Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Various Matters

This is a miscellaneous round-up of matters discussed earlier on this blog, in case anybody is still interested:

"Elevator," the story I wrote in a single-sitting eight-hour session that produced an endorphin high, has sold to the anthology ECLIPSE 2. It's curious that such a positive experience can result in a story with so many negative components. But, then, P.G. Wodehouse was chronically depressed, hated writing, and still managed to be upbeat and hilarious in print.

"The Product," the story I dithered about last October (blog entry "Is It Dead, Jim?") is officially dead. I gave it a two-month rest and then reread it, and I hate it. Really hate it. So it's never going anywhere but my file cabinet, which also houses the odd spider. The spider is more alive than this story.

The maybe-novel is indeed a novel. There is now 20,000 words of it and it's just getting started, so it genuinely is a novel. All 20,000 words need rewriting, since I only figured out yesterday what the thing will be about.

The tooth-critter FDA clinical trial is only using "young, healthy males." Thus I do not qualify and will have to go on subsidizing my dentist's retirement fund.

I am going to nominate my own novella for the ASIMOV'S reader poll, on the grounds that (1) I'm a reader, and (2) I like it. But I'm also going to nominate other stories I like.

I will be out of town, sans laptop, until Tuesday, when blogging will resume.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Teeth Critters

Janis Ian, musician ("Seventeen") and SF fan, sent me a fascinating article on genetically engineered bacteria, a topic I write about a lot. The FDA has just approved a clinical trial for a genetically altered version of Streptococcus mutans, a bacteria which all of us harbor in our mouths and which causes tooth decay by secreting an acid that erodes tooth enamel. The GM version does three things: (1)elbows out the existing bacteria and take its place, (2)converts its acid wastes to a mild alcohol instead of acid, and (3)needs a twice-daily mouthwash containing a necessary amino acid or else it will die. This last is to make sure that people can get rid of the critters if the trial doesn't work out.

The alcohol-instead-of-acid production was brought about by replacing the acid-producing gene with one from another species of bacteria, Zymomonas mobilis, which is also used to make Mexican beer ("pulque"). However, this tiny still in your mouth will not produce enough alcohol to get anybody tipsy.

The FDA approval process took years. For a while, the entire project was classified in the same category as potential bioweapons ("Defeat the enemy! Spare them tooth decay!") And the week-long initial trial will isolate all its volunteer subjects in a biohazard ward.

There will be a lot more of this sort of thing in the future. As a proponent of the potential good genemods can do the human race, especially in parts of the world where disease and starvation are rampant, I'm all for this kind of progress. So -- would I volunteer to have experimental bacteria in my mouth?

Yes. I would. As the owner of pre-fluoride teeth that have financed college educations for the children of several dentists, I would be glad to take a chance on a better method to keep my teeth in my head. Especially if it were also a cheaper method.

Anybody else?

Monday, November 26, 2007

An Ethical Question

Over the Thanksgiving holidays, I started catching up on my SF reading. The operative words here are "started," since I am waaayyyy behind, and "thanksgiving," since it will take a miracle to ever get caught up. But almost immediately I ran into a problem.

On the half-assed theory that I should start near the end (looks less daunting that way), I opened the January, 2008 ASIMOV'S, which includes not only the index of all 2007 stories in that magazine but also the ballot to vote for the Twenty-Second Annual Readers' Awards. Now, I published five stories last year in ASIMOV'S, three of which I still like, two of them quite a lot. So the question that hopped into my mind: Is it ethical to vote for oneself?

Presidents do it. SFWA members do it for the Hugos and Nebulas, but for the Nebulas ten other people besides the author have already recommended the story or it wouldn't even make the preliminary ballot. The Hugo ballot, too, goes through a two-tier, general-recommendation process followed by a winnowed ballot. But this is a one-shot deal -- just send in the names of stories you liked best. What if one such story is one's own? Does honesty trump modesty or vice-versa? What if you list your story but also two others (the maximum allowed) in each category? What if you list only your story? Where does self-believe shade into self-obsession?

No answers yet. I'm still thinking.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

More On the Seven Minutes

Right after my previous post on the average reading time for young people (seven minutes per day), the mail brought the book FUTURES FROM NATURE, just released by Tor and edited by Henry Gee. This is an anthology of 100 short-shorts, all with fewer than 1,000 words, that were published from 1999 - 2006 in the prestigious scientific journal NATURE. This is the journal that first published Crick and Watson's double-helix structure for DNA, as well as a great number of other important break-throughs in science. Gee recognized that scientists often like SF, and so he ran a back-page story in each issue for a year. When that run was over, popular demand brought it back.

About half of the stories in FUTURES are by Brits (NATURE is a British magazine) and half by others. The authors span three generations, from Arthur C. Clarke to Cory Doctorow, and countless writing styles. My own story, "Product Development," was enjoyable to write. Usually I don't write short (I sprawl) but this challenge was great fun.

The book is a good holiday gift for your teenager's seven minutes of reading. And who knows -- maybe they'll go on to actually that archaic activity in this wonderful genre of ours. Miracles happen.

And speaking of holidays, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone out there who's celebrating it. Blogging will resume in a few days.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Discouraging News

Recently Craig DeLancey, SFWA's newest member (congrats, Craig!) emailed me the National Endowment For the Arts report To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence. This is a discouraging document. Among the findings:
  • Americans ages 15-24 spend two hours of their day watching TV and seven minutes on leisure reading.
  • Reading scores for adults of all educational levels are in decline.
  • American fifteen-year-olds rank fifteenth in average reading scores for 31 countries, trailing (among others) Poland and Korea.
There is some good news: kids who read are more likely to also "engage in positive civic and individual activity" such as volunteering, going to sports events or concerts, and exercising. This at least gives the lie to the image of the maladjusted and isolated brainiac nerd (Ted Kozcynski notwithstanding).

But -- seven minutes a day spent reading. I know that, as a full-time writer, I have the luxury to indulge several hours of reading a day, every day. But even when I was working at a "real job," writing on the side, teaching a class, and raising two kids, I read. And as a kid I read everything I could find, including the backs of ketchup bottles and the confession magazines my mother hid in the linen closet. Seven minutes.

Can all you aspiring writers out there perfect the seven-minute story?

Monday, November 19, 2007

In The Flow

Yesterday I wrote an entire short story in one long session, eight hours, which I haven't done in years. Eight hours of living somewhere else, being somebody else, inhabiting a different emotional universe. That's genuinely what the experience feels like -- a cessation of my usual "Nancy-ness," a disappearance of self, to be replaced by Nancy-as-conduit for the manifestation of these other, temporary people. Perhaps that's what it feels like to be possessed by a demon, or to channel Eleanor Roosevelt, or to act as a medium for messages from the dead, or any other nutty thing I don't believe in. But the temporary absence of self is real, exhilarating, and exhausting. I finished limp as an empty sock.

The story, tentatively called "Elevator," is in longhand and thus requires keying in. The computer is more efficient but in some ways I prefer to do a first draft in longhand, although I can't say why. But I'm not alone. Connie Willis, for example, does all her writing in longhand and has a secretary type it in. Lacking a secretary, I will do it myself -- but that's also a chance for revision.

A good day.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Human Body

A friend and I went yesterday to the Human Body Exhibit, on loan from China to the United States, at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. It's a fascinating and awe-ful thing. These are actual human bodies, preserved and then partially dissected to show different bodily systems: circulatory, digestive, etc. It's impossible not to wonder who these human beings once were, what were their desires and dreams, vanished now from their intricate and public remains.

The exhibit is controversial. Some people feel that this is not a proper use of human remains, even if "donated to science" by their owners. Others object more to the "Prenatal" portion of the exhibit, which features preserved fetuses in various states of development and which in Rochester was secluded behind curtains with a sign advising parents that some children might find this upsetting. I don't share these views. The entire exhibit seemed to me to underline the miracle that is the incredibly complex homo sapiens body. Sixty thousand miles of blood vessels in an adult! That's enough to circle the equator two-and-a-half times!

I would have no objection to my own body ending up like this.

The entire experience received a surreal gloss because the Museum was also hosting a Holiday Bazaar. To emerge from the exhibit, softly lit and with flute music playing unobtrusively in the background, into a riot of glittery bibelots for sale, was passing strange. The last thing Therese and I saw in the museum was a grandmother scolding her grandson for singing a modern Christmas song: "You think it's funny that Grandma got run over by a reindeer? How would you like it if I got run over by a reindeer?!" Therese and I couldn't help it -- we collapsed into laughter, in which there was something of uneasy bafflement.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

More Mystification

Okay, troops, yesterday another foreign-language magazine arrived in the mail. This time I recognize my story: "Patent Infringement." What I don't recognize is the language. So, once more asking for help:

"O încălcare a drepturilor de autor"

is the story title, and the magazine is published in "Botoşani." It's called Sci-Fi magazin, which doesn't seem to be much help.

Can anybody tell me where this is coming from? Thank you!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The China Connection

Starting in March, I will be writing a monthly column for the Chinese SF magazine SF World, published in Chengdu. This came about as a result of my trip to China in August for the International Science Fiction Conference. The column will consist of advice about various aspects of science fiction writing. I'm enormously pleased about this.

For sixteen years, I did a writing column for Writers Digest, until the editorial staff, in one of its periodic revamps of the magazine, fired all the columnists at once and went to a different format. I like writing about writing, for a couple of reasons. First, it forces me to think about why I do what I do, about what works and what doesn't, and sometimes that leads to greater clarity about whatever story I've currently got under construction. Second, I enjoy knowing I'm being useful to beginners. Being useful makes me feel like I belong someplace.

Incidentally, I only just learned about another aid for beginning writers: Virtual Clarion. This is an on-line workshop sponored by Clarion, and the fee you pay to join goes to help defray Clarion's costs. You can participate in writers' groups, or you can purchase critiques donated by instructors (including me) of your work-in-progress. The URL is

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Sometimes I will go for months without thinking much about a particular object or phenomenon or person. Then I will get interested in it for some reason, and suddenly I'm seeing it everywhere. Either I have just re-tuned my perception filters, or the universe has a way of supplying information and ideas right when we think we need them.

Right now it's dogs. I have a dog, but I have had a dog for four years now. All at once everywhere I go there are literary dogs. Kij Johnson wrote a wonderful story in Ellen Datlow's anthology COYOTE ROAD, all about the evolution of dogs. Ellen urges me at World Fantasy Con, in the strongest possible terms, to read this story, so I do. The galleys for my 2008 novel from Tachyon, DOGS, turn up in my mailbox. Mike Resnick informs me that my story for Jim Baen's Universe, called "Laws of Survival" but mostly about dogs, will be up on the Baen website in December. The current issue of THE NEW YORKER arrives and the fiction is a story by Roddy Doyle called "The Dog." The TIMES crossword puzzle this morning has a clue "Hollywood dog" (ASTA). I am thinking about a YA science fiction novel, and dogs keep scampering through my mind.

What message am I being sent here? And would it work if I got interested in aardvarks?

Monday, November 12, 2007

As Time Goes By

I've been going over my galleys for Nano Comes To Clifford Falls and Other Stories, and I've noticed something odd. Either the stories have mutated over time or my critical judgement has. There are some stories I remember not liking that much, such as "Computer Virus," that I now think are pretty good. There are other stories I felt quite enthusiastic about when I sold them, but which now seem to have developed deep flaws.

One of the latter is "Shiva In Shadow." I wrote it because Robert Silverberg asked for a story for an SFBC anthology called Between Worlds. This theme anthology was originally supposed to be called At The Galactic Core and all the stories set there, but apparently I was the only one who wanted to set a story at the core, and so the scope was broadened. Since at the time I had no idea what went on at the galactic core (a lot), I got a book and read it. But as I reread the finished product four years later, I think I got too carried away with the science. The story is jammed with facts about Sagittarius A*, IRS 16, and shocked molecular gases. Any hard-SF story is a balance between what's going in the science and what's going on inside the characters, but I was a little shocked myself at how out of balance those elements are in "Shiva in Shadow." What was I thinking?

Too much. I was thinking too much, leading with the head and not the heart. Ah, well. It's only one story in the collection.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Galley Glitches

The galleys for my 2008 short-story collection from Golden Gryphon, Nano Comes To Clifford Falls and Other Stories, arrived yesterday in the mail. They were accompanied by the Hungarian edition of Oaths and Miracles; the long-overdue payment from Kodak; and a royalty check, from the reprint of a story in an obscure anthology, for $4.78. I won't spend that all in one place.

I have learned to go over galleys very carefully. This is due not to publishers' glitches but to me. When the galleys for an early novel of mine turned up decades ago, I had no time to go over them and they were required back, like, yesterday: rush rush rush URGENT! So I hired my teenage son to read them for me. He missed a few things, which is why the book came out with the phrase "public announcement" without the "l."

The hardcover of Oaths and Miracles, my first thriller, was worse. I read the galleys hastily. Very hastily. Somehow I didn't notice that, from all the chaotic electronic vesions on my computer, the one the publisher used (which he must have obtained from me) was missing a critical chapter. The hardcover came out without it. I restored this chapter in the paperback, but not before several friends and one reviewer delicately inquired why I'd chosen to tell my story with the climax off-stage.

So I'm going over these galleys extremely carefully. It takes a long time, but I do learn.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Move Over, Harry Potter

This afternoon I read Ellen Klages's YA novel, THE GREEN GLASS SEA. This book, which won the prestigious Scott O'Dell award for young adult literature, is about two eleven-year-old girls who live at Los Alamos with their scientist fathers during the Manhattan Project. Both girls are social misfits, very bright, and imaginative -- not unlike many of us SF fans as children. It's a terrific book, ending with the atom bomb detonations at Trinity and then Hiroshima, as only half-understood through the eyes of children.

What I noticed about the book, quite apart from enoying it, is how much it differs from the fantasies that are read by all the 12-16-year-old I know. The Harry Potter books and their clones are all fast-paced, fantastical, full of dangerous and wild adventures. GREEN GLASS SEA is very slow-paced, quiet, focussed on things like building a crystal radio and learning to trust a friend. All the drama concening the bomb happens off-stage -- way off-stage. So as I finished the book, I had to wonder -- do kids like this book as much as I do? Maybe they do. If not, do adults then give awards to books they think kids ought to like?

I have no answers to this. But I'm going to give GREEN GLASS SEA to a 15-year-old I know and see what she thinks.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Yesterday the mail brought an edition of a Russian magazine, mailed from Moscow. I know I have a story in it because (1) why else would I be getting it, and (2) I think I can recognize my own name in Russian (НЗНСИ КРЕСС). What I can't recognize is the title of the story, which means I have no idea what story I may have sold to whom, when. The title is (as closely as I can match the letters from Microsoft's "Symbols" inserts):

Э Н Д Ш Π И п б

Help, anyone?

Other mystifications: Whether the thing I'm writing is or is not a novel, when Kodak will pay me for the presentation I did for them in September, the meaning of life in the universe.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Mind Games

After WFC, I'm having a hard time geting back into my maybe-a-novel-maybe-not. Continuity has been lost, momentum broken, inspiration squashed. When I'm having trouble working, the best cure is always to work -- a vicious circle. So I play mind games with myself. The current one goes: "Kress, you only have to do five hundred words today. That's two skimpy pages. Anybody can write two skimpy pages, especially if you know you're going to rewrite it anyway, and if you do, you're free! Free!" This game often works. Just as often, after 500 words I'll continue on.

Here's another mind game I use: "Kress, you're sitting in that chair until you have one page. It doesn't matter if you get hungry or bladder-troubled or carried off in the Rapture -- tell God you can't go until you've done one page." This works, too, especially if one is drinking coffee.

Gene Wolfe's mind game when he's stuck: No words until he starts working again. No books, no newspapers, no radio or TV, no conversation (Gene has a very understanding wife). No words off the page until a respectable number are on the page. He says the longest he's ever gone like this is four days (FOUR DAYS??!!)

For all of these word-production techniques, blogging doesn't count. Back to work now.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

More Unclassifiable

My roommate at WFC, Neile Graham, left a copy of Jonathan Strahan's new anthology, ECLIPSE, lying around our room, and during a failed afternoon nap I started reading it. This was because (1) it looked interesting, (2) it was there, and (3) I owe a story to ECLIPSE 2 and so it seemed a good idea to get a sense of what the editor wants. Eventually I bought a copy in the dealers' room, and I still have no idea what the editor wants. But it certainly is interesting.

The three stories I've read so far are definitely not SF, but they're not any recognzable (at least to me) subgenre of fantasy either. No magic (maybe). Andy Duncan's hilarious "Unique Chicken Goes In Reverse" is funny and sad with a punch at the end, but he's riffing un-magically on things far removed from spells, swords, or gritty urban wizards. This story is wonderful; I'm recommending it for a Nebula. Peter Beagle's "The Last and Only, or Mr. Muscowitz Becomes French" is as far from his last year's award winner, "Two Hearts," as it is possible to get. It's a compressed biography of a strange life written mostly in exposition (which I tell me students is a no-no!) and frustrated sadness. And Ellen Klages's "Mrs. Zeno's Paradox" uses the equipment of SF (linear accelerators, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle) to slyly turn the world of philosophical premises feminist.

I love that these stories are so genuinely weird, so completely unclassifiable. They expand my mind, which is more than nearly all space opera does -- including the space operas I've written myself.

What does that say?

Monday, November 5, 2007

World Fantasy Con -- Day 4

Morning found many bewildered people wandering around the lobby of the Saratoga Hotel, trying to meet up with people who weren't there. Daylight Savings Time had changed back to EST overnight, and half the con attendees had forgotten this and half remembered it. Check-out time was an inconvenient 11:00 a.m., so everyone tripped over suitcases and other in-transit baggage. I had breakfast with Jeanne Cavalos of Odyssey, since I am teaching at that New Hampshire workshop next summer, and learned how the drill will work.

I did a reading at 11:00 -- astonished that anyone was present instead of eating, checking out, or dressing for the banquet -- of a story coming out in 2008 in Lou Anders's FAST FORWARD 2, "The Kindness of Strangers."

The 2007 World Fantasy Awards and banquet were hosted by Guy Gavriel Kay, whose speech was divided into two parts: a reverent tribute to the late Robert Jordan and then a fun "fairy tale" using all the names of the nominees, which was then immediately given a funny and negative on-stage critique by Gary Wolfe. After this the room grew hushed, the envelopes were produced, a jillion cameras flashed, and the winners are:

Special Award, Non-Professional: Gary Wolfe, for reviews and criticism

Special Award, Professional: Ellen Asher, for her work at SFBC

Artist: Shaun Tan

Collection: Map of Dreams by Mary Rickert, who cried and thanked Gordon Van Gelder "for finding me in the slush pile"

Anthology: Salon Fantastique, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Short Fiction: "Journey Into the Kingdom" by Mary Rickert, who by now was having a very good afternoon

Novella: "Botch Town," by Jeffrey Ford, in The Empire of Ice Cream.

Novel: Soldier of Sidon, by Gene Wolfe, who received a much-deserved standing ovation.

The ceremony closed with speeches by the two Life Achievement Award winners. Diana Wynne Jones could not be present; her charming acceptance speech was read by Sharyn November. Betty Ballantine was present. She urged everyone to "teach a child to read, and encourage those children to teach others to read, and then writers will have readers and the country will never have another Bush in the White House." She, too, received a standing ovation.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

World Fantasy Con -- Day 3

The day began with a 2 1/2 hour breakfast with Gardner Dozois, Susan Casper, and Joe and Gay Haldemann. The discussion ranged from what fantasy readers really want (Susan: "a big interesting world to explore;" Gardner: "dramatic, soap-opera plots;" Joe: "irrationality") to the state of publishing (transitional), to sex (the PBS documentary THE HUMAN ANIMAL, which I now want to rent), to collaboration. Gardner's new novel with George Martin and Daniel Abraham, HUNTER'S RUN, is out in the U.K. now and will be out here in January. Melinda Snodgrass joined us for coffee and so the discussion switched to the impending writers' strike in Hllywood, since Melinda writes scripts as well as fiction. The whole breakfast was enormous fun.

Roamed the dealer's room (Gardner's book not available anywhere) and the art show. Later in the day I went to Ellen Klages's reading (very funny). Late afternoon drinks in the bar with Ellen, Therese Piecynski, Walter Jon Williams, and the always entertaining Jay Lake. People wandered from table to table, schmoozing. This is what I like best at cons. As a writer, I spend a lot of time alone, talking to fictional people. Corporeal ones make such a nice change.

Dinner at an Italian restaurant with Sheila Williams, Jim Kelly, John Kessel. Sheila was very enlightening on the fiscal aspects of publishing ASIMOV'S. I asked if she does, indeed, try to choose stories that will create a smorsgasbord in each issue, appealing to a broad range of tastes, rather than choosing stories simply because she likes them personally. She said yes, although she never publishes stories she dislikes. Jon said that if he were to publish JOHN KESSEL'S SF MAGAZINE, it would have a readership on one because his taste is both specific and quirky. This may or may not be true; I know from experience that John is a good writing teacher.

My 10:00 p.m. panel (and what a time to schedule a panel!) was on "When Fantasy Becomes SF or SF Becomes Fantasy." Nobody was actually sure what that meant, but the topic was attacked with gusto by George R.R. Martin, Lee Modesitt, Walter Jon Willams, Joe Haldemann, and me (moderating). George expounded his furniture theory of fiction, which is that SF and fantasy stories are the same house but merely contain different furniture. I asked if that meant he could have written GAME OF THRONES as SF with no substantial changes, just different "furniture." Astoundingly (to me) George said "Yes." Joe disagreed and we were off and running.

The Tor party, afterwards, was held in a room packed with people and at roughly the temperature of blood. Shouted to be heard for a while, then went to bed, perchance to dream of Victorian furniture on a generation-ship.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

World Fantasy Con -- Day 2

Lunch with editor Beth Meachem of Tor yielded a fascinating question. We were supposed to discuss my new novel proposal, but since I don't yet have a new novel proposal, instead we discussed the novel proposals of more together, more disciplined writers. These included newcomer Ken Scoles, whose quintology debuts in early 2009 with LAMENTATION. Beth said it is "SF that will be marketed as fantasy." I wanted to know what that means, exactly, so we talked about books like Anne McCaffrey's Pern series and Gene Wolfe's BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, which are actually science fiction but which create worlds that at first feel like fantasy, until the reader gets farther in. Beth was extremely interesting on what this requires by way of content, pacing, and style. She also mentioned how much better sales are for SF that can be marketed as fantasy than for SF that is clearly and unabashedly SF.

I had dinner with a group that included Ellen Datlow, Ellen Klages, Peter Straub, Leslie Howle, Carolyn Stevermer, and the very lively Elizabeth Bear. I have never met Peter before, and in a way I still didn't, since we were seated at opposite ends of the noisy table and I never got to talk to him. Then on to the mass autographing, a chaotic event where over a hundred writers sat at tables and watched the line for George R.R. Martin. This was followed by the Clarion party, as Clarion West gets ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Gardner Dozois was in fine form at this. SF would not be the same without him.

I was then tired of smiling and went to bed.

Friday, November 2, 2007

World Fantasy Con -- Day 1

I drove to Saratoga Springs with Nick DiChario and two other Rochesterians. We didn't get very lost on the way. Arrivng at 5:30, I found the bar in full overdrive: Too many peeople, not enough chairs, overworked waitresses. These things continued to be the theme of the evening throughout dinner and the party given by "Australia" (This is how it was listed on the program; presumably the entire country was our host.) Patrick O'Leary got us lost on the way to the restaurant. Jim Kelly was charming, Andy Duncan witty, Steve Carper erudite. It was "couples night," so I got a break on the entree special with Clarionite Melinda Thielbar as my "date. " The party was thronged, so Ellen Klages and I sat on the staircase until Security threw us out on the grounds that we were impeding traffic, which there wasn't any of. Back at the party, Ellen spilled wine on Sheila Williams. Gardner Dozois turned up with a new, short haircut reminiscent of Julius Caesar. Some people, of which I may have been one, drank a great deal of wine and laughed a lot. If there were substantive discussions of SF going on, I didn't hear them.

But, hey -- it's only Day #1.