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.