Started another one! :)

I have started writing my next book. I spent the week getting the outline to an acceptable state, and this morning I got going with the story. It has been several months of world building, research, and story planning, but as commander Helmuth van Moltke said, no plan survives contact with the enemy so we’ll see how things go once the plot holes make themselves known, and the characters get ideas of their own. There’s no way out but through! Working title at the moment: “The AIWar
Will definitely have to come up with a better title than that.

Writing planning is reaching critical mass

I’ve written more than 10 000 words on my new book, but not a single word of description, dialogue, or exposition. Yes, it’s all planning.
World-building, actually, I’ve not even started the outline yet. All I’ve done so far is work out the details of the setting. I don’t like the world-building to govern the plot too much, but I do like it to inform the story. The characters must be shaped by their setting. By now I’m starting to feel as if it’s all getting a bit out of control and I need to rein it in and decide what the story is about.
Below is a screenshot that shows all the aspects of the world I’ve been working out. And this is just the start. There is some hope, though, notice the character section! That’s where the heart of the story planning for me.

Is Science Fiction a Dangerous Lie?

The research I’m doing for my current WIP book is raising some uncomfortable questions about my responsibilities as a science fiction writer. I wrote about it for the Skolion blog.

Pippin update! Good-bye Giardia

We just got the test results back and the giardia is gone! I am so relieved. Pippin is not out of the woods yet, he has all the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome which is apparently not uncommon after a giardia infection. He’s doing much better overall, but he’s an old dog so we’ll just have to take it one day at a time.

Nerine Dorman on Skolion

Skolion has a new blog! Skolion is a writers’ cooperative. We write speculative fiction, horror, fantasy, or science fiction. You can read Nerine Dorman’s explanation of what Skolion is all about at the brand new Skolion blog.

Pippin’s Giardia Saga

This is a long post! For practical information on how to treat a dog that’s sick with giardia, scroll down to the end and look for “Giardia advice and information”.

My dog, Pippin, is twelve. I used to love it when people asked his age because of their surprise at the answer. Until recently he was an active, healthy dog and he did not look old at all. I walked him for an hour in the mornings and about forty minutes in the afternoon.
In December there was a sewage spill in the vlei and Pippin got into the water despite my attempts to stop him. I can’t be sure that’s where it started, but it seems very likely.

Pippin at Park Island

He started getting diarrhoea. I ignored it at first because he likes eating rubbish and has had runny poop before, although not often. But when it didn’t clear up, I took him to the vet.
The vet prescribed the antibiotic Metronidazole. Pippin had several courses. Initially it seemed to help but each time the diarrhoea came back, like clockwork, 5 days after the last dose.
The vet got Pippin’s poop tested and we had an answer. Giardia. A single celled parasite that thrives in water contaminated by sewage. I was happy to get a diagnosis. The vet was confident that the correct medication would clear this up.
Long story short, it didn’t. Pippin went through two courses of the anti-parasitic medication Panacur and some more Metronidazole – by now I’ve lost track of how many courses of antibiotics he’s had. Each time the symptoms came back, like clockwork, 5 days after the end of the treatment. I quarantined Pippin in a clean room and blasted my house and backyard with disinfectant, threw away all his bedding and toys, in case he was reinfecting himself. Didn’t make any difference.
His symptoms got worse. Not just diarrhoea, but blood. And getting him to take the medication was stressful for everyone involved. Pippin hated being quarantined too. It was a bad time.
I made mistakes, some of which might explain why the medication didn’t work. Before the giardia diagnosis the vet recommended an anti-diarrhoea medication called Diomec. I continued giving Pippin this stuff, not realising that it contains kaolin and prevents medication from being absorbed.
I also didn’t realise that the fluid medications, Panacur and Rhonidazole, have to be shaken really, really hard because the active ingredient settles into a sort of gunk at the bottom of the bottle. I couldn’t figure out why the doses I was measuring out didn’t add up to the volume of the (opaque) container. When I did eventually figure it out, even shaking didn’t do the trick, I had to stir the damn stuff with a chopstick. The fact that it took me so long to realise this might mean he just didn’t get enough of the active ingredient.

Pippin after one of his medicated baths.

I kept Pippin out of our backyard in case it was contaminated with the giardia cysts. Every time he needed to pee or poop I had to take him for a walk. We developed quite a bond over this. Pippin would come over and look at me meaningfully, I’d get up from whatever I was doing and take him for a toilet walk.
I grew jealous of the random dog poops that I saw lying around outside. If only Pippin would produce something so firm and brown! I also had to be extra careful to clean up his poop as I didn’t want other dogs getting infected.
To Pippin’s alarm I had to wipe his bum for him for him each time he pooped to stop infected poop from spreading onto his coat and into our home. He also got washed for the very first time in his life. He accepted this and everything else with dignity.
The vet tracked down a new type of medication, another anti parasitic drug called Ronidazole. I gave Pippin a seven-day course of this, which was fairly traumatic as it became progressively more difficult to persuade him to take the medication. It’s a fluid that I either mixed with his food, or, eventually, squirted directly into his mouth. The stuff made him feel groggy and he quickly got very good at detecting its presence.
It’s a few days after his last dose and so far he’s doing OK. I’ve decided not to go on with any treatments even if the giardia comes back. It’s too traumatic. I’m going to keep him as comfortable as possible, but not do anything that will upset him further.

UPDATE! We just got the test results back and the giardia is gone! I am so relieved. Pippin is not out of the woods yet, he has all the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome which is apparently not uncommon after a giardia infection. He’s doing much better overall, but he’s an old dog so we’ll just have to take it one day at a time.

Giardia information and advice
The symptoms of a giardia infection are diarrhoea, often yellow, often with mucus, often with blood. In the early days the diarrhoea can be intermittent. The only way to diagnose it is with a fecal sample. Don’t wait till your dog is very sick before doing this. Get a diagnosis as early as possible.

Disinfecting and preventing infection
If a dog is infected the parasite will colonise its gut and produce cysts, which are like tough, microscopic little eggs that can survive outside of water and outside of the dog. These cysts contaminate the dog’s poop.
If a dog (or a cat) sniffs and or eats poop contaminated poop or licks contaminated soil they can get infected.
The cysts survive outside for quite a while but they prefer wet, cool conditions. They’ll last for a few days on dry sand in direct sunlight, but for weeks in shaded soil.
To stop giardia from spreading, pick up poop as quickly as possible and disinfect the area thoroughly.
You can kill giardia cysts with diluted bleach, (1 cup in four liters of water), or a cleaning solution that contains Quaternary ammonia, like F10 Veterinary disinfectant. F10 works well because they have a range of products that are easy to use, for example a soap for washing your hands or your dog, a spray for soft upholstery that doesn’t need to be rinsed off. F10 is also comparatively eco-friendly as it’s biodegradable and smells OK, a sort of piney scent that fades quickly.
Disinfect everything that might be contaminated and wash the dog, especially its bum, on the last day of treatment.
There are different strains of giardia and apparently it is very unlikely, (although not impossible) for a human to get infected by the type of giardia that dogs or cats get. Humans and birds get the same type of giardia, but it’s unlikely that a dog will get giardia from eating bird poop.

What medication to use
Your vet will guide you here. Panacur seems to be the most widely successful although in my case it didn’t work. That might be because, as I described above, I made some mistakes in giving it.

The importance of probiotics
Dogs can be infected with giardia without getting sick. There seems to be some evidence that it’s not the giardia that is the problem but the “bad” bacteria in an animal’s guts. If the gut bacteria isn’t healthy, the giardia can open up the way for that bad bacteria to attack. That’s why it’s so important to establish a healthy gut by making sure that a dog is getting enough probiotics. Unfortunately the treatment, antibiotics or anti parasite medications, kill the “good” bacteria so its a catch 22.
From my experience with Pippin I doubt that treating a dog only with probiotics will help much. You have to actually kill that parasite once its taken hold but the probiotics make an enormous difference to how quickly the dog recovers. As soon as I started giving Pippin probiotics he improved remarkably.
Oh, and just giving a dog live yogurt is not enough as it doesn’t contain all the different types of bacteria needed. A good probiotic for dogs is Protexin, it contains multiple strains of bacteria. I also use Pro-Kolin and Canigest but both contain kaolin so shouldn’t be given while the dog is getting medication. Pro-Kolin and Canigest are good for helping with diarrhoea. You can give a dog human probiotics, but you need to check that it contains the right strains. Look for the following:

  • Enterococcus faecium
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus
  • Lactobacillus casei
  • Lactobacillus plantarum
  • Bifidobacterium bifidum
  • Bifidobacterium animalis

Pro-kolin and Canigest both contain Enterococcus faecium and Protexin has got pretty much all of them. Protexin also seems to be tasteless and easy to mix into food without the dog realising.

These are the most helpful articles I found on:

General information on giardia in dogs and how to deal with it

Cross infection of Giardia in humans, dogs, and birds

The importance of probiotics in treating giardia

Probiotics for dogs

My overflow bin is overflowing!

My overflow bin is overflowing! Seems autumn is here. It’s been pouring with rain since early this morning. Feels surreal after all this hot, dry, windy weather. Having a little trouble switching off my internal “GO GET THE BUCKETS AND FILL ALL THE CONTAINERS” alarm.

Manybooks Interview

Check it out! I got featured as “author of the day” at Manybooks. You can read the interview here:

Birthday Swim

My sister took me to Silvermine for my birthday and we swam in the dam there. The water was just perfect.

Pippin watched over our clothes while we swam.
A dragonfly sat on my knee.
Afterwards, Pippin was exhausted but relaxed. Had to bake in the sun for a bit to dry off! 🙂

The Devil Thorn method of planning a book

I’ve started planning my new book. I always do a lot of planning before I even start the outline, and a lot of outlining before I start the first draft. And no matter how much planning I do, I always have to go back to the drawing board halfway through that first draft, because, as Helmuth von Moltke the Elder said, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

I used to use the Dog Walking method of story planning. This meant going for lots of long walks with my dog, Pippin, while I thought about the story. Now Pippin is a little bit sick and twelve years old, and not really up to hour-long walks anymore. This forces me to use the Devil Thorn method, which involves clearing our neighbourhood of every single devil thorn plant I can find, while I think about the story.

Don’t worry though, I still take Pippin for walks. He gets into our car via a ramp to save his hips and spine from jumping, and gets driven to Park Island or the Vlei for short outings.

And the book? It’s not a sequel to any of the books I’ve already written. It’s something completely new.

Backyard wildlife

I got the concrete removed from our backyard. At the moment the biggest plant is the dusty miller, and it’s just flowered, and is popular with the bees. I watched this one do a complete grooming session and then tuck into the flower 🙂

The Bullet

We’ve been living in Costa da Gama for about a year and a half now. It’s quite a change from Woodstock. For example, about a year ago, we found a small and unexpected hole in the roof above my writing room.

This was the hole before we patched it over.

We’d just had work done on that part of the roof and had inspected it thoroughly, and this was definitely a new hole. I suspected it was a bullet hole, partly because the taxi war in the area had been heating up and it’s not unusual to hear shots fired.

Well – today I found the bullet.

I found it behind the compost bin, next to the wall just  under where the hole had been. It must have gone through the roof, and then down the outside of the wall. If it had gone just 5 cm to the right, it would have come out into my writing room and gone through the budgie cage.

Just as well it didn’t.


Thank You!

Thanks so much! To * everyone * who came to my book launch, you have no idea how much I appreciate your support. Also to Brendon, Andries, Marijke, Tallulah, Nerine, all the members of the Skolion Street team (you rock!).
Thanks as well to the venues: The Field Office in Woodstock (and especially Genevieve, who tracked down some escaping wine glasses all the way to Calitzdorp, but that’s a whole other story) and Rolling Wood in Muizenberg, such a great vibe.
And of course – last but not least – to all my readers out there in the world 

I’m now all book-launched out, and will be creeping back into my shell for a bit. I have an idea for a new book…

Eroded Language in “The Strange”

My favourite part of world building — the process of creating a setting for a story — is making sure that any words or names I have to make up are convincing. Most of us have a keen an intuitive sense for when a word is “fake”, and when you come across a name for a place, a person, or even a type of food that seems obviously made up, it pulls you out of the story. I wrote about the layered use of language in The Babylon Eye here, to explain how the words, titles, and place names reveal the history and hierarchy of that world. In The Strange I had an even bigger challenge, creating not  just one, but an entire universe of alien worlds. These worlds had to feel deeply foreign and, well, strange, without being so distant, removed, or alien that they don’t evoke an emotional response.

For example, consider Orm Embar, the name Ursula le Guin chose for one of the dragons in her Earthsea series.  We don’t know the etymology of this name but  to me, “Embar” evokes “ember”, a quiescent seed of fire that might flare up if breathed upon, and “Orm” has echoes of the word “orb”, which seems large, timeless, and ancient. Both are appropriate for the dragon they describe.

I could never create this kind of resonance with completely made up language, so my Strange World had to use words that sounded familiar, and drew on existing languages from our world. The names and terminology also had to show evidence of history. For example, in our world the names of letters, numbers, the days of the week are from ancient cultures that used to have great influence but have now faded into obscurity. The symbols and names that remain are the teeth, the bone fragments, the stone beads that are left behind when the body itself has been eroded away.

As was hinted at in The Babylon Eye the Strange is not a single world but a network of many places that have been conquered, colonised, freed, vanquished and re-colonised. Multiple civilisations overlapped, blended and erased one another. Some places have multiple names, old names, drawn from ancient language like Aramaic, Accadian and Somali, as well as the newer names given to them by conquerors. The newer names are often latinate, as Latin was a bridge language between warring foreign cultures in the Strange.

Traces of this history can be seen in the architecture of places like the Gremium (the Gremium is another Eye, a sort of hub between the worlds), where ancient infrastructure is layered on top of even older carvings. But its history is also evident in the name itself. “Gremium” is the new name, and is derived from the Latin word for “lap”.  The old name was Samad Uurka, which is a warping of the Somali words for “Sky” and “womb”.

There are many worlds, all with names, and all the world names are preceded by  the word “Dhulka” which is Somali for “ground” or “soil”. So for example, the Strangeworld name for our world is Dhulka Serragio. “Serragio” was derived from the Latin word for sawdust, a substance used in arenas to mop up the blood of gladiators. That name seemed, to the Strangers, appropriate for our world. The people in my stories tend not to use the word “dhulka” for “world”. They refer to the various worlds as “niches”, which evokes an entirely different attitude and set of associations.

There are many examples of this layering throughout the book. Titles of petty prison officials are derived from numbers in ancient, twelve-base systems: esseret is Accadian for “ten”. Military titles are from the more modern Latin-base languages: for example the para-military slave-train guards in The Strange are called pugios, which is Latin for “dagger”.

Why are the prison-officials’ titles rooted in the language of the older, conquered civilisation, while the enslaved slave-guardians bear titles in the language of the conquerors? I can guess, but I’m not sure, just as nobody can every really be sure of the etymology of many of the words and titles in our own world.

Keeping the Stakes Personal

In fantasy, and science fiction to a lesser extent the stakes tend to be ridiculously high. The quest must succeed or THE UNIVERSE WILL END or ALL HUMANITY WILL LOSE FREE WILL.  While I appreciate that as a reader, it doesn’t work for me as a writer because I embed my stories in a world similar to the one we live in.

And here’s the thing about the world I live in:

The doomsday scenarios are real and multiplying. Climate change. Species extinction — I could go on but I won’t. Imagine reading about a heroine who is fighting climate change. It’s tough, it’s exciting, but in the end she succeeds! Yay! Climate change is reversed. You close the book and glance outside to see your half empty rainwater tank and smell the fumes of your neighbour revving his car.

It makes the story seem empty and fake.

That’s why, while I write about the very real problems that we all face, they are not doomsday events that needs to be vanquished. I prefer to keep the stakes personal and intimate, the kind of thing anyone might believably face and care about. Protecting your little brother. Finding a missing person. Or looking for a lost dog.

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