Thursday, February 28, 2008

Some Good Things

Sometimes a person goes along for days in the usual routine -- fighting snow storms and losing at chess and arguing with the dog -- and then a bunch of stuff happens at once. Sometimes good stuff, sometimes bad. My grandmother used to say the good things come in threes, and I guess Grandma was right because three happened yesterday.

I found out I'm going to be attending LaunchPad at the beginning of August, just before Worldcon. This is a workshop for SF pros who want to learn more about astronomy. It's run by Mike Brotherton, astronomer and SF writer (Star Dragon, Tor), at Laramie, Wyoming, and its goal is to "teach writers...about modern science, specifically astronomy, and in turn to reach their audiences." I've loved astronomy since I was twelve, when I spent an entire summer copying star charts out of the encyclopedia and begging my mother to let me stay up past 9:30 so I could study constellations in the night sky. (She usually said no.) I'm very psyched about this workshop.

Second, Andy Duncan, who is unable to attend the Nebulas this year, asked me to accept for him if his story "Unique Chicken Goes In Reverse" wins for Best Short Story. I love that story, admire Andy as a writer, and am honored that he asked.

Finally, Sheila Williams is taking my very long novella, "The Erdmann Nexus," for ASIMOV'S.

Always listen to your grandmother.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The 80/20 Rule

In business, the 80/20 rule is often invoked; it says (roughly) that twenty percent of things do eighty percent of the work. Thus, 20% of a company's product line typically produces 80% of revenue. The rule has other applications, too: We wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time (I know I do), perhaps play 20% of our CDs 80% of the time (me, again). So I got to wondering: Does the rule apply to SF? If so, how?

I think it does. Probably 20% of SFWA's members get 80% of public attention (which leads some very good writers to be neglected). Of my own work, 20% of it gets 80% of the attention (Confession: sometimes I get very sick of Beggars in Spain). Theodore Sturgeon once said that 90% of everything is crap. I think he was wrong (90% of people aren't crap, or flowers, or any number of other things.) But if the 80/20 rule does indeed apply to SF, then:

Should we pay that disproportionate amount of attention to that 20% of writers, of stories, of a given author's oeuvre? Or is this as wrong as I think Ted was with his numbers game?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


"Dale" left an intriguing comment on my last post, which I'm going to quote on this one because it very much concerns something that's been rattling around in my mind:

"Also, question: How do you avoid being considered "derivative"? You mentioned that an author's premise was the same as I Am Legend, Omega Man, etc. Aren't all stories an emulation? Aren't there a limited amount of stories to tell? The difference should come in the author's ability to write great characters, emotions, and adventures yes? It's especially important to me as a fantasy writer. Isn't all fantasy Tolkien? Isn't all SF Asimov/Clark? "

I think there are, indeed, a "limited number of stories to tell" and "the difference comes in the author's...characters, emotions," etc. But I also think that Peeps is too close to I Am Legend. Here, to my mind, is the distinction, which also explains why all SF is not Asimov and all fantasy not Tolkien: There are a limited number of plots in literature, but an infinite number of settings, characters, emotions, ideas. The plots are archetypical and pre-date both Asimov and Tolken by several thousand years.

An archetypical plot, for instance, is the child who grows up ignorant of his true idntity and must discover it through a series of adventures in which he conquers foes and takes his rightful place in the world. This is the plot of King Arthur, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. Another is the man who is tempted to evil for greed, rises, and falls: Cain and Abel, Macbeth, and There Will Be Blood. So the question becomes not, is this plot too similar to what I've read before? Rather, the question is, is everything else different enough from what I've read before? I thought Peeps didn't differ enough from its predecessors in setting, character, idea, etc. I also thought the other Westerfeld novel I read last Sunday, So Yesterday, did.

How many archetypical plots are there? People have fun with this. In the 1930's a literary critic named Georges Polti came up with (if memory serves me here) something like 32. Robert Silverberg asserts that there are 3. The house brand at chez Kress is 12, which I once detailed in my now defunct column for Writers Digest magazine. Sometimes when I'm thinking about a novel (as I am now), I consult my own list -- not to pick out one and follow it slavishly, but to see if it jolts anything in my mind.

I will, in fact, do that today. Thanks, Dale!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

YA and Cool

To aid my search for good, authentic, successful YA SF, several people pointed me to Scott Westerfeld. So I checked two of his books out of the library and read them.

Peeps, I'm sorry to say, didn't impress me. Vampirism-caused-by-a-disease, with the vampires being hunted down in New York -- Richard Matheson was doing this in 1954 in I Am Legend. Nice writing, but I didn't finish the book.

Then I read Westerfeld's So Yesterday.

This is a terrific book. Genuinely original -- it's about what's cool in advertising, brought down to an action-filled teen adventure! It's sharp, funny, and absorbing. The kids seem completely real and multi-layered (like most YA, adults are in the deep background). The ironic tone is exactly what teens try for themselves, and Westerfeld seems to really know their world. The music, the clothes, the fashions are here, specific enough to be recognizable but not named by brand and so not likely to be dated in a year (or a week). I loved it.

It also made me nervous. The book is about what's cool and what's not, and Westerfeld seems to know. But I have never, not once at any time in my entire life, managed to be cool. I missed every trend of my generation. If cool is part of writing successful YA, then I am indeed sunk. Not having understood fourteen-year-olds when I was fourteen, there is absolutely no hope of it now.

This requires thought. I will need to substitute something else for cool. I just don't yet know what.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Thinking Like An SF Writer

A friend sent me the URL for an amazing You Tube video ( in which over 200 people simultaneously freeze in place for five minutes at Grand Central Station (only in New York!) What's fascinating about this is the reactions of all the passers-by. They smile; they cell-phone their friends; they wait interestedly around to see what will happen next. One guy says it's probably a "protest" of some kind. A Grand Central employee, unable to drive his work cart through a frozen group, calls his supervisor to ask what he should do. But nobody is alarmed.

This is when I realized that I must think differently from all these others. Had I seen this sudden mass freezing, the first thing that would have come to mind was a virus of some kind, possibly genetically engineered, that causes a vastly speeded-up Parkinson's-like syndrome, locking muscles in place. I would have called 911, afraid that lung muscles would be next and all these people would stop breathing. I would have wondered if it were contagious.

What does this mean? (1)I need to stop thinking like an SF writer in normal life. (2)I have no appreciation for performance art. (3)I trust that when people do something, it's for straight-forward reasons of their own and not because they're deliberately trying to mess with my mind. (4)I should never live in New York.

There can be more than one correct answer.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Pythons, The Mind, and Nebulas

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are giant Burmese pythons loose in Florida. A lot of giant Burmese pythons. Originally imported as pets, some either escaped or were set loose in the Everglades about ten years ago, found the environment extremely welcoming, and are breeding fulsomely. A Burmese python can grow to 20 feet long and 250 pounds. They have teeth. They are moving northward out of the Everglades.

As I read this item in the newspaper, something happened in my mind (other than a desire to not meet a giant Burmese python a-comin' through the rye). Who knows how the synapses and axons work? I had been thinking earlier about the YA proposal I'm supposed to be writing, but I wasn't thinking about it as I read the newspaper. Yet, something in my mind went BING! and I suddenly saw my thirteen-year-old protagnist clearly. I even saw the first scene of the novel, which does not include a giant Burmese python and which takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But something about that news item jolted something else up from the swampy Everglades of my brain.

Writing is a mysterious process.

So are the Nebulas (some say, too mysterious). I've ended up with two stories on the final ballot: "Fountain of Age" in the novella category and "Safeguard" in the novelette. I'll be in Austin and posting from there. But that's not until the end of April. Meanwhile: Think giant Burmese pythons.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


My story for the Rochester anthology, North Coast 2034, is moving along, but not on chartered roads. I tell my writing students that there are no hard-and-fast rules for writing fiction but that there are tested guidelines which usually make stories more effective. One of those guidelines is that if you're writing in first person, you stay in first person. You do not combine first-person sections of a narrative with third-person sections.

But that's what I seem to be doing in this story.

I can think of only one book that does this (not counting those where the first-person parts are in a diary or other device that permits monologues). That is William Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury, which includes third-person sections in Dilcey's POV, along with the multiple first of Quentin et. al. Even Faulkner couldn't, in my opinion, make this work well, so why the hell am I trying it? Mostly because I like my protagonist's voice in first person, and I need the sections with the other voice. So at this point my options are:

-- leave it like this and call it "experimental" (Except that clearly the story is a traditionally plotted, linear narrative.)

-- change the protag's POV to third.

--change the secondary character's section to first -- multiple-first POV also being risky but not as weird as what I've got now.

-- give up on the whole structure and start over.

I don't know yet which I'll do. The story is only a few thousand words long and I'm still feeling my way into it. I just wish I had a better map. In the last six months, one story and one novel have totally died on me (see previous despairing posts), and I'd rather keep this one alive and moving, if I can.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Another Sort of Shock

Saturday's post on YA shock got a lot of response. Since I took my sixteen-year-old Little Sister for a driving lesson and to the movies yesterday , I decided to ask her about YA books, which she still sometimes reads, and about her response to a movie we recently saw together, Untraceable. These reactions turned out to be related.

Untraceable, in case you don't follow current movies, concerns a website that kills victims in real time. The more people who access the website, the faster the victim dies, since the hit counter is tied into accelerating torture: releasing more acid in the water the victim is forced to sit in, for instance. The torture scenes are graphic and, to me, intensely disturbing, so that I spent about a fifth of the movie with my eyes closed. Also disturbing is the movie's contention that millions of people would hit the website, knowing what their access does. Abby, however, was not disturbed at all. I asked her why. She gave two explanations: "I know it's not real, just actors," and "Kids see so much of this all the time on-line and in video games and at the movies. It's only your generation that gets upset about it." She said essentially the same things about the graphic violence and often brutal sex in some YA books.

Now, Abby is only one teen, not a statistically valid horde. But she is smart, she's articulate, and she reads a lot. I said, "But while the movie or book is going on, until it's over, isn't it real enough to you that you're disturbed by the nastiness?" She said no.

I think -- it's hard to remember so long ago -- that at her age, I was disturbed by such images. I still am. So maybe Abby's right (my son and daughter-in-law agree with her) and it is generational. Or maybe I'm just a wimp.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

YA Shock

I'm supposed to be thinking about a proposal for a YA SF novel, since an editor approached me about this and I like the idea. Now that the novella is titled ("The Erdmann Nexus" -- thank you, Jack!) and sent off to Asimov's to await its fate, I've started reading some YA novels to see how they've been updated since the last time I read many of them (which may have been when I was 11).

I'm in shock.

I bought Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie, by New York Times best-selling author Holly Black. I had no trouble with fifteen-year-old Val's cussing, or her gay best friend, or her general punk attitude. But in Chapter One, Val walks in on her boyfriend having sex with Val's mother.

Now, I was not expecting Nancy Drew. But... surely this sort of behavior isn't very common? Is it something you'd want your ten-year-old reading? (YA is supposedly for 12-15-year-olds, but in fact younger kids who are good readers consume most of it.) Yes, fiction is about stuff that isn't necessarily common, but is this level of brutality and the number of "unhealthy relationships" (to resort to psychobabble for a moment) typical of all YA fiction?

The only way I'll know is to read more YA. Next on the list is Alison Goodman's Singing the Dogstar Blues. Meanwhile... if there are any librarians or book sellers reading this, do you know if Holly Black is read a lot, and by whom?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Theme Anthologies

I have written for a lot of theme anthologies, but I always find it difficult. Somehow, my mind functions better when I can choose everything about the story for myself rather than having some aspects of it pre-chosen. Also, I seem to do my best work -- or what I consider my best work -- other than when I write for theme anthologies. So why do I do it?

Sometimes because I feel flattered at having been asked. Sometimes because the theme sounds intriguing and I want to try the setting or idea or whatever the theme is. Sometimes because I already have an idea that sort of fits what's being proposed. Sometimes because, like Everest, the thing is there.

Now that my novella is finished, my next proect is a story for a theme anthology. R-Spec, the Rochester Speculative Fiction Fans, is going to publish an anthology called The North Shore: 2034. All the stories will take place in 2034 in Rochester, New York, which was founded in 1834. Since I've lived in Rochester most of my life, I ought to be able to set a credible story here twenty-six years from now -- I hope. Maybe. God willing and the creek don't rise. All I know so far is that it will involve genetic engineering (surprise, surprise). Let's hope I can make it work.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Blue Eyes

My grandmother could sing, a talent she passed on to my father and my sister, but definitely not to me. At twelve, during a Christmas pageant, I was asked to just mouth the words to the Christmas carols because I was throwing off an entire bleacherful of angels.

One of Grandma's favorite songs was "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" with its description of that lost lady: five foot two, eyes of blue. Now science knows why that missing gal had blue eyes. The gene is located somewhere near area OCA2; it's recessive (but we already knew that); and it comes from a single mutation 6,000 - 10,000 years ago somewhere in the Balkans. That person didn't have blue eyes, and neither did his/her children. But somewhere along the way, two descendents both carrying the recessive gene had the world's first blue-eyed baby.

What did they think about that? That it was a curse, a blessing, a portent, a mistake? Was that first blue-eyed baby revered or reviled or killed? Today 300 million people carry the recessive gene. Among them are the Berbers; when I lived in Tunisia (a very long time ago), I saw a lot of blue-eyed Arabs. I, too, must possess the gene; both my children have blue eyes, although I do not. I always wanted them, however, just as I wanted a lot of other things I wasn't born with: curly hair, good teeth, athleticism.

And the ability to sing without clearing the whole room.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Fighting for the Title

My novella is finished in second draft; one more draft to go. It has an abundance of POV characters (seven!), of words (27,700), and world-shaking events (two and a half). What it doesn't have is a title.

I am not good at titles. I've thought of only two good titles in my entire life ("Out of All Them Bright Stars" and Probability Moon). Most of the rest of my story and novel titles are lifted from poetry, or taken from common idioms, or suggested by editors, or mediocre. Years ago I even invented the Kress Titling System, a Rube Goldberg contraption that went like this:

-- List all the key words from a story's theme, setting, etc., including plural, participial, and tense variations (song, songs, singing, sung).

-- Move them around until you get something vaguely appealing.

This did actually yield a few acceptable titles ("Philippa's Hands," "Down Behind Cuba Lake"), although not as good or as many as I needed. Now I have a better system, which I will use with this novella: Find a friend, clasp his or her sleeve pitifully, and beg for a reading and a title suggestion. Promise desperate trade-offs in return. Use bribery. Repeat as necessary.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Smoke and Speculation

According to a new report from WHO, in the next decade a billion people will die from smoking-related illnesses, world-wide. A billion! That's tragic, in terms of individual suffering and of survivors' grieving. Howeve, looking past the individual, the statistic raises troubling questions about global population.

Would we be better off with or without those extra billion? If they didn't die, could the Earth support them? Is smoking some bizarre manifestation of Gaia-theory population control on a grand scale, balancing out all the lives saved by modern medicine? Lemmings self-destruct when they become too many; maybe humans smoke.

I wrote a story about draconian population-control methods, "The Kindness of Strangers," which will come out sometime in 2008 (I think) in ECLIPSE 2. The story might be mildly controversial (or not -- I'm no good judge of these things). But the WHO report gave me pause. Some of my best friends are smokers. I want them to live long and prosper.

Does -- if those scientists like James Lovelock, who espouse the theory, are right -- Gaia want the same thing?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Oil and Life

Since February 5 was the first Tuesday of the month, R-Spec, the Rochester Speculative Fiction Fans, held its usual meeting. This time we were addressed by an energy expert, Ben Ebenhack. He gave an interesting and informative talk, but one point puzzled me.

Among other statistics, he showed us a curve relating energy consumption by country to the UN's "quality of life" indicators, and the curves show a strong correlation. What puzzled me was why everyone else seemed surprised by this. Quality of life depends (in part) on medical care, education, safe streets (or at least as safe as possible), sufficient food, clean water, etc. On an overcrowded planet, all of these require energy consumption. You don't run a good hospital without a lot of equipment and the means to manufacture drugs. You can't release kids from the fields to go to school unless you use energy-consuming machines. So why was everyone surprised at this correlation? What am I missing here?

Incidentally, the country that consumes the most energy of all is.... Iceland. But because a lot of it is geothermal, they're sitting pretty.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Warning: Major Rant

As I do every year, I'm seeing all the Oscar-nominated Best Picture movies (Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, Atonement, Juno, There Will Be Blood). A good friend commented that she will see only Juno, because "The others are all depressing. I don't go to the movies to be depressed. I want to be entertained."

What's with this attitude, which I encounter a lot about not just movies but fiction as well? I have no trouble with comedy (I thought Juno was adorable) and I can even handle heart-warming, in small doses. But the idea that art exists only to amuse seems to me just plain wrong. "Entertainment," which my dictionary describes as "that which holds the attention so as to bring about pleasure," is surely in the eye of the beholder. There are many kinds of pleasure (and hence entertainment), and a profound one is the sense of having gained an insight into reality, into the way the human universe works, including its negative aspects. It's not yuks, but it is for some of us a deep and lasting pleasure. "Depressing" works can do this.

When I taught college years ago, one semester I had an Intro to Contemporary Lit class. After we'd read an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story, I showed the class a taped interview with Nobel Laureate Singer. He said, among other things, that "high literature was for high people and low literature was for low people" (You can imagine how well that went over with a group of freshmen heavily into Star Wars novelizations). Singer was talking about "depressing" stories that feature people whom you don't want to ask to dinner, stories that end unhappily, or both.

This is not an abstract issue for those of us who "write grim." We're trying to say something, at least some of the time, that we think might be worth hearing. Tor turned down my novel Nothing Human (it came out from Golden Gryphon) because my then-editor found it depressing. "Nancy, you destroyed the entire human race!" he pointed out. Well, yes. But so did Clarke in Childhood's End. I at least left our genetic descendants, plus the planet itself. The book was about trashing our environment, and its literary quality aside (the author is never a good judge of that), I think it made a valuable point in a non-polemic way.

So if I'm hoping that Atonement wins the Oscar. Tears and gloom and all.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


As I mull over the partly written novel that died on me last month, trying to figure out where and how it went wrong, it seems to me that the major problem was motivation. Not mine -- my characters'. I knew what kind of people they were, and I still like the basic set-up for the novel (which will probably turn up in some other piece eventually), but I think that their reasons for doing what I had them doing were just not convincing enough. And if their motivations didn't convince me, they sure as hell weren't going to convince you.

Thinking about this even more, it seems to me that people in "real life" are also largely defined by motivation. What a person wants plus what he or she is willing to do to get it -- that's a pretty good character-description-in-a-capsule. I'm not saying that one can always get what's wanted -- that's certainly not true. But what you want, and your means of getting it, define you.

Even if you're fictional. So now I'm thinking about the novella I'm currently writing. I have a completed, 27,000-word first draft. The story veers in the dangerous direction of combining science and mysticism, a sea on which many stories drown. This one may. But not on character motivation; this time I'm convinced of what my characters are doing.

That's a start, anyway.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Nebula Ballot -- Novelettes

I've finished reading the novelettes on the Nebula preliminary ballot. I'm not going to comment on my own ("Safeguard"). Other than that, my favorite was Kij Johnson's "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change," from the anthology Coyote Road: Trickster Tales (edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling). The title is a good, if prosaic descriptor: There has been a "change," dogs have abruptly evolved the power of human speech (this is a fable, not a plausible SF story), and they are now both embracing the trickster stories found in many cultures, as well as evolving a strong sense of human treachery. It's an absorbing story, nicely written, and has some unpleasant but true things to say about the nature of hierarchy.

I also liked William Shunn's "Not of This Fold," about proselytizing Mormons on a space station, aliens, and the nature of faith. This story takes a long time to get going, but once it does, it's interesting. Both the same points can be made about "The Sun God at Dawn, Rising From a Lotus Blossom," by Andrea Kail. She is a very new writer -- this story is from Writers of the Future, Volume 23. Finally, Mike Resnick's "Alastair Baffle's Emporium of Wonders" is moving, with lots of good Resnick details. I don't quite understand why it's on the '07 ballot since it came out in January of 'o8 (Asimov's), but I presume that it received ten recommendations to qualify, and beyond that the Nebula qualification rules are a murky fog to me.

Also murky, on a totally unrelated subject: Somehow I managed to turn off the spell-check function on these blog posts. Uninformed experimentation has failed to turn it back on. Help, anyone?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

SF and the Crossword

As a faithful doer of the New York Times crossword, I've noticed an encouraging trend. In the last month, two clues have read "Sci-fi writer McIntyre" and "Sci-fi writer LeGuin." Now, "Asimov" has been a crossword answer for years, but "Vonda" and "Ursula" are new to Will Shortz's domain, and I regard this as an encouraging sign. Now if only we could get the puzzle to:

--stop saying "sci-fi"

--use writers who don't live in the Pacific Northwest

--include a clue that said "SF writer Kress,"

I would be very happy as I sit with my coffee and blue pen each morning. But I'm not holding my breath.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Reading With the Left Brain

Reading about brain scans for the novella I'm currently writing, I stumbled across some interesting information about reading. Brain scans show that a child uses far more of her brain to learn to read than does an adult who already can. That makes sense. What was interesting to me is that in a proficient adult reader, all brain use during reading shifts to the left hemisphere, freeing up the right to simultaneously integrate more of his or her own thoughts and feelings into the experience of what is being read. Brain scans of poor readers and those with dyslexia suggest that this shift never takes place. So not only are poor readers slower, and must work harder, but they miss that injection of the personal into literature that makes it so important to some of us.

The first books that really impressed me were Dr. Seuss's To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, which my mother read to me, and The Boxcar Children, which I read myself. In the latter, four children run away from an orphanage, live in an abandoned boxcar, and have a wonderful time. Too young to wonder about vermin or cold or health insurance in that boxcar, I too wanted to run away and live like that, Unfortunately, my neighborhood seemed short on boxcars. But the book remained magical to me, and when I found a used copy in a bookstore forty years later, I was thrilled.

For some of us, literary memories and experiences are just as strong as "real" ones. I have friends obsessed with the computer site Second Life, but I already have a second life, in books. I really don't need a third.