Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Back in the land of the living

I know it’s been a very long time since I last blogged, but the simple answer is that I had nothing to say – nothing entertaining, anyway. There are few things worse than (a) spraying your personal woes all over the internet, and (b) depressing everyone else at the same time.

I’ve just resurfaced after a really, really bad year which started in earnest last December. It’s down to Real Life, which is a pain in the arse when it intrudes on work. In short, I’ve had a long-term family illness to manage, I’ve had surgery (with a good outcome, thankfully), and I’ve had another medical issue of my own to resolve. This has involved being unable to avoid the NHS, which I’d done quite successfully for the last decade, and having some bad experiences with it. (There’s been a hospital enquiry as a result of one of them. But that’s all I can say.) So although I wrote about half a million words this year trying to keep up with my schedule, I might as well not have bothered. I should have had the sense to hit the pause button and focus 100% on the domestic front, but I didn’t.

Sometimes work is a respite when you have an ongoing problem at home, but sometimes it simply spreads you too thinly; you can’t fight on two fronts without the risk of losing on both. My writing during that time is best summed up by paraphrasing the excellent and much-missed Eric Morecambe. They were all the right words, but not necessarily in that order.*

Anyway, long and nose-bleedingly depressing story short, I stabilised the problems (some things can’t be fixed, just contained) and decided to restructure a lot of stuff on the home front to avoid hitting that kind of wall again, all of which drained my batteries. I’m now back on recharge, and I’ve (re)written more (and more coherently) in the last few weeks than I ‘ve managed all year.

So Black Run really is coming soon, and I mean in English, not whatever the hell the previous version was written in. And there will be other stuff in 2016. Stand by for more news.

Have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year. And thanks for sticking with me.

*Re Eric Morecambe – seeing as it’s Christmas, I’d be remiss if I didn’t show you the clip in context. (It’s all funny, but the relevant part starts around 10.00.) One of the great comedy classics. For you young ‘uns who’ve never seen this, that really is Andre Previn being a good sport. Thank you, Mr Preview.

Nine Days with Wonder Woman and a classics text book

Cover artwork for Wonder Woman: Nine days

If anyone tells you comics aren't educational, counter their case with this. I don't mean educational for the reader. I've learned a lot by reading well-researched, intelligent comics. I mean for the writer.

To write NINE DAYS, a story about Wonder Woman in a different* Greek mythological context, I had to brush up on my classics after a very long hiatus (Latin was still a modern language when I was a girl, you see) and believe me, it was like homework all over again. I always do a lot of research anyway, even for a shopping list, but this plunged me straight back into exam mindset. I had a mental picture of running into my old classics teacher, and she'd ask me: "Did you actually make any use of your Latin and Greek?" And I'd say, "Yes, Miss, I used it to write Wonder Woman for DC Comics."

But that's never going to happen, alas, so I'll share the imagined moment with you. (And, in case Miss is still around and reading this, I make active use of Latin every day.)

Anyway, Wonder Woman was a step outside my cammed up, weaponised, hairy-arsed military comfort zone, so it was a blast.

Oh, and I also had to brush up on dark matter and cosmology stuff. So there you go.

NINE DAYS is on sale on September 16, digital first. I'll let you know when other editions are available.

(* The Greeks were a bit flexible on canon. They rebooted the gods from time to time. I've gone with a lesser-known Olympian genealogy for some of the characters.)


On sale SEPTEMBER 16 • 40 pg, FC, $3.99 US • RATED T

Getting the human side of military fiction right

I bang on about this a lot, I know, but a conversation this week with a serving US soldier reminded me why I should harp on about it forever: getting military fiction right, especially the human side, matters more than ever. Fiction is frequently the most powerful and sometimes the only window people have on the real military world. My crusade in life is to erase lazily written military stereotypes from the face of the Earth, unless it's forced to carry a CONTAINS BULLSHIT warning in big red letters.

The first part of my guest blog for Fictorians is here. Part II is here. And remember that just because a movie, book, or whatever tries to pass itself off as authentic, it doesn't mean that it is. Try my three-movie test, as outlined in the blog.

If you get the details of a fictional plasma-powered rifle wrong, you've upset a few fans. It doesn't impinge on the real world. If you portray military personnel inaccurately, though, you've done real people (and dare I say it, the best of our species) a serious disservice. I know which matters more in the global scheme of things.

No Joe

If you're a regular G.I. Joe reader, you've probably worked out that the Fall of G.I. Joe series is ending next month after eight issues instead of twelve. It's a shame, because I was really enjoying it and Steve Kurth and I had developed a great creative partnership. Inevitably, a story planned for twelve issues can't suddenly be collapsed into eight with five issues wrapped up in the final book without some gouges and dents, so I left the characters in as good a shape as I could so that some story arcs were resolved and the characters could be picked up again in the future if needed.

To give IDW their due, they were open with me from the start that they weren't sure how long they could keep the new series going, and I took the job on that basis. All we could do was plan for a year and see what happened month by month. They finally pulled the plug at issue #7, which gave me one issue to tie up what I could and give readers some closure. That meant making drastic changes to a couple of storylines; but, like all stories that go off at unplanned tangents, it just made them more interesting for me and I was quite sad that I wasn't going to be following where they went. Working with Steve Kurth was a treat because we found our mutual "zone" fast and then we were on a roll. It's a great experience when you really gel with an artist. Kito Young (colourist) and Jeffrey Veregge (cover artist) did some fabulous stuff too. It was a cool team and I learned a lot from everybody. We were aiming for a modern spy thriller, a little different to the traditional G.I. Joe, and I feel we delivered on that.

Anyway, that's how comics are. Readers and creatives all know the industry works on tight budgets, and we're used to series suddenly getting chopped. It's a tough market. But I had a great time with IDW, who were honest and courteous throughout. I met some great Joe fans along the way, too. So all in all, I'm glad I worked on it and sorry that it had to end too soon.

Addicted to plasticity

After trying background sound to improve my concentration at a time when events around me militate against it, I've added brain plasticity to the mix. I don't mean the brain-training stuff beloved of the Daily Mail – I'm giving Lumosity a trial run. In brief, it's a collection of quick games for phone, tablet, or desktop tailored to the aspect of your cognitive ability that you want to improve. You're supposed to do a few minutes a day, and the theory is that you gradually rewire your brain.

I like that because it's proven science. And as it doesn't involve scalpels, electrodes, or expensive mind-bending substances, I'm in.

It all started well, and I was directed towards the appropriate exercises for improving the ability to ignore interruptions. Then, unfortunately, my obsessive game-playing side kicked in almost immediately. Few minutes a day, my arse.

The programme gives you your scores so you can see how you're doing, and after three games it tells you that you're done for the day and it'll see you tomorrow. But it also allows you to carry on if you want to, and, naturally, I want to. Oh boy do I want to. It's a real struggle to put it down. I remember having to avoid the Eyezmaze games (Grow Island etc) because I couldn't leave them alone. What I really need is to channel that completely-blinkered-must-keep-doing-this mode from doing the training games into doing the work I need help to focus on.

Now you understand why I'm not a gamer per se. If I dropped my guard, I'd end up doing nothing else. I don't quite get it because I'm definitely a novelty junkie – complete task, move on, find something new – but there's a bit of my brain that leads me to happily play a game until I drop, even if it's repetitive, and also eat the same thing every day.

Speaking of which, it's salmon and Puy lentil time.

Background noise

Yes, I know it's been a long time since I last blogged. Sorry. Basically, real life gets in the way sometimes, and while I used to be able to sideline it and get on with the job, there comes a point where it isn't feasible and you have to tackle problems because there's nobody else to do it.

As a consequence I'm way behind on Black Run, and not so much because of the hours required to deal with the domestic issues but because of the way they rob me of concentration. When I write, I immerse, or else I can't get into characters' heads. You know all about that if you're a regular reader. An interruption – be it external, like a phone call, or an internal interruption like a nagging worry – throws me off for hours, and it's increasingly hard to get back into the zone every time. Writing a book is a very unnatural thing to do, so when my monkey-brain gets into the habit of waiting for the next real crisis to sort out, it's going to do the sensible thing and prioritise anything that might be Real Shit above Make-Believe every time, and the distractions it takes to make it do that can be incredibly trivial in the scheme of things.

So I've tried to reset my unjustifiably distractible primitive brain with various techniques. In the past, I'd filter out street noise by having the 24-hour news channels on. It was my newsroom atmos track, more like the kind of background chatter I was used to in an open-plan office, and there was a time when it enabled me to zone out better than silence. Now it doesn't. I might not be listening consciously, but my brain is probably still processing the content, and it seems to aggravate rather than neutralise. I can't tell if that's because my brain is already looking for trouble and can't ignore it, or if it's because the news has become such a vile blend of vacuous pundits and corrupt, lying scum recently that I'm drinking in the toxic content subconsciously and getting ready to erupt.

Anyway, today the TV backdrop was turned off for the first time in years. I've plugged myself into a specially designed soundtrack of orchestral music (lyrics are a no-no) that might as well be atmos. (One of the tracks you can choose is, in fact, the ambient noise from a cafe.) So far, it hasn't transformed me back to my old self, when I managed to write with workmen sawing and hammering in the same room, but I can sustain concentration a little longer than before. I have no recollection of the music itself and I don't pause to listen to certain parts of it. That might sound like a terrible and dismissive thing to a musician, but I'm coming to understand that music you don't notice is as valuable as pieces that stop you in your tracks and move you to tears.

We shall see. I'll give it a month and see if things improve.