London (April 2017): Fantasy, Soup Dumplings and Secrets, Oh My!

The main reason for my visit to London is something embargoed until tomorrow (more a condition of sale, than a strict NDA) but let’s say it was Shannon’s birthday and she wanted to do a thing which also happened to coincide with some other, equally awesome things. The kind of serendipity that can only be the result of awesome karma and sweet planning.

Like, for example, the Women in Fantasy panel at Waterstones with Vic James, Aliette de Bodard and Zen Cho (moderated by Stevie Finegan). I initially told Shannon about this (she’d missed the Gollancz Festival) and jokingly suggested I come to down visit. It was something I really wanted to do but on a pipe dream level. I never actually expected it to, you know, happen. But then this other thing came up and suddenly I’m on a train heading to the capital. Score!

I came down on Tuesday afternoon and met Shannon after her shift ended, we hit Tokyo Diner for food (because it’s delicious and cheap), got our glad rags on and didn’t get back to her place until nearly midnight. Talk about dirty stop outs! More on that tomorrow though … patience, dearies.

Wednesday was my day, spent basking in gloriousness, while Shannon was at work. It was actually just long enough that I didn’t break my credit card or succumb too badly to the wonders of London’s shopping opportunities. I left her at Leicester Square, headed off to Paul’s bakery to grab my preferred lunch (it’s one of the rare times when all I want is a specific sandwich, the ancien mixte) then wandered Covent Garden. I stuck my nose in Moleskine’s store, bought ice cream at Godiva, didn’t buy any Traveler’s Company stuff at the London Graphic Company but did stock up in Muji. Finally, I headed to the Starbucks reserve for delicious coffee, my sandwich, and a few hours actually writing.

The Starbucks Reserve is fast becoming my favourite place to just sit and chew the fat. I even got given some lovely rose gold by the baristas, along with a few compliments to go with them. It sounds boring but after the franticness of London, I need the quiet of a coffee shop. Free WiFi also helps.

I made a point when planning this trip that there was one thing I really wanted to do: try soup dumplings (xiao long bao, 小笼包). We went to the highly recommended Dumplings’ Legend on Gerrard Street mainly because it was top of the list in an article I read but also had veggie options for Shannon. Soup dumplings are basically small bundles of deliciousness where the soup is inside the dumpling, separate from whatever is inside (pork or fish usually) so when you bite into them you get this amazing mouthful of soup and stuffing.

My friends, eight of these is not enough.

I actually forgot to take a picture, we were too busy eating. But they come in a steamer and the trick is to eat them without breaking them (which reminds me of the original article that caught my interest). The down-side is they come out piping hot and I accidentally burnt myself when one burst. However, leave them a little longer and they cool, the filling gets absorbed by the meat and they even more moist and amazing.

We, stupidly, ordered other dishes. Next time it’s going to be all soup dumplings.

Shannon was keen to visit the newly-opened Lego store on Leicester Square which just so happened to be on our way to Piccadilly and JP Books/Waterstones. I did the blind thing, approached a security guard and asked how long it was to get in (there was a line of children and fear-filled adults). Two seconds later, we entered my personal hell.

Now, look I like Lego and I’m sure it’s a lot more awesome when not packed out with small humans but it was just far too busy and bright for me. I can tolerate a lot but there’s a point where my autism and vision goes ‘nope’ so I took myself off back outside into the cool evening air. No problems. But it was very impressive with a two story high Big Ben, a ‘life-sized’ Chinese dragon, a mock Tube train and an underground map made from Lego. Oh and all the Batman Lego Movie and Star Wars stuff you could ever want.

It was also very, very red and yellow.

I must admit I’m still amazed by the range and some of the sets were gorgeous and complicated (think Creator ones where you remake buildings using tiny pieces). There was a pirate ship and the Simpsons house, oh and a mosaic-maker that cost £100 and rendered you, passport pictureised, into a literal Lego portrait.

I actually saw someone buying one of those and totally WTFed.

Seriously.

The important thing is Shannon loved it. Oh and it’s right across from her version of Hell: the M&M Store. We’re both okay with this. We also got to stare at the even longer line of people wanting to buy a dessert called Bubble Wrap.

Cause that’s a thing now. With a 90 minute wait.

JP Books was next, mainly so I could grab the next volume of my manga-in-progress. Oh and grab a few choice Midori essentials (another free diary, some kraft paper and a passport-sized ruler). I was restrained in my purchasing and constrained by both time and bladder as we wanted to get to Waterstones early enough to secure a good seat.

We actually scored on both points. Waterstones was packed but we managed to grab two seats in the front row and free wine. I actually didn’t realise Vic James (author of The Gilded Cage) was attending so it was really interesting as I’d heard of the book but hadn’t had any author exposure. I mainly wanted to pick up a signed copy of The House of Binding Thorns to go with my recently-won paperback of The House of Shattered Wings.

The talk was a lot of fun. Zen Cho is loud and extroverted in the best way. She’s become my hero just because she’s so confident. It was basically a back and forth between the three authors, with poor Stevie in the middle trying to keep as much order as is possible when Aliette and Zen are in the same room. It was brilliant. Much laughter and a mixed crowd which made it even more awesome. Afterwards, I got to say hi to Aliette (finally in person) and Zen as well as playing photographer because there are times when selfies just won’t do. I got my book and we were back in Harringay by 10, I think.

Shannon has the best housemates (they call me ‘Ash’; I want to take them all home with me and mother them) and, to finish the night, I ended up on their pallet sofa watching two men squealing like terrified children as Shannon tried to outwit the titular Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation. I called it a night pretty early but they were still screaming though I have to admit, the death where the Alien stabs its tail through your stomach gets me every time.

Sneaky Alien …

But it was fun. Lots of fun. I got to say goodbye to everyone before heading home on the noon train, spending a lovely hour sipping coffee and listening to my Audible copy of The House of Binding Thorns. So far I’m three chapters in and loving it.

So that is London.

Come back tomorrow when I can tell you of secret and special things.

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The World of Midori

So I’ve been trying to organise life. My memory is shite (likely an on-going thing) but I have found writing down stuff helps.

So I heard about Midori (now Traveler’s Company), specifically the Traveler’s Notebook. I actually came across these while in Daimaru, one of the most famous of Japanese department stores, in 2010. I spent a lot of time in Daimaru. Anyway, I didn’t actually know what it was and it certainly doesn’t look like your average notebook.

Because it’s not.

The TN is actually a piece of leather with a band through it and a range of ‘inserts’ (think books of gridded, blank or craft paper, diaries and zipper pockets). The key thing is the customisability and individuality: it’s the system and how you use it, what notebooks you choose just add to the experience. The TN is super expensive and only has one band so I knew that a ‘fauxdori’ was going to be the way to go. Etsy helped out and I ended up buying two: a passport-sized one for a wallet and a slightly larger one which fits Field Notes and Moleskine notebooks.

I’ve found I need order when I write so I wanted to make a wallet which allowed me to carry all my stuff but also include a Midori gridded insert for to-do lists and tracking my expenses. Having it in a wallet means it’s my go to for everything and I can have it with me all the time. I use two zipper pouch inserts to hold cards and cash, as well as USB keys and some stamps, a kraft folder at the back for receipts and other bits and pieces. Oh and I also got some plastic pockets that I pasted onto the inside cover giving me some extra pockets for coupons. I also hacked it with some hair bands (because they’re cheaper than the official Midori bands) so I can hold everything together.

It’s actually quite compact and I added a lucky 5円 coin I brought back with me. I can even put my passport and JR Pass into it the next time I go back to Japan.

The blue fauxdori (I hate that name; it’s not a knock-off, it’s an improvement on a very good idea) hasn’t gotten quite as much use. I have a stationary fetish. I found Field Notes and got some cheap Moleskines, they’re both the same size but the latter has more pages. I’ve currently got five loaded into my larger fauxdori

  • A braindump journal
  • A commonplace book (for sayings and quotes I love)
  • An ideas book for novels and short stories
  • A dedicated journal for specific projects, in this case:
  • Oh and there’s a kraft file in there too for odds and sods.

I need dedicated space for each thing and this seems like it might just be the system for me. The unofficial version is customisable and cheaper, as well as being easier to get notebooks for (as nice as the Midori ones are, they’re expensive). That said I might have to visit the London Graphic Centre tomorrow … hmm Midori ….

Actually, I’ve started decorating them. I covered my wallet Midori with washi stickers and it came out pretty well. I have some washi tape and can’t wait to decorate some of the more boring Moleskines I picked up.

Yes, I know, I have a stationary problem. It’s the least of my vices at this point.

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Campbell Award Eligibility — 2nd Year

So, it’s that time again! Award season is upon us!

As far as I’m aware I have one short story up for eligibility for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer: “The Elissiad” (originally published by Windrift Books in Alt.History 102). The other story I sold doesn’t quite meet the eligibility criteria, sadly. As this is my second year, this is also my last chance in the running (not that I have a chance of actually getting the award, of course).

However, I have submitted the story to the annual and forthcoming Campbell Anthology which collects stories from all the eligible authors. I only found out about that today so I’ll have more info soon, hopefully.

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Progress and Short Stories

I’m still sick; this lurgy is going to be the week long suffering plus three week recovery kind. I hate those because even doing simple things leaves me lying on the sofa feeling like a piece of soggy cabbage.

I hate being ill but I had drawn out recovery even more. I’m able to do things like go out but I spend the rest of the day lying on the sofa and feeling really dizzy. I’ve basically been watching Breaking Bad for three days straight though I did manage to revise “Constructed Mind, Reforged Soul”. I even had a market in mind … and then discovered the anthology was cancelled this morning.

Sigh.

I’m trying to look on the upside: I have a story nearly ready to go with my crit group in a few weeks which is nice. Also, it’s my first nearly-done story for 2017 which is awesome given my three month funk (aka the Winter of Discontent). Shannon has reminded me that this is a big thing, actually revising a story and polishing it so it starts to shine. I have a couple of replacement markets in mind (it was originally written for a specific antho call last year so has only been sent out once).

S’all good, man.

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Nearly There: February’s A-Coming

Note the quietly sleeping D on my bed as the sun casts its light upon him.

Yeah, I have to get up so the mightiest of felines can claim my spot during daylight hours with sun-puddles. He especially appreciates, as do all his kind, fresh sheets and a made bed. Oh and he looks so peaceful (which makes it all worth it) because nothing is better than a sleeping cat who is not attacking your feet or trying to stomp on the keyboard.

Yeah he’s been doing both those things for, like, a few weeks now. ever since I claimed the sofa.

I hurt my foot walking around Bath in December so have been trying to rest it as much as possible, hence curling up on the sofa with my laptop. It’s getting better but an injury to the plantar fascitis takes a lot of time to heal.

The weather’s still shite but it’s starting to turn out less grey, less stereotypically British winter. The dawns are getting more epic too and it’s usually sorta not-dark by the time I’m in Norwich at eight. But I’m also spending more time at home, curled up with cats and binge-watching TV shows. I am writing but at a much slower pace, I got one story finished (“Honey and Silver”) for my crit group and am trying to get a handle on “Hearts of Stone and Age” (which I will probably shorten to “Heart of Stone” or something similar).

But it doesn’t feel like I’m putting in enough effort. I know I am and that writing something is better than nothing. My crit partners have sad the same thing and they’re right. The power of self-disbelief is strong though but I’m tired, have SAD and need the time to recuperate. Anything, and it seems to be short stuff, is a bonus right now.

But February and Imbolc are coming, hopefully the harshness of winter is over for another year and we can focus on spring, New Dog and warmer weather.

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Retelling Old Tales: “Hearts of Stone and Age”

A while ago, I did Rachel Swirsky’s class on retelling old stories. This weekend I did Cat’s class on building characters (elementary, you might think, but still incredibly useful and well worth taking. Thanks to my Patrons who covered the cost as well!). The morning before, I started on a new story, which I’m calling “Hearts of Stone and Age” was very much a re-telling of The Little Mermaid but set in a secondary world I’m developing. Meren, the merfolk of this world (the Wasting World and the same one featured in “Pearls and Memories, Spilled and Scattered”), are wild and dangerous and very inhuman which makes it all the odder for a statue of one to sit in the harbour of a prosperous little port town.

It’s a nesting story and focuses not on the mermaid (who isn’t a princess), but on the sorceress (who in this story was the creature’s lover, not her enemy) and on her mentor who cursed the sorceress with unending youth. It’s still a story of two worlds meeting and things going wrong but

Cat asked us to do two exercises as part of the class, both of which really helped. The first was to write about the protagonist from their own perspective, who they are:

My name is Talin and I am old, I was a sorceress when the world was young and I lived in a small harbour town watching as it grew, offering my services to whomever needed it. I was cursed with immortality and, worse, unending youthfulness. It forced me to move around lest my secret be uncovered as everyone, in their heart of hearts, never wants to know death. I don’t know if my state can be stolen or another infected with it. But I also know that only when I find someone who accepts what I am and offers to take my burden from me without my asking them to do so, knowing what it means to live until the end of days immortal, can I pass from this world. And, until I fell in love, I never wanted to. The problem is my beloved is a creature of the sea; mortals and Meren, they can’t live in each other’s worlds and I don’t know if we go to the same place after we die. Meren turn to sea-foam, humans to bone and ash. So I turned my beloved into a statue, at her request, and continued to wander, seeking out the person who would release me but who would also keep the secret of what I was, only then can I return, free my beloved and we can face death together.

The second was to write about the protagonist for the point of somone who hates them, which is where the evil mentor comes in:

She was beautiful, thought that was more birth and breeding than any glamour or other woven magics. Her pretty heart reflecting in kind eyes and a desire to help, not hinder, those who came to her. She was my pupil once and I thought, perhaps, her goodness was just a front and I could seduce her into darkness. No, she was good to her sweet core and the dark deities, they cannot stomach purity. So I invoked them and blessed her with the long life of my kind but wove a curse. But, when she realised how dark my heart was and who I served, she ran, refuted me, and renounced all connection to our kind and the covenants. She went rogue and wandered and, you know what? She never stopped seeing that beauty in the world, even after civilisations had burned to ash and love, well it only made things worse.

The final one was to write about a possession that the protagonist carries with them and their relationship with it:

In the first days after the statue of the Meren holding her heart appeared in the harbour, everyone was very confused and no one knew where it came from. A week after, I took a piece of sea-smoothed glass found as we watched that last sunrise together to a local mason, asking him to please carve me a replica of the statue’s heart. By the time I returned three decades later, his main business was selling tiny stone and sea-glass statues of her. Mine, however, remained unique, no one wanted her heart, no they wanted the idiolised beauty of a carved sea-maiden. Her heart, in miniature, it has traveled years and miles in a tiny cloth pouch, kept safe deep in my pack. I take it out at night when I can’t be with her, when I’m lying in a tavern bed or camping in the wilderness. It anchors me to her even when I’m a life and a million miles from the ocean. One day I will return, let the heart return to the sea and speak the words which will free her from the stone.

The thing is, though these pieces will never make their way into the story, they did help me figure out the mechanics of the story. Oh and there’s going to be a showdown on the beach between the evil witch and the good sorceress, witnessed by an innocent bard seeking the truth to the legend of the Meren holding her heart in her hands. This is my first new story of the year and a nice take chance to try my hand at retelling one of my favourite stories.

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The Music of the Spheres: A Cover

This has been my pet project for like years and I do want to actually finish it in 2017.

I stalk cover artists and when this one, by Desiree DeOrto, came up in her latest sale I took one look, checked my Patreon balance, and screamed: “MINE!!!” so loudly a half-dozen people were hoping the sale would fall through so they could buy it. I have several of her covers earmarked for different projects but this one just screamed Music. It’s like she read one of the scenes and did a custom cover but with the price tag of a premade.

*joy*

I’m easing into this one, the trick isn’t to dive in and drown, it’s to take it slowly, to plan and research. This cover, oh it’s so pretty and my current favourite. I don’t have the cash to edit or format right now so I’m going to focus on whatever project makes me feel hapy. Right now, that’s Music. Tomorrow it might be something else. Who knows. Yay for my weird autistic bipolarness!

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My Plan for 2017: Be Like D

No seriously. Look at him, this is the most chilled out, ‘I don’t give a fuck’ cat on the planet. He’s the world’s best feline role model, even if he’s bitey.

For my health, I need to chill out. I’ve spent 2016 taking on too much, pushing myself too far. It’s not that bad; I got off with a micro, stress-induced manic phase and one hard-core suicidal one, coupled with time of the month crashing (thanks, body). That’s light considering the Five Manic Episodes of 2015.

But it doesn’t mean I can do that shit again.

2017 is going to be about self-care, about being a little selfish. I need to get my triggers and IBS under control, as well as focusing on snowballing my way out of debt. Plus 2016 was a shit year (bar like two things) and needs to burn and the earth salted. I don’t know if next year is going to be better but I need to take it out.

Writing-wise, my aim is to quietly potter on whatever calls my attention. I will still try and submit short stories (I have enough for a collection at this point and sending them out is easy enough that I can do it in my sleep thanks to the Grinder). I’m also aiming to get some work done on longer projects before doing a full rebrand once I have the money in 2018, republishing all my books under the Asha Bardon byline.

But as for publishing and, especially, editing. No. I haven’t got the energy to go through the process, much less the crowdfunding side of things. I’ve got to learn that saying I’ll do something doesn’t bind me into actually doing it and things will get in the way which will always call issues.

I need space to breathe, space to write without expectation. That’s what 2017 is about.

On a personal front, I’m coping pretty well. I’m adulting, though I hate it, and surviving without bipolar medication. The trick is staying calm, monitoring my moods and using the 30-day waiting period before purchases, big or small. It’s still a fine line and I don’t know when the next obsession or manic phase will strike. That scares me.

I’m still worried about Class and New Dog but it’s on the backburner. I don’t need to worry about that right this second. New Dog will come when she’s ready and I’m very used to waiting. For now, all I can do is enjoy the end of year peace, the chance to reflect. Gods know I have a heap of things to look forward to in the coming months.

It’s hard, though. My brain is stuck in ‘what awful thing is next’ mode. It’s a bit like flight mode except it’s more about anxiety than instinct. I have an amazing therapist whose helping and I’m finding that if I can avoid things which trigger me then I’m much more able to cope. I spent the rest of my time reading up on living with various conditions, coping with narcissistic people (avoidance/NC works for me).

Some things are unavoidable but Habitica gives me bonus points for those.

I’m lucky in that I have people around me who are amazing, a core group who are my chosen family. Ironically, it’s taken the last year for me to realise who that actually involves. Some of my oldest friends are no longer friends because their worldviews differed so much with mine, and my needs, that it turned nasty. I don’t need people who spew poison or try to control me in my life, especially not when I’m trying to dig myself out of a hole I’ve created.

The important people, they’ve been at my side all the long and I can’t thank them enough for it.

So yeah, the next twelve months are about me. I’m actually looking forward to it as my main focus has been ‘I need to be x in case y or z calls’. The trick is shifting my focus to ‘I’m going to x because I want to, meeting up with an alphabet of people is a bonus’. I need to teach myself that it’s okay if I want dinner or see a movie, I don’t need other people unless we make a date. I need to live my life for me, not for anyone else, even though all the people in my life are awesome enough to get that I’m stupidly altruistic and don’t abuse that.

At the same time I like my routine, it keeps me from descending into slobbery and I’m proud of that. I don’t want to be the stereotypical ‘on benefits’ person who sleeps into midday and, besides, productivity is my friend. Early mornings mean peace and quiet and I value that a lot, just as I do the odd quiet day at home with a queue of movies lined up.

So wish me luck as we finally see the back of 2016 and begin a new, fresh, year. I’m looking forward to it already.

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Treason

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A couple of months ago Caffé Nero finally opened their second branch (third if you count the concession in House of Fraser) in Norwich on the outside of Chapelfield, our big Intu shopping mall. I went in a couple of times because it was quiet and I was with other people, we sat in their comfy sofa and lounged/made phone calls. I found the place small and a bit intimidating because it’s so nice and new.

Fast forward to November and I’m moving in. I’ve promised Rachel (my favourite Starbucks partner) I will be coming back once a week and once I have New Dog. It’s just that my anxiety’s been awful recently, purely because of the number of ‘Where’s your dog?’ conversations I’ve had to have with people who recognise me as a regular. At the same time the business of the place is making it hard for me to actually work … I spent five hours one day sitting watching Netflix rather than actually writing plus I find the exposure … well, it’s too much.

I could have moved upstairs but the WiFi is shit (and there are steps steeper than my house stairs) and with my BFFs having dogs/boots on their foots, stairs seem unfair. Especially as my former seat was right by the bar and thus close to the disabled loo and the baristas who’d always watch my stuff for me.

As a kid I liked enclosed spaces where I was on my own and when I realised Nero had a nook (right by the bar which means it’s lovely and warm), I decided to move. Ironically, I’ve been a regular visitor for the last two weeks anyway as I wanted breakfast (buying some croissants and taking them next door as Starbucks food … well it’s not the chain’s strongest point). This is mainly as there’s been delivery issues and they’re going to start playing Christmas music on a loop.

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Nero’s is quieter, people leave me be and the baristas seem nice. I get the feeling they’ve been seening a lot of defectees recently. The only downside is they don’t quite have the speed of Starbucks partners, which actually, works in their favour. You get a few minutes to wait and savour the experience rather than waiting in a huddle with other caffine-deprived souls. It feels more impersonal but also a little more personal, which is a contraction to say the least.

The booth itself is larger, the bunkette bigger, as are the tables which means I can set up my full rig. There’s a powerpoint right by my ankle and loads of room for my coat, bag and cane. I can even set up my iPhone as a second screen for Westworld rewatching. The disabled loo is within my eye-line, the only downside are the pesky cushions and having to guess which of the seventeen WiFi networks is Nero’s/capable of connecting with Dropbox.

But I feel like a traitor.

Part of the problem, I think is the ease of Starbucks. You walk in, pay with your phone and walk out or sit down seconds later. I’ve frequently put £20 on my card while on the bus, only to frown at the transaction a day later when it hits my credit card. At Nero I pay with cash (I choose to) and have a stamp card which is good for my attempts at weaning myself off credit cards and onto a cash system. Living on cash is the secret to my getting out of debt plan (as is not checking TeeFury) or Kickstarter. It’s hard and there are always emergencies, some weeks are easiler than others but I’m transitioning.

Cash is also limiting but there’s plenty of water on offer which is just what I need as mochas make me thirsty. I also know croissants aren’t the best breakfast but considering I’m not usually a breakfast person, it’s a step up for me.

I know the novelty will probably wear off, especially once I get a dog as the place is very small (and I’d need to buy another dog bowl; I do it as a service for all guide dogs when I start living in a particular coffee shop, including my own). But for now it’s helping me; I’m not writing much, most of this morning was spent outlining The Broken World and praying my battery wouldn’t die. The point is I can focus in there, the nook has good sound-muffling and no one can see me (it’s impossible for me to write if people are sitting behind me, a weird psychological quirk).

I like it and I’m in early enough that it’s mine. MINE.

Until I get new dog, I think I’m going to keep it. I might actually get some working done.

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