Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Music and Writing

Last night Maureen McHugh, here in Seattle to teach week 2 of Clarion, had a reading at the University Bookstore. She read a new, as yet unpublished story of singular bleakness (David Levine, who had seen it at a workshop, referred to it as a "despair machine.") The story, set in a post-apocalyptic United States, features an unsympathetic protagonist named Jane. Maureen said that while she was writing it, she listened over and over again to Jane's Addiction: "It got me in the right mood."

The relationship of writing to music is a highly individual one. Only once have I played a song obsessively to affect my writing a specific scene, and that was fairly recently. In the YA fantasy I am (interminably) writing, there is a scene in which savage soldiers march into a castle, wave upon wave of them in battle formation. I had first imagined this as occurring to "Mo Ghile Mear" as sung by The Chieftains, with solo by Sting, and I played the CD over and over as I wrote that scene.

Ordinarily, however, music just distracts me when I'm writing. Yet I know writers who cannot work without rock blaring away. Some of these same people say they can be jarred out of the writing mood by so much as a phone ringing. The authorial mind is a strange and fearsome thing.

Here is Maureen, reading her story, hearing who-knows-what music in her head as background to a tale of desperate and opportunistic survival:

Monday, June 28, 2010

Pods Again

Yesterday several people helped Kij Johnson load two pods to move her belongings to North Carolina. This involved carrying things down three flights of stairs, lugging them across a parking lot, and arranging them in a pod under the capable direction of Shelly Rae Clift. Here are Elizabeth Bourne, me, Mark Bourne, and Jack Skillingstead engaged in this operation:

According to the last census, forty million Americans move each year -- roughly one in seven. This includes local moves, most of which seem to occur in and out of my apartment building. With all this shifting of population, you'd think someone would buy my house in Rochester, New York. No such luck. Six months after I put it on the market, it still sits a-begging.

In the evening, Jack and I had dinner with Eileen Gunn, John Berry, and Gardner Dozois before Gardner flew back to Philadelphia. Gardner had some interesting suggestions on how to sell my house. These included (1) commit a murder there to attract people who want to live in a house with a ghost, and (2) establish it as the Nancy Kress Museum. Since the first of these ideas is not practical and the second laughable, we drove Gardner to SeaTac and put him on a plane east.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Locus Awards

Yesterday the annual Locus Awards were held in Seattle, combined with the induction ceremony for the SF Hall of Fame at the Science Fiction Museum. It was a very long day, and an intensely interesting one. Many writers had come to Seattle for this: Michael Cassutt, Gardner Dozois, Walter Jon Williams, Maureen McHugh, Ursula LeGuin, Mary Robinette Kowal.

The day began with two panels. Connie Willis, Walter Jon Williams, Ursula LeGuin, and I did a panel on "The Research Behind the Science," moderated by Gary Wolfe. I don't think we said anything the audience hadn't heard before, but for me, sitting on a panel with Ursula, whom I have admired for decades, was a tremendous thrill. She is over eighty now and looks frail, but holds her own admirably in a discussion. Here we are, after discussing how much research to conduct and what to do with it after you've got it:
Next came an editor's panel on "Ten Mistakes A Writer Should Not Make." This produced no useful information whatsoever, unless someone needed to be told "Don't slug your editor at a SFWA reception," but the panel did produce much hilarity. The panel consisted of Gardner Dozois, Eileen Gunn, Gary Wolfe (moderating), Beth Meachem, and (unaccountably out of the picture) Jeremy Lassen:
An autographing session followed, and then the lunch banquet. This was accompanied by Connie Willis conducting the traditional Hawaiian shirt contest. Charles N. Brown always wore Hawaiian shirts, and Connie began with a tribute to him. The finalists in the shirt contest are grilled by Connie:

Ted Chiang, for the upteenth year in a row, refuses to wear a Hawaiian shirt and is duly chastised by the implacable Toastmistress...
... while Gardner Dozois expresses fierce opinions on the proceedings as a whole:
The Locus awards were presented and accepted. A brief interval for everyone to catch their breath (many did this in the bar) and then on to the SF Museum. Inducted into the Hall of Fame were writers Richard Matheson, Roger Zelazny, and Octavia Butler, and special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. Michael Cassutt, emcee, gracefully kept the speeches and film clips moving. Since it was dark in the museum theater and I have a cheap camera, none of the pictures I took came out as more than a dark blur. Doug Trumball could have fixed that, but he was a little busy.
More partying in the evening. I don't know how long it went on because I, worn out with talking for twelve straight hours, gave up and went home.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Michael Bishop Experiments

Last night Michael Bishop, who is in Seattle to teach the first week of Clarion West, gave a reading at the University Bookstore. He read a selection of three very short SF stories and an SF poem, all of which were well received. One of the stories was, he said, an experiment. He had heard of another author who wrote a story entirely in questions and decided he wanted to try the form for himself. The result was a monologue by a college professor who has been interrupted in his office by a hapless student. The audience laughed throughout, both at the cleverness of the form and the psychological acuteness of the content. Michael knows his teacher-student relationships.

Writers like to do this sort of thing. I once read a frame story in which the author used the frame to directly harangue the reader. Immediately I sat down and used the same form to write "Casey's Empire." I know of another writer who, after coming across Terry Bisson's "They're Made of Meat," wrote a story entirely in dialogue. Sometimes these experiments don't work (notice I'm not giving the Bisson-inspiree's name). But even when they don't, they represent efforts to expand one's range.

More serious borrowings can include trying to imitate another writer's style (my first novel was a direct set at Peter Beagle's lush style, a fact noted by every single reviewer who noticed the book). Plot patterns, too, are fertile ground for imitation. You can make the argument that Ursula LeGuin's "The Dispossessed" uses the same plot as Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz," and that both hark back to the fairy tale "City Mouse, Country Mouse."

An important point: Such borrowing are not theft. They are, instead, "acts of homage." :)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Taos, Last Day

Today is the last day of Taos Toolbox. We will critique the last stories in class, have a Q & A session, and head down to Taos for sight-seeing and our last dinner as a group. It has been an intense, satisfying two weeks.

Yesterday we critiqued three stories, and then Walter and I gave a joint two-hour lecture on the business side of writing: contracts, agents, publishers, career paths. One of the things that happens at a workshop like this is that the instructors are far more open about names, numbers, and incidents than they would ever be on a public panel at a con. Our goal was to describe the publishing world as we and our friends know it, while fully warning students that same world is in a state of flux right now even more roiled than its usual flux. By the time they publish novels, all could be different. Certainly it is different from when I entered the SF field decades ago.

We also gave the students an assignment, which grew out of Wednesday's work on description, and which Walter borrowed from Ursula LeGuin. The assignment, provocatively called "Chastity," is to write an entire page of description without a single adjective or adverb. I have just reviewed these assignments, and in at least two cases, it has made a startling improvement in the writers' prose. I'm impressed!

Memorable quotes from yesterday's critique sessions:

"Why isn't Anastasia reacting to the sudden presence of a rodent on her shoulder?"

"My experience with men is that they don't agree to marry at the drop of a hat. They don't."

"The canned Jesus is fantastic, and I really wish I knew what you meant."

"The good news is that your protagonist does some protagging."

"Life goes faster in a radioactive hell hole."

"All the women in these stories taste like strawberries."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Taos Toolbox, Toolin' Along

We are critiquing the Week 2 stories, most of which were written here at Taos, as well as continuing lectures and individual conferences. Yesterday Walter's lecture on "the other" included a frank discussion of issues important to any writer: How can you effectively write members of a group not your own? If a white male writes as a viewpoint character a Native American, is that "cultural appropriation"? If a woman writes a helpless, passive female character, has she betrayed feminism? Is it off limits to create a nasty Black drug dealer or a Muslim terrorist, or can readers accept that one unsympathetic character does not represent the author's view of that entire group? Where do reality and stereotypes connect and disconnect?

We did not actually come to any conclusion, but it was a loaded, important discussion carried out in a thoughtful manner.
Yesterday brought the necessary group photo, even for those of us who hate to have our picture taken. From top to bottom, left to right: Jason Musgrave, Sean Craven, Eric Kelley, Lou Berger, Rich Baldwin, George Galuschak, Christian Walter, Danielle LeFevre, Oz Drummond, Amy Sundberg, Barbara Webb, Lawrence Schoen, Ada Brown, Walter Jon Williams, Nancy Kress, Hallie Rulnik.

Memorable quotes from the last two days of critique sessions:

"I like the vomit. Keep it."

"'Orders of magnitude' beyond six billion people is a whole shitload of people."

"You need story values somewhere in here, dude."

"You have White Dragon Syndrome."

"More pigs!"

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Still at Taos

Last night we had a bear in the parking lot. I did not see this bear, but apparently it ambled slowly along, fairly close to the lodge. Below the parking lot is the Rio Hondo, a six-inch flow of water that in the East would barely merit the name of "creek," let alone "river." But bears like this ridiculous river, so perhaps we will get more. A ranger told Walter that the animals are active this year. Here is the Rio Hondo:

The workshop resumed work. We critiqued two of the new, second-week stories, from Lawrence Schoen and Barbara Webb. I lectured on the uses of effective description. Walter gave a very useful talk on the Three R's of plotting: raising the stakes, reveals, and reversals. In the evening, individual student conferences began.

But mostly there was a lot of writing. The deadline for stories is tomorrow, so people were hunched over computers in the common area, in their own rooms, even on the balcony despite an unseasonable cold snap. Everyone is trying to incorporate what was learned in Week 1 into stories for Week 2. Some memorable quotes from yesterday's critiques:

"Introducing a virus at the climax of the story strikes me as a Deus Ex Chemistry Set."

"If you want more criticism, write worse."

"I think stupid arbitrary aliens deserve stupid arbitrary justice."

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Taos Weekend

On Saturday ten of us visited Taos Pueblo, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. Some of the buildings are over 1,000 years old, their adobe walls repaired each summer with earth and straw. The houses have -- by tribal choice -- no electricity or running water. Here is North House, backed the mountains which contain the sacred Blue Lake:
This cemetery contains graves dating back to the sixteenth century. The ruins are of San Geronimo Church, built in 1619.

This is the church, a more recent structure (1850), devoted to the worship of the Virgin Mary, who is considered the parallel of the Earth Mother in the native religion:
We were shown around by a native guide. Despite the beauty of the setting and interest of the site, nearly all of us were uncomfortable at the pueblo. It is supported by tourism, and yet it's clear that tourists are also resented, and that the long and unhappy history between Native Americans and "Anglos" continues here. I was glad I visited the pueblo, but it is not a visit I would repeat.
In the afternoon, back at the lodge, we had a talk from Carrie Vaughn, best-selling author of the urban-fantasy series featuring Kitty Norville. Carrie talked about the challenges, both literary and commercial, of writing an on-going series. She stressed that success can catch a writer in other people's expectations: publishers who want more of the same and nothing else, fans who object to the way a series goes, the problem of allowing a protagonist to grow from book to book without losing the personality that originally attracted readers. Carrie answered questions graciously and for a long time.
Saturday finished with dinner in Taos. Tomorrow is a work day -- Week 2 manuscripts are coming in to be read and critiqued. Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Taos Day 7

Everyone is tired. We have critiqued fourteen mss. this week, most pushing 10,000 words. The attendees have also listened to thirteen mini-lectures, written five short assignments, and launched into writing their stories for next week. The upcoming weekend was celebrated with a trip down to Taos for pizza. Down the mountain 3,000 feet, it is perhaps fifteen degrees warmer.

In the afternoon, Walter held a brain-storming session to demonstrate how to plot a novel. The novel used was Sean Craven's. Key scenes were identified, written on index cards, and rearranged to create an overall structure that had varied pace, a logical flow of events, and the best possible use of subplots. Other people contributed ideas. Some of Sean's original scenes were dropped, moved, or combined. He was enormously pleased with the result.

The plotting session, however, was briefly interrupted in the middle when lodge staff arrived to change bed linen and towels. Walter announced, "The cleaning staff just arrived, so if there's anything in your room you wish to conceal, leave now to do it." Half the class rushed off. Sometimes it's better to not know.

Memorable quotes from today's critique sessions:

"Cut down on the number of boners because in a sword fight they are not a good idea."

"I like anything with hopping Chinese vampires in it."

"I'm tone deaf to humor but I believe this is maybe probably very funny."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Taos Day 6

An interesting note about the manuscripts critiqued at Taos Toolbox this year: Only three of the fourteen are science fiction. Clearly fantasy rules among aspiring writers. Also, all but two of the manuscripts are novel excerpts rather than shorter fiction, a trend I've also noticed in other groups I've taught. Is the next generation of writers less interested in short stories?

A version of what is currently published also came up in the afternoon, when Walter took us through Samuel Delany's NOVA, pointing out how Delany had used foreshadowing, layering of symbols, and doubling of characters. The question arose: If this were a first novel by an unknown author, could it even get published in today's SF market? NOVA's dense prose, oblique approach to plot, and unsympathetic, psychopathic main characters might make it a tough sell to publishing houses increasingly under pressure to bring out books that will sell a lot of copies. No consensus was reached about NOVA. Personally, I don't think it would find a publisher today.

Memorable quotes from the critique session:

"There is no story that can't be improved by the addition of the right monster."

"I liked the Prologue once you got to the place where people's eye sockets are bleeding."

"The Harry Potter movie just came out tomorrow."

AND, from Walter Jon Williams, this deathless lyric poetry:

"Here we are at Toolbox,
All our happy crew.
Here we are at Toolbox --
Where the hell are you?"

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Taos Day 5

Another workshop day at Taos Toolbox, with three critiques and two lectures. Here is Walter Jon Williams explaining techniques for building suspense:

Plus, in the evening we had a showing of CASABLANCA, which Walter analyzed for its structure, imagery, and foreshadowing in the hopes that this would all migrate into the students' next stories. They are working on these for next week. In all, an intense day, and when people lag at showing up for events, Walter sounds the Airhorn of Summoning, which sounds roughly like a moose that has just been whapped by a bulldozer.

All is not work, however. People spend a lot of time hanging around on the balconies of the lodge, talking and enjoying the view. Wildlife wanders across the parking lot below. Hummingbirds come to the bird feeder which Lou Berger has hung from a balcony. Rich Baldwin plays his guitar. The lodge as seen from the parking lot:

There is also the hot tub, which began operation yesterday. Since CASABLANCA was accompanied by margaritas, I grew too sleepy for any more fun, but not so Lawrence Schoen, Danielle LeFevre, George Galuschak, Jason Musgrave, and Oz Drummond (image by Eric Kelley):

Memorable quotes from the day's critiques:

"You can't be both Orwell and Kafka at the same time." (This was later disputed.)

"'Madge' is not a good name for a fantasy character -- it reminds us too strongly of a dishwashing liquid commercial."

"If you want to fry people, you should use KFC instead of McDonald's."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Taos Day 4

Blogging now feels like a high-wire act, since my computer continues to crash erratically. It seems to be a hardware problem, not a software one. It is an old, much-used computer. Even with a new external cooler fan, it wheezes like an asthmatic boiler. It may be time to buy a new one.

Today in class we did three stories and had two lectures, a process that consumed nearly five hours. I talked about writing in scenes and Walter talked about plotting. Below is the class assembled for critique sessions. Note two things about this: Everyone works on a laptop. Paper is obsolete (except for me). Second, this is one of the few rooms at the ski lodge not lavishly decorated with moose, elk and bear. Elsewhere, animals cavort across rugs, pillows, bedspreads, serving bowls. It's like writing in a frozen zoo.

Memorable quotes from today's critiques:

"Why didn't his friends notice that he'd turned into a massive dick?"

"What do two hats do together?"

"I'm having trouble doing just one thing simultaneously."

Monday, June 7, 2010

Taos -- Days 2 and 3

Sunday was a mixed day at Taos. The good: All the rest of the students arrived and my altitude sickness departed. The bad: Most of my pens exploded and my computer failed.

The pens' leaking (well, they were very small explosions) was due to altitude. The computer was more difficult. Several people offered opinions in person, by phone, and by email. Several persons worked on it. Right now it is running, thanks to the expertise of the wonderful Barbara Webb. We shall see.

Today actually focused on writing SF, not on hardware. Class, which was held from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 with breaks for coffee and lunch, began with Walter warning everyone that bears are especially active this year. He told us what to do if we encounter a bear while walking in the woods. Several of us promptly decided not to walk in the woods.

Each day features two mini-lectures, one by me and one by Walter. Today I talked about world building, Walter about plot structure. We also critiqued two stories. Memorable lines from critiquers:

"More science fiction should be about plumbing and toilets."

"If he's farting oxygen, he's basically a plant."

"I would not ask this group of diplomats to negotiate a pizza purchase."

Both authors said they received useful feedback, and I was very pleased with the level of criticism offered. PLUS -- the computer is still working! So far, anyway. Of course, it does have ink on it from one exploding pen, but you can't have everything.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Taos Toolbox

For the next two weeks, I will be blogging from Taos Toolbox. This is an intensive, two-week seminar in writing SF, held at Ski Valley and run by Walter Jon Williams. This year I am the co-instructor. The site is incredibly beautiful. Here is the view from the balcony of the ski lodge:

Walter Jon was here two weeks ago, and says that then this mountainside was covered with snow. But an abrupt turn in the weather skipped spring and brought Taos straight to summer.

Two attendees are already here; the rest arrive in shifts today, and class begins tomorrow. So far I am torn between wonder at the natural beauty and a wish that all this beauty was 3,000 feet lower. Ski Valley is 10,000 feet above sea level. I have altitude sickness, with all its unpleasant symptoms: light-headedness, nausea, and a screaming headache. So I am spending today acclimating, which consists mostly of drinking water, taking ibuprofen, and trying not to fall down stairs. Walter was wise to bring me here a day early. By tomorrow I will feel normal again -- won't I?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sin Tax

As of today, Washington State has a bunch of new taxes to help close its budget gap. Most are taxes on indulgent pleasures (what was once called a "sin tax"): candy, beer, cigarettes, soda. All are causing the usual hue-and-cry from both attackers and defenders, but the most confusing by far is the candy tax. What constitutes candy? While I personally only deign to notice those items containing chocolate, the legislature has adopted a definition that mostly hinges on the presence or absence of flour. If a confection contains flour, it not candy and therefore exempt from the tax. This means there is no tax on licorice, Twix, Kit Kat, or a regular Milky Way bar. There is a tax on M 'n M's, Tootsie Rolls, truffles, and a Milky Way Midnight bar.

Science fiction is an indulgent pleasure for most of us. If it were going to be taxed, the legislature would first have to define it, something that endless panels at endless cons have so far failed to do satisfactorily. The law might therefore go the if-it-contains-flour route, and define anything as SF if it includes, say, an element from a skiffy list: Aliens. Robots. Space Ships. Artificial Intelligence. Thus:

Paolo Bacigalupi's WIND-UP Girl is exempt from tax.

Greg Benford is taxed for nearly everything except TIMESCAPE.

All STAR TREK novels are taxed until the heat death of the universe.

Mike Flynn is taxed for WRECK OF THE RIVER OF STARS but not for some of his short stories.

The Heinlein and Asimov estates close the entire budget gap in Seattle.

I am taxed for STEAL ACROSS THE SKY but not for BEGGARS IN SPAIN.

Lawyers get rich off court cases about SARAH CANARY -- was she or was she not an alien?

You see the possibilities for civic revenue, plus lots of entertaining shouting. So who's going to call the legislature?