Writing in the Dark: navigating creativity in the anxiety/depression/insomnia/trauma cycle

Originally a Twitter thread in 2019. Some additions and clean-up, and updating.

I keep lists of my DNF (did not finish) reads. I noted a pattern forming in the last three months and it’s got me thinking, but as usual, please consider it a workshop piece, a first draft.

We’re creatives. We tend to be well tuned to the feelings of others. For the past decade, there’s been a whole WHACK of a lot of despair, pain, frustration, war, trauma & general hardship. That gets into our heads & our work.

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Preview: Time’s Ashes

Available on November 14, 2023 from fine ebook retailers everywhere.

Preorder at Amazon Preorder at Smashwords


27-28 Fervenis, 1140 – The Battle of Cimenarum

Lisel dat Peralts

I closed my eyes and pressed hard on the folded bandage, the only thing keeping this archer’s blood in her body. The wound was too high for a tourniquet. She had a bad break in her other leg, but it was below her knee and not through her skin.

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Luxuries Bought With Others’ Lives: NPCs, Dehumanization, and Pandemic Ethics

Opening monologue:

This is Free City.
Look at this guy. He’s one of the sunglasses people.
And the people who wear sunglasses? Are heroes.
They have a devil-may-care attitude and they run this town.
Bombshell:You are so hot.
Revenjamin Buttons, dropping into driver’s seat: Oh, I know.
See? That’s not even his car. Or his wife.
For the sunglasses people, they get to do anything they want.
They go on all sorts of missions, they got cool hair, cool clothes.
I mean, laws aren’t really laws to them.They’re more like mild suggestions.
Like, I don’t think he’s gonna return that car.
Or that nice lady.
See what I mean? Hero.

A still from the movie Free Guy, featuring Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer. Image copyright (©) 20th Century Studios or related entities. Used for publicity and promotional purposes.

Thus begins Free Guy. 105 words of thesis statement.

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In Defense of Constructed Language

(Originally posted on Write.as in January, 2019)

Deoxyribonucleic Acid.
Voice Over Internet Protocol
Digital Subscriber Line

Those six concepts all entered into the English language to describe new concepts as they were needed. That’s what English does, and what all languages do, because the human experience that we share develops new ideas all the time, and better ways to describe them.

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Early Draft – Rien’s Rebellion, 2005-2008

What follows is an example of Rien’s Rebellion in development, specifically to illustrate the evolution of the constructed language of Galantier. This is purely because I have access to my own drafts and the decisions that drove the evolution of Rebellion from Disney Princess Plays Virginity Porn with Robin Hood into … what it is.

As a reminder: the finished version of Rien’s Rebellion is available at Smashwords and Amazon, and I’m always delighted to have new readers.

As the tweeted article points out, the constructed language is bold and textual world building is (individual words in) italic. (Thoughts are also in italic. Sorry.)

Chapter 1 – Cedri

The first night she ever saw him, he thought she wanted to kill him. The second night, she wanted to die. The third time she saw him, she thought he wanted to kill her. Took ’em a while to work it out, but like in the supper stories my mam used to tell, magic only works on the third try. Though we don’t believe in magic.

I’d tracked her for most of a tenday, since the wild onions started disappearing suspiciously. We’d passed Last Summer Night but in the Foreti, spring comes late and summer runs deep into harvest season. Still, we had a larder to stock and we liked to know who — and where — the neighbors were. Safer that way.

“Somebody’s discovered this one, too,” Quin said when we got to the most heavily raided patch.

That vexed me. He was reiterating exactly what I’d already told him. We’d spent eight years together and I knew Quin’s mind. He’d repeat everything I’d done, because doing is how he understands the world. It’s not personal, but we had an onion thief to find. “Like I said,” I sighed pointedly. “She’s got traps about a millia that way,” I waved, “leading off from a salt-block. Little fingers, little feet, and this.” I passed him the hair I’d knotted to one of my own. “I only see signs of her here.”

He examined the strand. “Blonde, almost as long as yours.”

“Ayuh, thus, I think she’s a she. Most kids don’t have hair this long. I follow her tracks, but she always cunningly crosses something rocky and I lose the trace.”

Quin caught my irritation. Still kneeling in the wild onions, he cheated. His face got that peculiar, blank expression he gets when he begs his ingeniae to tell him about the world beyond his sight. When his fine features cleared, he looked disgruntled. “Someone’s using an axe, three, four milliae that way. Probably her.”

That grimace told me how little he got from his ingeniae, but enough to follow her tracks to where I always lost them, down on the rocky shingle beside the Tynel. That far north, it’s a wide, fast stream that’s only just decided it doesn’t want to be ice and might be regretting the decision. Most winters, it changes its mind. We walked a good two, three milliae before I heard the ca-thunk of her axe. I think Quin heard it sooner, but he was listening for it, and I was off in my head. Now, all I do is track people, but back then, I could better track a rabbit in a blizzard than prints across rocks from good boots just starting to wear.

“Woods-crafty,” he said, a note of admiration in his voice. Quin’s always been fond of seeing a thing done well.

I nodded. “But her axe rings flat.”

“Hmm,” he agreed. “It’s slipping.” We kept quiet, and on the rocks, so we wouldn’t leave a trail. When the axe stopped echoing back across the river, I knew we were close. I smelled fire, too, a little mineral smoke, so dry wood, and a touch of burned meat and scorched flour. Human scents, not lightning setting the Foreti ablaze.

I touched his shoulder, nodded at the trees. He caught my meaning and we climbed a gnarled old chestnut to see the lay of the land.

We found her, almost below us, in a pitiful little camp: a tiny hovel of woven pine and willow, a blackened fire ring. A ragged stump for a chopping block and a pile of deadfall. She was so gangly and thin I saw every bone and knotted muscle in her arms, her face so hollowed she might’ve survived a famine, so pale and her eyes so shadowed she might have lived through a couple plagues. She looks like she escaped one of Lethis’ damn cells. Not that such a miracle ever happened. When somebody enters the cold god’s cubilata, only a body leaves. I’ve seen hanged men with more serene expressions than I’ve seen on the face of someone who died bricked inside a cell, hearing people just paces away, letting them die.

There’s nothing left of her! Daval would make two of her, and he’s a head shorter. Her axe-head shifted on the shaft with each swing. That’ll kill her if it lets go. I started down the tree to interrupt her, probably scare her out of half her life and —

That’s when it cracked, like a branch under spring snow.

I had my eyes on the chestnut when it went, so I don’t know exactly what happened. Next I looked, she’d slumped motionless but for the blood pouring from her, pooling on the stump, dripping on the ground, covering what I could see of her neck and staining her breeches. Too much blood — she’s dead. I hadn’t seen many people die violently; none, really, just sickness and age. When I was a littlun, Mam kept us away when the farm tools turned spiteful. Seeing her, laying there, I felt sick. And a little glad I never saw what happened when the hay baler caught Tormin. I cursed myself for not reaching her in time.

Then she surprised me — pushed herself upright and rage filled her face. “I didn’t kill him! I should have died instead!” was the most intelligible of the nonsense she shouted, the rest fogged in grunts and wordless yells as she hurled her cut wood into the scrub.

I made a long arm to get Quin’s attention. I tapped my temple, looked skeptical. Is she barmy?

He held up a finger, turned back to watch, his face awash in disbelief.

Could she rant! Whatever she saw in the woods, she gave it the gods’ own tongue-lashing. She turned towards us, blood still dripping down her face, wild-eyed. Her words got clearer, but they lacked much sense. “He isn’t what you expected? Do you regret it yet? You thought he’d concentrate on his Temple and wouldn’t interfere. I warned you! You don’t know him! Why, because I’m a woman or because I’m not meek? Bleeding fire, you lackwits, were you raised in a goat pen?”

Ayuh, her wits had toddled off the path, either before she got hurt or when her brain got knocked about. Great. Another nutter to avoid. Well, thin as she is, and that noisy, she won’t last long. She’d die on her own, or someone would figure her for an easy mark.

I glanced at Quin, ready to leave, but when I saw him, fear caught me for the first time that day. Not of her — for him. He looked horrified, his face gone green, and he shook his head, slow, denying something. He’d wrapped his fingers tight on the branch, but he swayed, and for a second, I thought he’d fall.

I’m not a religious man, and prayed mostly not at all, but I prayed then, to every god save one, that Quin would hold fast. I couldn’t drag him home if he got hurt.

She fell — I missed it, too worried about Quin — so next I saw, she’d crumpled in the dirt, her hands in her hair, staining the blonde russet. She trembled and keened like that half-dead otter, the one that stopped me taking water trap duty. She rent my heart just like that poor little beast had. I wanted to cry with her, because no one should cry so desperately and be alone.

That decided me. Nutter or not, she needs help. I tried for Quin’s attention again, and when I got it, I pointed firmly down, then at her. His face was a mask but his eyes were bright and cloudy. He shook his head and mouthed, no.

I couldn’t believe him. Quin is many things, but callous, he isn’t. He insists we see to the ones who can’t look out for themselves, and she was the type we’d normally aid.

I heard words again, but her voice had gone thick with weeping. I listened, still watching Quin shake his head and stare at her like his heart was breaking. “Go to Archilia’s Afterworld, Father!” she wailed. “You abandoned me… I failed! They were right. I couldn’t govern my own Parley. I’m so sorry, Papa…”

That caught my attention. I really looked at her, not that I’d recognize her; I’d never seen her. But I’d read the tattered broadsheets we brought home, and I went to town on quarter-days to hear what lies the Royal Messenger called news. I was always bookish, and my head keeps facts, even useless ones like Galantieran politics. That can’t be her, no, here? Now? How? Why? But who else could say she couldn’t govern her own Parley? Parleys aren’t thick on the ground.

“Oh, Gods,” I breathed and saw Quin nod in the corner of my eye.

That woman bleeding and weeping down below — she was dead. Had been for almost a quarter-year. Burned to death in her Archilian Conversatory, after her world turned bitter. So the Royal Messenger said, but the only person who lied more than a Royal Messenger was a Spagnian ambassador.

My thoughts ran through my head like a blue-fox after a hare. Having her here endangered us, but having her here, like that, made it worse. We had good reasons for living in the Foreti, like the prices on some of our heads. Someone would come after her eventually, and luck being what it is, they’d find us first. We didn’t want to be found, but neither did she.

But that keening… Some sounds burn themselves into the heart.

Maybe she thinks her camp’s hidden, but anyone looking for her will be good, better than Quin and me, probably Talented. She’ll be found.

My heart, not my mind, held my reins. “Quin,” I hissed. “We got to help her.”

He shifted to the center bole of the tree. I scrambled over and he whispered in my ear, “We go down there, we’ll panic her. She’ll run or maybe just keel over.”

I had to agree. “Think she’s mad? Good reason to say she died.”

He thought for a second, then shook his head. “Lunatics don’t set traps and build huts. Remember when we found Bran?”

Ayuh. “All grief and despair. That her?”

“Ayuh, just a million times worse. Bran lost his family. Her?” Quin’s face broke. “I can’t imagine.”

I didn’t want to try. We’d all borne grief, but ours were insignificant in comparison — and we didn’t know the whole story. “She’s bleeding,” I insisted.

“It’s not mortal.” Quin sighed. “Let her manage.”

Face wounds bleed, but she was moving and breathing, so Quin was right. She still talked to something only she perceived; her voice had gone raspy and soft. I listened hard. “They declared you traitor for it. I’ll remember that.” She paused and told her phantom, “I don’t want to live.”

When she crawled to her privy pit, I averted my eyes to give her what privacy I could. Used the time to think. She sounds off her path, but so did Bran in his raging fits. Lethis’ mortar, so did I, in the black despair. We got through the black, got each other through our darkness. That thought moved me. “Can we help her now?”

Quin was watching her heave her guts and hole up in her wretched hut. He backed down the tree fast, and I followed, thinking once we were down, we’d go through the sketchy break in the brush to her camp. But when I set foot on the ground, Quin grabbed my shoulder and dragged me down the river.

“Oi, leave off,” I said, “You’re not just leaving her — “

“No, I’m not just leaving her.” He leaned his bow against a boulder and collapsed on the rock, his head in his hands. “What can we do, Ced? Two men, she’ll think rape. Even in her right mind, why trust us? We can’t help.”

I sighed, but we could help her. “She’s starving on rabbits and roots. We could feed her, like we’ve done for some of the others. Fanik can get her axe mended. She needs better shelter, we can build — “

“Let’s just ask her to buy in if we’re taking on a charity?” he said sarcastically. His mouth turned down. “Way she’s going, she won’t live long. What’s she doing here, anyway?”

That question, I could answer. “She’s scared. Poor thing.”

“Oh, no, poor she isn’t.” A hardness unlike him came into his voice. “She’s a Prenceza. If she doesn’t realize she’s got more power by breathing — Stupid bint should’ve hied herself east to Gorthania. King Baraned’d help her.”

I’d never heard Quin call anyone a bint. It shocked me. But for a bright man, Quin could be stone dumb about women. “With five sisters, I know something about girls.” I gave him all the scorn I could muster. “Not a one in her right mind — or even her wrong one — puts herself where someone can take liberties.” I thought about the danger she presented and suddenly, his sarcasm didn’t seem so outrageous. “Buying in’s not a bad idea, Quin.”

He stared at me like I’d toddled off my path, but I had his attention. “Ayuh.” I nodded, thinking through what we needed, what she needed, how much complication this would cause — piles of complication — but everything I knew told me the best solutions aren’t simple. “We need more hands. Her hut’s no great architecture, but that roof — well woven. Her traps are good, you said yourself she’s woods-crafty. How a Prenceza learned that — “

Quin huffed. “You don’t know her family. Hellions, all of ’em. The Razin spent his summer holidays in the woods down south and she went everywhere with him. Ced, she’s a woman. We don’t need… temptation. Or the risk.”

I almost had him. If he’s thinking about his past enough to remember the Razin’s habits, he’s close. I scooped up pebbles and skipped them across the river, giving him time to sink into his memories. Then I set my trap. “I’ve got sisters. So’s Daval. Bran doesn’t care and Fanik? No. You planning on getting under her? You’re vowed. You gotta help, Quin, so we do, too.”

He dropped his head back and stared at the sky. “I hoped you’d forgotten.”

Ayuh, I’ve got him now. “That m’best friend is the son the highest Teregenitor in Galantier? And got disinherited for swearin’ fealty to his da’s enemy’s daughter? Her, back there? Ayuh. Next you’ll be telling me I forgot to put on my feet.”

Quin snarled at the river, then picked up his own stones and flung them unnecessarily hard across the shallow, fast flow. “I don’t know how we can help her. I can’t do anything, vow or no.”

I had him, but he had a point. I didn’t know how to help her either, just that we should. I drained my waterskin while I thought, then dropped my bow so I could refill it. We five had the closest thing to a family a bunch of outcasts could make. Maybe it can stand a sixth, but one so different? The icy water numbed my fingers as I held my ‘skin in the flow.

She’ll die when the river freezes. We’ll light her pyre and send her to her father in the Afterworld. We weren’t monstrous enough to force a soul to wander the earth forever. If we don’t help, when she dies, Quin’ll feel it. Bran, too. And me, but Quin’ll lock himself into the black again, taking stupid risks, like our first years. I doubted he’d survive this time, and he’d probably get us killed, too.

I wasn’t thinking about her, just keeping my family alive and sane. We’d help her for our sakes. I squelched out of the river — waterproof boots are just a hope –and stood facing him. “If not you, who, Quin?” I said. “Can you live with yourself if we walk away? She’ll die. You know that.”

Quin flung another stone across the river. He sighed and tossed the last pebble from hand to hand, deep in thought. “Fine. Yes. Tell the others. I’ll watch her.”


So, contextual clues, starting with the constructed language.

Foreti is fairly clearly an analogue for Forest.

Millia & milliae are units of distance, and again, analoged to mile.

Ingeniae is a new word, but it comes with the description “to tell him about the world beyond his sight”. Quin clearly is aware of something out of range of normal senses, and that’s in-story weird as a clue.

Lethis is a proper name for the cold god; cubilata is a place where people die, bricked up inside. More detail here would be a mess and would distract.

Archilia is another proper name, clearly another deity since she has an Afterworld.

Parley: the word itself, in English, is the obvious contextual clue. It’s so closely related to Parliament that I feel like I’m being insulting by explaining it as a legislative body.

Galantieran refers to politics, and we just talked about a Parley, so context says country, nation, state.

Razin and Prenceza are clearly titles, and close enough to their analogues.

The world building language is about the same:

Supper stories: something a parent tells to a child. Fairy tales.

Last Summer’s Night: a holiday, obvious.

Black despair: depression.

Dying for the Dow

politicsRebellionwritingJan 30

Originally a Twitter thread, posted on March 25, 2020 (minor edits for clarity)

It’s no secret that I orbit Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. I read it first when I was 11 or 12. It started my relationship with ethics, utilitarianism, pro-social responsibility, …everything. I love it & hate it. (It’s short.) https://sites.asiasociety.org/asia21summit/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/3.-Le-Guin-Ursula-The-Ones-Who-Walk-Away-From-Omelas.pdf

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Economics & Emotion: Does Sense & Sensibility still work?

This has been kicking around my various hard drives for a long time. I think the first draft was in 2004; I know I finished a good draft in 2009, and I’ve tweaked it occasionally since then. It’s been a side project for when Galantier leaves me brain-fried.

I’ve always preferred Sense & Sensibility to Pride & Prejudice, because I think S&S is more about grief, loss and economics than romance. I actually like the fact that the boys go gallivanting off and spend their off-screen time behaving badly, and despite this, Willoughby and Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon feel less like props to advance the story than Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley do. (I do like P&P, and Lizzie certainly got a better deal with Darcy than by staying single or with Mr. Collins, but I just can’t ‘ship Larcy. So please don’t flame me.) I’m sure Darcy has an internal life that isn’t just obsessed with Lizzie, but he feels rather cypherish to me. I see social anxiety and a lifetime of familial manipulation and learned helplessness in Edward.

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