reading at Writers With Drinks, San Francisco

I’ve heard a lot about this reading/artist series, and am honored to be invited! Also, sounds like a whole lot of fun. Westcoasters, see you soon!

Wednesday, August 19th: Reading at KGB Fantastic Fiction, New York

Of course I’m going to show love to my home town, and my favorite reading series. (If you’ve never come, you should; it’s lots of fun!)

Might be more to come. Stay tuned!

The Apocalypse of Unfortunate Implications

Just saw a trailer for the Shannara TV series that’s soon to exist:

Very pretty. Don’t think I’m going to particularly go out of my way to see it, because at this point I’m a little tired of New Zealand landscapes, orcish hordes, and John Rhys-Davies. I like Tolkien, but I was never a fan of Tolkien clones in textual form, and the film medium doesn’t make them any more palatable. But those of you who are Shannara fans, yay! Enjoy.

I got distracted from the cool landscapes and glowing beads and so on, though, by the fact that once again this trailer depicts an apocalypse that makes no demographic or sociological sense. First off, why would a far-future magical America transform into anything remotely resembling medieval northern Europe, complete with British accents? But more importantly… This is specifically a far-future Pacific Northwest, or so the decrepit Space Needle would suggest, yet it appears to be populated entirely by white people and Manu Bennett. (Or at least I’m told Bennett is in the trailer. If so, he’s there so briefly that I didn’t see him despite viewing it twice.) Well, wait, some of the non-human characters appear to be played by actors of color; there’s one at 2:30 in the trailer for about half a second. Okay. So while it’s possible the show itself features more than this, the show is being advertised with an all white cast plus a token magical brown person, and literally dehumanized PoC. Well, alrighty then.

::sigh:: Let me note once again that choices like these are not neutral in any SFF. They are even less so in fantasies which — intentionally or unintentionally — evoke the real world and real historical erasures. Against the backdrop of systemic racism, every casting choice develops added meaning. This production doesn’t even have the excuse, weak as that one always is (summary and good discussion, for the un-Tumblr’d), that it’s set in some alterna-European country and therefore the exclusion of people of color is somehow justified. This is America, and one of the most diverse parts of Canada. These nations have never, except in the most fevered wish fulfillment fantasies of historical revisionists, been all white.

And that is precisely what we end up with, when this kind of fantastical exclusion gets layered onto the site of real historical exclusion: racist wish fulfillment fantasy. (Way to go, MTV.) Narratively, the exclusion suggests some Shit Went Down after the collapse or the plague or whatever it was that created this future world. What kind of shit? Genocide, apparently, on an epic scale. Eugenics, maybe, since apparently the orcish folks are some sort of mutant; that touches on the long, ugly history of medical experimentation in this country. So now I wonder why I should be particularly entranced by the stirring saga of a magical white supremacist utopia, or near enough to qualify. Don’t I have to deal with enough racist fantasy in real life?

(Note: I haven’t read the Shannara books, at least not past the first few chapters of the first one, so I have no idea if any of the characters are people of color. I’d be pleased — delighted — to know that this is only the doing of the TV show producers and not Brooks himself.)

But let me not single out Shannara; this isn’t the only recent post-apocalyptic story I’ve seen that suggested by the jangle of their appropriated trappings (or the ominous silence of their exclusions) genocides and internments and the Tuskeegee-ing of vast swaths of the human race. As I skim through future after future — some of which seem cool as hell at least on the surface — I begin to realize that most of them bear this creeping evidence of an entirely different apocalypse that happened before the cameras started to roll. And since it’s now 2015, and we have had these discussions again and again and again… now I’m starting to think it’s intentional. Now I’m wondering whether SFF creator after SFF creator is just so fucking horrified by the existence of people of color that they have to wipe us out again and again, without so much as a grave marker.

It probably isn’t intentional. Probably. But that’s the problem with tossing an unacknowledged race war into the background of your post-apocalypse, see. In these post-Charleston days, it’s become clear that plenty of people out there really do want a race war to happen — which means that fictional depictions of same become hard to wave off as simple carelessness. Especially not after the fifth, the tenth, the twenty-fifth, time.

Well. Maybe I’m just feeling especially salty about this because I’m writing my own post-apocalyptic fantasy right now.

cover of The Fifth Season, a novel by N. K. Jemisin, coming August 4th 2015

The Fifth Season isn’t set on Earth. That’s not a spoiler. I don’t intend to ever write that kind of “but it was our world all along!” gotcha into any of my novels, because at this point it’s a badly overused trope. And as I’ve just shown, it’s usually used badly, without sufficient care for the complexity of real-world social science. Readers, I promise you: if I ever write Earth it will be recognizable as such, and it will be plausible — a future to which you can draw a line of reasonable extrapolation from our currently 52% female and 80% PoC planet. And by every god who doesn’t mind the oath, if I put an apocalypse in something, you will know it. None of this inferred, unintentional shit.

(This isn’t what the trilogy is about, BTW. It’s about wars that have become background noise and secrets with geologically long histories and how people love when they cannot possibly protect the people they love. I’m just saying that the setting makes phenotypical, sociological, human sense as the characters go about their business. At some point someone’s going to throw a mountain at someone else, and there’s some talking-statue shenanigans, but there will be motherfucking black people in it. And Asian people, and multiracial people, and queer people, and women who are built like brick houses and Mack trucks, and so on. Because I refuse to ever write a fantasy in which magic is believable but human beings aren’t.)

So the moral of the story, or the point of this post, is: SFF creators, keep track of your apocalypses. If you don’t actually believe that the survivors of that plague or that meteor would divert energy from survival to systematically exterminating millions of people, then don’t “accidentally” write futures where that obviously happened. Or at least if you do it, have the courage to go whole hog with it. Some of our bestand worst — SFF has come out of thoroughly brutal explorations of what can happen when human beings let their bigot flag fly. If you’re going to go there, then go there — consciously, thoughtfully, and respectfully of the real Middle Passages and Trails of Tears and Holocausts you’re using as inspiration. Some material deserves better than an afterthought.

And if you’re not prepared to go that far, then just stop. Your worldbuilding needs work; you can’t handle the apocalypse yet. Talk to a variety of futurists. Read some actual history so you won’t reinforce any more unexamined white supremacy, or at least not by accident. Read outside your comfort zone for awhile. Then, once you’ve learned more about the actual world, you can play with its future — or its end.

Remember, kids: apocalypse responsibly. Your readers/viewers will thank you for it.