Thursday, July 30, 2009

Young Fictioneers

My week teaching the nine-to-thirteen-year-olds is almost over. I'm pleased at the good work they've done on dialogue, description, characterization, even story arcs. Of the fifteen, twelve are writing their "big story" in some version of science fiction or fantasy, and most have made considerable progress. So far my favorite sentences are scolding dialogue from a teen-age girl to a witch: "You can't turn people into apples just because you hate them! That's considered rude!" As well it might be.

Here are The Young Fictioneers hard at work during the daily session of individual writing:

Tomorrow we tackle a harder question than what to include in your story: what to leave out. A lot of adult fiction stumbles on this issue (some of it published. Some of it mine.) Then award certificates all around and, in another twenty years or so, our competition for publishing spots in ASIMOV'S or at Bantam makes itself known. And so we nurture our own demise.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Kid Write

This week I am teaching at "Kid Write," a program run by the local arts center where I usually teach an adult class in writing science fiction and fantasy. Instead, I have 15 nine-to-thirteen-year-olds who want to learn to write better fiction. Well, some want that. When we introduced ourselves yesterday and told our reasons for coming to the class, one honest child said, "My parents made me." However, on the other hand, no fewer than four of the fifteen said they want to be authors when they grow up.

These kids read. On the playground for recess, one girl even preferred to continue reading than to play Lava Monster, usually a big draw. (Full disclosure: I do not play Lava Monster, I merely observe.) They also write, some saying they write every day in the summer, which is more than I do. Yes, they are a pre-selected, undoubtedly atypical group. And it would be nice if they could punctuate better. But this class is not about punctuation, and I will touch on it only lightly. The class is about exploring the elements of fiction: dialogue (yesterday), description (today), plot, characterization, interior monologue, endings. The same things, in short, that all fiction uses, plus the chance to write in a supportive atmosphere.

The kids may learn to write more effectively. And I am encouraged to know that, in the age of video games, such kids still exist.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Once more, I have been reading how-to-write books, and once more, they contradict each other. I swear, it's a wonder anyone ever learns anything useful from these books -- and I include the three I wrote myself.

John Gardner's ON BECOMING A NOVELIST includes a few paragraphs of description from novelist David Rhodes, followed by several pages of analysis of the description, which focuses on the appearance of two old people. Gardner finishes his analysis by saying, "Who wouldn't raptly turn the page and read on?" The trouble is, almost no one I know would read on. The description is fine-tuned, careful, and accurate, but totally static.

Stephen King, on the other hand, advises not describing people at all, but puts great emphasis on descriptions of setting. He advises many details to create "that all-important sense of place," and in his book ON WRITING, gives several examples of this.

Gustav Flaubert said that three details are enough to fix a strong picture in the reader's mind -- if they are the right details.

I am currently rewriting my YA fantasy, with particular attention to description. The basic question (as with anything else in writing) is what to put in and what to leave out. Will this detail create a sharp image in the reader's mind (what Bruce Sterling and William Gibson call "an eyeball kick"?) Is this paragraph of description too boring? Too bizarre? Too short? Too long? Will that detail make the reader see what I see? This latter is why abstracts are bad; "beauty" can mean different things to different people, but a "red vase of yellow dahlias" has a better chance of jumping the gap between my mind and yours. On the other hand, is that vase of dahlias significant in some way, or is it just stage setting? Can I replace it with something that is significant to my character and sets the stage?

I spent much of the morning on these decisions. And I still don't know if I made the right ones. The worst is -- I never will. The other choices I could have made and didn't haunt all writers. The shadow book I almost wrote.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Two more on the Internet

Two more interesting things on the Internet have come my way in the last few days. The first is the use of the Net for economic recompense. A band flying on United Airlines checked the lead singer's guitar; United broke it in transit and refused to do anything about the issue; the band put together a hilarious revenge in the form of a song on You-Tube. After a million or so people viewed this, United compensated the guy for his broken guitar. Here is the URL; it's terrific.

The second thing (ahem!) concerns my sister Kate, a professional actress in NYC. Two of her friends put together an SF "show" using little dolls and voice-overs of all their actor friends. This, too, is very funny, and is also getting a lot of hits. You can see Captain Stargood at My sister is the voice of Vera Buxley.

Clearly, I need either a Vera Buxley or a broken guitar to get more attention for THIS blog...

Friday, July 17, 2009


Last week Vonda McIntyre, author of the Nebula-winning novel DREAMSNAKE, and I did a joint presentation to Clarion West as "surprise mystery guests," a weekly feature at the Seattle Clarion. We said a great many things to the students, and Vonda had the additional gift of a crocheted stress ball for each writer. This colorful object will undoubtedly come in handy as the students struggle for the fourth week with writing, reading, critiquing, and advice from at least ten different pros, some of which is certain to be contradictory.

However, Vonda and I agreed on a point that I also then encountered yesterday in Stephen King's book ON WRITING. This book, half memoir and half advice, says that King began his writing career by imitating writers he admired. So did Vonda, and so did I. My very first stories were attempts to imitate Fred Pohl's polished, fast-paced little gems. No one ever saw the resemblance. My later short stories tried to imitate Ursula LeGuin. Nobody saw that resemblance, either. But my first novel was a different story.

I was enamored of Peter Beagle's writing (I still am), and although my favorite Beagle novel is A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE, at that time I was reading THE LAST UNICORN. And reading. And reading. I reread the book compulsively while writing THE PRINCE OF MORNING BELLS, making a dead-set at capturing Beagle's lush, wry, wistful style. I must have succeeded because when the book was published, every single reviewer noted that it was (pick one) a pastische of, homage to, influenced by, or in the tradition of Peter Beagle.

I don't write like that any more. Style evolves as you practice it. That's true of choreographers (Balanchine's early ballets differ from his later ones), of composers, of writers. But you have to start practicing on something, and imitating a style or structure you admire is a fine place to begin. Besides, Stephen King agrees.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Charles N. Brown

Yesterday Connie Willis called to tell me that Charles N. Brown, founder and editor of SF's news magazine LOCUS, died on the plane coming home from Readercon. Although I didn't know Charlie well, we had exchanged all the usual pleasantries at SF parties and conventions, and he interviewed me once for LOCUS. He was a passionate believer in science fiction, and we will feel his loss.

Not, however, the loss of LOCUS. There is some disinformation drifting around out there to the effect that LOCUS might fold as a result of Charlie's death. However, he had set up a foundation to run the magazine, and Liza Trombi, who will now act as editor, had been de facto doing this for a while as Charlie's health failed.

LOCUS is important to the SF community. And speaking personally, it was LOCUS that first made me aware such a community even existed. In 1978 someone handed me a copy, and it was a revelation. I had already sold three stories to SF magazines, but I had no idea that there were such things as conventions or fandom. I consulted the con listing in LOCUS, picked out a local one, and went. Thus I discovered the entire wonderful, weird world of science fiction.

Charlie left a great legacy. In addition, he died peacefully, in his sleep, accompanied by the capable and warm Amelia Beamer. There are much worse ways to go.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cranky at the Movies

Last night I saw the latest summer SF cinematic offering, MOON. I think I'm going to stop going to SF movies.

They lost me before the action even started, with the prologue in the form of an advertisement for a company that has discovered and now solely controls a form of cheap energy involving cold fusion. But the only thing you can use for this fusion is 'He3," a molecule found only on -- get this -- the dark side of the moon. Because of course the sub-lunar composition is different on the farside than the Earth side. Then, the evil corporation (of course) that controls this resource sets us a harvesting operation for He3, manned by ONLY one person. That person, it turns out, is actually a series of clones, with a new one thawed out to replace ones who wear out (which they do every three years or so). To make this work, the corporation (1)plants huge jammers on the moon so the clones can't find out through live feeds from Earth what they are or what the situation is, (2) a helpful robot who tells them what they are, despite having been programmed by the corporation, (3) "uploaded memories" in each new clone about his wife and baby on Earth, (4) periodic "messages" from the wife, (4) an "escape pod" to Earth, even though the corporation does not want the clone to escape, (5) a "secret room" full of unthawed clones that each clone does not know about, (6) a rationale that all this is "cheaper" than just hiring a team of employees with high enough hazard pay to do the job, (7)...No, I can't go on, it's just too stupid.

And scientifically offensive, as well. The movie ends with Earth getting ready to "hunt the rogue clone" who has escaped. As if a clone were anything more -- or less -- than an example of twinning that happens to occur decades later instead of hours after the first twin is born. Not a monster, not an inhuman thing, not a telepath... a delayed twin.

I AM going to stop seeing SF movies. It's too disheartening.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Web Fiction

Last night I went to a reading by this week's Clarion instructor, Elizabeth Bear, author of the haunting and Hugo-winning story "Tide Line." I loved that story and was curious to see what Elizabeth would read at the University Bookstore. Her choice was unexpected, entirely different from what I've seen from her before, and an intriguing experiment for fiction on the Internet.

Seven writers are collaborating on the stories for a mythical TV series, with one "episode" going up the first Sunday of the month at The "show" is in its second "season." The writers are Elizabeth, Emma Bull, Holly Block, Sarah Monette, Leah Bobbet, and Will Shetterley (although Shetterley has since dropped out), with artwork by Amanda Downum. The on-going story, offered under Creative Commons, concerns an FBI unit not unlike THE X FILES but more interesting. The show's self-description:

"The FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit hunts humanity's nightmares. But there are nightmares humanity doesn't dream are real. The Behavioral Analysis Unit sends those cases down the hall. Welcome to Shadow Unit."

Elizabeth read from a forthcoming episode, and it was great fun. Judging from the raucous reaction from some of the audience, there is already a fan base for Shadow Unit. It is funded by whatever fans choose to send, through the PayPal button right on the website. Elizabeth told me that donations, though not huge, are steady. Here she is, reading a witty episode set in the Hoover Building:

Is this where SF will end up going, to take full advantage of the Internet? It will be interesting to find out.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Web Presence

Today I sent to Tachyon Publications a blurb for Jeff Vandemeer's non-fiction book Booklife. The blurb is this:

"Jeff Vandemeer has written a fascinating book on managing a writing career, including effective promotion, use of new media, career paths, resources, networking, conventions and -- not incidentally! -- balancing all of this with actual writing. Recommended for anyone who writes, wants to write, or has written and now wonders what to do next."

All of this is true; I try hard to be accurate when blurbing. However, it is not the whole truth, which includes the fact that, for me at least, Booklife raises some troubling questions. It also fills me with guilt. The questions are: How much web presence does a writer need to succeed? What if one doesn't podcast, tweet, use Facebook and/or My Space, guest-blog on prominent sites, network and contact? Is such a writer seriously damaging his or her chances for SF success?

Vandemeer writes: "The real problem isn't making contacts -- it's identifying and paying attention to the people who really matter....The database my wife and I keep includes reviewers, bloggers, artists, writers, readers, media outlets, bookstore managers, reviewers, and several other 'types,' keeping in mind that one person can be tagged as several different types. It's a robust list from which we can call up, for example, 'all U.S. reviewers who have previously covered Jeff's books.' I even try to keep a note in the log on reviewers to indicate which books of mine they've enjoyed...This helps us help our publisher identify who to court and who to ignore for a particular project."

I do none of this (hence the guilt). Vandemeer does include, in the second half of the book, valuable advice on striking a balance between the creative and PR lives. In addition, when publicist Matt Staggs was handling my book Dogs, I was thrilled with the large web notice he created for the novel. But in general, I am severely deficient in all these areas, and the number of hits on this blog is therefore pretty low. Should I spend more time building a web presence? Probably. But the truth is, I don't want to. I like blogging, love going to cons, answer all my fan mail, and remember about twice a year to query EscapePod to see if they might want to see any stories. That's pretty much it.

Guilt, guilt, guilt.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Success and Failure

Yesterday I finished reading Ted Morgan's biography of W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham goes in and out of literary fashion (currently out) but he is one of my favorite writers. I have read three of his Big Four, but not CAKES AND ALE. (The others are OF HUMAN BONDAGE, THE RAZOR'S EDGE, and the short story "Rain.") So yesterday I picked up CAKES AND ALE at a bookstore and started it. Since it is a satire about writers, I'm enjoying it on several levels.

Maugham is a cynic, and he has a merciless eye. Here is his account of a successful writer having dinner with a less successful writer and playwright (clearly Maugham himself), long after both began their careers at the same time:

"You feel ill at ease when your friend tells you that his books don't sell and that he can't place his short stories; the managers won't even read his plays, and when he compares them with some of the stuff that's put on (here he fixes you with an accusing eye) it really does seem a bit hard. You are embarrassed and you look away. You exaggerate the failures you have had in order that he may realize that life has its hardships for you too. You refer to your work in the most disparaging way you can and are a trifle taken aback to find that your host's opinion is the same as yours. You speak of the fickleness of the public so that he may comfort himself by thinking that your own popularity cannot last.... 'I haven't read your last book,' he says, 'but I read the one before. I've forgotten its name.' "
You tell him.
'I was rather disappointed in it. I don't think it was quite as good as some of the things you've done. Of course you know which my favorite is.'
And you, having suffered at more hands than his answer at once with the name of the first book you ever wrote."

This is very funny, and exaggerated for effect -- but not untrue. I have been on both sides of this conversation, as the more successful and the less successful writer (although I promise I was never as bitchy as that dialogue). Science fiction writers are, I think, relatively generous in their acceptance of different positions among our ranks: differing sales figures, amount of advances, number of awards, popularity with fans, but we're not saints (I name no names). Maugham, in this as in so much else, sees through the polite veneer to the underlying dynamics. He's a superb satirist, and I love CAKES AND ALE so far. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Writerly Crankiness

A student has sent me a rewrite in the mail, and I have re-critiqued it. Despite its merits (which were actually many), it contained one of my pet peeves of English prose, which got me thinking about the rest of them. Here they are:

"... he thought to himself." Unless you are a telepath, there is no other possibility.

"An expression of .... on his face." Where else would an expression be? Omit "on his face."

".... asked James." If there are more than two people in the scene, this is fine. Otherwise, I probably know it's James's turn to talk, and if his speech ends with a question mark, I already know he's asking something.

"Jumping up, he answered the door." Unless your guy is an amazing acrobat, he's not jumping up at the same time he's answering the door. They're sequential actions. Write "He jumped up and answered the door" or "He jumped to answer the door."

"Distraught, I ran my hand through my short red curls." This is first person. Not even a narcissist thinks of his short red curls while distraught; this is a blatant attempt to shoe-horn in description where it does not belong. Even in close third person, this is a point-of-view shift, from inside to outside, that jars. In fact, the whole sentence is bad. Show me he's distraught.

"He was born in Paris, France." This only works in the dialogue or thoughts of a character you wish us to perceive as either dim or pedantic. In narrative, don't tell readers that Paris is in France -- it's insulting that you assume they don't know that already. If you're writing about Paris, Texas, however, that's a different matter.

"She was five-foot-seven, one hundred thirty pounds, with long brown hair and blue eyes." Again, unless you're trying to convey something about the character making this observation -- that he is or was a cop, that he is incapable of seeing other than prosaically -- this description is not only boring but irrelevant. Tell me something about her with more juicy relevance to her character: she's five-foot-seven and weighs eighty-eight pounds, or her long hair is pink with green stripes, or one of those blue eyes is black from having been slugged hard.

"If I was an acrobat..." If I were an acrobat. The subjunctive tense is not yet obsolete.

And please forgive the crankiness of this post.