Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Charmed At the Movies

"Tell me what a man likes and I will tell you what he is," somebody said a very long time ago. I had only a mild liking for THOR. But the movie I saw last weekend captured my heart.It's QUEEN TO PLAY (in French, with English subtitles; the French title is JOUEUSE). It's about chess, although that's not why I liked it. The chess games are never clearly presented, probably because a film full of chess positions would baffle or bore 98% of the audience 98% of the time. This movie is about people.

Hélène, a chambermaid at a small hotel by the sea, glimpses a vacationing couple playing chess on the balcony. The woman -- sensual, confident, absorbed in something challenging -- is everything that Hélène is not, and would like to be. She has her hair cut like the woman's, but that makes no difference at all. She acquires a satin nightdress like hers, but Hélène's husband doesn't even notice. What Hélène needs is not a superficial make-over, but a passion. She learns chess, the thing that attracted her to that balcony in the first place.

How she does so, what she learns along the way, and how Hélène's passion transforms every relationship in her life, is the substance of the movie. Chess is not without its dark side. Many of its champions were at least partly mad (Paul Morphy, Bobby Fischer) and some of its adherents became so drawn in they abandon the rest of their lives (Marcel du Champ). Hélène, however, does not become lost to ambition or gain the World Championship or destroy others' happiness -- this is not THOR. QUEEN TO PLAY is a delicate, wry, humane film about change, and it stays on a human level. Sandrine Bonnaire as Hélène and Kevin Kline as her chess teacher are both superb. See this movie.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bemused at the Movies

I am not a comic-book movie person. It's not that I don't like fantasy, it's just that I have this arcane idea that it ought to make sense in its own terms: self-consistent, not a gross insult to the myths it sprang from -- things like that. Nonetheless, I sort of enjoyed THOR. It was so silly that no one could ask more of it than it gave. It would be like asking a two-year-old to do calculus.

The silliness begins with the cast. Asgard, home of the Norse gods, is now politically correct enough to include an Oriental warrior, a female warrior, and a Black keeper-of-the-bridge to other realms. The bridge itself appears to be made of glitter-covered Legos. Asgard, too, glitters, made up of gold-colored abstract buildings designed by some far-past ancestor of Frank Gehry. All this is rather sweet, in a frivolous sort of way. Also sweet is the movie's rather Victorian premise: That an insensitive and loose-cannon guy can be saved by the love of a good woman. The guy is Thor, and the woman is a mortal who is supposed to be an astrophysicist but who records her data in spiral notebooks by drawing little pictures of planets.

So why did I enjoy this movie? Not for the plot, which mostly involves fighting: Norse gods versus frost giants, Thor versus Loki, various hapless humans versus each other. But there are fun touches throughout. When Thor's hammer falls to Earth and is stuck there, nobody can draw it off the stone it landed on (move over, King Arthur). The locals set up a contest; people arrive in pick-up trucks; someone is selling hot dogs. That kind of thing kept me amused, even though ten minutes after I left the theater, most of the movie had vanished from my head. No loss. There's always another comic-book movie coming.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Adventures in Re-issuing

Re-issuing one's work is always easiest if you don't have to do it yourself. Writers Digest Books has just reissued my book on writing fiction, BEGINNINGS, MIDDLES, AND ENDS, with a soft-sell cover featuring trees:

These are presumably the same trees that will be cut down and pulped to print the fiction I am telling you how to write. There's a moral there, although I don't know what.

Meanwhile, my project to re-issue my books in electronic form proceeds apace. Well, okay, not "apace," exactly, but I have done several things:

I have ascertained that I own electronic rights to four books on my backlist. These are books that were published before there was such a thing as electronic rights.

I am going today to Vonda McIntyre's house to learn how to use a scanner. Then, this weekend, I will actually buy a scanner. Thereafter, I will scan in my books while watching TV, instead of doing sudoku while I watch TV.

I have decided that the first book I will e-pub is NOTHING HUMAN. A friend is making a cover for this.

Not, perhaps, a lot of progress, but some. Oh, and I also started writing another novel -- which, I have to say, is easier than dealing with the old ones. Go figure.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Zombies at the CDC

It's that time again: Spring Weird Season. You can't make this stuff up.

The Centers for Disease Control, perhaps tired of having its factual, health-based bulletins ignored, on Monday posted on its website an article on how to cope with a zombie attack. By Tuesday, it had gotten so many hits that it crashed the server. The report was put together by the CDC Zombie Task Force, and I'm sure you'll want this valuable information.

In an unusual sting operation, a woman was accused of trying to sell a fraudulent and tightly controlled substance to an undercover agent, for 1.7 million dollars. She was detained by authorities. The substance was a moon rock and the agent was "an undercover NASA investigator" -- something I didn't even know existed.

And the biggie, of course -- today is the Rapture. If you're still here at midnight, that means you're among the damned. I'm sure you'll have plenty of company.

Friday, May 20, 2011

E-Format Questions

I found the right last page to my YA novel, and am now turning my attention to the next project: getting my backlist onto e-readers. Actually, I also hope to turn your attention there, in hopes that I can get input from all of you out there more knowledgeable about things electronic (which is virtually everybody).

Assuming I can get the e-rights, or already possess the e-rights, to a book, and can't get the copy edited ms. from the publisher (almost a certainty), the first step seems to be to find a company that will scan in the book. I found one, but here are my questions:

Has anybody had any dealings with Blue Leaf Book Scanning Company?

Can anyone recommend a scanning company they have had dealings with?

Since I have a choice of formats in which they will deliver the electronic file, should I ask for PDF or order two files, one in e-pub and one formatted for the Kindle? Specifically, if I get those formats, are they readable so that I can proofread them, or would I have to have proofread in PDF anyway?

Pricing: How much would you pay for a backlist book on the Nook or Kindle? I want to find a price that would actually induce people to buy.

All help very welcome!

Thursday, May 19, 2011


So I've finished my YA science fiction novel. Almost. Sort of. The climax, rewritten, is now more dramatic (but stops short of melodrama, I fervently hope). There is a title (FLASH POINT) that works on several story levels. I still love my characters. But -- the last page isn't right.

Endings are important. The end of anything is the power position. This is true on the sentence level, which is why "I saw the blood on the floor when I woke up in the morning" is much weaker than "When I woke up in the morning, the floor swam in blood."

It's true on the paragraph level, where you don't bury the high point in the middle of a narrative paragraph but save it for the end.

It's true on the scene-or-chapter level, which should end with, if not an actual cliff hanger, at least an intensifying of the situation to keep the reader going to the next scene.

And it's completely true at the ending of a book. Sometimes a deliberate understatement works, as in the last paragraph of Somerset Maugham's OF HUMAN BONDAGE. But I haven't got a deliberate understatement and I haven't got much of anything else, either. Fatal to let an ending peter out, turn sentimental, or become preachy. Back to the keyboard.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Science Fiction Ladies' Lunch

Yesterday was the First Annual Science Fiction Ladies' Lunch at my apartment in Seattle. Eleven female SF writers exchanged information on writing and publishing, ate quiche and salad, drank mimosas, talked and laughed for several hours. It was great fun: networking as friendship rather than as professional chore. Clockwise from lower left: Nicola Griffith, Timmi duChamp, Kelley Eskridge, Nancy Kress, Brenda Cooper, Nisi Shawl, Eileen Gunn, Judith Berman, Cat Rambo. Taking the picture: Vonda McIntyre. Had to leave early: Leslie Howle. Out of town: Louise Marley.There was much discussion of self-promotion: How much is necessary? What if you don't like doing it? Where do you cross the line from legitimate self-promotion to blatant egotism? What about the trade-off between time spent marketing and time therefore not spent writing? Nobody came to any real conclusions, but everybody learned something from the others.

And speaking of self-promotion, here is the link to my interview on Multiverse News:
http://www.itvnw.com/ITV/Podcasts/ITVLIVEMulti/ITVLIVETST051211Multi.mp4 Caveat: I have not watched this interview (I hate watching myself on camera) so I have no idea if I said anything embarrassing.

Also: Taos Toolbox, the intensive two-week workshop that Walter Jon Williams and I are teaching in July in the gorgeous mountains of New Mexico, is filling up fast. If you're interested, check it out at taostoolbox.com.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Srange Interview

Two days ago I did the oddest interview of my career. It was live for Independent Television Network, a web-TV site (www.itvnw.com). The interview is not yet up on the site, but will be soon. I'll post the exact URL when I have it.

Did I say that it was live? That doesn't begin to describe it. The interview was conducted by Gregg Lienweber, host of Multiverse News, in a glass-sided van parked in front of Dick's Hamburgers on Capital Hill. Passers-by could see us, hear us through loudspeakers, and also catch our camera angles on a TV screen mounted in a corner of the van to face outside. People stopped, looked puzzled, mouthed "What the hell?" They made faces through the glass. They listened for a while, before standing in line for their quarter-pounders with pickles. Sun streamed in through the glass, heating up the inside. It was a little like being a zoo animal, one so dangerous that not even bars are permitted on the cage. An asp, maybe, or a tarantula.

But Gregg had clearly read my work and he asked interesting questions. I ended up enjoying the whole thing.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kress Outed!

I am not who I am. At least, not all of the time.

Over the past few years I have not published a science fiction novel because I have been writing and publishing a YA fantasy trilogy under the pseudonym "Anna Kendall." They have sold in five countries thus far. The first one is out in the United States, and the first two are out in England. Here are the covers:

Why YA? Why fantasy? Why a pseudonym? I wrote fantasy because my protagonist, Roger Kilbourne, popped into my head one day and began tugging at my sleeve: "Write me! Write me!" No, I said, I don't write fantasy. More "Write me! Write me!" So I did. (You really can't argue with these people). Telling his story took three books.

Why YA? Because Roger is fourteen at the start of the first book, and apparently any novel whose first-person protagonist is fourteen, is YA. I actually did not realize this when I began Roger's complicated story.

The pseudonym evolved because my agent and publishers did not wish to have this confused with my usual SF, much of which concerns genetic engineering. There is no genetic engineering in CROSSING OVER. There is a dark form of magic; Roger has the ability to cross over into the Country of the Dead. There are some things more dangerous than dying, and Roger encounters them.

Reviews have been good. And I like these books. If you choose to read them, I hope you will, too.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Crazy Time

Finishing a book can make anyone crazy. Moods swing wildly -- This is great! This sucks! I have no idea if this is good or not! Nobody in their right mind would read this drivel! This one might be my break-out novel! Why am I in this business again?

And then one's ideas get weird. Yesterday, while trying to decide if my protagonist Amy would or would not say the dialogue I just typed in (and why at this point in the novel don't I KNOW?), I had a great insight: Writing a novel is just like doing sudoku.


With sudoku, one's person's easy puzzle is another's terrible challenge. With writing, one person's subject matter is another's guaranteed failure.

With sudoku, a lot depends on where you start. If you happen to fill in certain key numbers early on, the whole puzzle is easier. With a story, much depends on where you start. Too early and it lacks tension, too late and you struggle to fill in backstory without resorting to expository lumps.

With sudoku, there comes a point where you find the one number that makes all the rest obvious -- usually about 2/3 of the way through the puzzle. For me that's exactly how writing works, since I don't plot beforehand. For both, it's the AHA! moment.

With sudoku, slow and steady solves the problem -- race too fast and I end up with two "8s" in the same square. With writing, the novel comes out best with a steady accumulation of pages each and every day, rather than frenetic marathon sessions punctuated by idleness.

Of course, there are differences -- sudoku really could use more plot. But -- wait! I just realized how writing is actually like growing squash! Yes! You see--

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Blogging Success

The new NEW YORKER contains a long article on one of the most successful blogs on the Internet, with millions of followers: Ree Drummond's, found on her site www.pionerrwoman.com. Drummond is the best-selling author of HIGH HEELS TO TRACTOR WHEELS, which describes how a suburban woman fell in love with a "laconic rancher," married him, and now happily lives life on a ranch, home-schooling their four kids, rounding up cattle, cooking from scratch, and loving every photo-shopped moment. I have not visited her site, but what the article did was bring home to me how important it is to know yourself.

Because when I was young, Drummond's life was what I thought I wanted: rural, domestic, fecund, close to the land, married to a gorgeous strong-silent, Gary Cooper type. Since I had a powerful imagination and considerable will, I pursued this dream, cloaking in imaginative fantasy everything that didn't quite fit, or that fit but made me uneasy. It took decades for me to learn enough about myself to recognize:
  • I like nature to look at but not interact with all that much.
  • Home-schooling kids mean you never have time alone to do things alone, like write. Yes, Drummond does it, but she writes in short fifteen-minute bursts (doesn't work for me for fiction) and appears to need no sleep. I adore my sons, but I needed them to be at school during the day so I could be at the keyboard.
  • I don't enjoy laconic, outdoorsy men. I like men who talk, read books, talk about those books, and would rather go to a play than a rodeo.
  • I am afraid of horses.
This knowledge did not come easy. I learned it by living ten years in an isolated rural area, teaching fourth grade for four years, falling off a horse and hitting my head enough to become unconscious, writing novels, divorcing, moving to a big city, and attending a lot of plays (not in that order). I wish Ree Drummond nothing but the best as she describes her western version of Arcadia -- but no thanks. Listen to Polonius instead.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Writing Dilemma

I have finished the first draft of my YA novel, under contract to Viking, and immediately ran into a dilemma. The climax does not seem dramatic enough. I can make it more dramatic -- but only at the cost of less plausibility in my near-future scenario. So which matters more -- increased drama or greater plausibility?

Reading recent, successful YA fiction, it seems that drama trumps plausibility. I did not buy the premises of either THE HUNGER GAMES or LITTLE BROTHER (see ancient blogs for reasons), yet both were best sellers. LITTLE BROTHER, like my (still untitled) novel, is set just a year or two in the future. It seems to me that the closer you get to present day, the more critical is believability. Rewriting my ending would still preserve psychological plausibility -- that is, all my characters would still act in character. But it would also verge closer to melodrama.

I might do it anyway. Still deciding.