Monday, September 28, 2009


On Saturday I attended Foolscap, a small con held in Redmond, Washington. It's a strange sort of con: some panels are held in easy chairs in the corridor, there is much emphasis on wearing and making hats of all types, and mostly the bar was empty. A "relaxacon," in part, and yet the panels I was either on or attending were interesting.

Among these was a panel on YA fantasy and SF. The panelists were two very knowledgeable YA librarians and two actual Young Readers. Since I am writing a YA novel, I was very interested in what all these people had to say. Some of it was surprising.

Among the most popular of YA novelists is James Patterson. Yes, THAT James Patterson, the guy who wrote ALONG CAME A SPIDER and who appears to produce a novel every 15 minutes. His YA novel MAX was on a list of ten novels voted most popular by a wide survey of teens. Number one was GRACELING, by Kristin Cashore. Other things I either didn't know or else did know but were emphasized by the librarians:

Fantasy is far, far more popular with young people than is SF. Among less skilled readers, the choice is graphic novels.

The cover is extremely important. Both librarians said that over and over again they had "sold" a kid on a book until he or she saw the cover, at which point they said, "No, thanks."

Boys still don't want to read novels with girl protagonists. (Still!)

Sharyn November at Viking has been republishing classic fantasy, which has earned her the sobriquet of "goddess" among librarians.

The most important literary quality valued by teens -- more than character, setting, or style -- is a story that "goes somewhere" and does so at a reasonably fast pace.

Sites such as help track what girls like to read.

In all, a panel far more useful than many con panels tend to be!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Exclamation Points

I am teaching again, this time in Seattle at Hugo House. It's a critique class, and several of my students are (unlike my Rochester students) new to critiquing. This can be a traumatic situation. Today I start reading the first batch of three manuscripts. At the first class session we had no critiquing, since as yet we had read no stories, so I talked about the basics: plot, characterization, structure, etc. I did not talk about punctuation.

And yet punctuation is important. It's also misunderstood. For instance, everyone knows -- or should know -- that the exclamation point usually does more harm than good. Ed Truitt, a science writer at the Weizmann Institute of Science, has a lovely little ditty about this:

"The exclamation point is greatly overused!
One could even say it is frequently abused!
In advertising copy, it repeatedly resounds!
And in breathless prose, it literally abounds!
The poorer the writer, the more frequently the case!
The exclamation point, they readily embrace!
To give a little emphasis! To make a little point!
This punctuation mark they will appoint!
But, to make emphasis perfectly clear,
Good writers generally appear
to make little use of exclamations
and other such typographic affectations."

And yet the exclamation point has its uses. Unless you write for COSMOPOLITAN, these are mostly in dialogue. The copy editor on my novel BEGGARS IN SPAIN did not understand this. She removed all exclamation points everywhere, undoubtedly having been told the "rule" in college. The result was that a six-year-old watching her parents have a vicious fight says, "Mommy. Daddy. Stop it." -- thereby sounding more like a detached cop than a frightened child.

Everything has its legitimate place!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Miscellaneous Stuff

Dell Magazines, which includes ASIMOV'S and ANALOG, is currently accepting submissions for its more-or-less annual undergraduate SF writing contest. The contest is open to any full-time college undergraduate, carries a prize of $500 (more than ASIMOV'S pays me for a short story!) and instantly brings to the attention of SF editors the young aspiring writer who wins. So if you know of any such, direct them to the contest's website at

Diabolical Plots, a website devoted to SF, currently has up an interview with me. For the interested: I especially like the question mark in the URL -- "Is this thing really here?" :)

Jonathan Strahan took the much-labored-over Mars story. There are three kinds of stories: gift stories, that come easily to the writer from who-knows-where; composed stories, written with no more than the usual effort and revision; and the inelegantly-but-accurately-titled "shitting rocks stories," which require enormous effort to get out. This one was the latter. The odd thing is that, in my experience, quality seems unrelated to category.

Clarion East (although now that it's in San Diego, I suppose we'll have to call it something else) has come up with one of the coolest fund-raising ideas ever. They are soliciting old keyboards from writers who composed something memorable on them. Then one key from each keyboard will be extracted and rebuilt by Datamancer, who does this for a living (Google him; his products are amazing). The result will be auctioned off, with a booklet saying what famous SF works were written with which key, to benefit Clarion. I am in Seattle right now, but I think I have in my basement in New York the keyboard with which I wrote "Beggars in Spain." If so, I will certainly contribute it. Great idea, isn't it?

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Plotted Life

E.M. Forster famously said about plot: "'The king died, then the queen died' is not a plot, but 'The king died, then the queen died of grief' is." This is because plot requires causality. It's not just one damn thing after another, it's one damn thing causing another.

Real life isn't always like that, but sometimes it does conform to the conventions of narrative. Yesterday I burned my finger on the stove, bad enough to cause severe blistering. Because of that, I immersed my finger in ice water for two hours. Because of that, I was bored not touching anything, so I attempted to play on-line chess with my chess partner, Marty. This caused water to drip from my finger, which I took out of the ice water to make each move, onto my computer mouse, which caused the mouse to short out. Before the mouse died completely, it was difficult to control, which caused me to inadvertently send the wrong version of my Mars story to Jonathan Strahan in Australia -- a version that lacked not only a title but an ending. Then the queen died of grief.

All this has been straightened out this morning (except my finger). That, too, is a plot requirement. Or, as my grandmother used to say: Finish what you started.

The two guidelines for plot: causality and resolution. Why does it sound so much simpler than actually doing it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Feminine Fish

Yesterday's newspaper contained yet another article about the feminization of fish. This makes three articles I've spotted in the last month. Nearly 6% of American male fish show signs of feminization, with some species, such as black bass, going as high as 20%. The male black bass have egg cells growing in their sexual organs.

Why does this happen? The most immediate culprit is all the birth-control pills and hormone- treatment medication that seep into rivers, spreading around estrogen. The culprit behind that is the huge number of compounds, many used in making plastic, that act as estrogen mimickers in living tissues. Such estrogen mimickers have been found in the fat of polar bears hundreds of miles from wide-scale plastic use; the compounds are carried on the wind.

What does this mean for humans? No one knows. The scientific reaction ranges from mild concern that feminized fish don't reproduce as well, to major alarm sounders who say that estrogen mimickers also have neurological effects in humans, especially fetuses, and may well be the cause of increased ADD, learning difficulties, and other neurological issues in children.

In 1998 I wrote a book about this, Maximum Light. It did not do well -- who knows why? Maybe it was badly written. Maybe it was too depressing (it is). But I thought -- and still think -- the issue is important.

Monday, September 14, 2009


My Mars story is done, and now I have the usual difficulty in deciding what to call it. I am not good at titles. My best titles (with one exception) have all been suggested by other people. When I wander through bookstores I see wonderful titles -- intriguing or funny or pithy -- but I lack this talent, which seems to me closer to writing poetry or songs than writing fiction.

So years ago I came up with a system for creating titles. I can't say that it always works, but it's better (marginally) than nothing. It goes like this: Write down all the key words for the story, including terms from setting, theme, SF element, etc. For verbs, write down various forms ("transport," "transported," "transporting," etc.) Add all the characters' names. Make the list as long as you can. Then start shoving them against each other in various combinations until something works.

If that's not successful, start looking up each key term in Bartlett's Quotations until you find a line of poetry you can use as a title.

Once, long ago, when Ellen Datlow hated each of SIX titles I came up with for a story she'd bought for Omni, Bruce McAllister said he would give me a title that could fit any story ever written. I said I doubted that. He said, "'In a World Like This.'" He was right. I gave the title to Ellen, and she used it for my story.

Which means I can't use it again now. Although titles can't be copyrighted, it's a bit much to steal one from yourself. So I guess I need to start shoving.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Difficulties on Mars

I am writing a story promised to a theme anthology: teens on Mars. The restrictions are few, just that the story be SF, not fantasy, and that Earth has already established colonies on Mars. The time is from 100 to 1000 years from now. And I'm having difficulties.

Here is how I see it, and it would be great if someone out there can tell me where I'm going wrong: There are two alternatives. Either the story is basically character relationships, in which case it could probably just as well happen on a future Earth society. Or it concerns some specific aspect of the Martian environment, in which case I can't see how teenagers who grew up there are going to find it unusual or even interact with it significantly. Terraforming such as Kim Stanley Robinson did so magnificently in his Mars trilogy seems to me to take more space than I have in a short story. Teenagers do not make significant scientific discoveries, policy decisions, or explorations -- at least not in realistic stories. The adults in charge are not going to let sixteen-year-olds wander freely in such a hostile-to-humans environment.

I have finally come up with an idea for this story, but I'm uncertain about it. Earth is easier for me. Even space is easier. The Red Planet is hard.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Valhallacon is in full swing in Bellingham, Washington. This is a small, friendly con in a small, friendly hotel. Yesterday I did five hours of programming, ending up hoarse as well as jet-lagged, but enjoying myself greatly. Two panels, a GOH interview, a reading, and a kaffeeklatsch. A highlight was a sort-of-panel with science guest Peter Ward.

Ward, who is a regular on NPR's Science Friday, is a world-class expert on paleontology and mass extinctions. He is Principal Investigator at the University of Washington part of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, and the author of twelve books on science, including RARE EARTH: WHY COMPLEX LIFE IS UNCOMMON IN THE UNIVERSE. That one, which explains why we probably aren't going to find any other intelligent aliens Out There, apparently caused an epic run-in with Gregory Benford and David Brin, who think otherwise. I wish I had witnessed that.

This panel was supposed to feature SF writers generating story ideas about the material Ward presented, but we writers didn't do too much of that because we were too stunned. Ward, a personable and engaging speaker, cheerfully presented one disaster scenario after another, most of them "unstoppable." Seas rising from global warming, endangering three-quarters of the world's population. Dead oceans. In 100 years, way too much carbon dioxide in the air. In half a billion years, way too little carbon dioxide in the air, due to plants' fixing it, unless we heat up massive amounts of limestone to counteract. In five billion years, the end of the sun. By the end of the panel, the audience wanted to slit its collective wrists.

I raised this question: It's one thing to care what happens to humans 100 years from now but why should I, Nancy Kress, care if humanity no longer exists a half billion years in the future? Species come, species go. This question didn't seem to compute for many people, but it seems valid to me, and I got no real answer from anyone. I also pointed out that, in terms of writing ideas (the ostensible reason for the panel), a disaster did not have to be either forestalled or "solved" in the story. There is also a wealth of potential stories in "letting" the disaster happen and then imagining the world that might ensue afterward.

This is why I go to SF cons: for the mental stimulation. Well, that and the company in the bar.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Breaking the Rules

Although I am in Bellingham, WA for Valhallacon, the con doesn't start until tonight. The drive up here from Seattle was gorgeous; we Flatlanders don't get to see such mountains at home. Then a pleasant dinner with the convention committee at a local restaurant. Tonight I have opening ceremonies at 6:00 and a bookstore signing across town at 7:00, which everybody admits is sort of a problem, what with that pesky law of physics that prohibits being in two places at once. But nobody seems worried about this, so I won't worry either. Instead, I'll blog about Jennifer Egan's novel THE KEEP, which I read on the plane.

This is a fantasy-murder mystery-mainstream hybrid which debuted in 2006. Egan has been a National Book Award finalist, and THE KEEP comes with enough accolades to earn sainthood, so I was expecting something unusual. I was rewarded, but not before I was totally mystified and saying to myself "What the %@*&%?"

Her prose is lovely from the first paragraph, and so is the depth of her insight. Here is Danny, compulsive about email and Face Book and blogs, finding himself in a place unexpectedly out of touch with the Internet even though he has brought with him a satellite dish for just this eventuality:

"Danny needed [access]. His brain refused to stay locked up inside the echo chamber of his head -- it spilled out and poured across the world until it was touching a thousand people who had nothing to do with him. If his brain wasn't allowed to do this, if Danny kept it locked up inside his skull, a pressure began to build."

I think: Just so. I know people like Danny (and so do you). But by the bottom of this same page (page 12) the narrative switches briefly from third-person with Danny to first-person with someone else I have not met, and I stop dead. I think: Egan is too good a writer to make this kind of mistake, so it's not a mistake. What is she doing?

It takes me the entire first half of the book to find out. By the time I do, she's broken every single rule about point of view. She mixes third and first person, throws in three separate first-person POVs without warning, switches sometimes in the middle of a paragraph for an unpredictable length of time, does not tell you who they are or what their relationship is to each other until you figure it out for yourself very near the end. And it all works.

Why? Partly because she is so good, partly because it's not a parlor trick nor a gratuitous display of authorial skill. These POV pyrotechnics are intimately related to what she has to say about identity, responsibility, and the worst kinds of mistakes people can make with their lives. If the plot occasionally gets too conveniently weird for my tastes -- and it does -- the overall narrative design is so good, and her characters so compelling, that I was completely absorbed. You have to be a virtuoso to pull off this sort of thing, and she is.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Modern Communication

I have succumbed to the pressure to join Face Book. I even comment on it. However, so many people are detailing their every move ("Gone to the hardware store." "Back from the hardware store.") that it takes a lot of time to separate the wheat from the chaff. I may just forget the whole thing. Or do I lack patience?

Another form of modern communication: my story "The Flowers of Aulit Prison" is now being podcast, free, at This story won both a Nebula and a Sturgeon, so if you're interested, there it is.

An older form of communication: the SF con. Tomorrow I fly to Bellingham, Washington, to be Guest of Honor at Valhallacon. This used to be Viking Con, but that version of the gathering died and where do good Vikings go when they die? The con looks like fun. I have five hours of programming on Saturday, however, and so expect to end up exhausted, hoarse, and happy. Next blogs will come from Hall of Heroes.