Saturday, April 30, 2011


The YA anthology LIFE ON MARS, edited by Jonathan Strahan, turned up in my mailbox yesterday. It includes my story "First Principle," as well as fiction by Ian McDonald, Cory Doctorow, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ellen Klages, Stephen Baxter, the late Kage Baker, and more.

I noticed an interesting thing about this anthology. From the author bios as well as the contributors that I know personally, only Stephen Baxter and Alistair Reynolds are actual scientists. Stan Robinson, of course, wrote the RED MARS trilogy that (deservedly) set the standard for colonizing-Mars novels. But he did so as an obsessed writer, not a working scientist. Some of the rest of us in the anthology (me, Ellen) have no scientific credentials whatsoever. This underlines an important point that came up on panels over and over again last weekend at Norwescon:

One of the tasks of a writer is to research a story's background. But even more important is take a little bit of knowledge and make it sound like you know a lot. This is true whether the "knowledge" is of Mars, genetic engineering, the workings of dryad magic, or the history of the Seven Kingdoms. In other words: For fiction, it's not what you know, and it's certainly not who you know -- it's how skillful a liar you can be, giving the impression that you know a lot more than you do. One of the ways to do this is by understatement. The casual throw-away reference, artfully placed, can convince more than the earnest block of exposition.

On another subject: I have finally untangled my long-dormant and badly confused Twitter account. Is there a word for people who follow tweets, as opposed to dispensing them? If you are one, you can follow me on Twitter at nancykress.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Titleless in Seattle

I have finished the second draft of my YA science fiction novel, which is under contract to Viking. That is, I've almost finished it. The thing has no title. 98,000 words of prose I can come up with but a title -- no.

I am terrible at titles. Really, really bad. Nearly all of mine have been supplied by other people. Bruce McAllister once gave me a title, swearing that "it will fit any story ever written." I was skeptical about that -- such a sweeping statement! So much hubris! But he was right. The title was "In A World Like This" and Ellen Datlow ran the story in OMNI.

But Bruce is not here now. Jack is busy with his own book. Viking is going to want to call this book something other than what is on the first page now ("Title," in twenty-point Times Roman -- if it's big enough, it doesn't have to be original?) I still have a clean-up draft to do. Maybe by the time that's finished, I will have thought of something.

Why are some other writers so good at titles? How do they do it?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Norwescon. Last Day

Today I did something I almost never do at cons: blew off a panel I was supposed to be on. I asked Michael Swanwick to take my place on the Human Evolution panel (which he did) so I could attend the editors' panel on the future of small presses. I'm glad I did. Rose O'Keefe of Eraserhead Press ("We publish bizarro fiction"), Patrick Swenson of Fairwood Press, and Lou Anders of Pyr were interesting and informative.
Among the points they made:

Hardcover sales are down, but e-book sales continue to rise, now accounting for 9% of all book sales. In SF and fantasy, this number may be higher because we are a wired-in group. Gordon Van Gelder thinks it may top out at about 35%.

Publishing, like music, is increasingly developing strong niche publishers, who do a specific kind of book which in itself becomes a "brand" that readers look for; Eraserhead is a prime example.
Lou added that, "Unfortunately, hard SF itself is increasingly becoming a niche, which only small presses like Nightshade do, except for big-name authors who already have a following." (The Pyr catalogue, I noted afterward, is almost all fantasy titles).

From Lou: "E-books will be the new mid-list," with hardcovers mostly going to either big-name authors or to the spectacular, expensive collectors' editions done by, for example, Subterranean.

Nobody wants to publish short story collections, which do not sell well.

Bookstores may eventually become display centers where you go to see what's new, with one or two copies of everything on the shelves, then order what you want either from a Print-on-Demand machine in the basement or on-line for your e-reader. (Some of us already use bookstores in this manner.)

But the big agreement was this: It's the Wild West out there in publishing, a time of tremendous change. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Norwescon Day 2

Conventions are sometimes hard work.

Yesterday at Norwescon I was originally scheduled for seven panels. I dropped one, which left me talking for six hours, often one after another. Now, I like doing panels, but by dinner time I was hoarse, tired of smiling, and completely talked-out. There was not even time to recuperate in the bar between sessions. Here are Kelley Eskridge, Jack Skillingstead, Mary Rosenblum, me, and Ted Kosmatka discussing Methods of Characterization:
But the costumes were amazing. Here is a plant person:

A gorgeous Victorian lady:And, incongruously, Uncle Sam. Or maybe not so incongruously: the hallways were full of aliens, Storm Troopers, Starfleet officers, Regency bucks, butterflies, Alice in Wonderland, satyrs, and barbarians, all jostling each other in the hallways.The most interesting panel I was on was called "The Best Writing Advice I Ever Received," moderated by the incomparable Jay Lake. Some samples of received wisdom:

Eileen Gunn was told by William Gibson: "You must overcome your quite natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work."

I was told by Bruce Sterling: "Follow the money."

Jack Skillingstead offered: "Finish things."

Jay Lake offered: "No matter how much you're writing, do a little more."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Norwescon 34

Yesterday was my first day at Norwescon. I would have more pictures of this except for technological glitches with camera, computer, and me. Today I will get pictures of some of the great costumes, since this is a big costuming con. It is a large con, and a fun one.

The day began with dropping off Cosette at the dog boarders. She was not happy about this. Jack and I had Mary Robinette Kowal with us, since she is staying at our apartment for the con. During the day I sat on a panel with Mary, Jack, and Claire Johnson on "When Writers Don't Get Paid." This covered two issues: piracy, and the changing publishing environment in which electronic publishing is in the ascendancy and print publishing is (maybe) in some sort of (possibly temporary) decline. I resolved to get more of my work up on Kindle, Nook, iPad, and Sony eReader.

Later I did a reading, reading for the first time from the YA fantasy I published under a pseudonym. More on this later in the week.

The high point of the day was dinner with Michael Swanwick, Eileen Gunn, John Berry, Ted Kosmatka, Jack, Brenda Cooper and Leslie Howle. The hotel cocktails all include dry ice, so our table foamed quite a bit. Here is Michael with a martini, looking very Punk Riviera:

During dinner there was much discussion of autobiographies by writers. The question was raised: If you wrote an autobiography, would you be completely honest about your past actions and thoughts? Even if your children might read it? Everybody at the table said no. Which says something about us all -- but what?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Oh, Susanna, With a Problem on My Knee

Two weeks ago on an airplane I reached up to put my suitcase in the overhead rack, turned to take my seat, and did something terrible to my left knee. For a while I did nothing about it, not knowing what to do (ice? heat? wrap? rest? walk it through?) The knee got worse. Eventually I went to a doctor, who sent me to a physical therapist.

I didn't tear my meniscus (until this happened I didn't even know I possessed a meniscus. Or, more accurately, two). This is good because it means I don't need surgery. The meniscus is, however, strained and "profoundly irritated," an image I like because I picture the ball of cartilage in there scowling furiously. So now I must do exercises, take anti-inflammatories, refrain from jogging (which I wasn't doing anyway), and take the dog on only very short walks. The dog will not like this. However, her menisci are fine, so she'll have to give way.

Good thing I'm a writer instead of, say, a dancer. Writers have a long shelf-life, even if some of our bits and pieces become battered. In fact, a study I read recently compared when people in various professions on average "peak": do their best and most original work. Writers are the last to peak. Physicists and mathematicians peak earliest; often they have their most original insights in their twenties, and then spend the rest of their careers exploring the implications of those insights. With or without working menisci.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Once again, I am way behind everybody else. Recently I finished Stieg Larsson's mega-bestseller THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. Not only am I behind everyone else, I'm apparently at odds with their judgment.

I thought it was a perfectly competent mystery novel. The character of Lisbeth, so geeky and socially alienated and reserved that most people think she is mentally challenged rather than brilliant, was interesting. So was the setting, Scandanavia in winter.

However [SPOILER ALERT] the serial-killer-of-women villain was two-dimensional, and hardly fresh. The murders were described in such grisly detail that it became not just graphic but unnecessarily sensationalistic. A major aspect of the plot, the Biblical tie-ins to the murders, was introduced with much fanfare and then just dropped. Other plot aspects seemed merely distracting, such as Lisbeth's mother's never-revealed "secrets." Finally, the story is cluttered with much backstory about family history, going back to the fifteenth century, that has little bearing on the present and introduces -- literally -- at least a hundred names who never appear again.

So I'm left wondering -- why this book? Why this novel at this time to become such a hit? I don't know. I never know. Publishing is mysterious, but not nearly as mysterious as readers' responses to it.

Or maybe it's just me.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hemingway and Paula Mclain

Paula Mclain's book THE PARIS WIFE, about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, has been on the NEW YORK TIMES best-seller list for a while now. It's a readable, first-person story of Hadley Richardson's life from the time she met Hemingway until their divorce, much of which was spent either in Paris or on the Riviera with the Fitzgeralds, Murphys, and other members of the 1920's gorgeous, hard-drinking, hard-living expatriate artists. Mclain is very careful to label her book "A Novel" (it's in the subtitle). And she sticks to the known facts of who lived where when, who wrote what when, who sent letters to whom and about what.

But if this were a TV show, it would be labelled a "docudrama," not a documentary, and as such it shares the great weakness of such productions: the reader/viewer doesn't know where fact leaves off and invention begins. When Mclain writes of Hadley "I thought this" -- did she really? Did Hemingway really call her shortly before he shot himself to express regret that he had treated her badly ("I ruined it, Tatie.") Did Pauline, who would become his second wife, really slip into Ernest and Hadley's bed in the south of France while both of them were asleep in it?

This all makes me queasy, although I feel hypocritical about the feeling. After all, I love Philippa Gregory's historical novels that do exactly the same thing for Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and the rest of the Tudors -- another hard-drinking, hard-living, promiscuous set. So what's the difference? I'm not even a Hemingway fan.

But somehow, there does seem to be a difference. I just can't decide what it is.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Happy at the Movies

I went to see THE LINCOLN LAWYER under the vague apprehension that it was about Abraham Lincoln. It's not; the movie about Lincoln that involves lawyers is called CONSPIRATOR and isn't out yet, at least not in Seattle. I don't know if that one is any good, but THE LINCOLN LAWYER is.

I want three things from a movie: characters I'm interested in (which is not the same as liking); a plot that is logical, cohesive, and absorbing; and a sense that there is something being said about the world. LINCOLN LAWYER delivers on all three. Other viewers may want other qualities from a film: visual style, for instance, on which this movie does not score as high. Or so I'm told -- visual style is not something I'm very sensitive to.

The film is about Mickey Haller, well played by Matthew McConaughey, a very successful defense lawyer of sleazy scumbags. Haller knows every scam, trick, and deception in the justice system, and employs most of them himself. When he gets a client who is actually innocent, possibly a first for him, his usual balance is upset. The glimpses of the underbelly of the courthouse-and-jail life are fascinating. Haller, who at first seems one-dimensional, reveals other facets of himself as we see his complex relationship with his ex-wife, his love for his child, and his confusion as he approaches a moral dilemma: a guilty man may still deserve a good defense, but what if he's really really guilty of something really really heinous? Where is the line in aiding evil that you don't cross -- or do you?

The plot twists and turns, and the rest of the cast keeps pace with it (Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy). If you like courtroom dramas, you'll like this one.

Friday, April 1, 2011

SF and the Outer World

The March 31 issue of THE NEW YORKER reviewed PAUL, which I blogged about recently. THE NEW YORKER didn't like it. They mentioned the same thing I objected to, the gratuitous raunchiness, but that was not the reviewer's main problem, which seems to be with science fiction itself. Anthony Lane (admittedly, always a hard man to please) calls SF as a whole "nothing if not mockable." He finds "science fiction so inherently close to the absurd that the toughest challenge is not to lampoon it -- as movies like "Galaxy Quest" have done before, and Mottola does here with his blatant gestures to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T." -- but to play it straight, as Spielberg managed to do. Only thus can we probe, to borrow a key verb from the aficionados, the ridiculous for the sublime: those terrors, or unlikely consolations, that lurk within."

I have several issues with this lofty denigration of an entire genre. In no particular order:

Most of SF "plays it straight," and often does so quite convincingly.

ALL art is "mockable." It's not as if parodies don't exist of HAMLET and ANNA KARENINA. Not to mention the parodies that go on in the world of modern painting.

Not all SF is "ridiculous" or needs to be "probed" for something -- anything -- of psychological value. Much hard SF, for example, exists in the borderland between the science we have today and the science we will have tomorrow. It is not ridiculous but predictive, not of a specific future but of aspects of the future we should take seriously.

My main objection to Lane's statement, however, lies in its last words. I am one of those writers who would agree that fiction is driven by character, by what "lies within." Yet that does not mean the outer world is valueless. The best SF explores large questions of how technology interacts with humanity; how political systems interact with humanity; how science shapes our thought. In short, it focuses on the outer world, while much of contemporary fiction focuses solely on small lives lived in small circumstances. Surely the larger universe -- the one outside our own lives -- has interest? Are we SF people the only fiction writers still cognizant of that? If so, then what we do is neither ridiculous nor inherently mockable.

Bad call, Mr. Lane.