Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Protecting our creative time

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Hello, friends, and happy belated Canadian Thanksgiving! We had a splendid long weekend with just the right proportions of feasting, sunshine, leisure and work. In fact, I am eating leftovers as I type this. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I’ve noticed a pattern in my blogging about writing habits and practices: I often talk about mistakes I’ve made and how I’ve learned, slowly, to work more efficiently. In the past year or so, I’ve talked about writing incentives, feeling stuck, staying focused on work, and being my own good boss. But one thing that I’ve done for years, and never really noticed, is be highly protective of my creative time.

My fiction-writing time is very clearly delineated. It starts when I drop off my daughter at kindergarten and ends when it’s time to pick her up. This year, that’s four 3.25-hour sessions a week, and that slot includes commuting time. Recently, before school, I fell into conversation with two other parents. It was a really great discussion: friendly, constructive, thoughtful problem-solving for the greater good. But when it was time for me to go, I said so without guilt: “Time to go to work.” I declined an invitation to sit on a committee: “Sorry, I’ll be working.” I said I couldn’t attend even a single committee meeting (that occurs during writing time): “Sorry, I’ll be at work.” I did this all cheerfully and without internal debate, despite being a dutiful person who was raised to please the entire world.

As I was walking out, one of the parents said, “When you say you’re working, are you talking about writing?” I felt my defense reflexes kick in. After all, there are so many people who think that writing isn’t work; that somehow it just happens effortlessly in the twenty minutes of free time between nightly chores and falling asleep.

I prepared myself to explain that writing, like all work, requires time to perform and replied, a little warily, “Yes.”

She sighed with relief and said, “That’s great. It’s really good to hear you being firm about needing creative time.”

As it turns out, this parent is an artist who also wants to make more time for her work! She was frustrated because her work time was being nibbled away by a high volume of things that were, taken individually, only small time commitments. So as we walked swiftly from the building, I laid out the realization I had a few years ago:

If I don’t respect my creative time, nobody else will, either.

Once you’ve decided to protect your creative time, it’s so easy to do. It doesn’t require a single concerted effort that will overturn your life. Rather, it requires very modest daily vigilance, sentence by sentence:

“I can’t make that appointment; how about [a suitable time]?”

“I can’t meet for coffee then, but I’m around at [a suitable time], or maybe we could [alternative plan].”

“I’m going to work now.”

And, for friends/family who interrupt you while you’re working: “Nice to see you! I can chat for five minutes [look at watch] and then I’m going to have to kick you out, because I’m working.” And then after five minutes – you’re watching the time, right? – bounce them.

Boom. Just like that, everyone else* respects your creative time, because you showed them how.

*Almost everyone else. There seems to be a special dispensation for mothers, when you’re trying to work at their house. If I find the solution, I will definitely update!

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Writing incentives

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Hello, friends! FINALLY, everyone’s settled into school and I’m back in a writing rhythm (until children start to get sick, of course). I’m making good progress on my WIP (huzzah!) and I want to talk today about writing incentives – aka straight-up bribery.

Let me start by saying it’s an enormous and inarguable thrill to get paid for writing fiction. Being a writer involves a huge amount of privilege and a certain amount of luck. But it also takes a ton of discipline – something I didn’t always know I had, or until recently failed to recognize as such.

As a graduate student, I wrote my essays and doctoral dissertation with grit and cold determination. There wasn’t much joy in the process – nearly all the mild thrills of having fresh insights into a subject and working out my argument had long evaporated before time came to Writing the Damn Thing. But I did. Once I’d finished my research and parked myself at the computer, I could crank out about a page an hour. That’s about 350 words an hour, sustainable for a maximum of 5 hours a day before I wanted to throw myself out the window. (Not literally. If academic writing actually makes you want to throw yourself out a window, even a fairly low one, please don’t. Please get help and seriously consider leaving the academy.) What I’m trying to say is, academic writing was hard work.

When I transitioned to writing fiction, I felt incredibly liberated. Here I was, writing WHATEVER I WANTED! No references required! If what I wrote was dull, I could delete, delete, delete. In fact, it was my duty to excise the boring. And yet somehow, I failed to recognize that some days would still be weary, fingers-to-keyboard, no-you-can’t-have-another-snack days. For some reason, I thought fiction would just flow from my tingling fingertips.

Four published novels later, it turns out that fiction-writing still requires grit and cold determination. Sometimes, there is little joy in the process. Sometimes, I have to write the equivalent of an introduction or a critical overview. Fiction, too, is hard work. And in my current quest to become ever more efficient at this writing lark, I’ve decided to turn to writing incentives.

Nearly every writer I’ve asked about this uses them. Erin Bow recommends stickers. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Stephanie Burgis loves chocolate. Graham Greene liked, er, amphetamines. (This last bit is only partly true: Greene wrote his first thriller, The Confidential Agent, in a benzedrine-fuelled six weeks. But he says that was his only foray into speed.)

I’ve never been much for external motivation (for one, I find it hard to suspend disbelief: this is all a fiction of my own devising, why should I obey my own rules?), so call it an experiment. A couple of mornings a week, I’ve begun working at the public library. If I hit my target of 1000 words in 2.5 hours, I get to browse the used book sale. No target, no used books for me. Also, I have strong feelings about the Pilot G-TEC-C4 pen, so I recently bought a package in rainbow colours. Every time I have a perfect work week – defined as a week in which I was diligent and productive and did not fritter away time on the intertubes – I will give myself the gift of a new pen. We’ll see how it goes.

Also! As I was writing this post, I came across this blog post by V. E. Schwab in which she asks 18 authors about their daily writing habits. Fascinating!

How about you, friends? How do you motivate yourselves to work your best?

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Writing Diversity in Dialogue

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Hello, friends. I hope you have a celebratory libation in hand. I certainly do, because today is Rivals in the City‘s birthday! As many of you know, this has been a long time coming, and there were definitely times when I feared it would never happen at all. But March 10 is here, and Rivals is now on sale in bookstores across Canada and the U. S.

Rivals in the City, by Y S LeeDespite the jubilation, this is also a bittersweet day for me. The publication of Rivals also marks the end of the Agency quartet – the last Mary Quinn adventure, the last time I write dialogue between Mary and James, and probably my last romp through London, 1858-1860.

Don’t worry: I’m not finished writing novels! I’m just ready to try a new setting. Despite the fact that I’m eager for change, though, it’s hard to leave this world behind. It feels like a second home to me (a family cottage?), and I’ll miss it dearly.

To mark this special week, I wrote a guest post called “Writing Diversity in Dialogue” for Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo’s very fine site, Diversity in YA. If you read it first there and are just finding your way here, welcome! I’m re-posting it here this week, though, because there’s no comments section at DiYA, and my desire is to start a conversation about this sticky subject. So please, let me know what you think, either in the comments below or on Twitter (I’m @yinglee). I’d love to discuss this to the next stage in good company.

Writing Diversity in Dialogue

One of the delights of the written word is the power – in fact, the necessity – of creating your own mental pictures and soundtrack. Only you know just what the heroine looks like when she’s angry; only you know the precise music of her nemesis laughing. Setting plays a huge role, too: contemporary America vs. medieval France vs. a planet far, far away. As readers, we are our own casting directors, cinematographers, and composers. I’m here today to argue that we should be our own dialogue coaches, too.

As a genre, historical fiction – which I love, and which I write – is prone to spelling out accents. Often, it’s not enough to mention in passing that a character is a stableboy or a visiting German aristocrat; the characters’ words are spelled out so that we can see, on the page, just how outlandish their pronunciation is. And that’s not all. The real problem is that historical fiction is especially prone to spelling out lower-class accents.

See the bias here? Everybody has an accent; that much is obvious. But in novels where lower-class accents are spelled out, the upper-class accents are rendered in standard English spelling. The not-so-subtle subtext is that upper-class accents are “normal”, while lower-class accents deviate from an invisible, correct norm. Add to this the fact that working-class accents are most frequently used to provide comic relief or create pathos, and what we have is proud and unexamined social snobbery written openly on the page. We should be embarrassed. We should repudiate this. We should complain, bitterly, so that writers and editors re-think assumptions about class, accent, and the ways we report speech.

When I wrote the Agency novels, I solved the problem by representing dialect (irregular grammar) but not accent. I might write a character who says, “I don’t know who done it.” I might even write, “Dunno” instead of “Don’t know,” on the grounds that everybody, across the social spectrum, uses contractions in speech. But I assume that my readers can imagine what “I don’t know who done it” might sound like, spoken aloud. I won’t write, “I daown’t knaow ‘oo dunnit!” It’s patronizing, it’s ugly, and it’s an invitation to readers to feel superior to that character.

But whether they were mudlarks or monarchs, all these characters of mine were native speakers of English. When writing Rivals in the City, I found that I had a fresh problem: how to write dialogue for a character who speaks imperfect English. A character, in fact, who spoke only Chinese until a couple of years prior to the action of the novel, and who speaks with a distinct Chinese accent.

I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of spelling out his pronunciation. Still, I felt stuck as to how to convey his accent. Stereotypes of Asian accents in English are usually patronizing and ugly. While French accents are heard as charming, and British accents register as classy, Asian accents are fodder for the unfunniest kinds of jokes. How many times have you heard a French or British person congratulated on speaking “without an accent”? Yeah. Asian accents are the stableboys of the accent hierarchy.

In the end, after a lot of deliberation, I wrote this Chinese character’s dialogue as I would that of any other. His vocabulary is more limited, because he’s relatively new to the language. Figures of speech perplex him. But for me, the clearest and most respectful way of signaling his difference was in giving him words, hearing him speak, and having him articulate his confusion and discomfort with London life in the year 1860. I think that was enough.

I’m curious, though: have you tried or run across other respectful, effective strategies for signaling difference through accent? I’d love to hear them. With any luck – because we’re going to keep reading and writing about diverse casts of characters, right? – this problem will be with us for a long time yet.

(This post was also published earlier this week at Diversity in YA.)

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Author Math

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

One of the things I find consistently surprising in historical fiction is how very long it takes to get from one place to another. The Agency novels are set in London between 1858 and 1860. They’re too urban to make use of the railways that criss-crossed England and a shade too early for the first intra-city underground trains (the steam-powered Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863). Most of the travel in my books takes place either on foot or by horse-power: carriages, cabs, and of course, simply riding on horseback. By 1858, there were also horse-drawn omnibuses that, like our present-day buses, plied regular routes through the city.

An early omnibus (image from wikipedia)

An early omnibus (image from wikipedia)

The climax of Rivals in the City features a fair amount of running around between locations in central London. One of the first things I did when plotting it was create a chart showing the different sites, the distances between them, and how long it would take to move from one point to another. In order not to spoil the plot (Rivals will be published next week in the U. S. and Canada; it’s already available in the UK), I’ve renamed the locations after four of my favourite North American cities. This, of course, is a fiction upon a fiction; the real locations are London landmarks. Otherwise, here’s what my chart looks like:

Timing the final action

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 2.41.39 PMI assumed an average running speed of about 6 miles/10 km per hour – a pretty fast clip for a woman burdened with heavy clothes on slick, inconsistently paved, and poorly lit urban streets (it’s after dark). But I’m talking about the women of the Agency, an elite detective firm. Not only are they are in excellent physical form, they are responding to an emergency.

I assumed a horse trot of 7-8 mph, since poor road quality and night-time visibility again make it impossible to canter. With horseback, I also needed to allow tie-up time and the need to rest or change horses. Riding turned out to be not much faster than running, but riding made it possible for a character to arrive at an important location looking respectable.

As it worked out, the time elapsed for a series of important messages to be relayed was:

– 57 minutes: for a character to run from Vancouver to Toronto and back again

– 41 minutes, plus delays while tying-up a horse: for a character to ride from Toronto to New York, and then from New York to Montreal

– 30 to 35 minutes, plus time for marshalling and instructions: for a large group to walk quickly from Montreal to Vancouver

Rivals in the City, by Y S LeeThis left me with a space of 2 ¼ hours, the minimum period of time my heroine, Mary Quinn, would be alone in “Vancouver” after sounding the alarm. It turned out to be the perfect window of time to allow her to take action, imperil herself, yet receive help at just the right moment.

I love this kind of concrete plotting, and wonder if any of you do the same. How do you work out timelines, near-misses, and rescues?

(This post was also published yesterday at The History Girls.)

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A(nother) fresh start

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Hello, friends. It’s been a while since I talked about my work-in-progress, and that’s no accident. I have been tussling with Monsoon Season, aka the Next Book, for ages now. I’m almost ashamed to say how long, but there’s no point in being coy: I first started it about 18 months ago. Then I scrapped what I had, and re-started it. Then I junked the second version and began afresh. And guess what? Uh huh. Monsoon Season 3.0 is now in the dustbin. (That’s an exaggeration, btw – I keep every word of the old stuff until I’m truly happy with a finished manuscript.)

So what happened? I’ll begin by saying that I’ve had doubts, all along, about my ability to pull this one off. The novel is set in Malaya (now Malaysia) during the Pacific War – that is, during the Second World War as it played out in Southeast Asia. It’s a terrible and fascinating few years in history, and one that’s very seldom acknowledged in the West. So part of my uncertainty definitely grows from the heavy responsibility of representation. If I’m going to write a novel about events few have ever heard of, I’d better do a stellar job.

Civilians in Singapore in an air raid shelter, December 1941 (image via wikicommons)

Singaporean civilians in an air raid shelter, December 1941 (image via wikicommons)

The second weight on my conscience is that of family responsibility. My grandparents all lived through the Pacific War and it marked them deeply. I want to pull their experiences into a book. Yet who do I think I am, embroidering upon their trauma? Again, it’s the responsibility of representation – this time on a family-history scale, with all its guilt-making problems of loyalty and love.

Third, and probably the one that makes me wince and flail the most, is the ghost of the Novel of Asian Experience. (Helloooo, Harold Bloom! I do not pretend to be a genius of any sort but I’m still struggling with the Anxiety of Influence.) There’s a great deal of important, well-regarded fiction about the immigrant experience (this list of immigrant fiction is exclusively American in its focus, but a good starting point nonetheless). There are even a few novels about the period I’m interested in: Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain and The Garden of Evening Mists, Madeleine Thien’s Certainty). I find them interesting and highly skilled – Tan’s in particular – but these are not the kinds of book I aspire to write. The problem is very basic: they are profoundly earnest books about profoundly earnest characters in a profoundly earnest culture. And I don’t want to write that. I’m not sure I can write that.

What to do? I was complaining about this to my friend Sarah, who said, “Look. I think you’re a very funny person. I think anything you write is going to turn out funny.” (By the way, it’s such a privilege to have friends who listen to you whine about how hard it is to write a novel and then call you “a very funny person”. I have splendid friends.) The unspoken corollary to Sarah’s observation, I think, is that anything I write that twists itself into the category of Earnest Novel of Asian Experience will be unrecognizable as me.

So here’s my plan: I’m heading off, once more, in a new direction. There’s a comic thread in Monsoon Season 3.0 that I found very enjoyable but had cut out, because it just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book. And I’m going to follow it for a while. See where it goes. It could be a dead end. But it might also take me somewhere new entirely.

What do you think, friends: funny vs. earnest? Is that a false dichotomy?

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Code Name: Verity

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

So, Code Name: Verity. It was first published in 2012. It was shortlisted for both the Printz Award and the Carnegie Medal, so it’s not as though I’m drawing attention to unsung heroines, here. But I finally made time to read Elizabeth Wein’s novel last week and when I’d finally finished sobbing, all I could wonder is why I’d let it languish for two years.

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity

As you may already know, Code Name: Verity is a story of friendship during the Second World War. The first part of the book is a narrative written by “Verity”, aka Julie, a Scottish girl spy who’s been caught by the Gestapo in Nazi France. It’s supposed to be Julie’s confession, her cowardly attempt to abate torture and to extend her life just a little further, by giving up precious wartime secrets: sets of radio code, names of British airfields and army bases, the Allied use of RADAR technology. And yet, this narrative simply cannot be what it claims. That is the tension that drives this book.

Julie’s story is a memoir – a platonic love-letter, even – about a profound friendship between two young women performing extremely dangerous wartime jobs. It’s a terrifying, witty, completely persuasive behind-the-scenes account of British defense activity. It’s beautifully told. But Wein’s brilliant stroke in this book is that Julie must be an unreliable narrator. There’s no way that a young woman of her intelligence and courage (especially as demonstrated in the narrative) could write a straightforwardly treasonous confession. And so I swore, and squirmed in my chair, and shook, and was compelled to read on.

The second narrative is written by Julie’s best friend Maddie, a shot-down pilot, and it picks up after Julie’s arrest. It’s told in much plainer language, as suits Maddie’s character, and it’s a shattered reflection of Julie’s so-called confession. It fills in blanks, it forces you to flip back to re-read parts of Julie’s memoir, it moves the story on swiftly and with an equal sense of valour.

I was a snivelling wreck when I finished Code Name: Verity, and I mean that in the best way possible. Like nearly everybody else who’s read it, I highly, highly recommend it.

As a writer, I was further struck by two elements that I hope I can learn from. The first is Wein’s use of counterpoint (to borrow the musical term): “the relationship between voices that are interdependent harmonically and yet are independent in rhythm and contour” (that’s from the wikipedia definition). This is something I’m attempting in my current work-in-progress, and reading Code Name: Verity was like getting a tutorial from a more experienced writer. I also took note of Wein’s techniques for introducing humour into a story that is always going to be a tragedy. I won’t be able to borrow directly from her, here, but it was lovely to see it done so well.

It’s both inspiring and daunting, to read a novel that so brilliantly occupies ground that I’m planning to re-tread (my WIP is also set during the Second World War). But these days, I’m finding it more inspiring than anything else, and for that I am grateful.

Have you read Code Name: Verity, friends? What did you think?

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Rivals in the City: the transatlantic edition

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Hello, friends. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Rivals in the City will be published in the UK/World in June 2014. The gorgeous cover, designed by Walker Books, is here. And now I have a pub date for the US/Canadian (Candlewick Press) edition of Rivals in the City: February 2015. I am so thrilled to have a concrete date. I know it’s twelve months away, but I hope you’ll find it worth the wait. I hope to have some cover news to share with you soon, as well.

As for today’s main content, Nafiza of the Book Wars interviewed me recently. She wasted no time in asking the big questions: race, geographical identity, masculinity, Canadian identity, and how much of me goes into the character of Mary Quinn. It was a lovely interview for me, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

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What is a novel?

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Hello, friends. I recently had a long and utterly engaging conversation with three fellow writers: two of them critically acclaimed poets, all of us writers of novels. We were talking about the act of writing. One of us, who is working on her first novel, said that for her, writing it was like posing the question, “What is a novel?” That is, what are the novelistic conventions I value? Is it true that a novel must feature x? Or that it must not do y? For this friend, the novel she writes will be the answer – or perhaps one set of answers – to that question.

I was completely taken with this philosophical approach to writing because I have gone about things so very differently (thus far). When I sat down to write my first novel, the one thing of which I was certain was how very little I knew about writing a novel. I thought that I wanted a Victorian setting, and that I wanted to write about an outsider: a girl who, in strictly realist terms, would have led a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.* I had my two starting points, and then I panicked. I had no idea how to structure a novel. Fortunately, I am a lifelong devotee of mystery novels, so it felt right to use the genre as a kind of coat-hanger, to give the book a conventional and useful shape. I knew what was expected, and I could tinker with the genre in small but meaningful ways.

That first book became A Spy in the House and its siblings: The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel, and Rivals in the City (which I’m revising right now!). And then, a couple of months ago (before the editorial revisions for Rivals boomeranged back to me), I sat down to write something completely different. Once again I leaned back and craned my neck, trying to picture the shape of this new book. Over the course of four novels I had learned a bit about plot and structure, but little that I found immediately useful.

What I did, instead, was start playing with voice. I was inspired by two things: a person I know fairly well, and a photograph from a book. And quite soon, the voice became two voices, and I began thinking of the new book as a point of departure. I was trying to provoke. I was refuting some of my previous experience of storytelling. Essentially, I was trying to write against.

With these as my two existing models of writing a novel (writing for; writing against), it’s no wonder that I was struck by my friend’s quiet, personal, solitary question: What is a novel? It’s a brave question, and a difficult one. It’s one that doesn’t allow you to lean on tradition for comfort, and which reminds you to stop being such a reactive brat. It’s one that draws your focus, again and again, into the work itself. What is a novel? I won’t know until I’ve written the next book. And I hope I’ll be able to answer that question in very different forms, over the course of my career. What do you think? What is a novel, to you?

To answer the question in a different form: a reader from Toronto, Shann, recently sent me a link to Litograph, which offers a playfully literal definition of a novel: posters, t-shirts, and tote bags printed with the entire text of a classic book. The best ones, in my opinion, aren’t necessarily of my personal favourite books; instead, they’re titles for which the artist really captured the spirit of the book: Anne of Green Gables, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Persuasion, Gulliver’s Travels. Thank you, Shann, for making my holiday shopping that much easier!

*Aside: I read a novel this past summer that offers a fiery but ultimately realist history for a girl like Mary Quinn: Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue. It’s terrific and vivid and utterly oppressive because you know from the first page that its protagonist, Mary Saunders, cannot possibly have a happy ending.

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Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Hello, friends. I’ve been thinking this week about life’s important, meaningful, and really unglamorous lessons. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about that Thomas Edison quotation: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Or, as John Ruskin put it nearly fifty years earlier, “I know of no genius but the genius of hard work.”

This all came to mind because at Kingston’s WritersFest this coming Sunday, I’ll be hosting a writing workshop given by Tim Wynne-Jones. Part of the hosting gig involves writing an introduction, and so I began reading a little more about Wynne-Jones. I don’t normally research authors; I’m more interested in their work. But maybe I should change my ways!

What struck me most forcefully is Wynne-Jones’s sheer output: by my count, he’s written 3 novels for adults, 17 picture books, 3 collections of short stories, and 9 novels for young people. (And that’s just the fiction. Wynne-Jones engages in critical writing, too!) If you think about how much practice he’s had in shaping a compelling story, it’s no wonder that he’s such an accomplished storyteller. He didn’t just have a gift for words or a particularly inventive mind: he took those talents and never stopped using them.

His is the kind of energy and dedication that might seem daunting, some days. Today, I find it deeply inspiring. I’m early in my career, a relative novice. So: persistence and practice. Those are my by-words this week.

How about you? What are you learning this week? What other unglamorous lessons should we think twice about?

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Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Hello there, friends. I’m sorry for my lapse last week. I had an outrageously slow internet connection (now partly fixed – it’s only somewhat slow) that made even a simple email check a struggle. Today, I thought I’d show you what I’ve been up to.

We went a bit crazy with the tomatoes, this year. It was our first year starting them from seeds and we planted a lot, thinking that only about one in three would make it. Ahem. We have about 30 tomato plants producing right now. I’m not sure what we’ll do with them all: we’ll either learn to can, or take to leaving them on neighbours’ doorsteps in the dead of night, I guess. Anyway, the tomato bed was a million-tentacled green monster, and it took me most of a day’s work to prune and stake them. I hope that doesn’t sound like a complaint: it’s a strangely addictive job, and it pains me to admit that there are two sad, drooping, crawling plants I haven’t yet found the time to attend to.

Here’s another gratuitous tomato shot:

Isn’t it exciting? We’ve had a few cherry tomatoes already and they’re lovely: sweet and complex, and all the more delicious for being the (literal) fruit of our labours.

And then there’s the garlic: 50-odd cloves planted last autumn, which we harvested last week. They’re currently drying out and I think the effect is like oddball musical notation.

Apart from frantically trying to reclaim the garden, I’ve also begun work on The Next Book. Here are the 3 novels I’ve ordered from the public library to read next:

Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain

Tan’s sequel to The Gift of Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists (2012)

Madeleine Thien’s Certainty (2006)

If you didn’t already know (or perhaps if you did), can you guess what I’m working on next?

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