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
, 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.
If you happened to be outside my front window right now, this is what you would see. (Please don’t step on my flowers while you are there, you mad stalker! I actually got some bulbs going that the squirrels have so far neglected to eat.)
My birch trees are busting out fine new leaves, perfect little chlorophyll-laden shapes, with edges like serrated knives, and I have been writing Novel Writing III critiques about a meter from the bird feeder, which is exceedingly popular with the local sparrows.
Yesterday tasted of summer. It was bright and sunny and the house got a little bit stuffy. You could walk outside in a dress. No tights, no coat required. Kelly and I strolled out through a cherry blossom-infested U of T campus to Bloor Street, and a matinee of the film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd. This was a speed version of Thomas Hardy. Look, a girl! Look, a boy! Another boy! A third boy! Unhappiness! Misery! Woe! Boom! Conveniently, we’re now back to one available party representing each of the sexes. Someone read the damned banns already.
To sum up my emotional reaction to this particular costume drama: the horses were pretty and nobody got hanged.
We came home, waited for it to cloud over, and climbed into the hot tub. This enabled me, later, to phone Vancouver, say “Thank you for giving me life!” and proceed to brag about how awesome a day it had been.
Today it is cooler and foggy.
I have a schtick on Facebook whereby I’ll often give the cats (whom we adopted 358 days ago, I’ll have you know) super-sekrit spy names for the day. Moose and Squirrel. Joe Dick and Billy Talent. Laundry Chicken and What’s Going On? Today it was Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap, which has spawned a small conversation about whether anyone could successfully reboot WKRP In Cincinnati and, if so, how? My position is that it would have to start exactly like the Battlestar Galactica reboot: Earth gets nuked, but Cincinatti survives. For obscure reasons (one friend claims this would be Johnny’s paranoia in action) the radio station was shielded against EMP.
Red Wigglers the size of Cadillacs would be roaming the Midwest, which makes it all seem like a mash-up with Dune.
Continuing on with the random, I am pondering a few fine linguistic details within the Stormwrack universe. A few of these came up when I was reviewing the copy-edit of A Daughter of No Nation. I got a query about when I use “in Fleet” as opposed to when I use “the Fleet.” (Answer: ‘in Fleet’ when they mean the city, and the words ‘in Tacoma’ could be used just as correctly. ‘The Fleet’ when we’re talking about the subsection that is a navy: “We’ll be sending the Fleet around to see if you’re in compliance with the Treaty.”) I had been doing this correctly but without conscious thought.
And here’s something that doesn’t happen to literary writers all that often: I had already known that the portions of the Hidden Sea Tales that take place on Stormwrack (as opposed to in San Francisco) were playing out, linguistically, in Fleetspeak. This means that those scenes played out in Fleet and were translated, by me, into present-day English. This is something that’s essentially invisible to everyone but my wacky imagination, but it became something of an entertaining conceit through the copy-edit process.
See, I’m no Tolkien. (I know, you’re shocked.) I don’t actually speak Fleetspeak. And the poor copy-editor really doesn’t speak Fleetspeak. So there was a bit of them going “Here’s a foreign word,” and me going, “No, that’s actually a real English science word. I had to look it up, too.” And them going “Here’s another foreign word ,” and me going, “It’s not foreign in Fleetspeak.”
Them: “Here’s another another foreign word.
Me: “Yes, that one’s Erinthian. Obvs. We can italicize that.”
None of which actually happened face to face, you understand. I’m describing a process of me talking to pencil marks on a 600-page manuscript that is now, blessedly, wrapped, taped, bar-coded and in the hands of Canada Post.
The c/e did a meticulous, thoughtful job and I’m so fucking grateful you can’t even imagine.
Finally, I am groping for a verb I can noun (or a noun I can verb) to describe a particular element of the magical inscription process, whereby a spellscribe takes an existing spell and creates a variation on it. I played with embroidering, but it’s long and unwieldy and not quite right. The embroidered spell? A broidery?
The closest equivalent to the variation/embroidery process would be someone taking a fiddly gourmet recipe and creating an undeniably different–but recognizably similar–food. Going from curried plantains in coconut milk to… maybe something with green mangos?
Why am I not currying plantains tonight? Why am I not currying plantains right now?
Writing is, to a great degree, learned through trial and error. But errors can be hard to identify – especially as a writer starts to be pretty good at the basics. Once things start to go subtly wrong with a person’s work, it becomes obvious there’s no single right answer as to how to fix a given challenge within a manuscript.
Part of the answer, of course, is to find a group of peers with good reading skills and the same need to have outside eyes laid on their work. People with goodwill, a story in progress, and an understanding that half of critiquing is about helping the author fix their work and the other half is about cultivating your own critical sense so you can better address your own.
With short story critique groups, there’s a rhythm that can work quite well: new writers submit a story to a workshop, everyone critiques it, and then everyone goes home to hopefully rewrite the piece before sending it to market. When they return, it’s generally with another piece. There’s a fresh start. This is how Clarion and Odyssey and a number of other workshops are configured. (There’s an article in Wired about the SF workshops this week
, by the way. I found it a bit shallow, and the comments thread may make you blind with rage, but some of the actual interview responses are interesting.)
With novel workshops, the logistics get much trickier. If you submit your first three chapters, and get a bunch of feedback, do you then revise those chapters? If you do, do you submit them again to make sure they’re working? If they’re not, do you revise and resubmit them again? That’s just an ornate way of never getting the book finished.
On the other hand, it can feel very weird to submit chapter one, get feedback, try then to use that feedback to write a better chapter two. (Next you submit that, and try to use the next round of feedback to inform chapters three and four.) This gets your novel done–and I am a huge fan of done! But drawback can be that if you are truly improving your craft as you go, the last chapters of the book may be significantly better-written than the opening ones. This leaves you to discover, four or five hundred pages later, whether you’re up to the task of revising. You are drafting better, which is great, but can you raise something you wrote six months ago to the level of what you’re creating now?
Additionally, the plunge-forward system doesn’t address any huge structural changes you decide to make along the way. When you turn the guy who was formerly the love interest into the main character’s brother, around about chapter five, the question arises again… do you go back and tweak this before moving forward?
Okay, so what if you got a dozen writers together and they all managed to submit a completed novel draft on the same day… make it November 30th. You could then set some kind of reading period–one book every two or three weeks–and trade off so that each participant was getting one critique during each round. But how to get a dozen writers to all finish their book on the same day? I chose November 30th because it’s the end of Nanowrimo, but most Nanowrimo projects would require considerable massaging before they were workshop-ready.
There are other logistical challenges with novel-in-progress workshops, but these are some of the things I’m mulling right now.
Has any of you been in a novel group that worked? How was it structured?
This year’s reading. If I finished it, it was at least good. If it has an asterisk after it, it was great.
1. Echopraxia, by Peter Watts*
2. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King
3. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013, edited by Tim Folger and Siddhartha Mukherjee
4. All Heads Turn when the Hunt Goes By, John Farris
- Touchstone, by Laurie R. King
- The Madonna and the Starship, by James Morrow
- Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
- Horns: A Novel, by Joe Hill*
- The Door in the Mountain, by Caitlin Sweet*
- A Taste Fur Murder, by Dixie Lyle
- The Golden Princess: A Novel of the Change, by S.M. Stirling*
- The Secret Place, by Tana French*
- The Lesser Dead, by Christopher Buehlman*
- Last Plane to Heaven by Jay Lake*
- Last Song Before Night, by Ilana C. Myer
16. N0S4A2, by Joe Hill
17. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of those who survived the Great American Dustbowl, by Timothy Egan*
18. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, edited by Tim Folger and Deborah Blum*
19. The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry*
20. Nobody’s Home, by Tim Powers
21. We Will All Go Down Together, by Gemma Files (As of this morning, I’m two stories away from being finished with this.)*
Plus some, but not all, of the stories
“Hard Stars,” by Brendan DuBois
“Something going Around,” by Harry Turtledove
“Solstice Cakes,” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman,
“The Faery Handbag,” by Kelly Link
“Strange Attractors” by S.B. Divya
The guest editor for this year’s Best American Science and Nature Writing was Deborah Blum and her picks were outstanding. I particularly loved Barbara Kingsolver’s “Where it Begins,” which is about knitting and the turn of the seasons and many other lovely things. I had some great conversations sparked by Maryn McKenna’s “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future.”
“TV as Birth Control,” by Fred Pearce blew my mind… but, really, so did most of Blum’s choices. It’s an outstanding collection. Here’s the table of contents.
As the links show, a lot of the articles can be found online. If you’re feeling inclined to sample, go for it.
Science reporters are close cousins to SF writers. Both professions involve looking at the state of the world today and extrapolating, from the data, to where we may be headed. This is an anthology about ocean rise and plagues of fire ants, about genetically engineered oranges, about our right to die with dignity, whether we’re entitled to privacy protection from potential genetic relatives who may find us using commercially available DNA tests, and what we lose and gain by reading on screens instead of paper.
Inspiration for stories, cause for alarm and the seeds of intense, chewy discussions fair jump off every single page. Pick it up – you won’t be sorry.