Monday, March 30, 2009

All-day Workshop

Yesterday I taught an all-day workshop at Hugo House in Seattle. With set-up, lunch, bio-breaks, and post-mortem evaluations, such events run about seven hours, and they are exhausting for everyone, instructor and students alike. The students are concentrating hard, boiling down into their notes the essence of what is said , trying their best on the writing exercises. The instructor is, frankly, both performing (trying to be interesting, even riveting) and teaching (trying to pour whatever she has learned from thirty years of writing and publishing directly into the minds of people just starting both). By the end of the afternoon we all looked limp. I was hoarse. The coffee was gone.

Does any of this help beginning writers? I think it does, or I wouldn't do it. The trouble, as someone once said of advertising, is that I have no idea which parts help which students to what degree. I watch their faces, listen to their questions, try to shape the material to where I think they are. But there are fourteen of them and I'm not a mind reader and who actually knows?

Yesterday's workshop was "Planning Your Novel." We talked about genre, point of view, setting, character development, beginning situation, where to begin the story, plotting, and the commitment and pacing of writing a novel. Maybe it will be of use to some of them. But I will never really know and, in truth, neither will they. Did that author begin her successful novel in that way as a result of something she learned in my class, or would she have done so anyway, or was it because of something she learned elsewhere or of the phases of the moon or what?

These are mysteries. But, then, so is all of writing. So much of it comes not from planning but during the process itself -- unbidden, a gift. From somewhere.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Writing Books

Recently I have been reading books about writing fiction (this fit takes me every so often, usually when I'm about to teach a workshop). Two that I perused are by Lawrence Block and John Gardner. They could not be more different.

Gardner (the author of Grendel and October Light, not the British thriller writer) is often dismissive of plot. He considers both The Grapes of Wrath and All The King's Men to be bad books because of plotting that either sets up "unrealistic" villains or has characters behave in "unrealistic" ways. He has a low opinion of writers (and readers) who are mostly interested in "what happens next" (in this he echoes Delany), being far more interested in how it happens.

Block, on the other hand, is all about plot. He says frankly that complex characters are good but, in much fiction, not essential to sales. What readers want is surprises in "what happens next."

I have oversimplified these two authors' positions, but not by much. Reading the books in tandem, I wonder: What does a beginning writer make of all this? It has to be confusing. However, in another sense it should be liberating -- it underlines, yet again, the basic fact that there are no hard-and-fast rules in writing. What works for Block, with his particular books, works. What worked for Gardner's, with his (more literary) approach, also worked. Ergo, you have a lot of latitude in finding what works for you.

But one thing both writers agree on, fervently: You won't find out what works for you unless you put in the time writing. Practicing. Doing it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


I am in Seattle, partly because on Sunday I am teaching an all-day, intensive writing seminar ("Planning Your Novel") at Hugo House. I like Seattle. It's vibrant, varied, built around lots of water, and hilly (great views). But I think they're a little nuts about coffee.

Yesterday I was walking along Queen Anne Avenue when I saw a big sandwich-board sign outside a cafe -- "Shade-Grown Fair-Trade Organic Espresso!" Never in Rochester have I seen all these qualities together as a major selling point. At dinner parties, people debate the quality of Starbucks, Seattle's Best, Green Mountain, and the specialty coffees I never heard of. They debate this seriously. They debate it at great length.

I feel left out of this culture. As someone who is fine with Nescafe instant, and who would probably drink axle grease if it contained caffeine, the only thing I can offer is erudition: The word "coffee" entered the English language late in the sixteenth century from an Arabic word meaning "wine of the bean." In England, it was initially sipped from a dish, not a cup. Honore de Balzac died of caffeine poisoning (he was up to 50 cups a day of that strong French coffee, which induced an irreversible heart arrhythmia). None of this information makes up for my low-rent coffee tastes, at least not in Seattle.

On the other hand, the West Coast knows nothing about good bagels. Nothing!

Monday, March 23, 2009


Last night I was reading Samuel Delany's book About Writing, and I came across this provocative sentence: "In one way or another, directly or indirectly, most good fiction is about money."

Money? Really?

Delany was not talking specifically about SF. In mainstream, he makes a pretty good case. He says that much good fiction is about a character from one socioeconomic stratum entering another, or about the clash of social classes divided by money, or about people who gain a lot of money, or lose a lot of money, or need a lot of money, or are disinclined to associate with the differently monied. Those cases cover Les Miserables, Gone With the Wind, all of Jane Austen, The Great Gatsby, Vanity Fair, most of Dickens, An American Tragedy, Revolutionary Road, all of Colette, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Human Bondage, Howard's End -- to name just the first, diverse batch of books to come to my mind.

In SF, the situation gets murkier. Certainly books like Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon center on money, and so does LeGuin's The Dispossessed, in that she is trying to work out a society that does not use money (making its absence one of the foci of the novel). Robinson's Red Mars yes; Gibson's Neuromancer -- yes; my own Beggars in Spain -- yes. But "most" good SF? Although money can translate into power, and much SF is concerned with power. Money can also be security, opportunity, freedom, or luxury -- all SF concerns.

I think Delany may be correct. He says that books that don't have money as at least one of their main concerns, feel "thin." And that needs very, very careful thought.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Hugo Nomination

My novella "The Erdmann Nexus" has been nominated for a Hugo. Naturally, this pleases me enormously. However, I do not expect to win. No, this is not a posturing humility -- I have three sound reasons for my non-expectation. First is that I am against some very tough competition: Ian McDonald, who is one of the best SF writers alive; Cory Doctorow (with Benjamin Rosenbaum), who is a rising star; and Charles Coleman Finlay and Robert Reed. I hear especially good things about the Finlay, which I haven't read yet.

Second, I sometimes win Nebulas, but I lose Hugos. It's a different voting crowd. "The Erdmann Nexus" takes place in an old-age assisted-living facility, with (mostly) elderly characters, and I'm not sure that will appeal to the young fans who throng Worldcon.

Third, and perhaps most controversial, is the gender issue. I have looked at the statistics; female writers win more Nebulas than their gender proportion in SFWA -- and far fewer Hugos. This year's ballot includes only four women: me, Kij Johnson, Elizabeth Bear, and Mary Robinette Kowal. There are no women among the novel nominees. Obviously, women do win some Hugos -- I have one, and Connie Willis has 1,078 -- but that's not the way to bet the probabilities.

However -- all together now, in chorus -- "It's an honor just to be nom-in-a-ted."

And it is.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Black Swan

For the past several days I've been absorbed in the non-fiction book The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This book, which had been recommended to me by at least half a dozen people, was a New York Times bestseller when it debuted two years ago. Taleb is a Wharton-school graduate who made a lot of money in the stock market and who is a devotee of world history.

The book, which is subtitled "The Impact of the Highly Improbable," has this as its premise: The bullet that hits you is never the one you see coming. All right, that's a simplification. What Taleb does is categorize all the reasons that we misjudge probabilities, plus the huge cost of those misjudgments when an unexpected event (a "black swan") suddenly appears. Taleb believes that it's the unexpected that shapes history, the financial markets, and much of our everyday disasters. What you don't see gets left out of the your predictions, and what you don't see matters hugely.

Two examples, the first borrowed from Bertram Russell: a turkey gets fed every day by humans for a thousand days. The turkey is "justified by the data" in concluding that humans reliably feed turkeys. The thousand-and-first day is the day before Thanksgiving and the turkey gets the axe. This, Taleb argues, is what happens to financial markets, and thus why all the "trend data" in the world results in professionals doing no better than amateurs at picking stocks (a phenomenon confirmed by experiments).

A second example: Humans invest too heavily in post-event explanations of causality (which may or may not be true; Taleb isn't a big believer in rational causality on the grounds that most humans aren't very rational). We then apply this post-event analysis to the future, and so again don't see coming the totally unexpected random event. As a result, Taleb distrusts nearly all "experts" -- they know too much past data, and so are blinded by their own expectations of order rather than seeing the true randomness of life.

I am only half way through the book, so I haven't yet come to Taleb's suggestions about all this (warning: MATH AHEAD). But I am very intrigued so far, partly because my own life often looks so affected by randomness (for instance, I never planned on becoming a writer). Has anybody else read The Black Swan? Thoughts?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Borrowing a Universe

I am struggling with a story. Nothing terribly new in that, except in this case, the struggle is taking place on alien territory.

Bill Schafer, of Subterranean Press, and Gardner Dozois are putting together a tribute anthology to Robert Silverberg. Various authors have been asked to write stories set in one of Bob's universes. The story may or may not use his characters. I chose the short story "Going," a 1973 story about death.

I have been reading Silverberg since I was 15 years old, always with great admiration, but reading an author and writing in his world are two entirely different things. At first I tried to imitate Bob's erudite, cool, insightful prose, a prose that always stands back slightly to observe his complex, erudite, cool characters -- but THAT did not work. So now I am writing my own prose in his world, and finding it difficult. I'm not a natural collaborator, having done it only twice during my career (neither time with stunning results). This is not a collaboration, but it has some elements of one. Usually I write four to eight pages a day; this story is inching along much more slowly.

It's possible I've picked the wrong Silverberg story to borrow. In that case, I will choose a different story. I want to do this. But it's proving a struggle.

Friday, March 13, 2009

I've Got An Eye On You

An article in yesterday's newspaper staggered me -- although, on reflection, it shouldn't have. This was inevitable.

Rob Spence, a Canadian film maker, lost an eye in a childhood shooting accident. Since then, he has worn a glass eye. Now, however, he is having a prosthetic eye made that will look like a glass eye but will actually be a camera, complete with battery and transmitter. The camera movement will be controlled by his eye muscles, and it will record, secretly, whatever his other eye sees. The tiny camera is a variation of the one used to record colonoscopies.

With this equipment, Spence plans on making a documentary on the global spread of surveillance cameras.

When I read this, a hundred SF stories came to my mind: Gibson's Molly Millions, Sterling's "mechs," even TV's "The Six Million Dollar Man" (which today would be cheap at that price). My own writing tends to focus on reshaping humanity through genetic engineering, but I may in fact be backing the wrong horse. With pace makers for the heart, research into using brain activity to move prosthetic arms, plastic colon replacements, and camera eyes, the cyborg may outpace the genemod baby. And if much of this tinkering does end up involving the brain and the senses... Will we know when we are more robot than flesh? And with what prejudices and exploitations?

It may be that Kazuo Ishigoru (see previous blog) is worrying about the wrong future.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Never Let Me Go

I recently read Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro is a literary darling best known for the wonderful novel Remains of the Day, made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Never Let Me Go is an SF novel by a non-SF writer, and as such is highly instructive.

The book is about cloning people to become organ-donation sources for other people. When SF authors write on either organ donation or cloning (Niven and Varley come to mind), there is much action: black markets, attempts to escape, violence, deceit, outrage. Ishiguro's novel is nothing like that. For the entire first two-thirds of the book, the cloned children are growing up at a secluded boarding school in rural England. They know they are clones and eventual sources of organ donation, and -- like children everywhere -- accept what they are told. Two hundred pages are thus taken up with what genuinely interests kids: who is friends with whom; who has the coolest music CD; how to torment Tommy, the class scapegoat; which girls betray each other's "secrets;" which teachers favor which students.

Even when the kids leave school and become either "donors" or "carers" (nurses for the donors for a few years, before becoming donors themselves), there is no attempt to flee the country, acquire false IDs and blend in with the general populace, kill their "captors." There are no "captors." Excluding one desperate and pathetic attempt to persuade authority that young couples "in love" should get to postpone donation for a few years, the clones accept their fate. As Ruth says:

"I think I was a pretty decent carer. But five years felt about enough for me. I was like you, Tommy. I was pretty much ready when I became a donor. It felt right. After all, it's what we're supposed to be doing, isn't it?"

This passivity in the face of their fate makes the novel chilling. By the end, however, it also made it seem a bit false to me. After all, this system has been going on for thirty years now. Hundreds of donors have "completed" (died). Yet NONE of the rest ever really protest, organize, escape the country, or even fight back in small ways. These donors know that they are human, that they are basically like other people. Their access to literature and libraries is in no way restricted, nor is their freedom to move around the country (the adults have cars). The time is the "late 1990's," yet there are no computers ever mentioned, which also felt false to me. In any inhumane system, there are always some rebels, and eventually they organize. Spartacus managed it in a much-longer-entrenched system of slavery, and he didn't even have the Internet. Where in this book are the equivalent of partisan guerrillas, Abolitionists, or even the SPCA? Would England really go that quietly into this high-tech barbarism? Ultimately, despite Ishiguro's wonderful characterizations, I just didn't believe it.

On the other hand, the high drama that accompanies cloning and organ donation in most SF also feels unrealistic to me. Even among the most brutally exploited, there would be some Ruths and Tommys, because history shows us that there always are. So I end up dissatisfied with both extremes, wondering where the realistic center lies and what it would look like. I don't know. But I wish I knew of a cloning-for-organ-donation novel that hit that realistic center.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rainforest Retreat, Day 3

Today was the last day of the Rainforest Writers' Retreat: Day 3 for me but Day 5 for writers who had been there from the beginning. I had breakfast with a group of younger writers, and I took the opportunity to ask them whom they read. The answer summarized to "not what I read." A lot of fantasy, especially series fantasy; a lot of newer writers, the only one of which I am familiar with was Elizabeth Bear; almost no "classic" SF, except for Ursula LeGuin, who is not only wonderful but local to the Pacific Northwest. Almost none of them read the SF magazines. Breakfast was enjoyable, but I ended up feeling like an alien. A very old alien. Here is the breakfast room, looking out on lots of snow:

Later in the day, Retreat organizer Patrick Swenson conducted the closing ceremony. There were drawings for various donated gifts (including a copy of my latest novel, STEAL ACROSS THE SKY). There were jokes about yesterday's late-night pajama party, which of course I missed due to still being on East Coast time. There was a snowball fight just outside on the deck, and the obligatory group picture. There was also a prize for the person who wrote the most words during the Retreat. This was won by San Inman, who wrote an astonishing 20,084 words over five days.

San Inman, Most Prolific
The drive back to Seattle featured snow, rain, sun, fog, and hail. We were momentarily expecting frogs and blood. I thought Rochester had variable weather, but it can't compare to Washington. They won't even know when global warming brings chaotic weather; it will just look like more of the same.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Rainforest Retreat, Day 2

A piece of rainforest, in the rain:

Yesterday we actually got rain in the rainforest. In fact, we got everything: rain, sun, hail, and snow, in dizzying succession. Somewhere during the rain part I took a short hike to inspect the rainforest. It still looks a lot like a regular forest but much, much denser. It would be very difficult to walk anywhere off the path. There are a lot of ferns, moss, and rotting wood. All this creates a rich, wet, loamy smell. By late afternoon the weather had begun to frost the trees:

And by evening the landscape had changed to this:
Apart from observing and discussing the weather, the day consisted of writing (although still not by me), two presentations on craft (from Brenda Cooper on characters and me on plotting), and a lot of eating. Jim Van Pelt, Patrick Swenson, Brenda Cooper, Jack Skillingstead, and I had a leisurely dinner at the very nice Lake Quinalt Lodge, about a mile down the road. A major topic of conversation was balancing writing with one's day job, family, and mundane life. Nobody had any good solutions on how to do this, other than to sleep less. However, complaining about it was cathartic.

In the evening there was "Writers in the Bar," which consisted of -- well, writers drinking in the bar: a general mingling of attendees. Some people, astonishingly, worked on their laptops right through this, although more headphones appeared. There is a competition for the most words written during the retreat. Since my word count is zero, I don't expect to win this. Unless there's a booby prize.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Rainforest Writers' Retreat

I am at the Rainforest Writers' Retreat on remote Lake Quinalt in Washington State, and I was wrong: There is Internet here. Also about 40 writers who are spending nearly a week writing, attending presentations on craft by various pros, and wandering around through the world's only temperate rainforest. Many of the writers are beginners; some have published a few short stories and are now embarking on a novel. We are all housed at the resort's inn or in little cabins on the shore. I have to say that so far this does not look much different from other forests I've seen in the Pacific Northwest, since it hasn't actually rained once since I arrived. But I'm assured that this is only a temporary lull in precipitation, and to a Rochester-winter-jaded eye, all the green of pines and grass is welcome. There are also a lot of ferns, moss, and very tall trees, indicators of the 12 feet of rain the place receives each year. The site is beautiful, right on the lake:

Yesterday was devoted to writing (although not by me), giving a presentation on "Your Opening Scene," and a lot of socializing. I had dinner with Jim Van Pelt, Brenda Cooper, Jack Skillingstead, and Patrick Swenson, who runs the retreat. It was fun, despite a lot of talk about the gloomy state of publishing, book selling, and the economy. Dinner was followed by a cocktail party and book sale. Some people, displaying amazing powers of concentration, just went on writing through both. Here is the lounge of the main building, full of writers earnestly and silently composing on their laptops:

Here I am standing with Jack Skillingstead at the base of the world's tallest spruce tree, which is 58 feet 11 inches in circumference, 1,000 years old, and (to tell the truth) beginning to look a little ratty:

Me with sunglasses on beside the lake -- where is all the rain??

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Pancakes and Rainforests

Every month has its share of federally approved commemoration days, but March seems especially blessed. And many of them focus on food. A partial calendar:

March 4, today, is National Poundcake Day. Are you planning to eat any poundcake?
March 6 is Frozen Food Day.
March 14 is National Potato Chip Day -- your bag of Doritos will be guilt-free because
it's a patriotic duty.
March 25 is Waffle Day, even though this was the day that not waffles but pancakes
were first made in New York City in 1882.
And, my personal favorite: March 28 is "Something on a Stick Day." I thought of a lot
of bad jokes to put here, but I'll refrain.

March is also the month that Patrick Swenson runs the Rainforest Writers' Retreat on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. This takes place at a resort in the only temperate rainforest in the world. I will be flying there tomorrow to lecture, write, and retreat. This place is so isolated that there is no Internet, cell phone, or TV coverage, so I will have to blog about the experience next week, when I return to civilization. I've packed my hiking boots and camera. Now if I just had an idea for a story I wanted to write while I was there...

Monday, March 2, 2009

Choosing a Gene

Thanks to Kevin Wozniak, I just became aware of the next step in genetic engineering -- a step which my novels have used for years. The L.A. Fertility Institutes, run by Dr. Jeff Steinberg, now lets prospective parents choose such traits as eye and hair color for their babies.

For years fertility clinics have scanned fertilized embryos for inherited diseases. Because the procedure of in vitro fertilization is expensive and iffy, several embryos are usually created at the same time. The embryos are then scanned for such diseases as Huntingdon's Chorea and Tay-Sachs, as well as for sex selection (in the United States, there is a slight preference for girls). It makes sense if, out of six embryos, five are free of a potentially crippling disease, to choose and implant one (or more) of those. No one objects to this.

Plenty of people, however, object to the step currently available at this California clinic, which is to select for non-health-related traits. These people are crying "Slippery slope!" and "Designer babies!" and "Eugenics!" -- the latter bearing "master race" overtones. However, I really cannot see what the fuss is about. Everything anyone does can be construed as a slippery slope. Choosing green eyes or red hair does not constitute a master race -- and, like those critics who predicted that sex selection would result in a glut of American boys, predictions are often wrong. Brown eyes and dark hair may be selected for as much as blue-eyed blonds. This procedure will be used by a vanishingly small percentage of people, those couples afflicted with infertility who can afford the clinic.

I remember the fuss over the first "test tube baby," Louise Brown, born in 1978. Editorials protested "playing God" and "creating monsters." Now there are tens of thousands of people born from in vitro fertilization (you may be one of them if you were born after 1978). This is how change happens: Each step provokes screaming, then acceptance seeps slowly in -- until the next step.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Tracing a Gene

Many fantasy novels feature a black wolf as a harbinger of something, usually bad: disaster or evil or dark magic. Now science has traced the gene that makes wolves black.

The gene appears in the wild mainly in North America, and did not appear here until after humans crossed the Bering land bridge 15,000 years ago, bringing their dogs with them. Those dogs carried the black-coat gene, which is missing three nucleotides found in the "normal" gene. The dogs then mated with native wolves, and some of the pups had black coats. All this was deduced by a team of geneticists at Stanford, who studied the genomes of a large number of wolves and dogs. Their conclusion is that humans indirectly caused the black wolves, which we then made a symbol of evil. Talk about blaming the victim!

However, what's interesting to me is that the mutated allele, called beta-defensin, belongs to a family of genes thought to be involved in fighting infection. Are black-coated dogs and wolves less susceptible to infection than other colors? Is that why, in the distant past, we found them particularly magical?

The surprises coming out of genetics are fascinating. Our entire history as a species is there, as well as the histories of other species. If I could afford it, I would have my own genome analyzed -- just from curiosity about what I might learn about my great-great-great grandmother. Hmmm.... If I got a story out of the results, perhaps I could even write the analysis off as a business expense?