Friday, May 28, 2010

Writers When Young

The latest issue of THE NEW YORKER includes in its "Talk of the Town" section a brief three-way interview with Jonathan Lethem, Steven Sonderbergh, and Patti Smith. This disparate trio was together to receive honorary doctorates from the Pratt Institute during its graduation ceremonies. A NEW YORKER writer talked to them backstage.

Lethem, of course, is the literary darling who began as an SF writer and still writes science fiction occasionally. His very fine novels include GUN, WITH OCCASIONAL MUSIC and MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. I met Jonathan years ago at an annual writing conference called Sycamore Hill; he is a genuinely nice guy. His mini-interview prompted me to make several observations:

1) He left college his sophomore year to bum around the country and try to write, and never returned.

2) THE NEW YORKER did not cover the honorary doctorate I received six or so years ago.

3) The interview included a very interesting statement: "It was strange when I look at what I was writing then [at 19]. It's like time travel, but in both directions. Because that totally helpless nineteen-year-old seems to have inklings about what I was actually going to be able to do."

I wish this statement were clearer. Does Jonathan mean that his young self knew in the back of his mind that someday he would be a success? Or does he mean that his early writing showed glimmers of the same strengths and subject matter that his mature work explores more successfully?

This is on my mind because I am currently reading, critiquing, and line-editing manuscripts for Taos Toolbox, a workshop I begin teaching June 6. Each student shows different strengths and weaknesses. I hope, of course, to encourage the former and teach techniques for correcting the latter. But even in these fledgling authors, the basic writerly signature is there. What is NOT there is clear indication of who will be able to learn, who will persevere, who can grow as a fiction writer. Nor do I think they know whether they will succeed. Certainly, at 19 -- or 29, or 39 -- I didn't know.

So how come Jonathan did? IF that is indeed what he meant.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


I have just finished reading Barry Schwartz's provocative non-fiction book THE PARADOX OF CHOICE. Part overview of research studies, part manifesto, Schwartz seeks to show a causal effect for a known correlation: (1)Americans rate themselves less happy than they did decades ago, and less happy than many other cultures. (2)Americans have far more choices, of everything, than they once did.

Schwartz makes a pervasive case, explaining study after controlled study, some very ingenious, in which people had to choose things and then their behavior and mood were monitored. His overall conclusion is that a plethora of choices -- of candy, sweaters, investments, behavior, movies, cars, mates -- makes people invest more effort in choosing, makes them more dissatisfied with their final choice, and leads to more second-guessing later. But (and this is critical) not for everybody.

Scwartz divides people into two broad groups, which he calls "maximizers" and "sufficers." The former are the people who want the best choice possible. They research, they shop around a lot, they continue looking even after they find something that meets their criteria. After all, there might be something better out there somewhere! These people often end up with better "goods" than most people, but less happiness with those choices. They regret, they experience "buyer's remorse," they think about the road not taken.

The "sufficers," on the other hand, just want something "good enough." They shop around less than maximizers. When they find something that meets their broad criteria, they choose it, commit to it, and don't think any more about the other possibilities. Although this group may end up with goods objectively not as snazzy as the first group's, and although they still can become stressed by the process of choosing, on the whole they are happier than maximizers.

As I read all this, the application of it to writing fiction came to mind. I have had "maximizer" students, who agonize over every word choice in their manuscripts, endlessly revise, and are not happy with the finished story, even if they sell it. They compare their careers to other (a classic maximizer trait), and are frustrated or disappointed. These people don't seem to enjoy writing very much. Meanwhile, other students of mine, although willing to work hard and revise as necessary, can sense when a story is "good enough." They can accept with equanimity that they will never be Tolstoy. These people seem to enjoy writing more and, I've noticed, they publish more, too.

However, if you want to see an area where the maximizer strategy really causes unhappiness, read Lori Gottlieb's book on mate selection, MARRY HIM. A genuine recipe for emotional disaster.

I recommend both books.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Last night I lost a Nebula. I did this lying on Patrick Swenson's living room floor, since SFWA "broadcast" the ceremony in Florida on streaming video, which Patrick then sent through his computer onto his giant enormous very large Blue-Ray HD TV. This should have made us all feel as if we were present, but something got lost in translation: the visuals were at times blurry. Once they disappeared altogether as someone evidently knocked against the camera and we viewed several minutes of ceiling. Nor was the sound clear. However, it was still better than nothing, and we all got to see Mary Robinette Kowal's very pretty dress, the slides shown by keynote speaker David Levine of the Mars simulation site in Utah, and Paolo Bacigalupi's joy at winning Best Novel for THE WIND-UP GIRL (a much deserved win).

I was surprised, however, that the show had so few viewers. A little number on the screen showed how many other people were on the website, and at no point did the number exceed 150. Not exactly an Oscar audience. But, then, their cameras tend to stay focused.

Meanwhile, I have been informed that I have two nominees for the Seiun Award, Japan's equivalent of the Hugo, for translated works. The entire Probability series (PROBABILITY MOON, PROBABILITY SUN, and PROBABILITY SPACE) is nominated in Long Fiction, and "Beggars in Spain" in Short Fiction. I am pleased by this, of course, but also a bit surprised since I wrote "Beggars" in 1990 and the Probability books more than ten years ago. I can't travel to Japan for the con, and I doubt I can watch it on streaming video. But -- you never know. Technology marches on.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Face Recognition

I never recognize people. I'm just really bad at it. At cons people think I'm snubbing them, when in truth I may have wonderful feelings about them; I just can't connect those feelings to the visual image of their faces. One of these days I'm going to fail to recognize one of my children and there's going to be real trouble.

Which makes it completely astonishing that I scored well on the BBC's test of face recognition. My score for remembering faces in the test was 87%, compared to an average of 92%, and my memory for remembering when I saw them was actually above average: 76% compared to 68%. I cannot explain this. The test is offered as a part of a website on sleep, which I had accessed to see the latest research on sleep and memory. (Summary: Sleep loss does not affect basic facial recognition, but it does affect your ability to know when you saw people last.) To take the test, go to

Perhaps photos of people register with me better than real people -- an unsettling thought. Or perhaps the test is not a good simulation of real life because the photos don't change their clothes or hair styles from one part of the test to another. After all, I'm the person who did not recognize Sigourney Weaver in GALAXY QUEST until the credits rolled. She'd gone blond.

Or maybe I just need to pay better attention to three-dimensional faces.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fan Mail

Every writer gets mail from readers, especially if, like me, it's easy to send an email directly from my website without having an email address. Most of the email I get is courteous, and some is even enthusiastic (naturally, those are my favorites). Some, however, give one pause. In the last week or so, I have received:
  • an email to tell me that my novella "Act One," currently nominated for the Locus, Nebula, and Hugo awards, is not good enough "to bother finishing" because of this one sentence, which "bounced me out of the story:" "The FGFR3 gene stops bones from growing. It was turned on in babies with dwarfism; a corrective genemod retrovirus should be able to turn the gene off in the little mess of cells that was Ethan." The reader did not tell me what is wrong with this sentence, so I don't know.
  • an email completely in Spanish, or possibly Portuguese, which I cannot read.
  • an email wanting to know why there are not more people of color in one of my novels.
  • persistent email from someone named "Ned," who tells me I am lovable and adorable. Ned and I have never met. He has no idea if I am adorable or a cranky shrew.

Answering these emails is difficult to impossible. I do my best, particularly since this week-or-so haul is by no means the most puzzling or negative I have received. But -- why?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Frustrations and Successes

Today I tried to obtain a Washington State driver's license in exchange for my New York State one -- and failed. I went downtown to the Department of Motor Vehicles and had no trouble proving identity (passport). However, I could not prove residence to the DMV's satisfaction. I offered them an apartment lease bearing my name, a renters' insurance policy, a royalty statement from my agent with my new address, and a work order from the local cable company for an Internet connection. Nothing worked. The lease and insurance policy were "not acceptable documents;" the royalty statement was "not a standard W-2 form;" the Comcast work order was only for an upgrade, and only an original work order would do. Or a utility bill in my name, which I did not have. This was all due to "security regulations." Apparently any old terrorist can rent and insure an apartment or publish fiction, but only someone safe has utilities.

Or something like that.

So I will get a utility bill in my name and try again. meanwhile, my lovely sister Kate, an actress in New York, appeared last night on the Bravo reality show "9 By Design." A couple (real) is interviewing nannies (real) and Kate poses as an airhead New Age candidate (scripted). Catch a clip of her performance at She's the nanny candidate in the purple shirt.

Someone should do a reality show about the DMV.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Book Launch

Some writers mark the pub date of their first novel by rushing around to bookstores to see who has it in stock. Some notify their agent that now the on-pub portion of the advance is due. Some merely gloomily contemplate the necessity of now writing another book. John Pitts and his live-wire wife Kathy threw a party for his debut novel from Tor, BLACK BLADE BLUES.

It was a lovely party. Here is the author, looking literary as he signs my copy of his book. Since BLACK BLADE BLUES, an urban fantasy and the first of a trilogy, makes use of Norse mythology, the horns are thus (vaguely) explained:

There were a buffet, a DJ, dancing, and hula hoops. The host cut the cake with a ceremonial sword. Here Corry Lee, a particle physicist, and I are attempting the macarena, woefully out of step. But, then, the macarena itself is pretty out of step in 2010:

Ken Scholes, author of the well-received LAMENTATION, neglected to bring his guitar but promised to bring it to the Locus Awards in June:

Next time I have a book out, I want a party, too. Complete with macarena.