Tag Archives: teaching

My current earworm is the Skyfall theme…

Posted on November 16, 2015 by

photoToday I have finished up a guest blog entry on ecofantasy for Charlie Stross, which you can read here.

I have also prepared for tomorrow’s thoroughly fabulous launch of License Expired: The Unauthorized James Bond, by making sure my reading of my Moneypenny story, “Through Your Eyes Only,” comes in under the five minute limit. I’ve booked a Send My Hair to the Sixties appointment at a place called Blo, and now I’ve also reminded you all that if you happen to be in Toronto, you really would be very very welcome to this shindig. (I tell you this even though, according to math, it increases my chances of winning the bespoke suit ChiZine Publications is giving away as a prize if you don’t come.) It’s at the Pravda Vodka House on 44 Wellington Avenue East. If you don’t want a bespoke suit, you can put my name on the raffle ticket.

(Are contributors even entitled to enter the raffle? Do I know? Don’t burst my bubble, okay?)

Earlier today, Iposted critiques for the last round of the Writing the Fantastic workshop at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Next up: revision exercises! (I do still have a few slots open in the winter session of Creating Universes, Building Worlds, by the way).  I have worked on a novel called The After People, fetched food from two separate groceries, and written out some questions for the SFContario panel on economics in genre fiction that I’ll be moderating next Saturday.

I made a salad, drank coffee, ate a persimmon before it had a chance to liquefy and contemplated my upcoming Tor.com review of Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe of XKCD fame. Contemplated in this context is indeed a fancy term for “But she didn’t write a single word yet.”

Emails have been answered. Dishes have been washed.

And, since all this virtue and productivity means I am ignoring my young, I have refilled the bird feeder, which is the modern equivalent of slapping the kids down in front of Sesame Street with some Ritz Crackers.


Do as I say, Do as I do, There Is No Try

Posted on November 5, 2015 by

imageThe slice of my life that is all about helping new authors find and hone their voices has been on fire lately, and I have been burning to tell you about all the nifty upcoming developments. Over at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, registration is open forCreating Universes, Building Worlds,” my workshop course in short speculative fiction. This class makes a nice trial run for something like Odyssey, Clarion or Clarion West: you can write in any of the speculative fiction subgenres, and the workshop is run like one of the aforementioned programs (or as close to it as one can get with an online class.) You get to stay home, write one complete work of fiction, workshop it with the group, and make plans for revision and marketing.

Want more? You also get to read and discuss awesome stories by Kij Johnson, Nalo Hopkinson, Harry Turtledove, Tanith Lee and so many other fantastic writers!

But why is that exciting? You may well ask… I’ve been teaching this class for years. But for those of you who’ve taken CUBW and its follow-up, Writing the Fantastic, it does look like there will be a new and more advanced option for you at UCLA come Spring 2016. So that’s one very exciting thing.

The other wildly delightful development is that come January I will be teaching a realtime, face to face, honest-to-deity speculative fiction workshop at the University of Toronto in Scarborough, Ontario. Are there (or do you know) any U of T students who might be interested in that? If so, write me and I will give you the scoop as it develops.

On The Loose in Stirling’s Emberverse

Posted on May 28, 2015 by

My contributor’s copy of The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth arrived today, and after about four failed attempts to get a decent picture of myself with the book, I caved to the obvious and shot it with the cat instead. Lorenzo appreciates a good alternate history, I imagine, given that he’s named for a Medici.
(Fanciful? Who, me?)
It’s an honor to be asked to play around with someone else’s universe, and a favor I hope to return to S.M. Stirling one day. I’m so pleased he trusted me with his world, letting me  crayon-scrawl the Change all over the part of Northern Alberta that was my childhood stomping ground. I got to cover it with rodeo in-jokes and local history I learned in grade four and never thought to use, and even took a mild swipe at a certain ubiquitous Canadian coffee/donut franchise. It was a thrill to borrow the keys to the character of Huon Liu, whom I’ve always had a bit of a thing for.
Here’s the opening of my story, “Rate of Exchange.”

The totem marking the pass to the Fortress of Solitude was an enormous man with skin the color of cream, clad in blue and red and with a big “S” emblazoned on his chest.

If not for his size, Finch might have believed him real. The blue of his eyes blazed with lively intensity as they bored down into hers, and his cape rippled in the wind in a way that made him seem as athrum with life as any cub or grown adult. His jet-black hair was real–horse, perhaps?–braided in long strands, bound with beads and feathers. The illusion was so perfect she thought she saw him tilt a brow . . . but then her pinto danced sideways and she saw the old man on the platform, putting a finishing lick of red paint on one red boot.

This kickin’ anthology also has stories by Walter Jon Williams, Kier Salmon, Jane Lindskold, John Barnes and of course by the antho editor and creator of the Emberverse, the aforementioned S.M. Stirling. It’ll be available for sale this weekend. Go, buy, and enjoy!

If I squint as May wraps up, I can see it’s been an insanely productive month. I’ve edited several hundred pages of my current novel, while also writing 7,500 words of critique on student work for Novel Writing III two weeks ago, another 5,500 this week for the same class, and doing a close edit of about 18K words worth of of student manuscripts. I’ve done a whack of coding on the classroom for my next UCLA Extension Writers’ Program summer course, Creating Universes, Building Worlds, begun some long-overdue work on my photo archive, pondered, developed and mostly scrapped an idea for a new novel, flirted with poetry and gone to Peterborough for a ChiSeries reading with Kelly, David Nickle, and Madeline Ashby. The reading was  hosted by the marvelous Derek Newman-Stille, and my first glimpse of Peterborough only made me want more. It’s nice to be exploring Ontario a bit, now that we’ve been here a couple years and are mostly over the transition.
The surges of student critique–three down, one to go!–tend to leave me cotton-headed for a couple days afterward, full of interesting ideas for about-how-to-write essays I can’t quite manage to compose. Instead, I muddle around like a goldfish throwing itself at the glass of its own bowl, trying to figure out why I can’t finish coherent sentences or complete much in the way of useful work. That’s been my state for a day or so now: trying to do some high-end thinking and finding myself, instead, working up feverish internal rants over how obviously I’m slacking. Intellectually, I know better, but sometimes the internal supervisor just won’t shut up.
A buddy posted about having the exact same problem today, on Facebook, and that helped a bit.
Tomorrow’s battle shall be to take a ridiculously long (43 page) Stormwrack chapter of incredible complexity and edit it into two easily followed not-so-convoluted pieces. To that lofty goal I shall probably add enormously surmountable tasks, like acquiring food, and vacuuming.

Workshop part two, The Imitation Game

Posted on December 29, 2014 by

imageMoving on from my previous post about Die Hard, workshop etiquette and providing fictional/film examples, here’s what I’d say about The Imitation Game. This is the problematic stuff, and would come later in the critique than the section where I praised the characterization, the weighty and worthwhile subject matter, and the general structure of the story, which holds together in a decently coherent fashion.

Hi, Graham and Morten,


  • Though the story moves from beat to beat in a logical manner, and is effective in achieving the desired emotional effect, it lacks subtlety. The story feels heavy-handed, on the nose, as if the characters are bellowing slogans like, “War is bad!” and “It takes more than guns to win these things!” and “Look at this amazing maladjusted smart guy and all the people he saved!” and “Wow, isn’t it horrific and amazing that every day he and his band didn’t solve the problem, all sorts of people died?” I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but it’s fundamentally clunky.
  • The details of your chosen historical period and the military/intelligence community are for the most part accurately rendered, but you have chosen to simplify the chain of command by making Turing and his guys seem responsible for an enormous swath of military action, including calling or cancelling bombing raids. I understand why simplifying is often a good choice, but it’s less interesting, in this case, than if you tried to hint at the complexity.
  • Turing’s male sidekicks are somewhat slenderly characterized. They blend together in my mind, forming something of a multi-headed bully when they’re not on his side and a multi-headed cheerleader when they are. The only one who stands out at all is the fellow with a brother in the Navy. That’s less about characterization and more about the story attached to him.
  • I’m not sure what I think of you showing us apple and cyanide during the story, foreshadowing the manner of Turing’s death, without explicitly saying that he poisoned himself. Apples have both Biblical and fairy-tale freight, and I wonder if you couldn’t do something more with this.


All of the above is clear and yet it’s respectfully worded. It’s not so “nice” that the intent is lost, but it doesn’t try to snark, show off my huge brain, or score points.

It would be easy to push that line, especially with the first item. I could simply add a touch of sarcasm to the sentences I use to illustrate the story’s various points. (Even if I tool the last one up slightly  “Gee willikers, do you all get that every day Turing and his plucky band didn’t solve the problem, all sorts of people died?” the tone changes.)

The exercise here, if you missed the previous post, is to critique a movie that many people will have seen, as if it were actually a novel or short story submitted to one of my classes. It’s a chance to practice critique. And to get to say, “Dear Francis Ford Coppola, about this thingie you’ve written…” Which is just, I hope, fun.

Next in this series, we will discuss my deep and abiding hatred of the most recent X-Men movie.

Are editors still needed?

Posted on April 22, 2014 by

imageEvery last soul reading this post could, if they chose, have 5,000 words of fiction up in some prominent e-bookstore by the end of this week. This is true too of feature journalism, epic poetry, creative non-fiction, film scripts, thinly veiled Raylan/Boyd Justified erotica, song lyrics, diary entries and stream of consciousness commandments for that new religion you’ve been meaning to think up.

Step one would be typing 5K words of, seriously, whatever. Steps two through finished would involve figuring out step-by-step instructions available everywhere, on how to set up, price and upload the relevant files.

If we were all to do this, some of those hypothetical stories–say the ones written by Neal Gaiman, Tana French, George Lucas, Elvis Costello, Patricia Briggs, Joss Whedon, Connie Willis and Wayne Gretzky*–would be commercially successful. They might not offset a week’s worth of other work at the Lucas level of income, but they’d get lots of uploads, reads, likes and user reviews.

A different subset, including some but not necessarily all of the works just mentioned, would make for entertaining reading. They ‘d be good stories, fun experiences, and worthy uses of reader time. There’d be some delightful drafts in the mix. Depending on each writer’s process, some would be quite polished. Others would be pleasing shambles of prose.

There might be a few runaway successes that were simply awful, and a few unnoticed, typo-ridden gems.

Then there’d be everything else: quiet stories that didn’t quite pull it off, novel beginnings that had promise, stories with okay structures but off-putting protagonists, and a whole lotta stuff that wasn’t all that great. A great bulk of words that would, whether deserving of attention or not, sink like sediment to the bottom of the great and growing e-commerce database.

What does any of this have to do with editing?

New writers can tend to see editors as a source of adversity. Editors are the ones who say yes or no to buying our work, after all. Yes means publication, money and–perhaps most importantly–a certain kind of validation. No… well, it’s hard not to take a rejection personally, especially if you haven’t yet heard Yes.

New writers wonder if editors will steal their ideas. They worry about whether they’ll ruin their stories. They wonder if they’re too cynical or overworked to recognize quality. All of these questions have been part of a larger discussion about how publishing is changing, in this age of throw it on the Internet yourself!

I don’t want to get sidetracked into everything editors do. Beth Hill has a quick and very useful summary here.

The question about editors on my virtual floor (this came from Blaise Selby, on Facebook**) is: do we still need them?

I say: do we still need chickens, I say? Pacific salmon?  Caribou?

Editing, the act of reading fiction and providing insight into how the author can improve it, is a key process in the storytelling ecosystem. It is also, incidentally, an entirely noble activity.

One could–and many do–argue that editing can be performed by anyone with a reasonable degree of literacy. Your english teacher, your mom,your critique group, the lady who supplies your Diet Coke habit, a hired freelancer, fans, beta readers, agents, college professors, tax accountants, deposed dictators, or your romantic partner. They all read, right? And the fact is writers do seek out these people, and others, to read our work before it goes to market. This is, in itself, an argument that editing is vital.

But if anyone can do it, why do we need editors?

Expertise: the above random list of people could also provide first aid if you had a heart attack on the street.

If someone from your critique group CPRs you until the ambulance shows up and as a result you don’t die this week, that’s awesome. Go them! It’s a delightful human interest story. Even so, I bet you’ll be pretty happy when you’re ensconced in a hospital having a face to face consult with an actual cardiologist.

Getting CPR at the scene may keep you alive for awhile. Honestly, though, “not dead on the streetcorner” isn’t a very high bar. You want your writing to sing, to dance the Charleston in the streets. You want it climbing Mount Everest and swimming the Channel! Smarter, cleverer, stronger, and ever more effective.

There’s nothing quite like working with a professional editor to not only pull up the quality of a given piece of writing but to teach you techniques and spark ideas that will inform the quality of the next story.

So what else? Editors have a financial stake in your writing: anthology and magazine editors curate selections of short fiction that reflect their taste, the themes they want to explore and the best prose they can find. Book editors seek to add authors and novelists to their publishers’ lists that will bring glory, awards and pots of money to the company coffers. If they do these things well–economy notwithstanding–they get to keep publishing their favorite writers, bringing things they consider beautiful and affecting and important to readers.

I’m not the biggest fan of the invisible hand, but there is an increased investment in this process that can’t be matched by volunteer readers. Editors’ reputations rise and fall on their professional choices. When your workshop group is just trying to get through the latest round of manuscripts without breaking into a flamewar, and your writing professor is moving on to the next classroom full of aspiring Rowlings, when the freelancer cuts you an invoice with a handwritten note saying “Good luck with this!” your editor is still there, chewing away on the problem of why this or that angle within your book doesn’t quite work.

Financial stakes the sequel: It is simply nice to work with people who send you cheques. This sounds facetious, but consider: you have profit motive too. And when the person paying you says “This is a problem,” you’re going to be less inclined to ignore them than when your writer BFF says it. We all get tired of revising our work. Sometimes we need to suck it up and do another pass.

An editor who buys your work is investing in you. They’re taking a risk on you, in a way that the purchaser of a 99 cent e-book simply isn’t. That is a heady and important thing, something every artist deserves to experience.

The gatekeeper thing: I hate the word gatekeeping. To me, the word puts everyone in mind of club bouncers or Saint Peter in an unreceptive mood, barring the gates to Heaven. And we’ve all heard from writers who see it in exactly that light, and resent it accordingly.

But editing is about finding treasure! It’s archaeology, Indiana-Jones style. A quest for the awesome. They’re unearthing nifty written artifacts, polishing them up, and bringing them out into the light to blow readers’ minds.

In a world without editors, readers are be left to do their own digging in the quest for good fiction. Word of mouth, these days, includes professional review, as it always did. It’s also everything from blog entries to user reviews from anonymous posters to that friend you never quite agree with to what your book club’s reading. There are lots of ways to get opinions, good and bad, on what you should read.

In many ways this is a good thing. But crowdsourcing has its drawbacks. The accumulated opinion of everyone who happened to post might not be an opinion that helps you. Consider Yelp’s restaurant ratings. Canny Yelpers tend to have to develop a personal system for divining which ratings are actually accurate. A five star restaurant with only three reviews isn’t really a five star restaurant, is it? It’s a place that three people happened to like. A restaurant in the heart of a big city tourist district might have hundreds of reviews and ratings. And many of those are going to come from jet-lagged, hungry travellers who were grateful to be able to sit down and eat something that wasn’t deep fried nuggets o’ Spam.

As S.M. Stirling pointed out in a comment on this thread, any reviewer or gang of pals with an ax to grind can skew things the other way, dragging down the approval ratings of perfectly good writers, books (or restaurants, hotels, and fix-it guys) for obscure reasons of their own.

Thriller writer Chris Pavone praises gatekeeping elegantly here, at Publisher’s Weekly.

High grade your time: I consider making stories to be the highest and best use of my working hours. I want my writing to be fantastic, and I don’t want to spend endless hours on typos hunts–a skill at which, you may have noticed, I entirely suck. Every time an editor notices that I’m fuzzy on the difference between north and south or that I’ve forgotten to distinguish between constitutional debate and criminal law in the third Stormwrack story, I look smarter.

Editors have been part of the storytelling ecosystem for a long time. Cut them out, and the system will react accordingly: invasive species will flood in to imperfectly fill the niche they’ve left. Writers and readers would both suffer.

The idea of not needing them is, to me, unthinkable.


*It’s my blog, I can imagine any readership I like.

**This essay is one of a series inspired by all of your responses to a query I threw to the Internet, asking everyone to let me know what you’d like to hear about in the near. I am still welcoming your topic suggestions.

***Your Raylan/Boyd recs are always welcome.

Thank you for the question, Blaise!