Sunday, January 29, 2012

Still Beginning a Story

An idea has begun to form for my projected story. Still no actual words keyed in, since I don't yet have the characters. I know what characters the story needs (some of them anyway), but the individuals aren't there yet, and I never start writing until I can feel them in my mind, hear their voices, see their mannerisms.

What I have thus far is an idea for a specific problem aboard a specific kind of ship. The problem interests me. I also have a tentative solution, and have been doing research to see if the solution is feasible. Then I hit a snag: I just don't have enough engineering smarts to know if what I want to do is plausible, ridiculous, or just in need of support from fresh scientific advances, conveyed through the science fiction obfuscation known as "hand waving." Further research on the Internet only confuses me more.

So I do what I always do when stuck on technical issues: I send out a begging, pleading, groveling email to Mike Flynn.

He responds with two dense pages of information and diagrams. My savior! I read through them one, twice, three times. Yes, I can understand this. Barely.

Then all work on the story stops for the weekend, while I devote my writing hours to the student manuscripts for my Tuesday night class at Hugo House, plus reading two more submissions for Taos Toolbox this summer. Tomorrow -- creating characters and voice. I hope.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Beginning a Story

How does one begin a story? Not the opening paragraphs but the concept, the idea, the situation?

I am doing this now. I owe a story to a theme anthology, and all I have is the theme given to me by the editor (interstellar flight, done realistically). So far, these are the steps I've taken:

  • Find information about proposed interstellar craft. It turns out a whole raft of scientists have workable ideas on this (no STAR TREK dilithium crystals). The editor sent me some articles. Some I got from the Internet. That led me to order the book ENTERING SPACE (Robert Zubin), which arrived yesterday and constitutes today's reading. Do I usually do this much research for a short story? No. But I really want to be in this anthology, and anyway the topic interests me.
  • Read the material and mark up everything. Underlining for facts, notes in the margin for possible story ideas. This morning I waded through a technical article on lighting for agriculture aboard a long-term ship. Fortunately, I don't need to understand all the math.
  • If any ideas strike a genuine spark, stop research, write it down, and continue research in light of that idea. So far, this has not happened.
  • Go through a file I keep of interesting character sketches to see if any of them seem to mesh with my notes-for-an-idea-that-isn't-really-there-yet. Nope, nothing strikes me.

That's as far as I've gotten in the process. Let's hope a few more days produces a usable story idea. It has in the past, so I'm optimistic. They key criterion: I must be excited about the idea. Stay tuned.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Baffled At the Movies

In the last week or so I saw two more movies, and both confused me -- although for different reasons.

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY features the always wonderful Gary Oldman as George Smiley of British Intelligence. A mole has invaded the highest reaches of MI-5. It can only be one of five men, and Smiley is charged by Control, who has been forced out unfairly from the organization, with finding out which one. Complicated intrigues ensue. They were so complicated, in fact, that I had trouble following them all, and I'm still not sure I understand exactly what went on. My movie companion, Elizabeth Stephan, understood more than I did and kindly explained it to me, but she was fuzzy on a few points, too. It didn't help that these Brits, including Smiley, are so low-key and emotionally controlled that they are barely breathing. Still, the movie is interesting and very atmospheric, and I did enjoy it.

What to say about THE ARTIST? It won the Golden Globe for Best Picture; it will certainly be nominated for an Oscar; everyone loves it. Except me.

The film is both a silent movie and an homage to the silents. It's entertaining, well made, and in parts, fun. But the story, that of a silent film star who cannot make the transition to talkies, is simple and simply handled (unlike the wonderful 1950 Billy Wilder movie SUNSET BOULEVARD). It mixes what purports to be real anguish of identity with cartoonish solutions, such as Oldman's dog running blocks to get a policeman when Oldman sets his house afire ("What, Lassie -- Timmy fell down the well?!") The movie feels too long. But mostly it's a cute gimmick, going back to an earlier form -- sort of like driving an ox cart to the Apple store. I just cannot see this as the best movie of the year. I am baffled as to why the audience clapped so enthusiastically at the end.

Perhaps they just appreciate, more than I, a simple and innocent tale with a happy ending. Or maybe the dancing. The dancing is terrific. But --

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Adventures in Publishing

Literary technology continues to advance, while those of us who are electronically challenged struggle to keep up. I have a bunch of my backlist books up for sale on the Kindle and Nook, but some are still missing (notably the PROBABILITY SERIES). Nonetheless, my next project leaps into the next stage of e-books. All right, I don't exactly leap: more like stumble after Greg Bear and the MONGOLIAD crowd. Sort of.

Subtext is a comparatively new company (as of last October) offering a free app for, so far, just the iPad, although more platforms are planned. The app "overlays" a book, and allows the reader to (1) notate anything he wants by pressing an icon in the margin, (2) see what every other user of the app has said in the margin, and comment on the comment, so that a genuine book-club conversation gets going, and (3) see what the author has put in the margin. That's where I come in. In April Tachyon is bringing out my stand-alone novella, AFTER THE FALL, BEFORE THE FALL, DURING THE FALL, and I will be annotating it.

With what? Well, FALL is a story about an unusual form of eco-terrorism. I did a lot of research, and some of that will be included. I can also comment on why I made the literary choices I did while writing the book -- and then get reader feedback. I (and anyone else) can link to websites, videos, anything pertinent.

I'm very excited about doing this. So far, Subtext has offered its app for only a few dozen books. Among them are DANCES WITH DRAGONS, annotated by George R.R. Martin's researcher; A RELIABLE WIFE, annotated by author Robert Goolrick; and the Nathaniel West classic MISS LONELY HEARTS, annotated by a literature professor.

Check out the app on its website, where a video gives details:

Also electronic: I have a reprint story at Future fashionistas!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen, the darling of American literary circles, published his novel FREEDOM a year and a half ago. I didn't read it then, because I hadn't much liked his previous book, THE CORRECTIONS. That book's prose struck me as first lush and rich, and later as too rich, like being forced to consume dish after dish of baklava. Also, I found the characters pretty unlikeable.

None of this is true of FREEDOM. Franzen has restrained his prose, and his attitude toward his characters has changed. In THE CORRECTIONS he seemed to be examining them under a microscope, in order to watch them squirm in close-up. FREEDOM is warmer, with more empathy for every member of the Berglund family, all of whom (except one) possess a large, very human capacity to make wrong decisions as they try to balance passion, sense, and the reactions of their neighbors and relatives. There is a lot of sheer pain on display here, but also redemption. And in the end the book affirms the power of love -- even tattered, much-abused, time-worn love.

Frantzen also preserves what I thought of as a strength in THE CORRECTIONS: a concern for the world beyond the family. Walter Berglund is concerned with preserving endangered species (sort of). Joey Berglund gets involved in civilian contracts for the war effort in Iraq. The national economy goes bad, with real effects on everybody. Social mores change. Rock stars age, and their music, once cutting edge, becomes "old-fashioned." The great Victorian novels often covered decades of their protagonists' lives, but contemporary literature has tended more to focus on short term, within a closed circle. Franzen opens up the novel again.

In short, I recommend this book. Complex people in complex situations, many of which the characters often manage to make worse -- but sometimes better. Just like real people.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Travel, Good and Bad

I have bad plane karma. Returning to Seattle from the East Coast, my flight was canceled: unrested pilots, or pilot unrest, or something. I was informed of this by a phone call from Orbitz at 3:00 a.m. Much drama in rebooking ("May I speak to your supervisor, please?"), much delay, but I finally got home. This happens to me all the time. It's a good thing I don't fly over the pole; I'd be stuck overnight on an ice floe. "We're sorry, but the next stage of your flight has been canceled due to insufficiently rested polar bears."

As for the good travel -- it's very good. Arc Manor, a rapidly growing small press, is offering a Bahama cruise "for the serious writer" next December. Faculty includes me, Mike Resnick, best-selling author Kevin J. Anderson, Jack Skillingstead, Paul Cook, Rebecca Moesta, editor Toni Weisskopf, and super-agent Eleanor Wood, who knows everything there is to know about publishing SF. Classes will be intense and useful, and after class there will be a lot of schmoozing both on-board and at the ports of call. There is a 40% discount for signing up before March 31. You can learn more at the cruise website,

Come get in one last working vacation before the Mayan calendar ends the world December 21!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Diverse at the Movies

I have been a bad blogger. My excuse is much holiday activity -- which included a lot of movies. Here is my take on three of them:

WAR HORSE: I didn't much like this. It's really two movies. One is a sentimental boy-and-his-horse story that could have used some of Harlan Ellison's tartness from "A Boy and His Dog" (although there is nobody here to feed to the horse, which is a herbivore anyway, so maybe not THAT much tartness.) The second, far more interesting movie is the trench warfare of World War I, here depicted in appalling, riveting detail. I wanted to see more of that story, with its human courage and cowardice. In fact, the best scene in the movie involves a German and a British soldier (not the horse's owner) who tentatively, carefully, both emerge from their trenches to join in freeing the horse from barbed wire. The tension shoots up as you wonder if anyone will shoot. In contrast, I could have done with fewer endless scenes of the horse cantering against a setting sun, a rising sun, or a noonday sun. This will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar, but let's hope it doesn't win.

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN: This one pretty much lacks any substantial story, but I liked it for the performances. Kenneth Branaugh is Lawrence Olivier, immensely frustrated by trying to direct a movie with a female star who doesn't show up for work on time, doesn't show up at all, can't get her lines right, and nonetheless lights up the screen in a way that he knows he does not. Michelle Williams is a credible Marilyn Monroe, maybe not as voluptuous (my father was disappointed) but with all the ultra-feminine tricks down pat. Zoe Wannamaker plays Paula Strassberg, Marilyn's "method" coach, and she is a repulsive spider of a woman feeding off Marilyn, who in turn feeds desperately off whatever adoration she can create in anyone at all. My companion at the movies said that the film added nothing to his knowledge of Monroe, but I thought it at least brought that knowledge to life.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2: When you go to the movies in a clump of family, you don't always get to choose the movie. I fought against this choice, lost, and ended up glad to see it anyway. It is a movie without pretensions (unlike WAR HORSE). It's ridiculous and over-the-top and doesn't pretend to be anything else. That lets the viewer just laugh and gasp along: at the plot twists, the derring-do, the silly tech, the gorgeous and absurdly deadly actors. I was not bored. On the other hand, an hour after I left the theater, the plot had mostly vanished from my mind. What were they trying to do again? Why? But -- a lot of fun while it lasted.