Tuesday, October 30, 2012

National Novel Writing Month Again

That's right, two more days.

I'm cheating this year. One of my previous years' novels needs a complete rewrite from the ground up before it's viable, so rather than start something wholy new, I'm just going to do that. Some of the things I need to do urgently, in the next two days are: get rid of every single placeholder name, of which there were like twelve, including "Expendable", whose story ends unsurprisingly; work out some of the peripheral worldbuilding so that I have a wide range of groups to draw characters from- the story is second world, but it's set in a city that I want to have a cosmopolitan feel, and that means multiple ethnicities and naming conventions.

Honestly, despite the fact that I know where this is going, that I've done a revision outline, that I'm infinitely more prepared this time around, that I'm a better writer than I was last time I tried this, I still feel really intimidated by this thing. I don't know how people go into long form with this crazy excitement. I think that probably has something to do with the fact that I deeply enjoy reading short stories.

But, you know, if I ever want to make a significant amount of money writing, a novel is the thing to do.

(Honestly, if I ever want to make a living as a writer, the thing to do is a series of novels in which the main character has a lot of unrequited sexual tension with at least two other parties. And ideally at least one of them is a vampire. And then they all have complicated sex starting three books in. Which sounds like it could conceivably be fun, but the problem is if I write that and enjoy it less than I would some "loftier" thing, there's still a chance that it won't sell worth a damn and I'll just have five books of vampire sex I can't unload onto anyone. And who wants that?)

Sorry, that got a bit rambly.

Anyway, off to make a list of names. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Madness of Andelsprutz

The Madness of Andelsprutz by Lord Dunsany is one of my favorite stories. And it's a ghost story as well, so enjoy. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bristolcon!

Well, I went to my very first UK science fiction convention, which was loads of fun, but a little disconcerting. After having been to a few US cons, I had started taking for granted knowing a few more people. I knew two of the people there, Joanne Hall (who was one of the main organizers) and Fran Jacobs, through an internet writing site, but that was it for me.

I should probably start by mentioning the Ghost of Honor, Colin Harvey, who passed away recently. A number of the Bristolcon attendies have put together a memorial anthology in his honor.

The first panel we attended was on Colonizing the Solar system, with Guy Haley, Michael Dollin, Aliette de Bodard, Ben Jeapes, and Dev Agarwal. All in all, the panelists came down pretty hard on the side of this idea being more science fiction than science fact, citing the astronomical cost and the lack of will, but it was still a very fun panel in terms of people's reasoning- particularly people's assessment of the material cost to the people on earth to keep even a few people up in space. Good moderation, very informed panelists.

We also attended the panels on collaboration, and Toilets in Space, the latter of which went lowbrow very quickly (quick summary: Nick Walters believes teleportation will solve all logistical problems, Michael Dollin has unpopular ideas about recycling, Kim Lakin-Smith reminds us being a girl may actually be less dangerous in these endeavors, and everyone agrees that we don't write sex or poo realistically, because that would make it hard to romanticize space).

We broke for a little while here because Joe Abercrombie was just a few blocks away signing his latest book and we wanted in on that.

We came back to Battle of the Books, which was one of my absolute favorite panels, and one I'd like to see adapted to every con I go to. Four panelists each picked a book (respectively Paul Graham Raven picked Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix, Nick Walters picked Brian Aldiss's Hot House, Janet Edwards picked Terry Pratchet's Wyrd Sisters, and the fourth woman (whose name was not on my program, sorry) picked Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere). Then the authors got time to summarize a bit of their book and tell you why it was the best one there. There were two elimination rounds, and Hot House took home the prize. It was all very genial though, and I think this is a great way to get people talking up books you might not have read. Both the husband and I agreed our pick probably would have been The Dispossessed, by LeGuin.

The Apocalypse panel was also great. Lots of talk about Zombies, but that's to be expected. I was particularly impressed by Tim Maughan, who is a particularly Bristol type of person, in the best possible way. We also took in the Steam Punk panel, the best part of which was Alex Dally MacFarlane and Nimue Brown sitting both literally and figuratively across the table from each other and going back and forth about representation, apology for empire, appropriation, and romanticizing the past. It was also fun to watch how many other panelists had no idea what steam punk was before they were told they had written it. We attended an artist's panel about medium and how digital people are comfortable going, which was lovely, and I think broadly applicable in that everybody has to find what they're most comfortable with.

The last panel we attended was on YA: What's the deal with it being dominated by girls now? This turned out to be an excellent panel, also dominated by girls (which is funny, because it ended up being mostly about boys' reading habits, whereas I've been to plenty of "strong female character" panels that were all or mostly dudes, or diversity panels that were entirely white. It's both fun and sad to see that works in reverse as well). Foz Meadows and Moira Young impressed me especially, though the audience participation was really key here. There was one gentleman who made the excellent point that perhaps an equal stigma to YA books being effeminate insofar as reading was girly and the characters were chicks, was the idea that what was being presented was explicitly labeled as for children at a time in boys' lives where it's very important to feel grown up. Personally, I don't think there's an overwhelming majority of girl stuff in YA, I think it's just parity being misconstrued as advantage, but that's me. It was a really good panel.

All in all it was a really lovely time, and I'm very glad I went. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Forbidden Poetry of Afghanistan

I feel like I should comment on this article, maybe about how it's a piece by a young-ish white Princeton graduate about the beautiful struggles of Afghani women, maybe something about the long dense history of islamic poetry that frankly I'm not qualified to speak on, maybe about the subjectivity of poetry and the perils of translation. I dunno. It's easy to get into an epistemological tailspin about how much we can really understand, how representative a small sample is, how much was correctly translated to this reporter, how much was held back, what biases are brought to the table. Considering stuff I've naively put forward in the past, I tend to get a little gunshy when I don't have as much personal knowledge to back a subject up. But I liked this article. I think it's worth passing on. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Political Test

Were you concerned that you did not know what your politics are? Try taking a test and measuring your results against other people by age, nationality, gender, and level of education!

I'm result 154140.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Aspirations, Tolerances, and Strategies

I was just looking at Duotrope, and it has an option to sort potential markets by acceptance ratio. It got me thinking about a friend I'd had back home who had that as her main criteria- she was starting out and she was more afraid of rejection than she was emphatic about high end publications. I had another friend who looked first and foremost at a market's turn around time. With some exceptions (reprints, solicited work, venues I personally love), I submit to pro markets, and I aim most ardently for the ones that publish fiction I really like. My acceptance ratio's pretty low, but when I do make a sale, I feel like the biggest rock star there ever was. I have another friend who's told me he writes principally for the money- it's work and he expects payment.

I think it's important, as you go on, to know what you want from your writing. Not necessarily an end game, but certainly a direction.

Here are some questions to help you think about what you want:

1. What is your pipe dream scenario? (pick just one)

Mine, for example, is to write genre stories so awesome they come up with a brand new award for awesome stories and they name it after me, and for another full century, the Wilder is an honor that commands respect.

Yours might be something like, write a book or series so commercially successful it gets made into blockbuster movies, games, toys, theme parks, etc, and you are able to have more money than god. It might be getting the clout or reputation to be put in charge of your favorite existing property, or given all the resources to create a new one. It might be to write something so insightful and timely that it's taught in schools for a hundred years after. It might be to be so prolific and influential within a genre that your name becomes a byword for that type of fiction. Nobel prize for literature. Bringing down a government.

Go crazy. You don't have to achieve this one, it's just there as a platonic ideal of your career, to set your compass by but very likely never actually reach.

2. What are your fail conditions? (as many as you like)

Under what circumstances would you turn away from writing and not come back? When does it stop being worth it?

For example (and again, it doesn't matter if someone else thinks these are good standards. They're for you personally):

  • You go five years without selling anything
  • You are never able to crack the pro market
  • Your fiction skill plateaus below your expectations
  • You are selling as well as you reasonably can, and still below $20,000 a year
  • Your books meet with consistently poor reviews
  • The stress of writing makes you more unhappy than happy
  • You no longer have enough time for your other interests
  • You are no longer in a position to write the things you want
  • Your mother disapproves of your fiction
  • You are never able to obtain a traditional publisher
  • You are rejected and dismissed by the people who you were writing for
  • A religious leader puts a bounty on your life (also conceivably a pipe dream for some)
You can keep going with your own. If you can look at an idea and go "well, in that case I'd just _____ and keep writing" it's not a fail condition for you. 

You have fail conditions, even if you don't want to admit you do. Writing is like anything else, there will be times when it is not the healthy choice, and you need to know when those are for you. 

For me it's a skill plateau (assuming training, exercises, whatever I could think of had been exhausted), or writing ceasing to make me more happy than unhappy. 


3. What is the most you're willing to write/publish? What is the least?

James Patterson had a year where his name was on the byline of thirteen novels. Ted Chiang produced 12 short stories in 15 years. How fast can you write? What is the relationship between speed and quality in your work? Would you be satisfied writing two or three novels a year? Would you be willing to forego publishing anything for a year or two to make sure you got one thing just the way you wanted it? Five? Ten?

4. What are you willing or unwilling to write for money?

You have your interests and personal passions. What about everything else? Other genres? Apolitical work? Work for different audiences? Non-fiction? Children's books? Pornography? Something pretensious and academic? Something broad and lowest common denominator? Where is your line? Where is the place where if someone came to you with a suitcase of money you would say "no, I don't do that sort of thing"?

Pushing your boundaries is important, but knowing where your boundaries actually are is the base of that.

5. Ideally, how much of your time does writing occupy? What is the most time you're comfortable with it taking up?

It's okay to do this as a hobby. That doesn't make you less a person. But if your goal is to put out Steven King level amounts of work, you're going to need to give it 12+ hours a day. Can you do that? Can you do that without alienating everyone you've ever loved? Remember you only get one life, and your kids only get one childhood.

Think about it, and recognize that your answers don't have to satisfy anyone else. These are questions just for you.

Good luck, and have fun. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Age of Sail II

A fun look at potential wind power designs to supplement increasingly expensive fuel in cargo ships. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ruthless Culture

So here is a very critical essay about how science fiction has quit looking to the future. The comments are also worth reading- there's good discussion going on there. I don't agree with all things being said, but either way, I recommend giving it a look. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Brief, Horrific Lives of Mantis Men

So I recently read Kij Johnson's Mantis Wives. It has a lot in common with her previous nebula winning story Ponies, and to a lesser but still real extent with her OTHER nebula winning story Spar, in that it takes a human relationship we take for granted, makes it alien, and spins out the pathological elements until they're fabulous and grotesque and really gut-punchy.

So, I recommend you read Mantis Wives for yourself, but the gist of it is that even though mantis women realize they don't NEED to kill their husbands, they're locked into their roles and they can't figure out a different way to live.

I quite like it, but it is, by necessity of what it is, largely composed of needlessly cruel torture of boy mantises. That's really kind of the point.

Now there's a fellow down in the comments who seems to be kind of a reactionary jerkface, but I've always maintained that being an jerkface doesn't mean your point is not worth entertaining intellectually.

To what extent are we- am I as a reader- more comfortable with this story because the violence is happening exclusively to men? It's something I've talked about before, and something that continues to worry me.

For all that dudes are disproportionately the people doing violence, they're also disproportionately the victims, and I defy someone to argue that we're not socially conditioned to feel it is less of a tragedy when violence is done to a man (the theory being, of course, that this is not only his natural sphere, but he's big enough and strong enough to stop other people from hurting him; and if he wasn't, he should have been.) I think there's a certain extent to which we sort of view all men as soldiers, and all women and children as civilians- it's part of a totally paternalisitic system that gets used to justify why men ought to have authority over said interchangeable category of women and children who in this line of thinking depend on them for protection and provision; but at the same time it's a system that doesn't have a lot of sympathy to spare for the man who does not end up being the alpha. We're given to believe that fighting and death are ennobling to men in the same way beauty and passive mystique are the ideals for womanhood.

I don't think it does anybody any favors, and it spins off into this idea that it's more wrong to hit a woman. (When a man beats his wife, he's a monster; when a woman beats her husband, it's comedy).

Ish.

There's certainly fiction I've read that demonizes the ladies, to the extent that violence (often sexual or specifically humiliating) befalling them (though usually not at the hands of the actual protagonist) is the cathartic release at the end of the story. Bitch got what was coming to her. Or the not explicitly stated but still pervasive implication that men are predators and women are always prey. Sometimes it's slowly, lovingly rendered. Sometimes it's a joke. But it's a powerless woman having terrible things happen to her, and the gist you get from the story is that you're supposed to enjoy it, even if it's just in the way you enjoy horrific stuff, with a little extra garnish of lady misery. Frank Miller's my go-to top of my head example for this, but there are some horror stories I can point to as well, and we've all seen the splashes and teasers at the front where that attractive girl with the bright red lipstick gets killed so we'll be entranced in the mystery. She might just be one of a dozen victims, but her- the one with the lipstick- she's the one we watch it happen to, over and over again.

I guess we can argue that maybe that's supposed to arouse people's protective instincts, but her skirt is so short, and her lipstick is so red, and the camera focuses so hard on her lips, her hips, and her tits, that I really don't think protection is the instinct they're going for.

And I'm not going to lie, there's fiction that demonizes men. Books, stories, movies, where the whole lot of them are lazy, rude, beer swilling abusers and rapists who think they own the world because they have the upper body strength to throw a punch at a lady's face; whereas the women will be, at least in contrast, developed people with real motivations (though these often arise out of their victimhood at the hands of dudes). And in this vein of fiction (often touted as female empowering) these straw men get what's coming to them, and usually the women get validation and sympathy from a group of right-thinking people who help them hide bodies or reduce their sentences after a teary confession of all the facts. Or they drive off a cliff because death is better than going back to their husbands.

I think in a similar way to the way you imagine creepy dudes picturing that blonde getting stabbed in the alleyway as all the girls who turned them down for sexytimes, there's a group of people who actually will always be satisfied by straight up revenge stories where a blameless lady victim cuts off reproductively important bits of the cartoon man who wronged her.

I think there are people who will say the violence against women as entertainment is not an issue (google sexism and video games if you don't believe me), but I think they're an atavistic minority. I think we're much quieter than we should be about the ease with which we accept violence against men as normal, natural, and even righteous.

Think for a minute- how many female characters have you seen charge into a hail of gunfire, or hold the pass while her friends get away, so that she can die a "good and noble" death? Why do we accept so easily that this is a good thing for men to do? How many times has a gun or sword fight come to a screeching halt because a woman died, after they had just killed nine or ten men without blinking?

I don't think we necessarily think of men's lives as worth less, but we're very willing to accept them being beaten, shot, and killed, without it being something we get upset over.

How weird is that?

(Very little of this actually applies to Mantis Wives specifically, since the story kind of plays around with a power-norm flip, and the violence reads as unnecessary and pathological, at least to me. I don't get a feeling of glee at their suffering out of it, though she does seem to enjoy writing description (I think that's more just language play). I do think, though, that this story would not have worked AS well for me if it were male stand-ins doing violence to females, and that's something that worries me a little, but I think the subversion of the norm in this case helps examine it. That's a technique that can go very wrong in unskilled hands, though). 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Some Hard Advice About Your Novel

io9 offers you some advice about revising that novel you've just finished. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Short Story Greats

A list I'm on took some time recently to organize a list of great science fiction and fantasy stories throughout the medium. Here are the ones they came up with, with links to free versions online if they were available, and amazon if they were not. You can thank me later.

The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss by Kij Johnson

The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Story of your Life by Ted Chiang

Bloodchild by Octavia Butler

All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury

Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke

All You Zombies by Robert Heinlein

A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury