Thursday, October 29, 2009


Tuesday was my last class in this particular session of teaching at Hugo House, and an interesting question came up in class. One story, extremely well written, did not seem to come together at the end as a complete story. Or maybe it did. A few students said yes, a few said no, some waited to see what I would say.

What I said was this: Different literary genres, as well as different readers, expect different degrees of pattern. All art imposes some pattern on life, or else you end up with something like Borges's story in which a man decides to make a map. He puts in so much detail that the map ends up being indistinguishable from the real thing. Real life is messy: Plot lines start and stop, peter out, become confused, are ended abruptly and without resolution by death, feature coincidences, never reach a climax, have nothing to do with each other, etc. It is the job of fiction to impose pattern on the mess that is real life.

However, impose too much pattern and your story seems mechanical, contrived, formulaic (life is not a formula). Impose too little pattern and readers say "It seems so diffuse," "There was no satisfying resolution," "What are you trying to say?" or "It just ended without going anywhere." To complicate the issue further, some genres expect a more rigid pattern (romance, mysteries) than do others (literary fiction). A good part of plotting is finding the right pattern for your story, in your genre, for your material.

None of which was much help in deciding what to do with the story we critiqued in class. The author will have to do that. I wish her luck.

Monday, October 26, 2009

MileHiCon, Day 3

The final day of MileHiCon began in the con suite, which was having a kerfuffle with the hotel over serving hot food. But there were donuts and bagels and coffee and conversation. Barbara Hambly and I caught up on who is writing what. Her new book, HOMELAND, a mainstream Civil War novel, is just out. Here is Barbara, wishing she had a copy of the book to display:

After breakfast, down to work. I did a curious program item called "An Hour With Nancy Kress." I'd been told that during this hour, previous guests of honor had sung, danced, done a magic demonstration, and generally proved entertaining. Since I can do none of these things (and nobody anywhere wants to hear me sing), I just talked. Fortunately, the audience had lots of questions about writing, publishing, working method, etc., and it was a quick and enjoyable hour, followed by the GOH speeches. These also involved presentations. John Picacio displayed paintings and discussed their evolution. Music GOH Marc Gunn sang and played the autoharp. Since I had been scheduled opposite his main concert and hadn't had a chance to hear his wondeful Celtic music, this was a treat:

When Marc was finished, it was my turn. More talking. Why can't I learn to demonstrate glass blowing or something? Ah, well. We GOHs were all given little awards, and here I am accepting mine, still blathering:
Lunch was followed by schmoozing (more talking) after which the altitude finally claimed me. Denver is 5,000 feet high, and despite drinking a lot of water ("Hydrate!" everyone constantly told us feeble low-landers), those of us unaccustomed to the altitude had been a bit draggy all weekend. I suggested to Ed Bryant, a Coloradoan, that next year MileHiCon should lower the city several thousand feet, and the Con Committee said they'd look into it.

When I left for the airport, it was snowing. Actual, stick-on-the-ground snow. But it didn't delay the flight back. Seattle looked lovely shining through the fog. I am here one more week, then home to Rochester.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

MileHiCon -- Day 2

Conventions are fun. They are also exhausting. I did three panels today, one of which was "The Nancy Kress" panel, during which I discovered how embarrassing it can be to sit there while four other people discuss your work and tell anecdotes about you. More comfortable was the "Writing as Craft" panel, when established writers gave advice to aspirants. Everybody loves to give advice.

MileHiCon has all the usual con attractions, including an art show, kaffeeklatsches, dealers' room, con suite and people wandering the halls dressed as if attending gatherings in the past, future, or other dimensions. Here are two of these, plus the dealers' room, which had some lovely jewelry:

As always, some of the best discussions occur in restaurants and bars. At a birthday dinner for Courtney Willis and Jack Skillingstead (both turning 101), Paolo Bacigaluppi and I discussed the difference to a career that can be caused by the order in which one writes books. Following a very successful book with one with far less mass appeal is a bad idea in terms of the perceptions of the writer held by marketing departments and book sellers. Naturally, this is what I did, following BEGGARS IN SPAIN with the much more gloomy and difficult MAXIMUM LIGHT -- to the detriment of future sales and reputation. What writers need is what Paolo called the "sweet project" -- the book that a writer both wants to write and has widespread appeal.
After dinner, when everyone had recovered from the off-key rendition of "Happy Birthday" in the hotel restaurant, some of us went to the masquerade. "Best in Show" was taken by a sexily dressed "Scarlett Witch," whom I unfortunately did not get a solo picture of, although she stands out redly in the photo below. The tiny charmer in the front won in the children's division as "Punk Princess Fairy."

The day finished in the bar and con suite with more discussions of SF, but by that time I was too tired to register what was actually being said except for Connie Willis's very funny riff on Sarah Palin, who is also a pretty fantastical construct.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

MileHiCon, Day 1

Yesterday was the first day of MileHiCon in Denver. After registering, I had drinks in the bar with Cynthia Felice, Jack Skillingstead, Connie and Courtney Willis. The big news here is that Connie has -- at long last -- turned in the final revisions to the WWII novel she has been working on for eight years. The book will be published in two volumes, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR, the first to be released in February 2010. Here is Connie with her galleys. She looks proud and pleased, but not as pleased as husband Courtney, who says he's glad to "have the ordeal over." :)

A panel on characterization went well, as various writers contributed their ideas on what makes characters memorable and how to get that onto the page. The exertions of determining this sent everyone to recover in the bar, where the conversation turned to cover art. Artist GOH John Picacio talked about juggling input from authors, editors, marketing reps, and -- oh, yes -- the actual text. John will be doing the art for a calendar based on George R.R. Martin's popular fantasy series. Here is John:Opening ceremonies featured short remarks from all the GOH, as well as the announcement that the theme of this year's MileHiCon is "Sunnydale Reunion." Since I am the last person in America to never have seen Buffy, this was a little bewildering. What was clear was that the GOHs were given little red ribbons saying "Sunnydale Survivor" and fans can collect these by making offerings of the GOH's choice. I, of course, want chocolate.

The evening brought everyone to the bar. Here are Jack Skillingstead and Paolo Bacigaluppi, who are taking a break from serious discussion of literature. Or of something, at any rate:

I finished Day 1 in the con suite, talking to fans. And so to bed.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


This isn't really an entry, just a notice that my next blogs will come from MileHiCon in Denver. I fly there tomorrow, as Guest of Honor, and I'm greatly looking forward to it. More from there with -- unless I lose the camera again -- pictures.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Garbage Trek

Currently, SETI looks for intelligent life through radio signals. It turns out that maybe they should be looking at garbage.

An article in the October 19 issue of NEW SCIENTIST speculates that pollution may be a good way to locate advanced civilizations. Radio signals are, on Earth, increasingly being replaced by satellite transmissions and by cable, both of which don't send out the same evidence spaceward. Lighting -- as in a glowing city -- is too faint compared to the light reflected off a planet's atmosphere. But massive pollution leaves clear absorption-line evidence of CFCs, industrial solvents, cleaners, and refrigerants. An alien civilization might not use the same ones we do, or they might get smart enough to ban the really bad ones (as we have CFCs), but on the other hand, they might use something that looks suspicious in the atmospheric composition. We don't have telescopes yet that can do such fine detection work -- but we might soon.

All this means, of course, that an alien civilization can find us through our atmospheric trash. As the Bible says --"By their fruits shall ye know them." It also suggests an interesting SF universe, in which civilizations find and rate each other by their garbage. "Look, Mycbputulr -- chlorofluorocarbons! Oooooo, honey, can we vacation there?"

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I have been reading Al Zuckerman's WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL. I am reading it not because I am attempting to write a blockbuster novel -- I don't think I have that capacity -- but because all aspects of my craft interest me. The question that Zuckerman, who for decades was the head of the literary agency Writers House, raises in his book is this: What sets a "blockbuster" apart from other novels that sell far fewer copies? In other words, what does the widest possible mass-market demographic want to read?

Without recapitulating the entire book, let me summarize. Zuckerman identifies a number of "blockbuster" characteristics, even as he duly notes that every single one has exceptions. The major characteristics are:
  • a clear protagonist, usually sympathetic, that we want to succeed
  • characters who are not Everyman, but rather are "larger than life," by which he means driving hard to get whatever it is they're striving for, whatever that takes
  • multiple point of view (despite having one main character) to "open up" the story and let the reader know more of what's going on than the protagonist does
  • a "big" setting: the Civil War, international espionage, the world of the New York Mafia, the million-dollar art world, Mars
  • very high stakes
  • personal as well as professional relationships among characters on opposite sides of the struggle
  • a lot of action, all building to a climax that changes everything for the characters
  • usually, victory for the protagonist

I must say that Zuckerman supplies convincing examples for his list: THE FIRM, THE GODFATHER, THE MAN FROM ST. PETERSBURG, GONE WITH THE WIND, and various Stephen King novels. It's a 1994 book so he missed Harry Potter and Dan Brown, but they do match the pattern. In a comment to my previous post, the always insightful Mike Flynn pointed out that much popular modern fiction sacrifices depth, and Zuckerman makes clear that he's not after depth here. He's after identification of a certain kind of novel -- just as a bird watcher might want to name the identifying characteristics of a certain kind of eagle -- and in that task, he succeeds admirably. An interesting and knowledgeable book.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I am teaching again at Hugo House in Seattle. One thing I have noticed, not only about this class but about many others I have taught in the last few years, is how few aspiring writers are working on short stories. The large majority of my students in every critique class submit the opening chapters of a novel. Why is this? It was not true, say, twenty years ago. Are people less interested in writing short stories than they once were? And if so, is the motivation artistic (as in "I don't like to read them as much as I like novels") or practical ("The SF short-story market is drying up") or financial ("Stories don't sell for very much")? I don't know the answer.

In addition to teaching at Hugo House, next month I return to Rochester and will be teaching a critique class there. January and February are again the class in Seattle. In June, something different: an advanced SF and fantasy writing class in Taos, New Mexico. This, the Taos Toolbox Workshop, is run by Walter Jon Williams for students who are not beginners, but rather have completed Clarion or Odyssey or some other workshop, and are interested in moving their writing from almost-saleable to "sold." The website is (, and I am very much looking forward to it. Walter is a terrific teacher; I have never seen Taos, which is supposed to be gorgeous; and maybe someone will be writing short stories.

Before Taos come two conventions. At MileHiCon in Denver, October 23-25, I am Guest of Honor -- always fun. Two weeks later in Rochester is Astronomicon, November 6-8, with the irrepressible Mike Resnick as Guest of Honor. He has challenged me to a pool match. This is because I once beat him at pool, two decades ago. So I'm chalking up my cue...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Kindle and The New Publishing

Yesterday I had coffee with Boyd Morrison, a student of mine back in the Early Triassic and currently a Simon & Schuster author-to-be. Boyd's thriller The Ark comes out next year in hardcover in the United States, and also in twelve other countries. And his story is a fascinating peek into the way publishing is evolving.

Boyd acquired an agent for his book a few years ago, at Thrillerfest. This is an annual event in which authors and aspiring authors of thrillers get together to network, drink in the bar, and pitch books. Boyd pitched The Ark. An agent asked for sample chapters and outline, moved on to request the full ms., and liked it. She agreed to represent him. The Ark was sent to all the usual suspects and rejected, albeit with "glowing rejections."

When it seemed all possible traditional avenues had been exhausted, Boyd made The Ark available on for The Kindle. He priced it at $.99, a price calculated to remove it from the "desperate" category and yet attractive to the ever-growing number of Kindle owners who wished to fill up their new device. He hired someone to design a cover. The book went on Kindle-sale in March of this year.

What happened next is the New Publishing. On-line thriller-reader groups began to talk about the book: "This is good, get this, you'll like this, etc." Word of mouth pushed sales above 7,000. Boyd's agent also took notice, and resubmitted the book to Simon & Schuster, where editorial musical chairs had brought in someone new. She also began to send it to foreign markets. All editors, in every language, respect sales numbers. Boyd got offers, and for "very decent advances." Now the publisher is poised to push the book, and Boyd, as a hot new property. Watch for The Ark in March, 2010.

Although I have read about other authors -- not most, but a few -- who have parlayed self-publishing into a traditional book deal, Boyd is the first I've talked to in person. He's very pleased, as he should be. And the times, they are a-changin'.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


I am working on Volume 2 of my YA fantasy, and am encountering the problem of all Volume 2's of anything: working in the backstory from Volume 1. How much does the reader need to know of what occurred before in order to understand what is occurring now? And, most crucially, when does he need to know it?

There are four choices here, none of them really good: (1) Put the backstory in a sort of Prologue or diary entry or some such thing, (2) Start with backstory in Chapter 1, disguised as current story through conversations, (3) Start with an exciting scene in Story Time and then put the backstory in Scene 2 as a critical flashback or, if you think you can get away with it, an eloquently written expository lump redeemed by wonderful prose, and (4) Drop in the backstory in small, easily digestible lumps and hope the reader can remember them all well enough to piece together the backstory even as story-time is progressing.

I have picked Door Number 4, but it's hard to know if it's working because, of course, I already know the backstory. After several drafts of Book 1, I know it ad nauseum. Therefore it's difficult to judge if I'm including not enough, too much, or just the right amount for a new reader to also know it. Where is Goldilocks when you need her?

The answer to this is a reader who has not read Volume 1. Eventually, I'll need to find one. But not yet. Thank heavens for that, because right now I'm too busy juggling fictional people to add a live one to the mix. This is why people hesitate to commit trilogy.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Not Too Cranky at the Movies

Yesterday I saw Michael Moore's new documentary, CAPITALISM: A LOVE AFFAIR. It's a curious artifact, falling into two distinct halves.

During the first half, I found myself getting impatient for the same reasons everybody gets impatient with Moore: oversimplification of complex issues, injecting himself egotistically in the middle of his subject, going too often for the cheap and flashy effect. Two examples: First, he represents all landlords who evict non-paying tenants as evil and money-grubbing. Yes, these people have lost their jobs, but some small landlords are also in needful circumstances. I know a woman, for instance, who rents out a duplex, her only asset. One of the tenants has stopped paying rent. But my friend must still pay her mortgage and taxes and utilities on the building, and she needs that rent to buy her own groceries. Moore ignores such two-sided argument.

He also ignores facts that contradict his damning picture of modern capitalism. When he says that "Wall Street bought itself a B actor as president," he leaves out a few steps in the process, such as the fact that Ronald Reagan was governor of California. Now, I hold no brief for Reagan, and I think his deregulation of many key industries led in part to our current mess, but to give the impression that he was a man with no qualifying political experience before he ran for president is to falsify reality. In addition, Moore conveniently overlooks the fact that many of the people now in trouble elected him. Twice. There is something to the idea that people get the governments they deserve.

But when Moore gets out of the way and lets people tell their own stories, in the second half of the film, it becomes genuinely moving. The factory workers at Republic Windows and Doors who staged a successful sit-in to get the back pay and severance packages they had been promised. The Indiana sheriff who flatly refused to evict any more families, leaving children out on the street. The rural couple whose Countrywide loan (and those lenders are genuine villains) kept escalating in monthly payments -- from $1700 to $2000 to $2200 to $2400 -- until they lost the farm. And above all, footage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt giving a press conference on an "American Economic Bill of Rights," which he did not live long enough to implement.

This is an engrossing movie, despite its flaws. When Moore gets himself and his flashy antics out of the way, it's an important movie. Go see it.