Saturday, November 27, 2010

Writing Advice

Gene Wolfe, fabulous and almost-legendary SF writer who just won a World Fantasy Award for his story collection, has an interesting interview at Black Gate ( Among other things, he offers his top five pieces of writing advice to aspiring authors. Here they are:

1.) Get up early and write.
2.) Read what you’re trying to write, for Godsakes! (Don’t read enormous fantasy series if you’re trying to write short stories.)
3.) Remember that it is characterizing that puts your story heads and shoulders over the others in the slush pile.
4.) You do not characterize by telling the reader about the character. You do it by showing the character thinking, speaking and acting in a characteristic way. You simply show it and shut up.
5.)Do not start a story unless you have an ending in mind. You can change the story’s ending if you wish, but you should always have a destination.

I heartily agree with 3 1/2 of these. Before I say which ones on my next blog, and why, anybody want to guess what I'm not agreeing with?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Seattle got hit by a winter storm last night. Snow, cold in the single digits, the whole catastrophe. A plane slid off the runway at SeaTac. A bus overturned. Traffic on I-5 was gridlocked, in places throughout the night. People stuck downtown abandoned their cars and sought hotel rooms. It took Jack four hours to drive home from work, and then he could not get his car up Queen Anne Hill and had to leave it at the bottom and walk up.

A hard winter was forecast for Seattle, due to La Nina, but nobody expected it to start so soon. The mayor purchased road salt and created a Winter Snow Plan, but now it seems the city will run out of salt, money, and patience long before the winter is done. Especially since, technically, it hasn't even started yet.

I grew up in Buffalo (where it currently is 59 degrees!) I'm more or less used to this. But not HERE.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Malware and Jane Austen

There has been no blogging for nearly a week because my computer got hit with a nasty Trojan that required it be put back to factory conditions with a Restart, a process I could no more do than fly. Fortunately my son was able to talk me through it from 3,000 miles away (Thank you again, Brian!) This took the better part of three days, including installing four years' worth of Windows updates (old computer), buying and reinstalling Word, trying to figure out how the new, more cluttered version of Word functions (I don't like it), and changing passwords on everything. Three writing days lost to somebody else's maliciousness.

During those three days, on a much different note, I attended Mary Robinette Kowal's reading at the University Bookstore. She read from her new novel, SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, in which Regency gentlewomen, in addition to acquiring the accomplishments of music, drawing, needlework, and dancing, can also learn domestic magic. Mary perfectly combines the Jane Austen tone with an interesting magic system appropriate to Austen's sedate plots. In addition, Mary, a professional puppeteer with theater training, is a fantastic reader, playing the part of each character and even throwing in a five-minute shadow-puppet show written in the late 1700's. She wore full Regency dress (with an offer to describe the underclothes) despite the fact that Seattle is currently having below-freezing weather with a threat of snow. All in all, it was one of the best readings I have ever attended. Oh, and the book is great fun, too -- I have read it. On a Kindle, which would have bewildered Austen. But at least my Kindle does not seem susceptible to malware.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Coming Down in the World...

... is the theme of two narratives I've read/seen in the last few days. One is the best-selling memoir by Michael Gates Gill, son of famed NEW YORKER writer Brendan Gill, HOW STARBUCKS SAVED MY LIFE. The other is the new movie MORNING GLORY.

There is a new happy-talk paradigm in this country that losing all your money and/or job and/or social position is supposed to bring home to you the importance of what really matters: love, family, the dignity of simple work. That's the theme of Gill's book. A former creative director at advertising giant J. Walter Thompson, Gill grew up affluent and continued that life with a huge house, wife, four kids. He was laid off at 53, then had an affair that, along with spectacular financial mismanagement, lost him everything. For ten years he tried to start a consulting business, failed, and at 63 went to work at the 96th Street Starbucks in NYC. He did everything from cleaning toilets to serving coffee, both of which "made me happier than I'd ever been before."

I'm not doubting Gill's word (how can I know what makes the man happy?) However, the reasons for that happiness do not come through in the book because Gill is such a bad writer: bland, un-nuanced, given to either abstracts or else rhapsodies over cleaning products. The book has been picked up for a feel-good movie with Tom Hanks, which probably says something or other.

The other coming-down-in-the-world saga, MORNING GLORY, is much different. For one thing, it's actually entertaining. Harrison Ford is a world-class newsman forced by his contract onto a morning show like TODAY, but perennially in fourth place in the TV ratings. Rachel McAdams is the peppy new executive director hired to raise those ratings. Her clashes with Ford, his grim refusal to do fluff pieces, and the idiocies of morning TV are all fun to watch. The ending is too feel-good, maybe, but at least Ford's fall from the pinnacle of his profession is not made to look like a gain. Much.

This recession/depression/whatever-you-want-to-call-it has hit all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. Somewhere between Michael Gill and Michael Moore is a real narrative, with both the real negatives and real gains of coming down in the world, waiting to be made. Maybe someone will.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


It's November, which means the rustle of falling leaves, the whoosh of cold winds of winter, and the pounding of keyboards across the nation. National Novel Writing Month, in which participants are supposed to write 50,000 words, has its opponents and its advocates.

The opponents say (actually, it's more that they sneer) that: (1) Quality is what counts, not quantity, and no one can produce that much quality that fast. (2) Writing is a solo activity, not a hive-mind one, and giving the illusion that it is through website reporting of words and sharing of encouragement is a cruel illusion.

Advocate say: (1) A first draft may have quality issues, but it's something to work with, so get it down any way you can. (2) Any encouragement is good, and anyway the actual writing is still going on solo. (3) I'm teaching two NaNoWriMo workshops in Seattle, so don't discourage my potential audience!

Both workshops are ninety-minutes on "Writing Successful Fantastic Fiction." They are at libraries at the Richmond branch (Saturday, November 13) and Renton (Thursday night, November 18). The workshops are free, so I'm not sure where the money to pay me comes from, but it's through the libraries (your tax dollars at work?) At any rate, I'm looking forward to both of them. Anyone aiming for 50,000 words in a month is bound to be motivated.

Then the opponent says, "Isn't a workshop on writing-a-novel-in-a-month that comes halfway through the month a little late?"

To which I say, "Shut up. It's all good."

Monday, November 8, 2010


This is the time of year when high school seniors are frantically completing college applications, mailing off essays, sweating through interviews, waiting to hear where/if they've been accepted. I went through the process with my two sons, as well as with other applicants with whom I stood in various relationships. I did not, however, expect to go through it with my dog.

Yesterday I took Cosette for an interview at a home-boarding place where we hope to leave her while I'm back East at Christmas. An interview was required, with both me and the dog, as well as a lengthy application. In the car on the way there, I resisted the impulse to say, "Now be sure to shake hands, look the interviewer in the eye, and sit up straight!" Or, perhaps, "Don't bark too loud and try not to bite anybody!"

Cosette passed. She will now attend Lady Di's Pet Chaperone establishment for several days. And she didn't even have to write an essay. I, however, have to finish completing the application, get her one vaccine she's missing, and have her fecal matter analyzed and notarized.

It's easier to get into Princeton.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Amused at the Movies

Last night I saw RED, the new spy caper with Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and John Malkovitch. This movie features a plot that bears no relation whatsoever to any known spy agencies, to actual international relations, to reality itself, or even to self-consistency (the same people are alternately crack shots with a rifle at a huge distance and unable with an AK-47 to hit someone in the same room). It is a ridiculous movie. I loved it.

If you're going to make a spoof, then you must go over the top, and RED does it. The acronym, it turns out, stands for "retired, extremely dangerous," which describes all four protagonists. Willis is leading a bored and lonely existence. Malkovitch is paranoid nuts, and nobody does nuts as well as John Malkovitch. Freeman is in a nursing home. Mirren leads the life of a genteel Martha Stewart who also "takes the odd contract on the side." Then someone using federal agencies tries to kill them all.

This is comic-book stuff, and far more entertaining than Batman and Robin. Halfway through the movie I realized that part of the reason it's so much fun is seeing old people do un-elderly things. Then I realized that my last Hugo and Nebula were both for old guys doing un-elderly things: Henry Erdmann in "The Erdmann Nexus" and the larcenous Max Feder in "Fountain of Age." Then I realized that age interests me more than youth. This might have depressed me -- except that the movie is too much fun. Go see it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On The Bus

Last night in class we did a short story set on a city bus. It was a pretty good story, but I was surprised that so many of the students questioned why, or whether, the two protagonists would be on a bus. "Wouldn't they have wheels?" one person said. Another: "Maybe if you show they're still students or something..."

I ride the bus. Since I have not yet bought a car in Seattle, and am apprehensive about driving on these steep hills, I take the bus when I am alone and want to go somewhere I can't walk to. I see all sorts of people on the bus. Poor people and crazy people and young people, yes, but also older, well-dressed people who for whatever reason are not driving cars. And the bus, it turns out, is endlessly entertaining.

I have talked to little kids on a field trip, bouncing up and down with excitement. I have heard a murder being discussed between two women: "And they didn't know the body was in the apartment until Saturday, when the rest of us in the building started to smell it." I have observed people reading everything from Leo Tolstoy to Danielle Steele. Last night, returning from class, we had a crazy person, harmless variety. He was explaining to a stranger, who looked slightly stunned, "I am Kali. All reality is under my command because I am the only one who exists out of time. It's very hard."

I imagine it would be. All of reality! A microcosm of which can be found on the bus.

Monday, November 1, 2010

World Fantasy Con -- Day 4

Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the last day of WFC because somehow I inadvertently erased them from the camera before downloading. I was not cut out to be a photographer.

I had breakfast with Mary Robinette Kowal, during which we discussed publishing and puppets, the latter being Mary's other profession. This was followed by coffee in the green room (finally found it!) with Gene Wolfe, who also came to my reading. I had not seen Gene for many years, and this was a treat.

The main event of the day was the WFC banquet and awards. The fiction winners are:

Best Collection: This was a tie, between There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya,and The Very Best of Gene Wolfe. Gene gave a tearful, moving speech in which he said that the award had been earned by three people: himself, "the young man I used to be who wrote these stories," and his wife Rosemary, "who really should be up here with me."

Best Novel: The City in the City, China Mieville

Best Novella, "Sea-Hearts," Morgo Langahan

Best Short Story: "The Pelican Bar"

None of the other three fiction winners were present to accept. Of the three recipients of Life Time Achievement Awards, Brian Lumley gave a nice acceptance speech in his rich Scottish accent. Peter Straub, alas, seemed almost incoherent. Terry Pratchett sent remarks that might have read better had he been able to deliver them himself with a humorous slant, since they complained about never having won a Hugo or Nebula.

I got to meet Cecilia Holland, whose Floating Worlds I have admired for a very long time. I just wish my camera had retained the picture of her!