Sunday, September 30, 2007

Germs In Space

The China story is still under construction, or rather re-construction. The copyedited ms. for DOGS was fine, and I'm grateful that the copyeditor caught so many small errors (plus teaching me to spell "anymore"). And scientists have sent germs to space and made them more powerful than they were before.
In September, 2006, salmonella went up on the shuttle. When it came back down again, 167 of its genes had mutated, presumably due to cosmic radiation. Then the salmonella was put in mouse food and fed to mice at Arizona State University's Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccinology. Mice fed the space-strengthened salmonella died at three times the rate of mice given normal salmonella, and it took less of the microorganism to do it.
This is fascinating to me. I don't yet see how to use it in a story, but the news article grabbed hold of my imagination, hollowed out a little studio apartment for itself, and has taken up abode. There is, or will be eventually, something breeding there.
I just hope nobody sends Ebola upstairs.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Chugging Along

The best thing about writing is getting into that "flow state" where my study disappears, the computer disappears, and even I disappear to myself, and the only thing that exists is the world of the story. The last three days have provided work sessions like that, resulting in a first draft of the China story. It needs rewriting, it's 17,000 words long, it has no title, and I'm still doing bits of research for details I sluffed over in the heat of composition, but we -- the story and I -- have been chugging happily along. And now I have to stop.
The copyedited ms. of my thriller due out from Tachton next year, Dogs, just arrived from UPS. Because publishers always need copyedited mss. back like, yesterday, I will have to stop work on the China story and attend to the novel. There's two problems with this. One is that it will break my momentum on the China story, since they have entirely different tones and pacing. The other is that I don't yet know, having not yet opened the package, if this will be one of the welcome copyeditors, finding my lapses in continuity and regularizing my usage, or one of the ones that wants to be a co-author and changes my wording. Once I even had one who provided incorrect data ("You need to change 'Congo' to 'Zaire' -- they had a revolution, you know." Yes, and then they had another one and changed the name back.) This ms. will probably be fine, because I've worked with Tachyon before and I trust them. Just the same, I'm putting off opening the package until tomorrow. That way, I get a few more precious hours with Hao Haihong and Ben Molloy.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Quoth The Greybeard

Yesterday I learned that my story from the January, 2007 ASIMOV'S, "Safeguard," will be published in the Chinese magazine Science Fiction World, translated by the wonderful Xu Haiyan. This pleases me enormously. China is a huge potential SF market. And I noticed when I was at the Chengdu con that most of that market seems to be young. In the States, "the graying of fandom" is a perpetual topic. The recent Locus poll included the question, "How long have you been reading SF regularly ?" and over half answered "more than 20 years." Fifty-three percent had been reading it more than 30 years. Granted, Locus readers represent hard-core fans rather than a broader spectrum of all SF readers, but these figures still suggest an older group interested in SF than I saw in China. So does a visit to any con suite at any American convention. Whereas in Chengdu, the con and signings were thronged with young people. Even most of the writers, with the exception of Liu Cixin, seemed young.
So why are Chinese youth more interested in SF than American youth? Even the young people I know personally, when they read in the field at all, vastly prefer fantasy to SF. Why?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Good, Better, Best

This morning I got an email from Jonathan Strahan, requesting my story "By Fools Like Me" for Nightshade's Best of the Year anthology. While this is certainly a lovely way to start one's day, it also got me thinking about what constitutes a "best" story. When "Fools" first came out, in the September ASIMOV'S, an on-line reviewer said that it was nicely done but the idea and setting were old. So how important is a "new" idea for a successful story? How important is new technology, a new and different world, vs. strong characters and emotion? Ideally, of course, a story would have both, but most of us can't manage that all of the time, or even most of the time.
"Fools" takes place in what is becoming a standard apocalyptic setting: the world post-global-warming, in which some parts of the Earth are flooded and others have undergone desertification. The story focuses on a very few characters cut off from the rest of the planet, on a very small and personal scale. Does that aid a story, in that there is more room to develop character, or hurt it, in that it becomes "less SF-nal"? I don't know. I do know, however, that among my own 2007 works, I preferred "Fountain of Age." Jonathan Strahan obviously didn't. Who knows why? Best-of-the-year editors don't have to justify their decisions. Nor do they ask the authors, which would easily lead to an apocalypse all by itself.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

CATCH-22, Publishing Version

My class in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy has resumed again. I teach this three times a year, eight weeks a session, at a local arts center, Writers & Books. My students are all motivated adults who want to write professionally (a few already do). As usual, I have about half "regulars" and half newbies. Next week we start critiquing eacch other's work, Clarion style.
After doing this for a great many years, and reading the SF magazines for even longer. I've noticed something curious. Some of the stories I see in class seem to me better than some of the ones I see in the magazines. Now, this could be just bias on my part, since some of these students are also my friends. But I don't think so. I think something else happens in publishing, which is that you have to be better at the beginning of your career than you do later on. At the beginning, when your ms. turns up in a slush pile, it does not get the benefit of many doubts. The editor or first reader, having read some truly dreadful stuff in the slush pile, doesn't allow a beginner the same automatic, if partial, suspension of immediate judgement that he will allow to a pro, who he knows can tell a story. I think a lot of pretty good work thus gets dismissed too early. Also, a beginner's name on the cover of a magazine does not sell copies. Robert Silverberg's, or Charles Stross's, or Connie Willis's, does.
Finally, editors, being human, sometimes just flat out make mistakes. My most famous story is the novella version of 'Beggars In Spain," which won a Nebula and my only Hugo. It was rejected by the first editor who read it.
If you're a beginner, that rejected story of yours may be better than you think. Hang in there.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Factual People In Fictional Stories

Writers have two kinds of relatives: those who fear turning up in the writer's stories and those who fear not turning up there. My sister Kate, whom I adore, has always complained that I never put her in my fiction. I have tried; once I named a hurricane after her. She said that was not going to cover it. Some people are never happy.
So I tried to put her in my China story, but she won't fit. For the female character, I need a bossy pragmatist, and Kate is a sweet-natured (usually) romantic. But if I had put her in, and it was an unflattering treatment, what then? J.P. Donleavy said that if you publish your first novel and nobody sues you, you haven't been honest enough. Might be a bit of an exaggeration.
Anyway, Kate wouldn't sue me. I know too much about her (and vice-versa). Between sisters, these things are handled more discreetly. By blackmail.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Some Children Are More Difficult Than Others

There are stories that are gifts. When I wrote "Out Of All Them Bright Stars," the story that won my first Nebula, I put the words down as fast as they came to me and changed almost nothing. Other stories, however....
The "China story," most of which takes place in San Diego, is a mess. It's a physical mess because some of it is in longhand, some typed, and some in cryptic notations like "Renata and two-slit experiments," which are supposed to remind me of whole scenes as yet unwritten. The story will apparently be quite long. Also, I realized just two days ago that there is a need to work in solar flares, currently not present in any scene. I will need them later. And I'm still not sure of the ending. None of this is good. I know writers -- Connie Willis is one -- who work from detailed outlines, but I have never been able to do this. I write like a man dashing past a graveyard at night: Go as fast as you can and don't look back.
And speaking of China -- I finally finished the course of malaria prophylactic pills I was told by Passport Health Clinic to take before I left the US. It turns out there was no malaria in Chengdu, but if it shows up in upstate New York, I'm covered.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Negative Capability

I recently had an interesting email conversation about stories with another writer . He theorized that there are two kinds of writers, those that write about things that go in in their own lives, more or less heavily fictionalized, and those that write about characters and situations different from themselves. The two kinds bleed into each other, of course. If I write a murderer, I'm drawing on my own past -- no, not of murder, but of being angry enough to want to kill somebody. My life feeds even the character most unlike me.
I was thinking about this when I finished watching Jodie Foster's performance in THE BRAVE ONE. I didn't think about it while I was watching because Foster was too riveting. She plays a woman whose lover is brutally and randomly murdered in Central Park. When most people lose a loved one, they grieve, become depressed, struggle to readjust. Foster does those things, but she also turns urban vigilante. What made the movie, despite a flawed ending, so mesmerizing is the complexity Foster puts into this woman. She's terrified of her own violence, yet goes on causing it. She's morally conflicted, gleeful, scared, furious, wily, and begging to be caught, all at once.
Shakespeare wrote that sort of character. Literary theorists refer to the ability of the author to subtract himself from his story, to create such a diverse range of characters that it's hard to glimpse the author's personality through his fiction, negative capability. Old Will had it in spades, which is one reason we can draw so few conclusions about him as a person. I think Jodie Foster has it, too.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


So the picture is finally up, but not by me. Sharon, the savvy admin, wrestled the photo into place. Thank you, Sharon.
Meanwhile, a few of you have commented on my writing a story set in China after six days there, and two more people felt moved enough to send me email (one for, one against). I'm persisting with the story, possibly unwisely, but I'm also taking this opportunity to recommend a booklet on this thorny issue. It's called WRITING THE OTHER, by Cindy Ward and Nisi Shawl, and it deals with if, when, and how to write POV characters that differ from the author in race, culture, gender, and/or sexual orientation. Cindy and Nisi do a lovely job in discussing this in ways that are actually usable to writers.
I recently saw STARDUST, the movie based on Neil Gaiman's novel. Now, I am not a huge fan of fantasy, especially fantasy with princesses and witches and the whole Celtic-lore background, because it's been done so much. But STARDUST is utterly charming: inventive and entertaining. Rober DeNiro's performance alone is worth the price of admission. Recommended.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Alive and Well On The Net

Some things never go away, even when you wish they would. Last month I was at the Chengdu International Science Fiction Conference in Chengdu, China -- a wonderful experience. But at a cultural presentation of dancers and musicians, the two Japanese-writer guests sang a Japanese song. Then the Russian cosmonaut sang a Russian song (and that man could SING). This put pressure on the Americans -- should we sing? What should we sing? How bad would we be?
We did sing, resulting in the worst rendition ever of "Oh, Susanna!" This is not false modesty. We were truly terrible. Neil Gaiman, refraining from joining in on the grounds that he's a Brit, said, "Couldn't you guys at least choose one key?" Apparently not.
And now, because nothing on the Internet ever dies, there are photos. There may be a video. So, to forestall the gunshot wound by firing first, here are Carolyn Clink, Rob Sawyer, Michael Swanwick, me, and David Hill murdering poor Susanna, while Neil winces in pain.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Paying The Bills

Writers sometimes take strange freelance assignments to supplement fiction earnings. Today I did a presentation on "storytelling" to a major corporation that wishes to use this information to design software to help people better take, organize, and arrange photos. Since I work in words and they work in images, I'm not sure that my presentation was of much use to anybody. But it was interesting to do , and the very intelligent audience asked some very intelligent questions.
Two weeks ago I was in China with Michael Swanwick, Neil Gaiman, and David Brin -- today I'm in a skirt-and-jacket passing for corporate. Variety and spice and all that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Unexplained Regression

Still working on the China story, and an odd thng happened: I suddenly wanted to write it in longhand. I used to work longhand, before computers, and then pay a typist, but the advent of computers meant my typing looked almost normal -- no more topographical maps that were hills and valleys of Liquid Paper. So now I type on a laptop (with one finger -- 600-page novels with one finger), but all at once I'm back to longhand, all of which will later have to be typed in. Why? Who knows?
Writers have strange ways of warming up for writing. Agathie Christie washed dishes; she said having her arms immersed in warm water helped the flow of ideas. Truman Capote went one better, immersing his whole body and writing in the bathtub. Faulkner drank. So this story (to decend from the exalted to the ridiculous) wants to be written sitting up in bed, longhand, on a clipboard so old the corners are soft and frayed like a blanket.
Go figure.
--Nancy Kress

Monday, September 10, 2007


I have never kept a blog before, so this is a test drive for me. In fact, I'm not certain I keep a blog, in that content remains a theoretical problem. Why do people read other peope's blogs? Why do they read writers' blogs? Why are you reading this?
So I'll start with a writing question: How much does one have to know about a setting and culture to use it in a story? I ask this because I'm currently working on a story set in China, a country in which I have spent all of six days (see report and pictures under NEWS). This feels a bit hubristic. On the other hand, I've never been to Mars, either, or to a space station, or to the future, yet I've set stories in all those places.
Thoughts, anyone?
--Nancy Kress