A Month of Writers, Day Twenty One: Ellen Kushner

You know, I’m not entirely sure when it was I first met Ellen Kushner — I suspect it may have been Wiscon three years ago, but maybe it was before then — but whenever it was that I met her, she quickly became someone I liked and admired, because she’s warm, personable, a great conversationalist and, not as a coincidence given all the above, an excellent writer. I suppose it’s possible not to like Ellen Kushner, but I’m not entirely sure I’d want to hang around the sort of person who wouldn’t. They would make me sad.

Earlier this year, Ellen Kushner was nominated for the Nebula Award for her richly deserving book The Privilege of the Sword (it was also nominated for the World Fantasy Award, and won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel), and as this entry for the Month of Writers shows, even the estimable Ellen Kushner sometimes gets attacked by the Procrastination Monster. Here’s how she fought it off, eventually.

ELLEN KUSHNER: the dog ate my Nebula essay

I used to find writing non-fiction utter torture. Book reviews, school papers, personal essays . . . they took so long and cost so much agony that I pretty much gave them all up as soon as I could – even the ones that paid real money.

Then I started my national weekly public radio show Sound & Spirit. And for many nightmarish startup months I had a 10-15 page script due, not every week, but about every 4 days. A script with music and research included – oh, and some sort of personal essay (or “sermon”) at the end. Ohhh, how I twisted and turned, writhed and defended! What if it wasn’t good enough? What if it sucked? What if everyone hated it? What if was done but it wasn’t the best I could possible do? This had always kept me from finishing anything in the past. But now there just wasn’t time to pull my usual avoidance tricks; there was a production schedule, and several people – producers, engineers, assistants – would have their week pretty much ruined and be very put out if I didn’t turn up with something.

That’s when I learned my new writing mantra:

Done is Good.

And what’s more, I learned that it was true. What I was writing was actually not bad. (Well, I learned this weeks later when the produced shows went on the air, and the listener fan mail started coming in. It’s not like you can ever figure out on your own whether anything is good or not. Not for a few years after you’ve written it, anyway; I hear those despised and despicable scripts now, and they’re really Not Bad.)

I learned my lesson, and look at me now! Typing up these little confessional thoughts justabout as fast as my 10 fingers can carry them.

Who’d’a thunk it?

Which makes it all the more pathetic when I tell you what happened next:

I couldn’t write my Nebula essay.

Could. Not. Do. It.

The letter came from SFWA Bulletin editor Mark Kreighbaum 4 – no, 5 weeks ago:

You have a work on the 2006 Final Nebula ballot. The Bulletin would be grateful if you would share a brief bio and an essay about your nominated work, which will be printed in the Bulletin and available at the Banquet.

The bio should be one or two paragraphs. The essay may be as short as one paragraph or as long as ten. The subject of the essay is entirely up to you. Some authors talk specifically about the story and its genesis, others discuss the ideas and themes of the work, still others write about a topic that is personally or professionally important to them.

This was it: the moment I’d been waiting for all my life! My novel nominated for an award given by my writing peers. At a banquet, they would all sit during the boring bits surreptitiously reading the booklet at their places containing the perfect thoughts of the Nominees summing up their life’s work and philosophies of writing in ways that were both moving and entertaining, and ultimately inspiring. I know, because I’ve read so many myself over the years. Now it was my turn to write one.

I know how to do this. I have profound thoughts about life and art. And I really know how to write about it for public consumption; hell, Bill Moyers once wrote me a radio fan letter about how much my words have moved him! All I had to do was write something for a slightly different audience: Other Writers. Other Fantasy & Science Fiction writers. All of them. People I’ve known and loved for years. People I’ve idolized. People I’ve grown up with. People who’ve never heard of me and wonder why some stupid girl book is on the Nebula ballot. People whose entire opinion of me and my life’s work will depend on my articulating it boldly yet charmingly, in an authoritative yet humble manner.

I wrote Mark, “May I have an extension? I’m on other deadlines right now, and want to be able to turn my full attention to it.”

Deadlines passed. I wrote Mark, “May I have another extension? I’ve been traveling, the holidays are coming and so are my parents.”

The holidays over, I wrote Mark, “Is there still time? I’ve been sick.”

I wrote a few paragraphs. They were awful. I wrote a few more. They were hopeless.

I wrote Mark, “Can I have the weekend?”

I wrote some more paragraphs, started over, gave up, started again . . . .

I wrote Mark, “Do you still have room for me if I get it in by midnight?”

At 1 a.m. last night, I finally achieved liftoff.

I’m not saying it’s good, or anything. But it’s done.

(original entry, plus comments, is here)

10 Comments on “A Month of Writers, Day Twenty One: Ellen Kushner”

  1. Good luck. Swordspoint was published in 1987, and The Privilege of the Sword in 2006. Although she published other books in between (none with these particular characters, unless one snuck by me), that adds up to a long wait. John, thanks for choosing this particular author, as Swordspoint is still one of my favorite fantasy novels ever.

    Now I have about 15 new books that I want to buy from your month of writers.

  2. Thanks, John, for introducing us to these authors and bringing them to us. I loved The Privilege of the Sword. Even more than Swordpoint although they were both great.

    I’ve also ordered some of the other books you’ve been recommending.

  3. Natalie:

    The Fall of Kings was a co-written sequel to Swordspoint. I knew I’d seen it floating around on my flist.

    I suppose I really must find these books now, however – when both Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi are saying wonderful things about them, I’m just silly not to.

  4. Natalie – She wrote another novel set in that universe called “The Fall of the Kings,” which came out in 2002. IIRC, it takes place 3 generations after “Swordspoint.”

  5. (swoon)

    I LOVE Swordspoint. I love Sound and Spirit when I can get it (which is not too often).

    But I agree that the books are published too infrequently. I’ve tried to be an Ellen Kushner book pusher (complete with trenchcoat)–if I get more people to buy the books maybe more will be written more frequently?

  6. I read The Fall of the Kings, but it doesn’t have the same cast of characters. Until I read Swordspoint, I had never read a book where I disliked every character but loved the book. Really amazing.

  7. I love “Sound and Spirit,” but haven’t read any of Ellen Kushner’s novels. Now I’ve got to check them out.

    John, you blog(s) have truly expanded my reading list. Thank you.

    I like Ellen’s point that done is good. I’m not sure I’d get much written at all without deadlines. But I like getting paid and I like seeing my articles in print so being done is more important than being perfect.

  8. Ya’ll could not have picked a better, more all-around shibby author than Ellen Kushner! She is the sweetest person in the world, and her writing is pure, uncut eye candy! TPOTS and its companion novels really are rare gems in the fantasy genre, and should be lauded whenever possible! (Mr. Scalzi surely has excellent taste. :3)

  9. I like someone enlightened enough to present a female action hero on the cover,but still market-savvy enough to have her looking like Jane Seymour.

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