Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Spotting Talent

Yesterday I read LADY SUSAN, the short epistolary novel that Jane Austen wrote while still in her teens. It is astonishing that I haven't read this before, since for decades I have been a devoted fan of Jane Austen's six novels. LADY SUSAN is not of their quality; the letter format precludes dramatization, and the ending is rushed. What surprised me, however, was how much of Austen's talent was evident even from this clumsy, juvenile attempt.

I teach a lot (this summer it was Clarion and Taos Toolbox). When a student is talented, it's usually evident right away. The story may be hopeless: badly constructed, implausible, too slight. But there will be an aptness of phrase, or a flash of complex character, or an interesting take on an old idea, or a gift for dialogue that brings personality alive. Something that suggests an original mind trying to paint a story in words.

However, talent by itself does NOT predict success. That also I have learned over decades of teaching. Many talented aspiring writers never grow beyond their initial talent, for one of three reasons: (1) They don't write enough to improve. A story or two every year is seldom enough. (2) They cannot take rejection, becoming too discouraged or too defensive, and so stop writing entirely. (3) They cannot really "hear" feedback and incorporate it into their writing, and so their aptitude for the phrase, the sentence, or the scene doesn't grow into an aptitude for story as a whole.

These are, basically, character traits: commitment, resilience, and humility. There is no way that working with students for a few weeks lets me assess those. So when a writer asks me, "Do you think I can make it?" the only honest answer is, "I have no way to tell." Talent is the seed, but only time grows whole plants and brings them to fruition.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Criminals and the Brain

The July/August issue of THE ATLANTIC contains a very disturbing article, "The Brain On Trial," by David Eagleman. It makes the argument (the topic of one of my panels at Worldcon, by coincidence) against free will -- or at least against totally free will. Eagleman cites a number of legal cases and scientific studies in which brain conditions prompted out-of-character violent actions.

The most upsetting of these is Charles Whitman, who in 1966 climbed the University of Texas bell tower and shot 45 people. The night before he had murdered his wife and his mother. He had written in his diary:

"I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts....It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight...I love her dearly and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this."

Whitman's suicide note requested that his brain be autopsied, because he thought something might have changed in it. Doctors found a glioblastoma compressing a third of the amygdala, the brain center associated with fear and aggression.

Eagleman goes on to explore the philosophic and legal ramification of brain tumors and brain chemistry: Can we be held morally and/or legally responsible for our actions if they are prompted by our biology? Does such a thing as "good character" exist, or it is the product of lucky brain conditions that conform to societal norms? On a practical level, what can be done -- or should be done -- with regard to punishment and/or rehabilitation of those in such circumstances?

There are no easy answers to any of this. Personally, I think Eagleman's answers are a bit too easy -- he pretty much erases the concepts of free will and character. But the article offers fascinating, if troubling, information, and raises questions touching the very foundation of what it means to be human. A highly recommended read -- even if you hate it.

Friday, August 26, 2011


I am visiting my family in New York State, at the house I grew up in, which my father still occupies. It is very rural. Although I very much like living in a big city now, I do miss the wildlife of my woods-and-fields childhood. Today I saw several deer, a flock of wild turkeys, and a rabbit. There is also a coyote slinking around, captured on film by my father a few weeks ago:

The eastern coyote (unlike the western one) carries DNA that is a mix of coyote genes (82%), wolf genes (9%), and dog genes (9%). It eats carrion and small mammals. My toy poodle, Cosette, is a small mammal -- so perhaps it's fortunate that she is back in Seattle.

This rural idyll is also a good contrast to Worldcon in Reno. Both are fun, and it is the contrast itself that is so satisfying.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Worldcon -- Day 3

Although I missed last night's masquerade, many of the costumes were still roaming the convention center. This trio from PLANET OF THE APES posed in classic monkey philosophy:I spent the day talking, which is both the best and the worst of cons. I love seeing people, but by evening I hit a wall -- conversationally, socially, energetically. I don't know if other people experience this or not at conventions. Then each fresh engagement pulls me in again. Breakfast with Eleanor Wood and Brenda Cooper; brunch with my chess partner Lou Berger and his friend Kelly; a kaffeeklatsch, a reading, countless lovely and exhausting conversations in the green room and corridors.

The pre-Hugo dinner, by long-standing tradition, was with Robert Silverberg, Karen Haber, Connie and Courtnay and Cordelia Willis, George R.R. Martin and his new wife Paris, Kim Stanley Robinson, Walter Jon Williams, and Jim Kelly. Then on to the Hugos! Here are Karen Haber and I waiting for the ceremony to begin:

It was one of the longer Hugos -- well over two hours -- and hosted by Jay Lake and Ken Scholes. I got to present the Best Novelette Award, and was not nearly as funny as Robert Silverberg, presenting the Best Novella (ask him if he would REALLY have named a child Iago Silverberg). All the winners were gratified, none as much as Best Fanzine Winners (for THE DRINK TANK) Christopher Garcia and James Bacon, who ran around the stage, leapt off it, and collapsed into a heap weeping for joy. And the fiction winners are:

Best Short Story: "For Want of a Nail," Mary Robinette Kowal
Best Novelette: "The Emperor of Mars," Allen M. Steele
Best Novella: "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," Ted Chiang
Best Novel: BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR, Connie Willis

Over 600 computers live-streamed the Hugo ceremonies. Next year: Chicago.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Worldcon -- Day 2

Breakfast with Connie and Cordelia Willis and Sheila Williams was slightly delayed while Connie finished ironing. She is the only writer I know who irons things. Once we got past the pressing issue, breakfast was a good chance to catch up with each other, and to discuss the burning question: Is it possible to have too much fame? No consensus was reached.

I did three panels today: What Is Consciousness? (no conclusive answer), What Are The Hidden Problems In Cloning? (many, including the rapid mutation rate of mitochondrial DNA, the complications of epigenetics, in utero influences), and What Is Hard SF? (also no conclusive answer). These panels were all well-attended, interesting, and contentious enough to be lively without being so contentious that people got upset. On the Hard SF panel, Toni Weisskopf and I disagreed on the relative importance of characterization to SF (Toni: "All you need is a big effing idea!") All this was fun.

I also sat on the Iron Throne from George R.R. Martin's epic GAME OF THRONES, the imperious effect slightly spoiled by the name tag (Robert Baratheon did not wear a name tag):

The evening was devoted to pleasure. A dinner organized by Arc Manor publisher Shahid Mahmoud, followed by a long session in the bar of the Atlantis with, it seemed, everybody else at the con. Here are Gardner Dozois, Susan Casper, Michael Swanwick, Jack Skillingstead, and me:

A quick look in at a few parties, and I took the shuttle (running more or less reliably) back to the Peppermill Hotel and so to bed, while Jack and Daryl Gregory went on to try out the blackjack tables. It's all research!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Worldcon Day 1

This is actually day 2 of Renovation, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention, in Reno, Nevada, but I didn't arrive until today. This is very much a Reno setting: gaudy, crammed with casinos, and very big. The two main hotels are a mile apart, the convention center is a long walk even from the attached hotel, and the dealer's room is cavernous. No one will run out of space! Shuttles run continuously around the various venues.

Our hotel, the Peppermill, has seven restaurants. Below is the one in which I had dinner with Jack, Mike Flynn, Ellen Klages, Daryl Gregory, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Rebecca. The restaurant, Oceano, is supposed to feel as if you are underwater. Mike, who knows everything, carefully explained to me the biological difference between the plastic squids and the plastic jellyfish. Ellen, who had played poker for ten hours yesterday, enlightened us all on house odds for various games.
I did no programming items today, except for signing at the Tachyon booth. There was a Tor party in the evening, at which everyone was present and no one could hear anyone else, because it was so crowded because everyone was present. Tomorrow I actually get to work here, with three panels. These are going to solve the issues of consciousness, cloning, and what's happening to hard SF -- all by 3:00 p.m.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


The title of this post refers not to my biothriller of the same name, but to an interesting article by Adam Gopnik in the August 8 NEW YORKER. Purporting to be a personal history of owning a dog for the first time, Gopnik's article ranges far afield to discuss the various theories of how humans domesticated dogs. The DNA evidence is clear: our pet dogs are descended from wolves. Bot how did they get from those fierce and sometimes dangerous beasts to my toy poodle, Cosette, shown here in all her cuddly domesticity?The competing theories are (1) we deliberately kidnapped wolf pups and trained them to useful work, (2) dogs hung around human garbage heaps, eating our refuse, and over time more or less domesticated themselves by self-selection for animals willing to follow us, until breeders took over. Theory #1 used to dominate, and then Theory #2 did, but now scientists say that there is a problem with Theory #2. The domestication appeared to happen about 10,000 years ago (unless it didn't, and there is some competing evidence for much earlier). 10,000 years ago humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers. As they moved on from one area to the next, any wolves trailing along would have entered the territories of already established wolf packs, which would have challenged their right to be there. So now Theory #1 is back in the ascendancy. We did it, over time, and quite deliberately.

But, Gopnik also points out, in the modern era the tables have turned. Dogs use us. We cater to their needs, and most of them do not do very much work in return. Except for the odd sheep herder or K-9 pooch, our dogs are the winners in evolution, the successful domesticators of that other species that now works to ensure their survival.

Cosette would agree.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Three Rs

Since I am back to writing my new novel, and since I actually know the ending of this one (well, sort of), I have been thinking about the middle. Beginnings are easy for me. The first three or four scenes usually come to me along with the basic idea, wrapped up like a Christmas package, and I write them very rapidly in a few days. When I get to the end, it also tends to go fast, since by the time I'm two-thirds or so of the way through, I know the climax. (If I don't, the book is really in trouble.)

That leaves the middle.

How to get from C or D (we're way past A) to, say, V or W? This is where I think about the three Rs: reveals, reversals, and raising the stakes. This is, for me, what creates the middle of the plot.

Reversals: Who is doing well and about to get a pie in the face? Who is struggling mightily and might have some unexpected aid, even if only from his own inner resources? Whose careful plan is about to blow up in his face? Who gets a sudden (but foreshadowed) ally?

Reveals: What does the protagonist discover that he didn't know before? What do I show the reader that she didn't know before?

Raising the stakes: What else hangs on the outcome of this conflict besides what is already there? How does the prize get bigger or the cost get higher?

Okay... I just got an idea. Back to work.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Huge Mistake

As some of you pointed out -- and thank you -- the cover of the e-pubbed version of my novel CRUCIBLE used the image of an X-wing fighter from STAR WARS. This is not good. It came about because a young friend of mine did the cover, with Photoshop. She assumed that because she found the image on a free-wallpaper site, it was in the public domain. She didn't recognize it as a STAR WARS image because she never saw any of the STAR WARS movies. I didn't recognize it because I haven't seen one for 25 years and don't have a good visual memory for space craft anyway. So -- a boondoggle.

I'm fixing this. The problem is that neither Nook nor Kindle will let me edit my publication because both are "in process" (of, presumably, approval). It's been 48 hours, the "process" is only supposed to take 24 hours, there is no way to talk to a live person. Meanwhile, the purloined cover has turned up in the Kindle storefront, and why is that if it hasn't yet been approved?

Welcome to the brave new world of e-publishing.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

CRUCIBLE and Some Good News

My efforts to put my backlist up as e-books continues. This is the latest, the sequel to CROSSFIRE. In the previous book, Jake Holman and friends managed to avoid having their human colony, Greentrees, wiped out when it got caught in the crossfire of a war between two alien races. Both sets of aliens are far more technologically advanced than humans. But Jake's previous maneuvers only bought him some time, and the war continues.

Apparently all of us writer's efforts -- e-pubbing, writing new books, even traditional publishing -- are not going to waste. This morning's NEW YORK TIMES included a very optimistic report on publishing, the result of a joint survey by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Group. 1,963 publishers were surveyed, including the Big Six. Among the findings:

In all categories, publishers' net revenues for 2010 were up 5.6 % over 2008.

In all formats, publishers sold 4.1 % more books in 2010 than in 2008. This was not divided equally among formats, by any means: mass-market paperbacks declined 16%. Hardcover sales were relatively flat. E-books were 6.4% of the total market (including textbooks), whereas two ye
ars earlier they had been only .6 %. Figures for e-book sales in 2011 are expected to be significantly even higher.

Sales of adult fiction in all formats increased 8.8% over three years. Sales of juvenile fiction (which includes both children's lit and YA) increased 6.6%.

Given the rest of the economic news, these are welcome statistics. So -- write! Read! Buy!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

PNWA Conference

Yesterday I taught a three-hour workshop at the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference, held at the Hyatt Regency in Bellevue. The organizers had told me to bring about 70 hand-outs. However, on Saturday afternoon there turned out to be only two tracks of programming, so I got over 300 people. During the three hours, people came and went as each kept appointments to pitch their work to the agents and editors present -- a prime attraction at this sort of conference. Hotel workers had to open up partitions between two rooms to accommodate everyone at the workshop.

It went well, even though this kind of thing is exhausting for everybody. I talk for about two hours out of the three. The attendees are expected to write, in stages, an entire scene during the course of the workshop. We cover dialogue, description, point of view, characters' thoughts, the shape of a scene, different kinds of scenes, using exposition, ordering scenes -- a lot. At the end they are dazed with information overload, and I am hoarse. I like it.

I also taught a smaller, shorter workshop on Friday, on writing SF. Friday was enlivened by a different sort of communication as well: my very first ever obscene fan mail. And no, whoever you are, I do not want to work in a futuristic brothel. I'll stick to writing and teaching.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Very Cranky at the Movies

What's worse than a genre movie filled with stereotypes, worn-out tropes, plot developments that are unmotivated and make no sense, and a sappy and false "moral"?

Two such movies stuck together.

COWBOYS AND ALIENS is terrible. Not just run-of-the-mill terrible, but truly truly terrible. We are asked to accept [SPOILERS AHEAD]:

That a man who in his opening scene drags an innocent man to death behind a horse, is in fact just a gruff old guy with a heart of gold.

That a star-faring race that can cross galaxies has no better way to capture humans for "study" than to lasso them. With rope.

That such star-faring aliens (scaly, green, and unarmed, of course) would equip Daniel Craig with a weapon whose sole value is to wipe out alien equipment and facilities.

That if only aliens had invaded the Old West, then whites, Indians, Mexicans, and the odd border collie would have all cooperated and come to value each other's unique humanity.

I could go on and on, but I won't. It's too discouraging. With that money and that talent (Craig, Olivia Wilde, Harrison Ford) the filmmakers might have made a worthwhile genre film, one which not only made sense but which kept explosions to a necessary minimum. But, then, they never do, do they?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Writing Method

How long can a writer be away from a work without losing momentum to finish it?

That depends, of course, on the writer and the work. It also depends in part on the writing method. If you know exactly what comes next in a novel -- in other words, if you're an outliner -- perhaps you can leave a work for months and then pick up where you left off with no trouble. Or perhaps not -- I'm no outliner, and so wouldn't know. My working method (and I hesitate to dignify it with that term) consists of feeling my way through a novel by a combination of (1) becoming the characters to figure out what they will do, (2) visualizing no more than two scenes ahead of where I am now, while simultaneously craning my metaphorical neck for glimpses of some eventual end, and (3) blind luck.

This method does not lend itself well to leaving a novel-in-progress for long periods, and I have been away from mine for over six weeks. A week to prepare for Clarion by reading, line-editing, and wiriting critiques of student stories; one week teaching Clarion; a week to prepare for Taos Toolbox; two weeks of teaching at Taos; a week of picking up by normal life and writing several neglected small commitments (an Appreciation of Connie Willis for the WFC program book; proofing a book for e-Pub; stuff).

Six weeks is too long. I have lost the momentum, forgotten where my complex cast of characters each is located and what they're doing, slipped out of identification with my heroine. So I've had to do what I never have done before with a novel: start over. Each chapter must be read, thought about, revised. Slowly the book is coming back to me. Again, this is not just a matter of mental reminder, but of emotional investment.

It causes me to question, though: How do writers like Connie Willis and George R.R. Martin, who write a novel over a period of YEARS, manage to do it?