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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

After Harry Potter: Recommended Reading

ZZTop makes a request:
I've always avoided reading fantasy fiction, with the exception of the Harry Potter series. I've decided to take the plunge and give fantasy a try. Since there are some fantasy writers and readers on this blog, I was wondering if anyone would recommend a reading list of say, the 10 best FF novels. I'd browse the local library, but I'm not sure I would get a good representation.

I'm not sure that we can limit this to just 10 titles, but the topic is now open.

Personally, and at the risk of seeming like a shill, I would say that if you liked Harry Potter, you should look at Patricia C. Wrede's novels next. Luckily a lot of other people who are far more widely read in fantasy than I am will say the same thing, so I think I can get away with it. If you're partial to lighter fare, there's her Enchanted Forest series: Talking to Dragons, Searching for Dragons, Bowling for Dragons, unsw., although again personally, I would start with Mairelon the Magician, just because I like it more.

As for J.R.R. Tolkien: while he is one of the great progenitors of the genre and I'm currently reading The Lord of The Rings for the umpteenth time (this time aloud, as bedtime reading for The Kid, and I defy anyone to say the name "Asfelof" out loud without snickering), I would not recommend him for the new reader. Reading The Lord of The Rings is hard work, of the sort that can put someone off a genre for life.

Your recommendations?


Monday, March 28, 2005

ConVentional Wisdom

Once, on a business trip, I found myself booked into a hotel on the same weekend that the hotel was hosting a standup comedians' convention. Now you'd think a standup comedians' convention would be, well, funny, but it was the longest three days of my life. When these people were off-stage, all they did was kvetch endlessly about agents, contracts, money, and the many personal failings of the club managers they all knew. At one point on Saturday afternoon I accidentally got stuck on a long elevator ride with four comedians, and by the time we reached the lobby, I was ready to slit some wrists. Theirs or mine, I wasn't fussy.

This past weekend was the big Minnesota sci-fi convention, MiniCon, and as some of you who live locally may have noticed, I once again was not there. The big problem for me is that MiniCon is always held on Easter weekend, and it's far more important to me to spend the weekend with my family. But the other problem is -- well, for a writer, what is the point of a sci-fi convention?

Is it to party with the fans? That stopped being fun when I quit drinking. Is it to hobnob with your fellow professional writers? No, they're all down in the hotel bar, kvetching endlessly about agents, contracts, money, and the many personal failings of the editors they all know. Is it to sell books?

Maybe. But according to a famous editor I know who'd probably prefer that his name not be mentioned, only about 15-percent of the attendees at any general sci-fi con actually buy and read books on a regular basis. The rest are there to express some sort of alternative lifestyle interest in a judgment-free environment, and their sole interest in writers and writing amounts to having a desire to be able to say, "Well, I was at this party once with Harlan Ellison..."

I used to think this was an exceptionally harsh assessment. Then I started asking questions of the audiences at my panels. It typically went like this. "Let's have a show of hands here. How many of you have bought a book in the last year?" Nearly everyone in the room raises his/her/its hand.

"Not a textbook or reference book. How many of you have bought novels?" Two-third of the hands immediately drop. "And not used books to complete your Doc Smith collection. How many of you have bought new novels by living writers?" By this point we're usually down to fewer than ten brave souls.

"Okay, now how many of you subscribe to or regularly buy a magazine that features short stories?" There may be one or two raised hands left in the room.

More likely, there is only the sound of crickets chirping.

And this in an audience that has chosen to attend a panel of writers, because those are the only panels I do anymore.

So tell me: for a writer, what exactly is the point of attending a con?


Friday, March 25, 2005

Books I'll Never Finish

People ask, "Where do you get your ideas?" Actually, I've never had trouble coming up with ideas. My problem has always been finding the time to develop on my ideas into finished work. With 5 kids, a fulltime day job, and a surplusage of Other Commitments, writing time is, for me, always extremely difficult to come by.

As an unintended side-effect of this, I've accumulated quite a sizable collection of false starts, rough drafts, and idea synopses that I always intended to get back to "later." In the early days, when I wrote on a Smith-Corona typewriter and did my computation with a slide rule, this collection fit into one bulging file folder. Later, it expanded to fill an entire bankers archive box.

Now, after 25 years of working on computers, I have many, many, many gigabytes of false starts lying around here, cluttering up the place, and as a general rule, completely useless to me. Some are on floppy disks in formats readable only by machines and programs long since defunct. Others are on data tapes, from back in the days when hard drives were expensive, small, and unreliable and I backed mine up religiously. Yet more did get dumped out to dot-matrix printout, so at least they're human-readable, but I've got entire filing cabinets full of the stuff. For example, a cursory scan of the Unfinished Idea dumpster reveals:

From Here to Maternity
"My child, you have your mother's mind. Would you please give it back?"

Road Trip
So, like, who needs another self-absorbed Baby Boomer's semi-autobiographical novel about life in 1970?

Ditto for the semi-autobiographical novel about the rock band on tour, especially one that reads like 200 Motels only without humor. This one actually had at least three or four titles, but I can't remember the last one, which was the only good one.

Double Exposure
Murder mystery about a freelance photographer who gets involved with a pair of gorgeous identical twins, one of whom is a top model and other a serial killer. (Hey! See how this complicates DNA evidence? Clever, huh?) This one could probably be a very commercial property for someone else -- if nothing else, think of the made-for-TV movie -- but I just couldn't sustain my own interest. I enjoy reading mysteries. I've even sold a few short stories. But I just can't finish writing a mystery novel, because I know how it ends. (Funny, innit, that knowing the ending is important for me when writing sci-fi, but ruins it when I'm trying to write mystery?)

Bogen's Vampire
So I got a little smarter and tried to write a novel about a guy in a rock band on tour who discovers their new road manager is actually a gorgeous vampire (not a twin, sadly), but it quickly degraded into a series of Beavis & Butthead-grade jokes. It probably would have worked if I'd tried to do it as a comedy in the first place but by the time I realized that, it was too late to start over.

Beachhead Mecca
Very cool Heinlein-ish alien invasion novel, with just one teensy problem; whoever writes it is going to spend the rest of his life under a fatwa. Like I need that.

And finally, my favorite novel that I'm never actually going to write:

June, 1943: Acting in defiance of Hitler's orders, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein launches his attack against the Kursk salient two weeks early, catching the Red Army unprepared and unreinforced. While this action does not change the general outcome of events on the Eastern Front, it delays the Soviet advance just long enough for the Germans to get the Arado 234B jet bomber into full production. This in turn means the bomb racks are left off the Me-262 and it gets used as the air superiority fighter it was clearly meant to be, which changes the entire complexion of the 1944 air war over Europe. D-Day is delayed by two months; the American B-29 Superfortresses are deployed to England, not Okinawa; the first atomic bomb is dropped on Berlin, not Hiroshima; and Russian and Western Allied armies meet at the Rhine, not the Elbe.

Fast forward: June 26, 1963. President John F. Kennedy stands up before the Frankfurt wall, and in a strong, resolute voice, declares, "Ich bin ein Frankfurter!"

Western civilization collapses overnight...

And what's your favorite idea for a book you know you're never going to write?


Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Gedanke Experimentieren #2

In case anyone is curious, here's my solution to the Sedna challenge:

After one lousy proton torpedo down one stupid unshielded vent shaft blew the main reactor to hell and gone and the resulting outrush of superheated gasses instantly cremated the crew and oxidized the outer hull, the remainder of the slowly tumbling hulk drifted out of the system, on a long, cold orbit that would not bring it back to Endor until many millennia had passed and the cause for which so many had fought and died was long since forgotten. Deep in the Death Star's memory banks, though, the targeting parameters remained encoded, and fire control droid R4124C still remembered his final orders...

Now, as for this week's challenge: I was going to offer up the true story of Erzsébet Báthory, the 16th century Hungarian countess who became obsessed with the belief that bathing in the fresh blood of virgins -- and later, drinking the blood of the especially pretty and rich ones -- would restore her youthful beauty and help her land a second husband. By her own account she personally killed at least 612 girls (and no, it didn't help her looks any), for which crimes all her servants and helpers were executed in 1611 and she herself was walled up inside her own torture chamber, where she reputedly survived for another three years before finally ceasing to make noise in 1614.

Like I said, I was going to offer up this topic, but a few minutes of cursory web research indicate that Countess Báthory already has quite an enormous fan following amongst the more sick and revolting parts of the Goth community, and I don't want to contribute anything to promoting that.

Ergo, it's Open Mic Night on Tuesday morning! Anyone have a raw (eeuw, bad word choice!) idea for the next writing challenge?


Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Conflict and Character

Snowdog asks:
Would you have any advice on how to create dramatic tension without having the characters degenerate into whiners, a la Robert Jordan's Rand al'Thor (Waaa!)?
In general terms, dramatic tension arises when a character wants or needs to do something and someone or something else obstructs that desire or need.

Character (in the sense of personality attributes or disposition) is revealed by the character's response to this conflict. If the character comes across as a whiner, this would seem to indicate a design flaw in the character's character.

I can't speak directly to Snowdog's concerns about Robert Jordan's characters, as -- while I know they're enormously popular and successful -- I found the first Wheel of Time book I picked up to be an unreadable slog and never felt any desire to revisit the series. Ergo, I will have to defer this one to the group.

Comments, s'il vous plait?


Friday, March 11, 2005

Help! My Characters are Revolting!

BoysMom suggests a topic:
Sometime maybe the folks around here would like to talk about middles? Specifically, the plot going one way and the characters going the other.

So what do you do when your characters rise up in revolt? How do you handle it when your lead character looks up at you from the page and says, "Uhn-uh. Not gonna do it. Doing that would require me to be either stupid or desperate, and I don't think I'm that stupid, and I know I ain't that desperate."

The simple and common problem of characters revolting against the plot as they become self-aware is the reason why my filing cabinets are full of great beginnings that fade out in the middle stretch. For me, this usually indicates some fundamental problem with the plot that I hadn't thought through before I started the story, but which my characters were able to spot once the story was in progress, and now I have to go back to square one and start over.

Less often it means the plot is sound, but I've made the character too happy where he is to allow the plot to proceed. The challenge then is to find some way to force the character out of his comfort zone so that the plot can resume forward progress.

Fortunately, in complaining, the character usually gives me a clue. E.g., when a character says, "I ain't that stupid," well, there are a lot of ways to induce temporary overwhelming stupidity. Likewise when the character says, "I ain't that desperate," it usually means it's time for the hired killers to show up.

What works for you, and why?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Tools of the Trade: Venue

This is my favorite time of day to write: in the hour or two just before and after dawn. Perhaps it's because my thoughts seem less tangled at this time; perhaps it's because my vocabulary is notably different at this hour (it degrades as the day wears on); perhaps it's just because, with five kids, this is the only time it's really quiet around here.

I know a writer who can only write in crowded and noisy coffee shops, and another who prefers to dictate to a tape recorder while driving. Most serious writers I know write on computers in their offices by a fairly regular workday schedule, but this is a luxury that comes with success.

Me? Because I compose and develop in two distinct steps, my favorite way to scribble the Ur-draft is in longhand, while sitting at the dining room table with a mug of coffee close at hand, watching the sun rise over the pasture. I need to have warm feet while I'm doing this, but fortunately, one of the dogs is usually willing to attend to this detail.

What works for you, and why?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Gedanke Experimentieren #1

Okay, it appears I goofed and provided far too little information when I first posted this, so let's start again.

90377 Sedna is a real object. It's a recently discovered planetoid roughly 1,000 miles in diameter (+/- 300), in a highly elliptical orbit that's believed to enclose the entire solar system and take roughly 12,000 years (+/- 500) to complete. The aphelion is believed to be in the neighborhood of 900 AU (+/- 50) or about 5 light days out, while the perihelion is expected to be in the neighborhood 76 AU out, or roughly twice the distance to Pluto. We've gotten a good look at 90377 Sedna through the Hubble, and at this time we know five interesting things about it:

  1. It's as red as Mars.
  2. It's rotating slowly.
  3. It has a surface temperature of about -400 F.
  4. It's coming this way and expected to hit perihelion in 2075 or 2076.
  5. It was named for Sedna, the Innuit goddess of the ocean, who is believed to live in the coldest and most remote depths of the ocean and be the mother of all the great beasts of the sea.
Props to BoysMom for being the only one who looked up this easily found information. As for the rest of you, here's the challenge:
What if 90377 Sedna is discovered to be, not a natural object, but an artificial object, clearly made by some human or other intelligence. In one paragraph, synopsize your story about this discovery and what happens immediately afterwards.
Have fun!

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Schmoozing & Networking

A question has been put forth by someone who will probably prefer to stay anonymous:
Many believe it's "who you know" that gets one ahead. Is there any validity to this? If so, what's the best way to network?

With a few caveats, I don't believe there's any truth to the first assertion. "What you have done" is far more important than "who you know." This in some cases can produce the appearance of an old boy's (or girl's) network in action; for example, if both Gene Wolfe and I pitch stories of similar length about similar subjects to the same editor at the same time, the editor is far more likely to buy Gene's story. But the reason for this is in no way sinister: rather, it's mere recognition of the fact that having A new story by Gene Wolfe on the cover will probably sell more magazines off the rack than having my name in the same place.

The test, I guess, is whether an editor will buy an outright bad story from someone they know instead of a good story from someone they don't, and while there's always room to argue over relative quality, no professional editor will ever do this. I can think of a few -- a very few -- cases where this has happened, but these have always involved either an editor who's about to lose his job or a publisher that's going down the drain. This isn't the record industry. Publishers don't routinely give book contracts to their girlfriends just to keep them from talking to their wives.

That said, I don't suppose networking can hurt; it may get your submission a faster read. Sadly, all the advice I have to offer takes the negative form, e.g., "Never get staggering drunk in the SFWA suite and spill your drink on Ellen Datlow. And if you do this anway, never offer to lick it off her."

Does anyone else have some more constructive advice?

Friday, March 04, 2005

To Be, Or To Be Somebody Else

The question continues to come up: should I use a pseudonym?

That depends. When I first started writing I made the decision to write everything under my real name, mostly because my ego was very tightly tied up in the whole thing, and for many years that seemed to work well. I wrote; I published; my ego saw my byline in many places and was made glad.

In retrospect, however, I wish I'd used a pen name. This is because:

  • I never envisioned that there would be a day when I would be embarassed to have my children find and read certain of my early stories.
  • I never envisioned that there would be a day when I would work for a VP who was a biker wanna-be on weekends, and who actually *had* some of that borderline biker-porn I wrote in my early years, thought it was cool, and would bring it in to the office to share with the rest of the executives.
  • I actually did envision cyberstalking -- it was integral to the never-finished second "c-word" novel -- but I never envisioned how easy it would some day be for just any putz to make the leap from your name to your home phone number, street address, map and directions, and a satellite photo of your house clear enough to show the color of the doghouse roof.

Further, I did not understand until too late that a byline is a brand name, and while I hate to repeat myself, readers really do like to find books and stories just like other ones they've already read and enjoyed. When they opened up a can of Bruce Bethke, though, they could never tell what they were getting. Funny? Serious? Hard-clanking cyber SF or dark contemporary horror? While this led to some truly entertaining fan letters (e.g., "I had a hard time appreciating the humor of 'Interior Monologue' at first, but..."), it made me hard to pigeonhole, and loathe it or hate it, the market loves pigeonholes.

Ergo, if I were starting out now (or trying to reanimate a dead career), I believe I would follow the example illustrated by the blogosphere, and not just use a pen name, but use at least seven of them -- one each for mystery, comedy, horror, hard SF, fantasy, political/social commentary, and apolitical non-fiction -- and freely switch back and forth between identities as my various "careers" waxed and waned. If nothing else, maybe this would help me elude The Curse of the Poor Numbers.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

What to write when

Chris Naron suggests:
I would like to discuss writing in/out of sequence. Sometimes I have the epilog in mind and want to write it first.

Oddly enough, I was flipping through the extra material on a Black Adder DVD when I found an interview with writer Richard Curtis that addresses this. His comments were specific to TV scriptwriting but are also germane here.

Though it's not obvious when you're watching, each Black Adder TV series was conceived as a serial of finite length. Freed from having to worry about next season, the writers (Curtis and Ben Elton) wrote the last episode first. (After all, how can you judge whether you're getting there if you don't know where you're going?) After that, they went back and figured out what else had to happen when in order to set up and support that ending, then wrote that material and only that material.

As for beginning at the beginning, Curtis's advice was to write the pilot episode if you must, then to lock it in a drawer and only take it out when you need to for your own reference. Pilot episodes of TV series -- or first chapters of novels -- tend to be devoted to defining relationships and larded with background information, none of which is interesting to the viewer/reader. If it's important, it can be worked in later, once the progression to the ending is under weigh.

Looking back at my own stuff, I can see I've had very few successful stories that sprang forth as a gestalt and could be written straight through from beginning to end. I've had a lot more great beginnings that petered out because I had no idea where the story was going. My best stories have been those I started with a clear image of the climactic scene -- which I wrote first -- then regressed through time to figure out where the story actually began, writing key scenes and backfilling along the way. This method requires a lot of rewriting, but I've long since realized that my first draft is never the best one.

Your thoughts?


Tuesday, March 01, 2005

How to write Dialogue

Dale asks:

Do you have any suggestions for learning how to write dialogue? I can describe a scene and write it vividly like you are there. That for me is easy. But most of my stories are first-person P.O.V. with little or no speaking characters, because dialogue hangs me up.

Dialogue is one of those awkward areas where it's much easier to see that it's not working than to tell you why it's not working or how to fix it. Here's a short list of problems to watch for.

The Don & Rob Lecture. Two hand-puppets are speaking to each other. They both know the subject matter, they agree on the main points, and they're in the scene only so that the author can try to disguise a lump of exposition as character interaction. E.g., "As you know, Don, the incandescent light bulb uses nichrome wire." "Gee, Rob, but didn't Edison try using bamboo filaments first?" These sorts of scenes usually result from over-applying the "Show, not Tell" dictum. Sometimes it is better to just Tell and Get It Over With.

The Point/Counter-Point Lecture. The doppelganger of Don & Rob, this is where the author sets up one character as an utter flaming idjit so that the other character can demonstrate his superior wit and intelligence by absolutely lacerating the idjit with brilliant quips, arguments, and put-downs. While these scenes are fun to write, if the reader doesn't share your glee, they're awful to read. (Most American sitcom dialogue falls into this category, which is why watching sitcoms will turn your brain into feta cheese.)

The Utterly Realistic Dialogue. At first the idea of learning to write dialogue by spending lots of time listening to other people seems like a good idea. Then you do it, and it becomes apparent that real people spend a lot of time saying "um," "er," and repeating what the other person just said, or else muttering trite banalities. Dialogue in fiction needs to be at least twice as efficient as real human speech, which means this technique can work, but only if you focus on three or four key exchanges and mercilessly delete all the rest.

On the other hand, if you're doing comedy, French & Saunders have done some absolutely hysterical routines which consist of nothing but utterly realistic dialogue between two flaming idjits who absolutely agree with each other on every point.

SUGGESTION: I think dialogue can fail because too often the characters are just sock puppets for the author, and no matter whether they agree with or hate each other, at core they fundamentally understand each other. I've gotten good results by forcing fundamental misunderstandings on my characters, sometimes to the point where they inhabit only tangentially intersecting realities and don't even agree on what any given word means -- not that they're aware of this, of course.

Your thoughts?