Monday, January 31, 2011

Writing the Other

I have just finished a terrific book, Kathryn Stockett's THE HELP. Set in the early 1960's in Mississippi, the book's protagonist is a young white woman who wants to be a writer. As the civil rights movement heats up the South, she collects interviews with black maids on what it's been like to work for white families. Amid the beatings that accompany voter registration and the maids' fear of being fired for speaking out, the entire project is conducted in secret.

The novel is multiple first person, from three points of view: the white woman and two black maids. Stockett has written that much is based on memories of her own childhood in Mississippi and of the maid that virtually raised her, Demetria. For the maids in the book, Stockett writes in a mild dialect, misspelling a few words and using expletives and diction that, she says, were common to Demetria.

When I finish a book, I like to read the customer reviews on Most of these were highly laudatory, but a few took Stockett to task for attempting to write from the POV of black characters; a few criticized her reproduction of dialect at that time and place; a few objected to how "saintly" all the black characters seemed and a few to the ones that were not so saintly. This is the kind of thing that almost always comes up when I teach writing: Can an author effectively write from the POV of a character of a different race, gender, cultural background, nationality?

My own answer is yes, IF you have enough first-hand observations of the milieu plus some sympathy for it. I, for instance, could never write about Mississippi in the '60's; I was not there, did not know its people, and would get a million details wrong. Stockett was there. She wasn't inside a black woman's head, but she knew Demetria intimately and I trust her portrayal. There is no axe to grind in this book. Both the black POV characters, Aibilene and Minny, feel real and multi-dimensional (and Minny is not saintly).

What about research as sufficient guide? Obviously that has to suffice for historical novels, or otherwise we would not have BLACKOUT (Connie Willis), THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Philippa Gregory) or ATONEMENT (Ian McEwan). Writers cannot visit the past (and where is a good used time machine when you need one?) Even Octavia Butler in KINDRED was writing a character of her own race but outside her time period (ante-bellum South), and so some of KINDRED'S characters must be taken partly on faith.

And for me that's the bottom line -- how much faith do you have in this author to insert himself into a mind not his own and so become someone other than himself? I posit that you better have some faith when you read or we're all limited to autobiographies. If, as you read on, that faith seems justified, then the writer was certainly correct to "write the other." It's not "cultural appropriation" -- it's good fiction.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Autism used to be like pregnancy -- you either had the condition or you didn't. But updates to medical science eventually recognized that autism is in truth a spectrum, from those completely ignorant of the fact that other human beings have internal lives and communicate these by social cues, through the various shades of Asberger's, to simple difficulties understanding the meanings of social interactions. Now the same continuum is proposed by researchers at Harvard for prosopagnosia.

This matters to me because I'm pretty sure I'm somewhere on that continuum. In its purest form, prosopagnosia is a complete inability to recognize faces, no matter how often you see them -- including one's spouse and children. I'm not as bad as all that. But I do have much trouble remembering faces, and frequently people think I'm (pick one) (a) snubbing them,(b) dim-witted, or (c) self-centered, because I can't remember who they are until I get an external cue.

Voices help. But, as Harvard researchers recently declared, we semi-prosopagnosiacs use other clues, too, in our frantic search for a name to go with that person confidently claiming acquaintanceship. I try to memorize hair color and style, glasses type, dress. Then the person will dye her hair, get contacts, and become a devotee of Zac Posen, and I'm lost again.

I have the same trouble with movies (another common symptom). I confuse actors unless they look very different from each other, rendering plots hard to follow. Nor do I recognize actors from previous movies. I didn't recognize Sigourney Weaver in GALAXY QUEST until the credits rolled. She went blond.

It's an embarrassing problem. However, it could be worse -- I could have been a politician. Writers have a certain leeway in being weird. Or we can just stay in our studies and write. I always know who my fictional characters are.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


For those of us who were young in the '60's, the mention of "Hair" brings up memories of the musical. But these are more sober times, and researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, working with L'Oreal Paris, are not singing about hair. They're trying to determine one reason you have a bad hair day.

Each of your hair strands is coated with a layer of fatty acids, plus "unusual" molecules resting on the surface. By attaching a hair snippet sixty micrometers long to the tip of an atomic force microscope probe, the scientists discovered the following:

Hair strands tend to repel each other at a distance. (This explains Einstein's 'do.)

Closer than 15 nanometers, hair strands attract each other.

Bleaching your hair removes much of the fatty layer, reducing the attractive property, and accounting for the dried out "haystack" look without conditioner (which Einstein could have used).

All this is interesting but not very useful (unless you're Einstein). I have to have my hair colored again today (85% of women over sixteen color their hair). I dislike sitting in the salon being fussed over. What I really want is for researchers to discover what will stop hair permanently from graying. Where is science when you truly need it?

Thursday, January 20, 2011


LIGHTSPEED took my story "Eliot Wrote" within five hours of my (finally) uploading it. Again, thank you all for your offers of help with my computer problems. For those who wanted to know how I found an alternate ending that worked, the process had three steps:

1) Go back to the last place you're excited about the story (in this case, 2/3 of the way through) and toss out everything after that.

2) Think of a different, but still logical, way for a secondary character to act. Secondary characters are, by definition, not as completely delineated as the point-of-view character and so the author has some wiggle room as to how they might behave. Change something major here.

3) Return to your protagonist -- how does he react to this change of behavior in someone important to him? If nothing sparks for you, try different behavior from the secondary character, or perhaps a different character.

This can sometimes veer the story in a more promising direction, and in this case, it did.

Another note on digital publishing: Sheila Williams has asked me to mention that ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION has just published its first digital anthology, ENTER A FUTURE: FANTASTIC TALES FROM ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION. Sheila is the editor and the anthology is for sale exclusively at It includes my story "Safeguard," as well as fiction by Connie Willis, Robert Silverberg, Ted Kosmatka, and others.

The Digital Age of Publishing marches on.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Word and Words

Thanks to -- or perhaps despite -- all the suggestions I received for finishing my story that wasn't working right at the end, I did finish it. I then tried to submit it to Lightspeed, which led to a whole new host of problems.

Why can't Microsoft ever leave well enough alone?

I have, against my will, the latest version of Word, because a virus ate my previous version. The new version saves all its documents as ".docx" files, despite the fact that ".doc" files are now the industry standard all over the world. Lightspeed would not take a .docx file into the bowels of its automatic electronic submission system. Forty-five minutes of wading hopelessly through Microsoft's "Help" sections failed to help me with this. So I interrupted my son's workday to ask what to do. After giving me the lecture on how he told me I wasn't going to like the new Word, he gave me three options:

1) Build a time machine out of a DeLorean and go back to before my Toshiba got a virus.

2) Get the recipient to alter its compatibility protocols.

3) Convert the story to an earlier version of Word, thereby wiping out all the fancy things I paid money for in the new version.

Naturally, I took Door Number 3, following Kevin's instructions, and Lightspeed absorbed the story. I hope.

So I have words for Microsoft: $*(#%8&@$*%

Lake Superior State University in Michigan also has words. Every year on New Year's Day they issue a list of words that have, in the previous year, been so misused or overused that everyone is sick of them. On the current list includes:

"friend" used as verb
teachable moment
tweetaholic, retweet, twitterhead, twittersphere
toxic assets
"In these economic times"
"It's all good"

This leaves some people I know with nothing to communicate. Too bad they don't work for Microsoft.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


A few blogs ago I wrote about my writing dry spell. Since then I started, persevered, and finished a story, but the story isn't working. Or, rather, two-thirds of it is working -- characters, voice, incidents -- but the ending is wrong. And I have no idea what the right ending might be.

This is partly a consequence of the way I work, which is the only way I can work. I never know the ending when I begin, being incapable of thinking something through until I'm actually writing it through. Usually, however, the ending occurs to me as I write, and I know it's the right ending because I'm excited about it. Passion is the literary indicator that I'm on the right track. This time, it's just not there.

Passion can take many forms. Yesterday's newspaper included a story about a woman who constructed a fourteen-feet long by four-feet high replica of da Vinci's "The Last Supper" completely out of dryer lint. She bought and repeatedly washed towels of various colors to collect the lint in the shades she needed. The project to0k 800 hours of laundry and 200 hours of gluing on laundry lint. That is passion. (It could also be several other things, but let's focus on the passion.)

My story needs a new last third. I will set it aside and hope something comes to me, but I'm not sanguine because in my experience, that doesn't happen too often. Either the right end occurs to me as I'm doing the first draft, or I never get it. Sigh. And I really liked my character, young Eliot Tremling.

If I could, I'd make Eliot a collector of dryer lint. But that isn't going to work, either. Too bad.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Cranky at the Movies

I like country music. The reasons for this are (1) I do not have a sophisticated musical ear, and (2) the songs tell little stories. So I was very disappointed in Gwyneth Paltrow's new movie, COUNTRY STRONG. I have no idea whether or not Paltrow sang well (she sounded fine to me, which means nothing), and Tim McGraw never sings at all, but the main problem is that the story sucks.

Nothing adds up. It's unclear why Paltrow's character, country superstar Kelly Canter, is having mental difficulties. She's an alcoholic, but unlike last year's CRAZY HEART, this is not a convincing movie about alcoholism. She is supposed to be mentally unstable, but unlike BLACK SWAN, we never get into her delusions or know why she is having them or what they are. The characters form alliances, turn away from each other, punch each other, turn to each other for help, all without discernible reasons other than the need for a dramatic scene. For most of the movie, it's not even clear who is or is not sleeping with whom.

Worst of all, though, is the movie's message, which the characters repeat solemnly to each other and which the ending bears out: "You can't have both fame and love." Why not? Not even the movie shows why, let alone real life. But when the only answer to being famous [SPOILER ALERT!] is to kill yourself, it's less a sign of profound depth than of film makers desperate for an ending.

Not recommended -- although I did enjoy the music.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Dry Spell

Some writers have "a million ideas" and "merely lack time to develop them." I am not one of those writers. Yes, ideas drift randomly across my brain every time I read a newspaper or SCIENCE NEWS or even PEOPLE (in the dentist's office), but they are not really strong enough to write about. More like, "Hmmm, how would that be, that's dumb." Or trite. Or something I'm not really interested in. So when I do get an idea that excites me, it's an event and I write the story or novel.

Right now I have no such idea.

The fall-back activity, which I'm currently engaged in, is called "noodling around." It consists half of sitting on the sofa with a clipboard on my knees, pen in hand, and starting snippets of possible stories -- a character sketch, a dialogue exchange, one of those germs that rubbed off from SCIENCE NEWS. The hope is that something will catch fire. So far, nothing has. The other half of noodling around consists of fill-in distractions: moving furniture around. Cleaning under the sofa. Taking the dog for very long walks. Alphabetizing spice jars.

I hate this period. And, of course, the worse thing about it is always the fear: What if NO idea ever presents itself to me again? The fact that that hasn't happened before is no consolation. What if it does this time?

Then what?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Planes and Ian McEwan

On my way back from Buffalo, I saw a huge sign painted on the wall of an airport: KEEP YOUR SMILE IN ITS LOCKED AND UPRIGHT POSITION!

Mine was not. My flight from Chicago was canceled due to -- get this -- a lack of pilots. We were all seated on the plane when the flight attendant removed us all, explaining that the pilots could not legally fly because they were one hour over the flight time allowed by the FAA. So United put up an entire Airbus 320-A of people at O'Hare hotels, gave them meal vouchers, and brought them back the next morning to the same plane, which had sat there empty all night. Nobody in scheduling could notice a problem sometime before we were due to take off?

All this put me in a perfect frame of mine to read Ian McEwan's latest novel, SOLAR. Its protagonist, Michael Beard, is one of the most unlikable viewpoint characters in fiction: lying, cheating, gluttonous, and not in the jolly way of a Falstaff. Beard, a physicist and Nobel Laureate, steals the work of a post-doc, sees that an innocent man goes to jail for the post-doc's accidental death, lies to his business partners, cheats on five wives and innumerable mistresses, neglects his daughter, and finally betrays the cause for which he is ostensibly working (climate control).

The novel is extremely well written (this is the brilliant author of ATONEMENT and SATURDAY, after all) and possibly meant as black comedy. In addition, I usually don't mind unsympathetic protags if they are interesting. But whether or not it was my bad plane karma, I didn't like this book. And [SPOILER ALERT] Beard doesn't even get a comeuppance from any of his moral transgressions; at the end of the book he dies of a heart attack just before the cops and lawyers close in.

McEwan's smile is not in locked and upright position. That's usually a good thing. But this time out, neither was mine.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year Round Up

Happy New Year! This blog is a follow-up to previous blog entries in which some of you might (or might not) have had an interest. First, Phoenix Pix, a new-ish small press that occasionally gives away copies of its publications as a promotion, is now giving away free copies of my novella ACT ONE as a download, during the month of January. You can order one at There are instructions and download link The Coupon Code for January is 9992365.

Walter Jon Williams and I now have eight accepted participants for Taos Toolbox, the two-week intensive workshop for fantasy and science fiction that we are teaching at Taos, NM in July. Judging from the quality of the submission manuscripts., this is going to be a very promising group of writers indeed. If you're interested, go to for more information.

My story for the Poul Anderson tribute volume was accepted by editors Gardner Dozois and Greg Bear. I don't know when the volume will be out.

And on a personal note (as if one's writing wasn't personal!), Jack Skillingstead and I are engaged and will be married in February in Las Vegas. NOT, however, by an Elvis impersonator!