Thursday, December 22, 2011


I have been very negligent lately about blogging, as holiday preparations and parties consume my time. However, here is a random round-up of information, observations, and recommendations:

I just finished reading Jack McDevitt's novel FIREBIRD. Set in the far future, it concerns an art historian, space ships mysteriously disappearing in the space-time continuum, and AIs that may or may not be worth considering equal to humans. I enjoyed it a lot.

January 10 I start teaching a critique class in fiction at Hugo House in Seattle. This runs for ten Tuesday nights, along the lines of a mini-Clarion. If you're interested, you can find out more on-line at

I have finished the second draft of my fantasy novel. Still untitled, it is also still too long (139,000 words). This is being written on spec, and my agent as yet does not even know I've been working on it (he will find out soon). One more draft, after the holidays are over.

Christmas Day, Jack and I fly East to visit my family. Last year we made it out of Newark Airport two hours before a massive snowstorm shut it down, stranding travelers for days. Send good thoughts my way that we don't get storms this year.

David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer have taken my story "Eliot Wrote" for their Best of the Year volume.

Happy Holidays to All!

Friday, December 16, 2011


The December 12 NEW YORKER contains an astonishing article by Michael Specter, "The Power of Nothing." It is an overview of clinical studies of the placebo effect, including an interview with the world's foremost researcher into placebos, Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School. The article, carefully non-biased, nonetheless shows determined believers in "alternative medicine" chipping away at the medical establishment. Kaptchuk's presence at Harvard, as a full professor, is proof of that. He holds neither a Ph.D. nor an M.D., yet has published in the most respected journals in the world.

The trouble with alternative medicine, in my view, is that it's such a hodge-podge. It includes out-and-out nuts, serious practitioners of herbology, religious faith healers, good doctors, and evil scams (remember laetrile? I had a friend who died of cancer, refusing conventional treatment and instead going to Mexico for dosing with apricot pits.) How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

One way is by clinical trials. The article says that some of these have shown impressive results from placebos, especially in the areas of pain and chronic illness. Not so much with straightforward infection -- if you have bubonic plague, you need an antibiotic. But the whole basis of alternative medicine, that the mind can profoundly influence the body, has shown to be true in other types of disease.

These studies get very specific. Among the findings about placebos:

Conditioning techniques affect outcomes. People first given morphine and later a placebo have a different neurochemical response than those first given ibuprofen and later a placebo.

An injection of saline into a patient who has Parkinson's disease and has been told that the saline will help him, then produces more of the dopamine that his brain lacks.

As placebos, capsules produce a greater effect than tablets, and injections a greater effect still. Colored pills relieve pain better than white ones. Two pills produce more effect than one, even if both are no more than sugar.

Most astonishing of all: In some studies the placebo effect works even when the patients are TOLD it is a placebo, if the telling is done right. In the end, Ted Kaptchuk maintains, much comes down to the nature of the patient-doctor interaction. And this is where American medicine may often be lacking.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Saturday night Jack and I gave a Christmas party, at which we all played Charades using titles of science fiction movies, stories, and novels. Aside from some dissent on the fairness of including some difficult titles (how do you act out "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones"?), a good time was had by all. The undisputed star at both performing charades and guessing them was Ted Chiang. Here is Ted performing, while Jack looks on, either bewildered or unimpressed:Vonda McIntyre and Eileen Gunn discuss possible titles:

Nancy Kress gives up guessing in favor of drinking, while John Berry protests having his picture taken:

What did any of this have to do with Christmas? Not much. But it was fun.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Divided at the Movies

Last weekend I saw Martin Scorsese's new movie, HUGO, with Jack Skillingstead and Ted and Christine Kosmatka. Seldom have I been with such deeply divided movie goers.

HUGO flirts with science fiction but never truly gets in bed with it. There is an automaton, suggestions that the entire world functions as a giant clock-work mechanism, a few quasi-magical moments in which objects (such as drawings released from a box) do not behave as objects actually do. But for the most part, the movie sticks to a sort of heightened, highly-colored reality, which is appropriate because it is the world as seen through the eyes of a child. It's also, and primarily, a movie about making movies, specifically the early fantasy silents of Georges Melies, an actual person but now largely forgotten. Scorsese is fascinated by those early movies, and whether or not you like HUGO depends in part on whether you share that fascination.

Jack loved the movie; Ted and Christine hated it (see his blog for just why); I thought it has a certain pallid charm but is too long and self-conscious. Also, since I'm not interested in early silent movies, I was slightly bored. HUGO is visually arresting, something to which I'm only intermittently sensitive, but there is not much story. What there is, occasionally feels strained. Melies, for instance, does not maintain enough of a consistent character for me to believe in this version of him.

I prefer Scorsese's less sentimental movies: THE DEPARTED, TAXI DRIVER, GOODFELLAS. But you may disagree.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sleeping and Not

I just finished reading the non-fiction book THE SIESTA AND THE MIDNIGHT SUN. Author Jessa Gamble sent me a copy because she had interviewed me for the book in connection with BEGGARS IN SPAIN. This is not, however, a book about SF; it's a well-written overview of the research connected with circadian rhythms, including sleep. Since I researched BEGGARS 20 years ago (and where does`all that time go?), much more has been discovered about sleep. Not, however, why we must do it. That remains unanswered.

The book is full of fascinating information about how all living things are governed by circadian rhythms, even in the absence of the light that triggers such rhythms in nature. Much of Gamble's research was carried out above the Arctic Circle, where night lasts six months. Humans often have a very hard time with this, unless genetically adapted to it over millennia (as the Inuit are, for instance). Some of the interesting things I learned about circadian rhythms:

If you remove crabs far from the ocean and put them in pens with sloping floors, they will still move up and down the slopes according to the tides on their home beach.

Cell division is circadian, even the out-of-control division of cancer cells. Certain lymphomas divide their cells between 9:00 and 10:00 at night. In contrast, the cells of the gut lining divide twenty-three times as much at 7:00 a.m. than they do in the evening. These sorts of finding have implications for the new field of chronotherapy: timing medical tests and treatment to take advantage of circadian rhythms. The book says that a British study showed that colon-cancer patients could tolerate up to 40% greater dosage of meds using chronotherapy -- and with fewer side effects.

People cannot last for more than a month or so on polyphasic sleep, which involves only short naps spread throughout 24 hours. But they do very well with biphasic sleep: a longish sleep starting late at night and a siesta in the afternoon. This was a successful program for traditional Mediterranean societies, plus Winston Churchill.

Herbivores sleep less than carnivores, which explains my dog.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Also -- I feel another story coming on.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Joy of Reprints

Reprints are wonderful for authors. You don't do any additional work, your story gets the chance to find more readers, and you get paid again. Two of my stories have recently been reprinted in big fat anthologies (the best kind). "Eliot Wrote" is included in LIGHTSPEED: YEAR ONE, along with stories by Stephen King, Ursula Le Guin, George R.R. Martin, and Bruce Sterling, among others. The anthology, perhaps self-evidently, features stories from the first year of the SF website Lightspeed, edited by John Joseph Adams.

The other reprint is ALIEN CONTACT, edited by Marty Halpern, which are stories of... well, alien contact. Authors include Karen Joy Fowler, Michael Swanwick, Jack Skillingstead, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King. Mine is "Laws of Survival," one of my favorites among my own work.

Finally, loosely in the "reprint" category -- very, very loosely -- is a hilarious play I saw last night: THE COMPLEAT WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. The three-person cast did indeed cover all the works, presenting the history plays as a football game tossing around the throne of England, the sixteen comedies in a hilarious mish-mash, OTHELLO as an "African-Italian homeboy rap," and HAMLET as an audience-participation scholarly analysis of Ophelia by a Freudian drama critic. If you ever get a chance to see this play, do so. I bet even the Bard would have loved it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Impressed At The Movies

J EDGAR, the new Leonardo DiCaprio movie directed by Clint Eastwood, is impressive in two ways. It covers huge swaths of time, jumping back and forth from the beginning of J. Edgar Hoover's career to the end and several points between, trying to cram in everything, undaunted by the sheer scope of changes in the FBI and in the country between the 1930's and Hoover's death in 1972. More important (at least to me) is the detail and scope in the portrait of this contradictory man. Hoover was a genuine patriot who loved his country, a man of great courage, stubborn, independent, paranoid, and absolutely without any insight into himself or others. He was gay without (in the movie, anyway) acknowledging the fact to himself. His feelings for Clyde Tolson were tender, faithful, needy, and exploitative, without Hoover's understanding any of that. Ultimately he comes across as both sad and dangerous, but he also moves us. We watch as his youthful idealism hardens into rigidity, and in the final scene, as his aged body lies dead on the bedroom floor, the structure of the movie brings close to us what he was in the beginning.

Not many actors could pull all that off, but DiCaprio can. This is an Oscar-worthy performance.

My only real disappointment with the movie is that it does -- as it must, unless it had been a six-hour miniseries -- leave out so much. The anarchist bomb-throwing of the twenties and thirties is here, as are the "hero bank robbers"and the Lindbergh kidnapping that earned the FBI the right to carry weapons, but later eras are skipped through too quickly. The McCarthy witch-hunts of the 50's and the Vietnam-War FBI files on protesters are both given short shrift.

Still, this is an absorbing and subtle film. It's also -- astonishing in itself, considering the subject -- a fair one. Go see it.

Monday, November 14, 2011


This past weekend I saw the Pacific Northwest Ballet dance "Love Stories," an program of five pas de deux including my very favorite short ballet, AFTERNOON OF A FAUN. They were wonderful. But even if I hadn't had this treat, ballet would have been on my mind because I was writing, and then rewriting, a story for an invitation anthology edited by Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin, DANGEROUS WOMEN.

The story concerns ballet in a post-apocalyptic world. This choice of a subject matter was the result of a two things: (1) I love ballet and hadn't written about it for a while, and (2) I wanted to avoid the two (to me) most obvious kinds of dangerous women, armed warriors and men-destroying vamps. I was after something more subtle. I didn't achieve it, because Gardner and George rejected the story: My women weren't dangerous enough. Or hardly at all. But the story itself, they said, was a good read -- would I like to rewrite?

Yes. I would. Here is the process I went through:

Day 1: Brooding and feeling bad.

Day 2: I sat on the sofa, trusted clipboard with legal pad on my knees, and listed all the editors' objections. I stared at each of these until I thoroughly understood what each meant. Next, I listed all the characters in my story, including the minor ones. Often the best way to restructure a story while preserving its basic idea, tone, and plot is to shift the focus to another character. Did I have any secondary characters that I could make more dangerous? I stared at each of these names, running various plot ideas through my mind. Nothing struck, but I was preparing ground. I was also determined: I was going to be in this anthology if I had to arm my ballerinas with AK-47s.

Day 3: Took a long walk with the dog, ruminating on the world I had created for the story, thinking about it. The dog was no help with this. Later that evening, just before I drifted off to sleep, I saw which character I could use, and how.

Days 4, 5, and 6: Rewrote furiously. For new material I usually work three or four hours a day, but with an existing manuscript I can go far longer. Printed out the story, edited on paper, wrote new scenes longhand on the clipboard, typed it all in, repeated the entire procedure two more times.

Day 7: Jack proofread the story, made a few suggestions. Typed those in, and sent it off to Gardner.

Day 10: Gardner and George accepted "Second Arabesque, Very Slowly."

Does this procedure for rewriting work for everyone? I have no idea. But it's what I know how to do: Start with character and go on from there. And I think this version of the story, thanks to the editors, is stronger than my original.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wanting More at the Movies

ANONYMOUS is getting very mixed reviews, Critics hate it. They (1) cite an over-complicated and murky plot, or (2) get incensed at the idea behind the movie, which is that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare's plays, which instead were composed by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

I don't get incensed about that. I think Shakespeare probably did write them, but certainly alternate history is a fair genre for movie makers. From what I remember from graduate school, Oxford is a perfectly viable candidate for authorship, assuming you can account for some of the plays being produced only after his death (which ANONYMOUS does).

The plot, on the other hand.... oh, dear. There are two problems here [SPOILER ALERTS]. First, unless you already know something about the relationship of the Cecils, father and son, to Elizabeth 1, to the religious turmoil in England, and to the claims of the Scottish James VI to the English throne, the movie does not do a good job of clarifying these. Second (and, to my mind, much worse) is the utterly ridiculous idea that Elizabeth, who didn't even get undressed for bed without multiple attendants, could have had several bastard sons without anyone knowing. This -- which could, I think, have been left out of the movie -- wrecks any chance of suspension of disbelief. It also moves the plot from melodramatic to penny-dreadful (incest!).

Still, despite all that, I have to say that I enjoyed the movie. I liked looking at sixteenth-century London, I liked the character of Ben Jonson (central to the plot). I liked the acting. Also -- an added bonus for SF fans! -- the Earl of Oxford is a dead ringer for Robert Silverberg. I even enjoyed the less ridiculous historical conjectures. But...

Why can't movie makers seem to grasp that sometimes less really is more?

Monday, November 7, 2011


Yesterday I taught an a six-hour workshop on "Your Opening Scene," part of Clarion West's new series of day-long workshops in the Seattle area. Twelve students, Clarion Director Leslie Howle, and I jammed ourselves into a small back room upstairs in the University Book Store. Amid the storage boxes, we had a productive session; this was a good group. Here we are during the critique part of the workshop:
Memorable lines from critiques:

"I feel that this is a block of granite and there's a David in there somewhere."

"This suffers from King Kong Syndrome -- Get to the monkey!"

I felt like you're telling me the truth, and I want to be lied to."

"I just wanted to bathe in this Prologue."

"The girl is the most interesting thing in the chapter, and she's dead."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


November marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of the first Jane Austen novel to see print, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. Celebrate by reading the book, or by renting one of the movie versions. I recommend either the one starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet (about two hours) or the six-hour BBC version. Jane still rocks!

November 3 is National Sandwich Day. This honors the Earl of Sandwich, who invented the convenient sandwich in 1718 so that he didn't have to leave the gambling table to eat. Celebrate by having a sandwich.

Meanwhile, I am reading and critiquing manuscripts from students of my upcoming Sunday all-day workshop, Your First Scene. Participants were supposed to sent me the opening scene of a novel or story they are working on. I have discovered that this workshop is necessary because hardly anyone knows what a scene actually is. I have received submissions containing the summary of a scene, or half of a scene, or two scenes, or three, or (in one case) ten mini-scenes. I'm looking forward to teaching this workshop, however. Some of the non-scenes are well-written and promising. So celebrate November workshops by writing a .... No, never mind.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Everything Old Is New Again

Does any of this sound familiar?

"Many, envious of the rich and noble, said among themselves that the country was badly governed, and that the nobility had seized all the gold and silver. [They] therefore began to assemble in parties, and to show signs of rebellion; they also invited all those who held like opinions in the adjoining counties to come to London, telling them that they would find the town open to them and the commonality of the same way of thinking as themselves, and that they would so press the King.... When these people first began their disturbances, all London, with the exception of those who favored them, was much alarmed. Mayor and rich citizens assembled in council and debated whether they should shut the gate and refuse to admit them; however, upon mature reflection they determined not to do so... The rebels fixed their quarters in a square, called St. Catherine's, before the Tower, declaring they would not depart until they had obtained from the King everything they wanted -- until the Chancellor of England had accounted to them, and shown how the great sums which were raised had been expended."

That was written in 1381, by sir John Froissart, about the Peasant's Revolt in response to the Statute of Labourers (1351), which fixed maximum wages during the labor shortage following the Black death. The peasants could not earn enough to live decently, while the rich flourished.

The 1381 revolt, which had 60,000 people doing Occupy London, ended in looting, rioting, heads on pikes, the slaying of stray Flemings -- and some reforms that helped the poor. Let's hope that this time we can do it with less violence.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Happy At The Movies

MARGIN CALL, the new Wall Street movie, indirectly indicts Wall Street for our current economic mess, but that's not why I liked it. Starring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, and Zachary Quinto, MARGIN CALL is in many ways similar to CONTAGION, which I also liked, and for the same reasons. Both films take on their subjects with quiet but deadly seriousness, avoiding swashbuckling and scenery-chewing. Both show professionals believably at work, although in CONTAGION these end up being (flawed) heroes, and in MARGIN CALL they end up losing what souls they possessed to start out with.

A margin call is a lender's demand on an investor who is using margin to deposit additional money or securities, because the broker is worried about the loan he made you to buy those securities in the first place. Margin calls are made when the lender thinks those securities you bought with borrowed money have decreased too much in value. Then you must either deposit more money in the account or to sell off some of your assets. If you can't do either very well, you are in deep shit.

The only weak point of this film is that unless you go into it knowing all that, you are likely to be lost for the entire first half. In a way, this is sort of admirable: the scriptwriters avoid artificial "As-you-know-Bob dialogue," in which characters tell each other things they already know. These characters do not. They look at graphs (which we cannot see) worked out by two junior members of the firm, and they get scared. We see the fear, but not the reason for it, unless you can relate the situation to the film's title.

What IS clear is the tension level of everybody involved throughout one long night while managers, CEO, and a few brokers decide what should be done. [SPOILER ALERT] The choices are bad: let the firm go under, or sell all the securities early the next day for whatever they can get, before word of the situation gets around, and knowing full well that they are unloading worthless assets onto unsuspecting customers. Guess which they choose?

All the actors are terrific, and Manhattan at night is visually arresting in an eerie and vaguely menacing way. See this movie. For anyone interested in character development, in finance, OR in ethics, it's a must.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Margaret Atwood

This is my review of Margaret Atwood's new collection of essays about science fiction. The essays appeared earlier this month; the review appeared in the WASHINGTON INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF BOOKS, reprinted here is case you somehow missed it :)

Margaret Atwood’s new book of essays, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, is not very new. Most of it consists of previously published essays, book reviews, excerpts from Atwood’s own fiction and writing based on the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, which Atwood delivered at Emory University in 2010. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; scholars and fans alike will find it convenient to have the short pieces collected in one place.

However, the material is less than new in three other ways. First, some of the pieces have already been collected in Atwood’s previous volume, Writing With Intent, making these reprints of reprints.

Second, and more disturbing, I found little here that I haven’t seen in previous books about science fiction. The history of fantastical literature beginning with the ancient world, the ways that SF uses and changes elements of myth, the endless quibbling about terms — what should be called “science fiction” versus “speculative fiction,” what determines a “novel” as distinct from a “romance” or a “fable” — these are issues that have preoccupied SF scholars, writers and fans for at least two generations. So have the relationships among myth, SF and their more simplistic cousins, comic book heroes. Atwood recapitulates many salient points, but doesn’t add much that is original.

Third, this book is not new because it seems stuck in a time warp. The most recent SF novel discussed, or even mentioned, is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, published in 2005. That would be fine if the second-most-recent novel weren’t William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Much of Atwood’s book is given to considerations of already-much-considered novels such as Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Huxley’s Brave New WorldShe (1886). Surely a book devoted to “SF and the Human Imagination” should consider that the human imagination has continued to produce science fiction in the last several decades? (1932) and Rider Haggard’s

Which raises a genuine question: For whom is this book intended? If it is for fans and scholars of SF, it may well seem both redundant and dated. If it is for people uninterested in science fiction, it’s difficult to imagine why they would read it in the first place — unless they are interested in Margaret Atwood.

And this is where In Other Worlds does have something to offer. Atwood’s sections on her personal involvement with the genre are witty and charming. She begins with her childhood and the fantastic stories she and her brother used to tell themselves about super-hero flying rabbits. Her earliest creations were White Bunny and Blue Bunny, modeled on actual stuffed rabbits, and they could fly (“propelled by an age-old technology called ‘throwing’ ”). Later versions, Steel Bunny and Dotty Bunny, dwelt in Mischiefland, wore capes, kept pet cats (little Margaret wanted a kitten but was not allowed to have one) and ate nothing but ice cream cones.

Atwood is also engaging when she describes researching her university work on speculative fiction, and later writing her SF novels The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. She talks frankly about the reactions to her books within the “skin-tight clothing and other-planetary communities,” meaning SF fans and writers. In 2009 the queen of literary SF, Ursula Le Guin, took Atwood to task for “not wanting any of her books to be called science fiction.” Atwood defends her position — not convincingly, I thought, but with self-deprecating charm, and with all the respect that Le Guin merits.

Another plus: The prose in these essays is of a very high quality, as one would expect from the author of The Handmaid’s Tale. This is true in even the most incidental material, such as the witty “An Open Letter From Margaret Atwood to the Judson Independent School District,” which begins: “First, I would like to thank those who have dedicated themselves so energetically to the banning of my novel The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s encouraging to know that the written word is still taken so seriously.”

However, the “science” part of “science fiction” does not interest Atwood much. She considers science the “myth” of our time — “a story central to our self-understanding: nothing about truth or falsehood implied” — and the Big Bang theory “a new creation myth.” Nowhere does she consider that science might be more than that. Her arguments against biotechnology are very one-sided, all cons and no pros. Nor does she consider any of the excellent SF in which extrapolation from cutting-edge known science leads to plausible futures.

It all adds up to a rather lopsided view of science fiction. However, if even the basic theories about the genre and its history are unknown to you, or if your primary interest is Atwood herself, you might enjoy this collection.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Doubtful at the Movies

Last night I saw IDES OF MARCH, the new movie of political machinations during a primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. George Clooney is the candidate, Philip Seymour Hoffman his campaign manager, and Ryan Gosling is Hoffman's gifted subordinate. Gosling begins as an idealist and -- because that's the way these films go -- loses his idealism by the end. Nobody else had any to begin with.

And therein lies the problem. IDES OF MARCH is absorbing throughout; the actors are all very good; there are some arresting visuals. However, everybody here is willing to sell out everybody else, friend or foe, not merely for the good of the campaign but to improve their own position in the campaign hierarchy. No trick is too dirty, no betrayal too profound, no friend more important than one's own importance. It gets to be Too Much.

Yes, I believe that politics can be a nasty business. The good-hearted crew on TV show WEST WING, which I adored, is probably too good to be true. But a film can also be too nasty to be true, in that it presents a lop-sided picture of reality. I enjoyed IDES OF MARCH (gazing at George Clooney's eyelashes alone is worth the ticket price), but I ended up not believing it. See it and decide for yourself.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Quick -- which of these car names sounds "faster" -- Tarin or Parin? Which sounds more luxurious?

If you're like mist people, you think "Tarin" sounds faster and "Parin" sounds more luxurious. Those were the findings of researchers at Lexicon, a firm profiled in the October 3 issue of the NEW YORKER. Lexicon helps companies find brand names for products. They've made a science of studying how people react to individual letters, to phonemes, and to words. Surveying 500 subjects in Europe, Asia, and the United States, they discovered, for instance, that "c" and "v" and "p" all convey "vigor, liveliness, and well-being."

In the new scientific approach to naming things, you can't call a spade a spade -- or a mop a mop. That word has an image of dirt, limpness, drudgery. When asked in the mid-1990's to name Procter & Gamble's new mop, Lexicon generated thousands of possibilities. They finally chose "Swiffer," because (1) it sounds like "swift," implying that mopping that floor won't take too long, (2) it ends in "er," the suffix of agency (teacher, driver), implying that the mop is the agent doing the work, not you, and (3) "f" is a friendly consonant. Lexicon also named Pentium, Dasani, and Wisp, a portable mini-toothbrush.

I own a Swiffer. Did I buy it in part because I was suckered by a good brand name? Maybe. I'm not immune. George Orwell would have understood -- if not necessarily approved.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


Some writers do it standing up. Others do it lying down. Most, however, write while sitting, and where they do it is interesting.

Connie Willis works at Starbucks, in long hand.

Ellen Klages, when on a tight deadline, retires to a rustic lodge several states away.

A military-SF writer I know works on the back porch, in all weathers. He wears fingerless gloves when it's cold.

Terry Bisson works on a no-frills bench in his garage.

And, I learned yesterday, Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson and Mark Teppo work on the on-line experimental fiction project THE MONGOLIAD in a building that also houses a circus school. I hadn't known that Seattle even has a circus school. Mark gave Leslie Howle, of Clarion West, and me a tour. "It has interesting things to watch when you're on break," Mark said. Here, for instance, are trapeze artists warming up:

In contrast, my own working quarters seem prosaic: I work on a desk in the living room. I share these quarters with Jane Austen, here shown with the new desk I just bought her. If Jane were selling more copies, perhaps she could not only buy her own desk, but also pony up more of the rent.

Where do YOU write?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

More Adventures in E-Pubbing

My novel DARK MIST RISING is now available on the Nook and the Kindle, attractively priced (I hope) at $3.99. But why, you ask, if this is my latest novel, does the cover say "Anna Kendall"? Therein lies a publishing tale.

Over the past three years I wrote a YA fantasy trilogy, not because I made any planned decision to switch from SF to fantasy (my career never seems to involve planned decisions) but because this scruffy kid kept tugging at my mental elbow going "Write me! Write me!" So I did, beginning with CROSSING OVER, continuing through DARK MIST RISING, and ending with A BRIGHT AND TERRIBLE SWORD. CROSSING OVER came out in the United States and England, and will be published this summer in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. The four European countries bought the entire trilogy; Viking bought only CROSSING OVER, which was also slightly rewritten for the American market (the original was deemed too dark). Now DARK MIST RISING is available in England, and I am creating it here as an original e-pub. Will anybody buy it, or even find it? I don't know, but I like this book and wanted to at least offer it somehow.

The set-up is this: Roger Kilbourne can cross over into the Country of the Dead. He isn't thrilled about being able to do this, and with good reason: Everybody and his brother attempts to exploit his gift. Not only that, the poor guy gets caught in the cross-fire of a war that has been going on for quite a while, between forces battling for control of both the Country of the Dead and the more prosaic land of the living. Roger has an unrequited passion for a girl far above his rank, the devoted love of a girl he doesn't value enough, mentors he doesn't want, and a savage chieftain (living variety) with good reason to want his blood.

I think the second book of this trilogy is better than the first. This is a problem I have with my trilogies; it sometimes takes me a while to get my bearings firmly in a new locale. (I also think PROBABILITY SUN is better than PROBABILITY MOON, and it was the third book, PROBABILITY SPACE, that won the Campbell.) Of course, I'm only the author. My hope is that you will read DARK MIST RISING and decide for yourself.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Terrified at the Movies

For someone recovering from pneumonia (and thank you all for your good wishes), the film CONTAGION probably wouldn't be everyone's choice for a first up-from-the-sickbed outing. But I'm glad I went. After a summer of silly movies with over-the-top special-effects heroes and villains, CONTAGION is a genuinely human, genuinely terrifying movie.

An American woman attends a business conference in Hong Kong. [NOTE: SPOILER ALERT] She visits a casino there, flies home, has sex with an old boyfriend during a lay-over in Chicago, then goes on to her family in Minneapolis. Unknowingly she infects everyone along the way. Some of those people fly to other cities. Soon there is a worldwide outbreak of a new disease.

The movie follows several characters' stories, including a French doctor with WHO, researchers with the CDC, Chinese and Americans whose families are affected. The cast includes Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lawrence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Jude Law. With so many diverse stories playing out, some critics have said that the film is too diffuse; we don't get enough screen time with anyone to deeply invest in them. I think those critics have missed the point. The real star here is the contagion itself, and fighting it is the work not of a superhero but of a world-wide team. There are individual heroics, but the focus stays on the disease.

It's a bad plague, but not as bad as it could be. The kill rate is about 30%: much greater than the flu epidemic of 1918, but much less than, say, Ebola or Marburg. The contagion kills quickly, within a few days. WHO, the CDC, FEMA, the National Guards all fight it with containment, quarantine, and frantic races to understand the virus's nature, to find a cure, to develop a vaccine. Meanwhile, some people panic and some riot and some try to profit financially and some risk their lives to help others. A teenage girl focuses on seeing her boyfriend despite the quarantine. The president is moved underground. Congress tries to carry on work via the Internet. It all feels very real.

That is why I was so riveted by the movie: It seems real. This is the way it could happen. I believed pretty much everything. It's been a long time since I believed pretty much everything that happens in a film.

It's also been a long time since the heroes of a movie are mostly scientists who work for big government agencies. The government is not evil, the corporations are not evil, the plague is not caused by evil terrorists (at the very end we find out how it was caused). Government employees -- flawed human beings but dedicated scientists -- work together to find answers and implement them. When was the last time you saw THAT on screen?

Not an uplifting film, but a very good one. Let's just hope it's not prescient.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


No blogging for a bit -- I have pneumonia. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tachyon Party

On Sunday Tachyon Press celebrated its sixteenth anniversary with a party held at Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco. Publishers Jacob and Rina Weisman beamed like the proud parents they are. The Emperor Norton Awards were given out. These are named for an eccentric, colorful, half-legendary San Francisco character who declared himself emperor, printed his own money, and enlivened the young city for many years. The awards are given to writers in the Bay Area who "exemplify imagination unhampered by paltry reason." This year's winners were Stephen Boyett and Rudy Rucker. Other party guests included Peter Beagle, Lisa Goldstein, Ellen Klages, Pat Murphy, Jeremy Lassen, and Grania Davis.

The anniversary cake, was baked by
writer Madeleine Robbins ("Swords and Bakery"). The figure on top is the Tachyon logo, a rhinoceros, busily typing:
Here are Ellen Klages and Lisa Goldstein, waiting for cake:

Jack and I finished the evening with a long, catching-up-what-are-you-writing-now dinner with Lisa, Ellen, Madeleine, and Pat Murphy. A lovely weekend -- but NO more traveling for at least three months! I need to remember what I was writing, who's in that novel, what they're doing, and why I wanted to write it in the first place.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

San Francisco

This is the view of San Franscisco in morning fog, taken from the deck of Ellen Klages' house. Jack and I are staying here for a few days. We had dinner with Ellen and a whole slew of SF people, including Terry Bisson, Brad Templeton, Jacob and Rina Weismann. Last night we both read at SF in SF, with Terry Bisson moderating a post-reading panel of sorts. Jack read his short story "Everyone Bleeds Through," and I read the opening of a very long novella that Tachyon will publish as a book in April, "Before the Fall, After the Fall, During the Fall." The whole thing was fun.

The panel considered, among other topics, the question "Where do you begin a story? What occurs to you first?" For Jack, it is an image he wants to explore: "a woman standing at an open window, say, and feeling a rush of cold air on her skin. Who is she? What is going on?" For Terry, it is an idea: "What if bears discovered fire? How might that happen?" For me, it is a character: "What if this fifteen-year-old kid had to carry out a dangerous mission he was completely incapable of understanding? What would that feel like?" It was a good discussion.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Do Not Operate Heavy Machinery

I goofed! My reading today in San Francisco is NOT at Borderlands! It is at SF in SF, at the Variety Preview Room Theatre - details at

I must not post on Facebook when I am very tired!

Friday, September 9, 2011


How much travel is too much?

I have hardly been home this summer. Teaching Clarion, teaching Taos Toolbox, visiting family, Worldcon, visiting friends. It has all been fun, but the downside is that I have not written anything in eight weeks.

Tomorrow Jack and I read at Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco, and then attend the anniversary party for Tachyon Press. That, too, will be fun.

But afterwards I am going to stay home for three months. I will be more faithful about this blog. I will work harder on getting my backlist up on various epub formats. And I will.. oh, yeah, write.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Happiness and Limitations

I am reading Gretchen Rubin's THE HAPPINESS PROJECT, an odd little book that looks cursorily at the current research on happiness and intensely at Rubin's own, year-long attempt "to make myself happier." She went about this is a very methodical fashion, including the use of spreadsheets, month-by-month resolutions, and progress charts (and I thought I was an organized person!) She tried many different changes to her life, but one particularly caught my attention.

Rubin asked herself: What do I REALLY like to do for fun, as opposed to what I'm supposed to do, or have fallen into the habit of doing, or think I should like doing? She thus realized that she was spending a lot of time doing things she didn't really enjoy (movies, parties) and not doing things she really did (scrap-booking, reading children's literature). Gradually she cut down on things she didn't genuinely like and found ways to do those she did. One way to discover those was a question she asked herself: What did she like to do when she was a child?

This, naturally, led me to wonder how many things I'm doing because I think I ought to like them. Answer: Not very many (too lazy, maybe). How many things do I enjoy that I'm not doing enough of? Quite a few (too lazy, maybe). Those are the things I, too, need to find more ways to incorporate into my life. They include seeing more movies and plays, finding some chess partners for live play (not just on-line), experimenting more with cooking, and finding a good book-discussion group. I have spent most of the summer on the road (like, right this minute) but after one more trip, will be home for three straight months and can tackle this.

What fun things aren't YOU doing enough of?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Spotting Talent

Yesterday I read LADY SUSAN, the short epistolary novel that Jane Austen wrote while still in her teens. It is astonishing that I haven't read this before, since for decades I have been a devoted fan of Jane Austen's six novels. LADY SUSAN is not of their quality; the letter format precludes dramatization, and the ending is rushed. What surprised me, however, was how much of Austen's talent was evident even from this clumsy, juvenile attempt.

I teach a lot (this summer it was Clarion and Taos Toolbox). When a student is talented, it's usually evident right away. The story may be hopeless: badly constructed, implausible, too slight. But there will be an aptness of phrase, or a flash of complex character, or an interesting take on an old idea, or a gift for dialogue that brings personality alive. Something that suggests an original mind trying to paint a story in words.

However, talent by itself does NOT predict success. That also I have learned over decades of teaching. Many talented aspiring writers never grow beyond their initial talent, for one of three reasons: (1) They don't write enough to improve. A story or two every year is seldom enough. (2) They cannot take rejection, becoming too discouraged or too defensive, and so stop writing entirely. (3) They cannot really "hear" feedback and incorporate it into their writing, and so their aptitude for the phrase, the sentence, or the scene doesn't grow into an aptitude for story as a whole.

These are, basically, character traits: commitment, resilience, and humility. There is no way that working with students for a few weeks lets me assess those. So when a writer asks me, "Do you think I can make it?" the only honest answer is, "I have no way to tell." Talent is the seed, but only time grows whole plants and brings them to fruition.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Criminals and the Brain

The July/August issue of THE ATLANTIC contains a very disturbing article, "The Brain On Trial," by David Eagleman. It makes the argument (the topic of one of my panels at Worldcon, by coincidence) against free will -- or at least against totally free will. Eagleman cites a number of legal cases and scientific studies in which brain conditions prompted out-of-character violent actions.

The most upsetting of these is Charles Whitman, who in 1966 climbed the University of Texas bell tower and shot 45 people. The night before he had murdered his wife and his mother. He had written in his diary:

"I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts....It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight...I love her dearly and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this."

Whitman's suicide note requested that his brain be autopsied, because he thought something might have changed in it. Doctors found a glioblastoma compressing a third of the amygdala, the brain center associated with fear and aggression.

Eagleman goes on to explore the philosophic and legal ramification of brain tumors and brain chemistry: Can we be held morally and/or legally responsible for our actions if they are prompted by our biology? Does such a thing as "good character" exist, or it is the product of lucky brain conditions that conform to societal norms? On a practical level, what can be done -- or should be done -- with regard to punishment and/or rehabilitation of those in such circumstances?

There are no easy answers to any of this. Personally, I think Eagleman's answers are a bit too easy -- he pretty much erases the concepts of free will and character. But the article offers fascinating, if troubling, information, and raises questions touching the very foundation of what it means to be human. A highly recommended read -- even if you hate it.

Friday, August 26, 2011


I am visiting my family in New York State, at the house I grew up in, which my father still occupies. It is very rural. Although I very much like living in a big city now, I do miss the wildlife of my woods-and-fields childhood. Today I saw several deer, a flock of wild turkeys, and a rabbit. There is also a coyote slinking around, captured on film by my father a few weeks ago:

The eastern coyote (unlike the western one) carries DNA that is a mix of coyote genes (82%), wolf genes (9%), and dog genes (9%). It eats carrion and small mammals. My toy poodle, Cosette, is a small mammal -- so perhaps it's fortunate that she is back in Seattle.

This rural idyll is also a good contrast to Worldcon in Reno. Both are fun, and it is the contrast itself that is so satisfying.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Worldcon -- Day 3

Although I missed last night's masquerade, many of the costumes were still roaming the convention center. This trio from PLANET OF THE APES posed in classic monkey philosophy:I spent the day talking, which is both the best and the worst of cons. I love seeing people, but by evening I hit a wall -- conversationally, socially, energetically. I don't know if other people experience this or not at conventions. Then each fresh engagement pulls me in again. Breakfast with Eleanor Wood and Brenda Cooper; brunch with my chess partner Lou Berger and his friend Kelly; a kaffeeklatsch, a reading, countless lovely and exhausting conversations in the green room and corridors.

The pre-Hugo dinner, by long-standing tradition, was with Robert Silverberg, Karen Haber, Connie and Courtnay and Cordelia Willis, George R.R. Martin and his new wife Paris, Kim Stanley Robinson, Walter Jon Williams, and Jim Kelly. Then on to the Hugos! Here are Karen Haber and I waiting for the ceremony to begin:

It was one of the longer Hugos -- well over two hours -- and hosted by Jay Lake and Ken Scholes. I got to present the Best Novelette Award, and was not nearly as funny as Robert Silverberg, presenting the Best Novella (ask him if he would REALLY have named a child Iago Silverberg). All the winners were gratified, none as much as Best Fanzine Winners (for THE DRINK TANK) Christopher Garcia and James Bacon, who ran around the stage, leapt off it, and collapsed into a heap weeping for joy. And the fiction winners are:

Best Short Story: "For Want of a Nail," Mary Robinette Kowal
Best Novelette: "The Emperor of Mars," Allen M. Steele
Best Novella: "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," Ted Chiang
Best Novel: BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR, Connie Willis

Over 600 computers live-streamed the Hugo ceremonies. Next year: Chicago.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Worldcon -- Day 2

Breakfast with Connie and Cordelia Willis and Sheila Williams was slightly delayed while Connie finished ironing. She is the only writer I know who irons things. Once we got past the pressing issue, breakfast was a good chance to catch up with each other, and to discuss the burning question: Is it possible to have too much fame? No consensus was reached.

I did three panels today: What Is Consciousness? (no conclusive answer), What Are The Hidden Problems In Cloning? (many, including the rapid mutation rate of mitochondrial DNA, the complications of epigenetics, in utero influences), and What Is Hard SF? (also no conclusive answer). These panels were all well-attended, interesting, and contentious enough to be lively without being so contentious that people got upset. On the Hard SF panel, Toni Weisskopf and I disagreed on the relative importance of characterization to SF (Toni: "All you need is a big effing idea!") All this was fun.

I also sat on the Iron Throne from George R.R. Martin's epic GAME OF THRONES, the imperious effect slightly spoiled by the name tag (Robert Baratheon did not wear a name tag):

The evening was devoted to pleasure. A dinner organized by Arc Manor publisher Shahid Mahmoud, followed by a long session in the bar of the Atlantis with, it seemed, everybody else at the con. Here are Gardner Dozois, Susan Casper, Michael Swanwick, Jack Skillingstead, and me:

A quick look in at a few parties, and I took the shuttle (running more or less reliably) back to the Peppermill Hotel and so to bed, while Jack and Daryl Gregory went on to try out the blackjack tables. It's all research!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Worldcon Day 1

This is actually day 2 of Renovation, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention, in Reno, Nevada, but I didn't arrive until today. This is very much a Reno setting: gaudy, crammed with casinos, and very big. The two main hotels are a mile apart, the convention center is a long walk even from the attached hotel, and the dealer's room is cavernous. No one will run out of space! Shuttles run continuously around the various venues.

Our hotel, the Peppermill, has seven restaurants. Below is the one in which I had dinner with Jack, Mike Flynn, Ellen Klages, Daryl Gregory, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro and Rebecca. The restaurant, Oceano, is supposed to feel as if you are underwater. Mike, who knows everything, carefully explained to me the biological difference between the plastic squids and the plastic jellyfish. Ellen, who had played poker for ten hours yesterday, enlightened us all on house odds for various games.
I did no programming items today, except for signing at the Tachyon booth. There was a Tor party in the evening, at which everyone was present and no one could hear anyone else, because it was so crowded because everyone was present. Tomorrow I actually get to work here, with three panels. These are going to solve the issues of consciousness, cloning, and what's happening to hard SF -- all by 3:00 p.m.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


The title of this post refers not to my biothriller of the same name, but to an interesting article by Adam Gopnik in the August 8 NEW YORKER. Purporting to be a personal history of owning a dog for the first time, Gopnik's article ranges far afield to discuss the various theories of how humans domesticated dogs. The DNA evidence is clear: our pet dogs are descended from wolves. Bot how did they get from those fierce and sometimes dangerous beasts to my toy poodle, Cosette, shown here in all her cuddly domesticity?The competing theories are (1) we deliberately kidnapped wolf pups and trained them to useful work, (2) dogs hung around human garbage heaps, eating our refuse, and over time more or less domesticated themselves by self-selection for animals willing to follow us, until breeders took over. Theory #1 used to dominate, and then Theory #2 did, but now scientists say that there is a problem with Theory #2. The domestication appeared to happen about 10,000 years ago (unless it didn't, and there is some competing evidence for much earlier). 10,000 years ago humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers. As they moved on from one area to the next, any wolves trailing along would have entered the territories of already established wolf packs, which would have challenged their right to be there. So now Theory #1 is back in the ascendancy. We did it, over time, and quite deliberately.

But, Gopnik also points out, in the modern era the tables have turned. Dogs use us. We cater to their needs, and most of them do not do very much work in return. Except for the odd sheep herder or K-9 pooch, our dogs are the winners in evolution, the successful domesticators of that other species that now works to ensure their survival.

Cosette would agree.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Three Rs

Since I am back to writing my new novel, and since I actually know the ending of this one (well, sort of), I have been thinking about the middle. Beginnings are easy for me. The first three or four scenes usually come to me along with the basic idea, wrapped up like a Christmas package, and I write them very rapidly in a few days. When I get to the end, it also tends to go fast, since by the time I'm two-thirds or so of the way through, I know the climax. (If I don't, the book is really in trouble.)

That leaves the middle.

How to get from C or D (we're way past A) to, say, V or W? This is where I think about the three Rs: reveals, reversals, and raising the stakes. This is, for me, what creates the middle of the plot.

Reversals: Who is doing well and about to get a pie in the face? Who is struggling mightily and might have some unexpected aid, even if only from his own inner resources? Whose careful plan is about to blow up in his face? Who gets a sudden (but foreshadowed) ally?

Reveals: What does the protagonist discover that he didn't know before? What do I show the reader that she didn't know before?

Raising the stakes: What else hangs on the outcome of this conflict besides what is already there? How does the prize get bigger or the cost get higher?

Okay... I just got an idea. Back to work.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Huge Mistake

As some of you pointed out -- and thank you -- the cover of the e-pubbed version of my novel CRUCIBLE used the image of an X-wing fighter from STAR WARS. This is not good. It came about because a young friend of mine did the cover, with Photoshop. She assumed that because she found the image on a free-wallpaper site, it was in the public domain. She didn't recognize it as a STAR WARS image because she never saw any of the STAR WARS movies. I didn't recognize it because I haven't seen one for 25 years and don't have a good visual memory for space craft anyway. So -- a boondoggle.

I'm fixing this. The problem is that neither Nook nor Kindle will let me edit my publication because both are "in process" (of, presumably, approval). It's been 48 hours, the "process" is only supposed to take 24 hours, there is no way to talk to a live person. Meanwhile, the purloined cover has turned up in the Kindle storefront, and why is that if it hasn't yet been approved?

Welcome to the brave new world of e-publishing.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

CRUCIBLE and Some Good News

My efforts to put my backlist up as e-books continues. This is the latest, the sequel to CROSSFIRE. In the previous book, Jake Holman and friends managed to avoid having their human colony, Greentrees, wiped out when it got caught in the crossfire of a war between two alien races. Both sets of aliens are far more technologically advanced than humans. But Jake's previous maneuvers only bought him some time, and the war continues.

Apparently all of us writer's efforts -- e-pubbing, writing new books, even traditional publishing -- are not going to waste. This morning's NEW YORK TIMES included a very optimistic report on publishing, the result of a joint survey by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Group. 1,963 publishers were surveyed, including the Big Six. Among the findings:

In all categories, publishers' net revenues for 2010 were up 5.6 % over 2008.

In all formats, publishers sold 4.1 % more books in 2010 than in 2008. This was not divided equally among formats, by any means: mass-market paperbacks declined 16%. Hardcover sales were relatively flat. E-books were 6.4% of the total market (including textbooks), whereas two ye
ars earlier they had been only .6 %. Figures for e-book sales in 2011 are expected to be significantly even higher.

Sales of adult fiction in all formats increased 8.8% over three years. Sales of juvenile fiction (which includes both children's lit and YA) increased 6.6%.

Given the rest of the economic news, these are welcome statistics. So -- write! Read! Buy!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

PNWA Conference

Yesterday I taught a three-hour workshop at the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference, held at the Hyatt Regency in Bellevue. The organizers had told me to bring about 70 hand-outs. However, on Saturday afternoon there turned out to be only two tracks of programming, so I got over 300 people. During the three hours, people came and went as each kept appointments to pitch their work to the agents and editors present -- a prime attraction at this sort of conference. Hotel workers had to open up partitions between two rooms to accommodate everyone at the workshop.

It went well, even though this kind of thing is exhausting for everybody. I talk for about two hours out of the three. The attendees are expected to write, in stages, an entire scene during the course of the workshop. We cover dialogue, description, point of view, characters' thoughts, the shape of a scene, different kinds of scenes, using exposition, ordering scenes -- a lot. At the end they are dazed with information overload, and I am hoarse. I like it.

I also taught a smaller, shorter workshop on Friday, on writing SF. Friday was enlivened by a different sort of communication as well: my very first ever obscene fan mail. And no, whoever you are, I do not want to work in a futuristic brothel. I'll stick to writing and teaching.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Very Cranky at the Movies

What's worse than a genre movie filled with stereotypes, worn-out tropes, plot developments that are unmotivated and make no sense, and a sappy and false "moral"?

Two such movies stuck together.

COWBOYS AND ALIENS is terrible. Not just run-of-the-mill terrible, but truly truly terrible. We are asked to accept [SPOILERS AHEAD]:

That a man who in his opening scene drags an innocent man to death behind a horse, is in fact just a gruff old guy with a heart of gold.

That a star-faring race that can cross galaxies has no better way to capture humans for "study" than to lasso them. With rope.

That such star-faring aliens (scaly, green, and unarmed, of course) would equip Daniel Craig with a weapon whose sole value is to wipe out alien equipment and facilities.

That if only aliens had invaded the Old West, then whites, Indians, Mexicans, and the odd border collie would have all cooperated and come to value each other's unique humanity.

I could go on and on, but I won't. It's too discouraging. With that money and that talent (Craig, Olivia Wilde, Harrison Ford) the filmmakers might have made a worthwhile genre film, one which not only made sense but which kept explosions to a necessary minimum. But, then, they never do, do they?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Writing Method

How long can a writer be away from a work without losing momentum to finish it?

That depends, of course, on the writer and the work. It also depends in part on the writing method. If you know exactly what comes next in a novel -- in other words, if you're an outliner -- perhaps you can leave a work for months and then pick up where you left off with no trouble. Or perhaps not -- I'm no outliner, and so wouldn't know. My working method (and I hesitate to dignify it with that term) consists of feeling my way through a novel by a combination of (1) becoming the characters to figure out what they will do, (2) visualizing no more than two scenes ahead of where I am now, while simultaneously craning my metaphorical neck for glimpses of some eventual end, and (3) blind luck.

This method does not lend itself well to leaving a novel-in-progress for long periods, and I have been away from mine for over six weeks. A week to prepare for Clarion by reading, line-editing, and wiriting critiques of student stories; one week teaching Clarion; a week to prepare for Taos Toolbox; two weeks of teaching at Taos; a week of picking up by normal life and writing several neglected small commitments (an Appreciation of Connie Willis for the WFC program book; proofing a book for e-Pub; stuff).

Six weeks is too long. I have lost the momentum, forgotten where my complex cast of characters each is located and what they're doing, slipped out of identification with my heroine. So I've had to do what I never have done before with a novel: start over. Each chapter must be read, thought about, revised. Slowly the book is coming back to me. Again, this is not just a matter of mental reminder, but of emotional investment.

It causes me to question, though: How do writers like Connie Willis and George R.R. Martin, who write a novel over a period of YEARS, manage to do it?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Clarion Graduation

Yesterday was graduation for the Clarion West class of 2011. Leslie Howle conducted a simple ceremony in which (to a CD of "Pomp and Circumstance") each student received: (1)from Leslie, a certificate of achievement, (2) from Charlie Stross, a poster signed by all six Clarion instructors, and (3) from me, the Clarion Secret Decoder Ring. This flashes blue light at steady intervals and with enough disconcerting brightness to induce epileptic fits in the susceptible. Students had already received their tee-shirts, the back emblazoned with memorable lines from critique sessions. Then there was cake:

In the evening the last Clarion party was held, at Eileen Gunn's. Students wandered around with their rings flashing like so many electronic fireflies. Somewhere across town George R.R. Martin was giving a reading, but for Seattle SF, Eileen's was the place to be. I sat in the cool evening on the front steps with a small knot of people lamenting the state of publishing. Or maybe just our publishing. Or not. There was wine involved.

Clarion is sometimes a traumatic experience, after it's over. Some students are unable to write for months afterward, until they process all the (sometimes contradictory) advice they've received. This group, however, seemed eager to keep on writing. Today they fly home to D.C. and Canada and the Netherlands and Australia, ready to become the next generation of George Martins in our unpredictable genre.