Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Catch of the Day

Speaking of Michael Chabon, I just happened upon the first chapter of his new short novel "Gentlemen of the Road," a swashbuckling adventure yarn that's being serialized in the New York Times Magazine, online here.

It's dedicated to Michael Moorcock. And it's chock full of pulpy goodness—Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories come to mind right off.

Take a look; you will be entertained.

Writing Basics: Rest

Writers, like other artists, performers, and creative people, need more down time than the average.

Physiological studies suggest that for optimal productivity, seventeen hours out of every twenty-four should be spent resting.

"Imitate the action of the tiger."

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Synopses Suck (Pitching Part 2)

Really, they do. It's pretty much a truism that if you the writer could have condensed what you wanted to say down to five pages, you'd have written a short story. So, we'll just take as a given that you are going to lose a lot of detail in the process of converting your baby into its operating instructions. This is doubly true of pitch sheets (more on those later) and pitches, which have the added benefit of performance anxiety, a live audience, and any issues you personally have with public speaking.

So, first, the pitch. A pitch is the verbal version of the pitch sheet, which is your novel on a page, and worse, it begins with the tag line, also known as the one sentence version. Aiee!

There's all sorts of advice out there on how to do this, what to include in the synopsis, proper format, etc. I'm just going to assume that if you want to look for those things you can, and focus on the key internal emotional context. If you can get that, the rest is an extremely aggravating exercise specific to the book. What someone is really asking when they ask you about your book is not all the fiddly details, though those are important too. What they're asking is .Why should I read this book? What's exciting about the story?

Now, you can never really pick out what will excite someone else about your work, because everyone outside your head interacts with your story in strange and mysterious ways. What you can pick out is what turns you on about the story. For example, I'm a world-driven writer. I do all the other things too, plot, character, theme, prose, etc, and as a part of a pitch or synopses I need to talk about those things. But at core, what gets me going is coming up with a cool world and exploring it through story.

It has been my experience that when I start with setting, and let my enthusiasm about the world drive the conversation, editors and other writers become involved in the conversation and interested in what I'm telling them. Contra, when I start with what I think they want to hear, I bomb.

So, with my just finished novel, I might start out with "It's an alternate World War II novel set in a world where industrial scale black magic— sacrifice magic—has become the most important means of combat." Then I'll go on to give my audience some of the back story of the world because that's where a lot of the cool is-like, there is no white magic, at least not at the beginning of the book. After that, I'll address the specific setting and the characters involved: The Black School, a young mage student, his mage girlfriend, the teachers, the enemy—shape changers from another dimension—etc. As I go along, I'll also explain my themes: industrial impact on environment, the ethics of war, the implications of fighting a genuinely, verifiably, evil enemy, when does the end justify the means?

That's all rough and off the top of my head as I sit here, but it's also the product of a lot of practice. I've been answering the What's it about? question for years on more than ten novels and dozens of short stories. Mostly those questions come from friends, family, and fellow writers, but that's all to the good. If you practice with a friendly and genuinely interested audience, you're going to have better results at crunch time.

The things you're excited to tell your sci-fi buddies about your work should be the exact same things you're excited to tell an editor or agent, because agents and editors aren't the job, they're people who are really interested in the same kinds of stories you are. Neither job is one that someone gets into without loving the genre (Note: the same is true no matter the genre). Run with that, talk about what excites you in the field and what you love about your story and others. You may not make the sale, in fact, considering the odds against any particular sale, you probably won't. But you might make a friend and you'll have a hell of lot more fun.

I'll probably go into more specifics on pitch sheets and synopses later. In the meantime, thoughts? Comments? Arguments?

Congratulations to Our Members

First to Eleanor Arnason whose Grammarian's Five Daughters is a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards in the fine press category.

Second to Naomi Kritzer for her sale of “Honest Man” to Realms of Fantasy!

Go Team!


That is perhaps my favorite word to write. Yesterday I got to write it for the tenth time on a novel.

P.S. More on pitching tomorrow.

Monday, January 29, 2007


As part of this thread over at making light, there was some discussion of the pluses and minuses, real and perceived, of pitching a book to an editor. Perhaps most notably, a number of people were wondering why a writer might want to do this, since it's really the book that makes the sale anyway. I'm going to use that as my departure point for a multi-post discussion of pitching, pitch sheets, synopses, and proposals, none of which are any fun.

Let's start with the personal pitch. I'm not too fond of them myself, for reasons I'll explain below, but I can see a number of reasons why someone might want to do this.

1. Many writers have never actually had any interactions with an editor beyond the profoundly impersonal form-rejection. A pitch session allows a writer to actually verify the existence of a real live human being at the other end of the process as well as exerting their own personhood to the editor. This may not do any good, but it can help a writer feel that they're not up against some giant inhuman system, empowered.

2. Mad personal skillz. Despite what stereotypes might say, many writers are social creatures and some are even very good at personal interactions. Writers who fall into this category may believe (with some reason) that they can do a better job of convincing an editor to give their novel a look using tone of voice, gesture, eye-contact and other interpersonal tools than they could through a query and synopsis or pitch letter. Depending on the writer's skills on that front-a related but not identical skill to novel writing-they could well be right.

3. Multiple projects. Some writers are idea fountains. They have ten or twenty novel ideas at any given time. And, as part of deciding which one to work on next, they're interested in editorial opinion, believing (not unreasonably) that an editor is going to be more likely to buy a novel on a subject they liked from the inception.

4. Nothing else has worked. After the tenth rejection on the fifth book, a writer can get to the point where anything that has any chance of moving their career along looks like a good idea.

5. Choose your own adventure. I'm sure there are many other reasons, and I'm sure some of you will tell me about them in comments.

Okay, so here's my promised explanation of why I don't like to pitch my novels. First off, I'm a writer. If I wanted to work with a live audience I'd have stayed in theater. I really really don't miss stage fright, and pitching triggers it for me. When an editor asks me about my current book I'm not fool enough to decline to talk about it and I do practice thinking through what to say in those situations. That's because if I have to improvise I turn into a babbling cretin. The question "What's your novel about?" induces instant split personality disorder.

The half that is still a theater person usually goes into "wit" mode and tries to say things like "it's about a hundred thousand words, why do you ask?" This is not a good idea, and the frontal lobes are pretty good at stepping on the impulse. But having half of your brain trying to turn a serious conversation about your work into a stand up routine leaves only half a brain for the actual conversation. Worse than wit mode though is the actor's nightmare, wherin the actor side of my brain suddenly realizes it's in a terribly important performance and that it doesn't know its lines!

Perhaps worse yet is the writer half, which immediately starts whining to itself. "If I could tell the story of my book in two minutes I wouldn't have had to write a book." This is true on some level, but also pointless. Then my writer brain starts trying to condense and synopsize, both of which are important skills, but are much easier to deploy at the keyboard with plenty of advance notice-or at least that's what my internal writer voice says.

So, what should you do when you're on the spot? I'll talk about that next time in part II, Synopses Suck. And, of course, the floor is always open.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Writing Basics: Discipline

The writer must have discipline.

If necessary, he must be disciplined.

Solution: install a 41" pressure-mounted metal gate.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Catch of the Day

Charlton Heston and a savagely coiffed vixen, wrapped in animal skins, riding horseback along a desolate seashore, confronted by the spike-crowned ruin of the Statue of Liberty half buried in the sand: everyone knows how the world ends.
Michael Chabon

Friday, January 26, 2007

Fame's Fleeting Focus and other F-Words

I want to write about something I know nothing about (surprise!) What do you suppose makes a book have “staying power”?

I pose this question because it seems to me that there are writers who appear to make their mark the instant their very first novel is published and there are those who write for years and years and can’t seem to make a dent in the reading public’s consciousness. Then there are also the authors who write a book which doesn’t make much of an impression when its first published that sparks readers’ imagination years later. What’s the deal with that?

I suppose, in a way, this is The Mystery of Publishing Success, and if I could figure this out I’d have the whole insta-bestseller thing sewn up.

Some of it is probably the “Sensawunder” that Elizabeth Bear talks about in her post here. Some of it is probably all that stuff we grapple with every day, like character and world-building. But, there are books that do all this stuff and still don’t make the leap into the place where you get your picture on the cover of Locus before you’ve even written six books, you know? Some of that kind of publishing success is probably due to having an established audience (ala Neil Gaiman’s shift from graphic novels to novels), but then there are still some people who just come out of nowhere to appear center stage with all the lights glaring on their spotlight.

I used to think that one way to achieve this sort of success was through self-promotion. We’ve already had that discussion here sometime ago, so I won’t repeat it. But, regardless, the consensus seemed to be that publicity (particularly self-publicity) is a crap-shoot at best. Luck is nebulous and an unsatisfying answer (even if it may be partly true.) Straight-up skill doesn’t seem to be the answer either, since we can all pick on a popular author whose skill level is less than another less successful one’s. “Packaging” and “marketing” are things I don’t really understand, and I secretly suspect publishers don’t either.

So, what is it? Astrology? Do the stars just have to align for a particular book to be successful? Anyone have any good theories?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Writing Basics: The Personal Assistant

It's crucial for the working writer to have a reliable personal assistant.

I'm borrowing the personal assistant of my writer friend Heloise S. while she's out of the country for a spell.

Here we are, about to go to work. Can you see our dogged determination?

Coming from Theater (improv)

This is going to be another strange monkey post. As in, "I'm not like the other monkeys," or at least many of them. I didn't come to writing from English, or Creative Writing, or even Script Writing. I came from theatrical performance with a heavy emphasis on improv. I worked the Ren Fest circuit for a year or two and made my living (if you could call it that) by performing. There seem to be a couple of places where this background either informs or drives my take on writing in a very different direction from what I see in many other writers process posts.

First, rejection and bad reviews. I don't much like them, but they don't get to me nearly as much as they seem to get to many other writers. I think that's because I've bombed on stage and failed pretty spectacularly at auditions. I've been rejected personally. Me. Not my written work filtered and refined and sent out, but me, in the flesh and immediately. In improv you can't even blame bad material, because its yours and you're making it up on the spot.

Second, I don't have a preconceived idea of what the perfect finished product will look like. Jay Lake has an interesting post up about this over here. When I start a story or a novel it's like a guided improv. I know my situation and my punctuation points (things that have to happen for the story to work). I even have a pretty detailed outline. But I don't know how exactly I'm going to get from scene A. to scene B. and I don't know how I'm going to play them, poignant, bitter, darkly funny. That's all business figured out on the fly and enormously fun to write. My end product is usually much better than my initial idea because that idea was never anything more than a carefully crafted skeleton to hang all the bits on, and just going by the skeleton you may be able to tell what the species is, but its hard to say whether you're going to get my great aunt Hattie or Michelle Pfeifer. Also, because its improv, if I started over again from square one, I know that I might end up with Ethyl Merman instead.

Anyway, there's nothing superior or inferior about my process. It's just different enough that I thought it might be worth noting. There are a million ways to tell a story, all of them equally right or, I suppose, equally wrong.

So, thoughts on the perfect image of a story? Rejection? Reviews, good, bad or indifferent? Strange monkeys?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Fighting, Passions and Characters, oh my

This is the problem with being familiar with the mechanics of a sword fight: you end up describing things WAY TOO MUCH when (re)writing combat scenes in your novel. Yes, it looks really, really cool in my head, and will wow about .05% of my intended audience, but honestly, it's too much for most people. I like that I can visualize, block out and dissect a combat sequence in my brain, but sometimes it gets in the way. It's easy, as the writer, to sit back and go through every option in your head, to play around with three different counters and several different actions (as well as all the footwork and body mechanics and blade work and angulation and... you see some of my problem here :), but this isn't always the best answer. In fact, it can be a train wreck if you aren't careful.

A current example: my protagonist is a poor swordsman at best, more street-educated that classically trained with weapons. This means he isn't always pretty, doesn't always make the right choices, and relies on a blend of skill, strategy, street smarts and luck to pull his bacon out when things get tough. Sometimes, this is in direct contradiction to my own instincts and skill set, which makes things interesting. It also means that my first visualization of a scene may or may not be the best one. There is what I would do, what he should do, and what he ends up doing. Sometimes all three align, other times they completely diverge. It's the latter, more common development, that tends to cause me the most trouble. Some days, I think it might be easier if I didn't study historical sword fighting.

The best answer I have found for this so far (aside from frequent rewriting, which can be like pouring gasoline on a slow fire at times) is to actively remind myself how much my narrator does and does NOT know about fighting. Likewise, I try to keep his relative skill level compared to his opponent(s) in my fore brain as well. Just because I know the proper counter to this move, or might try that action, or could see his opponent do this attack, doesn't mean that they will. I need to keep my understanding and instincts at arm's reach, because it's not me doing the fighting, it's my protagonist, and he's going to act and react and fight a lot differently than I would or could. this is true when I am writing about exceptional fighters as well, only from the other direction.

If this sounds like a practice in characterization, it is. And it applies to more than fight scenes. Stick it into any topic you, the writer, are passionate about, and the situation is more or less the same. Your passion and knowledge can inform your writing, but it should not dictate or take over the process. The trick is to take pieces what you know, what you believe, what you feel and love, and find a way that it fits for your character, world and story. It may not be precisely what you hold to, nor even what you envisioned, but if done well, it will still have that underlying foundation of truth that comes from you. That, I think, is where the interest and connection and "coolness" factor that Lyda was talking about comes from. If you convey the passion without all the geeky baggage and mind-numbing details attached to it, it's no longer a geeky info dump: it's something cool the reader didn't know before.

So, what's your geeky passion? Have you managed to fit it into your writing? If so, how? If not, why not? And does that matter to you?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Writing What You Love and Other Hazards to Embrace

This morning, while doing the dishes, I was listening to Stan Rogers’ “Barrett’s Privateers.” This is a song so chock full of specific and oblique naval references that it should be completely incomprehensible to the average listener. While rinsing out a big pot, I had a vision of Stan talking to his brother Garnet after finishing all the laborious research involved in making this song accurate and Garnet saying, “Stan, I don’t know why you worked so hard on this thing, no one is going to *get* this song. It’s way too personal.” (In all fairness to Garnet, I doubt he said anything remotely like this and I have no idea why my imagination picked on him except that I always suspected that the two of them must have talked music a lot since they are both in the business.)

“Barrett’s Privateers” is one of the songs Stan Rogers’ most remembered for.

This made me think of when I finished the first draft of a religious, political cyberpunk future fantasy/detective-noir novel. Despite the fact that I was very seriously pursuing publication (I even had an agent at this point), I had serious doubts that a book that personal – that full of things that amused only me, would have any kind of universal appeal.

Perhaps “universal” is too large a term, given that there’s probably only as many people out there who know my name as do Stan’s, but the point is, that both he and I achieved a surprising amount of success by writing about our own personal fetishes – him about historical boats, me about religion.

This is something that has always struck me as sort of counter-intuitive about writing. In a lot of ways, it’s the information that turns us on individually -- the kinds of things we're likely to bore people with at cocktail parties -- that makes the most interesting reading.

When I teach, I sometimes talk about this phenomenon as “arcane knowledge.” These are the kinds of little details that you put into your stories that make up the whole “write what you know” axiom. When writing SF/F, most of us don’t have personal experience traveling faster than light or conversing in Elvish (okay, some of us might have done the latter), so we can hardly be expected to “write what we know.” Yet, I think that when an author adds details about the things that they *do* know (the ins-and-outs of ham radio operation, weird esoteric bits about church history, etc.) that a reader clues into the sense that they’re being let into “arcane knowledge.” They get a sense that the story “rings true.”

Obviously, a writer can overdo this – that would be infodumping.

But, I think sometimes that authors are reticent to fully embrace their own obsessions for fear that no one will “get it” and that they won’t be able to appeal to a broad range of readers. Well, as my mother has said, “you can’t please all the people all the time,” and thus very few writers ever are truly universally appealing.

But, after listening to Stan, I've decided that there is a great deal of magic to be had in delving deeply into one’s own thing.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Writing Speed

So, there's another slapfight going on in the writing blogosphere. This one about whether or not fast writing can be good writing. Posts here: (Bear), here: (Larbalestier), and here: (?secritcrush). I tend to agree with Bear and Larbalestier that the question is at best irrelevant and at worst silly. Some writers write best when they're writing fast, some when they're writing slow, and using frequency of publication to decide whether someone is a fast or slow writer is virtually guaranteed to give you incorrect results.

I know people who publish less than one book a year, but actually write that book in a binge that takes about a month. I also know people who've put out three books in a single year where the writing has actually gone on over a decade. I know people who consistently write more than five good books a year. And I know people who write one good book over the course of 18-30 months working steadily. For the record, I'm a moderately fast writer and working at getting faster. But that's actually not so much a production decision (though that's a factor) as it is a quality decision.

The stuff I write the fastest is also generally my best work. I'm less choppy in every way when I write five days a week and several thousand words a day. For the past few years that's meant binge writing, where I do 15-30,000 words in a big chunk and then do life support stuff for a while. Some of my very best writing has been in the biggest binges and I'm wondering if I that doesn't mean I should simplly be writing more and more often. At the moment I'm gearing up to find out.

Anyway, it's an interesting issue. I'd love to hear what y'all have to say about it.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Using the NAME®™

Here's a question that needs some answers and clarification: When is it appropriate, or even allowable, to use the real name of a company or place when telling a story? Is it ever allowed? Do we get away with it simply because A) they don't find out about it, or B) they choose not to sue if they do? Can they sue? What exactly are we allowed to do, and where may we not write? Especially if a company name is well-known, it seems a trifle silly that it can't be used in fiction, but I've heard stories (not that I've checked up on them to any degree) about authors being sued by the likes of Ford Motor Co. for using real company or product names in their fiction. So, where do we stand? I'd love to see some sort of definitive links on this, including any legal references that may be out there.

And what experiences have you had, or do you know about, where this has been an issue?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Full Time Writing

I wanted to comment more on Lyda's post. First of all, no one who is responsible for raising a small child can be a full-time writer. Kids are serious work. I know that women have worked and raised children throughout human history. I don't know how they did it. Maybe by using older children. "Mind your brother, while I cook dinner for 20 harvest hands." Maybe they didn't do a lot that required sustained concentration. A lot of house work can be done in fits and starts. The kids were set to work as soon as possible in many cultures. That must have helped. "Go out and gather eggs from the hens, Little Timmy, while I finish making clothing for the entire family."

I remember my mother's story about my great grandmother or possibly it was my great-great grandmother. Her husband died young, leaving her with four children and the family farm. She worked the farm and raised the kids, and the only time she saw another adult was when a neighbor woman came over in the evening and they sewed together by lantern light.

So when I envy writers like Lyda and Kim Stanley Robinson, who get to stay home and raise the kids and write, maybe I am not thinking the situation through.

Secondly, in this culture there is usually a trade off between money and time. You can have one or the other. Most people can't have both. Many people get by without much of either. I have money at the moment, because I am working full time. One of the things I did last weekend was spend too much money -- getting a haircut and two pairs of New Balance shoes and a Marimekko bag I didn't really need. I have often wondered if spending money is a way to compensate for lack of free time. You are missing something -- freedom, a life of your own spent the way you want to spend it -- and you buy in an effort to fill the emptiness, the sense of loss.

I guess I am saying that most of us can't win for losing. Either we have a life of our own and we are poor; or we have money and not a lot of time for our own lives.

I started working full time (or close to full time) ten years ago, when I realized I couldn't afford to retire. Now, ten years later, I am reaching the age when retirement is visible on the horizon; and I am almost ready to take less money is exchange for more time. My dream situation would be to collect Social Security while continuing to work part time. We will see.

I hope this post isn't too gloomy. Many people do manage to write while working or raising children. My point is not that it's impossible. I'm saying it's not easy.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Rule Breaking

One of the more important aspects of writing the fiction of the fantastic is the creation of internally consistent rules of magic. Whether the magic is of the sorcerous variety or the technological doesn't matter for this formulation. As mentioned before this has to do with the double charge against the reader's willing suspension of disbelief due to the combination of the narrative being fictional and the world being one that is made up or extrapolated. For the reader to have the buy-in necessary to a successful reading experience they need to feel that the logic of the world is compelling.

The funny thing about this is that another principal of successful story telling is rule breaking. This isn't always the case, but in much of heroic or romantic fiction, the protagonist is going to end up having to overcome some sort of impossible odds. Whether that triumph is against an unjust system, a BBE (Big Bad Evil) type villain, the obstacle to romance, or against his or her own inner demons doesn't matter so much as the simple idea of overcoming. In order for that overcoming to be satisfying to the reader, they have to believe the seemingly mutually inconsistent ideas that the protagonist has no realistic chance at success and, at the very same time, that the protagonist is going to triumph and good will win in the end.

A significant portion of the fun of reading an F&SF narrative is trying to figure out how that triumph is going to occur. In the best stories, not only is the reader surprised by the eventual resolution, but they are also able to look back from the end of the story and realize that the ending was completely set up by the preceding events and in some ways almost inevitable. The best way for this to happen is for the author to set up the rules so that they are consistent and that a consistent application of them will doom the protagonist while simultaneously structuring them so that there is a loophole or some way to break the rules that is consistent with them that allows the protagonist to emerge triumphant at the end.

So, you've got to have consistent, believable rules. They have to apply throughout. They have to be constructed so that there is some way to break or avoid them that is also believable. Simple, no?


Monday, January 15, 2007

Where has the weekend gone?

This is in response to Lyda's reflections on her life as a full-time writer. I work at a mundane job 40 hours a week, as I am pretty sure I have mentioned before. We got Martin Luther King Day off, which meant a three day weekend; and here it is Monday night, and I am wondering what I did during the weekend. Saturday Patrick and I ran errands. Sunday I had a long lunch with a friend, came home and was a bit ill, due (I guess) to malevolent black beans. Today I put my mukluks on and went out to experience the strange phenomenon of snow, then worked on my blog, then went and got my hair cut, then came home and cleaned the bathroom.

So, I got no writing done; and I didn't take a long walk in the snow, which I should have, since snow is so rare these days. All I have to show for the weekend is a clean bathroom and some blog entries and guacamole. I made guacamole this evening. This does not seem like a lot for 72 hours.

I'm not sure how this connects to Lyda's comments. It was on my mind before I checked this blog.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Individual Taste, Critique and Recusal

So, one of the things I do as a part of my life as a writer is read and critique manuscripts for friends, students, proteges, and other fellow writers. This can be entertaining, educational, frustrating, and rewarding, all at once or by turns. Over 15 years of doing this, I've developed a number of personal rules on the topic. The main ones are thus:

1. Always tell the truth.
2. Always be constructive.
3. Always try to help the writer achieve their goals. Or, Don't try to make them write the story I would have written from the same premises.
4. Sometimes following rules 1-3 means recusing yourself.

2 is easy, 1 and 3 not so much, though 4 can help with that. Everyone has personal reading biases and tastes, things that work for them or don't for reasons completely unrelated to the comparative success of the work. For example, most time travel stories don't work for me. That includes any number of award-winning works that are loved by lots of other readers.

So, if someone gives me a time travel story and it's not working for me, I don't go into great scathing detail about the inherent problems of paradox and meaning. None of that is going to help the writer and it's likely to aggravate both of us. Instead, I recuse myself and politely let them know that I'm not a good reader for this particular story. This can also be frustrating for both reader and writer, but hard experience has taught me this is much the better choice.

Any thoughts on recusal? Types of stories or themes that don't work for you? Rules for critiques? Stories of critique where you should have recused yourself, but didn't?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Quick Hit

Hi all,

I'm back. What? You didn't notice I was gone? Now I'm hurt.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has a response to the Devil's Publishing Dictionary here . Funny Stuff

Thursday, January 11, 2007

To write SF or not to write SF

At Lyda's suggestion, I'm going to post this as a blog on its own.

It's taken me days to respond to her on the "Why SF?" question because, honestly, I think it's a hard question to answer. When Kelly first talked about it a ways back, I gave it some thought, but couldn't find a lot to say. Now, again, I find it hard to break down. Part of me wants to just say "Because, damn it!" and leave it at that.

But it's worth more than than. I can see several different ways that I personally repond to this question. First, intellectually, I think that SF/F is about exploration--whether that be of ideas, alternate societies, ethics, mythologies, etc. Now, I know that all fiction, to some degree or another, includes exploration of some sort or another--Catcher in the Rye has at least thrice its fair share of self-exploration--but I'm talking about scope and scale here. SF/F is about turning the world topsy turvy--sometimes in huge ways, sometimes in quiet, subtle ways--and saying "What would this world look like? How would it work? How would it impact people?" And working through the detials of that to explore, and to show, that some changes are worth making, or at least considering.

There is definately the emotional component as well, both the "Cool!" response to the scaly/shiny bits, and the more background reponse of feeling that this place is other, which can be a key to letting your mind relax while reading; this is NOT your own world, so let go of that stress for a while. Conversely, this can be a world which is other in a way that discomforts you, either in order to kick your ass into changing something about the world we do live in, or to keep you from wishing for something that is far more dangerous that it may appear from the outside.

You know, it's not the difficulty of the subject that kept me from responding, it's the enormity of it. It woukd require an enite book to adequately respond to the question. Both things are correct: we write it because we can write things in it that are best said in this medium, and we write it because it's cool. We write SF/F because we read SF/F. We write to promote certain futures, and to caution people from following certain paths. We write to reinterpret the world.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Why SF?

Since I’ve already confessed that I don’t always successfully pull off science fiction, I’m going to take this question quite seriously.

There are answers that I’ve given when asked by people who are interviewing me for mainstream newspapers or for genre trade magazines, which are kind of the answer I feel I’m supposed to give. You know the one: science fiction allows me to write about politics and religion subversively, under the radar, as well as affords me the medium in which to explore the ramifications of current societal trends. Not that that’s not true (in fact I made the argument that that is the purpose of SF/F earlier), but sometimes I wonder if I’m not just regurgitating that answer because I don’t want to say what actually pops into my mind first: because it’s _cool_, dude. Wicked cool.

I think I also write SF/F because it’s what imprinted on my brain first. Nearly every story read to me as a child falls into the camp of fantasy, IMHO. Talking animals? Fantasy. Then, of course, came that monumental day in 1978, when I saw the vastness of space for what it really was – big, I mean, really big.

Talking about this on Sunday at the Second Foundation Speculative Fiction Reading Group, I confessed that I didn’t know what genre I’d written when I sold Archangel Protocol. If you’d have asked me at the time, I would have said that AP was fantasy – maybe “future fantasy” even. Why? Because the plot turns on a fantasy element (angels). However, my agent and my editor told me it was science fiction, and that’s what they put on the spine. Then, of course, came the critics who complained that the science fiction elements weren’t strong enough, that what I’d written was just science fiction window dressing.

Ya can’t win for losin’.

But, so the question remains. Why is my writing pulled toward the black hole of SF? Is it just the background pictures I prefer? Or is there something innate about SF that I feel I need in order to tell a story?

I think part of it is probably simple. SF/F stories hold my attention. A space ship on the cover will still make me pick a book off the shelf and read the back cover copy. Thus, when I think about investing in the time commitment to write a 100,000 word story, I go for SF/F ideas because I know they’ll have staying power in my brain. Yet, I also tend to write in some kind of mystery. I believe most books I’ve written are a mystery of one kind or another. And romance. Even my SF novels tend to have heavy romantic elements.

I do like to write about things that don’t otherwise make for particularly sellable novels: religion and politics, and I like to write about them in a way that isn’t terribly suited to mainstream fiction. Which is to say, you can’t usually get away with asking the questions -- what if there really was a God? What would he think of the religious right? -- in traditional fiction formats. I do think that science fiction readers tend to be more open to ideas that other readers find difficult. Religion has been a part of SF since the beginning (or nearly so) – Who can forget Jesus on Mars? Politics, too. Theodore Sturgeon is partly responsible for my coming out because I read “World Well Lost” (1953) in collection at a tender pre-teen age.

Plus, space ships are cool.

Monday, January 08, 2007

A Quick Hit

Check out Lynn Viehl (aka S. L. Viehl)'s The Devil's Publishing Dictonary (part 1) and (part 2). These are both hilarious, sadly accurate, and quite scathing.

PKDA Nominees Announced

In case anyone was looking for good reads, here is the list of this year's Philip K. Dick Award nominees:

2006 Philip K. Dick Award Nominees Announced

The judges of the 2006 Philip K. Dick Award and the Philadelphia SF Society are pleased to announce seven nominated works that comprise the final ballot for the award:

MINDSCAPE by Andrea Hairston (Aqueduct Press)
CARNIVAL by Elizabeth Bear (Bantam Spectra)
SPIN CONTROL by Chris Moriarty (Bantam Spectra)
CATALYST by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Tachyon Publications)
RECURSION by Tony Ballantyne (Bantam Spectra)
IDOLON by Mark Budz (Bantam Spectra)
LIVING NEXT DOOR TO THE GOD OF LOVE by Justina Robson (Bantam Spectra)

First prize and any special citations will be announced on Friday, April 6, 2007 at Norwescon 30 at the Doubletree Seattle Airport Hotel, SeaTac, Washington.

The Philip K. Dick Award is presented annually with the support of the Philip K. Dick Trust for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States. The award is sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society and the award ceremony is sponsored by the NorthWest Science Fiction Society. Last year’s winner was WAR SURF by M. M. Buckner (Ace Books) with a special citation to NATURAL HISTORY by Justina Robson (Bantam Spectra). The 2006 judges are Geary Gravel, Anne Harris, Christine Mains (chair), Kristine Smith, Mark Tiedemann.

For more information about the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society,
Contact Gary Feldbaum (215) 563-2511

For more information about Norwescon:
Contact NorthWest SF Society: (360) 438-0871

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Meander About the Life of a Full-Time Writer

As I was taking out the trash and the recycling, changing the kitty litter, and feeding the fish this morning, I was thinking about the life I’d imagined as a full-time writer. Apparently, it came with a maid (or, perhaps, a lot less animals.) But, then I remembered that I am not, in fact, making my living as a writer. I’m not making a living at all. I’m actually mooching off my partner’s largess or small-gess, as the case may be.

The amount of money I made this past year as a writer – well, is probably more significant this year as I delivered a book and sold another, but it still isn’t near a living wage. Thing is, writing money comes in dribs and drabs. Yeah, my agent closed the deal on a low five-figure advance for the British rights to Tate’s books this past summer (whoot!), but I have yet to see _any_ of that money – and when I do, it will be broken up into tiny chunks (a little at the publication of hardback of the first title, a little bit more at the publication of the paperback, a little more at the publication in hardback of the second title… and on and on, three books worth.)

Yet, I’m living the life. Sure, I have Mason to look after, which is, without question, a full-time job – in fact, I probably write more words in fewer hours in the day than when I was traditionally employed. But, still…. I get to stay home and write (and obsess on fish, but that’s another story.)

I guess I’m thinking about all those fantasies I had before I “broke in” and/or got “over the transom.” I somehow imagined the intellectual life where dishes and mopping and making dinner didn’t figure in, really. Even when reality settled in, I still somehow figure that by the time I was staying home with Mason I’d find a way to write more than one book a year…

I wonder if anyone really lives the life I want. The one where, for eight hours, all I *have* to do is write. (Hmm, maybe that’s Kelly’s life?) I suspect that if I had that much time, I’d still find a way to waste it. Suddenly, the dishes would actually seem fun. Heck, even now when I have so little time, I still find excuses not to write (and I actually really like the process of writing, most days.) Goddess knows, that when I sit down to compose a blog or two, I often find myself off wasting times at sites like this: Serenity Personality Quiz.

I’m not sure I have anything of substance to say here, except the reality of the writing life is much different than I expected.

Not worse, just different.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

This Bears a Closer Look

So, I was off reading about Elizabeth Bear’s New Year’s Day thoughts, and came across this series of thoughts. Amid them, she discusses the proper placement of story elements and their use in developing the story for the reader. I’ve quoted the relevant bit below (but read the original in case I’ve mussed it up):

For example, here I am in chapter three, about to reveal something I probably would have tried to hold onto for later when I was less experienced, trying to create false tension through mystery, or save up something that's actually not such a big deal for a big reveal. (Luke. I am your father.)

And part of the problem here is that I'm working in well-trodden tropes on this one. …[O]nce upon a time I might have made the mistake of trying to conceal that what I had here was a derelict generation ship, and save it up for some kind of big reveal at the end. But isn't it more interesting if we know that going in, like we know that the lowly servant girl is somehow related to greatness, and then we can continue layering reveals and reversals on top of that?

That's what I mean when I say, shoot the whole deal. Get it out there. Get it on the page. Don't hold it back for a [surprise] ending, because then what the hell else do you have to construct a story with?

Nobody likes self-conscious coyness.

Now, I think there’s a question here of whether or not the particular details in question are germane to the essence of the story, or if, as in many mysteries, the story turns around a lack of a particular piece of information. I can think of any number of Agatha Christie’s works that quite successfully, with misdirection and even untrustworthy narration, kept information from the reader until you reach an “aha” moment at the end.

I’m not saying that Elizabeth doesn’t have a point, or that she doesn’t know more about this than I, given our relative levels of experience. But I do think that there is a place for this sort of withholding. I think I did it successfully in “I.P.A.N.E.M.A. Girl” (though we’ll see what the markets have to say about that), and I’m sure that I’ve read it any number of times in Ed McBain, Christie, etc.

My question is: When is it appropriate, to the telling? What factors play into that decision? (Or is this always a “game-time” call?)

Hippo Gnu Deer

Even though it's horribly old-fashioned of me, I did make a New Year's resolution this year: Sing more.

I mean that both literally and figuratively. I'm actually a fairly terrible singer, but there's something very cathartic about belting out a Stan Rogers song or two. It's a good stress reliever for me. Singing makes me happy just by doing it.

Anyone else doing this tradition? I'd make a writing resolution, but I'm afraid I'd break it... and I have a book due at the end of March. *gulp*