Sunday, March 30, 2008

Literature and Love

I'm currently reading Julie Phillips's excellent biography of an SF icon, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon. Although occasionally given to sweeping psychological statements that not even meticulous research can make one that sure of, this is a terrific book. Phillips has insight, access to letters between Sheldon and such writers as Joanna Russ and Harlan Ellison, and a graceful prose style. Here is Sheldon in 1941:

"Turning from a broken marriage to a shattered world, she filled her journal with notes on Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West. She was appalled by Spengler's thirst for war and power, his glorification of man's "animal" over his intellectual life. After six years of stormy marriage, Alice didn't think people had to get any closer to their animal nature."

Alice Sheldon didn't always choose lovers well -- which brings me to the sly article in this morning's New York Times Book Review, "It's Not You, It's Your Books." Rachel Donadio takes up the question of literary compatibility -- how important is it that people who read marry 1)other people who read, 2) people who like the same books you do, or 3) your exact literary clone? A Manhattan psychiatrist opines that book choice "is a bit of a Rorschach test." A book critic confesses that she broke up with a lover because he was enthusiastic about Ayn Rand. A writer says he "just wrote people off completely because of what they were reading." A book publicist says "If you're a person who loves Alice Munro and you're going out with someone whose favorite book is The Da Vinci Code, perhaps the red flags of incompatibility were there prior to this big reveal."

We in SF have a special problem. If an interesting person hits all the right notes about Ayn Rand or Dan Brown or Tolstoy, what if he or she has a condescending, patronizing, or dismissive view of science fiction? For me, that would be a deal breaker. But, then, I write the stuff. Your view may be different.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Literary Torture

When I had the flu a few weeks ago, I spent a lot of time in bed watching TV, since my head hurt too much to read. One show I watched was Project Runway. I'm not given to watching reality shows, but this one is different: the contestants are actually creating something (clothes). In that way, these hopeful designers seemed akin to writers.

Then another parallel struck me, hard.

In each Project Runway episode there is an agonizing moment when the runway display of clothes is completed and the designers stand in front of the judges, waiting to hear who won and who will be sent home. It's a long, sadistically drawn-out moment, to rev up drama for the TV audience. Ominous music plays. The designers reveal on their faces just how much this competition means to them. Heidi Klum, Michael Kors, and Nina Garcia sit on their stools like gods judging mortals. I thought about the anxious designers: Those poor artists. Then I realized that writers go through the exact same thing, waiting to hear from editors -- with the difference that the agony can last for weeks or months.

Let me make something very clear here: I don't mean that editors are sadistically drawing out writers' agonies. I have many friends among editors and most of them are a hard-working, dedicated bunch who like nothing better than to find a wonderful story amid their submissions. They also receive an overwhelming number of those submissions. The writer's protracted, edgy torture is not their fault. But that doesn't change the fact that it exists.

When I began submitting stories thirty years ago, I would approach the mailbox each day in a state of keyed-up anxiety. If there was a rejection (and there were many), I always felt as if I'd been punched in the stomach. Now, when editorial feedback (and agent feedback, which is just a more advanced form of the same thing) comes by phone or email, my feelings haven't changed all that much. If I know that I might hear soon from a decision maker on a project I really care about, my stomach clenches each time the phone rings or AOL chirps "You've got mail!" My face probably looks like those young designers', tense with hope and fear.

I suppose this goes with the territory -- "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." I'm still in the kitchen. But as the cortisol floods my body, I can't help but wonder if I couldn't cultivate a calmer, Buddha-like detachment. Except then, I'm not sure I'd write at all.

You'd think we'd at least get ominous music to agonize by.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Cranky At the Movies

Why can't Hollywood ever get it right?

Yesterday I saw The Other Boleyn Girl, the film based on Philippa Gregory's excellent historical novel about Anne and Mary Boleyn. Anne Boleyn has long been a passion of mine; fifteen years ago I wrote what may be SF's only story in which she is the protagonist ("And Wild For To Hold"). Gregory's book focuses on Mary, Anne's older sister, who was also a mistress of Henry VIII but only casually, whereas for Anne he divorced a Spanish princess, wrenched England away from Catholicism, ignited religious wars that would last for centuries, and turned himself into a madman given to beheading wives. The story has enough inherent drama for six movies, and Gregory retells it from an intriguing and psychologically complex viewpoint.

But the movie ignores all that. It substitutes gross historical inaccuracies, one-dimensional characters (Anne bad, Mary good, me Tarzan and you Jane), ridiculous plot twists. It can't get even something as simple as coloring right. Henry VIII was famous for the red-gold hair and blue eyes that Elizabeth I would inherit -- nowhere in California is there a pair of colored contacts for dark-eyed Eric Bana, let alone a box of Miss Clairol?

The reason this bothers me so much is not only that Anne's story has been badly misrepresented. It's also that Hollywood considers me -- you, all of us -- too much of idiots to follow multi-dimensional characters and historically accurate mores. Even worse, that attitude wasn't always there. The 1960's version of the Boleyn story, Anne of a Thousand Days, was far more intelligent. Rent that one instead. It doesn't shit contempt over the viewer.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


My friend Barbara DelHotal has a class of phenomena she calls "WOWs" -- Weirdnesses of the World. Stuff you wouldn't think could happen in real life, and would be pooh-poohed if you put it in fiction -- but here it is. The last few days have been rich in WOWs. And since every weirdness is also an opportunity...

* An eBay auction reached $1300 for a Corn Flake shaped like Illinois, before eBay shut down the auction because it violated their rule about not auctioning food. The auction was later re-opened to auction a "coupon," which is allowed, to claim the Corn Flake. I'm now looking through my daily Fiber One, which unfortunately all seem to be shaped like bacilli.

* A genealogist, through painstaking research, has discovered that Hillary Clinton is related to Angelina Jolie. I'm wondering how far back I have to go to discover I'm related to my idol, Jane Austen.

* The Pentagon inadvertently shipped electrical fuses for ICBMs to Taiwan, instead of the helicopter batteries they had ordered. Now I'm trying to figure out how I can get shipped to me Stephen King's royalty checks, instead of my own.

Finally, not a WOW but a piece of pleasant news: The Japanese publisher Hayakawa has bought my Probability trilogy. These will be my first novels published in Japanese.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Terraforming Earth

Since I am nearly always behind technologically, or even on technological information, I didn't realize that a concept I used in a story last year has a name. The story was "The Rules" (ASIMOV'S, December), and it featured a way to lessen global warming by increasing the reflection of sunlight back to space. The name is "geoengineering." What I also didn't realize was the in 2006 a Nobel winner, Paul Crutzen, published an editorial outlining an even more radical way to lessen global warming: release a lot of sulfurous debris into the atmosphere. This would create a haze that would lower global temperatures, much as happens naturally when major volcanic eruptions release vast clouds of sulfurous particles.

Not having read Crutzen's original article, I don't know if he was exploring this idea, suggesting it, or advocating it. It has a lot of science-fictional appeal: it's huge, dangerous, and hubristic ("We are become as gods.") Certainly it would lend itself to SF-story material (which I may or may not use someday). But Dr. Crutzen is not an SF writer. He says more research is needed before any action is taken (well, yes), but when a Nobel Prize winner proposes an idea with any degree of seriousness, people tend to listen.

It would mean high maintenance -- we'd have to keep on dumping in haze to keep the cooling effect. And then we'd get all the other effects, known and unknown, of a hazy, sulfur-filled atmosphere. Plus some pretty spectacular sunsets.

Less seriously, in my small corner of the world, we could use some global warming. It is still snowing in Rochester, New York, and will be all week. Perhaps for the next month. Seemingly forever.

Friday, March 21, 2008


I'm pleased to say that my novella "Fountain of Age" is nominated for a Hugo. It's up against some very stiff competition -- Connie Willis! Gene Wolfe! Kris Rusch! Lucius Shpard! It's not false modesty to say 1) that I don't expect to win, and 2) it is fun to be nominated. I remember a Worldcon (but not which Worldcon, alas -- there have been a lot) when a bunch of us set that polite refrain "It's an honor just to be nominated" to a little tune, complete with clogging dance. We went around performing it in hallways for three days. I lost that time, too, and still had a great time.

Here is the entire ballot:


Best Novel
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, Fourth Estate)
Brasyl by Ian McDonald (Gollancz; Pyr)
Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer (Tor; Analog Oct. 2006-Jan/Feb. 2007)
The Last Colony by John Scalzi (Tor)
Halting State by Charles Stross (Ace)

Best Novella
“The Fountain of Age” by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s July 2007)
“Recovering Apollo 8” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Asimov’s Feb. 2007)
“Stars Seen Through Stone” by Lucius Shepard (F&SF July 2007)
“All Seated on the Ground” by Connie Willis (Asimov’s Dec. 2007, Subterranean Press)
“Memorare” by Gene Wolfe (F&SF April 2007)

Best Novelette
The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairytale of Economics” by Daniel Abraham (Logorrhea, ed. John
Klima, Bantam)
“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang (F&SF Sept. 2007)
“Dark Integers” by Greg Egan (Asimov’s Oct./Nov. 2007)
“Glory” by Greg Egan (The New Space Opera, ed. Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan, HarperCollins/Eos)
“Finisterra” by David Moles (F&SF Dec. 2007)

Best Short Story
“Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, ed. George Mann, Solaris Books)
“Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s June 2007)
“Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?” by Ken MacLeod (The New Space Opera, ed. by Gardner Dozois, and Jonathan
Strahan, HarperCollins/Eos)
“Distant Replay” by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s April/May 2007)
“A Small Room in Koboldtown” by Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s April/May 2007, The Dog Said Bow-Wow, Tachyon

Best Related Book
The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Glyer;
appendix by David Bratman (Kent State University Press)
Breakfast in the Ruins: Science Fiction in the Last Millennium by Barry Malzberg (Baen)
Emshwiller: Infinity x Two by Luis Ortiz, intro. by Carol Emshwiller, fwd. by Alex Eisenstien (Nonstop)
Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction by Jeff Prucher (Oxford University Press)
The Arrival by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Enchanted Written by Bill Kelly Directed by Kevin Lima (Walt Disney Pictures)
The Golden Compass Written by Chris Weitz Based on the novel by Philip Pullman Directed by
Chris Weitz (New Line Cinema)
Heroes, Season 1 Created by Tim Kring (NBC Universal Television and Tailwind Productions
Written by Tim Kring, Jeff Loeb, Bryan Fuller, Michael Green, Natalie Chaidez, Jesse Alexander, Adam Armus, Aron Eli Coleite, Joe Pokaski, Christopher Zatta, Chuck Kim. Directed by David Semel, Allan Arkush, Greg Beeman, Ernest R. Dickerson, Paul Shapiro, Donna Deitch, Paul A. Edwards, John Badham, Terrence O'Hara, Jeannot Szwarc, Roxann Dawson, Kevin Bray, Adam Kane
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Written by Michael Goldenberg Based on the novel by
J.K. Rowling Directed by David Yates (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Stardust Written by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman Directed
by Matthew Vaughn (Paramount Pictures)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Battlestar Galactica “Razor” Written by Michael Taylor Directed by Félix Enríquez Alcalá and
Wayne Rose (Sci Fi Channel) (televised version, not DVD)
Doctor Who “Blink” Written by Stephen Moffat Directed by Hettie Macdonald (BBC)
Doctor Who “Human Nature” / “Family of Blood” Written by Paul Cornell Directed by Charles Palmer
Star Trek New Voyages “World Enough and Time” Written by Michael Reaves & Marc Scott
Zicree Directed by Marc Scott Zicree (Cawley Entertainment Co. and The Magic Time Co.)
Torchwood “Captain Jack Harkness” Written by Catherine Tregenna Directed by Ashley Way
(BBC Wales)

Best Professional Editor, Short Form
Ellen Datlow (The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (St. Martins), Coyote Road (Viking), Inferno (Tor))
Stanley Schmidt (Analog)
Jonathan Strahan (The New Space Opera (HarperCollins/Eos), The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume
1 (Night Shade), Eclipse One (NightShade))
Gordon Van Gelder (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)
Sheila Williams (Asimov’s Science Fiction)

Best Professional Editor, Long Form
Lou Anders (Pyr)
Ginjer Buchanan (Ace/Roc)
David G. Hartwell (Tor/Forge)
Beth Meacham (Tor)
Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor)

Best Professional Artist
Bob Eggleton (Covers: Outcast Stars and Others (Baen), Ivory (Pyr), and The Taint and Other Stories (Subterranean))
Phil Foglio (Cover: Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventures, Vol. 2 (Meisha Merlin), What’s New (Dragon Magazine Aug. 2007,
Girl Genius Vol. 6-Agatha Heterodyne & the Golden Trilobite (Airship Entertainment ))
John Harris : Spindrift (Ace), Horizons (Tor), The Last Colony (Tor)
Stephan Martiniere (Covers: Brasyl (Pyr), Mainspring (Tor), The Dragons of Babel (Tor))
John Picacio (Covers: Fast Forward 2 (Pyr), Time’s Child (HarperCollins/Eos), A Thousand Deaths (Golden Gryphon))
Shaun Tan

Best Semiprozine
Ansible edited by David Langford
Helix edited by William Sanders and Lawrence Watt-Evans
Interzone edited by Andy Cox
Locus edited by Charles N. Brown, Kirsten Gong-Wong, and Liza Groen Trombi
New York Review of Science Fiction edited by Kathryn Cramer, Kristine Dikeman, David G. Hartwell, and
Kevin J. Maroney

Best Fanzine
Argentus edited by Steven H Silver
Challenger edited by Guy Lillian III
Drink Tank edited by Chris Garcia
File 770 edited by Mike Glyer
PLOKTA edited by Alison Scott, Steve Davies, and Mike Scott
Best Fan Writer
Chris Garcia
David Langford
Cheryl Morgan
John Scalzi
Steven H Silver

Best Fan Artist
Brad Foster
Teddy Harvia
Sue Mason
Steve Stiles
Taral Wayne

John W. Campbell Award
An award for the best new writer whose first work of science fiction or fantasy appeared during 2006 or 2007 in a professional publication. Sponsored by Dell Magazines.
Joe Abercrombie (2nd year of eligibility)
Jon Armstrong (1st year of eligibility)
David Anthony Durham (1st year of eligibility)
David Louis Edelman (2nd year of eligibility)
Mary Robinette Kowal (2nd year of eligibility)
Scott Lynch (2nd year of eligibility)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Somber Subject

A few days ago I got a despairing email from an aspiring writer, or rather a formerly aspiring writer. Unable to make a sale or win a contest, he said he was giving up. Wouldn't try anymore. Was done writing for good. I don't know this person (we've never met) and so I can't judge whether he will stick to this resolve or whether it's a passing mood. But his current despair was real, and palpable, and moving.

When do you decide enough is enough -- about a story, a novel, a career path, an entire career? Yes, we all know the tales of writers who have persevered for years or decades, and finally succeeded in the end. I am acquainted with some of these writers. But what of all the others, the ones who keep on trying decade after decade and never do make a story sale or get an agent or market that novel or whatever else constitutes their personal definition of success? How, as Kenny Rogers sings, do you know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em?

The question is not so different from deciding on other terminations -- quitting your day job, leaving a marriage, closing a business. There's a time when one should go. I just don't, in the case of writing, know what the criteria are for deciding the hand is fully played out. I told my unknown email correspondent that both rejection and despair were routine, which is true, and that he should keep on trying, which may or may not be true. I may have done him a disservice. Unlike Rogers’s Gambler, I sometimes have trouble reading my own hand, let alone anyone else’s.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Writer's Block

The opposite of hypergraphia is writer's block, and Alice Flaherty of The Midnight Disease has a nice definition of that: the inability to make yourself write plus an active suffering from that inability. The suffering is important. If you can't make yourself write and feel vaguely guilty about that but, on the other hand, it frees up more time to play Worlds of Warcraft -- then you haven't got writer's block.

You haven't got it if you're too unmotivated, too busy, too lazy, or without any ideas. If you do have it, it feels terrible: You sit down at the computer and try to write, but instead undergo depression, anxiety, or even active panic. After enough of this, even the thought of writing produces a sort of mental seizure, which only makes the block worse.

What causes writer's block? Flaherty explores a lot of different theories, including the Freudian, which Freud explained thus: "Analysis shows that when activities like playing the piano, writing, or even walking are subject to neurotic inhibitions it is because the physical organs brought into play -- the fingers or legs -- have become too strongly eroticized...writing, which entails making liquid flow out of a tube onto a piece of white paper assumes the significance of copulation...The ego renounces [this] order to avoid a conflict with the id." Oh, that Freud!

When a student tells me he has writer's block, I want to know how much he's trying to write and how much he's suffering from not doing it. Almost always, one of two things is happening: Either his critical faculty is pounding away overtime, making him so dislike anything he writes (It's not Tolstoy!) that it's painful to continue. Or, more benignly, this particular story has taken a wrong direction. In that case, he needs to go back to the last place in the story where he was enthusiastic about writing it, and rethink from there.

In my own case, I suffer from not writing when the work is either going wrong temporarily (fixable) or is just too ill conceived to succeed (not fixable). It's really important to figure out which. And, if the story or novel is really hopeless, to get started on something else as soon as possible. Get back up on the horse, and ignore the Freudian implications of that.

Monday, March 17, 2008


More on getting cranky if I don't write for a few days running: One of the odder books in my non-fiction library is Alice W. Flaherty's The Midnight Disease, a study of hypergraphia. That's the overwhelming desire to stop washing the dishes or to abandon the car or to leap out of bed and write. Write anything, at great length. Flaherty fell victim to the compulsion as part of post-partum depression, but after she recovered, she wrote this book on the connections between writing, mental health, and creativity.

Chapter two includes this sentence: "Modern researchers have found some experimental evidence that creative people have better access to primary-process thought. They fantasize more, have better memory of their dreams, are more easily hypnotized, and score higher on measures of mildly psychotic traits." It's not that madness and creativity go together; it's more that they are two routes that "access to primary-thought processes" can take. Some people take one and end up artists; some take the other route and end up crazy; some take both.

From my own observations, this rings true. The writers I know do fantasize a lot, can relate their dreams, and invest imagination with the same intensity as reality. I don't know about the "more easily hypnotized" part, never having seen any of them with a hypnosis expert. But they tell anecdotes with gusto and pursue idealized objectives with passion. And some of them do seem mildly psychotic, in that their perceptions don't always seem firmly Velcro-ed to reality.

I may or may not include myself in this group, depending on the day.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Will Write as Food

Writing preferences, I've decided, are a lot like eating styles. There are binge writers, who go for months without writing as a novel deadline looms, and then frantically cram writing the whole thing into three weeks. There are grazers, who work in whatever fifteen-minute intervals present themselves and have no trouble composing coherent works in mini-feasts of words (Neil Gaiman once told me he does this while traveling). There are seasonal writers, gorging on words in the winter and going on a lighter verbal diet in the summer when the outdoors beckons. Anorexic writers have writers' block. Gourmet writers concentrate on small, exquisite outputs.

I'm a breakfast writer: a steady morning diet day in and day out. If I don't write for more than a few days, I get cranky. If I have to cram in eight-hour shifts at the keyboard, I not only get cranky, I get tired (not unlike the sluggish feeling after a huge Thanksgiving dinner). I work best with a steady routine: between 1,000 and 2,000 words daily, in the morning. Other writers might find this either constricting or boring. I find it reduces strain and stimulates production.

Next month, I resume traveling after a quiet three months at home. Nebulas in Austen, Northwest Media Arts in Seattle, LaunchPad in Wyoming, Worldcon in Denver, University of Leipzig. All of this will mean a) less writing, b) more crankiness, and c) a more erratic diet. In both senses of the word.

Friday, March 14, 2008


I have just learned that some electronic devices are arriving from manufacturers already equipped with viruses. This isn't deliberate, usually; a worker plugs an infected music player into a computer used for factory testing, for example, and infects the computer, which in turn infects the iPod tested on it. Then, when you plug the iPod -- or digital picture frame or flash drive -- into your computer, it in turn gets the virus.

This can easily drive a PC or iBook user nuts. But suppose it spreads to more serious digitals? A team of security experts recently hacked into a combination pacemaker-defibrillator, the NEW YORK TIMES reported, to see if the medical equipment was vulnerable. It was. It took, granted, $30,000 worth of specialized equipment -- but it could be done.

In BEGGARS IN SPAIN, I have a character caution another to prepare his legal statements only on a free-standing computer, unconnected to any other device. Maybe that was more prescient than I knew. Infecting my email is one thing. But a defibrillator?

An armored vehicle?

A 747?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

More YA Shock

The New Yorker ran an interesting review of Cecily von Ziegesar's best-selling YA series, the Gossip Girl novels, calling the books "slyly truthful" and "a tour de force of wickedly satirizing the young while amusing them." Always up for a tour de force, I went to the library and read two books in the series. I was appalled.

Why? Not because of too much sex. Actually, there is no sex. The girls keep trying and the boys keep declining (huh?). Nor is there any violence. There is, however, a lot of cruelty, but then the young are cruel to each other, so that didn't bother me.

The values did.

I know how old-fogey that sounds. And it's completely accurate that rich females, whether they're fifteen or seventy, are interested in designer clothes, fabulous parties, and looking as good as they can. But these books, which are billed as a sort of junior version of Sex And The City, feature characters interested in little else, with the exception of getting into Yale because, like, it would just totally suck if they didn't. The Sex and the City women -- even Samantha -- have jobs, loyal friendships (the real charm of the series), rent to pay, parents to deal with, and (eventually) children. Their Manolo Blahniks are grounded in some sort of reality. But the Goosip Girl girls have absent or stupid parents, unlimited credit cards, a casual use of each other to further transient aims, after which friends are discarded or ridiculed or humiliated. As I read All I Want Is Everything, the question I kept asking myself is: Do the ninth-grade readers of this book recognize that Blair Waldorf is supposed to be a satiric anti-heroine? Or do they think that these shallow, selfish, spoiled, and materialistic characters are ideals of how life should be, and could be if only they, too, had fabulously wealthy New York parents?

These books are enormously popular. In the final analysis, I found them a bit boring because they're so repetitive and the characters, for the most part, so uninteresting. But I'm not fifteen. What are these books saying to girls who are?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Writer's Dilemma

I'm back from the flu. It wasn't as bad a siege as others have endured. And since it coincided with a massive snowstorm that left Rochester under more than a foot of snow, it wasn't a bad time to be confined to bed, either. I even got a little bit of writing done on my YA novel. Which brings me to my current dilemma.

There are three times to get a book contract: a) before you begin the book, b) after you've completed a reasonable chunk and have a synopsis of the rest, and c) after the whole book is written.

A) is usually the choice of established writers -- but not always.

B) has the advantage of providing some security and cash as you write the rest of the book. It has three large disadvantages, however. First, you have to interrupt the writing momentum to edit and refine that big chunk of first draft. Second, it assumes you can write a synopsis of the rest, which for writers like me, who proceed in a definite direction but with only a vague idea of what lies over the horizon, this is a problem. Third, if you submit a chunk-plus-synopsis to your chosen editor and s/he doesn't like it, it's a huge blow to one's confidence in the unfinished work (and to the impetus to finish it and to find an editor who might like it better).

C) is my usual preference, but then, of course, you may be left with a book nobody wants, instead of merely a chunk of book nobody wants. The investment is greater, but so is the potential loss.

This is where I stand with my YA novel. A) didn't happen, so I vacillate between b) and c). Each day that I write more instead of editing, revising, refining, and creating a synopsis, I move farther from b) toward c), but c) is still a long ways off. So now what?

As the snows melt and my post-flu strength returns, a decision will need to be made. After all, one can only recuperate in bed, watching reruns of PROJECT RUNWAY, for so long.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


There will be a temporary hiatus in blogging while I struggle with flu instead of viewpoint. And I HAD a flu shot! This seems very unfair, as the universe so often is.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Voice: Who Goes There?

"Voice" is a confusing concept in fiction because sometimes we use it to refer to a writer ("Hemingway's distinctive voice") and sometimes to one of a writer's characters (the barber in Ring Lardner's classic "Haircut"), which means one writer can have, for different characters, different voices. Unless he doesn't.

I prefer to think of "voice" as belonging to a specific character in a specific story, and if you're writing in first person, it's critical. In fact, to me it's the only reason to write in first person, since third is more flexible in point of view and in distance, allowing the author to both go into the character's mind AND give some decription of him and his behavior from the outside. It also feels less contrived, since a perennial first-person problem is the question: Why is this person telling me this, and in such perfect rhythm and pacing? It doesn't feel real. On the other hand, first person lets you capture directly the patterns of thought, focus of attention, and nuances of the narrator's mind.

If I haven't got the right voice for first person, I can't even begin to write, since voice is evident from the first paragraph. I think I've found the voice for my YA character, Susan Coleman. It took some noodling around, and I'll have to go back and rwrite some of the earlier noodling because now it doesn't fit, but that's SOP for me. I like her voice.

Now all I need is the rest of my plot, which is emerging slowly as I write. That's how I do it. There are more efficient methods, but this is the only one I've ever found that works for me.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Nebula Politics

Okay, since this is hot topic in SFWA right now -- actually, it's always a hot topic in SFWA -- I might as well pull on my asbestos gloves and handle the flames. Does the best work get nominated for Nebulas? If not, why not? Is it a conspiracy, an old-boy club, a cabal, a crooked process? Or not?

As usual for me, I'm going to come down in the middle, with a resounding yes-and-no. The situation is more complex than the conspiricists seem to think. Does the best work of a given year end up on the ballot? No, not always. Is that the result of people manipulating the process? No.

Here's my take on what happens: When a writer first enters the field, he or she is dazzled (I know I was). It's thrilling to go to cons and meet other writers. Usually, the writers you meet most are the ones also new to the field, of about your own age and publishing level. This is because the older, more established writers have already made groups of friends, with whom they go off to dinner and sit with in the SFWA suite (at least, in the days when it was possible to sit in the SFWA suite, instead of being jammed in sideways). So our new writer meets other new writers.

Then he or she goes home and reads these people. That's natural -- they're new friends, you're curious, and there simply isn't time to read everything published in SF. So you read your friends first, and you can't recommend what you haven't read, so you recommend your friends for awards. Not because of log-rolling, but because those are the stories you're reading.

Meanwhile, more established writers recommend fewer stories. There are exceptions, faithful SF writers who still read a whole lot of SF (Mike Resnick, Jack McDevitt). But most writers I know say that as they age, they read far, far fewer stories than when they were younger (and, often, read more non-fiction, but that's another post). So they recommend fewer things.

This is not, of course, a total explanation of what ends up on a ballot. There are many other factors, and sometimes a story is so terrific that word of mouth spreads and everybody reads it. But I think my explanation does account for a lot of final-ballot choices -- and without charges of log-rolling or corruption. Just an imperfect process wielded by imperfect humans.

You are, of course, free to disagree with me.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

In one sense, all fiction is alternate history. A Russian aristocrat named Anna Karenina in love with a Count Vronky never existed, so a universe in which she does exist is an alternate universe. But with its usual penchant for creating labels and carving up literature into subgenres, critics have decided that "alternate reality" refers only to fiction in which certain things have been changed and other things left alone. It's best if those things changed are very large.

By these criteria, Michael Chabon's novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union certainly qualifies. It starts small, with Meyer Landsman, a burnt-out case, almost a cariacture of noir: alcoholic, divorced, living in a flop hotel, a detective on the skids. A Jewish Sam Spade. Landsman is made aware of the murder of another sad case in his hotel, one Emanuel Lasker. From there the novel widens and widens until it includes a Sitka, Alaska, that has for 60 years been a provisional Jewish homeland; an Israel held firmly by Palestinians; Alaskan Indians tired of being screwed out of their land and willing to make strange alliances to reclaim it; a United States involved in a huge conspiracy to reshape the face of global politics; a Hasidic sect tired of waiting for this to happen by peaceful means; and a world that may have missed -- and misused -- its Messiah, who may or may not have been on either His first or second Coming. The scope of Chabon's vision is breath-taking, and so is his writing.

The novel is a Nebula nominee. Whether or not it wins -- and Chabon is not a member of our little club, so it may not -- go and read this book. It's terrific.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Dogs and Robots

Researchers have known for some time that bringing pets into nursing homes can lower residents' blood pressure and otherwise improve their health. Dogs as medication. What's new, however, is a study done at St. Louis University showing that robotic dogs can do the same thing. The robot canine Sparky, described as "charismatic," proved as good as real dogs at lowering elderly blood pressure, perking up immune systems, and "fostering attachment."

I can understand this. I have long thought that if my laptop talked to me with even a simple Eliza program, I would probably anthropomrphize it easily into being a "companion." Conversation would start the process, and imagination would do the rest. The same thing could, I suppose, happen with a fuzzy robotic dog that would follow me around, curl up on my lap, and bark at me companionably. Of course, I have a real dog that does all these things. But Cosette has the disadvantages of having to be stashed with someone when I travel, of wanting to go out at inconvenient moments, and of barking insanely at the wild animals that visit my patio at three in the morning. Whereas a robotic dog...

Better watch out, Cosette. You have competition.