Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Figurative Language

In Christopher Barzak's interesting debut novel, One for Sorrow, I came across this lovely description of an old woman's hand: "the skin on her palm was so soft it felt like it would slide right off her bones." That's exactly right. In a few specific words, Barzak captured the looseness of old flesh plus the effect it has on a youngster who touches it.

Figurative language -- similes, metaphors, comparisons both direct and implied -- can really trip up writing. It needs to be accurate, yet imaginative. More, it needs to fit the milieu of the story. The famous opening line of William Gibson's Neuromancer is perfect for his world of tech turned to perverted purposes: "The sky was the color of TV tuned to a dead channel."

Other writers have been less skilled. One of the "caveman romances" that were so popular a decade or so ago included this description of a cave woman's mental processes: "The sight derailed her thoughts." Derailed? Instantly I'm out of the Paleolithic and into nineteenth- or twentieth-century locomotives. Talk about being bounced out of the story!

Nor can figurative language be too bizarre. I will never forget a student I had years ago (actually decades ago, which is why I will say this now; the statute of limitations has run out.) He wrote: "In the woods birth and death were inextricably mingled, like vegetables in the great stew pot of time." The first part of the sentence is abstract and pretentious; the second is unintentionally comic.

Finally, figurative language should not be overused. Two similes in the same sentence is overkill. Sometimes, two similes in the same paragraph is too much. Like buildings, figurative language stands out more if it's not too crowded.

All this came to mind as I wrote this morning on my fantasy novel, and almost typed in a really bad simile. No, I won't say what it was. It's gone. Onward.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Frog Blog

The New Yorker, which is fast becoming a major source of scientific information for the layman, includes in the May 25 issue an article by Elizabeth Kolbert titled "The Sixth Extinction?" Kolbert ably discusses the previous Big Five die-offs on the planet and the history of controversy (now settled) about whether they happened at all. Then she moves into the extinction currently in progress, with special focus on frogs and bats.

My 1998 novel Maximum Light used then-current research on frogs deformed and/or made infertile by the estrogen-mimicking compounds found in many plastics. This is still a concern, but Kolbert's article features contemporary research on a different cause of frog extinction. Entire frog species are disappearing, sometimes from one year to the next, all over the world. And for once humans are not the cause -- although we may be a contributory factor.

The reason is a newly discovered fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatitis (Bd). "Batrachos" is Greek for "frog." Bd has apparently long infected African claw frogs, but without harming them. But in the 1930's, a doctor invented a pregnancy test based on the eggs of African claw frogs, and the creatures began to be exported. "In the nineteen-forties and fifties," Kolbert writes, "it was not uncommon for obstetricians to keep tanks full of the frogs in their offices."

The practice had died out by the time I ever saw an OB/GYN, but the fungus had escaped Africa. Bleach will kill it, but it's impossible to disinfect an entire rain forest. And Bd is lethal to most species of frogs. Without the inadvertent human help, it would have spread across the globe far, far more slowly -- or maybe not at all. By the end of this century, as much as 1/3 of the Earth's amphibian population could be gone.

In Panama, the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center is trying to preserve living specimens of frog species before they're all dead. The goal is to maintain a breeding population of 25 males and 25 females of each species, in conditions safe from contamination. The frog extinction is spreading in waves around the globe, and the Center's director says he collected most of his specimens in a rush, "just as corpses were beginning to show up around El Valle."

I grew up in the countryside of upstate New York. I remember spring peepers everywhere, their chorus loud and cheerful. It's been several years since I've heard them at my father's house. Now, sadly, I know why.

Friday, May 22, 2009

First Person

One of my students raised an interesting question in class about point of view, something that seems to come up in one way or another every class session. This time it was about first person. "I couldn't figure out whom this 'I' person was telling the story to," he said during a critique session. Then the following week, we had a story that was an actual monologue, purporting to be told directly to an FBI agent, but in some ways this only muddied the waters further, since no one telling a story to another recites whole long exchanges of dialogue word-for-word. "I don't see why you just couldn't tell this story in third person," said another student.

To some extent, all first-person narratives are artificial -- even more artificial than other fiction, and for the reasons given above. No one does recite, or even write, to another person such long scene-by-scene stories that include detailed exchanges of (to name just one element) other peoples' dialogues. This is why the first novels in English were epistolary (Pamela), written as exchanges of letters between characters, or else pretended to be diary entries (Robinson Crusoe). But as the form evolved, that proved to be too limiting. So the first-person-narrative-told-to-no-one-in-particular-and-in-artful-detail came to be accepted as a convention, and now no one except thoughtful writing students wonders at this.

I like first person. Even though it limits the scope of the action (your narrator must be present in order to include the scene), I like the freedom it gives to roam around every corner of my protagonist's head, as well as to saturate the prose with his peculiar diction. My current project, a long YA fantasy, is in first person. So, it turns out, is nearly every story I've written that has won an award (the one exception is "Beggars in Spain.") Perhaps some writers just have a built-in affinity for a specific point of view. If so, then I -- like my sister, the professional actress -- really like to spend months of work time being someone else.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Barry Longyear and Anthony Trollope

I once shared an airport shuttle with Barry Longyear and his wife, and we fell to talking about blogs. Barry told me that he used to keep a blog, but it got difficult thinking of things to write about, and "so when I had a heart attack, it was a good excuse to drop the blog."

I haven't got a heart attack and I don't intend to stop blogging, but I understand his difficulty. Here is the problem with a blog about writing: It shares a key characteristic with fiction, which is that it's most interesting when things go wrong. Struggles with plot, with editors and publishers, with Internet pirates, with difficult readers, with disastrous teaching experiences -- these things make good fodder for writing blogs. Right now, however, my novel is humming along without much difficulty, my students are all producing, and I am not trying to get any short stories published. I haven't been attending cons (although this will change soon). I sit in front of my computer and write, I walk the dog, I line-edit stories -- and none of that is interesting to read about. There is nothing to watch duller than a writer who is actually writing.

Anthony Trollope, with the dullest of personal lives, was a methodical writer. He set his pocket watch on his desk every morning and produced one page every 15 minutes. If the timing varied, he sped up or slowed down his pen. After a set number of pages, he closed his desk, picked up his watch, and went off to his day job. He did this year in and year out. You wouldn't want to read a blog by Trollope. You need blogs by Georges Sand or Truman Capote, or perhaps a Twitter by Ernest Hemingway ("Shot a lion today.") Even Edith Wharton would be better a writer merely writing.

Barry, I hear you.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Brief Updates

For anyone interested in the subjects of recent (or not so recent) blogs:

There ARE garden 'bots! See and thank you, Ed, for pointing me toward this. Now if only I had one for my hedges...

My story for the Robert Silverberg tribute anthology, "Eaters," has been accepted. I'm very glad about this because the story is my third attempt to write in one of the Silverberg universes, and I was dreading attempting a fourth. (Silverberg emailed me, in response to my complaint, that he doesn't "write Robert Silverberg stories any more because it's too difficult.") My story is a sequel to Silverberg's "Sundance."

My students continue to put dreams in their fiction. So do I.

Hardly anyone has come up with questions for me to ask Connie Willis at the Locus Awards interview. What, there's nothing about SF you want explained by writer with the most SF awards in the world?

The English language continues to deteriorate. A friend reported hearing on the radio the statement that in sports, "the playing fields should be levelized." Sigh.

Friday, May 15, 2009


Lately I have been reading about smallpox, which was supposedly eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1979, surviving only as samples in two freezers, one at the CDC and one in Siberia. However, no one at all believes that these samples have not been cultured and migrated, although that same "no one" seems unable to prove it. Richard Preston covers all this, plus anthrax, in his 2002 book Demon In the Freezer, which I have only now gotten around to reading.

Preston can write. He is the author of the best-selling The Hot Zone, about the 1989 outbreak of Ebola in a Virginia monkey house. When WHO decided to go after smallpox on a global basis, it encountered enormous difficulties. Here is Preston on a key organizer, the eccentric Lawrence Brilliant, in India:

"He began to organize vaccination campaigns in villages. He would go into a village where there was smallpox, rent an elephant, and ride through the village telling people in Hindi that they should get vaccinated. People didn't want to be vaccinated. They felt that smallpox was an emanation of the goddess of smallpox, Shitala Ma, and that therefore the disease was part of the sacred order of the world...Brilliant haunted the temples of Shitala Ma, because inside those temples people could be found praying and dying. He would look up the local leaders, take them to a temple, chant in Sanskrit with them, and then ask for their help in dealing with smallpox....'Worship the goddess and take the vaccine,' he told them."

WHO kept at it: renting elephants, running jeeps (500 for India), hiring people (150,000 people at the height of the program), making house calls (two billion in a year and a half), soliciting funds (the Lions Club and the Rotary Club International contributed hugely). And they succeeded. It's an amazing story, and a wonderful book. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Happy at the Movies

Last night I saw The Soloist, the movie based on Steve Lopez's book about his unlikely friendship with a gifted, homeless musician, Nathaniel Ayers. Lopez is a columnist for the L.A. Times, and he initially met Ayers while doing a column on him, which became many columns, and finally a book.

I approached this movie with no great expectations. In fact, I felt pretty cynical about it. I have seen countless movies about dedicated teachers going in to teach inner-city classrooms full of gang members, drug pushers, and kids who can't read at age 14, and by the end of the first semester these teachers have entire classrooms reforming their wicked ways, slavishly devoted to the teacher, and preparing for their SATs or tango competitions or journal publications or whatever. Having taught in two rough schools, I know it doesn't happen like that. I expected The Soloist to feed into those twin American myths: "We can fix anything if we care enough" and "Anyone can become anything if he makes up his mind to it."

I was wrong. The movie is far more honest than that. Lopez gives his all to trying to help Ayers, and he makes some small progress. But he cannot cure Ayers's schizophrenia; he can't even get him on the meds that Ayers refuses to take. He cannot restore Ayers's musical career, not even to the extent of one measly recital (Ayers trashes the stage). He cannot part him from his shopping cart of worthless junk or his weird clothing or his unpredictable rages. Without a trace of sentiment, Lopez -- and the movie -- accepts that good intentions and sincere efforts are sometimes not enough to substantially change a situation, although they may ameliorate it a small bit.

That's a startling admission for an American movie. Usually we want glorious redemption or else total nihilism. Instead we get here a gritty, somewhat weary acceptance. It's not a perfect movie by any means -- there are unnecessary subplots, and other problems -- but Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr., are both fabulous in their roles. So why have the reviews been so mixed? Is it possible that even though the film makers (including script writer Susanna Grant) were willing to accept the modest and mixed achievements of real life as worthy of a movie, reviewers are not? WOLVERINE, a stupid movie if there ever was one (yes, I saw it), is a box-office smash. What gives here?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

LOCUS Awards

On June 27 in Seattle will be held both the Locus Awards fete and the induction of this year's honorees into the SF Hall of Fame. I mention these things now because I learned yesterday that I'm involved in both, albeit tangentially. My novella "The Erdmann Nexus" is nominated for a Locus Award, which set me to thinking about the nature of awards in general.

"The Erdmann Nexus" made this ballot and the Hugo ballot, but not the Nebula ballot. In its category, novella, there are three other overlaps with the Hugos but also two entirely different works. The Nebula-winning novel, Ursula LeGuin's Powers, is not on the Locus Awards ballot. Is the Locus readership that much different from either the Nebula readership or the Hugo readership?

I suspect the answer is yes. Each year the Locus poll asks the ages of its readers, and the average age has risen steadily. So what are we honoring when we pass out awards? Clearly, the answer is the favorite authors of some subset of SF readers -- and in some cases, that subset is not only small but shrinking. This is why I've come, over the years (well, all right, decades) to feel that awards don't matter nearly as much as I once thought they did.

The Hall of Fame inductees, on the other hand, are chosen by a revolving jury. I have served on this jury, although not this year. Four inductees are chosen from SF writing, media, and publishing, and two must actually be alive. This year one of the living is Connie Willis, and Charles Brown and I will interview her on a panel. I'm considering what questions to ask Connie. I have a few in mind, but here's an open question for blog readers: What do you think I should ask her? All suggestions seriously considered -- if not necessarily accepted!

Friday, May 8, 2009

When Writers Garden

When I bought my house six years ago, it was with the understanding that the Homeowners Association was going to do all the gardening. This understanding, like so much else in life, turned out to be only partially true. The HOA takes care of the lawn and trees. The homeowners, whose "covenant" -- that's the actual term, implying just how sacred all of this is considered in my tiny HOA community -- is supposed to do the rest. So Wednesday I lost a day of writing doing it, with the help of my friends.

I have to say, it was not one of our better efforts. True, there are more flowers, fewer weeds, and trimmer bushes. But I dropped and broke the electric mixer preparing the Gardeners' Lunch that is part of the tradition. We ran out of mulch. The impatiens in their cute staggered pots are now wavering between life and death. Jill cut the cord to the electric hedge clippers. Here she is, The Mad Slasher of Rochester, just before all clipping ceased:

What I want to know is -- where are the gardening 'bots we were promised by Hugo Gernback? Way, way overdue.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


A few weeks ago, my SF-writing class critiqued a story that began with the protagonist's dream. The question rose: Do editors dislike -- or even "automatically reject," as one student had heard -- stories that start this way? Since I didn't know the answer, I emailed three editors, of which two responded.

Stan Schmidt at Analog said that he does not automatically dislike stories that begin with a dream sequence, although "it's a technique that beginners seem relatively likely to use poorly." He went on to say that "sometimes it can work very well indeed," at the beginning or anywhere else in the story. Stan once ended a story with a dream (he did not, alas, name the story in his email.)

Gordon Van Gelder at Fantasy & Science Fiction was more vehement ("Why oh why do writers keep coming up with stuff like this?") His stance was basically "it depends" -- how well is the dream is done, is it related importantly to the rest of the story, is it happening to a character he can care about. Gordon also included the interesting sentence "It's been so long since I read a story that starts with a dream sequence that I really don't know how I feel about them in general." That suggests that the slush pile is not overflowing with this technique.

I have started stories with dreams. My own take is that it can work if (1) the dream is kept short, (2) the description of it contains arresting images, and (3) it's completely clear when the dream is over. Usually I set off a dream sequence in italics so there is no confusion.

So -- dream on.

Monday, May 4, 2009


I have just finished reading Ursula K. LeGuin's YA novel Powers, which won this year's Nebula. It was with decidedly mixed feelings that I put the book down.

I love LeGuin's writing. I have loved it for 40 years, since The Left Hand of Darkness blew me away when it was first published in 1969 (I was three years old). In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that I think she's the best SF writer we have ever had. Nonetheless, I was disappointed in Powers.

The book revisits the territory she covered so brilliantly in the novellas of Four Ways Into Forgiveness, specifically in "A Woman's Liberation." The plot is exactly the same: the protagonist is a slave in a "good" house and unthinkingly accepts being a slave; something happens so that the house becomes less good; the protag then tries living with various different groups in different degrees of freedom, although always more so for men than women; eventually the slave grows into true freedom and awareness. In "A Woman's Liberation" the character is female, in Powers male, and of course details are different for the various cultures depicted. But despite LeGuin's lovely prose, I couldn't escape the feeling that she has covered this ground before, better, and more succinctly.

I seem to be alone in this judgment. The paperback comes covered with glowing accolades, and the book did win the Nebula. Which raises another interesting point: It's YA. And on the Hugo ballot, three of the five novels are YA: Powers, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, and Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. What happened to the supposition that kids no longer read?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

J. G. Ballard

Bruce Sterling has a nice obituary for J.G. Ballard in the May 4 issue of Time magazine. I am always heartened when a mainstream news magazine takes notice of the passing of an SF writer. Bruce manages to pack a lot into three paragraphs: Ballard's reputation, stature, obsessions, taste in clothing, and ability to arouse strong feelings in his fiction (a publisher's reader described him as "beyond psychiatric help").

The first Ballard story I ever read was "Belladonna." I was quite young, and I remember going "Wow!" Years later I taught the story to college freshmen, and as I reread it to prepare my class, I went "Wow!" all over again. So did the freshmen, except for those who went "Huh?" Ballard was not for everyone. But he had, to a huge degree, a quality that science fiction does -- and should -- prize. His fiction was original. There is no mistaking a Ballard story for anyone else's.