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.