April 9, 2017

Waiting and thinking (or thinking and waiting)



A writer’s life involves lots of waiting. Waiting for submissions to be either accepted or rejected (so that you can submit them somewhere else, and then the waiting cycle begins again). Waiting for accepted stories to appear in print or online. Waiting for the launch of your new book. Waiting for reviews. Waiting for the sales statistics. Waiting to get paid. 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received three rejection letters (and promptly resent the rejected material elsewhere; I’m very, very serious about trying to get my translated stories “out there”). A short story of mine has recently appeared in the April issue of the Polish speculative fiction magazine Nowa Fantastyka. I’m waiting for news about other submissions. I’ve steeled myself for a long wait (in one case, the decision will probably come in October).

Meanwhile, there’s nothing for it but to keep writing (I’m working on a new novel in Polish – the first three chapters are almost finished, yay) and keep slowly translating “The Thistle Queen”. With Hans the troll’s permission, I’ve temporarily suspended the “read every day” part of my New Year’s resolutions because reading every day seems to interfere with my writing (it impairs my ability to write in my own voice) when I’m working steadily on a WIP, rather than just experimenting and pottering about.

I’ve also come to a point where other things besides writing need some serious thought. Right at the beginning of April, I briefly came down with a nasty virus (either a norovirus or something similar). I didn’t vomit, but had fever, nausea and other unpleasant symptoms, was unable to eat for over 50 hours, narrowly avoided dehydration (now I know that when you start getting weak & dizzy every time you stand up, postural hypotension has kicked in and it’s time to get serious about drinking that yucky-tasting oral rehydration mixture) and had ample time to rethink my lifestyle while I was lying in a darkened room with a splitting headache on the second day.

Apart from the occasional cold, I very rarely get ill, so I'm treating this as a wake-up call. Living my life mostly in front of a computer screen isn’t doing me any favors. Now, my No. 1 plan for spring is to spend more time outdoors, eat more veggies and eggs (I’m the kind of thin, underweight, not-crazy-about-eating person who will subsist on sandwiches and cornflakes if unmotivated) and get healthier. One of my New Year's resolutions for 2017 was to "exercise or go for a walk every day" (I'm managing to stick to it for about 20 days each month... not a shining success, but not a total failure either). It was a step in the right direction, but it's not enough. I'm not in bad shape but I was fitter two years ago. Hans the troll says he’ll try to find a way to persuade me to start running.

And as for the waiting... the best cure for impatience is to get distracted by something else, so I’m going to do my best to submit some more material here and there in the coming months (both in Polish and in English). A novelette I wrote in Polish in December has been waiting until now to get edited and partly rewritten (it needs a different ending). I’m looking forward to sitting down to it over the Easter holidays!



March 27, 2017

The London Book Fair 2017: impressions and photos




Whoa! Time flies really fast when important things are happening. I’ve been busy lately!

Almost two weeks ago, I took advantage of the exciting opportunity to travel to London with a friend (Aleksandra Janusz-Kamińska – also a Polish speculative fiction writer) and visit the London Book Fair 2017, but it took me this long to write a blog post about our little excursion. We went to London to promote the work of a group of 10 Polish female speculative fiction authors, a new grassroots initiative I’m a part of. (The group is called Fantastic Women Writers of Poland. If you’re curious, you can visit our Facebook page, learn more about who we are, and download our catalogue, which contains descriptions of over 30 novels, ranging from science fiction and urban fantasy to literary fiction, all traditionally published by various Polish publishing houses. There are no self-publishers among us.*) 

The London Book Fair is a huge trade fair held annually, a mecca for publishers, booksellers, agents and authors (the stats for 2017: 25 000 attendees over 3 days, with 25 international pavilions displaying wares from over 60 countries!) This year, it took place at the Olympia exhibition center on March 14-16. Poland was the Market Focus 2017 (next year it’ll be the Baltic states), so several well-known Polish mainstream authors were there, participating in discussion panels and meet-the-author sessions: Olga Tokarczuk, Zygmunt Miłoszewski, Jacek Dehnel and others. We’re not in that league yet, so our time at the fair was largely spent chatting to people, getting introduced to people, exchanging business cards, and handing out catalogues. (The reactions were usually "Wow" or something similar, because the catalogue is quite eye-catching; if you download the pdf file from our Facebook page, you’ll see that the contents match the cover!) 

By the way – Aleksandra and I attended the LBF courtesy of the Polish Book Institute, so we were technically “Exhibitors”, not “Visitors”, which I found very cool. Even better, some of the books featured in our catalogue were displayed on our publishers' stands in the Polish pavilion. (E.g. the first four books on the upper shelf in the photo above.)

We took an early morning flight to London on Tuesday, March 14, arrived at the Olympia exhibition center on Hammersmith Road somewhere around noon, stayed there until closing time, and spent all of March 15 at the Olympia as well. On March 16, we only had time for some quick shopping in London before noon, so as not to miss our return flight from London Luton at 14:35. The trip was rather exhausting, especially for me (on March 13, I had to take an evening train to Warsaw and spend the entire night at the Chopin Airport), but the experience was absolutely worth it!

In the photo above, Aleksandra is the professional-looking lady on the left, and I’m the one with the patterned kerchief. Below is a handful of other photos taken during the fair. 






The Olympia exhibition center (centre, actually, since it's located in the UK...), with its two large galleries, was a maze of pavilions, stands and colorful signs. Even with a map, we felt a bit disoriented at first. 





The Polish pavilion looked quite impressive, with red neon signs, little pine trees, and light-colored plywood bookshelves showcasing recent titles from numerous large and medium-sized publishing houses (Nasza Księgarnia, Zysk, Grupa Wydawnicza Foksal, Znak, Muza, Agora, Rebis, Powergraph and others). 



In a stroke of genius, someone decided to use Polish apples as a marketing gimmick at the LBF. Yes, you read that right. Apples. Big, juicy, sweet apples from Polish orchards, much tastier than your typical supermarket-bought Granny Smith or Gala. Since the sandwiches, doughnuts, packaged salads etc. available at the Olympia were expensive, lots of people (myself included) decided a free apple isn't to be sneezed at!



Polish-to-English translation slam on Tuesday, March 14, featuring American translator Sean Bye, Polish translator Marta Dziurosz, and Polish journalist Ewa Winnicka.




On Wednesday, March 15, the panel discussion An Equal Share - Women's Writing from Poland chaired by Rosie Goldsmith from the European Literature Network drew quite a crowd (albeit the listeners were mostly women, which kinda shows how interested men are in women's writing...) One of the panelists was the famous Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk.





At the end of that panel discussion, Aleksandra stood up, briefly described our group and our aims, showed our catalogue, and got some enthusiastic applause!

Below are some more miscellaneous scenes, stands and books I photographed during the fair. Did I mention I enjoyed being there? I did. It was an exciting new experience, an adventure of sorts (I'd never visited London before), as well as a chance to strike up some contacts and gather valuable information about various initiatives involving literature and translations. I hope to participate again next year!









*) The ultimate goal of the Fantastic Women Writers of Poland group is to find publishers interested in acquiring the foreign language rights to our books. Some of us are bestselling authors in our home country, and/or have won numerous awards. Speculative fiction is a largely overlooked/undervalued niche in Poland, and female authors form a still smaller niche within that niche, but we’re determined to change that, and hopefully we will!


March 11, 2017

When life tells you to leap high



Life doesn't always give you lemons; sometimes it surprises you with a box of Lindt chocolates! Or tickets to the cinema. Or an unplanned trip to Paris. Or a cool job offer. 

Unexpected opportunities can be a real gift from heaven. Of course, it's best to use good judgment; all too often something that looks promising at first sight will prove a disappointment later. I once turned down a very interesting translation job because the risk of not getting paid outweighed all possible benefits. As an author, I've also learned that not every invitation to appear at a convention or meet-the-author session is worth accepting. 

But there's another thing about opportunities: more often than not, they don't come gift-wrapped on a plate. They have to be chased and caught. Now and then life dangles something tempting in front of you (a fish? a golden ring? a delicious portion of ice cream?), but to win the prize, you have to take a leap. Or climb a steep staircase. Or fight your way up a rocky wall. You have to take a risk, push yourself, go out of your comfort zone.

Right now, I'm leaping high to catch a gleaming little fish that dangles right out of my reach.

I might miss. I might trip and fall, and make a fool of myself. But hey! At worst, I'll be able to tell myself: at least I tried. And one thing is certain; not trying at all means a 0% chance of success.

Do you believe in taking leaps?


Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net



March 7, 2017

Pajama bottoms and lucuma fruit



Now and then, random odd events and funny anecdotes make me think „cool, I just might work this into one of my stories sometime”.

My hometown, Lublin, is a city with five universities. Since some courses are offered in English, more and more foreign students are coming here to study medicine, nursing, engineering, computer science, whatever, and they mostly live in rented apartments. A friend told me an amusing story today about two students, one from the U.S., the other one from Peru, who had shared a flat for two and a half years. After graduating, they both decided to return overseas. Before moving out, they’d asked the landlord whether it would be OK for them to leave some stuff behind, because they didn’t need it anymore, and the answer was “yes, sure”.

At this point, I was sure they’d left a pile of junk, dirty dishes, old underwear, broken electronics, you name it. But no. Apparently, they decided to abandon a somewhat perplexing (and funny) assortment of decent and useful stuff. The landlord is surprised, but doesn’t mind this unexpected “inheritance” in the least. Specifically, it consists of:

- a set of weights (I’m not surprised the owner didn’t want to transport them by plane, but why not sell the stuff?)

- a pair of men’s pajama bottoms, quite new

- winter boots, also quite new

- a yet unidentified large fuzzy object on the highest shelf in one of the closets (a blanket?)

- a large bag of yerba mate

- tea, coffee, sugar, salt etc.

- and weirdest of all, unused packets of fairly expensive health food ingredients: coconut flour (the brand shown on the right), chestnut flour, various spices, stevia and lucuma fruit powder (courtesy of the Peruvian student, I guess). 

The pajama bottoms and winter boots will be donated to charity, and the yerba mate will be given to someone who actually drinks the stuff, but the edible goods will be consumed sooner or later (as soon as the “beneficiary” finds out what tasty treats can be baked using those types of flour!)

I could expect to find many things in a rented apartment after the tenants leave, but unopened packages of coconut flour, chestnut flour and lucuma fruit powder? I’m surprised there wasn’t a copy of Moste Potente Potions by Phineas Bourne lying around as well.





February 27, 2017

The worst time to start writing


This year, inspired by a friend's example, I've decided (somewhat skeptically, since I know my limitations) to try and "build a daily writing habit". Now, for the past 18 years I've been very much a "feast and famine" writer, either writing like crazy or not writing at all for months and years on end. I knew from the outset a DAILY writing habit wouldn't be realistic, but I figured that sitting down to write every second day or so would still be better than those long breaks that seem to "just happen" whenever life puts a lid on my creative well. 

Two months into the challenge, I think I've learned a couple of things. Firstly, blogging regularly is much easier than I thought, but to my mind, it doesn't really count as writing. Blogging seems to exercise entirely different "writing muscles" than working on a literary project. Secondly, brief bouts of writing undertaken "just to write ANYTHING when I don't feel inspired" have left me with a pile of short random scenes and story outlines I'm not at all crazy about. No idea if any of this stuff will actually evolve into finished works in the long run.

The third lesson I've learned is something I might have to print out in large block letters and paste over my desk. Namely: the ABSOLUTELY WORST TIME to sit down for a short writing session is at night, after all the day's tasks are done. Never mind that I'm normally very much an evening person and I love to work at my computer during those quiet hours when everyone is asleep (I'm by far not the only translator who does that!) If I want to write at night, I need to start earlier in the day, when my brain is clearer and better able to access those doors I need to unlock whenever I want to visualize a meaningful story (or even just a short scene).

At night, I can continue writing if I was sensible enough to begin earlier. That works perfectly! But I can't, for the life of me, sit down after a full day of translating, writing emails, housekeeping and whatnot, and happily switch into creative mode. Sure, I can sit down and concentrate over a blank page... but the page will stay blank, the words just don't come. Only frustration ensues.

The solution? Consistently making time for writing in the mornings, I guess. (This might sound like a totally commonsense answer, but it's not. I constantly tell myself "you have to do X, Y and Z before you sit down to write", and before I know it, the morning has turned into evening! I'm working hard on a translation project right now, and since I prefer to focus on one thing, normally I'd just postpone writing until the translation is done... but that would mean at least a month-long break from creative pursuits.)

I've been told recently by someone wiser than myself that I'm the one who's in charge of priorities here. For some reason, putting writing FIRST is something I repeatedly struggle with. The fear of creating lackluster, poor-quality stuff is very strong, as is the need to quickly see concrete results of what I do. With such a mindset, one derives more satisfaction from several translated pages than from 300 words of prose that might never make it into a finished book.

But that next book does need to get written. And, eventually, it will.

At least I hope so! 

Right now, I'm editing a novellette I wrote in Polish three months ago, a fantasy story set in the Darkgleam universe. I intend to translate it into English sooner or later (when I'm done translating the novel Olga i osty, which will take a long time.)



Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

February 20, 2017

Inching at a snail's pace in five different directions



I'm feeling tired and discouraged tonight, not because anything in particular has happened, but because working on several translations at a snail's pace, whilst finding time for housework, grappling with a load of important correspondence over the past week, and trying valiantly to stick to my New Year's resolutions (write or blog every day, read every day, exercise every day) is NOT my preferred mode of fuctioning. I like to finish things. I like to see RESULTS. (And most of all, I'd love to just toss everything else out of the window and lose myself in writing for a week.) 

I've never been in debt, but I think the way I manage my time resembles juggling a number of credit card debts, making only the minimum payments on each, while the interest accrues. Doing stuff in small increments is draining and you don't see any nice, gratifying, concrete results for a long time. Switching from project to project means I get more work done overall (I'm prone to boredom when focusing on just one thing, and start wasting time), but individually, each of those parallel tasks gets completed s-l-o-w-l-y. And that, in turn, makes my impatient nature rebel.

I'm so frustrated right now, I'm tempted to forget that "really good" novel I've been wanting to write for the past 2 years (since finishing the final draft of Olga i osty in November 2014, I've started work on 10 or more different novel outlines, and scrapped each one after a couple of weeks because I never felt that spark of inner joy that means you really, truly enjoy a project and believe in it), and start writing something simple set in the Darkgleam universe - just another typical sword & sorcery story full of magic spells, fireballs and demons. The Darkgleam stories have always been something of an escapist pleasure for me.

As regards time management, I'm not actually as disorganized as I sound. I have a to-do list for every day and complete most of the listed tasks. I just keep spreading myself too thin, and setting priorities is a challenge (all too often, housework ends up in a priority position because it's a bad idea to let things slide too much). Most of the time, I'm working on stuff from my endless to-do lists and I feel bad because focusing on one thing means x others stay unfinished. It's like shoveling sand from a pile while a machine is dumping more and more sand at the other end. If anyone else feels the same, or has been in the same place and learned to function differently, I'd appreciate any tips, or words of support, or whatever.


Image courtesy of amenic181 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


February 13, 2017

Physical beauty – do we writers perpetuate stereotypes?



As social animals, we humans value physical attractiveness very highly. We instinctively associate good looks with various other positive traits, such as friendliness and honesty. Fairytales and proverbs remind us time and again that “beauty is only skin deep” and “not all that glitters is gold” (or “all that is gold does not glitter”, to quote J.R.R. Tolkien), but somehow sociobiology has wired us to think differently. 

Attractiveness isn’t only an important factor in mate selection, we unconsciously take it into account in all spheres of life. Empirical research shows that visually attractive people find it easier to get good jobs and are perceived as more competent. Researchers have demonstrated that physical beauty has a significant impact on teachers’ judgments of students, jury judgments in simulated trials, and voter preferences for political candidates. Conversely, people who are perceived as physically unattractive suffer various forms of painful social rejection. To quote just one example, the degree of stigmatization and body shaming induced by obesity in today’s society is outrageous and horrible.

The unrealistically high standards of beauty and fitness, particularly female beauty, perpetuated by movies, commercials and magazines (where photos are routinely digitally retouched) are responsible for lots of insecurity and body image issues among women. (Many men aren’t immune to this either, only girls tend to get fixated on a pretty face, luxurious hair and a perfectly toned body, whereas insecure guys want to have muscles, muscles, muscles...) What struck me lately, though, is that we fiction writers are unconsciously (?) guilty of perpetuating this ubiquitous beauty fetish too. 

As I see it, there’s a heavy bias in genre fiction (with the possible exception of crime fiction) to feature physically attractive main characters, simply because both authors and readers are drawn to them. Romance and fantasy reflect this bias particularly strongly - the main characters tend to be much more eye-catching than the average mortal. You only need to look at the book covers. (I don't read romance, but I tried to select a cover that is actually pleasing to the eye, with no oiled muscles or scary silicone curves. And as regards fantasy, the covers of the Conan series reflect a certain visual esthetic that remains popular. Yes, the Conan covers kinda overdo it, but there's a definite tendency in fantasy literature to feature strong manly men and lovely sexy girls; even if they're warrior princesses who can kill two dragons before dinner without batting an eyelid, they still need to be lovely. Brienne of Tarth in G.R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series is a notable exception to this rule.)

On a personal note; IRL, I’m very conscious of how the world overvalues physical beauty. I’ve always hated (and largely ignored) the social pressure for women to be “beautiful” and to use various artificial means of enhancing their looks. If guys don't use makeup or nail varnish, why the hell should I? (That’s my own brand of feminism for you.) But I digress. The real reason I’m writing this post is because I’ve recently realized that as a writer, I’m much less immune to the social fixation on beauty than I thought. 

All the main characters in my books are physically attractive.

Not necessarily drop-dead gorgeous in the conventional sense, but definitely not ugly. Some of them might FEEL unattractive and insecure (Olga in Olga i osty is addicted to sweets and somewhat overweight, with a cello figure, and has huge issues with this, but she’s also described as having “eyes like Penélope Cruz”, and the other main character is strongly attracted to her curvy body, not just to her personality). Brune Keare a.k.a. Anguish from the Darkgleam series is thin, wiry, swarthy, with unkempt hair and scars on one cheek – but while he has nothing in common with the standard muscle-bound sword-and-sorcery heroes, he’d still be a solid 7 on a 1-to-10 attractiveness scale. And I'm pretty sure his appearance plays a role in his popularity as a character. I don’t think stories about an outlawed sorcerer who’s pudgy and bald would have had quite the same appeal. 

Even worse, all the important female characters in the Darkgleam series are described as pretty or attractive, and either slim or thin. When I realized this, I felt ashamed. The Darkgleam books are dark fantasy, not romantic fantasy... but still, it’s disconcerting that as a writer, I’m unconsciously helping perpetuate the stereotypes I’m theoretically against.

The next time you’re reading or writing a work of fiction, take note of the characters’ appearance and of the feelings it evokes in you. Are you, too, vulnerable to the physical attractiveness bias?


(Note for English-language readers: My books mentioned in this post were published in Polish. I’m hoping to get them translated into English someday. You can learn more about the Darkgleam series here and about Olga i osty here.)