Monday, June 29, 2009

LOCUS Awards Weekend

Saturday combined the annual LOCUS Awards with the annual induction of Science Fiction Hall of Fame honorees. It was a very full day, starting with panels and ending fourteen hours later with drinks in the bar of Seattle's Courtyard Marriott. Some highlights:

During my interview of Connie Willis, she explained the importance of ironing as a means of calming Writers' Nerves. AND you get wrinkle-free clothes!
Michael Whelan's interview, conducted by Todd Lockwood, contained a moving account of how he "painted my way out of depression" with a picture, which he still has, of a stairway leading out of darkness into light.
On the short-fiction panel, Gardner Dozois explained the "sure-fire, guaranteed formula for becoming a famous SF writer. This is it: Write five or six wonderful stories, save them up till you have all six, then send them to a single periodical in short bursts so that they all appear within a year and a half. This creates enormous buzz among fans, reviewers, and book editors." Gardner allowed as how the first step is the hard one. Reactions by Gordon Van Gelder, Gary Wolfe, and Ellen Datlow were less than serious:
The traditional Hawaiian Shirt and Trivia Contest, conducted with aplomb by Connie Willis, and won by Greg Bear. Connie with daughter Cordelia:
Paolo Bacigalupi's acceptance speech for his LOCUS award for his short story "Pump Six." He did something I have never seen before: He thanked the editor who rejected the story (Gordon Van Gelder), because after it was rejected, he worked on it more and "finally got it right."
Connie Willis's moving speech when she was inducted into the Hall of Fame, along with Michael Whelan, Ed Ferman, and Frank R. Paul. Connie said there are things you fantasize about and things so wonderful you never even think to fantasize about them, and this was the latter. Afterwards emcee Christopher Moore said, "Look, guys -- you made her cry." Here are Connie, Charles N. Brown, John Kessel, and Michael Whelan at the Hall of Fame:
Dinner with Karen Joy Fowler, Paolo Bacigalupi, Ted Chiang, John Kessel, Jack Skillingstead, and Gary Wolfe, during which there ensued a discussion of "hilarious ways to die." The winner was being crushed by a rising piano while having sex on top of it (see for verification). There was no reason this should have been a hilarious discussion -- but it was.
Sitting around the bar listening to Ken Scholes play the guitar and Amelia Beamer sing:
Altogether, a lovely occasion. Even if I lost the award.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Clarion party

Last night was the first of the weekly Clarion parties for the out-going instructors, this one for John Kessel. Each week the old instructor, drained of all he knows, is hauled away like an empty suitcase and a fresh instructor is installed. Last night's party was particularly full because, in addition to students and local writers and fans, there are several visiting firemen in Seattle for tomorrow's Locus awards. Here is Gardner Dozois, grimacing at the 1,806th picture taken of him:

Ellen Datlow and Ken Scholes were more cooperative:

Jack Skillingstead, with me, is drifting along on a tide of literature and beer:

I did not get photos of so many more: Connie Willis, Karen Joy Fowler, Christopher Moore. I will do better tomorrow. Moore, the emcee for the Hall of Fame inductions (also tomorrow) gave a very funny speech about writing. Two key points: (1) You really don't need to lose ten years to an alcoholic haze no matter how much you admire Hemingway, and (2) since Raymond Carver died nobody can make a living writing short stories, so all the Clarion students had better learn to write novels.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Clarion Reading

Last night was the first of the Clarion Reading Series at the University Bookstore, in which each week's instructor at Clarion West reads from his or her work . John Kessel read from a story that will appear in Gardner Dozois's anthology THE NEW SPACE OPERA 2. John, usually a literary writer, said he had always wanted to write at least one SF story of the kind he enjoyed as a kid, "full of battles and heroes and derring-do." So he did. The story was great fun, and when it was finished, I'm sure there's not one of us in the audience who didn't want a secret nine-dimensional pouch with a fold-up soldier of our very own. Afterwards some of us had dinner at a Greek restaurant. Here are (left to right) John Kessel, playwright Jeanne Beckwith, and Ted Chiang:

As a sidelight, the reading illustrated a common problem writers have: What if you want to read a piece too long for the allotted time? John's solution was to edit ahead of time, marking those places he would read verbatim and those places he would summarize ("And then a bunch of exciting stuff happens"). For very long pieces, this may be the only way to go. I'll consider it the next time I want to read "The Erdmann Nexus" or "Act One" in public.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Last night I saw the heart-breaking documentary EVERY LITTLE STEP, about dancers auditioning for roles in a revival of A CHORUS LINE, itself a play about dance auditions. The movie was terrific. The reason it's heart-breaking is that all these young dancers want the part so badly, and most will not get it. You see the pain of rejection on their faces, even as they bravely prepare for the next audition.

Writers, too, take rejection regularly (although we do have the advantage of not usually getting it in person, or as the result of one off day when your jete collapses you onto the floor). Rejection of a short story, rejection of a novel, rejection of an asked-for synopsis, rejection by reviewers who hated your work, sometimes even rejection by one's established publisher. And it always hurts. Over the years of teaching, I have had students, some of them quite good writers, who are so afraid of rejection that they never submit anything to editors at all.

I think what's called for in handling rejection is the same skill that's called for in successful revision. You have to become two people at once. With revision, you have to simultaneously be the writer making changes and the reader encountering the story for the first time, so that you can see what changes need to be made: Have I provided enough information here for anyone to understand why my character is behaving like that? Will the reader understand that this scene directly follow the previous one but in another location? And so forth.

With rejection, the mental pas de deux is even trickier. You must be both the person who believes in your talent enough to think "I can write, and this is a good story" AND the person who thinks "This editor/reviewer/instructor is, after all, knowledgeable -- is there anything to this criticism that I can use, either for further revision or for the next story?" It's not an easy balancing act, especially when it is your lifeblood you've invested in this story. But unless you can manage this balancing act, at least roughly, you risk becoming (pick one): (1) someone who loses faith in his ability and gives up, or (2) someone who cannot grow as a writer because you think you have nothing more to learn.

In EVERY LITTLE STEP, there is a painful interview with a dancer who did not get the part of Cassie. She ends by saying, "Maybe next time will be my big break." It's the only productive attitude for writers, too. You don't need to "grow a thick hide," as some advocate -- even if you could. You just need to patch up the bruised hide you have, and keep on dancing.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Summer Solstice

Many places observe the summer solstice, which was yesterday, with (depending on the group) newspaper editorials or crop-planting blessings or coven celebrations. Seattle holds a parade. The Fremont Summer Solstice parade is famous for its 200 naked cyclists, who exuberantly greet summer wearing nothing but fanciful body paint. Fortunately, yeaterday's weather was warm. Here are a pack of naked cyclists, photographed at a discreet distance (also, I haven't yet figured out the zoom on my camera):

There were also naked skateboarders. The parade has three rules: no animals allowed, no words allowed, no motorized vehicles allowed. Otherwise, anything goes. Being Seattle, there was a strong emphasis on Going Green. Favorite floats included Sustainable Bullfighting, with a papier mache bull, and Save Your Rainwater. Since no words or banners are allowed, announcers along the parade route introduced each new group or float. My personal favorite was the belly dancers:

This is Phoenix Rising from the ashes of winter:

There is nothing like this in Rochester, NY, where I live. Most of us usually just say, "Oh, is it the summer solstice? Almost forgot!" But not in Seattle. Welcome, summer.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Writing gets accomplished in different ways. As long as the words end up on the page, it doesn't matter how they get there. At least that's the conventional wisdom. However, what I've found is that some ways of getting words there are more efficient, less painful, and more fun than other ways.

Not every writer will agree with what I consider the ideal method. Mystery writer Lawrence Block, for instance, used to think about a book for a long time and then, when ready to write it, hole up in a hotel room and produce the thing by working day and night until it was done. Then more months of thinking but no writing until the next one. Hey -- it worked for him. But even he admits it's an exhausting and grueling form of working method.

Here is what works for me and what I recommend you at least try if you're groping around, trying to either get started on or back to a novel:

-- Write at the same times each week. Every day if you can manage it, a minimum of three times a week if you cannot, but at set times that you set aside as sacred to writing. This prepares your unconscious to produce words at that time. I write six days a week in the morning.

-- Work with your biological rhythm. If you're a night person, work then. If you're best in the morning, get up very early and write before you go off to your day job (Gene Wolfe did this for over twenty years). Your fiction deserves you at your best, whenever that is.

-- Don't write too much at one sitting. Of I go over 2,000 words, I find I have more trouble producing the next day. It's as if I then need longer to recharge the battery. When I began, I wrote four long-hand pages a day (about 850 words). If that's too much, make it 500.

-- Stop when you know what happens next in the story. It helps to get back into it the next day if you are in the middle of a scene or a clear sequence of scenes.

-- Use getting-started rituals, but do NOT make them lengthy. I used to do the NEW YORK TIMES crossword puzzle to "get warmed up." When I noticed that on Saturdays this was taking me two hours, I stopped. Now I have one cup of coffee, check but do not yet answer my email, play three games of solitaire, and sit down to write with the second cup of coffee at my side. That's the warm-up ritual.

However, you do it, writing may sometimes seem difficult but it shouldn't consistently seem like actual torture. Discipline can help you find your natural rhythm, rather than have to impose it each day by a wrenching act of will. That's what dieting is for.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Updates and Summer Silliness

Two brief updates for anybody interested:

-- My story "Patent Infringement" is featured on EscapePod this month:

-- I have two stories nominated for LOCUS awards, "The Kindness of Strangers" and "The Erdmann Nexus." The awards are held in Seattle on June 27; stay tuned.

Now for the summer silliness. Seattle has a famous, large, open-air market called Pike Market. Part of this is the equally famous tradition that the fishmongers in the market flip whole fish at each other and at customers, accompanied by good-natured insults. Everyone enjoys this performance, so much so that the fishmongers were asked to perform at an annual meeting of the American Veterinary Society. Now for the silly part: PETA has filed an official protest against this, saying that it is "not respectful to animals." Even though the animals in question are dead, and are (or were) fish.

Ah, summer, and the gripin' is easy.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Creative Writing

I am once again in Seattle where, a week from now, Clarion West will begin its famous six-week SF-writing workshop. I am not teaching this year (Clarion likes to rotate instructors) but will be attending readings and parties (stay tuned). So it seems especially timely that the The "June 8 and 15" issue of The New Yorker has a terrific article about creative writing workshops.

"Show or Tell," by Louis Menand, is an ostensibly a review of Mark McGurl's new book The Program Era, about writing programs in America. In actuality the long article reviews not just McGurl but the whole concept of creative writing programs. How did they get started? What are their advantages and disadvantages? Do they, as some critics claim, produce homogenized writing? What do their graduates and long-time instructors think of them? And most important, can writing actually be taught at all?

Neither Menand nor McGurl answer that last, all-important question, but the article provides all sorts of interesting information along the way. Some examples:

-- Sixteen Pulitzer Prize winners and three Poet Laureates are graduates of the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

-- Some instructors end up hating the whole idea of writing classes (Kay Boyle, after sixteen years teaching writing at San Francisco State: "All creative writing programs ought to be abolished by law.") Others fervently believe in them: John Barth (twenty-two years at Johns Hopkins), John Gardner (State University of New York at Binghamton).

-- One writing class at Stanford included -- all at the same time -- Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines, and Tillie Olsen. What those discussins must have been like!

-- The emphasis of most writing classes has shifted over time, Menand claims, from "Show don't tell" in the 1950's to "Find your own voice" in the sixties and seventies. (I need to think about this one.)

There is more, much more, enough more that I immediately ordered the book. McGurl apparently relates writers' styles (Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates) to their socioeconomic origins, and I'm dying to read that exegesis. However, my favorite line in the article was this opening description of a writing workshop: "a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-to-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of other aspiring writers." True enough, but those "aspiring writers" are also readers, which makes their reactions -- if honest and constructive -- immensely valuable to the author. Despite the ritual scarring.

Friday, June 12, 2009


SF writer Mike Flynn recently passed on to me this tidbit about that most basic building block of writing, words:

"The NY Times kept track of how many readers on-line clicked the "look up" feature on different words highlighted in the text. The winner was "sui generis," which was looked up 7645 times by readers."

This, along with another incident, got me ruminating about words: plain, fancy, contemporary, archaic, specific, general. The incident was my proof-reading some fiction for a friend and coming across mention of a "Zune." I said, "What's that? I don't know that word." He looked at me with wonder and said, "It's the equivalent of an iPod." Apparently this is common knowledge. But how common? If you use it in fiction, do you need to attach (for people like me) an explanatory phrase to "Zune"? To "farthingale"? To "auroch"? To "Maypo"? To "fluoxetine Hcl"? To "sui generis"?

There's no easy answer to this. What one reader will recognize, another will decipher from context, a third will be bounced out of the story by in order to find a dictionary, and yet another will take as a reason to abandon the piece completely. Too many generic terms and the story loses immediacy; too many highly specific references and the reader may not follow their import. Was a "farthingale," a kind of hoop worn under a skirt to hold it out to either side like matched shelves, high fashion-forward or old-fashioned in 1660 England? If my heroine wears one, will readers know what I'm implying about her sense of style?

In general, I'd rather err on the side of under-explaining rather than over-explaining. On the other hand, whole sections of Patrick O'Brien's sea novels, set during the Napoleonic wars, are opaque to me because I don't understand the jargon and, thus, what the characters are doing to their sailing ships, or why, or with what consequences.

I know what "sui generis" means. Also, now, 'Zune." And I know that by 1660 a farthingale was considered dowdy. But I still don't know if, in my YA fantasy, I need to explain what a "posset" is. I think I'll take a chance and let my readers derive it from context. Or possibly from Merriam-Webster.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Genres and Subgenres

SF is a writing label, but it's also a marketing label. So are its various sub genres: fantasy, urban fantasy, slipstream, hard SF, space opera, etc. In one way this is convenient -- if I go into a bookstore to look for SF, I can find it all shelved together. If it were scattered throughout the mainstream fiction, how would that terrific new novel by a completely new SF author even come to my attention? Labels have their uses.

But labels also have their limitations, and I am coming up against them, not for the first time. When I wrote three bio thrillers (OATHS AND MIRACLES, STINGER, DOGS), they were shelved with SF because my name was on them. Thus, although the first two got good reviews (including from The New York Times), thriller fans never really found them.

Now I've written a YA fantasy, and this book has sold. But it will need to be marketed under a pseudonym. Otherwise, anybody who is at all familiar with the genre and glances at my name will think, "Oh -- Kress, SF, probably bio-engineering" -- which this novel emphatically is not. Since some of those people buy books for bookstores, including the big chains, the fantasy novel will bear a different name on its jacket.

I have mixed feelings about this. I know it's necessary, but I like being identified with my own books. However, since the book will not be out for at least a year, I have time to practice gazing into a mirror, saying my new name aloud, and convincing myself that she, too, is me. We'll see how this exercise actually goes.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Star Trek

Last night, weeks behind every else, I finally saw STAR TREK. I enjoyed seeing the old gang together again -- even if the old gang was played by a new gang -- and thought the visual effects were stunning. The movie was a lot of fun. I was not bored. But the film did raise in my mind some questions about science fiction as perceived by the larger public, who mostly knows it through movies.

The basic question is this: How plausible does SF have to be? Not in terms of "ideas," but in terms of human behavior. Because in that sense, this is a ridiculous movie. Young James Kirk, who has been caught cheating at Starfleet Academy, is being weighed by his superiors. let's see -- do we expel this kid or -- I know! -- we'll make him first officer of a starship instead! The lame excuse for this is that all other officers -- ALL! -- are off in another sector of space. This despite the fact that several older officers are sitting right there in the room, on the Board judging young Kirk. Perhaps they have no battle experience -- but does this hotheaded kid?

This is only one of the movie's plausibility issues in terms of how human beings behave and how human institutions are structured. However, nobody seems to mind: not the enthusiastic audience in the theater, not the critics, not anybody. Print SF, I'm told, is "of course" held to a higher standard. Writers are supposed to make minimal sense. But the number of people who know SF through print is minuscule compared to those who know it through movies, and for the latter, the idea seems to be that science fiction sacrifices even the most basic plausibility that thrillers and mysteries are held to. It's too bad, really. SF has so much more to offer.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Travel Plans

I fly a lot (a new spate of air travel is coming up soon). So I tend to keep up on airline promotions, new fees, security restrictions, and the like. However, I am not nearly as knowledgeable as I thought, especially about what is euphemistically called "niche travel." Everyone is trying to attract new customers...everyone. In selected European cities, for instance, there is a niche price war on. From TIME magazine:

"Brothels have launched promotions — including free shuttle buses, senior-citizen discounts and day passes — in a bid to arouse interest among wary spenders. "You have to offer better service these days and special packages," says Karin Ahrens, manager at Yes Sir! in Hanover, Germany, where revenues have fallen 30% since the recession hit the nation. As part of a new deal, customers there pay $111 to have as much sex as they want (or can) for one hour. At Geizhaus, recent promotions allowed guests to have sex for free on Halloween and Easter if they wore a costume or brought in a decorated egg. And Berlin's Pussy Club charges guests a $98 flat rate for six hours of unlimited sex, access to a sauna and solarium and an all-you-can-eat buffet."

I think it's the all-you-can-eat buffet that tickles me. Or perhaps the decorated Easter egg. But not enough to check out these travel bargains.

However, one never knows what one's fictional characters might do...