Thursday, April 30, 2009


Two versions of an old proverb: "God is in the details" and "The devil is in the details." I've heard both, and both bear applicability to the class I taught last night at Writers & Books.

We critique two stories each work, Clarion-style. Last night we had the start of a historical fantasy novel and a complete SF short story. One took place in nineteenth-century Europe and the other in high Earth orbit, but the same question arose for each: How much detail is too much? What made this complicated was that readers could not agree. Some liked all the details of Italy as seen on a Grand Tour; some advised, "Cut the travelogue and get back to the story." Some liked the details of the spaceship's propulsion drive; some said, "Too much techno-jargon." This naturally left the poor authors a mite confused.

My own take on this is that no matter you do, it will be wrong, in that you can't satisfy everybody. Leave out details of setting and mechanics and "the story feels thin," with White Room Syndrome (or White Starship Syndrome or White Continent Syndrome). Put in the details and "you slow down too much and sacrifice tension." Like everything else in writing, it's a trade-off. It's also a balancing act, but even if you find a good balance between atmosphere and action, some readers won't like it.

I don't know how these particular authors will revise their pieces. I'll find out when they send me their rewrites. Meanwhile, I struggle with the same question in the book I'm writing now. How much do you want to know about the furnishings of a seventeenth-century rustic kitchen? And if I tell you the family lights that kitchen with tallow candles rather than either wax candles or rushlights, will that help you place them on a socioeconomic scale? Do you know the difference? Should my text explain the difference to you? Who are you anyway, this unknown reader who may pick up this book two or three years from now, assuming it survives the perils of publishing?

All fiction writing is a message sent out in a bottle, with its recipients largely unknown. All we can do is print clearly and seal the bottle as tightly as we can.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


The April 27 issue of The New Yorker features a long article by Margaret Talbot on the drugs Adderall, Ritalin, monadafinil, donepezil, and Provigil. All are brain drugs. They are prescribed for various disorders such as ADHD, but they are also increasingly taken -- especially among college students and twenty-something fast-track professionals -- as part of "cosmetic neurology." That's the practice of using drugs developed for recognized medical conditions to strengthen ordinary cognition. In other words, to think faster, longer, and with more memory.

This raises a number of questions, the first of which is: Does it work? Apparently so. The article cites studies in which donepezil strengthened the performance of pilots on flight simulators and Provigil increased memory. Because these are "off-label" uses of the drugs (contrary to what the FDA has approved), the drug companies themselves are not running large clinical trials on their products' use as neuroenhancers. But the anecdotal evidence exists, as well as a growing corps of people who are convinced through experimentation on their own brains.

The next question is: Is this a good thing? The users apparently think so. Poker champion Paul Phillips attributes much of his success at increased concentration while on first Adderall and then Provigil. Talbot, however, points out a future possibility for society as a whole: Are we about to be split into two sectors, those that perform better because of neuroenhancers and those without access to them? An interesting aspect of this is that the drugs seem to work much better on those with more distractablility and lower IQs to begin with. If true across the board, that would lead not to a split between the two groups but rather to a levelling of the playing field. Says the British Medical Association: "Universal access to enhancing interventions would bring up the baseline level of cognitive ability, which generally seems to be a good thing."

On a personal note, I have tried both Ritalin and monadifinil, not to enhance cognition but to stay awake at cons. They certainly succeeded in helping me do that. They also made me jumpy, slightly nauseated, and way too talkative, and I don't plan to repeat the experiment. Also, an interesting side note for writers: these neuroenhancers help with concentration, mental stamina, and memory, but they seem to have a slightly negative effect on creativity. You'll write your book faster -- but it may not be as good.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


This morning I discovered that I named a major character after a car.

"Aveo" is a human-descended alien living on the planet Kular in my recent novel Steal Across the Sky. "Aveo" is also a Chevrolet subcompact on sale in Rochester for $10,181 after rebates, 0% financing for 60 months, 34 mpg highway. Obviously I did not know this when I named my guy, since the last thing I want is for anyone reading about him to also be thinking about the General Motors bail-out. But that's the problem with character names; you can't check out everything.

Where do writers get character names? The phone book, often, or a subset of the phone book. (When I was writing PR for Xerox, everyone in all my stories was taken from the Xerox Employee Directory. None of them have noticed this.) But the phone book only supplies a few million suggestions. The writer still has to choose a name that fits the character's ethnic background, his generation, the specific circumstances, and his personality. "Buddy Steele," "Sunshine Jenson-Taylor," "Carlson McKenzie Adams III", and "Santino Arbaducci" all conjure up a different context in the reader's mind (especially if Carlson is a girl). A girl born in 1940 could easily be named "Janet" or "Angie," but one born in 2000 most likely was not. No female babies were named "Madison" before 1984, when the movie Splash was released.

But even after you've named your character appropriately, traps still spring up. If you've made up the name, what do the syllables mean in Spanish? In Russian? (It's especially bad if the syllables constitute an obscenity.) Have you named your protagonist after anyone who might sue (such as, for instance, your sister?) And finally, is the word a product name -- such as, for instance, a car?

My Aveo lives on a pre-industrial planet, without cars. I'd rather he wasn't associated, even tangentially with one. But it's too late now.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Writing a Paragraph

This morning I got an email from a fan saying -- perhaps with a note of desperation -- "How do you actually write, say, an actual paragraph? What is the process?"

It's a good question. For me, the process consists of putting down some words, seeing if I like them, and if not, changing them until I do. This is an actual paragraph I wrote earlier today, with my interposed thoughts. The point of view is first person, and the character is anticipating a fight with his girlfriend, with whom he runs a tavern. The first pass:

"She said nothing until very late. Jee had gone upstairs. When there were no guests, we each took one of the tiny bedchambers, as if we were quality living in a great house. If the two guest bedrooms were occupied, Jee slept on a pallet on the floor of Maggie’s room and I in the tap room, “to keep the fire going.” This night there were no travelers, but the tap room was full all evening with Applebridge locals, discussing the news. "

But wait -- I'm now going to dramatize the locals discussing this news, so sending Jee upstairs now is out of chronological order. And since there's a lot of news, I'll have to repeat that Jee isn't present when I actually get around to the fight. So cut the floor-plan discussion (the point of which is that the protagonist and his girlfriend don't share a bed) until later. This leaves me with:

"She said nothing until very late. This night there were no travelers, but the tap room was full all evening with Applebridge locals, discussing the news."

Better, but why mention there are no travelers? Irrelevant. So:

"She said nothing until very late. The tap room was full all evening with Applebridge locals, discussing the news."

That's the essence, but a lot of the previous paragraph has sentences starting with "the-and-a noun," so I change to:

"She said nothing until very late. All evening the tap room was full with Applebridge locals, discussing the news. "

Better. But the passive voice is usually weak, and was "local" ever used as a noun in this Renaissance-era setting? Maybe not. Even if it was, it sounds like a cop or a newspaper reporter. So:

"She said nothing until very late. All evening local folk thronged the tap room, discussing the news.

"Thronged" is good, suggesting the people crowd the tiny room, which they do. But "discussing" could be stronger.

"She said nothing until very late. All evening local folk thronged the tap room, chewing over the news. "

Yes, that will work, especially since a dog, who will be chewing something else, is due to appear soon. I let the paragraph, now just two sentences long, stand, and go on to the next.

All this takes far less time than I just took to describe it. Some of these interim sentences make it onto paper, but many exist only briefly in my head before they are revised out of existence, like those elementary particles that appear for a nanosecond in a supercollider and then are gone. At the same time, I hold in my head the purpose for this scene, which is both to provide background ("the news") and to dramatize the fight (upcoming). This process, repeated tens of thousands of times, gets a first draft written.

And that's how it's done, at least by me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

SF Is Dead -- Again

Last week there arrived in my mailbox Nebula Awards Showcase 2009, the annual volume featuring the 2008 winners and runners-up, this time edited by Ellen Datlow. Ellen has, per tradition, also included brief essays from various writers. Barry Malzberg's is especially provocative.

Barry starts by quoting Brian Stableford, with more recent back-up from John Clute, that SF from about 1950 to 1980 served a particular purpose: a means to mentally integrate the explosion of twentieth-century technology (cars, radios, TV, antibiotics, space flight) with the human verities. That's why it enjoyed such unprecedented popularity. Now, however, Barry says, we've pretty much accepted that tech will keep coming and changing society, so SF as a genre has lost popularity. Witness, he says, the contents of this Nebula anthology, most of which are really fantasy, like the rest of the genre: "replete with zombies, voodoo, strange doings in basements, vampires, space travel accomplished through psychic means, alternate histories...This is not your grandfather's or father's science fiction, and much of it is not science fiction at all."

A few points here are unarguable. Fantasy is now exponentially more popular than SF. There are a lot of hybrid stories (although my own in that volume, "Fountain of Age," is not one). But I would disagree that the reality of technological change is "integrated" into our society: We're still fighting about evolution, for heavens' sake! I think actual SF is still being written. Here are three critical points: (1) If the audience for it is small, it always was. Those magazines that published SF in what Barry calls "those halcyon days" never had a huge circulation. (2) Hybrids such as he describes were also an important part of The Golden Age: witness, as just one of many examples I could name, Sturgeon's More Than Human. (3) The basic purpose he describes -- the means to integrate human verities with things that are new and strange -- is served by good SF, by good fantasy-SF hybrids, and by pure fantasy. The form may have expanded -- not "degenerated," as Barry says -- but the end is still the same.

Still, the essay is definitely worth reading, as Barry always is. Recommended.

Monday, April 20, 2009


This past weekend I attended Eeriecon 11 in Niagara Falls. This is always a fun con, although this year it seemed smaller than usual, due to the economic downturn. And there was, appropriately enough, a panel on economics for writers, focusing mainly on how one survived while writing fiction. This panel was well attended.

Guests of honor were Vernor Vinge and John-Allen Price. Here Vernor discusses working methods with James Alan Gardner:

I did the usual number of panels, and the usual amount of socializing. The Seneca Indian casino is nearby, and although nobody in my little group gambled, I had two excellent meals at two of the casino's five restaurants. There was also a masquerade, some interesting drumming, a writing workshop conducted by Jim Gardner and me, and a filk concert. For me, however, the highlight of the con was a presentation by writer Carl Frederick on the metaphysical implications of quantum mechanics, which was absolutely fascinating. Carl is always both ebullient and brilliant, and it was a treat to hear him, even though the panel was supposed to be about something else. Nobody minded the switch.

Saturday afternoon featured the Eeriecon staple, "What Line's Mine." Panelists must guess which author wrote lines that are read out of context (and often chosen for their weirdness). It's astonishing how often writers don't recognize their own lines -- which incurs a stiff penalty in scoring. As usual, I lost, despite arguing that there ought to be a statute of limitations on stories written over two decades ago. Here is the "line-up," waiting to make fools of ourselves: me, Jim Gardner, Josepha Sherman, Jennifer Crow, Anne Bishop, Vernor Vinge, John-Allen Price, and Darrell Schweitzer:

On Sunday Therese Pieczynski, Lois Gresh, and I drove back to Rochester, exhausted and conned out. Until the next one.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

More on the Story Piracy

Today I started to file a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notice against, the site that is hosting VX Heaven, which has posted my story "Computer Virus" in its entirety without my permission. A little research convinced me that this action would be futile.

Netlux, the ISP, is based in Ukraine; much of its website is in Russian. Only a small percentage of its users, according to (thank you, Mary Kowal) are based in either the USA or the European Union. VX Heaven exists as a site specifically for "virus creators." These guys are just going to thumb their noses at protests from me, including any legal action. They are probably laughing at the somewhat lofty tone of my last email.

The site also has stolen stories from Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, and Greg Benford. I'll email all of them, but, frankly, I don't think there's too much that can be done here.

Then I received the following email, below with my reply. I'm almost getting fond of this character -- at the very least, his sheer gall is arresting.

In a message dated 4/15/2009 8:51:23 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, writes:

Dear Nancy Kress

I will start from the end. No, I am not counting on what you wouldn't use the copyright law to solve this problem, but rather the knowledge (based on experience) that you can hardly achieve any results by moving in that direction. Being the part of so called"underground" I do receive much more serious menaces (from time to time) and I don't threaten easily. Yes, you're right, the posting of your story turned me into the thief and exploiter in your eyes, but we have completely different mindsets: the thing that frightens you - the absence of control is my value. I don't want to waste your precious time by explaining my position. The reality shows that there were no control, that you cannot lose what you don't have and you already lost it when you decided to publish your story. After all, one could walk to the library and read the book there for free. It is simply terrible! Usually, I'm receiving the requests for removing some materials from author's agent or publisher's representatives. Their reasons are obvious. The mail from the author surprised me a bit and my first intention was to take your story offline and I had a feeling that I ought to have begged your pardon, but curiosity won and I asked about your reasons. I changed my mind. Let your readers decide. Would them respect your position? Anyone who will try to open the text of the story will get the following warning:

The (C)ontroversy
Nancy Kress ( the author of this text does not want to see it freely available. Probably she would call anyone who will infringe her copyright an exploiter or a thief. You have to choose:
[ I agree with administration, show me the full-text! ]
[ I respect the author's position, take me back to the index! ]

P.S. *) I'm not trying to shuffle off the blame on to another people. *) I can rewrite the text of the warning if you wish. *) I added "no index" tag to the text. It should disappear from the search results soon.
P.P.S. I am sorry for causing you to be offended in any way.--

Dear Pirate,
You are right -- there is not much I can do about this situation. (If you're interested, you might check out how I discuss it on my blog, at Blogspot.) However, I in no way believe you are sorry that you offended me. You are relishing all this.
Thank you for at least giving your readers a choice.
Nancy Kress

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

An Exchange With A Pirate

The following three emails were exchanged yesterday between me and a pseudonymous person who has posted my story "Computer Virus" on a website called VX Heavens. I offer them here without additional comment -- but with a request for other viewpoints.

Dear VX Heavens--
You have posted my story "Computer Virus," in its entirety, without my permission. Please remove it from your site immediately.
Nancy Kress

Dear Nancy Kress,
First of all I wish to say that I am heartily sorry that I (unintentionally)offended you. But as much as I dislike it I would still see no reasons why should I fulfill your requirement. It seems that as an author you prefer that people do not take your work without asking for permission, or that you have the natural right to control how to distribute your work, or to protect your copyright, and all that sounds great in the real world, but not for the geek like me hiding in the net behind pseudonym. I don't think that I am an important person, but it is ridiculous to try to force the virus writers (it is unlawful in many jurisdictions) to respect the copyright and recognize the law or the authority. Privately, I think that the freely available full text will serve you well as an advertisement at no cost. But I am afraid that I am overtaxing your patience. Just one question. Does the dissemination of the full text of your story affects you personally? Why? If so I will take that page down.

Dear herm1t.vx,
It's difficult to answer you because you have already listed my arguments and then unilaterally devalued them. Yes, I do think I have a right to control the distribution of my work. Yes, I do prefer people not appropriate my efforts without my permission. And yes, posting my story on your site is illegal.
You ask: "Does the dissemination of the full text of your story affects you personally? Why?" It affects me in two ways. First, I am a full-time free-lance writer. Writing and selling my work is how I make my living. When you -- not I -- make the decision to give away my work for free, you deprive me of income (however small) from selling that story to, say, Fictionwise or Kindle. But more important to me, you affect me by devaluing my efforts. You say that my work belongs to you, and you have a right to it without any compensation to me, and whether I like it or not. The term for that use of another's efforts is slavery.
What I think should consider is how your posting of my story affects YOU. It turns you into both exploiter and thief. Is that how you wish to think of yourself?
I could pursue this legally, but you are counting on the fact that I won't. You are probably correct. It would cost me time and trouble, both of which I'd rather expend on my own writing (although I may alert the Science Fiction Writers of America to the situation). My story is a good one. I don't think your degree of respect for it matches the quality of what you are stealing. Nor, in my opinion, does your character.
Nancy Kress

Monday, April 13, 2009


My story "Act One," in the March ASIMOV'S, has been out long enough to be reviewed in those places that review short fiction. Since the reviews are positive, I'm pleased -- but I've noticed something about the reviews.

A major character, Jane Snow, is a movie actress who has not made a picture in ten years and is now trying for a come-back. She is 54. The reviews variously refer to her as "slightly ageing," "over the hill," "older," "washed up," and "elderly." As someone the same age as Jane (well, in the same decade, anyway), I am fascinated by these various views of 54. The data I don't have is the age of the reviewers, with one exception: Gardner Dozois in LOCUS refers to Jane as "once-famous," an age-neutral statement. Gardner is 62.

Does the age of a reviewer - or reader -- influence how he or she views a literary character, and thus whether the story is of interest or not? I raised this question with regard to my Hugo-nominated story "The Erdmann Nexus" (now, incidentally, available both at the ASIMOV'S and Anticipation websites), which takes place in an assisted-living facility. But I still don't have an answer.

I wish I knew the age of the reviewer who thinks 54 is "elderly."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Best Wishes

Happy Easter to those who celebrate the holiday, and Happy Spring to everyone.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


I am reading my way through all the Hugo nominees in the short-fiction categories, and I hit a snag. Ian McDonald's "The Tear" was published in an anthology I don't have, and nowhere on-line could I find a copy of it to read. The same may (or may not -- I'm only as far as the novelette category) be true of other nominees. Then I realized that my nominated story, "The Erdmann Nexus," isn't available, either.

I am trying to rectify this. I contacted Anticipation, the 2009 Worldcon, and they said they would put the story up on their site as a free download. John Scalzi said he would do the same thing, including it in a bundle of nominees he is making available. So far, neither of these sources have posted "The Erdmann Nexus," but I hope that will be remedied shortly. I would like the story to be read.

Meanwhile, I struggle with the story I'm supposed to be writing for the Subterranean tribute anthology to Robert Silverberg. I abandoned writing in the universe of Bob's story "Going;" my story wasn't "going" anywhere. So now I'm trying a sequel to the early Silverberg story "Sundance." Not, however, with Bob's pyrotechnics re point of view and tense changes. I don't think. Maybe. There's only 1,900 words so far, and I'm not sure how the story will progress. But this is swing two at that particular ball -- please just don't let this one be another strike!

Monday, April 6, 2009


One of the realities of being a full-time writer is that you spend a lot of time alone (unless you count all those fictional people who don't actually exist, crowding one's study and clamoring for attention). I usually don't mind this, but, then, I arrange to get out nearly every day for lunch or dinner or movie or something with friends. The March 30 issue of The New Yorker contains a long article about people who cannot do that.

The article, by Atul Gawande, does not cover the well-known effects of isolating children. Instead, it focuses on adults who have had decades of human contact already and are then isolated: prisoners of war such as John McCain and Terry Anderson, and penal inmates in solitary confinement in "supermax" prisons. At the moment, America has 25,000 such inmates.

McCain is quoted as saying that solitary confinement was the worst part of his ordeal -- worse than the physical torture. Scientists have studied the brains of people kept apart from all human contact. After an amazingly short period, which ranges from a week to a month depending on the strength of personality, brain waves begin to change. After a few months, most prisoners either begin to have panic attacks or lapse into lethargy. The most fragile get to the point where they drift in and out of acute psychosis. After enough time, even the strongest-minded have trouble: Terry Anderson reports banging his head against a wall until he bled.

These effects continue after contact with other people is restored. Most people have trouble having appropriate interactions for a long time, and some never regain the ability to act normally. Anderson says that during all his post-release interviews, he felt as if he "were drugged." Science reports that after prolonged solitary confinement, it can take months for brain waves to return to normal.

Even more sobering, all these effects happen even when the prisoner is allowed books, radio, and television. Apparently nothing can substitute for the touch, sound, and sight of another of our own species.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Cranky At The Movies

Recently I saw the new Nicholas Cage movie, Knowing, which Roger Ebert gave a glowing review as "intelligent SF." I can't imagine what Roger was drinking at the time.

This movie does what 90% of SF movies do: sacrifice sense and logic for special effects. It starts out well enough, with the planting of an intriguing supernatural mystery exemplified by one of the spookiest little girls I've ever seen. Then 50 years pass, the mystery is logically brought to life and begins to operate in the present, and I was genuinely interested. Where might this go?

Where it went, was off the rails. Before the end, we had an unholy mish-mash of supernatural, aliens, the Old Testament, life after death, and a giant solar flare. None of these elements is developed logically in itself, and they don't fit together in any way that could be accepted by anyone with an IQ over the speed limit. But, of course, that doesn't matter because it's "only SF," so anything goes.

Then last night I saw the French documentary The Class, which follows around a high school teacher in a difficult district as he attempts to teach his students. This was completely plausible, logical, and boring. My companion shifted restlessly in her seat. I fell asleep. I have taught in such a high school and so perhaps should not expect to encounter much that was new to me (except the French language), but I don't think anyone could be deeply interested in this for very long. Rational, but stultifying.

My next attempt at movies will be the caper-thriller Duplicity. Maybe that one will work.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Words Needed

My sister sent me an article about the early Christian missionaries to the Inuit in Alaska. The Inuit had no word for bread, since they did not grow grain and had never baked bread. The missionaries therefore adapted the Lord's Prayer to read "Give us this day our daily fish."

The Germans have a useful word, "Schadenfreude," to describe the (guilty) pleasure felt at the misfortunes of others. English has no single equivalent. Like Inuit and gloating Englishmen, writers, too, lack several useful words. We need:

* a word to describe the complex of emotions -- hope, anxiety, fear of rejection -- that a writer feels while waiting to hear from an editor or agent about his/her manuscript

* a word to capture the lovely sensation of a character suddenly springing to life and pulling the plot in a direction you didn't expect but which is really exciting. (and which it just took me 25 words to describe)

* a word to encapsulate the feeling of one's very first story sale -- "pride," "pleasure," or "triumph" don't even come close.

English may be a rich language, but these additions are needed.