Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Going Backward

Recently I was talking to Walter Jon Williams and Ted Chiang about writing, a conversation which came about because Walter taught a one-day intensive workshop in Seattle called "Plotting Backwards." Both Walter and Ted said the same thing: They write the last sentence of their stories first. In Walter's case, this even includes his novels.

This astonished me. (I am perpetually being astonished by my fellow SF authors, but that's another context.) Both of these fine writers not only know the endings of their stories before they begin, they know the exact last sentence toward which they are writing. This makes a certain kind of sense -- you don't start out driving in your car without some idea of where you're headed -- but I can no more do it than I could fly. I just can't see that far ahead. I write scene by scene, hoping each will lead me to the next, less like someone driving to a destination than someone fleeing a bear through a forest. However, I think I'd like to try Walter's and Ted's method. When I'm through the current novelistic forest, I'm going to write a short story and experiment.

So if you have any great last lines you think I should write toward, send them on!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Various Lunacies

I swear, sometimes I don't know why I even write science fiction. The real world so often comes up with items far weirder than anything in the literature. Case in point: the Web-based business called Eternal Earth-Bound Pets.

This venture, the brainchild of one Bart Centre in New Hampshire, caters to all those Americans who expect the Rapture to carry them off to heaven any day now but, unfortunately, to leave behind their pets, who lack souls. For a fee, Centre will match these divinely abandoned animals with atheists -- also left behind -- who will adopt the pets. A ten-year contract costs just $110 for the first pet, more for every additional dog, cat, gerbil, or parakeet not covered by the provisions in Revelation. Could I have ever imagined this SF-nal-future business opportunity?

I could not. Although perhaps that master of literary lunacy, James Morrow, might be able to do so. I have just finished reading his novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima, published as a short book by Tachyon Press. It concerns the Knickerbocker Project, a World War II attempt to supplement the flagging Manhattan project with the development of giant mutant iguanas to destroy Japanese cities, thereby ushering in the Lizard Age of weaponry. This dark, wildly funny, politically incorrect satire is a winner. And I hope you all recognize my even-handedness in saying so, since what it might win is the Nebula I am also up for, Best Novella.

A final piece of inexplicable lunacy: still nobody wants to buy my house.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Nebula Awards

The Nebula ballot was officially announced this morning, and I'm pleased to be on it for my novella about dwarfism, genetic engineering, empathy, and making movies: "Act One." I also discovered that the Nebulas have their own logo, which I did not realize:

I don't know who designed this, but it's handsome. The Nebulas are being held in Florida this year and since I will be in Seattle -- the farthest away possible unless I decide to live in Nome -- I don't think I'll be attending. Meanwhile, the Hugo balloting goes on, and Starship Sofa has asked me to remind all you nominators that podcasts are eligible in the "Media" category -- another thing I did not realize.

Here is the full Nebula ballot, and let the games begin:

Short story:

"Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela," Saladin Ahmed (Clockwork Phoenix 2, Norilana Press, Jul09)

"I Remember the Future," Michael A. Burstein (I Remember the Future, Apex Press, Nov08)

"Non-Zero Probabilities," N. K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld, Nov09)"Spar," Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, Oct09)

"Going Deep," James Patrick Kelly (Asimov's Science Fiction, Jun09)

"Bridesicle," Will McIntosh (Asimov's Science Fiction, Jan09)


"The Gambler," Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2, Pyr Books, Oct08)

"Vinegar Peace, or the Wrong-Way Used-Adult Orphanage," Michael Bishop (Asimov's Science Fiction, Jul08)

"I Needs Must Part, The Policeman Said," Richard Bowes (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dec09)

"Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast," Eugie Foster (Apex Online, Nov09)

"Divining Light," Ted Kosmatka (Asimov's Science Fiction, Aug08)

"A Memory of Wind," Rachel Swirsky (, Nov09)


The Women of Nell Gwynne's, Kage Baker (Subterranean Press, Jun09)

"Arkfall," Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sep09)

"Act One," Nancy Kress (Asimov's Science Fiction, Mar09)

Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow (Tachyon, Feb09)

"Sublimation Angels," Jason Sanford (Interzone, Nov09)

The God Engines, John Scalzi (Subterranean Press, Dec09)


The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Nightshade, Sep09)

The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)

Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)

The City & The City, China MiƩville (Del Rey, May09)

Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)Finch,

Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09)

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Secret

Writers joke about finding "the secret" to publishing, or "the secret handshake" among the fellowship of professional writers. How-to writing articles in magazines are frequently given titles (NOT by their authors, incidentally) like "Six Secrets to Getting Published." Usually these are the same pretty obvious bits of advice found in every writing book ever composed ("Submit a double-spaced clean manuscript printed on one side of 20-pound bond.") However, as a result of one conversation with a friend and one discussion in the class I teach, I started thinking seriously: Is there, if not a "secret," then one technique that more than any other helps to create a successful manuscript?

I think there is.

It isn't startling or Earth-shattering, but stories that work do take account of it -- or they don't work. Here it is, in all its banality: Become the reader as you write.

This means splitting yourself into three persons (there's a reason most writers are a little nuts). You are the writer, of course, putting words on paper. You are also the character, so that you can write what he thinks and feels and does. But you also must become the reader, constantly monitoring: How will this strike someone who does not know everything that I already know about what's going to happen? Have I given enough information to grasp the motivation for and implications of my character's action? Have I given so much information that the reader's eyes are now glazing over? Is there enough physical description to let the reader see what I see in my mind? Is that line of dialogue really enough to indicate how my character feels about what just happened, or do I need to go into her thoughts about it?

It's not easy being a multiple personality (although it becomes easier with practice). But I truly think that becoming the reader is what separates successful writers from those whose stories don't quite make it. From my point of view, at least, that's the "secret." Make of it what you choose.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Connie Willis

On Sunday Connie Willis spoke about and signed her new novel, BLACKOUT, at the University Bookstore in Seattle. In attendance was a large and enthusiastic crowd. Connie told story after story about the setting of the novel, the London Blitz. Among the information new to me was the fact that Hitler, if he could successfully invade England, planned to erect a gallows and hang the king and queen in front of the House of Parliament. Also Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, then 14 and 10 years old.

As Connie spoke, I thought about a comment I heard recently from a student: "I had a good idea for a story and I started it, but then I discovered that X wrote a story on the same topic, so I stopped." How many stories and novels have been written about World War II? Too many to count. But a determined writer can always find a new way to tell the story, as Connie has done. No one should be stopped from writing about any topic they choose just because someone else's footprints are on the terrain. Any fictional idea is not a tiny patio; it's a trackless jungle. Grab your machete and start hackin'. As for me, I've been thinking about this guy whose father was murdered in Elsinore Castle...

Here is Connie. That's not a book she's holding but a dog (in case there was any confusion):

Sunday, February 7, 2010


My reading goes in spurts: a geyser of fiction followed by science non-fiction followed by something else. Lately I have been reading memoirs. There is no particular reason for this, but in the last few weeks I have read Elizabeth Gilbert's EAT, LOVE, PRAY (which is going to be a "major motion picture" next year), and Ayelet Waldman's BAD MOTHER. Next up: Carrie Fisher's WISHFUL DRINKING. Gilbert copes with spirituality, Waldman with motherhood, and Fisher with alcoholism. Apparently you cannot have a life without a theme.

The Waldman, although very well written, troubled me. She is a essayist for Salon, and is married to novelist (and Nebula winner) Michael Chabon. They have four children, and would have had five had Waldman not chosen to abort their third child several months into the pregnancy because genetic analysis revealed that the child had a genetic defect that would have resulted in physical and/or mental abnormalities. The doctors could not say at that point if the abnormalities would be mild or severe.

Waldman writes about all this with terrifying honesty. She details her position, Chabon's position (not the same), the agonizing that went into the final decision, Chabon's support, her regrets and reactions and feeling that she would do the same thing if offered the choice again. I'm not going to comment on her choice, but rather on her memoir. Everything is exposed here: sexual history, marital disagreements, her children's difficulties (one is ADHD, one was born with a palate abnormality that made it impossible for him to breast feed) -- everything. The author says she cleared all this exposure with her husband and with the two children old enough to understand (although at 10 and 14, can they really?) Even so, I wondered what daughter Sophie is going to think someday about knowing so much about her mother's sex life.

The whole thing made me reflect on Freud's comment that memoirs must be "of necessity mendacious," leaving out a person's genuine, complex, often unattractive inner life. Freud made his statement long before the modern tell-all atmosphere that produced Waldman. So I asked myself, just as a hypothetical, could I ever write my own memoirs? We're leaving aside the question of whether anyone would be remotely interested in reading them ("No"). Would I want to choose either Waldman's brutal honesty or Freud's mendacious acceptability?

I would not. My life has not been as fraught with drama as Waldman's or Fisher's, but it's been fraught enough. The autobiographies of SF writers that I have read -- Pohl, Asimov -- have been interesting but also lacking; I know enough about these people to know what's been left out. I would want to neither put in the juicy stuff nor leave it out. Besides, my life lacks a theme.

None of which stops me from reading other people's memoirs. And with relish.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Miscellaneous Updates

A round-up of miscellany for the interested (the rest of you will just have to suffer through): has caved on the McMillan boycott, so my paperback edition of STEAL ACROSS THE SKY is once more available from Amazon. However, this is just one skirmish in the electronic-vs.-print wars that will be fought throughout the next decade. As Jonathan Sherwood has remarked, "it's the Wild West in publishing right now," and there will be more gun battles until law and order are established.

I have read Connie Willis's new novel BLACKOUT, which is the first half of a duology (the second volume, ALL CLEAR, debuts in the autumn). If you want to know what life was like during the London Blitz, here it is. You will feel yourself on actual London streets, experiencing actual attacks, and you will wonder how the Brits survived years of this while going about their daily business -- or attempting to, anyway.

David Hartwell has belatedly (his own term) made his selections for his BEST OF THE YEAR, and he has included my story "Exegesis." I am pleased, of course, but he passed up "Act One," which I preferred (and which Gardner Dozois took for his BOY). One never knows what editors will prefer. However, it looks as if "Act One" may -- MAY! -- qualify for the Nebula ballot. Keep your fingers crossed.

So far, no one in Rochester, NY wants to buy my house. However, Rochester is having a very cold winter -- the dog sitter reports that my dog won't even go out to take walks -- so maybe if the weather will improve, so will my house-selling chances. Keep your toes crossed for me.

After filing three different forms, I have finally got the Post Office to forward my mail properly. However, several bills have not shown up anywhere, which means probable late charges when (if) they do. I cannot recommend living on two coasts. Really. Not. Really.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Amazon and Me

Tomorrow, February 2, is the release date for the paperback version of my last novel STEAL ACROSS THE SKY. It will ship to stores and be available on-line from Barnes & Noble. Not, however, from If you go to Amazon to order it, you get a statement that this title is not available from Amazon at the moment. The reason is the Kindle.

I have a Kindle. I love it. Tomorrow is also the release date for Connie Willis's new novel BLACKOUT, and it is due to appear on my Kindle tomorrow, which I fully expect it to do. So why is Amazon selling hers and not mine, in any format?

My publisher, Tor, is owned by St. Martin's, which is part of the McMillan publishing empire. McMillan, as of last Friday, has had all its titles in all formats boycotted by Amazon. This is a price war. Kindle e-books have been selling for $9.99, which is one of the attractive reasons I wanted one (also I have no room -- none -- for more physical books). McMillan says that's not enough for them to recoup their publishing costs. Neither side is budging so far, so right now no McMillan books, in all formats, are available from Amazon.

I am not happy about this. Neither are any other authors, who have been yelling and screaming in the blogosphere. They have also made some reasonable suggestions. I like John Scalzi's:

"Do I think Macmillan (or anyone else) will be able to sell $15 e-books? They could; after all, they sell $25 hardcovers (and similar amounts for e-books, depending on the retailer). Now, some people won’t spend that much for a book, so they pick up the book later when it’s an $8 paperback. That’s fine, too. Likewise, I think it’s fine to attempt to charge $15 (or more) for an e-book for a brand-spankin’ new release to service the folks who just can’t wait, drop it to a lower price point (say, $10) later on in the run, and then drop it again to $8 or so when the paperback hits. That’s how I would do it, in any event."

This is, of course, all part of the cataclysmic transition phase that has roiled publishing for a few years now. But until it is resolved, I cannot get -- or sell -- the books I want. Down here at the bottom of the publishing food chain, upheavals and transitions cost mid-list writers income. I hope it's resolved soon.