Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Eleanor Arnason Reading

I am doing a reading at Dreamhaven books on Wednesday, April 22nd. The time is 6:30 pm. The address is 2301 East 38th Street, Minneapolis. I wouldn't mind some company.

I'll be reading from the new collection, Hidden Folk, of course. I plan to read "The Puffin Hunter," which is my current favorite of the stories. It really is nifty.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

While Many of You were at a Serious Literary Con...

...I was at home, doing this: "Story Time: Live-Blogging 'Taken By the Gay Unicorn Biker.'"

Bitter Empire has promised me business cards that say: "Reading weird erotica, so you don't have to."

Seriously, a very important conference is happening in town right now, the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) is happening. I will tell you that I looked at their off-site events schedule (here's today's) and I know none of the people doing readings. I don't think they invited the spec fic community, though I might be wrong about that.

So, yeah, I stayed home and read unicorn porn, out loud (rather: on-line) instead.

Also, after yesterday (wherein I got a surprising amount of attention for what I thought was a very 101 Hugo's post), I feel the need to post this:

For the most part, I have to say, I remain lucky. If people are saying vile things about me because I compared the puppies to Nazis (possibly an unwise hyperbole, though the fascist stuff is very much connected to the rabid pups and I linked to my source in the article), I'm not really hearing it to my face. I had one troll come on my FB feed to say "How many lies can you print in one article?" to which I have to confess my first response was going to be "ALL OF THEM" (but I feared I might be taken seriously or out of context), so instead I asked for clarification, got it, and refuted it.

I also pointed out that the blog was not an article, but an opinion piece, which had been clearly labeled as such.

Kittens and unicorn sex. The only antidote, IMHO.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Of Science Fiction and Puppies

Possibly there were more qualified (and snappier) writers to sum up the Hugo shenanigans for the mundanes, but my editor asked and I answered with "Why Are All my Science Fiction Friends Screaming About Sad Puppies?"

If you're a long time fan and have been following along even tangentially, I say nothing new here. Mostly it's a link salad to some of the more awful things known about Vox Day and his Rabid Puppies (the more stridently vocal right wing of the already right-of-center Sad Puppies). My only new insight is that I, too, have never really felt the Hugos were "all that" in terms of pointing out what was the best in my field, but I have long used the nominee list to get a good sense of "what is trending" in science fiction/fantasy.

I will say here (as I do there) that I do think the Hugos are worth fighting.

If it were true that the Sad Puppies actually promoted the idea of fun-loving, non-navel-gazing science fiction, I might be one of them. Ironically (perhaps), yesterday I posted my review of The Girl in the Road in which I make some very snarky comments about what I call "NPR science fiction."

I like my science fiction to have a lot of vim and vigor. I'm very much uninterested in novels that are ONLY explorations of inner spaces. My favorite stuff (and the very best, IMHO,) is when you have high action AND deep thinking. Human beings are political creatures. To imagine a book that was apolitical sounds dreadful to me. Also it sounds impossible. I just read a book The Way Inn by Will Wiles which is basically about how plastic and empty hotels are and how literally soul-sucking they can be. Even that book had a thematic/political point: banality is evil. When you find comfort in emptiness, you probably should consider the value in spending a bit more time naval gazing. That's basically what this book was saying.

But none of this is REALLY what the Puppy's conversation is about. If it were, the puppies wouldn't complain about the Hugo's NEVER going to their sort. Lois McMaster Bujold has a few of these coveted rockets, and I don't see how she's not exactly what they should be excited about: action-oriented, fun, and... oh, right, she talks a lot about GLBT issues and gender and ability. Never mind she's published by Baen (their supposed favorite publisher). Lois doesn't count because her epic space battles have girl/queer cooties on them.

Ah, I could go on, but, ultimately, all this has been said already. Over and over. By smarter people than me.

It's really interesting the culture of backlash, though, of which the Hugo malarky is clearly part of. I mean, we're living in very weird times. On one hand there's so much moving forward. On the other, there's Indiana.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Guest Blogging about Failure

My own personal failure, not the fail culture of SF, that is.  You can read it over at Kurtis Scaletta's blog:  "My Biggest Failure: Letting the B-st-rds Get me Down."

Friday, April 03, 2015

Emotion as Story

Interestingly, this popped up on i09 today by Charlie Jane Anders:  "2 Secrets to Writing a Story that People Can't Tear Themselves Away From."

In which the second secret is:  "Emotions create their own suspense."

Pretty much exactly what I was trying to get at in my lecture on Wednesday night.  Charlie Jane (unsurprisingly) gets to the point far more succinctly than I ever could.  She writes:

What's the worst that can happen if you think of your story as "a succession of great moments strung together"? Well, it could be kind of incoherent. At worst, the story might actually not make sense, or contradict itself. Those are things that might need to be fixed in the rewrites — but they're easier problems to fix than a story that's lifeless except for a few turning points.  
And this is where the second statement, "emotions create their own suspense," comes in. If the characters and their emotions are consistent, then each "great moment" will absolutely feel connected to the next. Because the characters will keep caring about the things they care about. 

Yes.  Thank you.  This.

(Also Charlie Jane also wrote "How to Turn a High Concept into a Story" in case you want to check to see if she continues to be more articulate and accessible than I could ever hope to be.  ;-)

Thursday, April 02, 2015

From Idea to Story

Last night in class, I started off by reading out loud Neil Gaiman's essay about where ideas come from: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

I do this regularly, because I love the simple complexity of his thoughts here and also because: so accurate. Yes, ideas do just come out of your head. It's also so much more than that, but half of the battle is being willing to ask all the child-like questions.

After reading this, we all agreed that the ideas were "the easy bit," so we next attempted to discuss the harder bit--which is how to turn an idea into a story. There were pictures:

Let me take a stab at pulling order out of chaos. This is what I promised my students I would try to do the day after, so I'm going to give it the old college try.

It starts like this. So, you've got an idea for a story. You've been thinking about Humpback whales, how their song gets longer every year. This makes you think about human history and about how stories used to get told by poets like Homer, out loud and changing by audience and as they got told over time and again and again. Then, you hear about a whale in California (is it a Humpback?) that's been pushing further and further inland up a fresh water river. You think about whales in general. What is their life like when the world they live in is hostile to them. Can you imagine living where you can't breathe? What if you also grew up hearing songs about a time when whales lived on land?

This is a story idea, you think. There's SOMETHING here. Something you want to say.


But you can't figure out how to turn this bunch of jumbled, kind of connected ideas into a story, so you have to ask yourself. What are the essential elements of a story?

First of all, you have to have a character--someone who tells the tale; someone who the story is ABOUT. (A whale? A scientist studying whale language?)

For the story to work as a story, however, something has to happen. This is will be the plot, but, it is important to remember, that plot moves via conflict.

Thus, there has to be something at stake. The fate of the world can hang in the balance, of course, but, as I told the class, you don't have to think in hyperbole to tell a rip, roaring story. The thing that is at stake can be personal and small, so long as it matters. How do you make the reader care, make things matter? (Well, sometimes you just can't, but) one way is if it matters to you. If you have something you want to say, it can carry you a long way. Writing is an investment of time and energy, so if you have a story where you have something you want to say about the human condition, the nature of the world, life, or your favorite pair of socks, that will help invest the story with a sense of movement, of 'what's at stake.'

Also, if what's at stake is something that has the potential to change your main character in some way, that will also breathe life into a story idea. Is there something to be learned? Something that can challenge the character to reach for their better selves (even if they don't get to it)?

Ideally, whatever is at stake is also, in some way, in conflict with main character. They have to push themselves to get the job done. This makes for an internal conflict. A really energetic story will have both external and internal conflicts. The bad guys with ray guns are your external forces; the heroine's crushing agoraphobia can be the internal one.

You don't have to buy into any of this for a story to work, of course. But, the point of the lecture is to consider ways in which you can get the ball rolling. So, the questions you can ask your story idea is: who is the main character of this story? Who will be most changed by the events? How are they affected by the events of the story? What do they have to lose? What's at stake (for them and for the larger world)? What flaws/internal conflicts might the main character have to overcome in order to get to the end/win the day?

Then the big question becomes: where do you start the story?

My answer has always been: two seconds before everything changes.

This is true of almost every story you tell, anywhere, to anyone. "OMG, Barb, I was just walking along and BAM! There was Julius! My ex!"

Two seconds before everything changes.

Because any good opening (hook) has the listener/reader asking, "What happened next??"

The two seconds is hyperbole again (you have to watch that with me), because with a novel and a short story you have a bit more time to set up and explain the status quo before you turn it on its head. For commercial fiction, I wouldn't say you have a LOT of extra time, but you do have more than a precise measure of seconds. You could have ten lines, you could have most of a first chapter, or you can even just do it in one....

"The comet passed through Earth's atmosphere, ripping the world apart."

I mean, there are lots of ways to do this, but ultimately stories are about change. Something has changed, and someone has to change in order to fix/solve/survive/(or not) it.

When we talk about openings in more detail, I will discuss the various ways you can hook people without an action that changes everything. But I maintain that all stories, ultimately, are about an event that changed everything (probably for the worse, before things get better.) A hero/ine is that person who will do something about the change (make it better? Make it worse? Doesn't matter, so long as the change is acted upon).

Protagonists need to protag.

They need to act and they need to change.

And for me, and I think most modern readers, the hero/ines need to have some reason to do it, some way in which all of this affects their lives and emotions and thus reaches across the chasm of the page and relates to the reader. There has to be something in their plight or situation or personality that makes the reader say, "Ah, this is just who I'd be, if I were this person." 

Or, best, perhaps, this is just who I WANT to be, if I were this person.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Today is the Ides of March, I just realized. Yesterday was Pi Day, which friends celebrated with pies. And Terry Pratchett died 3 days ago, after suffering from a form of early dementia for several years. He was 66, too early to go.

He was a wonderful writer, someone I read for comfort, because his books are funny and charming and sane and well written, and he was the master of the fiction footnote. His footnotes don't work in e-versions of his novels, because they are put at the back of the book. They need to be at the bottom of the page, because they are part of the story. They are a great way to add information and comments that are too tangential to be in the text, except maybe enclosed in parentheses.

Anyway, a lovely writer and a loss to humanity.