Saturday, October 30, 2010

World Fantasy Con -- Day 3

It is indeed possible to run a SFWA business meeting within one hour. President John Scalzi kept things moving, and civil. To one who remembers 3 1/2 hour meetings marked by fierce contention, personal recriminations, and on at least one occasion, a threatened fist fight, this meeting was a revelation. It also included a haiku by Ellen Klages, as SFWA's new, unofficial motto:
We write spec fiction.
Some make a lot of money.
Others get nothing.

The hotel is being shared by WFC, a teenage-and-younger cheerleading competition, and a bridal party. This makes for some interesting elevator rides. I can report that the bride's dress is lovely and that the fashion in cheerleaders is for large bows directly on the tops of heads.

I ended up being on the panel on "The Moral Distance Between Author and Work," after all, mostly because I whined so much about not being on it. We discussed if, and how, knowledge of an author's life and political beliefs affected how one reads his fiction, particularly if one finds the life or beliefs objectionable. Opinions ranged from "It makes no difference -- life and works are separate," through "It changes how one sees the work," to "I won't read authors who are (pick one) pedophiles, liberals, Republicans, murderers, Nazis, sexists, into torturing small animals." The entire panel was videotaped and is now (somewhere) on the Internet. Here are (left to right) Scott Edelman, Eric Flint, Nancy Kress,Paul Whitcover, Kathryn Cramer, and Jack Skillingstead dissecting morality:

The bar was, as usual, the general gathering place for the con (I never even found the green room), and a good place to hold business meetings before dinner. I had dinner at the not-so-good-but-very-convenient hotel restaurant with a group that included Kij Johnson, who reported that she loves both grad school and North Carolina. She has recently composed a 317-line poem based on Chaucer's chicken. Ah, academe. Here are Seth and Barbara Webb, Paul and Deb Park, Leslie Howle, Ted Chiang, John Kessel, Jack Skillingstead, and Kij:Paul Park suits up for a Halloween party:I had a final panel on T.H. White's THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. The Tor party, as always, had a surfeit of people and a shortage of oxygen, so most of it eventually ended up in the bar.

World Fantasy Con -- Day 2

The day began with sitting around the lobby drinking coffee with Gardner Dozois, Susan Casper, Peter Heck, and various other people who came and went. The writing life was discussed, and Gardner made the trenchant observation that often "it isn't a series of ego strokes -- it's a series of kicks to the teeth." Not always -- but often. This observation did not distress everyone; on the contrary, it was cheering because if validated that in this tough publishing climate, a writer having difficulties (rejections, falling sales, falling advances, falling confidence) is not alone. Here are Susan, Peter, Alistair Mayer, Gardner, Brenda Cooper, and an unidentified head, being gloomy/cheerful:The publishing climate was also the topic of the one panel I was on today, "Art and Commerce -- Is There Tension Between Them?" Very lively, this panel featured various answers to the question from Tom Dougherty ("No"), me ("Yes, of course"), Gordon Van Gelder ("It's complicated"), and Ginjer Buchanan, courageously struggling to moderate an over-caffeinated and feisty panel. The final consensus: The only way writers can succeed is by writing what passionately moves them, but don't expect the marketplace to be moved by only your passion -- commercial forces also affect what is bought, and sold.

Clarion West held a cocktail party, at which various announcements were made, including the line-up of instructors for next year's Clarion West: Paul Park, Nancy Kress, Margo Lanagan, Minister Faust, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Charles Stross. Walter Jon Williams also announced that he and I will again teach the two-week Taos Toolbox workshop in July. Information on both of these workshops can be found on their websites.

Dinner with Sheila Williams, who reported that ASIMOV'S is doing well and has several exciting stories in train -- none of them, alas, mine.

Next came the usual WFC mass autographing, a melee in which collectors lug huge boxes of books around to be signed, fans get to talk to authors, and authors spend three hours, or as long as they can stand, seated in rows behind white-clothed tables with coffee, wine, and pens at the ready. The room was huge, and it's possible that the number of writers exceeded the number of fans. Eventually people moved from there into the bar, which quickly became a scramble for tables. I ended up with a group that included SFWA president John Scalzi. Since John needed a quorum for tomorrow's SFWA business meeting, he spent much of the time dragging promises out of people to attend. In return, he promised to bring in the SFWA meeting at under one hour. Can this actually be done?

Friday, October 29, 2010

World Fantasy Con -- Day 1

Thursday Jack and I left the apartment at 3:30 a.m. to fly to Columbus, Ohio, for World Fantasy Con. It was so early because (1) you can't get directly to Columbus from almost everywhere, and (2) there needed to be time to tussle with the dog, who goes ballistic at the sight of a suitcase. But we got to SeaTac, flew to Atlanta (does this make sense?) and was ready to backtrack to Columbus when the power blew in the Atlanta airport terminal. No passengers could be processed except for those already on the plane, which included us. The jetway could not be detached. So we sat an hour and a half on the tarmac.

Once in Columbus, we registered and then went to dinner with a group that included Ellen Klages, Ted Chiang, Patrick Swenson, Jim Van Pelt, and Therese Pieczinski. The food at Martini was good (although I did feel some skepticism at the waitress's insistence that the calamari was "absolutely fresh" when we were in southern Ohio, not known for its salt-water fishing). A topic of discussion was the up-coming con panel on whether distaste for or disagreement with an artist's private life interferes with the appreciation of his work. Ellen said yes, she can no longer read James Elroy. I said no. Other people weighed in. Should be an interesting panel on Saturday.

Everyone else then repaired to the bar, and I, sleep-deprived, went to bed.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Love and Writing

This morning I started a new piece of fiction. Doing that is a lot like starting a new love affair. There is that initial rush of hope and suspense: Will this turn into anything? Will the connection be a good one, the promise fulfilled? It's a time of anticipation and anxiety in about equal measure.

Some stories, like some love affairs, just peter out (which is what happened with the story I began a few weeks ago). The initial spark just isn't enough to sustain them. Others chug along well for a while but then hit an impossible situation and blow up. Others finish in a stable but uninspired friendship. And a few soar.

I don't know yet what path this new work will take. But for as long as I don't know, the possibilities are all still there, tantalizing as spring breeze. I don't want to leave my new love, preferring to write steadily for hours each day. However, that isn't going to happen because Thursday I leave for World fantasy Con in Columbus, Ohio. The next blogs will come from there.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Late to the Debate

I never know what's going on. I didn't hear about Elizabeth Moon's 9/11 post on her blog until yesterday, when, in response, Wiscon withdrew its invitation to her to be next year's Guest of Honor. Then I tracked down and read her original blog entry, plus some of the subsequent controversy.

Mine is not a political blog. Seldom do I comment on political events, partly because I can't imagine why anyone might care what I think. But this is not just a political matter, it is also an SF one. As a former GOH at Wiscon myself, I have a strong opinion on this issue.

Wiscon's purpose is stated on its website: "WisCon is the first and foremost feminist science fiction convention in the world. WisCon encourages discussion, debate and extrapolation of ideas relating to feminism, gender, race and class." But not, apparently, if those views are unpalatable to the committee.

Elizabeth's blog concerned the building of the Islamic community center in NYC, a few blocks from Ground Zero. I am in favor of building this; I think it is guaranteed by the Constitution, and anyway the building will not be in sight of Ground Zero. Elizabeth argued not that building it should be forbidden, but that Muslims themselves should think twice about the place they are building it, and the impression of cooperation that it gives or does not give to others in their adopted country. Again, I do not agree with her. But that's not the point. Her blog entry is quiet in tone, thoughtful in argument. If you haven't read it, I urge you to do so. Then you can make up your own mind about its statements regarding assimilation, citizenship, and tolerance.

The point IS just that -- reading the blog provides a point of departure for discussion about gender, race, and class -- just what Wiscon is supposed to be about. This discussion could have happened at Wiscon, if Elizabeth were going to be there. It would have been stimulating, and everyone could have had a say. Now that will not happen. In addition, the con will be losing the other thing it is supposed to showcase -- successful female writers of speculative fiction.

I think the Wiscon committee has erred in withdrawing its GOH-ship. This is NOT the equivalent to not inviting a raving racist or virulent anti-feminist. Elizabeth is not those things. Wscon should have honored its commitment to her.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


In the last few weeks there have been two serious animal attacks on the Olympic Peninsula near Seattle. A bear mauled a man outside his cabin; he lost an eye. Then a few days ago a mountain goat charged and killed a man in Olympic Park. It's not mating season, and the bear had no cubs with her.

I mostly like to look at nature, not interact with it, but these are disquieting. In both cases, rangers speculate that people may have been feeding the wild animals, which makes them less fearful of people, which makes them more likely to attack. Moral: Fear has its uses.

This is not a moral that resonates very well with humanist writers. But even a cursory look at human history shows the truth of it. Which leads to a question: Is it possible to raise a child with insufficient fear?

I feel a story coming on...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Vashon Island Novel Workshop

Yesterday ten writers and I met for an intense, day-long critique workshop on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. The only way to reach the island is by ferry, and we convoyed over there in four cars, early enough to watch the sun rise over the water. The workshop, organized by the tireless Leslie Howle and located at a friend's enormous gorgeous house, focused on the first 25 pages of ten different novels, all of which had been circulated in advance. Much coffee was drunk, much junk food consumed, much debate engaged in.

It was fun. Also exhausting. The day finished with a round-table discussion of publishing conditions: for science fiction versus fantasy, for YA, for on-line publications, for reader books, for print magazines, for traditional publishers. Then today I learned that another magazine of speculative fiction is closing. REALMS OF FANTASY is being shut down by publisher Warren Lapine, who says he has tried everything he can to make the magazine profitable and has failed, for which he blames a bad economy. REALMS is, he says, for sale for $1 to "a responsible purchaser."

The conclusion reached at the Vashon Island workshop -- and it hardly merits the name "conclusion" -- is that no one knows how publishing will take shape over the next twenty years. Meanwhile, aspiring writers write. Some notable quotes from the critique sessions:
  • "I want a moyle just like the moyle that brissed my dear old dad."
  • "In a novel, I'm willing to give an author a whole page before the violence begins."
  • "There's a lot of meat here but not much potatoes. You need more potatoes."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Write What You Know

Yesterday's newspaper included a cartoon of two cavemen, one of whom is an artist. He is drawing on the cave wall iconic pictures of hunters chasing mastodons, being killed by tigers, running from an unidentifiable but very large beast. To his friend he says, with an air of superiority, "The secret is to write what you know."

This same thing is, of course, told to countless aspiring authors. Many of them follow it slavishly, many pay no attention whatsoever, many run an uncomfortable mental list over their stories and wonder: Should I have done more research?

As with everything else in writing fiction, the write-what-you-know "rule" is a trade-off. Sticking to milieu and situations of which you have some first-hand knowledge can lend stories rich detail unattainable any way else. On the other hand, it can be very limiting if either you don't know much or what you do know doesn't particularly interest you to write about. When I was teaching in D.C., at least half of each class was comprised of lawyers. They all wanted to write high fantasy. And so they should.

Where the dictum is useful is in pulling things from your own life to build on in your fiction. You've never killed anyone (I hope), but you've been angry enough to want to. Can you use that feeling for your murderer? You've never been transformed by a wizard's spell into a toad, but you've felt like an outsider in some social situation: different, awkward, not at home in your own skin. Does the toad person feel like that?

All this floated to the top of my mind when I started a new story this morning. The situation is bizarre, the character unlike myself. But nonetheless there are times where I've felt as he does. In one sense, I know him. Dead mastodons and all.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Stupid Criminals

The front desk of my apartment building was robbed last week. The thief made off with two laptops and a drawer full of rent checks. This alone indicated some doubt about his criminal ability, since it would be difficult to cash a lot of checks made out to a building. However, this was only the start of the young man's mistakes.

He then entered the basement garage area, where he was in the process of stealing an expensive bike when the owner, a young woman, showed up. The alleged thief hid in a storage closet, dragging the bike in with him. She looked around, did not see her bike, and did see the closet door ajar. She opened it and threw a fit, demanding not only that the bike be returned, but that the guy present his I.D., presumably in case there was damage to the bike. He did. She photographed it with her cell phone. He then fled. Police arrested him, still in possession of the rent checks, at his home.

The mind boggles.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mutoid Men and Me

Two weeks from now Ted Chiang and I are doing an appearance at the Olympia Timberland Library in Olympia, Washington. Nothing unusual about that -- talk a little, read a little, maybe present a mini-panel. This one, however, promises to be a bit different.

They have a band, "Mutoid Men" (link to their latest release: ). They have a second musician, Spiritual Successor, with songs about "suicidal superheroes and terminally ill space babies." There is a Sci-Fi Trivia Throwdown. Last year there was also a fashion show, but they've dropped that. Here is this year's poster:

I'm not sure what to expect from all this. Certainly not the usual library appearance, which tends to be a decorous and staid affair. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

New Media

Lately there has been much buzz about new media as the coming platform for publishing -- ebooks, cell-phone serials, integrated computer stories. Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear have launched THE MONGOLIAD, a serialized "social book" that is a novel but also allows readers to add music, video, and other content. The line between stories and games becomes ever blurrier as top-notch SF writers are hired to craft the stories underlying video games and to write the dialogue for the characters. However, I don't think any of these ventures have gone as far into innovative media as Michael Swanwick, who has published a lovely story written on dead autumn leaves.

You can view the Halloween story on Flickr ( ) Each of the hundred-plus photos features one or more fallen leaves, each with a word written on them. The colors and background of the leaves often reflect the content of the sentence. The result is amazing, weird, and deeply elegiac.

I emailed Michael to ask how such a project occurred to him. The impetus was his wife, Marianne, who remarked that October always made her want to write "death" on fallen leaves. From such small seeds grow entire stories.

October Leaves is also available in print form, with full-color photos of the leaves, at the Flickr URL. But do check out the on-line version. And try to ponder where publishing could possibly go next.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Happy At the Movies

Last night I saw THE SOCIAL NETWORK, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's film about the founding of Facebook. The advance buzz was so positive that I wondered if the movie could possibly live up to it.

It does. I loved it, and so did the five other people with me. You wouldn't think that a movie about a web page could be all that gripping, but this one offers so much. My main pleasures:

A balanced view of nearly everyone involved. Mark Zuckerberg, as written by Sorkin and played by Jesse Eisenberg, is multi-dimensional. He's insecure, vengeful, socially clueless, prodigiously gifted, painfully aware of his low status at Harvard, yearning, ambitious, and very, very young. I didn't like him -- he's not likable -- but I felt for him. More important, I believed him. He's an epitome of a nerdy type we all already know, but smarter and more resentful. Similarly, the friends he betrays -- maybe -- are not just stereotypes of (1) the aristocratic young lords of creation and (2) the overly earnest business major; they are real people.

A balanced view of the actions involved. Did Zuckerberg rip off his friends, or did he really do all the actual creation work and so be entitled to the success? Is Sean Parker of Napster (player by Justin Timberlake, with slimy charm) someone who led Mark into a morally bad decision, or is he a hard-headed entrepreneur without whom Facebook would not have become such a huge success? It's possible to view the lawsuits that form the framework of the movie in several different lights.

Sorkin's incisive, funny, rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. When I get to heaven, Sorkin will write a script from my fiction.

As I've said before, I am a Facebook drop-out. But that made no difference. I don't know how accurate this film's view of events actually is. But it's not a documentary, it's a movie, and a terrific one. Go see it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Present Tense

Judges for the Man Booker, Britain's prestigious literary prize, have been arguing over its short list. Not only over which books to nominate -- that's normal for any juried award. These judges are arguing over the novels' conceptions of time. Three of the six are written in present tense, which at least one judge finds "faddish."

Is it? If a fad is a short-lived popular craze, then no. Some fiction has been written in present tense for at least thirty years now. And some people have always disliked it -- I remember Gene Wolfe telling me once that he would immediately stop reading any story in present tense. (It's possible he has changed his mind since then). More and more fiction uses present tense, including Suzanne Collins' enormously successful HUNGER GAMES trilogy. Why?

The classic argument is that present tense gives more immediacy, the illusion that story events are happening right now, rather than being recounted after they're long over. I'm not sure that's true, because I'm not sure readers even notice tense any more. I'm trying to remember what tense my own six award-winning stories are told in, and I can only recall two of them (one in present, one in past). And I wrote them!

Give me some help here -- do you notice present tense? Does it distract you? Enhance the story? Does it seem more "modern and fresh"? Do you loathe it? For short stories? For novels?