Saturday, December 22, 2007

Nebula Matters

It appears that "Fountain of Age" has qualified for the preliminary ballot of the Nebulas, which pleases me. Less pleasing is that so few works have qualified in all categories, due to people simply not reading and recommending as much as they should. These "people" include me. I will be gone for the next week, visiting family, and will take with me all year's worth of SF magazines to read whenever I can. Recommendations to follow.

Blogging will resume sometime in the last days of 2007. Meanwhile, happy holidays to all of you who are celebrating anything now, recently, or soon: Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, the Saturnalia, the Winter Solstice, or Beethoven's birthday (December 16).

Thursday, December 20, 2007


The February ASIMOV'S arrived in the mail, with my short-short "Sex and Violence." A few hours later (he's speedy), Michael Swanwick sent me an email pointing out that my story and his in the same issue, "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled," both "feature aliens speaking the same language!" He's right about this. Both of us resorted to the device of using brackets or parentheses or other punctuation around terms that, hypothetically, are too alien to have equivalents in English. Thus, from my story:

[Mghzl] [sighed]. "Begin an [official investigation] into the spore release. And send an [extermination/cleanser/cover-up team]."

From Michael's:

::We will lead you to the jungle and no further (hopefully-to-die) [treacherous non-millipede]::

This is not a new idea for either of us. Theodore Sturgeon did it in his 1955 story "The [Widget], the [Wadget], and [Boff]". I read that story (in reprint) when I was fifteen; it was among the first SF I ever read (nothing like starting at the top). When Michael and I steal this mechanism, it's an act of homage, although neither of us use it with quite the straight face that Sturgeon, in a more innocent time, did.

And Michael's story is very good. I recommend it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Why Bother?

Struggling this morning with the maybe-novel, and getting nowhere, I asked myself a question familiar to most writers at one time or another: Why write? Why put oneself through this? Hemingway's answer -- "For love, glory, money, and the love of women" -- somehow doesn't seem to cover it.

A larger-but-related question is: Why create any kind of art at all? How did art get started, and how did it get to be so widespread? Every culture, even the most primitive, has some sort of art: ornamented axe handles, beaded designs on animal fur. Biologists would say that for this human trait to be so universal, it must confer some evolutionary advantage. What is it? Recently I read two intriguing, albeit conflicting, answers.

Geoffrey Miller, in The Mating Mind, says that art began in the same vein as the peacock's tail: to attract mates. A man who could carve a great axe handle proved both that he was a good enough hunter to have extra time for carving and that he could make a nice courting present (who can resist a really nice axe handle)? So art began -- although didn't stay -- as proof of fitness to mate, which makes the Sistine Chapel one great sexual come-on.

Jane Jacobs, in The Nature of Economies, has a different explanation. She theorizes that art -- painting, dancing, music -- took up spare time that otherwise might lead early humans to over-use their habitat and thus possibly wreck it, or each other. The endless grooming of chimpanzees and the endless sex play of bonobos serve the same function: deterrent to more destructive activities.

Why am I reading (or rereading) this stuff instead of writing? Because my book is going badly. It's always easier to appreciate somebody else's art than to slog away at one's own. And it's better than hurling things around my habitat (read "study") in an excess of frustration.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Cranky at the Movies

I Am Legend, the third remake of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel, is in wide release and I saw it last weekend. For me, it embodied everything that is both good and bad about SF movies. (Warning: the following discussion is a spoiler if you don't know the story and plan on reading and/or seeing it).

The good is 1) the riveting special effects and 2) the chance to correct whatever was shaky in the original. Two examples: Robert Neville is now a genetic scientist instead of a random Joe, which makes his medical research into the cause of the plague (and in the movie, a cure) much more plausible. Also, in the movie the dog that contracts the plague and dies is not just a stray he domesticated for a few weeks but his own dog, which makes the animal's death much more affecting.

As for the bad -- Because movie makers want both those sensational special effects and a happy ending, they are willing to do intense damage to all logic. In the novel, Neville locks down his house at night and listens to the once-human-now-vampirish, infected creatures howl outside. In the movie, they don't know where he lives, and once they find out, they tear the place apart because these starving, emaciated, human bodies can scale sheer walls, exhibit superhuman strength, and other absurdities. Worse: In the movie, eventually Neville discovers a cure and dies passing it on to another survivor with natural immunity. She takes it to a secret colony of survivors in Vermont, and this gift makes Robert a "legend." What are they going to do with this cure? The survivors don't need it, and to use it on the "zombies" you have to strap them down for 24 hours and drastically lower their body temperatures, a daunting procedure. Also, there are no infected zombies in Vermont or they would have scaled the pathetic wall that encircles the colony, an idealized New England town complete with fall foliage and a white steeple, and eaten everybody. In the novel, by contrast, the zombies capture Robert and kill him, and he realizes just before he dies that, to them, he is the nightmarish killer, the outsider -- the "legend." The worldview turns inside out, like a sock. It's a satisfying and unexpected conclusion which the movie junks completely.

There have only been a handful of SF movies (as opposed to fantasy) that I like, for just these reasons. Is it so impossible to ask for both a dramatic story and some basic logic? After all, print SF does it all the time.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Coffee and Capitalism

When I was in China this past summer, I saw in Chengdu only two American restaurants, KFC and Starbucks. No Mickey D, no Wendy's. The Starbucks was very crowded. Since coffee was offered at no Chinese restaurants that our Merry Band of Writers visited (although it was present in the breakfast room at our hotel), I was interested in this phenomenon. Why Starbucks?

I never found out, but today the New York Times Book Review reviewed a book about all things Starbuck, which perhaps might answer my question. The book, Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture, by one Taylor Clark, sounds interesting. From the review alone I learned that:

-- in 1989 there were 585 coffee houses in America and now there are over 24,000

-- that 80% of Starbucks employees quit within a year

-- that Starbucks buys only "Fair Trade" coffee at fair prices, but although this benefits coffee growers, it may actually hurt the poorest, non-owning laborers in coffee countries, since even hiring day laborers on a coffee farm will disqualify it from being a Starbucks supplier.

The most interesting thing about the review, however, was that it seems to be better written than the book. The reviewer is the hilarious P.J. O'Rourke, and reading his review made me want to buy his books, not Clark's. That's not the way it's supposed to work.

But, then, I don't really like Starbucks coffee, either, unless it's tarted up with gingerbread or pumpkin or something. The coffee alone is too strong. I drink a mild instant. Don't shoot me, Seattle.

Friday, December 14, 2007

"The King of Sentences"

Jonathan Lethem, who used to be an SF writer but now has levitated into the stratosphere of literary mainstream, has a story in the December 17 issue of The New Yorker. The story, called "The King of Sentences," is an absurdist treatment of the extreme reverence that young writers can feel for the authors they admire. The story made me laugh out loud. Like all absurdism, it starts with a nugget of truth and inflates it though concentration and exaggeration. Lethem, a wonderful writer himself, does this with such ridiculous and yet sharp details that the story is a delight.

And the "nugget" is very real. When we writers eventually meet authors they've idealized for decades, we can act a bit nutty. The first time I met Ursula LeGuin, I couldn't stop babbling. On and on and ON, until I'm sure she doubted that I was really Nancy Kress, or sane. A friend of mine told me she was too awed to say anything whatsoever to Joyce Carol Oates. Another friend related that, standing in the back of a room to listen to Ray Bradbury, tears pricked his eyes.

A recent poll of teenager found that a huge majority could not name one person they considered a "hero." I don't think that we fortunate people who love books have that problem. We just need to figure out how to look "normal" in the presence of heroes.

Or maybe not. Lethem's characters end up abandoned in an EconoLodge by their idol, scorned, naked -- and happy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wordsworth Was Right

In Jurassic Park and a host of other SF stories, much is made of the "flocking behavior" of dinosaurs, tying them evolutionarily to birds. Many scientific disciplines -- including computer programming -- study just how that graceful simultaneous wheeling of hundreds of birds occurs. When one flyer turns, they all do.

Most of the time.

Today I was driving back from the post office and I was not in a very good mood. A flock of Canada geese flew overhead in their characteristic V, going south from Canada. This is a common sight where I live, although this group seemed to be getting a pretty late start. All at once the flock wheeled, turned, wheeled again -- except for one bird. He kept on the original path, oblivious, until something must have tipped off that he was no longer with the program. He shivered in the air, turned frantically, and began beating his little wings as hard as he could to catch up with the rest, a bird flapping to a different internal drummer.

I laughed until I had to pull the car over or risk hitting something. My mood stayed high for hours afterward. Okay, it's not the exalted feeling of transcendence that William Wordsworth got from nature in "Tintern Abbey" -- but it's still a gift from the natural world. You big-city dwellers just don't know what you're missing.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

An Editor Replies

Yesterday I wondered why Rich Horton chose my story "Art of War," rather than another story of mine, for his Best Of The Year. Today I know, because Rich read my blog and sent me email about it. With his permission, I'll both quote and summarize what he said:

"I typically have a longish list of stories I think are plenty good enough to go in the book -- the hard part is leaving some out. There might be four or five that are among my absolute favorites that I think I have to have -- but beyond that, I like all the stories similarly, so other factors really are appropriate." He goes on to name those other factors:

contractual availability -- "Each year so far there has been one story I couldn't take because of contractual restrictions."

varied representation -- "I restrict myself to one story per author."

length -- Although "it's important to have a variety of lengths," shorter stories leave more room for other good work and so may have an edge.

varied sources -- Rich tries to not "take too many stories from the same source -- Asimov's, for instance."

varying tone -- "It's nice to have at least some lighter stories in the mix" -- and varying subject matter.

There you have it, fellow SF people -- editing is a balancing act. Not unlike writing itself.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Best of the Year

It's that time of year again -- snow falls, Christmas decorations go up, and editors weigh in, one by one, with their "best of the year" anthology choices. Rich Horton has just picked my "Art of War," which appeared in THE NEW SPACE OPERA, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. I am flattered -- and bemused. I like this story, but I much prefer "Fountain of Age" or "By Fools Like Me" or "Safeguard" among my own work from 2007. So why "Art of War"?

It's impossible to say, of course, except by Rich Horton, who hasn't (at least, not to me). But the bemusement started me questioning along an old mental track: What makes a story good? This led to a slightly different question: What are people looking for when they read? Different people, obviously must be looking for different things, so here's a varied list of what readers might want from their reading choices:

-- ideas new to them

-- a different way of looking at the world

-- a confirmation that the way they look at the world is indeed correct, and shared

-- to live a while in a different, more interesting world where things work out better than they often do here (I think romance readers usually want this)

-- to identify with characters stronger or more capable or more heroic than life lets us be

-- to observe -- but not necessarily identify with -- characters struggling with real human issues

-- to escape people struggling with real human issues

-- for the pleasures of language: the readable and artful prose, the unexpected word in the unexpected place, the phrase that perfectly captures a situation or sight

There can be more than one right answer. However, one story cannot hit all the answers. And editors, like everybody else, put varying emphases on different answers. You'd think this would lead writers to stop trying to second-guess why some stories are chosen for "Bests" and others are not. But, of course, it stops none of us at all.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Weirdnesses of the World

One of the stranger items to cross my desk recently -- way weirder than the article on "teeth critters" -- is a review of Frank McGillion's book BLINDED BY STARLIGHT. McGillion, a medical researcher, makes a case for an actual connection between astrology and medicine. One of his claims is that the amount of sunlight a pregnant woman receives affects fetal development through influencing her production of melatonin, vitamin D, and other bodily products. This, in turn, affects the growing fetus biologically, including brain development, which may affect personality. Since sunlight varies dramatically throughout the year in those countries in which astrology was first created, there may indeed be a factual link between birth date and personality. The original ancient-world "astrologer-physicians," McGillion says, were extremely acute observers of human nature, and the whole system of astrology thus grew from medical observations rooted in reality. "What's your sign?" is thus a meaningful biological question.

Although this seems tenuous to me, it's also fascinating. Research on meditating Buddhist monks has charted shifts in blood flow in their brains which may lead to some of the subjective aspects of the meditative experience. I make heavy use of this, in fact, in a story I recently sold to Jim Baen's Universe, my "China story," now called "First Rites." The connection between biology and belief systems is a fairly new field of research, and I find it endlessly interesting.

Incidentally, my other story for JBU, "Laws of Survival," is now up at JBU. No brain chemistry in this one, but lots of dogs and a few enigmatic robots.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Cyberpunk Redux

Recently I saw a copy of John Kessel's and James Patrick Kelly's anthology from Tachyon Press, Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology. It includes classic SF stories from the usual cyberpunk suspects -- Sterling, Cadigan, Shiner, -- as well as newer examples like Charles Stross's popular "Lobster." However, equally interesting is John Kessel's introduction, in which he intelligently (John is never otherwise) discusses the original cyberpunk movement of the '80's and its subsequent influence on the field. The introduction includes email exchanged twenty years ago between Kessel and Sterling when they were debating what SF was, should be, and could become. To read these is almost like looking into a time machine.

When Sterling as "Vincent Omniveritas" was holding forth in CHEAP TRUTH and Shiner as "Sue Denim" was slicing and dicing practically everybody's stories, cyberpunk was a hot controversy. Now it's an historical era. But the principles Sterling insisted on have definitely influenced SF: that the future be global, that technology is accelerating, that the uses to which it will be put will be at least as much criminal as legitimate, that technology will result in different and "post-human" humans, and that economics on a world scale should underlie any ambitious treatment of the future.

That last very much influenced me, even though I was never even remotely a cyberpunk. In 1989 I brought a not-very-good story to Sycamore Hill, a week-long writers' workshop attended by a widely disparate group of pros. Bruce Sterling tore my story apart, and no one, nowhere, no time, can be as savage a critic as Bruce. His underlying point was that I had paid no attention to how power or money worked in my invented society, and the results were unconvincing. After I'd gone home and licked my wounds for a while, I realized that Bruce was right. Power and money don't much interest me in real life, but that's no excuse for neglecting them in a future society where they must concern most people. So I thought about those mysteries, and thought, and thought, and the next thing I wrote was "Beggars In Spain." Thank you, Bruce.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Student Triumphs and Domestic Absurdity

One of the best parts of teaching is seeing one's students publish professionally. I don't believe that teachers cause this; talented writers would succeed eventually with or without tuition. But a good writing class can speed up the process because learning elements of craft in class is faster than discovering them by trial and error. Several of the students I've been privileged to teach in the last year have recently published. So kudos to:

From Clarion West: Derek Zumsteg, who sold a Clarion story to ASIMOV'S and who also has a non-fiction piece in BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING 2007; and David Williams, whose novel THE MIRRORED HEAVENS, a fast-paced techno-thriller set in a very dangerous future, will be out next year from Bantam.

From Writers & Books in Rochester, NY: Kim Gillett, whose story "The Bird Reader's Granddaughter," won one of the Writers of The Future quarterly contests; and Craig Delancey, who just made another sale to ANALOG with his hard-SF story "Demand Ecology."

In contrast to all this competence is my ridiculous situation with regard to L'Oreal make-up. Yesterday morning I discovered I had three small bottles of foundation, and so I decided to consolidate them. I poured the one with least foundation left into the one with second least foundation, through a teeny-weeny funnel. Afterward, it proved impossible to get the make-up off my funnel. I ran it through the dishwasher. I soaked it overnight in dish detergent. I tried to scrub it with a brush. The plastic funnel is not permanently stained because the sludge, now a high-viscosity adherent, moves around a bit. But it will not come off. I suppose the next step is paint thinner, but I have no paint thinner and anyway I sometimes use this teeny funnel for food, such as spices. So here's my question for all you chemists out there--

What the hell is in this stuff that I blithely spread on my face every morning?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Flying and Piracy

I am finally, a day late, home from my last trip. Weather forced flight delays, flight cancellations, a night in an EconoLodge, vomiting from turbulence -- everything bad about air travel. As usual, this fills me with a desire to never go anywhere again. And, also as usual, I will.

One of the more interesting things on my computer when I returned was the latest chapter in the ongoing debate between those adhering to strict interpretation of copyright and those who argue that the times they are a-changing, and it makes sense for writers to make at least some work available for free on the Internet. This particular contretemps started with Cory Doctorow, of BoingBoing, posting a witty one-paragraph "mock review" that Ursula LeGuin had written about Michael Chabon. His original view was that his posting fell under the "fair use" provision of copyright law. Her view was that since her article (which she later sold) consisted in its entirety of one paragraph, this was piracy. Eventually Cory apologized, but there are a lot of genuine issues around this, including the fact that SFWA has recently dissolved its copyright committee. You can come in on the end of this, and follow links to its beginning, at

My own thoughts on this are murky. If I had been Ursula, I probably would have let Cory's post go, but less from principle than from laziness. I know I've been pirated many times (Argentina has lifted entire novels) but I lack the taste for legal or on-line battles. Which is not to say they shouldn't be fought. I just don't know for which side.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Various Matters

This is a miscellaneous round-up of matters discussed earlier on this blog, in case anybody is still interested:

"Elevator," the story I wrote in a single-sitting eight-hour session that produced an endorphin high, has sold to the anthology ECLIPSE 2. It's curious that such a positive experience can result in a story with so many negative components. But, then, P.G. Wodehouse was chronically depressed, hated writing, and still managed to be upbeat and hilarious in print.

"The Product," the story I dithered about last October (blog entry "Is It Dead, Jim?") is officially dead. I gave it a two-month rest and then reread it, and I hate it. Really hate it. So it's never going anywhere but my file cabinet, which also houses the odd spider. The spider is more alive than this story.

The maybe-novel is indeed a novel. There is now 20,000 words of it and it's just getting started, so it genuinely is a novel. All 20,000 words need rewriting, since I only figured out yesterday what the thing will be about.

The tooth-critter FDA clinical trial is only using "young, healthy males." Thus I do not qualify and will have to go on subsidizing my dentist's retirement fund.

I am going to nominate my own novella for the ASIMOV'S reader poll, on the grounds that (1) I'm a reader, and (2) I like it. But I'm also going to nominate other stories I like.

I will be out of town, sans laptop, until Tuesday, when blogging will resume.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Teeth Critters

Janis Ian, musician ("Seventeen") and SF fan, sent me a fascinating article on genetically engineered bacteria, a topic I write about a lot. The FDA has just approved a clinical trial for a genetically altered version of Streptococcus mutans, a bacteria which all of us harbor in our mouths and which causes tooth decay by secreting an acid that erodes tooth enamel. The GM version does three things: (1)elbows out the existing bacteria and take its place, (2)converts its acid wastes to a mild alcohol instead of acid, and (3)needs a twice-daily mouthwash containing a necessary amino acid or else it will die. This last is to make sure that people can get rid of the critters if the trial doesn't work out.

The alcohol-instead-of-acid production was brought about by replacing the acid-producing gene with one from another species of bacteria, Zymomonas mobilis, which is also used to make Mexican beer ("pulque"). However, this tiny still in your mouth will not produce enough alcohol to get anybody tipsy.

The FDA approval process took years. For a while, the entire project was classified in the same category as potential bioweapons ("Defeat the enemy! Spare them tooth decay!") And the week-long initial trial will isolate all its volunteer subjects in a biohazard ward.

There will be a lot more of this sort of thing in the future. As a proponent of the potential good genemods can do the human race, especially in parts of the world where disease and starvation are rampant, I'm all for this kind of progress. So -- would I volunteer to have experimental bacteria in my mouth?

Yes. I would. As the owner of pre-fluoride teeth that have financed college educations for the children of several dentists, I would be glad to take a chance on a better method to keep my teeth in my head. Especially if it were also a cheaper method.

Anybody else?

Monday, November 26, 2007

An Ethical Question

Over the Thanksgiving holidays, I started catching up on my SF reading. The operative words here are "started," since I am waaayyyy behind, and "thanksgiving," since it will take a miracle to ever get caught up. But almost immediately I ran into a problem.

On the half-assed theory that I should start near the end (looks less daunting that way), I opened the January, 2008 ASIMOV'S, which includes not only the index of all 2007 stories in that magazine but also the ballot to vote for the Twenty-Second Annual Readers' Awards. Now, I published five stories last year in ASIMOV'S, three of which I still like, two of them quite a lot. So the question that hopped into my mind: Is it ethical to vote for oneself?

Presidents do it. SFWA members do it for the Hugos and Nebulas, but for the Nebulas ten other people besides the author have already recommended the story or it wouldn't even make the preliminary ballot. The Hugo ballot, too, goes through a two-tier, general-recommendation process followed by a winnowed ballot. But this is a one-shot deal -- just send in the names of stories you liked best. What if one such story is one's own? Does honesty trump modesty or vice-versa? What if you list your story but also two others (the maximum allowed) in each category? What if you list only your story? Where does self-believe shade into self-obsession?

No answers yet. I'm still thinking.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

More On the Seven Minutes

Right after my previous post on the average reading time for young people (seven minutes per day), the mail brought the book FUTURES FROM NATURE, just released by Tor and edited by Henry Gee. This is an anthology of 100 short-shorts, all with fewer than 1,000 words, that were published from 1999 - 2006 in the prestigious scientific journal NATURE. This is the journal that first published Crick and Watson's double-helix structure for DNA, as well as a great number of other important break-throughs in science. Gee recognized that scientists often like SF, and so he ran a back-page story in each issue for a year. When that run was over, popular demand brought it back.

About half of the stories in FUTURES are by Brits (NATURE is a British magazine) and half by others. The authors span three generations, from Arthur C. Clarke to Cory Doctorow, and countless writing styles. My own story, "Product Development," was enjoyable to write. Usually I don't write short (I sprawl) but this challenge was great fun.

The book is a good holiday gift for your teenager's seven minutes of reading. And who knows -- maybe they'll go on to actually that archaic activity in this wonderful genre of ours. Miracles happen.

And speaking of holidays, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone out there who's celebrating it. Blogging will resume in a few days.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Discouraging News

Recently Craig DeLancey, SFWA's newest member (congrats, Craig!) emailed me the National Endowment For the Arts report To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence. This is a discouraging document. Among the findings:
  • Americans ages 15-24 spend two hours of their day watching TV and seven minutes on leisure reading.
  • Reading scores for adults of all educational levels are in decline.
  • American fifteen-year-olds rank fifteenth in average reading scores for 31 countries, trailing (among others) Poland and Korea.
There is some good news: kids who read are more likely to also "engage in positive civic and individual activity" such as volunteering, going to sports events or concerts, and exercising. This at least gives the lie to the image of the maladjusted and isolated brainiac nerd (Ted Kozcynski notwithstanding).

But -- seven minutes a day spent reading. I know that, as a full-time writer, I have the luxury to indulge several hours of reading a day, every day. But even when I was working at a "real job," writing on the side, teaching a class, and raising two kids, I read. And as a kid I read everything I could find, including the backs of ketchup bottles and the confession magazines my mother hid in the linen closet. Seven minutes.

Can all you aspiring writers out there perfect the seven-minute story?

Monday, November 19, 2007

In The Flow

Yesterday I wrote an entire short story in one long session, eight hours, which I haven't done in years. Eight hours of living somewhere else, being somebody else, inhabiting a different emotional universe. That's genuinely what the experience feels like -- a cessation of my usual "Nancy-ness," a disappearance of self, to be replaced by Nancy-as-conduit for the manifestation of these other, temporary people. Perhaps that's what it feels like to be possessed by a demon, or to channel Eleanor Roosevelt, or to act as a medium for messages from the dead, or any other nutty thing I don't believe in. But the temporary absence of self is real, exhilarating, and exhausting. I finished limp as an empty sock.

The story, tentatively called "Elevator," is in longhand and thus requires keying in. The computer is more efficient but in some ways I prefer to do a first draft in longhand, although I can't say why. But I'm not alone. Connie Willis, for example, does all her writing in longhand and has a secretary type it in. Lacking a secretary, I will do it myself -- but that's also a chance for revision.

A good day.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Human Body

A friend and I went yesterday to the Human Body Exhibit, on loan from China to the United States, at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. It's a fascinating and awe-ful thing. These are actual human bodies, preserved and then partially dissected to show different bodily systems: circulatory, digestive, etc. It's impossible not to wonder who these human beings once were, what were their desires and dreams, vanished now from their intricate and public remains.

The exhibit is controversial. Some people feel that this is not a proper use of human remains, even if "donated to science" by their owners. Others object more to the "Prenatal" portion of the exhibit, which features preserved fetuses in various states of development and which in Rochester was secluded behind curtains with a sign advising parents that some children might find this upsetting. I don't share these views. The entire exhibit seemed to me to underline the miracle that is the incredibly complex homo sapiens body. Sixty thousand miles of blood vessels in an adult! That's enough to circle the equator two-and-a-half times!

I would have no objection to my own body ending up like this.

The entire experience received a surreal gloss because the Museum was also hosting a Holiday Bazaar. To emerge from the exhibit, softly lit and with flute music playing unobtrusively in the background, into a riot of glittery bibelots for sale, was passing strange. The last thing Therese and I saw in the museum was a grandmother scolding her grandson for singing a modern Christmas song: "You think it's funny that Grandma got run over by a reindeer? How would you like it if I got run over by a reindeer?!" Therese and I couldn't help it -- we collapsed into laughter, in which there was something of uneasy bafflement.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

More Mystification

Okay, troops, yesterday another foreign-language magazine arrived in the mail. This time I recognize my story: "Patent Infringement." What I don't recognize is the language. So, once more asking for help:

"O încălcare a drepturilor de autor"

is the story title, and the magazine is published in "Botoşani." It's called Sci-Fi magazin, which doesn't seem to be much help.

Can anybody tell me where this is coming from? Thank you!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The China Connection

Starting in March, I will be writing a monthly column for the Chinese SF magazine SF World, published in Chengdu. This came about as a result of my trip to China in August for the International Science Fiction Conference. The column will consist of advice about various aspects of science fiction writing. I'm enormously pleased about this.

For sixteen years, I did a writing column for Writers Digest, until the editorial staff, in one of its periodic revamps of the magazine, fired all the columnists at once and went to a different format. I like writing about writing, for a couple of reasons. First, it forces me to think about why I do what I do, about what works and what doesn't, and sometimes that leads to greater clarity about whatever story I've currently got under construction. Second, I enjoy knowing I'm being useful to beginners. Being useful makes me feel like I belong someplace.

Incidentally, I only just learned about another aid for beginning writers: Virtual Clarion. This is an on-line workshop sponored by Clarion, and the fee you pay to join goes to help defray Clarion's costs. You can participate in writers' groups, or you can purchase critiques donated by instructors (including me) of your work-in-progress. The URL is

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Sometimes I will go for months without thinking much about a particular object or phenomenon or person. Then I will get interested in it for some reason, and suddenly I'm seeing it everywhere. Either I have just re-tuned my perception filters, or the universe has a way of supplying information and ideas right when we think we need them.

Right now it's dogs. I have a dog, but I have had a dog for four years now. All at once everywhere I go there are literary dogs. Kij Johnson wrote a wonderful story in Ellen Datlow's anthology COYOTE ROAD, all about the evolution of dogs. Ellen urges me at World Fantasy Con, in the strongest possible terms, to read this story, so I do. The galleys for my 2008 novel from Tachyon, DOGS, turn up in my mailbox. Mike Resnick informs me that my story for Jim Baen's Universe, called "Laws of Survival" but mostly about dogs, will be up on the Baen website in December. The current issue of THE NEW YORKER arrives and the fiction is a story by Roddy Doyle called "The Dog." The TIMES crossword puzzle this morning has a clue "Hollywood dog" (ASTA). I am thinking about a YA science fiction novel, and dogs keep scampering through my mind.

What message am I being sent here? And would it work if I got interested in aardvarks?

Monday, November 12, 2007

As Time Goes By

I've been going over my galleys for Nano Comes To Clifford Falls and Other Stories, and I've noticed something odd. Either the stories have mutated over time or my critical judgement has. There are some stories I remember not liking that much, such as "Computer Virus," that I now think are pretty good. There are other stories I felt quite enthusiastic about when I sold them, but which now seem to have developed deep flaws.

One of the latter is "Shiva In Shadow." I wrote it because Robert Silverberg asked for a story for an SFBC anthology called Between Worlds. This theme anthology was originally supposed to be called At The Galactic Core and all the stories set there, but apparently I was the only one who wanted to set a story at the core, and so the scope was broadened. Since at the time I had no idea what went on at the galactic core (a lot), I got a book and read it. But as I reread the finished product four years later, I think I got too carried away with the science. The story is jammed with facts about Sagittarius A*, IRS 16, and shocked molecular gases. Any hard-SF story is a balance between what's going in the science and what's going on inside the characters, but I was a little shocked myself at how out of balance those elements are in "Shiva in Shadow." What was I thinking?

Too much. I was thinking too much, leading with the head and not the heart. Ah, well. It's only one story in the collection.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Galley Glitches

The galleys for my 2008 short-story collection from Golden Gryphon, Nano Comes To Clifford Falls and Other Stories, arrived yesterday in the mail. They were accompanied by the Hungarian edition of Oaths and Miracles; the long-overdue payment from Kodak; and a royalty check, from the reprint of a story in an obscure anthology, for $4.78. I won't spend that all in one place.

I have learned to go over galleys very carefully. This is due not to publishers' glitches but to me. When the galleys for an early novel of mine turned up decades ago, I had no time to go over them and they were required back, like, yesterday: rush rush rush URGENT! So I hired my teenage son to read them for me. He missed a few things, which is why the book came out with the phrase "public announcement" without the "l."

The hardcover of Oaths and Miracles, my first thriller, was worse. I read the galleys hastily. Very hastily. Somehow I didn't notice that, from all the chaotic electronic vesions on my computer, the one the publisher used (which he must have obtained from me) was missing a critical chapter. The hardcover came out without it. I restored this chapter in the paperback, but not before several friends and one reviewer delicately inquired why I'd chosen to tell my story with the climax off-stage.

So I'm going over these galleys extremely carefully. It takes a long time, but I do learn.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Move Over, Harry Potter

This afternoon I read Ellen Klages's YA novel, THE GREEN GLASS SEA. This book, which won the prestigious Scott O'Dell award for young adult literature, is about two eleven-year-old girls who live at Los Alamos with their scientist fathers during the Manhattan Project. Both girls are social misfits, very bright, and imaginative -- not unlike many of us SF fans as children. It's a terrific book, ending with the atom bomb detonations at Trinity and then Hiroshima, as only half-understood through the eyes of children.

What I noticed about the book, quite apart from enoying it, is how much it differs from the fantasies that are read by all the 12-16-year-old I know. The Harry Potter books and their clones are all fast-paced, fantastical, full of dangerous and wild adventures. GREEN GLASS SEA is very slow-paced, quiet, focussed on things like building a crystal radio and learning to trust a friend. All the drama concening the bomb happens off-stage -- way off-stage. So as I finished the book, I had to wonder -- do kids like this book as much as I do? Maybe they do. If not, do adults then give awards to books they think kids ought to like?

I have no answers to this. But I'm going to give GREEN GLASS SEA to a 15-year-old I know and see what she thinks.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Yesterday the mail brought an edition of a Russian magazine, mailed from Moscow. I know I have a story in it because (1) why else would I be getting it, and (2) I think I can recognize my own name in Russian (НЗНСИ КРЕСС). What I can't recognize is the title of the story, which means I have no idea what story I may have sold to whom, when. The title is (as closely as I can match the letters from Microsoft's "Symbols" inserts):

Э Н Д Ш Π И п б

Help, anyone?

Other mystifications: Whether the thing I'm writing is or is not a novel, when Kodak will pay me for the presentation I did for them in September, the meaning of life in the universe.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Mind Games

After WFC, I'm having a hard time geting back into my maybe-a-novel-maybe-not. Continuity has been lost, momentum broken, inspiration squashed. When I'm having trouble working, the best cure is always to work -- a vicious circle. So I play mind games with myself. The current one goes: "Kress, you only have to do five hundred words today. That's two skimpy pages. Anybody can write two skimpy pages, especially if you know you're going to rewrite it anyway, and if you do, you're free! Free!" This game often works. Just as often, after 500 words I'll continue on.

Here's another mind game I use: "Kress, you're sitting in that chair until you have one page. It doesn't matter if you get hungry or bladder-troubled or carried off in the Rapture -- tell God you can't go until you've done one page." This works, too, especially if one is drinking coffee.

Gene Wolfe's mind game when he's stuck: No words until he starts working again. No books, no newspapers, no radio or TV, no conversation (Gene has a very understanding wife). No words off the page until a respectable number are on the page. He says the longest he's ever gone like this is four days (FOUR DAYS??!!)

For all of these word-production techniques, blogging doesn't count. Back to work now.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

More Unclassifiable

My roommate at WFC, Neile Graham, left a copy of Jonathan Strahan's new anthology, ECLIPSE, lying around our room, and during a failed afternoon nap I started reading it. This was because (1) it looked interesting, (2) it was there, and (3) I owe a story to ECLIPSE 2 and so it seemed a good idea to get a sense of what the editor wants. Eventually I bought a copy in the dealers' room, and I still have no idea what the editor wants. But it certainly is interesting.

The three stories I've read so far are definitely not SF, but they're not any recognzable (at least to me) subgenre of fantasy either. No magic (maybe). Andy Duncan's hilarious "Unique Chicken Goes In Reverse" is funny and sad with a punch at the end, but he's riffing un-magically on things far removed from spells, swords, or gritty urban wizards. This story is wonderful; I'm recommending it for a Nebula. Peter Beagle's "The Last and Only, or Mr. Muscowitz Becomes French" is as far from his last year's award winner, "Two Hearts," as it is possible to get. It's a compressed biography of a strange life written mostly in exposition (which I tell me students is a no-no!) and frustrated sadness. And Ellen Klages's "Mrs. Zeno's Paradox" uses the equipment of SF (linear accelerators, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle) to slyly turn the world of philosophical premises feminist.

I love that these stories are so genuinely weird, so completely unclassifiable. They expand my mind, which is more than nearly all space opera does -- including the space operas I've written myself.

What does that say?

Monday, November 5, 2007

World Fantasy Con -- Day 4

Morning found many bewildered people wandering around the lobby of the Saratoga Hotel, trying to meet up with people who weren't there. Daylight Savings Time had changed back to EST overnight, and half the con attendees had forgotten this and half remembered it. Check-out time was an inconvenient 11:00 a.m., so everyone tripped over suitcases and other in-transit baggage. I had breakfast with Jeanne Cavalos of Odyssey, since I am teaching at that New Hampshire workshop next summer, and learned how the drill will work.

I did a reading at 11:00 -- astonished that anyone was present instead of eating, checking out, or dressing for the banquet -- of a story coming out in 2008 in Lou Anders's FAST FORWARD 2, "The Kindness of Strangers."

The 2007 World Fantasy Awards and banquet were hosted by Guy Gavriel Kay, whose speech was divided into two parts: a reverent tribute to the late Robert Jordan and then a fun "fairy tale" using all the names of the nominees, which was then immediately given a funny and negative on-stage critique by Gary Wolfe. After this the room grew hushed, the envelopes were produced, a jillion cameras flashed, and the winners are:

Special Award, Non-Professional: Gary Wolfe, for reviews and criticism

Special Award, Professional: Ellen Asher, for her work at SFBC

Artist: Shaun Tan

Collection: Map of Dreams by Mary Rickert, who cried and thanked Gordon Van Gelder "for finding me in the slush pile"

Anthology: Salon Fantastique, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Short Fiction: "Journey Into the Kingdom" by Mary Rickert, who by now was having a very good afternoon

Novella: "Botch Town," by Jeffrey Ford, in The Empire of Ice Cream.

Novel: Soldier of Sidon, by Gene Wolfe, who received a much-deserved standing ovation.

The ceremony closed with speeches by the two Life Achievement Award winners. Diana Wynne Jones could not be present; her charming acceptance speech was read by Sharyn November. Betty Ballantine was present. She urged everyone to "teach a child to read, and encourage those children to teach others to read, and then writers will have readers and the country will never have another Bush in the White House." She, too, received a standing ovation.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

World Fantasy Con -- Day 3

The day began with a 2 1/2 hour breakfast with Gardner Dozois, Susan Casper, and Joe and Gay Haldemann. The discussion ranged from what fantasy readers really want (Susan: "a big interesting world to explore;" Gardner: "dramatic, soap-opera plots;" Joe: "irrationality") to the state of publishing (transitional), to sex (the PBS documentary THE HUMAN ANIMAL, which I now want to rent), to collaboration. Gardner's new novel with George Martin and Daniel Abraham, HUNTER'S RUN, is out in the U.K. now and will be out here in January. Melinda Snodgrass joined us for coffee and so the discussion switched to the impending writers' strike in Hllywood, since Melinda writes scripts as well as fiction. The whole breakfast was enormous fun.

Roamed the dealer's room (Gardner's book not available anywhere) and the art show. Later in the day I went to Ellen Klages's reading (very funny). Late afternoon drinks in the bar with Ellen, Therese Piecynski, Walter Jon Williams, and the always entertaining Jay Lake. People wandered from table to table, schmoozing. This is what I like best at cons. As a writer, I spend a lot of time alone, talking to fictional people. Corporeal ones make such a nice change.

Dinner at an Italian restaurant with Sheila Williams, Jim Kelly, John Kessel. Sheila was very enlightening on the fiscal aspects of publishing ASIMOV'S. I asked if she does, indeed, try to choose stories that will create a smorsgasbord in each issue, appealing to a broad range of tastes, rather than choosing stories simply because she likes them personally. She said yes, although she never publishes stories she dislikes. Jon said that if he were to publish JOHN KESSEL'S SF MAGAZINE, it would have a readership on one because his taste is both specific and quirky. This may or may not be true; I know from experience that John is a good writing teacher.

My 10:00 p.m. panel (and what a time to schedule a panel!) was on "When Fantasy Becomes SF or SF Becomes Fantasy." Nobody was actually sure what that meant, but the topic was attacked with gusto by George R.R. Martin, Lee Modesitt, Walter Jon Willams, Joe Haldemann, and me (moderating). George expounded his furniture theory of fiction, which is that SF and fantasy stories are the same house but merely contain different furniture. I asked if that meant he could have written GAME OF THRONES as SF with no substantial changes, just different "furniture." Astoundingly (to me) George said "Yes." Joe disagreed and we were off and running.

The Tor party, afterwards, was held in a room packed with people and at roughly the temperature of blood. Shouted to be heard for a while, then went to bed, perchance to dream of Victorian furniture on a generation-ship.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

World Fantasy Con -- Day 2

Lunch with editor Beth Meachem of Tor yielded a fascinating question. We were supposed to discuss my new novel proposal, but since I don't yet have a new novel proposal, instead we discussed the novel proposals of more together, more disciplined writers. These included newcomer Ken Scoles, whose quintology debuts in early 2009 with LAMENTATION. Beth said it is "SF that will be marketed as fantasy." I wanted to know what that means, exactly, so we talked about books like Anne McCaffrey's Pern series and Gene Wolfe's BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, which are actually science fiction but which create worlds that at first feel like fantasy, until the reader gets farther in. Beth was extremely interesting on what this requires by way of content, pacing, and style. She also mentioned how much better sales are for SF that can be marketed as fantasy than for SF that is clearly and unabashedly SF.

I had dinner with a group that included Ellen Datlow, Ellen Klages, Peter Straub, Leslie Howle, Carolyn Stevermer, and the very lively Elizabeth Bear. I have never met Peter before, and in a way I still didn't, since we were seated at opposite ends of the noisy table and I never got to talk to him. Then on to the mass autographing, a chaotic event where over a hundred writers sat at tables and watched the line for George R.R. Martin. This was followed by the Clarion party, as Clarion West gets ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Gardner Dozois was in fine form at this. SF would not be the same without him.

I was then tired of smiling and went to bed.

Friday, November 2, 2007

World Fantasy Con -- Day 1

I drove to Saratoga Springs with Nick DiChario and two other Rochesterians. We didn't get very lost on the way. Arrivng at 5:30, I found the bar in full overdrive: Too many peeople, not enough chairs, overworked waitresses. These things continued to be the theme of the evening throughout dinner and the party given by "Australia" (This is how it was listed on the program; presumably the entire country was our host.) Patrick O'Leary got us lost on the way to the restaurant. Jim Kelly was charming, Andy Duncan witty, Steve Carper erudite. It was "couples night," so I got a break on the entree special with Clarionite Melinda Thielbar as my "date. " The party was thronged, so Ellen Klages and I sat on the staircase until Security threw us out on the grounds that we were impeding traffic, which there wasn't any of. Back at the party, Ellen spilled wine on Sheila Williams. Gardner Dozois turned up with a new, short haircut reminiscent of Julius Caesar. Some people, of which I may have been one, drank a great deal of wine and laughed a lot. If there were substantive discussions of SF going on, I didn't hear them.

But, hey -- it's only Day #1.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Menus and Roses

I don't surf the Web much, partly because I'm so inept on-line and partly because I'm afraid it will become a time sink. However, recently I've been lurking on the ASIMOV'S Forum site. As an addendum to my previous post, I'm astonished at the wide range of reader reactions to various stories. Some people love stories I disliked; some people dislike stories I love; some people interpret stories in entirely different ways than I do. I guess that's why restaurants have menus: Not everyone likes Chicken Marengo.

However, all this lurking has given me a new appreciation for Sheila Williams's job. As editor, she is trying to do more than merely choose stories she likes personally -- she's trying to create a balance among various kinds of stories in every issue. That way, nobody leaves the restaurant hungry. At least, I think that's what she's trying to do. I'm having dinner with her at World Fantasy Con this weekend, and I'll ask her and post the response. The Saratoga Hotel, I've just learned, has wireless, so the laptop goes with me.

Not an easy job. Therefore -- a rose for Sheila.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Troubled Question

I just finished reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch's novella "Recovering Apollo 8" in the February 2007 ASIMOV'S (I'm a little behind in my reading). Although I have always liked Kris's work, this is not my favorite among her fiction. But apparently many, many other people disagree, since on the ASIMOV'S forum, this story is often named as a favorite from the entire year. What am I missing? Or, more precisely, what makes a story a favorite?

There are as many answers to that, of course, as there are readers. But I'm after something here that increasingly strikes me as true of hardcore SF fans: It doesn't seem to be the quality of the story in literary terms (complex characters complexly drawn, sparkling prose, dead-on observations of human nature, going psychologically or atmospherically where no man has gone before, etc.) Nor does it even seem to be the gee-whiz technology and scientific and political speculation that SF is often known for. Instead, much successful SF seems to simply take as its subject matter things that SF fans are interested in -- space exploration, robots, warriors of all ilk, AI -- and whether it handles the subject well or badly hardly seems to matter.

Note: I am NOT saying that "Recovering Apollo 8" is badly handled. But neither does it have the polish and pace and insight of some of Kris's other work. However, it deals with an alternate reality that appeals to SF. Apollo 8, instead of being the first successful lunar orbital flight, ended in disaster. A hundred years later, the bodies of the three astronauts, Lovell and Borman and Anders, have all been recovered from deep space. This keeps the main character, who has spent a lifetime in this pursuit, from committing a suicide we never saw him contemplate.

Does subject alone guarantee a story's success? If not guarantee it, then help it along? How important to us is the "nifty idea" vs. the exexcution? Is this science fiction or science fiction?

And how many of you out there are going to hate me for even questioning it?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ryman and Oz

I've just fnished Geoff Ryman's novel WAS, and I'm baffled. Like all Ryman's work, this is beautifully written. And I know I said a few posts ago that category labels don't matter. But, nonetheless... What is this?

The novel follows three characters; one is the young Judy Garland before and as she films THE WIZARD OF OZ. This thread is a sort of dramatized biography, using real facts. The second character is a fictional actor dying of AIDS in 1989; here, too, there is fiction but nothing SF or fantastical (although the character is given to hallucinations and delusions). The third thread is an alternate (and much grimmer) life of Dorothy Gale, a different version of the life of somebody else's fictional character, presented as an actual little girl in 1875 Kansas with no fantasy elements in her heart-breaking life at all. Yet the novel was published by Fantasy Masterworks of Great Britain. So my question: Does something have to be different in some way from real life -- contain some element of magic -- for a work to be "fantasy"? Or is it enough to merely present the alternate reality of a fictional icon, stripped of all the original fantastical elements?

I ponder this as I prepare to attend World Fantasy Con in Saratoga, NY later this week. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

New Relationship

For someone who works as I do, which is with no literary plan whatsoever before I begin writing, starting a new piece of fiction is always an adventure. In fact, it's not unlike starting a new romantic relationship. The questions are the same: Where is this going? Will it be any good? How long might it last? Who is this person? Do I foresee a happy ending?

I have begun a new...something. There's already 4,500 words of it, so it's not a short story. Is it a novella or even a novel? I have a main character but she's only becoming known to me as I write. The setting is still sketchy, the plot barely begun, the ending unknown. The piece is currently in first person, but it occurred to me this morning that I might want a second POV character, which means either switching Carla to third person or braving the perils of multiple first. I don't know yet how it will go.

All this is exciting. Also unsettling. But I haven't worked on a novel for six months; all that time I've been doing short stories. Maybe this is a novel. Maybe this is serious. In fact, [cue music from OKLAHOMA], "It's al-most like faaalllling in love...."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Jane and Ursula

Over the weekend I saw the movie The Jane Austen Book Club, which is based on Karen Joy Fowler's novel of the same name. The only man in the book club, which is "all Austen all the time," spends a lot of effort trying to get the woman he's interested in to read Ursula LeGuin. She, like so many misguided people, looks down on science fiction. But eventually she reads The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven and loves both of them (plus him).

Austen and LeGuin are two of my very favorite authors. Their pairing at first seems odd: What could Jane's world have in common with the hermaphroditic, dour society of LeGuin's planet Winter? But I think for me the attraction lies in the fact that both writers are realists, not romantics. Austen knows that her heroines face limited options, that a happy life requires at least a minimal income, and that you can't always get what you want (Marianne Dashwood doesn't get Willoughby; Edmond Bertram doesn't get Mary; Catherine Moreland is disappointed in Isabella's friendship). LeGuin knows that, too. Genly Ai pays a price for his year on Winter (alienation from his own kind, nearly freezing, the death of Estraven) and at the end there's no guarantee that Winter will join the Ekumen or that things will improve for the oppressed citizens of Orgoreyn. Austen is clearly more light-hearted than LeGuin (it's hard to be light-hearted about freezing to death), but Austen, too is a realist. They both deal in emotion as strong as any of the Romantic writers, but emotion doesn't conquer all; conscious choices do, backed by effort.

Also, they both write like angels. And the movie's good, too.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mind and Body

Whenever I'm tempted to believe in Cartesian dualism, the universe corrects me. Yesterday I threw out my back. I don't write wit my back, but no writing can occur until it feels better. Pain, immobility, and self-pity are the enemies of fiction. The mind doesn't produce if the body's unhappy (at least, my mind doesn't). Maybe writers should train physically, like athletes, to improve their stories.

And speaking of speed, Lou Anders has already sent me the contract AND the check for "The Kindness of Strangers," making him the fastest editor I've ever worked with, hands down. I only sent him the story last Monday!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Teaching and Writing

I have writer friends who never teach. "It uses the same part of the brain I need for my own work," they say. Or: "I can't stand to read all those unprofessional manuscripts." Or: "If I analyze fiction too much, I'll lose my spontaneous ability to create it."

I've never found any of these things to be true for me. Last night my SF class met for the fifth of our eight sessions this term. Even though I was having a reaction to a flu shot (headache, muscle soreness, slight fever), I still enjoyed the class. It includes people who have just finished their first story ever (hi, Pat) and those who have published in ANALOG and ASIMOV'S. I learn something from all of them. The beginners force me to think about the basic components of a story, and the pros force me to think about that all-important, and often elusive, dividing line between a story that's almost salable and one that an editor actually buys. All this thinking eventually helps me with my own rewrites, since I'm one of those writers whose first drafts are mad, unplanned plunges into the unknown, necessitating much rewrite. We use a Clarion-style critique circle, and both the students and I learn from each others' reactions to a given story, too. And since usual about half of each class are returnees, there's a comfortable number of critiquers who know what they're doing.

Teaching has another personal advantage, as well. I'm a full-time writer. That means I spend much of the day in a small study, communing with people who don't exist. Actual live people who like SF make a welcome change. Even with a flu-shot reaction.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Is It Dead, Jim?

I have a story that may or may not be dead. You'd think the author would know this, but in this case I don't. I finished the piece nearly two months ago, set it aside, and have been unmotivated to go back to it -- in itself a bad sign. I usually start a rewrite as soon as the first draft is finished, and this time I don't want to. The story has ending problems, the main character is not a nice person, and I just don't want to work on it. So it's probably dead. But...I could be wrong. The idea is still nifty.

The logical answer would be to write a different story with the same idea, but I don't want to do that, either. What I really want is to not have written the story in the first place so that I don't have to think about it now, but that's not possible, either. So it hangs around me, a decaying albatross, with no Coleridge redemption in sight.

On the other hand, today I sold another story, one that I do like, to Lou Anders of Pyr for the anthology FAST FORWARD 2. The story is called "The Kindness of Strangers," and while it does not have Blanche DuBois, it does have beautiful, megaterrorist aliens. They're not nice peole, either, but I like them. Go figure.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Editors and Taste

How much does an editor's individual taste influence his or her story selection, versus choosing by literary values?

This very loaded question occurred to me this morning because over the weekend Mike Resnick bought my 'China story," now titled "First Rites" (thank you, Jack ) for his on-line magazine, JIM BAEN'S UNIVERSE. I had hesitated to send it there, even though Mike bought another story from me, "Laws of Survival," which will appear in the December issue. The reason I hesitated is that "First Rites" is a far different story from "Laws of Survival." The latter is very much mainline SF; the former has a strong streak of mysticism. So I sit at my desk with my finished story, thinking, "Does Mike do mysticism? Does it matter if Mike does mysticism? Will he judge the story on its literary merits instead of its content? What are its literary merits?"...the kind of pondering every writer does when it comes to marketing, except that I've known Mike for decades and know his own work as well, and this naturally influences my assessment of the story's chances at JBU.

I've never been able to predict any editor's tastes. All of them, both in magazines and books, have rejected work of mine that I've liked and accepted with enthusiasm work of mine about which I had doubts. The editor I can come closest to predicting is Gardner Dozois, whose taste seems closest to my own. Does that mean that it is taste and not literary merit that matters, after all? What is the literary merit of this story...

And so it goes, around and around. But I guess Mike does do mysticism, for which I'm now grateful.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Mundane SF

A local writer, Eric Scoles, has made me aware of an interesting controversy on the Internet (I'm never aware of anything on the Internet without outside assistance). Fueled in part by a GOH speech by Geoff Ryman, a group of writers and readers are advocates for "mundane SF." This is Sf that avoids many of our field's tropes, such as FTL and time travel and immortality, in favor of fiction that grapples with the reality that humanity's future most likely lies on Earth, amid the actual messes we make for ourselves here. Mainstream commercial SF, this argument goes, is mostly about an imagined past of derring-do and adventures transported to an unrealistic future with great tech.

What do I think about this? I think Geoff Ryman has a point, but I also think that it needs looking at more closely. A book like, to take one example, Ursula LeGuin's masterpiece THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS uses many of those "tired SF tropes:" FTL, aliens, a galactic federation. But they are not what the story is about. What it is about is the difficulty of seeing past our differences to connect with each other, and the costs that such connection exacts. It seems to me that "realistic" SF depends less on accurate depiction of the future than on accurate depction of human beings.

On the other hand, I like and have written near-future, Earth-based, alien-less stories, quite a lot of them. The category seems less important to me than the specific story.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Totally Frivolous Weekend

I did no writing for the last few days. None. Zero. Nada. Zilch. I didn't even think about writing, because I was visiting a friend at the shore, and sun and surf, I've discovered, completely drains the brain of any content whatsoever. One lies on the hot sand (it was 85 degrees -- in New Jersey. In October) and all thought, imagination, memory, and coherence bake away. One becomes a sort of evolutionary throwback, capable of eating and sleeping and minimal movement, but not of thought, and certainly not of art. Sun - good! Lunch -- good! Dolphins -- too bad not edible! It would be interesting to know if writers who live on a beach write less than writers who live inland. I, however, cannot undertake this study -- I'm home now but still have sand in my hair and nothing in my brain.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Writing and Chess

I play chess. I play it very badly. But it serves a definite purpose with regard to writing: It uses a different part of the brain. So when I've been pushing really hard on a story, as I have with the new, untitled (of course) one that I'm writing now, a few games of chess banish the story completely from my mind for a while. Actually, chess is almost the only thing that banishes the story, and thus gives my fictional brain a rest. Not even sleep works as well, because I sometimes dream of stories I'm working on.
I will be away this long weekend, visiting a friend at the New Jersey shore. Walking on the beach, eating crab, and drinking white wine will not, I know from experience, keep my fictional characters (Jenny, Eric, Carleen) from clamoring at my mind. And the friends I'm visiting do not play chess. Them's the breaks.

Monday, October 1, 2007

But Would You Invite Him To Dinner?

The China story, now titled "First Rites," is finally finished and submitted. One of my readers mentioned that she "liked the story but didn't like all the characters," which raises an interesting question. My friend, under close questioning, said that "didn't like" doesn't, for her, mean that the characters were implausible or not well drawn. It means she wouldn't want to be friends with them.

It's an unfortunate truth that sympathetic characters make for more popular fiction. Many -- maybe even most -- readers wish to be able to identify with a story's protagonist. I say "unfortunate" because it seems to me that some of the most interesting fiction features characters that are complex but not necessarily likable. I wouldn't want to be best friends with Raskolnikov, Scarlett O'Hara, Genly Ai, or Severus Snape. But I'm in finding out what goes on in their minds and hearts, which is not at all the same thing. However, the reality is that unless your protagonist is sympathetic, your audience will be much smaller.

Some of these thoughts were prompted by today's arrival in the mail of the December ASIMOV'S, which includes my story "The Rules." Neither Arthur Carmody nor Glenn Tartell are likable. Ah, well.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Germs In Space

The China story is still under construction, or rather re-construction. The copyedited ms. for DOGS was fine, and I'm grateful that the copyeditor caught so many small errors (plus teaching me to spell "anymore"). And scientists have sent germs to space and made them more powerful than they were before.
In September, 2006, salmonella went up on the shuttle. When it came back down again, 167 of its genes had mutated, presumably due to cosmic radiation. Then the salmonella was put in mouse food and fed to mice at Arizona State University's Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccinology. Mice fed the space-strengthened salmonella died at three times the rate of mice given normal salmonella, and it took less of the microorganism to do it.
This is fascinating to me. I don't yet see how to use it in a story, but the news article grabbed hold of my imagination, hollowed out a little studio apartment for itself, and has taken up abode. There is, or will be eventually, something breeding there.
I just hope nobody sends Ebola upstairs.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Chugging Along

The best thing about writing is getting into that "flow state" where my study disappears, the computer disappears, and even I disappear to myself, and the only thing that exists is the world of the story. The last three days have provided work sessions like that, resulting in a first draft of the China story. It needs rewriting, it's 17,000 words long, it has no title, and I'm still doing bits of research for details I sluffed over in the heat of composition, but we -- the story and I -- have been chugging happily along. And now I have to stop.
The copyedited ms. of my thriller due out from Tachton next year, Dogs, just arrived from UPS. Because publishers always need copyedited mss. back like, yesterday, I will have to stop work on the China story and attend to the novel. There's two problems with this. One is that it will break my momentum on the China story, since they have entirely different tones and pacing. The other is that I don't yet know, having not yet opened the package, if this will be one of the welcome copyeditors, finding my lapses in continuity and regularizing my usage, or one of the ones that wants to be a co-author and changes my wording. Once I even had one who provided incorrect data ("You need to change 'Congo' to 'Zaire' -- they had a revolution, you know." Yes, and then they had another one and changed the name back.) This ms. will probably be fine, because I've worked with Tachyon before and I trust them. Just the same, I'm putting off opening the package until tomorrow. That way, I get a few more precious hours with Hao Haihong and Ben Molloy.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Quoth The Greybeard

Yesterday I learned that my story from the January, 2007 ASIMOV'S, "Safeguard," will be published in the Chinese magazine Science Fiction World, translated by the wonderful Xu Haiyan. This pleases me enormously. China is a huge potential SF market. And I noticed when I was at the Chengdu con that most of that market seems to be young. In the States, "the graying of fandom" is a perpetual topic. The recent Locus poll included the question, "How long have you been reading SF regularly ?" and over half answered "more than 20 years." Fifty-three percent had been reading it more than 30 years. Granted, Locus readers represent hard-core fans rather than a broader spectrum of all SF readers, but these figures still suggest an older group interested in SF than I saw in China. So does a visit to any con suite at any American convention. Whereas in Chengdu, the con and signings were thronged with young people. Even most of the writers, with the exception of Liu Cixin, seemed young.
So why are Chinese youth more interested in SF than American youth? Even the young people I know personally, when they read in the field at all, vastly prefer fantasy to SF. Why?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Good, Better, Best

This morning I got an email from Jonathan Strahan, requesting my story "By Fools Like Me" for Nightshade's Best of the Year anthology. While this is certainly a lovely way to start one's day, it also got me thinking about what constitutes a "best" story. When "Fools" first came out, in the September ASIMOV'S, an on-line reviewer said that it was nicely done but the idea and setting were old. So how important is a "new" idea for a successful story? How important is new technology, a new and different world, vs. strong characters and emotion? Ideally, of course, a story would have both, but most of us can't manage that all of the time, or even most of the time.
"Fools" takes place in what is becoming a standard apocalyptic setting: the world post-global-warming, in which some parts of the Earth are flooded and others have undergone desertification. The story focuses on a very few characters cut off from the rest of the planet, on a very small and personal scale. Does that aid a story, in that there is more room to develop character, or hurt it, in that it becomes "less SF-nal"? I don't know. I do know, however, that among my own 2007 works, I preferred "Fountain of Age." Jonathan Strahan obviously didn't. Who knows why? Best-of-the-year editors don't have to justify their decisions. Nor do they ask the authors, which would easily lead to an apocalypse all by itself.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

CATCH-22, Publishing Version

My class in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy has resumed again. I teach this three times a year, eight weeks a session, at a local arts center, Writers & Books. My students are all motivated adults who want to write professionally (a few already do). As usual, I have about half "regulars" and half newbies. Next week we start critiquing eacch other's work, Clarion style.
After doing this for a great many years, and reading the SF magazines for even longer. I've noticed something curious. Some of the stories I see in class seem to me better than some of the ones I see in the magazines. Now, this could be just bias on my part, since some of these students are also my friends. But I don't think so. I think something else happens in publishing, which is that you have to be better at the beginning of your career than you do later on. At the beginning, when your ms. turns up in a slush pile, it does not get the benefit of many doubts. The editor or first reader, having read some truly dreadful stuff in the slush pile, doesn't allow a beginner the same automatic, if partial, suspension of immediate judgement that he will allow to a pro, who he knows can tell a story. I think a lot of pretty good work thus gets dismissed too early. Also, a beginner's name on the cover of a magazine does not sell copies. Robert Silverberg's, or Charles Stross's, or Connie Willis's, does.
Finally, editors, being human, sometimes just flat out make mistakes. My most famous story is the novella version of 'Beggars In Spain," which won a Nebula and my only Hugo. It was rejected by the first editor who read it.
If you're a beginner, that rejected story of yours may be better than you think. Hang in there.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Factual People In Fictional Stories

Writers have two kinds of relatives: those who fear turning up in the writer's stories and those who fear not turning up there. My sister Kate, whom I adore, has always complained that I never put her in my fiction. I have tried; once I named a hurricane after her. She said that was not going to cover it. Some people are never happy.
So I tried to put her in my China story, but she won't fit. For the female character, I need a bossy pragmatist, and Kate is a sweet-natured (usually) romantic. But if I had put her in, and it was an unflattering treatment, what then? J.P. Donleavy said that if you publish your first novel and nobody sues you, you haven't been honest enough. Might be a bit of an exaggeration.
Anyway, Kate wouldn't sue me. I know too much about her (and vice-versa). Between sisters, these things are handled more discreetly. By blackmail.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Some Children Are More Difficult Than Others

There are stories that are gifts. When I wrote "Out Of All Them Bright Stars," the story that won my first Nebula, I put the words down as fast as they came to me and changed almost nothing. Other stories, however....
The "China story," most of which takes place in San Diego, is a mess. It's a physical mess because some of it is in longhand, some typed, and some in cryptic notations like "Renata and two-slit experiments," which are supposed to remind me of whole scenes as yet unwritten. The story will apparently be quite long. Also, I realized just two days ago that there is a need to work in solar flares, currently not present in any scene. I will need them later. And I'm still not sure of the ending. None of this is good. I know writers -- Connie Willis is one -- who work from detailed outlines, but I have never been able to do this. I write like a man dashing past a graveyard at night: Go as fast as you can and don't look back.
And speaking of China -- I finally finished the course of malaria prophylactic pills I was told by Passport Health Clinic to take before I left the US. It turns out there was no malaria in Chengdu, but if it shows up in upstate New York, I'm covered.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Negative Capability

I recently had an interesting email conversation about stories with another writer . He theorized that there are two kinds of writers, those that write about things that go in in their own lives, more or less heavily fictionalized, and those that write about characters and situations different from themselves. The two kinds bleed into each other, of course. If I write a murderer, I'm drawing on my own past -- no, not of murder, but of being angry enough to want to kill somebody. My life feeds even the character most unlike me.
I was thinking about this when I finished watching Jodie Foster's performance in THE BRAVE ONE. I didn't think about it while I was watching because Foster was too riveting. She plays a woman whose lover is brutally and randomly murdered in Central Park. When most people lose a loved one, they grieve, become depressed, struggle to readjust. Foster does those things, but she also turns urban vigilante. What made the movie, despite a flawed ending, so mesmerizing is the complexity Foster puts into this woman. She's terrified of her own violence, yet goes on causing it. She's morally conflicted, gleeful, scared, furious, wily, and begging to be caught, all at once.
Shakespeare wrote that sort of character. Literary theorists refer to the ability of the author to subtract himself from his story, to create such a diverse range of characters that it's hard to glimpse the author's personality through his fiction, negative capability. Old Will had it in spades, which is one reason we can draw so few conclusions about him as a person. I think Jodie Foster has it, too.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


So the picture is finally up, but not by me. Sharon, the savvy admin, wrestled the photo into place. Thank you, Sharon.
Meanwhile, a few of you have commented on my writing a story set in China after six days there, and two more people felt moved enough to send me email (one for, one against). I'm persisting with the story, possibly unwisely, but I'm also taking this opportunity to recommend a booklet on this thorny issue. It's called WRITING THE OTHER, by Cindy Ward and Nisi Shawl, and it deals with if, when, and how to write POV characters that differ from the author in race, culture, gender, and/or sexual orientation. Cindy and Nisi do a lovely job in discussing this in ways that are actually usable to writers.
I recently saw STARDUST, the movie based on Neil Gaiman's novel. Now, I am not a huge fan of fantasy, especially fantasy with princesses and witches and the whole Celtic-lore background, because it's been done so much. But STARDUST is utterly charming: inventive and entertaining. Rober DeNiro's performance alone is worth the price of admission. Recommended.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Alive and Well On The Net

Some things never go away, even when you wish they would. Last month I was at the Chengdu International Science Fiction Conference in Chengdu, China -- a wonderful experience. But at a cultural presentation of dancers and musicians, the two Japanese-writer guests sang a Japanese song. Then the Russian cosmonaut sang a Russian song (and that man could SING). This put pressure on the Americans -- should we sing? What should we sing? How bad would we be?
We did sing, resulting in the worst rendition ever of "Oh, Susanna!" This is not false modesty. We were truly terrible. Neil Gaiman, refraining from joining in on the grounds that he's a Brit, said, "Couldn't you guys at least choose one key?" Apparently not.
And now, because nothing on the Internet ever dies, there are photos. There may be a video. So, to forestall the gunshot wound by firing first, here are Carolyn Clink, Rob Sawyer, Michael Swanwick, me, and David Hill murdering poor Susanna, while Neil winces in pain.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Paying The Bills

Writers sometimes take strange freelance assignments to supplement fiction earnings. Today I did a presentation on "storytelling" to a major corporation that wishes to use this information to design software to help people better take, organize, and arrange photos. Since I work in words and they work in images, I'm not sure that my presentation was of much use to anybody. But it was interesting to do , and the very intelligent audience asked some very intelligent questions.
Two weeks ago I was in China with Michael Swanwick, Neil Gaiman, and David Brin -- today I'm in a skirt-and-jacket passing for corporate. Variety and spice and all that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Unexplained Regression

Still working on the China story, and an odd thng happened: I suddenly wanted to write it in longhand. I used to work longhand, before computers, and then pay a typist, but the advent of computers meant my typing looked almost normal -- no more topographical maps that were hills and valleys of Liquid Paper. So now I type on a laptop (with one finger -- 600-page novels with one finger), but all at once I'm back to longhand, all of which will later have to be typed in. Why? Who knows?
Writers have strange ways of warming up for writing. Agathie Christie washed dishes; she said having her arms immersed in warm water helped the flow of ideas. Truman Capote went one better, immersing his whole body and writing in the bathtub. Faulkner drank. So this story (to decend from the exalted to the ridiculous) wants to be written sitting up in bed, longhand, on a clipboard so old the corners are soft and frayed like a blanket.
Go figure.
--Nancy Kress

Monday, September 10, 2007


I have never kept a blog before, so this is a test drive for me. In fact, I'm not certain I keep a blog, in that content remains a theoretical problem. Why do people read other peope's blogs? Why do they read writers' blogs? Why are you reading this?
So I'll start with a writing question: How much does one have to know about a setting and culture to use it in a story? I ask this because I'm currently working on a story set in China, a country in which I have spent all of six days (see report and pictures under NEWS). This feels a bit hubristic. On the other hand, I've never been to Mars, either, or to a space station, or to the future, yet I've set stories in all those places.
Thoughts, anyone?
--Nancy Kress