Friday, February 27, 2009

Writing Mistakes

Tonight is the last class in this session at Writers & Books. I have been critiquing manuscripts and now the rewrites are starting to come in, which got me thinking about the most common mistakes I see in these stories. Here, in no particular order, are the five areas that most frequently need rewriting:

TOO LONG A SET-UP. The story takes half its word count to set up the situation and provide background. Much better to get to the action more quickly and then fill in background as needed. Many stories start way too early in the narrative sequence.

TOO MUCH DISTANCE. The actions of the point-of-view character are provided, but not his thoughts and feelings and reactions. A character's inner self is what creates reader interest and, if appropriate, identification. I'm always writing in margins: Move POV closer.

WHITE ROOM SYNDROME. The action takes place on a blank canvas - I can't see anything (let alone smell or feel or hear the setting). Give me at least a few sensual details. Sometimes stories even have White Planet Syndrome: This is supposed to be an alien planet, but it might as well be an anonymous suburban backyard.

INSUFFICIENT MOTIVATION. A character does something because the plot requires it, not because she has plausible, compelling reasons to do it.

A WEAK ENDING. Often, when the class all says, "I didn't understand what happened at the end," the author replies, "I wanted to leave it ambiguous so the reader could decide for himself what happened." This almost never works. I'm a big fan of ambiguity, but it should concern the meaning of what happened, not the action itself. After spending 10,000 words with this character, I want to know if he dies, lives, finds the weapon, leaves Mars, or whatever. This is especially true if the piece reads like a conventionally plotted story; plots promise resolutions. A piece that reads like a literary story is written differently, and usually is shorter.

It's been my privilege at Writers & Books to work with some very talented aspiring writers, some of whom have gone on to publish. I like teaching. But I want to be in on the POV character's thoughts, the sensual feel of the setting, and the action at the climax.

Or else you owe me a rewrite.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


A few days ago I saw the movie CORALINE, based on Neil Gaiman's best-selling children's fantasy. The movie was in 3-D, which I hadn't experienced since I was eleven years old, and the trailers included previews for two more 3-D movies. Evidently they are making a come-back. It was fun to see things suddenly leap out at me from the screen. And the 3-D glasses are a big improvement from the cardboard ones of my childhood.

I also liked the movie, which has wonderful animation. However, my friend Barbara, who does not see as many YA or children's movies as I do, was appalled at the story line. "I would never bring a child to see this movie!" she said. "It's horrifying!"

CORALINE is about a child who feels neglected by her parents, who both work hard at dead-line jobs and who have moved her to a new apartment in an isolated country mansion. She encounters a secret doorway that leads her to an alternate reality with "better" versions of her parents -- the mother cooks, the father plays games with her, the house is clean and cared for, they buy her things and read to her. However, they have buttons for eyes. Eventually, the mother is revealed as a controlling witch who wants to gouge out Coraline's eyes and sew buttons in their place, to keep Coraline there forever, and -- the movie's words -- to be "a mother who devours my life." There is a lot of exciting action before Coraline and her male friend, Hansel-and-Gretel like, push what's left of the witch down a deep well (as opposed to an oven.) Daughter kills controlling mother and wins her own life.

My friend's objection was: These are the choices? A neglectful mother or a devouring one? She has a point. And yet, CORALINE is only following in the footsteps of the original Grimm fairy tales (not the cleaned-up Disney versions) in which the violence is horrific and the family relationships often involve neglect, cruelty, or the passive acquiescence to cruelty (as in Hansel and Gretel's father). One theory says that such stories are good for kids; they let them externalize their own dark thoughts.

Would I take an eight-year-old to see CORALINE? I don't know. Since at the moment my life includes no eight-year-olds, I don't have to make that decision. Which is not really an answer at all.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Who's Reading?

The most recent issue of THE NEW YORKER includes a long profile of Ian McEwan, by Daniel Zalewski. The entire article is interesting, but one small bit especially caught my attention. Three years ago, McEwan and his son conducted an experiment in a London park. They handed out thirty novels from McEwan's library (not his own novels) to persons chosen at random. In an essay in the GUARDIAN, McEwan gave the results: "Every young woman we approached...was eager and grateful to take a book," but the men "could not be persuaded. 'Nah, nah. Not for me Thanks, mate, but no.'"

Are women just more acquisitive, or do they read much more fiction? McEwan is convinced of the latter ("When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.") The Romance Writers of America boast that 68% of fiction sales in the United States are category romances, whose readers are overwhelmingly female.

Yet it seems to me that I know just as many men who read as women who do so. This is, of course, a small sample and probably not representative: I tend to know people because they read. And the SF community, a large fraction of my acquaintanceship, has a strong tradition of being male. But if it's true that, overall, many more women than men read fiction, the question becomes: Why?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Becoming A Writer

Last night I gave my talk, "Becoming a Writer," at the University of Rochester. There will -- eventually -- be a link posted to the podcast. One of the things I discussed was the fact that I see many students with writing talent who nonetheless do not go on to publish stories. After much pondering, I identified six personality traits that one must have, in addition to talent, to become an SF writer. In brief:

  • the ability to tolerate long periods of time alone (or surrounded by people who don't actually exist)
  • the arrogance to believe that, however crappy your current work and however much rejected, you will get good enough for other people to want to read what you write
  • the humility to understand the limits of your talent, and to learn from what editors, reviewers, and writing-group colleagues tell you about your work
  • a love of reading and of stories (I have never met a writer who didn't read fiction voraciously, at least while young, and who didn't tell himself stories in which he was the hero)
  • self-motivation, since one must work without a boss, an external work structure, or, often, a deadline
  • for the SF writer, the peculiar cast of mind that finds a future world, an alien planet, or a magical realm fully as solid and believable as the chair he's sitting on -- at least for the length of the writing session
Talent and desire are not enough. The rest must be there, or must be acquired, in order to become a writer.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

New Novel!

Yesterday my author's copies of my new SF novel, STEAL ACROSS THE SKY, arrived in the mail. This is always a red-letter event for a writer, and especially this time since the bound galleys didn't include the interior artwork that is an integral part of the story. I love the artwork, and I'm pleased with the look of the book. If I hadn't lost my camera somewhere in Germany, I would include a picture of it.

STEAL ACROSS THE SKY concerns an intergalactic crime. Aliens appear in our sky, set up a base on the moon, and announce that 10,000 years ago they committed a terrible crime against humanity, for which they now want to atone. Only they refuse to tell us what it was. Instead, they want 21 "witnesses" to be transported to other planets in alien ships, see for themselves what the crime was, and then be returned to Earth to verify it for the rest of humankind. The novel follows four of these witnesses.

So far, reviews have been positive. In LOCUS, Russell Letson managed the admirable feat of discussing the novel at length without giving away the plot (which I very much appreciated!) KIRKUS gave it a starred review. On the Web, I especially liked the review on the Fantasy Book Critic site, which also doesn't give away too much (

I reread parts of the book last night. Do I wish I had done anything differently? Yes, of course -- you always find places where a scene could have used more depth or a phrase isn't as sharp as it could be. But overall, I still like this book -- which is not true of all my novels (there's one that, when people bring it to me at signings, I try to actively discourage them from reading).

If any of you out there read STEAL ACROSS THE SKY, I hope you like it, too.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Graveyard Book

I have just finished reading Neil Gaiman's YA novel, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, which won this year's prestigious Newberry Medal. It's charming.

At first, I was afraid it might be too charming, in danger of toppling over into cutesy. But as the story unfolds, Gaiman corrects this. There are gritty underpinnings here, and they serve the narrative well. That narrative is a retelling of Rudyard Kipling's THE JUNGLE BOOK. Instead of a toddler Mowgli adopted and raised by wolves, we have a toddler Nobody ("Bod") adopted and raised by ghosts. Like Mowgli, Bod is protected by the consensus permission of his world, which is not the Law of the Jungle but rather the Freedom of the Graveyard. There are equivalents to Kipling's characters: the tiger Shere Khan, intent on killing Mowgli, is replaced by a human killer, "Jack" (evocative of Jack the Ripper), who murdered the rest of Bod's family and is existentially driven to get Bod to complete the job. Mowgli is taught and protected by the panther Bagheera; Bod by Silas, who is "neither alive nor dead" and walks the world by night, bringing back food for the child. The foolish, cruel monkeys who snatch away Mowgli are parallelled by a band of foolish, cruel (and pretty funny) ghouls. And so on.

But Gaiman has done more than just transliterate. The Graveyard is a real place, with ghosts who died real deaths. I especially liked Liza, the witch restless in the unconsecrated ground in which she was unceremoniously buried. The ghosts come from different eras, some of them ancient (this is a British graveyard), and their diction varies accordingly. The barrow with buried Druid treasure is genuinely creepy.

Kids should really like this fantasy. I did.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Yesterday, Valentine's Day, was the anniversary of my first novel sale. Twenty-nine years ago, Virginia Kidd called me to say that David Hartwell at Pocket Books was taking my fantasy PRINCE OF MORNING BELLS. It was a red-letter Valentine gift.

This came to mind for two reasons. First, I received an ecstatic email from Mary Robinette Kowalski that she just sold her first novel, SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, to Tor. The novel is set in Jane Austen's England, which of course has me panting to read it even if Mary's writing wasn't as good as it is. She won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2008, and this book is sure to be a delight.

The other reason my novel anniversary came to mind is that I am giving a talk on Thursday at the University of Rochester on "Becoming a Writer." Thus, it behooves me to start thinking about becoming a writer. Why do people do this? What is the process? What do I really have to say about this subject, and what will the audience expect to hear? Sometime today or tomorrow I need to sit down with a legal pad and pen and jot down thoughts on this. I know my own "career path" -- a grandiose term for what was essentially a muddling through -- but I think I ought to widen the focus from that. But to what?

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sex and the Simpsons

Those of you who read either LOCUS or Neil Gaiman's blog will have heard of the latest cause célḕbre scandal, which involves the Simpsons. A man in Australia has been convicted of possessing child pornography because he had in his home drawings of kids having sex. The kids were Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson. The man has been fined $3,000.

If underage cartoon characters have sex on paper, and I look at it (not that I want to see Bart getting it off with his sister), has anyone been harmed? What about if the sex is not drawn but only described? By that standard, Lolita is pornographic. What if Bart murders someone? If I view or read about that, have I participated in viewing a snuff film (also illegal)? Does this judge realize that he just granted human rights to cartoon characters?

Does Homer now have the right to vote?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Most Important Person You Never Heard Of

I am reading Michael Pollan's latest book, THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA. I found his previous book, THE BOTANY OF DESIRE, utterly charming. In that one, he traced the history of humankind's interactions with four plants: tulips, potatoes, apples, and marijuana. He does the same in DILEMMA for various kinds of foodstuffs: corn, organic produce, hunted game. This time, however, he is not interested in being charming.

I am only part way through the first section, on corn, and already I am half-resolved to never eat feedlot beef again. The book is packed with detail, interesting and disgusting and problematic, and time and time again I realize how ignorant I am about the food I eat, the agriculture that grows it, and the people who made that possible. I never, for instance, as much as heard of Fritz Haber, but without him I probably wouldn't exist. Neither would about 2/5 of the world's population.

In 1909 Haber discovered the process by which nitrogen from the air can be "fixed" into molecules usable by human beings. Before that, all the available nitrogen on the surface of the Earth had been "fixed" by bacteria growing on the roots of legumes or by the odd lightning strike. It wasn't enough fixed nitrogen to create enough fertilizer to cultivate enough food. Haber received the Nobel Prize in 1920 for his process.

The reason I never heard of him was that the rest of his history is checkered (creating synthetic nitrate for German explosives and poison gases in World War I). But without his process, the human population would have hit mass starvation long before now. Pollan identifies this as "a mixed blessing," and explores the pluses and minuses of our ability to increase "commodity corn" yield to nearly 200 bushels per acre. And this is only one of the fascinating byways of this exhaustively researched, well-written, and entertaining book.


Sunday, February 8, 2009


I have lost track of the moon.

Not the actual moon above Rochester, which yesterday was just shy of full and visible briefly before our usual clouds obscured it. The moon I've misplaced is in my YA fantasy, which is now nearing the end of draft #2. Moonlight matters in pre-industrial societies, because it and that stars provide all the light there is for night traveling, which my characters are doing a lot over rough terrain. I need that moon, and I need it to be full at certain times. It also means I can't have, say, two full moons within two weeks, and so time passing in the book has to be coordinated with phases of the moon, and I've lost track.

This is the kind of thing a third draft is supposed to correct. But because I've tied night traveling so critically to my plot, I need to fix it now or change plot events. So I am drawing charts and schedules of the moon for this non-existent country ("The Queendom"), and trying to remember where in the ms. I said there was a tiny crescent moon high in the sky and will that fit with this later development?

And I still have money to do. How big a store of precious coins did Roger have, how much has he spent so far? And how much does a cup of sour ale cost?

Science fiction, of course, has other versions of this detail-fixing (How long can that gizmo's battery last? What's it powered by? Does that neurotransmitter really do what I just said it does?) It's niggling and necessary and produces reams of notes on legal pads. I am drowning in paper right now. And the moon is a waning crescent.

Friday, February 6, 2009


The February 9-and-16 issue of THE NEW YORKER has published an SF story. Or what it thinks is an SF story.

In the past THE NEW YORKER has actually published some very fine SF, including stories by Ursula LeGuin. However, "The Invasion From Outer Space," by Steven Millhauser, is not among them. Before I describe the story, some caveats:

I am not among those who automatically hate any SF written by authors not in our little club. I liked THE HANDMAID'S TALE, think some of Fay Weldon's satires are a hoot, and don't even blame Cormac McCarthy for all the attention he got for THE ROAD, a novel on a topic that SF writers have done earlier and better. My reaction to "The Invasion from Outer Space" is not sour grapes.

Second, I understand that the story is not mimetic SF, but rather a subgenre that uses the tropes of SF in a non-realistic way to make a point. I have written stories like that myself ("People Like Us") and consider it a legitimate form of speculative fiction. And I got the point of this story: that when we expect drama and excitement, we're much more likely to get the mundane. The world ends not with a bang but a whimper. Got it.

That said, this is a boring story. The "invasion" is endless gold-colored dust, organic and replicating, that will eventually smother us all. Meanwhile, people, although disappointed ("We had wanted terror and ecstasy"), just go on with their lives, sweeping the streets free of yellow dust, dusting window ledges, hosing off porches. The reaction is muted ("It's really quite peaceful, in its way") as humanity is extinguished.

So what? I didn't believe this scenario at all, in human terms. Even as metaphor, it's simplistic and boring. I don't expect NEW YORKER readers to appreciate Charles Stross, but a little imagination does seem called for when you're considering invasions from space. What was the fiction editor thinking?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Last night R-Spec (Rochester Speculative Fiction Fans) held its monthly meeting. We had a speaker, microbiologist Martin Zand, who spoke on "Biodefense" and was absolutely fascinating. He slanted his talk toward practical knowledge for SF writers who want to include weaponized genemods in their stories.

He talked about which pathogens best lend themselves to modification (Ebola, for instance, has a very small genome and produces only eight proteins, which means there's just not room enough in the cell to fit a lot of extra, genetically engineered stuff.) Martin covered the assembly of viruses using sequencing data and "off-the-shelf" sections of DNA. He talked about the origins and spread of epidemics. I hadn't known that the natural host for influenza was an Asian species of duck, and that the way vaccine makers guess at which strains of flu will hit in a given winter is by examining ducks in late summer.

The talk also covered what you need for a rogue genemod lab to weaponize pathogens: off-the-rack equipment, experienced talent, and no more than a few million dollars. What the Russians may or may not have been doing in this regard was discussed, including a recommendation for Ken Alibek's scary book BIOHAZARD (which I have read -- it's horrifying). Martin finished with an overview of surveillance techniques used to spot and track epidemics so that appropriate measures can be taken, including quarantine if necessary.

And while we're on DNA (so to speak) check out Drew Berry's animations of how DNA, RNA, and ribosomes do their work. No less a personage than Eric Drexler has praised these short films as the best he's seen of its type. You can access them through Drexler's website at (Thank you, Frank Glover, for pointing me to this). The animations duplicate real time for processes -- and the speed with which cellular machinery works!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Working Method

Right now, I hate my working method.

That's because I'm in the least interesting part of it. The entire method goes like this: Write a first draft, which I do like a superstitious man running past a graveyard at night: Go really fast and don't look back. Second, print out the ms. and rewrite on the paper copy. This involves not only changing sentences but also scribbling new paragraphs on the back of sheets (SEE OVER) and entire new scenes on yellow legal pads, which then get inserted or taped in place. There is much crossing out and keeping of notes (for the first time) so that characters keep the same names, eye color, and diction throughout the ms. The third step is typing all this mess into the computer. Step four is a repeat of steps two and three, but on a less drastic scale, and step five is a clean-up edit.

I am now on step 3 of my YA fantasy. It's tedious and fiddly ("Change 'black eyes' to 'dark eyes' -- she hasn't been in a fight!") when it's not tedious and long (entire scenes typed in with one finger). This is the part where I always wish I had a secretary, but I don't, and anyway I doubt a secretary could read the writing jammed into margins and around the back. This typing-in has been going on for several days now, and will go on for several more, and as a measure of how boring it is: I welcome stopping to scrub the bathroom.

This seems to be the only way I can work. I never want to stop during a first draft; I enjoy rewriting on paper; I can't seem to edit on screen. So this is it. Once I'm on to draft three, I'll be fine, but in the meantime, I am not a happy author.

Other writers work in other ways. I envy them sometimes.

Monday, February 2, 2009

New Uses for DNA

What do you do with DNA from dead animals? (Other than eat it, of course, along with all the other components of meat). You track it or reproduce it.

The tracking is being done by a pair of brothers, one an English professor and the other a biologist, to try to date medieval manuscripts. The idea is that you extract cellular DNA from deep inside parchment pages of very old books. Before paper was common, European books were written on parchment made from the skins of calves, lamb, and young goats. You have to go "deep" because any DNA found on the surface tends to belong to mice, insects, or human hands that have wandered across the pages.

Once the DNA is extracted, you can identify the animal it came from. This can then be compared with a databank of known parchment-producing animals used in other books. Some of those books have known publication dates, so if you can find a match, you have a pub date. Or at least a date for when that particular page of parchment was produced.

The other current DNA story is both more contemporary and more commercial. A couple has had their dead dog reproduced by cloning -- the first instance in the U.S. of a commercially cloned pet dog (cats have been done before). It cost $150,000 to clone the Labrador.

I would not have my toy poodle Cosette cloned -- and not only because I don't have a spare $150,000 sitting around. Don't these people realize that identical DNA does not mean an identical pet? Now, if I could genetically alter a new Cosette to not hog the entire bed at night....

No. Not even then.