Sunday, April 29, 2012

Kurt and Me

Are there rules for writing?  No, not in the sense of strictures that you must follow or your piece will collapse like wet tissue (always, of course, with the exception of using the comma of address :)  The usual word is "guidelines," but I prefer a term borrowed from business: "best practices."  Which means: "This worked for our company and led to increased profit, so go the hell ahead and emulate us."

Recently I was pleased to find that Kurt Vonnegut and I share similar best practices.  He left a list of eight pieces of advice for aspiring fiction writers, most (although not all) of which I have been telling my students for decades.  Here they are, with my annotations in parentheses:

1.      Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
(This seems self-evident.  Also vague -- obviously many people don't feel that time spent reading Danielle Steele is wasted.  But many do.  Such as me.)
2.      Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
(There are exceptions to this -- I didn't like anyone in John Updike's RABBIT RUN, and it was a literary success.  But if you want to make a commercial sale, it's a good idea.)
3.      Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
(Yes!  This is key to controlling motivation, which is key to controlling your entire story.)
4.      Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.
(Not quite in sync with this.  Some sentences of description, for example, are exclusively concerned with setting and atmosphere.)
5.      Start as close to the end as possible.
(It depends.  George R.R. Martin, to take one example, did not start GAME OF THRONES near the end of the struggle for the Iron Throne.  On the other hand, that phrase "as possible" allows for a lot of wiggle room.)
6.      Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
(Yes.  Fiction is about things that get screwed up.  Nobody wants to read about lives that go smoothly -- even if we want to live them.  A key question in story development is: What can go wrong here?)

7.      Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
(I write for one person: a hypothetical reader remarkably like myself.  In other words, I write what I would want to read if someone else wrote it.)
8.      Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
(I can't completely agree with this one.  Some stories are better made explicit; some are not.  But I think what Vonnegut is railing against here is the "twist ending," which often feels contrived, and which -- alas -- SF too often employs.  Also, it's critical that we understand why characters are doing whatever they're doing.)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Back from Rome

Jack and I returned from Rome last night.  What to say about ten fabulous days?  We ate, we saw, it conquered us.  There was no writing, but a lot of sight-seeing (sore feet), a lot of sitting in cafes drinking wine or Italian beer (sore head), and a lot of plane travel (sore butt, plus jet lag).  A few pictures, before this blog returns to the business of writing fiction.  This is Jack with Erato, muse of literature, in the Vatican Museum.  There is a statue of St. Peter in St. Peter's Basilica with a foot that one is supposed to rub for good luck, but for a writer, this is a better choice.
 Trevi Fountain.  We threw in coins to insure our return to Rome.  The fountain gets 3,000 euros tossed in daily.
 Centurions riding in a parade to celebrate the founding of Rome 2,785 years ago.  A very very long parade -- half of Rome, dressed as soldiers or dancing girls or senators or barbarian hordes, straggled along for hours, periodically breaking character to take pictures of each other on their cell phones.
 The Colosseum at night.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Faithful at the Movies

Last night I saw THE HUNGER GAMES, the mega-hit based on Suzanne Collins's mega-hit YA novel. Fidelity was the keynote of the experience -- the movie makers' to the book, and mine to my original opinions of it.

I still cannot buy the original premise: That for seventy-four years each district has sent off two of its children, as young as twelve, to fight to the death in televised gladiatorial games, with everyone in the Capitol enjoying the childish blood-letting and no one in the Districts mounting rebellion (until now, and mildly). Not even the Romans pitted children against each other like that. However, if you accept the premise, both book and movie deliver strong characters, exciting action, and moving movements. Visually, HUNGER GAMES is great to watch: the over-the-top fashions in the Capitol, the lovely shots of forest, the expressive face of Jennifer Lawrence. She was terrific in WINTER'S BONE (a much better movie), and she's good here, too.

Some of the reviews have faulted the movie for downplaying the actual scene of violence, rendering them quickly and often blurred. I didn't agree. They are graphic enough, without being pornographic.

Some reviewers have floated the idea that the book is so popular with kids because it emotionally, if not literally, reflects their experience of high school. I tried this notion on three people, all out of high school but with vivid memories, and to my surprise, all three instantly agreed. What on earth is going on nowadays at Sweet Valley High?

At any rate, anyone writing YA should read the book and see the movie, because this is apparently what kids want. SWEET VALLEY HIGH, or LITTLE WOMEN, it ain't. But, then, when they remade LITTLE WOMEN a while ago with Winona Ryder, the movie was a flop.

On a completely unrelated note: Jack and I leave tomorrow for ten days in Rome, so there will be no blogging until I return. Ciao.

Friday, April 13, 2012


My efforts to get my blacklist available, both in ebooks and in print, continue. In this I am aided by Phoenix Pick, an imprint of the excellent small press Arc Manor. That's a good thing because I have proved remarkably inept at scanning, formatting, and mounting the backlist by myself.

Phoenix Pick has just issued two mini-collections of my older stories. AI UNBOUND: TWO STORIES OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE contains two novellas, "Computer Virus" and "Savior." In the first, an AI is trying to save its own "life" and is becoming increasingly desperate. The latter story covers four or five generations, during which a mysterious small spacecraft from the stars, completely impenetrable, lands in a corn field and just sits there while the USA changes drastically around it. What is it waiting for?

THE BODY HUMAN: THREE STORIES OF FUTURE MEDICINE focuses on various facets of medicine. "The Mountain to Mohammed" takes on the growing gap between the insured and those with genetic problems that make them uninsurable (and I wrote it way, way before Obamacare!) "Evolution" addresses the growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. "Fault Lines" involves the development of new drugs by pharmaceutical companies -- and their unintended consequences.

The stories in THE BODY HUMAN are near-future and grounded in real and alarming trends (although that doesn't mean these individual characters don't come out all right by the end). The AI stories are more fanciful. I haven't actually seen any small spacecraft in corn fields. Still.... you never know.

Monday, April 9, 2012


Norwescon, which occupied Seattle over the weekend, began with dogs and ended with flooding.

Jack and I brought our dog with us, since the Doubletree advertises itself as friendly to dogs. This does not guarantee that the dog will be friendly to the hotel. Cosette, below, is a 7 1/2 pound toy poodle, high-strung and excitable. She liked being carried or led around the con, where everyone went "Awwwww." She did not like being left alone occasionally in the hotel room. Nor did she like it when another dog was left there for a few hours, even though the other dog was crated. Much cross-barking ensued. "Oh," said the people next door, "are you the ones with the dog that is so.... sad?" So no more leaving Cosette alone, which meant one of us had to carry her around pretty much all the time.

Despite this considerable handicap, I did four panels and an autographing session. Over 3,000 people attended the con, but it is heavy on gaming, media, and costuming; for a con this size, actual book-related events were more lightly attended than I'm used to. But the costumes were gorgeous. Maybe 2/3 of them were Victorian steampunk, and the dealer's room tended heavily toward those costume elements as well. Here is a "steam-powered baby carriage," which emitted steam as its builder wheeled it around the hallways:Still the panels were fun, especially the one on "Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Became An SF Writer," moderated by the always hilarious Eileen Gunn. Also fun were the chances to see old friends. I played chess with Bob Brown. I had dinner with Artist GOH John Picacio, and many bar sessions with many people, such as this jolly group. Left to right: Mark Teppo, Leslie Howle, Jack Skillingstead, three people whose names I never learned, Patrick Swenson, and the back of Nicole Thompson's head:

On Sunday afternoon, just as I was going for lunch in the very well-stocked green room, water started to pour from the ceiling. In just a few minutes the room and the corridor were seriously flooded. Both were closed, con- and hotel security rushed madly around, and I took my barking and exhausted dog home.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Short Fiction

For the last several months, I have been writing short stories. It's much different than writing novels. Stories must be tighter, driving along to their end point without too many diffusive sub-plots (often, none) or point-of-view shifts. They should deliver an emotional punch of some sort at or near the very end. Character change may be minimal, since there isn't a lot of room to set one up, but it (usually) does need to be present. And since these stories were all commissioned for anthologies, they needed to fit the editors' themes or other parameters.

First I wrote "Knotweed and Gardenias" for a hard-SF anthology due next year, STARSHIP CENTURY. Edited by Gregory and James Benford, this grew out of the 100-Year Starship Symposium held in 2011 and features both fiction about exploring space and non-fiction by such luminaries as Jill Tarter, head of SETI, Stephen Hawking, and Robert Zubrin. Freeman Dyson will write the Forward. I'm really pleased to be included in the book, contributing a story about unforeseen neural responses to deep space.

"Writer's Block" is something entirely different. Called RIP OFF! and edited by Gardner Dozois, this will be an audio book, with possible print version eventually. The demented and fun premise is this: Author's take a classic (and out of copyright) first line from a famous book and write an entirely different story built from that line. I picked "It was a dark and stormy night," originally written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and since made famous by Snoopy.

"Pathways," for Technology Review out of M.I.T., is hard SF built around the burgeoning field of optogenetics (see a previous blog).

"...And Other Stories" was written for a Gene Wolfe tribute anthology edited by Jean Rabe. For this, I had the inestimable privilege of writing in one of Gene Wolfe's created worlds. I chose "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories," and brought back that heart-breaking little boy, Tackie.

I owe one more story to an anthology. Then, back to novels. However, I don't actually have an idea for a novel. This is where literary faith comes in -- faith that by the time I'm done with summer traveling and ready to settle in to a novel (September), I will have an idea that I'm excited to write. Faith, faith, faith...