Friday, December 31, 2010

Thrilled at the Movies

A few days ago I saw the film THE KING'S SPEECH. It is wonderful: human, moving, well-paced. I mention the latter specifically because it is about a speech impediment, that belonging to King George VI, and as such must include the long, painful pauses that so distressed him as a radio speaker, but without putting the audience for the movie to sleep. How much silence and delayed speech is too much? Not enough? The movie gets it just right.

George VI ("Bertie" to his family and, reluctantly, to his speech therapist, marvelously played by Geoffrey Rush) did not want to be king. But his older brother abdicated in order to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, and so Bertie was stuck. He must lead his country into World War II, which means radio addresses, where he is competing with Hitler. "I don't know what he's saying," Bertie says as Hitler rants in a news reel, "but he's saying it rather well."

So is the screen writer, David Seidler, who himself stammered as a boy. His parents pointed to George VI as a person who overcame his stutter, "so you can too." Seidler, inspired by the king, did so. Talk about making a personal movie!

All the actors are terrific, and both Colin Firth, as the beleaguered king, and Rush are getting Oscar buzz.

An interesting sidelight: The speech therapist's son, now an elderly man, possessed all of his father's notes on treating George VI. Seidler naturally wanted access to them. The son, very old-school British, said he would give Seidler access only with the permission of the widowed Queen Elizabeth, George's wife ("the queen mum.") She said not in her lifetime, since these were "still painful memories for me." Seidel agreed to wait. Thirty years later, she died at age 101 and he began to write his movie.

There is a lesson here for all us writers: A project gets written when it can be, and not before. Someone (Mike Flynn, who was it? You know everything) said that a novelist needs patience and cunning. And so, apparently, does a screen writer.

Go see this movie. My entire extended family, a collection of as disparate individuals as you will find anywhere, all liked it. Even my nephew Danny, who usually only likes movies in which things blow up. But not this time.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Premise and Execution

First off, Happy Holidays to everyone out there celebrating anything at all.

On Sunday 25 I flew east from Seattle to Buffalo via Newark, beating the massive blizzard by about two hours. Our plane left at 9:40 and they closed the airport at midnight. As of this morning, some poor souls have been there four days and are still only on stand-by. Since I usually have very bad plane karma, I am grateful to not be stuck this time.

But none of that is the subject of this blog, which is China Mievelle's novel THE CITY AND THE CITY. The book tied with Paolo Bacigalupi's THE WIND-UP GIRL for last year's Hugo. TCATC (sounds like a nucleotide base) has terrific writing. The characters are vivid, the settings well-realized, the plot involving. However, the novel depends on readers' accepting the premise, which is this: Two cities co-exist with each other, in the same geographical space somewhere in Europe. There is no magic involved; the cities each have some buildings in the same block. The citizens of these two separate countries "unsee" the buildings, citizens, and events in the other, which means that from birth they are indoctrinated to ignore them until they are a vague blur. It is a crime punishable by death to "breach" this convention. Almost nobody does. To travel from one city to the other -- even to buildings that are topographically next door to each other -- one must go to a central area, show passport and visa, and "cross the border."

At a recent party, two people said to me that they had no trouble accepting this premise and so enjoyed the book. Another person said she could not, and so did not. I seem to be in the middle (a usual position for me). I am enjoying the novel but at the back of my mind is a persistent nagging feeling that I don't believe it. This is, incidentally, the same feeling I had about Suzanne Collins's THE HUNGER GAMES.

So a question: Of what relative importance is a shaky novelistic premise compared to superb execution of that premise?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Copy Editing

This week before Christmas, I am going over the copy edited manuscript of a piece of my fiction due to come out next year. It is filling me with rage.

Let me make one thing clear -- I have had some very good copy editors in my thirty years of publishing, sharp-eyed men and women who have saved me from small stupid errors, from ridiculous misspellings, from referring to a character's blue eyes when three chapters ago they were brown. Good copy editors do much more than bring format and punctuation in line with the publishing house's style manual. They are the extra brain you wish you had.

However, not all of them are good. A few have delusions of grandeur, promoting themselves to co-authors. This is, unfortunately, one such person. When I write, "He blurted," I don't want it changed to "He said" -- blurting and saying are two different things. When I write that a character thinks "She was a good woman," I don't want that entire sentence omitted because -- WHY? The copy editor does not think she is a good woman? He doesn't think the character should believe that? He doesn't like sentences of five words?

I need to finish this job before I leave for New York to see my family for Christmas. If I don't finish it, I will carry this anger with me, which is no way to spend the holidays. So for the next few days, this is what I will be doing: rejecting the co-author I never signed a contract with.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How Rich Is Rich?

A few days ago The Seattle Times ran an interesting article on living in New York City. It profiled a couple who make well over what the new tax bill considers "wealthy" ($250,000/year) but who are still having trouble making ends meet. In their case, "ends" includes schooling for two kids, mortgage payments on a condominium on the East Side, college funds, and expensive orthodontia. These people think of themselves as middle class, not rich.

This is on my mind because I have -- finally! -- sold my house in Rochester, NY. Well, maybe I've sold it. It's a contingency sale and my buyer must find a buyer for her house or the whole thing could collapse. Prices in Rochester, even without a recession, are much lower than in NYC or Seattle, which underlines the fact that money is a relative, not an absolute. Sociologists say that people tend to think they're well-off or not well-off NOT because of their actual salaries or bank accounts, but because of comparisons with other people they know. Change your social circle and you change your view of your financial state.

But there are some actual facts about money, and here they are:

The average American income, based on the calculations of the US census bureau in 2005 (the most recent numbers available), is $43,362 for people above 25.

The median American income is $32,140. Half of working individuals make more, half less.

2.5% of Americans earn more than $250,000/year.

AND: Every study done about happiness comes up with the same relationship of happiness to money: Above a certain modest level (enough to pay basic bills), they do not correlate significantly. The rich are neither happier (one American myth) than the rest of us, nor more miserable (a different American myth).

I did not get as much money as I wanted for my house, not even as much as I paid for it eight years ago. But I got enough to do what I want, which is live in Seattle. It IS all relative.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Confused at the Movies

Recently Brenda Cooper and I saw the movie THE BLACK SWAN, which has just received a Golden Globe nomination. Since I never know why anything is nominated for anything (and I include science fiction awards), I can't comment on the Golden Globe nod. But I can comment on the movie: It's a gorgeous mess.

I was never bored. But I was bewildered because the director can't seem to make up his mind what sort of film he's making. Part horror movie, part dance movie, part psychological portrait, the elements do not cohere very well. Taken separately:

As a dance movie, THE BLACK SWAN doesn't include enough dancing. On the other hand, the rehearsal scenes capture the hard work that goes into ballet, the stress on dancers' bodies is well portrayed, and there is one wonderful scene on stage that symbolically captures the internal feel of artistic triumph. It's Natalie Portman dancing Odile, and it's terrific. Apparently Portman did some of her own dancing, although I doubt she could have done all those jetes and arabesques, and this doubt is reinforced by the camera occasionally pulling back to a distance and going soft-focus. But she is convincing as a dancer.

As a psychological portrait of a woman descending into madness, the movie is at its best, mostly because of Portman. She gives a wonderful performance.

As a story, however, even a horror story, the movie fails. It's cluttered with subplots that go nowhere, with extra characters (like the older dancer played by Winona Ryder), and with characters whose actions are too inconsistent for the audience to get a sense of who they are (especially Lily). Also, the ending makes no sense whatsoever. [SPOILER ALERT] It's been revealed that all the murders and blood didn't actually take place; it was all in Natalie Portman's head. At the very end, however, her stabbing is real -- every one rushes around sending for ambulances, etc. Yet she has just danced the entire, demanding ballet SWAN LAKE with, supposedly, a fatal stomach wound. Real or not? By this time, no one can tell, and the movie ends on a weak, silly note that undercuts what has gone before.

I'm neither recommending nor not recommending the film. It all depends on what you want from movies.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Tribute Story

I am currently writing a "tribute story" for an anthology Gardner Dozois is putting together. The tribute is to Poul Anderson, and each of the stories is to be set in one of Anderson's universes.

I first read Anderson when I was fifteen. My mother had given me for Christmas the two-volume TREASURY OF SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Anthony Boucher, which I still have (it's a bit battered from umpty-umpty moves). The volume included Anderson's "Brain Wave," in which the Earth in its movement through space moves out of an "inhibitor field" that has been affecting electromagnetic activity in the human brain for millions of years. All at once everyone is much, much more intelligent. So are the animals. This story knocked me out with its inventiveness and scope. So I reread it while looking for a universe to borrow, and it still knocks me out.

However, I chose instead "The Queen of Air and Darkness," the 1972 Hugo winner. This also is concerned with the human brain. It's a gorgeous story but, unlike "Brain Wave," it does not carry its characters' fates to their logical conclusion. Or maybe I just have a different take on the basic subject matter, which is reality vs. illusion. At any rate, I'm writing now about the planet Roland and its peculiar natives.

Gardner Dozois is a experienced at this. This story is not due until June. But he knows writers, and so every month he sends out a reminder: "Only nine more months until your story is due! Eight more months! Six more months and, oh, incidentally, Harry Turtledove and Stephen Baxter have already turned theirs in! They get a gold star!"

Earth may or may not be in an inhibitor field, but Dozois is one smart editor.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Future of Publishing

I am the last person to know what the future of publishing is going to be. I say this in my interview in the current issue of LOCUS (this has been a promotional plug). So I'm always eager to listen to other people tell me what future publishing holds. A few days ago I got to do this at Leslie Howle's house, where she held a "networking event."

It was an evening both enlightening and bewildering. Greg Bear discussed his and Neal Stephenson's Mongoliad project ( This is a "collaborative book" with serial chapters by Bear and Stephenson, which will take into consideration comments and feedback from readers. There is also artwork, maps, and some gorgeous period sets. A reader can subscribe for six months or a year. The story is an epic fantasy that will change and grow with feedback.

Bob Krueger discussed his website, At the moment Electric Story is a subscription site offering reprint and new fiction, but Bob has in beta testing a more ambitious idea. One problem with reader reviews on a site like is that one disgruntled reader can write, say, ten bad reviews under different screen names and bring a book's ratings way down -- or way up. (There are rumors that some authors and/or publishers do just this). Bob's system would assign "weights" to different people's reviews of self-published stories posted on the site. A review by Gardner Dozois might, for example, be worth ten points. If a story gets enough favorable reaction, Bob will offer a contract to the author for publication on the main Electric Story site. Again, this is in testing.

Several game-company people discussed what they are doing now, and in their comments I heard even more blurring of the line between traditional fiction and other media forms.

Especially revealing was Leslie's question as to how many people present own an e-reading device -- Kindle, i-Pad, other. Every single household had one. Granted, we are hardly a representative group of Americans. Still...

After listening to everyone, I still don't know what the future of publishing is -- are these just interesting experiments that will stay on the fringe, or are they harbingers of genuine change? I'm waiting to find out.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Easily Satisfied At the Movies

There is a whole category of narratives -- movies, books, TV shows, calendar designs -- that one knows are not very good. They are derivative or implausible or melodramatic or manipulative, and yet -- this is the YET -- one enjoys them anyway. Guilty artistic pleasures, the equivalent of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup instead of organic, fair-trade, dark chocolate with an 85% coca content.

Recently I saw two such movies. One is UNSTOPPABLE, about a runaway train. The film is based on a real incident, and the heroic measure that finally stopped the train did, at its most basic, actually happen. But the "basic" has been tricked out with lots of heroic flourishes, ridiculous near-misses, and general derring-do by cardboard characters who have been severely injured but don't seem to notice. So why did I like the movie? Because it is exciting, and because there is something mesmerizing about several tons of out-of-control metal hurtling through countryside and city, set in motion by human carelessness and stopped by human effort. I am not, mind you, actually recommending this movie to anybody. But -- a personal guilty pleasure.

It's also a guilty pleasure to watch Cher in BURLESQUE. I grew up watching Cher, all the way back to her and Sonny Bono standing side by side on TV singing "I Got You, Babe," she all the while trying to keep that long floaty black hair from drifting over her face in invisible, TV-mysterious breeze. In BURLESQUE she has two musical numbers. I am no judge of music, but I liked seeing her sing again. She also has top billing over Christina Aguilera, who can sing, can dance, and is actually the star. Cher has had so much plastic surgery that her face doesn't move any more, which is a little eerie, but she puts a lot of vocal expression into her part, a club owner who cannot meet the mortgage payments. The plot was a cliche in the 1950's, and some of the songs date from then, too ("Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend"). But the dancing is fun (Fosse-style choreography) and I had a great time watching the film. Guilty pleasure.

This indulgence also extends to some books that I like but know are bad. However, I am not saying which ones, for fear of losing all credibility with whoever out there reads this blog.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Brave New World in Seattle

For the last few weeks, Seattle has been debating Aldous Huxley's novel BRAVE NEW WORLD. The book was assigned in a high school English class, and a Native American student and her mother objected strongly to its "racist" depiction of Native Americans, including over 30 references to "savage natives" on reservations as being dirty and decrepit, living apart from the modern world of Huxley's future. The book was -- depending on whom you listen to -- either banned or "suspended" from the curriculum. The suspension is allegedly until teachers can be taught to "present the material sensitively."

Apart from the slur on teachers' ability to already deal with their own curriculum, this issue is more complicated than it looks at first. I am categorically against any form of censorship of adult reading material. But kids present a different situation. I think we can all agree that, for instance, nobody wants TROPIC OF CANCER in the third-grade library. So the question becomes: Where does the line exist between children who should be protected against things they are not yet mature enough to handle, and teenagers who are presumably able to discuss literature that presents disturbing views of the future?

For those of you who haven't read BRAVE NEW WORLD (and I don't know why that would be), it's worth pointing out that the novel regards protagonist John, raised on the "savage" reservation, as the moral center of the novel, and the future "civilized" world -- with its deliberately created genetic slaves, orgies, and easy drugs -- as undesirable. In the same way, the slave Jim is the moral center of HUCKLEBERRY FINN, another novel often challenged for its racism. These books actually condemn the mores of "normal" society and so are genuinely subversive -- a point which any good teacher would make in class.

I think high school students can handle this distinction, and the book. It should not be banned, suspended, nor hidden away in the interests of students or parents who wish to read only what is comfortable. LITTLE WOMEN and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, in their own way, fine books -- but they're hardly the whole of literature. Or of education.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Writing Advice

Gene Wolfe, fabulous and almost-legendary SF writer who just won a World Fantasy Award for his story collection, has an interesting interview at Black Gate ( Among other things, he offers his top five pieces of writing advice to aspiring authors. Here they are:

1.) Get up early and write.
2.) Read what you’re trying to write, for Godsakes! (Don’t read enormous fantasy series if you’re trying to write short stories.)
3.) Remember that it is characterizing that puts your story heads and shoulders over the others in the slush pile.
4.) You do not characterize by telling the reader about the character. You do it by showing the character thinking, speaking and acting in a characteristic way. You simply show it and shut up.
5.)Do not start a story unless you have an ending in mind. You can change the story’s ending if you wish, but you should always have a destination.

I heartily agree with 3 1/2 of these. Before I say which ones on my next blog, and why, anybody want to guess what I'm not agreeing with?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Seattle got hit by a winter storm last night. Snow, cold in the single digits, the whole catastrophe. A plane slid off the runway at SeaTac. A bus overturned. Traffic on I-5 was gridlocked, in places throughout the night. People stuck downtown abandoned their cars and sought hotel rooms. It took Jack four hours to drive home from work, and then he could not get his car up Queen Anne Hill and had to leave it at the bottom and walk up.

A hard winter was forecast for Seattle, due to La Nina, but nobody expected it to start so soon. The mayor purchased road salt and created a Winter Snow Plan, but now it seems the city will run out of salt, money, and patience long before the winter is done. Especially since, technically, it hasn't even started yet.

I grew up in Buffalo (where it currently is 59 degrees!) I'm more or less used to this. But not HERE.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Malware and Jane Austen

There has been no blogging for nearly a week because my computer got hit with a nasty Trojan that required it be put back to factory conditions with a Restart, a process I could no more do than fly. Fortunately my son was able to talk me through it from 3,000 miles away (Thank you again, Brian!) This took the better part of three days, including installing four years' worth of Windows updates (old computer), buying and reinstalling Word, trying to figure out how the new, more cluttered version of Word functions (I don't like it), and changing passwords on everything. Three writing days lost to somebody else's maliciousness.

During those three days, on a much different note, I attended Mary Robinette Kowal's reading at the University Bookstore. She read from her new novel, SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, in which Regency gentlewomen, in addition to acquiring the accomplishments of music, drawing, needlework, and dancing, can also learn domestic magic. Mary perfectly combines the Jane Austen tone with an interesting magic system appropriate to Austen's sedate plots. In addition, Mary, a professional puppeteer with theater training, is a fantastic reader, playing the part of each character and even throwing in a five-minute shadow-puppet show written in the late 1700's. She wore full Regency dress (with an offer to describe the underclothes) despite the fact that Seattle is currently having below-freezing weather with a threat of snow. All in all, it was one of the best readings I have ever attended. Oh, and the book is great fun, too -- I have read it. On a Kindle, which would have bewildered Austen. But at least my Kindle does not seem susceptible to malware.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Coming Down in the World...

... is the theme of two narratives I've read/seen in the last few days. One is the best-selling memoir by Michael Gates Gill, son of famed NEW YORKER writer Brendan Gill, HOW STARBUCKS SAVED MY LIFE. The other is the new movie MORNING GLORY.

There is a new happy-talk paradigm in this country that losing all your money and/or job and/or social position is supposed to bring home to you the importance of what really matters: love, family, the dignity of simple work. That's the theme of Gill's book. A former creative director at advertising giant J. Walter Thompson, Gill grew up affluent and continued that life with a huge house, wife, four kids. He was laid off at 53, then had an affair that, along with spectacular financial mismanagement, lost him everything. For ten years he tried to start a consulting business, failed, and at 63 went to work at the 96th Street Starbucks in NYC. He did everything from cleaning toilets to serving coffee, both of which "made me happier than I'd ever been before."

I'm not doubting Gill's word (how can I know what makes the man happy?) However, the reasons for that happiness do not come through in the book because Gill is such a bad writer: bland, un-nuanced, given to either abstracts or else rhapsodies over cleaning products. The book has been picked up for a feel-good movie with Tom Hanks, which probably says something or other.

The other coming-down-in-the-world saga, MORNING GLORY, is much different. For one thing, it's actually entertaining. Harrison Ford is a world-class newsman forced by his contract onto a morning show like TODAY, but perennially in fourth place in the TV ratings. Rachel McAdams is the peppy new executive director hired to raise those ratings. Her clashes with Ford, his grim refusal to do fluff pieces, and the idiocies of morning TV are all fun to watch. The ending is too feel-good, maybe, but at least Ford's fall from the pinnacle of his profession is not made to look like a gain. Much.

This recession/depression/whatever-you-want-to-call-it has hit all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. Somewhere between Michael Gill and Michael Moore is a real narrative, with both the real negatives and real gains of coming down in the world, waiting to be made. Maybe someone will.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


It's November, which means the rustle of falling leaves, the whoosh of cold winds of winter, and the pounding of keyboards across the nation. National Novel Writing Month, in which participants are supposed to write 50,000 words, has its opponents and its advocates.

The opponents say (actually, it's more that they sneer) that: (1) Quality is what counts, not quantity, and no one can produce that much quality that fast. (2) Writing is a solo activity, not a hive-mind one, and giving the illusion that it is through website reporting of words and sharing of encouragement is a cruel illusion.

Advocate say: (1) A first draft may have quality issues, but it's something to work with, so get it down any way you can. (2) Any encouragement is good, and anyway the actual writing is still going on solo. (3) I'm teaching two NaNoWriMo workshops in Seattle, so don't discourage my potential audience!

Both workshops are ninety-minutes on "Writing Successful Fantastic Fiction." They are at libraries at the Richmond branch (Saturday, November 13) and Renton (Thursday night, November 18). The workshops are free, so I'm not sure where the money to pay me comes from, but it's through the libraries (your tax dollars at work?) At any rate, I'm looking forward to both of them. Anyone aiming for 50,000 words in a month is bound to be motivated.

Then the opponent says, "Isn't a workshop on writing-a-novel-in-a-month that comes halfway through the month a little late?"

To which I say, "Shut up. It's all good."

Monday, November 8, 2010


This is the time of year when high school seniors are frantically completing college applications, mailing off essays, sweating through interviews, waiting to hear where/if they've been accepted. I went through the process with my two sons, as well as with other applicants with whom I stood in various relationships. I did not, however, expect to go through it with my dog.

Yesterday I took Cosette for an interview at a home-boarding place where we hope to leave her while I'm back East at Christmas. An interview was required, with both me and the dog, as well as a lengthy application. In the car on the way there, I resisted the impulse to say, "Now be sure to shake hands, look the interviewer in the eye, and sit up straight!" Or, perhaps, "Don't bark too loud and try not to bite anybody!"

Cosette passed. She will now attend Lady Di's Pet Chaperone establishment for several days. And she didn't even have to write an essay. I, however, have to finish completing the application, get her one vaccine she's missing, and have her fecal matter analyzed and notarized.

It's easier to get into Princeton.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Amused at the Movies

Last night I saw RED, the new spy caper with Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and John Malkovitch. This movie features a plot that bears no relation whatsoever to any known spy agencies, to actual international relations, to reality itself, or even to self-consistency (the same people are alternately crack shots with a rifle at a huge distance and unable with an AK-47 to hit someone in the same room). It is a ridiculous movie. I loved it.

If you're going to make a spoof, then you must go over the top, and RED does it. The acronym, it turns out, stands for "retired, extremely dangerous," which describes all four protagonists. Willis is leading a bored and lonely existence. Malkovitch is paranoid nuts, and nobody does nuts as well as John Malkovitch. Freeman is in a nursing home. Mirren leads the life of a genteel Martha Stewart who also "takes the odd contract on the side." Then someone using federal agencies tries to kill them all.

This is comic-book stuff, and far more entertaining than Batman and Robin. Halfway through the movie I realized that part of the reason it's so much fun is seeing old people do un-elderly things. Then I realized that my last Hugo and Nebula were both for old guys doing un-elderly things: Henry Erdmann in "The Erdmann Nexus" and the larcenous Max Feder in "Fountain of Age." Then I realized that age interests me more than youth. This might have depressed me -- except that the movie is too much fun. Go see it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On The Bus

Last night in class we did a short story set on a city bus. It was a pretty good story, but I was surprised that so many of the students questioned why, or whether, the two protagonists would be on a bus. "Wouldn't they have wheels?" one person said. Another: "Maybe if you show they're still students or something..."

I ride the bus. Since I have not yet bought a car in Seattle, and am apprehensive about driving on these steep hills, I take the bus when I am alone and want to go somewhere I can't walk to. I see all sorts of people on the bus. Poor people and crazy people and young people, yes, but also older, well-dressed people who for whatever reason are not driving cars. And the bus, it turns out, is endlessly entertaining.

I have talked to little kids on a field trip, bouncing up and down with excitement. I have heard a murder being discussed between two women: "And they didn't know the body was in the apartment until Saturday, when the rest of us in the building started to smell it." I have observed people reading everything from Leo Tolstoy to Danielle Steele. Last night, returning from class, we had a crazy person, harmless variety. He was explaining to a stranger, who looked slightly stunned, "I am Kali. All reality is under my command because I am the only one who exists out of time. It's very hard."

I imagine it would be. All of reality! A microcosm of which can be found on the bus.

Monday, November 1, 2010

World Fantasy Con -- Day 4

Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the last day of WFC because somehow I inadvertently erased them from the camera before downloading. I was not cut out to be a photographer.

I had breakfast with Mary Robinette Kowal, during which we discussed publishing and puppets, the latter being Mary's other profession. This was followed by coffee in the green room (finally found it!) with Gene Wolfe, who also came to my reading. I had not seen Gene for many years, and this was a treat.

The main event of the day was the WFC banquet and awards. The fiction winners are:

Best Collection: This was a tie, between There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya,and The Very Best of Gene Wolfe. Gene gave a tearful, moving speech in which he said that the award had been earned by three people: himself, "the young man I used to be who wrote these stories," and his wife Rosemary, "who really should be up here with me."

Best Novel: The City in the City, China Mieville

Best Novella, "Sea-Hearts," Morgo Langahan

Best Short Story: "The Pelican Bar"

None of the other three fiction winners were present to accept. Of the three recipients of Life Time Achievement Awards, Brian Lumley gave a nice acceptance speech in his rich Scottish accent. Peter Straub, alas, seemed almost incoherent. Terry Pratchett sent remarks that might have read better had he been able to deliver them himself with a humorous slant, since they complained about never having won a Hugo or Nebula.

I got to meet Cecilia Holland, whose Floating Worlds I have admired for a very long time. I just wish my camera had retained the picture of her!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

World Fantasy Con -- Day 3

It is indeed possible to run a SFWA business meeting within one hour. President John Scalzi kept things moving, and civil. To one who remembers 3 1/2 hour meetings marked by fierce contention, personal recriminations, and on at least one occasion, a threatened fist fight, this meeting was a revelation. It also included a haiku by Ellen Klages, as SFWA's new, unofficial motto:
We write spec fiction.
Some make a lot of money.
Others get nothing.

The hotel is being shared by WFC, a teenage-and-younger cheerleading competition, and a bridal party. This makes for some interesting elevator rides. I can report that the bride's dress is lovely and that the fashion in cheerleaders is for large bows directly on the tops of heads.

I ended up being on the panel on "The Moral Distance Between Author and Work," after all, mostly because I whined so much about not being on it. We discussed if, and how, knowledge of an author's life and political beliefs affected how one reads his fiction, particularly if one finds the life or beliefs objectionable. Opinions ranged from "It makes no difference -- life and works are separate," through "It changes how one sees the work," to "I won't read authors who are (pick one) pedophiles, liberals, Republicans, murderers, Nazis, sexists, into torturing small animals." The entire panel was videotaped and is now (somewhere) on the Internet. Here are (left to right) Scott Edelman, Eric Flint, Nancy Kress,Paul Whitcover, Kathryn Cramer, and Jack Skillingstead dissecting morality:

The bar was, as usual, the general gathering place for the con (I never even found the green room), and a good place to hold business meetings before dinner. I had dinner at the not-so-good-but-very-convenient hotel restaurant with a group that included Kij Johnson, who reported that she loves both grad school and North Carolina. She has recently composed a 317-line poem based on Chaucer's chicken. Ah, academe. Here are Seth and Barbara Webb, Paul and Deb Park, Leslie Howle, Ted Chiang, John Kessel, Jack Skillingstead, and Kij:Paul Park suits up for a Halloween party:I had a final panel on T.H. White's THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. The Tor party, as always, had a surfeit of people and a shortage of oxygen, so most of it eventually ended up in the bar.

World Fantasy Con -- Day 2

The day began with sitting around the lobby drinking coffee with Gardner Dozois, Susan Casper, Peter Heck, and various other people who came and went. The writing life was discussed, and Gardner made the trenchant observation that often "it isn't a series of ego strokes -- it's a series of kicks to the teeth." Not always -- but often. This observation did not distress everyone; on the contrary, it was cheering because if validated that in this tough publishing climate, a writer having difficulties (rejections, falling sales, falling advances, falling confidence) is not alone. Here are Susan, Peter, Alistair Mayer, Gardner, Brenda Cooper, and an unidentified head, being gloomy/cheerful:The publishing climate was also the topic of the one panel I was on today, "Art and Commerce -- Is There Tension Between Them?" Very lively, this panel featured various answers to the question from Tom Dougherty ("No"), me ("Yes, of course"), Gordon Van Gelder ("It's complicated"), and Ginjer Buchanan, courageously struggling to moderate an over-caffeinated and feisty panel. The final consensus: The only way writers can succeed is by writing what passionately moves them, but don't expect the marketplace to be moved by only your passion -- commercial forces also affect what is bought, and sold.

Clarion West held a cocktail party, at which various announcements were made, including the line-up of instructors for next year's Clarion West: Paul Park, Nancy Kress, Margo Lanagan, Minister Faust, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Charles Stross. Walter Jon Williams also announced that he and I will again teach the two-week Taos Toolbox workshop in July. Information on both of these workshops can be found on their websites.

Dinner with Sheila Williams, who reported that ASIMOV'S is doing well and has several exciting stories in train -- none of them, alas, mine.

Next came the usual WFC mass autographing, a melee in which collectors lug huge boxes of books around to be signed, fans get to talk to authors, and authors spend three hours, or as long as they can stand, seated in rows behind white-clothed tables with coffee, wine, and pens at the ready. The room was huge, and it's possible that the number of writers exceeded the number of fans. Eventually people moved from there into the bar, which quickly became a scramble for tables. I ended up with a group that included SFWA president John Scalzi. Since John needed a quorum for tomorrow's SFWA business meeting, he spent much of the time dragging promises out of people to attend. In return, he promised to bring in the SFWA meeting at under one hour. Can this actually be done?

Friday, October 29, 2010

World Fantasy Con -- Day 1

Thursday Jack and I left the apartment at 3:30 a.m. to fly to Columbus, Ohio, for World Fantasy Con. It was so early because (1) you can't get directly to Columbus from almost everywhere, and (2) there needed to be time to tussle with the dog, who goes ballistic at the sight of a suitcase. But we got to SeaTac, flew to Atlanta (does this make sense?) and was ready to backtrack to Columbus when the power blew in the Atlanta airport terminal. No passengers could be processed except for those already on the plane, which included us. The jetway could not be detached. So we sat an hour and a half on the tarmac.

Once in Columbus, we registered and then went to dinner with a group that included Ellen Klages, Ted Chiang, Patrick Swenson, Jim Van Pelt, and Therese Pieczinski. The food at Martini was good (although I did feel some skepticism at the waitress's insistence that the calamari was "absolutely fresh" when we were in southern Ohio, not known for its salt-water fishing). A topic of discussion was the up-coming con panel on whether distaste for or disagreement with an artist's private life interferes with the appreciation of his work. Ellen said yes, she can no longer read James Elroy. I said no. Other people weighed in. Should be an interesting panel on Saturday.

Everyone else then repaired to the bar, and I, sleep-deprived, went to bed.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Love and Writing

This morning I started a new piece of fiction. Doing that is a lot like starting a new love affair. There is that initial rush of hope and suspense: Will this turn into anything? Will the connection be a good one, the promise fulfilled? It's a time of anticipation and anxiety in about equal measure.

Some stories, like some love affairs, just peter out (which is what happened with the story I began a few weeks ago). The initial spark just isn't enough to sustain them. Others chug along well for a while but then hit an impossible situation and blow up. Others finish in a stable but uninspired friendship. And a few soar.

I don't know yet what path this new work will take. But for as long as I don't know, the possibilities are all still there, tantalizing as spring breeze. I don't want to leave my new love, preferring to write steadily for hours each day. However, that isn't going to happen because Thursday I leave for World fantasy Con in Columbus, Ohio. The next blogs will come from there.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Late to the Debate

I never know what's going on. I didn't hear about Elizabeth Moon's 9/11 post on her blog until yesterday, when, in response, Wiscon withdrew its invitation to her to be next year's Guest of Honor. Then I tracked down and read her original blog entry, plus some of the subsequent controversy.

Mine is not a political blog. Seldom do I comment on political events, partly because I can't imagine why anyone might care what I think. But this is not just a political matter, it is also an SF one. As a former GOH at Wiscon myself, I have a strong opinion on this issue.

Wiscon's purpose is stated on its website: "WisCon is the first and foremost feminist science fiction convention in the world. WisCon encourages discussion, debate and extrapolation of ideas relating to feminism, gender, race and class." But not, apparently, if those views are unpalatable to the committee.

Elizabeth's blog concerned the building of the Islamic community center in NYC, a few blocks from Ground Zero. I am in favor of building this; I think it is guaranteed by the Constitution, and anyway the building will not be in sight of Ground Zero. Elizabeth argued not that building it should be forbidden, but that Muslims themselves should think twice about the place they are building it, and the impression of cooperation that it gives or does not give to others in their adopted country. Again, I do not agree with her. But that's not the point. Her blog entry is quiet in tone, thoughtful in argument. If you haven't read it, I urge you to do so. Then you can make up your own mind about its statements regarding assimilation, citizenship, and tolerance.

The point IS just that -- reading the blog provides a point of departure for discussion about gender, race, and class -- just what Wiscon is supposed to be about. This discussion could have happened at Wiscon, if Elizabeth were going to be there. It would have been stimulating, and everyone could have had a say. Now that will not happen. In addition, the con will be losing the other thing it is supposed to showcase -- successful female writers of speculative fiction.

I think the Wiscon committee has erred in withdrawing its GOH-ship. This is NOT the equivalent to not inviting a raving racist or virulent anti-feminist. Elizabeth is not those things. Wscon should have honored its commitment to her.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


In the last few weeks there have been two serious animal attacks on the Olympic Peninsula near Seattle. A bear mauled a man outside his cabin; he lost an eye. Then a few days ago a mountain goat charged and killed a man in Olympic Park. It's not mating season, and the bear had no cubs with her.

I mostly like to look at nature, not interact with it, but these are disquieting. In both cases, rangers speculate that people may have been feeding the wild animals, which makes them less fearful of people, which makes them more likely to attack. Moral: Fear has its uses.

This is not a moral that resonates very well with humanist writers. But even a cursory look at human history shows the truth of it. Which leads to a question: Is it possible to raise a child with insufficient fear?

I feel a story coming on...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Vashon Island Novel Workshop

Yesterday ten writers and I met for an intense, day-long critique workshop on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. The only way to reach the island is by ferry, and we convoyed over there in four cars, early enough to watch the sun rise over the water. The workshop, organized by the tireless Leslie Howle and located at a friend's enormous gorgeous house, focused on the first 25 pages of ten different novels, all of which had been circulated in advance. Much coffee was drunk, much junk food consumed, much debate engaged in.

It was fun. Also exhausting. The day finished with a round-table discussion of publishing conditions: for science fiction versus fantasy, for YA, for on-line publications, for reader books, for print magazines, for traditional publishers. Then today I learned that another magazine of speculative fiction is closing. REALMS OF FANTASY is being shut down by publisher Warren Lapine, who says he has tried everything he can to make the magazine profitable and has failed, for which he blames a bad economy. REALMS is, he says, for sale for $1 to "a responsible purchaser."

The conclusion reached at the Vashon Island workshop -- and it hardly merits the name "conclusion" -- is that no one knows how publishing will take shape over the next twenty years. Meanwhile, aspiring writers write. Some notable quotes from the critique sessions:
  • "I want a moyle just like the moyle that brissed my dear old dad."
  • "In a novel, I'm willing to give an author a whole page before the violence begins."
  • "There's a lot of meat here but not much potatoes. You need more potatoes."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Write What You Know

Yesterday's newspaper included a cartoon of two cavemen, one of whom is an artist. He is drawing on the cave wall iconic pictures of hunters chasing mastodons, being killed by tigers, running from an unidentifiable but very large beast. To his friend he says, with an air of superiority, "The secret is to write what you know."

This same thing is, of course, told to countless aspiring authors. Many of them follow it slavishly, many pay no attention whatsoever, many run an uncomfortable mental list over their stories and wonder: Should I have done more research?

As with everything else in writing fiction, the write-what-you-know "rule" is a trade-off. Sticking to milieu and situations of which you have some first-hand knowledge can lend stories rich detail unattainable any way else. On the other hand, it can be very limiting if either you don't know much or what you do know doesn't particularly interest you to write about. When I was teaching in D.C., at least half of each class was comprised of lawyers. They all wanted to write high fantasy. And so they should.

Where the dictum is useful is in pulling things from your own life to build on in your fiction. You've never killed anyone (I hope), but you've been angry enough to want to. Can you use that feeling for your murderer? You've never been transformed by a wizard's spell into a toad, but you've felt like an outsider in some social situation: different, awkward, not at home in your own skin. Does the toad person feel like that?

All this floated to the top of my mind when I started a new story this morning. The situation is bizarre, the character unlike myself. But nonetheless there are times where I've felt as he does. In one sense, I know him. Dead mastodons and all.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Stupid Criminals

The front desk of my apartment building was robbed last week. The thief made off with two laptops and a drawer full of rent checks. This alone indicated some doubt about his criminal ability, since it would be difficult to cash a lot of checks made out to a building. However, this was only the start of the young man's mistakes.

He then entered the basement garage area, where he was in the process of stealing an expensive bike when the owner, a young woman, showed up. The alleged thief hid in a storage closet, dragging the bike in with him. She looked around, did not see her bike, and did see the closet door ajar. She opened it and threw a fit, demanding not only that the bike be returned, but that the guy present his I.D., presumably in case there was damage to the bike. He did. She photographed it with her cell phone. He then fled. Police arrested him, still in possession of the rent checks, at his home.

The mind boggles.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mutoid Men and Me

Two weeks from now Ted Chiang and I are doing an appearance at the Olympia Timberland Library in Olympia, Washington. Nothing unusual about that -- talk a little, read a little, maybe present a mini-panel. This one, however, promises to be a bit different.

They have a band, "Mutoid Men" (link to their latest release: ). They have a second musician, Spiritual Successor, with songs about "suicidal superheroes and terminally ill space babies." There is a Sci-Fi Trivia Throwdown. Last year there was also a fashion show, but they've dropped that. Here is this year's poster:

I'm not sure what to expect from all this. Certainly not the usual library appearance, which tends to be a decorous and staid affair. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

New Media

Lately there has been much buzz about new media as the coming platform for publishing -- ebooks, cell-phone serials, integrated computer stories. Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear have launched THE MONGOLIAD, a serialized "social book" that is a novel but also allows readers to add music, video, and other content. The line between stories and games becomes ever blurrier as top-notch SF writers are hired to craft the stories underlying video games and to write the dialogue for the characters. However, I don't think any of these ventures have gone as far into innovative media as Michael Swanwick, who has published a lovely story written on dead autumn leaves.

You can view the Halloween story on Flickr ( ) Each of the hundred-plus photos features one or more fallen leaves, each with a word written on them. The colors and background of the leaves often reflect the content of the sentence. The result is amazing, weird, and deeply elegiac.

I emailed Michael to ask how such a project occurred to him. The impetus was his wife, Marianne, who remarked that October always made her want to write "death" on fallen leaves. From such small seeds grow entire stories.

October Leaves is also available in print form, with full-color photos of the leaves, at the Flickr URL. But do check out the on-line version. And try to ponder where publishing could possibly go next.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Happy At the Movies

Last night I saw THE SOCIAL NETWORK, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's film about the founding of Facebook. The advance buzz was so positive that I wondered if the movie could possibly live up to it.

It does. I loved it, and so did the five other people with me. You wouldn't think that a movie about a web page could be all that gripping, but this one offers so much. My main pleasures:

A balanced view of nearly everyone involved. Mark Zuckerberg, as written by Sorkin and played by Jesse Eisenberg, is multi-dimensional. He's insecure, vengeful, socially clueless, prodigiously gifted, painfully aware of his low status at Harvard, yearning, ambitious, and very, very young. I didn't like him -- he's not likable -- but I felt for him. More important, I believed him. He's an epitome of a nerdy type we all already know, but smarter and more resentful. Similarly, the friends he betrays -- maybe -- are not just stereotypes of (1) the aristocratic young lords of creation and (2) the overly earnest business major; they are real people.

A balanced view of the actions involved. Did Zuckerberg rip off his friends, or did he really do all the actual creation work and so be entitled to the success? Is Sean Parker of Napster (player by Justin Timberlake, with slimy charm) someone who led Mark into a morally bad decision, or is he a hard-headed entrepreneur without whom Facebook would not have become such a huge success? It's possible to view the lawsuits that form the framework of the movie in several different lights.

Sorkin's incisive, funny, rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. When I get to heaven, Sorkin will write a script from my fiction.

As I've said before, I am a Facebook drop-out. But that made no difference. I don't know how accurate this film's view of events actually is. But it's not a documentary, it's a movie, and a terrific one. Go see it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Present Tense

Judges for the Man Booker, Britain's prestigious literary prize, have been arguing over its short list. Not only over which books to nominate -- that's normal for any juried award. These judges are arguing over the novels' conceptions of time. Three of the six are written in present tense, which at least one judge finds "faddish."

Is it? If a fad is a short-lived popular craze, then no. Some fiction has been written in present tense for at least thirty years now. And some people have always disliked it -- I remember Gene Wolfe telling me once that he would immediately stop reading any story in present tense. (It's possible he has changed his mind since then). More and more fiction uses present tense, including Suzanne Collins' enormously successful HUNGER GAMES trilogy. Why?

The classic argument is that present tense gives more immediacy, the illusion that story events are happening right now, rather than being recounted after they're long over. I'm not sure that's true, because I'm not sure readers even notice tense any more. I'm trying to remember what tense my own six award-winning stories are told in, and I can only recall two of them (one in present, one in past). And I wrote them!

Give me some help here -- do you notice present tense? Does it distract you? Enhance the story? Does it seem more "modern and fresh"? Do you loathe it? For short stories? For novels?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

New Earth

Yesterday two scientists announced the discovery of the first Earth-like planet lying in the habitable zone of its star. Co-discoverers, who will publish in the Astrophysical Journal, are R. Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institute and Steven Vogt of UC Santa Cruz.

It's not exactly Earth -- more like a swollen Mercury, in that the planet is three times the mass of Earth, only 14 million miles away from its star, and does not rotate. The star, Gliese 581, is a dwarf, so even at such close distance any potential water will not have been boiled off the surface. The planet, which goes by the unromantic name of Gliese 581g, orbits the dwarf star every 37 days.

And it's only 20 light years away! That is, as Vogt pointed out in a video, close enough to send a probe with today's technology, even though we might not get any information back for a few hundred years.

The star system appears, from Earth, to be in the constellation Libra. I wish the weather were clear here in Seattle (it's not) -- tonight I'd like to be able to go up to the roof, gaze at Libra, and wonder: Who's there?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ralph Vicinanza

Agent Ralph Vicinanza died over the weekend of an undiagnosed aneurysm. It was, according to his business partner Chris Schelling, an easy death, in his sleep. But no death is easy for those left behind.

Ralph was my agent for nearly two decades. He was superb at all aspects of what he did. Several of my books are better for his input. He cared about science fiction, fantasy, and writing in general.

He was also a wonderful person: kind, patient, fun to be with. I am still stunned by the news of his death. Sixty is too young for anyone to die -- but why is it the good ones who so often go before their time? Ralph's passing feels like a piece of my own life gone. I know, because I've spoken with some of them, that his other clients feel the same. There are no words to describe our loss.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Coffee Competition

Seattle loves its coffee. During the week my son and daughter-in-law have been visiting here, Jamie has conducted an informal competition. She loves pumpkin spice lattes. So she has had one at each of five nearby coffee shops: Cafe Appassionata, Starbucks, Cafe Ladro, Tully's, and El Diablo Coffee Shop. The winner: Tully's.

We didn't get to try Seattle's Best, alas. Still, it was a tight and exciting race. And this is what writers think about when they're neither writing nor reading much.

Must get back to work!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Underground Seattle

Seattle was originally built on tide flats. As the city grew, this caused enormous problems with sewage. Thomas Crapper's marvelous invention, the flush toilet, only made things worse, because if you sat on your toilet at high tide, there was a large chance that sewage might suddenly come geysering out of it, forced back up by incoming water in inadequate pipes. Newspapers took to printing tide schedules. Eventually, as the city grew, the decision was made to raise it. The entire city. This was done in stages, which involved filling in the areas between streets with mud and building new streets on top of the old ones -- which made the old ones a series of underground tunnels used to access what had been the first floor of shops and residences. This all occurred in the late 1800's, as I learned yesterday on the enormously entertaining tour of Underground Seattle.

For a while this worked fine. Then, in 1907, Seattle was hit with bubonic plague. The tunnels were full of rats and so the city leaders closed them. Everyone went above ground (including the rats), and first floors became cellars. The tunnels remained closed for nearly 60 years, until 1965, when they were opened for historic tours. Here is what once was a thriving underground shopping street:
Since Seattle was a starting city for gold prospectors heading to the Klondike, the tunnels operated banks 24/7. A sign still remains from that period:
I can't recommend this tour highly enough. It's full of stories and wit. At one point in the gold-rush days Seattle had a population of 25,000 -- ten percent of which were unmarried women living in a three-block area, every one of which listed her occupation during a city census as "seamstress." An enterprising madam organized these "seamstresses" for everyone's safety and convenience and told the city fathers, "Don't harass them. Tax them!" They did. It was a great boost to municipal economy, and Madame Lou Graham is now an historical hero, of sorts.

If you go to Seattle, take the underground tour!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Touring Seattle, Still

Northwest Trek is a safari-type wildlife preserve of animals native to the Pacific Northwest. Yesterday, in a steady cold rain, my intrepid fellow travelers and I rode a tram through the preserve and then walked the dripping trails. Herbivores roam free in the largest part of the park; carnivores are fenced in smaller but still spacious habitats. In 1999, however, a cougar escaped. It ate ten animals before it could be trapped and removed. This wolf would probably like to do something similar:Many of the animals, or reasons best known to themselves (although I suspect "disdain") consistently had their backs to the tram. Here is the backside of a bull elk:

These are the backsides of mooses. A bull moose eats 27,000 calories per day. This sounded great to all of us, hungry from tromping soddenly through the rain.
The American bison, which smells terrible:
Ten minutes after we left the park, it stopped raining. Skies turned blue. Ah, well.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Touring Seattle -- Day 2

More pretending to be a tourist in a city I actually live in. Sunday we took our visitors on another exhausting round of sight-seeing. By the end of the day, my legs hurt from walking. First, the aquarium. It has no dolphins or whales, but there are elaborate environments for fish, crustaceans, marine plants, seals, sea and river otters. Here is tide pool that is part of the Petting Zoo -- pet an anemone! (They feel rubbery.)This is the fish dome, an amazing structure filled with all sorts of fish around and above the viewer:This is an extremely depressed fish: down-turned mouth, motionless as I watched it, floating in existential despair. This fish needs Prozac:
This gorgeous fountain is in Seattle Center, the site of the 1963 World's Fair and now a pleasure park filled with theaters, museums, shops and restaurants. Seattle Center also includes the Space Needle. A view of Seattle from the top: Tomorrow: Northwest Trek, weather permitting. Also everyone's stamina.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Touring Seattle

No writing this week; my son and daughter-in-law are visiting Seattle. As with most residents, Seattleites mostly see the city's attractions when there are tourists to show them to. Yesterday was the zoo, a very nice environment-based zoo in which animals are not in cages but rather in enclosed areas simulating "savannas," etc. The giraffes and zebras mingle, along with wildebeest (although not with the lions, for obvious reasons).

We also visited the Fremont Troll. This art installation sits under a bridge. Made of concrete, it holds an actual, concrete-covered VW under one paw. Its one glittering eye is a hubcap. Here is Jack "caught" by the troll:

The troll has also been used in a number of urban fantasies set in Seattle. Seattle seems a popular setting for fantasy, including this year's Locus Award winner, Cherie Priest's BONESHAKER. Certain cities are good for fiction. Very few novels are, for instance, set in East Lansing, Michigan.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Every writer works differently. I, who do not belong to the Electronics Generation, work on paper. Not completely -- first drafts are done on the computer. But I can't edit on screen, I just can't. So I print the novel and edit long-hand, making dozens of changes on nearly every page. Some are small (add a comma, change a word), some are revisions of a sentence, some are extensive revisions involving major shuffling of story elements or the writing of new scenes. The shuffling takes place with scissors and tape, the new scenes are written on yellow lined paper, frequently both are employed. This all occurs on the sofa, with a clipboard on my knees.

Then comes the part I am at now, which is the part I dislike: typing in all those changes. I feel like Winston in Orwell's 1984, whose job was to amend official publications one laborious word at a time. (Orwell didn't foresee computers as word processors -- who did in 1948?) The typing-in process is slow, finicky (add a comma, remove a comma), but no one but me could possibly read my scribbled-up sheets. Day after day of being Winston.

I don't recommend this method of writing a novel. But it's the one I evolved over 30 years, it works, and anyway a story is not real to me until it's on paper. So: Type TYPE TYPE!

Monday, September 13, 2010


Over the weekend I saw Hugh Whitemore's play about Alan Turing, BREAKING THE CODE, at the Erickson Theatre in Seattle. It was a terrific production and Bradford Farwell, as Turing, was amazing. Not every actor can make ten minutes' of uninterrupted exposition about mathematics dramatically riveting. Turing came across as naive, enthusiastic, reckless, focused -- what the Middle Ages called "a holy innocent."

As everyone knows, Turing was not treated well by the British and American governments. His contribution to breaking the German "enigma code" was incalculably important to winning World War II, and his work led directly to the computer upon which I am typing this blog. But after the war he was hounded as a "security risk" because of his homosexuality, imprisoned, and marginalized. Finally he killed himself.

This all reminded me of another scientist ridiculed and driven to a nervous breakdown for an important discovery: Ignaz Semmelweiss. He was a physician who discovered that a major cause of puerperal fever after childbirth was doctors. They were going directly from handling cadavers to delivering babies and attending new mothers. Semmelweiss found that in his hospital, simple hand-washing cut the incidence of puerperal fever to 1%. For this he was scorned and rejected by the medical community, in part for the assertion that doctors, gentlemen all, could possibly be doing something wrong.

What this brings to mind is a large question: What discovery (in any field) are we, right now, rejecting and scorning because it doesn't fit with what we think we know? And at what cost?

Good theater is supposed to raise such questions. BREAKING THE CODE does.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Phones, Planck Measurements, and Light Years

There is a cool website that compares measurements of everything, from quantum foam to the universe: Until I accessed this site, I had never even heard of a "yoctometer." The site is interactive, so you can marvel at your own pace.

It didn't, however, help me with another size issue I am having: phones. When my Blackberry needed technical assistance, I called the tech center. The young man asked me for the model of my Blackberry. I told him and he burst out laughing: "God, that's old!"

The thing is four years old.

Anyway. I am contemplating a new one. To this end, I just spent a half hour noodling around on the Internet, inspecting pictures of phones. Now I'm more confused than ever. The jargon is overwhelming, the sizes are often not stated, and I don't really know what I want the phone to do, except be comprehensible. I'd also like it to not call random people, which mine currently does when it rides in my purse. I need email. I don't like virtual keyboards. I type and text with one finger (no thumbs). I don't need streaming video, but solitaire would be nice. I don't need aps that (1) make sexual moaning, (2) measure if your table is level, or (3) locate restaurants in New York City (I found all of these mentioned). And as for size: small-ish. But not diminutive.

Try measuring THAT in yoctometers.

Any suggestions for a phone?