Monday, September 29, 2008

Playing God

As I prepare to pack for Germany, I'm going through the hand-outs I use when teaching writing. One of these is a nifty monograph by Poul Anderson and Stephen L. Gillett called "How To Build a Planet." It starts with the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of stars, with instructions on choosing one likely to have viable planets, and then goes through how to figure out such planetary factors as gravity, axial tilt, energy received per square foot, etc. These, of course, translate into seasons, weather, plausible biomass, and everything else that makes a believable world on which to set an SF story.

Poul Anderson published the first version of this article long ago in the SFWA Bulletin. Many authors wrote the Bulletin to express gratitude for the article. One person, however, sent the following letter, which was included in the next issue:

Dear Mr. Anderson,
That is not the way I do it.
Yours truly,
God

Well, maybe not. But since God's methods seem unavailable to most writers, we do it any way we can. The updated Anderson/Gillett article is a great help; I recommend it. And it doesn't even take seven days and seven nights.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Writer's Elbow

Writing as a career includes many hazards: fluctuating markets, incomprehensible royalty statements, paying the full shot on FICA. There are also a few physical hazards: carpal tunnel, strained eyesight, being trampled from standing between Neil Gaiman and his fans. I half expected those hazards. What I did not expect was Writer's Elbow.

I type with one finger. (Yes, one.) This finger is on my right hand. My left arm rests on the arm of my chair, so that the left hand can be used to hit the SHIFT key (okay, one-and-a-tenth fingers, assuming that I need a capital letter every tenth character.) Lately, I have been averaging between 2,000 and 3,000 words a day on the YA fantasy I'm writing, which means I've been sitting at the computer for several hours per day. My left elbow rests or rubs all that time on the arm of the chair. This arm is padded, but nonetheless I have a painful rubbing away of skin, which breaks open, bleeds, scabs over, and then breaks open again.

Now, in the annals of work-related physical injuries, this is not exactly a biggie. OSHA does not need to be notified. What the situation is, is embarrassing. Writer's Elbow? Am I the only writer out there so afflicted?

If so, then I'm really embarrassed.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Convicted By Your Brain

A few days ago a woman in India was convicted of murdering her fiance. A prime piece of evidence was a BEOS, Brain Electrical Oscillation Test, of her own brain.

It works like this: Prosecutors read aloud to the suspect a description of the murder, all couched in first person ("I bought arsenic," etc.) while she had electrodes attached to her head that showed which areas of the brain lit up at what point. She was also read neutral statements ("The sky is blue.") The "pattern" of electrical responses in her brain supposedly showed that she had "experiential knowledge" of the murder, rather than merely having heard about it.

This has, understandably, set off a storm of controversy, in and out of India. The specific technology is new, although it builds on a large body of brain-study literature (some of which I refer to in my current ASIMOV'S story, "The Erdmann Nexus.") But this is a new application of brain studies, and it has ethicists shuddering. Proponents point out that the suspect agreed to the test, but the press has speculated that she may have done so to avoid what she thought might be a brutal police interrogation if she refused.

In the United States, not even polygraph results are admissible in court. We also have the Fifth Amendment providing protection against self-incrimination, presumably including by your own brain. This is a draconian version of Big Brother is Watching You:

His Honor the Judge is Watching You. With your help.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Media Class

Today I spoke to two sections of a mass-communications class at the University of South Florida, a total of about 450 students. They had all read my novel Nothing Human, which gave me a chance to deliver my usual speech about how their generation will be the one making important decisions about genetic engineering: how much we do, to whom, for what, and under what regulation. They seemed interested, but both during the Q&A and afterward, when I was signing books, many of them said that no one had ever spoken to them about this topic before.

Why not? These are (mostly) freshmen, but shouldn't this sort of question come up in high school biology classes? Genetic engineering -- of crops, of animals, of people -- is important. It may change our future. It already has changed our present, through the development of genemod crops and of bacteria engineered for (to cite only one example) the production of insulin. It seems to me that we should be preparing our young people to consider the issues involved. And by "we" I mean more than just SF writers.

On the other hand, it was lovely to hear how many students said to me, "I never read any science fiction before Dr. Wilber assigned your book, but now I want to read more!" That can only be good :)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Fast Forward





Today's mail brought my contributor's copy of Lou Anders's new anthology, Fast Forward 2. This is a science fiction anthology, no fantasy. It contains stories by a wide range of new and veteran writers, including Ian McDonald, Jack Skillingstead, Kay Kenyon, Jack McDevitt, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Mike Resnick and Pat Cadigan (collaborating). My story, "The Kindness of Strangers," may be one of the bleakest I've ever written. Or it may not. It all depends on your viewpoint about what the Earth can or cannot sustain.



In his Introduction, Anders quotes several people on the fate, intent, and importance of SF in general. He points out that although SF doesn't have a very good record as a predictive literature (which was not its aim in the first place), it may be doing better as a "preventive literature." In other words, the cautionary tale, which alerts us to what could happen if "this goes on," may help ensure that "this" does not go on. 1984 ended up looking nothing like Orwell's 1984 -- but it gave the words "Big Brother is watching you" to the language, which raised all our consciousness about just how much we don't want Big Brother watching us.

"The Kindness of Strangers," in a far more modest way, is that kind of story. Despite its bleakness, I'm fond of this one.

Tomorrow I fly to Tampa in connection with another bleak story. Five hundred students at the University of Southern Florida have been required to read my novel, Nothing Human, for their English class. I'm going to talk to them about being a (bleak) writer. So the next blog will come from sunny Florida, which is forecast to have rain the whole time I'm there.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Playwriting

Yesterday I took a day-long play writing course at the local arts center, Writers & Books, from Paula Marchese. It was a lot of fun. She began by having us write a short scene between two characters, with two restrictions. First, no speech could be longer than four words. Second, the scene should start with "I'm here" and end with "It's not right."

I do a similar exercise (with fewer restrictions) when I teach fiction, but it's much different sitting on the other side of the desk! Stripped of the additional narrative tools available to the fiction writer (description, action, thoughts, exposition), I produced a scene but not one I particularly liked. The characters were clich├ęs (well, we did have only ten minutes). We then went on to cover other aspects of play writing that differ from fiction writing, including how to use the space on a stage. We discussed short scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire and Closer.

Several SF writers I know also write plays, many of which have been produced, including Jim Kelly, John Kessel, and Craig Delancey (I'm sure there are more). I'm not saying I want to do that. But the course was a fresh perspective on story telling, and that is always welcome.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Facility

My daughter-in-law Jamie, whose first story will appear in the anthology The North Coast: 2034, has a tag line at the end of all her email. It's a quote from one Allan Rousselle: "Writing is a very weird profession: you have to do all the work long before you find out if you'll ever get paid." True enough, but not the only way that writing is a weird profession. Not by a long shot.

My YA fantasy novel, a thing I thought I would never write at all, is now at over 40,000 words. It has glided along easily, the words flowing smoothly as expensive chocolate. This is not necessarily a good thing. Does ease in writing a story mean that it's too facile, too derivative because not enough thought and invention has gone into characters or plot? Is it better to have a "shittin' rocks" story, that inelegant but accurate term for a story that you sweat over, grunt at, and finally get out? Does effort mean originality?

After thirty years of writing, I honestly don't know the answer to this question. I have had stories that flowed easily and needed little revision (two were "Out of All Them Bright Stars" and "The Erdmann Nexus," the latter in this month's ASIMOV'S.) I've also had stories that wrote very slowly, with endless revision, such as "The Flowers of Aulit Prison" and "Fountain of Age." There doesn't seem to be a pattern, at least not for me. So I have no way of knowing if my current effort is any good. I'm enjoying writing it, but I can attest with complete certainty to the fact that enjoyment is no guarantee of success. I've loved writing stories and novels that never sold at all.

A very weird profession.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Best of the Best

I am preparing my lectures for my SF class at the University of Leipzig, including reading through all the fiction I will teach. This includes Gardner Dozois's anthology The Best of the Best, which features stories chosen from twenty years of his Best of Year collections, from 1983 to 2003. There was no one anthology I could have chosen that contained all the stories I would like to present to my German students, but this one has a wide selection.

Even so -- and even as I'm enjoying reading these stories, some for the first time and some for the second, third, or even fourth -- I'm dissatisfied. In his Introduction, Gardner points out a few limitations on his selection process. He couldn't include too many novellas, or there wouldn't be space for as many stories. More significantly, he didn't want to pick stories that were so widely anthologized that everyone had already read them and so nobody would buy this book. That's completely reasonable. Nonetheless, THOSE are the stories I want all in one place for teaching purposes.

For instance, the anthology includes Ursula K. LeGuin's "Coming of Age in Karhide." Now, I am the most enthusiastic LeGuin fan on the planet. I think she walks on water. If I get reincarnated, I want to be Ursula LeGuin. Her work astonishes, delights, and moves me. Nonetheless, the story included here is "Coming of Age in Karhide," which is more a monographic gloss on The Left Hand of Darkness than a story in its own right. Why can't I have "Nine Lives" or "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" or "Betrayals" or "Pathways of Desire"? From Howard Waldrop I want not "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll" but rather 'The Ugly Chickens." From Jim Kelly I want "Thank Like a Dinosaur." From Mike Resnick, "For I Have Touched the Sky."

On the other hand, and not to be cranky (I did, after all, choose this anthology), some stories are just what I want: John Crowley's "Snow," David Marusek's "The Wedding Album," Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life," Pat Cadigan's "Roadside Rescue." I will enjoy teaching this anthology. But I still wish there were one huge, glorious volume that brought together everything I like best. On the other hand, I'd have to edit it, and that's a task that, having done it once (a Nebula Awards volume), I am not anxious to repeat. It takes the same skills as teaching the eighth grade -- stamina, patience with the recalcitrant, and an infinite ability to withstand cranky carping like this post. Gardner possesses those admirable qualities. I, alas, do not. So -- I'm grateful this book exists.

Even though, in that same Introduction, Gardner points out that the "young Turks" of 1983 -- including yours truly -- are now "gray and wrinkled and sagging." Thanks, Gardner.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Internet Addiction

While reading (still) the non-fiction book Loneliness, which I cited in an earlier post, I came across mention of R.Kraut et. al.'s classic 1999 article on Internet use. I had read this before. A longitudinal study, it looked at 173 people who had been using the Internet for one or two years, and discovered that over time, "greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants' communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness." Now I discover that there are many sites devoted to "internet addiction," including tests to discover whether or not you're "addicted" (I'm not).

Is this a real phenomenon? Wikipedia says that the term "internet addiction" was originally created as a hoax. Yet the entry, a masterpiece of fence-sitting, also acknowledges the reality of sub-classes of addiction because they fall into recognized psychological disorders: too much on-line gambling, too much on-line porn. I personally know of at least one college-student who flunked out because he spent so much time in on-line gaming -- but did he flunk out because he was "addicted" or did he just spend so much time gaming because he hated college?

My concern here is partly linguistic. The term "rape" came to be used for so many different things ("the rape of the holiday spirit by consumerism") that it lost some of its potency to refer to the real thing. "Addiction" as applied to time on the Internet may be the same thing.

Or not?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Get 'Em Young

I am not a shopper (Gene Wolfe once called me a "closet man" because of my dislike of shopping for clothes). My children are grown, and they were boys, so I'm out of touch with fashions for little girls. They just don't enter my consciousness -- until now.

A pair of mothers have started a business that makes high heels for female babies and toddlers. There are six styles, each looking like something Carrie Bradshaw might have worn on Sex and the City. The heels are "squishy," which means they retract if a child actually tries to walk on them. Each pair cost $35. You can view them at www.heelarious.com.

Now, I am a feminist but not a radical feminist. When I gave my GOH speech at Wiscon, I wore lipstick and a pink dress. About four times a year I put on high heels (the Nebulas, the Hugos, the odd party or wedding), much in the same spirit that I might wear a bustier or a sword or a floor-length cape (which I actually own one of): fun, flirty, not real life. Nonetheless, the idea of inculcating -- and that's what it is -- tiny girls with the idea that they are born to wear high heels makes my stomach turn. In heels, you are effectively handicapped. You can't run, you can't lift anything heavy. At the end of the evening, your feet hurt. At the end of lifetime, they're deformed. Is this really the message we want to send to girls?

What are these maternal entrepreneurs -- and their customers -- thinking of?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Large Hadron Collider

Last night, Brian Williams on NBC News devoted all of 15 seconds to the start-up of the Large Hadron Collider. He pointed out that it had been put into operation, that the Earth had not been destroyed, and that we are all still here. Seldom has "news" been less novel. We all knew we were still there.

However, just in case we weren't, one of my listserves is offering a "full refund" for disruption of listserve service :)

The same listserve, more seriously, points out another possibility. I usually have trouble following anything that evokes either Einstein or Hawkings, but apparently an alternate scenario is that the Collider could indeed produce a tiny black hole whose growth pattern inside the earth would be too small to be measured for thousands of years, after which it would grow exponentially too quickly to do anything about. It all depends on whether you use Hawkings' model or Einstein's or somebody else's (not Brian Williams').

I have decided not to worry about this. Greg Bear worried about it for me quite competently in THE FORGE OF GOD. And, in a time frame closer than thousands of years, it's exhilarating to think of how much knowledge the LHC may yield. We are all of us created from star stuff, heavy metals forged in long-ago stars, and in those processes lie all the secrets of the universe. The LHC is currently our best chance of learning exactly how they work. Yesterday was a red-letter day for science.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Going Full Time

Several months ago my friend Mindy Klasky, author of the paranormal Jane Madison books, left her job as a law librarian to go full-time as a writer. More recently, another friend has gone full-time temporarily. Both of them are loving it. This month I will have been a full-time writer for 18 years. That, and the book I'm reading on LONELINESS (see previous post), started me reflecting on this peculiar state.

It's "peculiar" not because I don't report to an office. Neither does my son, who telecommutes from upstate New York to Silicon Valley each day. And when I wrote for an ad agency (my last "real job" -- just ask my mother), I often worked at home. But those situations still present salaries, deadlines, people to report to, vacation schedules, etc. A full-time writer may have a single novel deadline, months away, plus other commitments (anthology stories, speaking engagements) that are also months away. Nothing says to me each morning "Work!" -- except myself. James Blish once said that he got less written whenever he wrote full-time, because he could put off work -- there was always tomorrow. Then his money would run out and he would get another job and then he would write more fiction.

So what does it take to go full-time as a writer? The standard rule-of-thumb is that you're supposed to be able to replace 2/3 of your day-job income with writing income. I don't think I believe that; you can always, instead, change your life-style to one that spends less. I think the main requirements are psychological. You must be able to (1) structure your own time, (2) work steadily without much outside reinforcement, and (3) be able to arrange enough social contact (family, friends, water polo, whatever) so that you don't go for days talking only to people who don't actually exist, (4) be able to tolerate a certain degree of financial uncertainty, and (5) get cooperation on all of the above from whoever you share your dwelling with.

I haven't always, in 18 years, succeeded at all of these. But I've never for one second regretted becoming a full-time writer.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Loneliness

I have been reading Loneliness, a new book by medical researchers John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick. It's a round-up of psychological, physiological, and neurological studies done on the subject of human loneliness and its sub-concerns: isolation, affiliation, empathy, altruism, and evolutionary genetics. The authors' main point is that human beings are genetically wired to live in groups, and that there are definite physiological and neurological consequences when we don't do that. And the authors can write; this is a lively tome, not a collection of dry journal articles.

Obviously, being alone is not the same as being lonely, and different people have different needs and tolerances for "alone time." That said, there are still traceable patterns among those who self-rate as "fairly" or "very" or "often" lonely. These include increased stress hormones (cortisol et. al.) But what interests me more than that are the specific, limited studies on reactions to loneliness.

To cite only one: Lonely people pay more attention, not less, to social cues and signals than do non-lonely people. This seems counter-intuitive until you come to the analogy with food: hungry people pay more attention to food than the sated. However, the lonely are less skilled at correctly interpreting others' nonverbal cues. Which is one reason they're lonely in the first place.

I wish I had read this book before I sold my story "Act One" to ASIMOV'S. That story, which comes out next year (I think) could have benefited from the knowledge in this book. At any rate, I recommend Loneliness to anyone curious about why the human animal behaves as it does.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Good Conversation and Bad Writing

Belatedly -- I always seem to be behind in these things -- a friend sent me the latest winner in the annual Bulwer-Lytton contest. This contest honors Victorian writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, master of genuinely bad prose. The goal is to write the worst opening sentence possible for a novel. Fortunately, you don't have to write the entire novel.) This year's winner is
Jim Guigli, of Carmichael, California:

"Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you've had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean."

I love it.

On a more practical level, my son Brian has helped set me up with Google Talk and a headset, so that I can use my computer to talk to people in the United States while I'm teaching in Germany this fall. Now, however, ALL sound from the computer comes over the headset. When not on my head, it will be just lying there on my desk and suddenly announce in muffled tones "You've Got Mail." It sounds like I'm being lugubriously informed of this from under three feet of water. Ah, technology.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Dramatic Questions, Part 2

People left some very thoughtful posts in response to my last blog, but somehow the discussion (including my own contribution!) veered into the polemic-vs.-non-polemic ("entertaining") novel, which wasn't what I intended. So now I'm trying again to order my thoughts, since this is a topic very much on my mind just now. I've started to write another novel. It's a fantasy, which I haven't written in twenty years and thought I'd never do again, but this character has been gnawing at my mind for two months now, so I've given in. You really can't argue with these people.

But what I intended to muse about in my previous post is less a question of ideology than of narrative tension. What is it that actually keeps a reader turning pages, and how closely is it related to predictability? The late John Gardner, whom I quoted before, thought that the ability to predict a plot was irrelevant. In one sense, he's right; there are only so many basic plots (Heinlein put the number at three, Polti at 36). But if one can pretty much guess at how a plot will end, what else keeps readers going? And they DO keep going. Romance readers, for instance, always know how the plot will end (lovers united). So, usually, do mystery readers (crime solved). Many other readers (including me) have no objection to having been told the entire plot by a review or by another reader, or to rereading a new take on an old story (King Arthur, say) where I know pretty much how it will all turn out. So what keeps us all reading?

That's not a simple answer, of course. But I think the thing that makes a book a page-turner is wanting to know how a character will handle the immediate situation in any particular chapter. That's the "Omigod, what is she going to do about that?" factor. In other words, not the overall thematic material of the book, but the immediate situation right here, right now.

All this came to mind because I'm rereading Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling's novel that I will teach in Germany. I adore this book; Bruce throws off ideas like sparks. It's also subtly funny. But it's very episodic. This happens to Mia, then this, then this. Tension does not build in the way that, say, John Grisham can build tension by constantly raising the stakes for his characters. Mia's stakes are never really high; she can always just leave Europe and go home and there will be no negative consequences if she does. Sterling makes this point often. So the book offers much, but it is not full of dramatic tension. You don't stay up all night reading it. As a result, it got less attention and fewer sales than books that do offer that tension, as well as other joys.

I'm rambling. These are not simple questions to answer. But vital, I think, to both writers and teachers. I see a lot of student stories that just don't work because although the pay-off at the end may be good, the story does not create enough desire to know what will happen in the rest of this chapter, right here, right now.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Reading and Writing

Yesterday I got into an argument with a friend over the whole reading-as-entertainment thing. Since I've had this same argument before with this same friend, you'd think I'd know better. Not so. We just keep going at it. His shtick runs like this: "The basic job of a writer is to entertain. Anything added to that is just gravy."

Leaving aside the whole question of the cliched and dubious metaphor, this has never made much sense to me, because "entertain" is such such a vague word. What I find entertaining, you may not. Readers of Michael Chabon are unlikely to be reading Fern Michaels, and vice-versa.

But then I decided to think this through a bit more. Are there any similarities -- not so much between Chabon and Michaels as among their readers, in any terms at all? I decided there are. Both sets of readers want to know what happens next to characters in situations in which the reader has become interested. That's the commonality.

Even with this extremely broad generality, however, there are going to be people who disagree. The late John Gardner, in one of his books on writing (and I can't remember which one), said that what happens in a "plot" (the quotes are his) is unimportant. What matters is how it happens, and in what words. Thus, Gardner argued for just getting all the facts on the table upfront, up to and including the ending, to get it all out of the way.

I can't agree with him. I think people read The Yiddish Policeman's Union to find out who killed Emmanuel Lasker and what will happen to the provisional Jewish state in Alaska. I think they read Childhood's End to find out what the Overlords do to, and for, Earth. I think they read "Cinderella" to see if Cindy gets to go to the ball. And when a book or story fails, three-quarters of the time it's because the writer has not raised compelling enough questions that readers want to find out the answers to. That's "entertainment," whether it takes place on the tundra or on Mars. Whether it has a lot of action or none, a happy ending or not, sympathetic characters or not. Whether (although I hate to say this) the writing is good or not.

For better or worse, it's all about the dramatic questions.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sex and Money

These are difficult economic times. People know that their bank balances, gas costs, and vanilla frappuccino budgets are affected, but now a researcher at UC Berkeley points out that sex lives are, too. In bad times, libido is lowered, and people have less frequent sex. That didn't surprise me, but another side effect of economic hardship did startle me: During depressions, fewer boys are born than girls.

Economist Ralph Catalano looked at birth records for East Germany from 1946 to 1999. Just after World War II, and again after the 1991 collapse of the East German economy, fewer male children than normal were born. The difference was statistically significant. The reasoning is this: It's well known that male fetuses are at greater risk for miscarriage or premature birth than female fetuses. Economic hardship creates stress, and pregnant women under stress may be more prone to miscarriage and premature birth. So fewer male children survive, creating the imbalance. The same thing happens after an earthquake.

What interests me is the evolutionary implications. When conditions get tough, nature produces more girls, which will be needed to (eventually) raise the population level that may have decreased from earthquake or famine.

I just found out yesterday that my school taxes (New York State has the highest property/school taxes in the nation) went up another $1500 as a result of reassessment plus a tax increase. If I were in the child-bearing stage, I'd be having female triplets.