Monday, July 21, 2014

For New and Developing Writers Only

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I've been interviewed by Carl Slaughter for Diabolical Plots, a genre webzine featuring a great deal of material on the craft of writing.  In this interview, I was not asked about myself, my work, my idiot opinions . . . none of that.  Just about how to write.

I provided, if I may say so, an expletive bleeping lot of information.

Here are a few snippets, presented as if they were excerpted from somebody else's interview:

I’ve watched editors reading slush back in the days when the slush pile was a physical heap of paper, and they would read the first page of a typescript and then flip to the last page.  On the basis of that cursory glimpse, they would then put almost every submission in the reject pile and one or two stories aside to be read all the way through.

Write as best you can and as simply as you can.  That is the whole of the law. 

The thing is that there is not one single skill which we can call “writing”; there’s a large family of related skills which result in superficially similar end-products.  What works for one writer will stop another one dead.

I can honestly say that I’ve never given a moment’s thought to themes, much less reinforcing them. 

When my son was a teenager, he and a friend spent a summer writing a fanfic mashup of two incompatible gaming worlds, and for a year they received more fan letters than I did. 


You can read the interview here.  Or you can just go to Diabolical Plots here and start poking around.


Above:  Me, pontificating.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

It's Just A Zoo

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Federal officials found more than just long-forgotten smallpox samples recently in a storage room on the National Institutes for Health campus in Bethesda, Md. The discovery included 12 boxes and 327 vials holding an array of pathogens, including the virus behind the tropical disease dengue and the bacteria that can cause spotted fever, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the lab in question.
                           -- Washington Post, July 16


It's just a zoo.

Here's what happened:  Some long-ago microbiologist cultured all the most interesting strains that passed through his or her hands and kept them as pets.  Ordinarily the vials would all have gone into the autoclave upon the researcher's retirement.  But she or he was fired or (far more likely) had a heart attack, so the zoo was forgotten.

Microbiologists are not like other people.  They love those tiny little organisms, and they're comfortable being around them.  Being married to a microbiologist, I quickly learned that when she came home all bubbly and ebullient, it probably meant that a nasty new disease had just been discovered.

So when I heard that smallpox samples had been found, I knew there would turn out to be others.  The investigators had simply found somebody's collection.

At heart, all microbiologists are zookeepers.

There's no reason to get excited about this.  Nobody was exposed to anything.  The chances of a pathogen getting loose were negligible.  And the zoo was a perfectly ordinary one, assembled at a time when smallpox, nasty though it is, was still to be found in the wild.

If you absolutely insist on being terrified, buy me a drink at a convention sometime and get me to talking about the coming pandemics.  Or the utility of disease as a weapon of war.  Or security at the American and Russian germ warfare facilities.

But this?  Nothing.  There are hundreds, and possibly thousands of zoos much like it in facilities around the world.


Above:  That's the nasty stuff itself.  

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

One Thing I Learned From Joyce Carol Oates

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Captains of industry are almost never mentioned in Locus and, similarly, I did not expect ever to make even the briefest appearance on Forbes.com.  Yet, skipping over the programming, John Farrell wrote an article on the Huckster Room at Readercon and, more specifically, how charming it is to be surrounded by vast numbers of books both contemporary and vintage which one is permitted to buy.  In which appeared not only my name but my photograph (above, with David Hartwell).

The observant will note three things about the photo.  First, that (being an old hand at this) when asked to pose for a shot, I leapt to it.  Second, that I stood slightly behind David in order to not block his extraordinary shirt (it being safe to say that the viewers were going to want to ogle as much of it as possible), and third, that when the camera appeared, I took off my name tag and slipped it into my pocket.

This last, I learned from observing Joyce Carol Oates.  We were at a literary event and even chatted briefly -- about our mutual friend Ellen Datlow, of course.  It was a glancing encounter but just before the photo op, I noticed her take off her name tag and slip it into her purse.  That seemed sensible to me, so I took off mine and slid it into a pocket of my tux.

This may not have been responsible for the fact that when the roomful of writers was rounded up and arranged in rows on the staircase, Ms. Oates and I got to sit in chairs front and center, with the others arrayed behind us.  But it certainly didn't hurt.

And it makes for a cleaner photo, dunnit?

You can read the article here.


Above:  Detail from John Farrell's photograph.


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Monday, July 14, 2014

And Only She Escaped To Tell The Tale...

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I spent the weekend at Readercon, where the Shirley Jackson Awards (for horror and dark fantasy) are presented.  I was in the bar Sunday -- not drinking! I swear! I was memorializing Lucius! -- when my pal Greer Gilman emerged from the awards ceremony with a freshly minted lucite trophy for Best Novella for her quite wonderful Small Beer chapbook Cry Murder! In a Small Voice.

(For those of you who haven't read it, Cry Murder! In a Small Voice is a murder mystery with Ben Jonson in the role of detective, told in his distinctive prose style.  Oxfordians are urged not to rush out with the rest of us to buy it, as it will only make them grumpy.

Greer was so elated that she let me help her hold the award for the above photo by illustrious bookman and litterateur Henry Wessells.  That's me in an appropriately obscured position, basking in her reflected glory.

And why wasn't I there to applaud Greer's accomplishment?  Well... I might have been, except that just before the ceremony, I was talking with Paul Park about the engraved stones that are given to all the nominees and he said, "You know, I picture the winner walking up to accept the award and all the nominees, who have just lost, looking down at their hands and realizing that they're holding something just the right size for throwing..."

Come to think, I don't actually know that any of the other winners survived the ceremony.

The other winners (living or dead, as the case may be) were:

 American Elsewhere, by Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit) – Best Novel

Burning Girls, Veronica Schanoes (Tor.com) – Best Novella

“57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides”, Sam J. Miller (Nightmare December 2013) – Best Short Fiction

Before and Afterlives, Christopher Barzak (Lethe Press) & North American Lake Monsters, Nathan Ballingrud (Small Beer) – tied for Best Collection

Grimscribe’s Puppets, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr., ed. (Miskatonic River Press) – Best Edited Anthology

My sincere congratulations to them all.  

Greer has a second novelette chapbook, also starring Ben Jonson, which is apparently not officially out until September, titled Exit, Pursued by a Bear.  Somehow, I managed to buy a copy, since autographed by the award-winning author herself.  You can read about it here.

Or you can read about the first chapbook (both are strikingly handsome) here.

Or you can just go to Small Beer Press and wander about happily here.  I have faith in your ability to resist buying lots and lots of books that would make you far happier than the money ever could.


And, because I promised . . .

Friday, I pointed out three of the lessons that new and gonnabe writers can learn from the opening paragraph of Neil Gaiman's contributions to the Rogues anthology, and promised on Monday (today) to point out a fourth and even more important one.

So here it is:

Go back to the opening paragraph again.  Notice the utter clarity of it.  There is no ambiguity about what's going on.  This fact is not unrelated to Neil's popularity.

For extra credit, spend the rest of your life trying to achieve perfect clarity in your own prose.


Above:  Yours Truly and Greer Gilman.  Photo by Henry Wessells.


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Friday, July 11, 2014

Opening the Marquis de Carabas's Coat

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I dropped by Gardner Dozois' house the other day and  received my contributor's copy of Rogues (other contributors will have to wait upon the mail) and I am here to report that it is one solid piece of goods.  Most anthologies, all you have to do is write an extremely good story to be mentioned in the reviews.  Here, alas, that's not enough.  The competition is fierce.

Which is, of course, from the reader's perspective, good.

The first story I chose, via random processes, to read was Neil Gaiman's "How the Marquis Got His Coat Back."  Which I enjoyed, of course.  But, since the opening paragraph was particularly apt for my purposes, I thought I'd present it here and then point out some of what gonnabe writers might learn from it.

First, the paragraph:
It was beautiful.  It was remarkable.  It was unique.  It was the reason that the Marquis de Carabas was chained to a pole in the middle of a circular room, far, far underground, while the water level rose slowly higher and higher.  It had thirty pockets, seven of which were obvious, nineteen of which were hidden, and four of which were more or less impossible to find -- even, on occasion, for the Marquis himself.

Three obvious things to notice here:

First, the protagonist is introduced right away, and his characterization follows close on the heels of that introduction.

Second, the action starts immediately.  Which is to say the story starts immediately. No background info, no scene setting... These things come later, after you're involved in the plot.  Neil. Because purpose of a story's opening is to not to establish mood or provide information to help you understand in depth what will start happening in a few pages, but to get you reading.  

Third, fi you pay attention to those first three sentences, you'll see that Neil worked hard to make them engaging.  There is a superstition among gonnabe writers that the established names can write weak stories and sell them on the basis of their names.  Well... If anyone has a big enough name to do this, it's Neil Gaiman.  Yet here he is, working hard to make the story work.  Go thou and do likewise.

There is a fourth observation to be made.  But first, you must earn it.  Here's how:

Buy the book or get it from the library.  Read the story through for pleasure.  Don't analyze!  Just read it.  A writer's ability to experience a story as his or her readers do is her or his greatest asset.  Then read the story through slowly and carefully.  Observe the workings of it, the foreshadowings, the information planted so later events will make sense, and so on.  Then read it through analytically one more time.

Put the story aside for a week.

Then -- and this is the final step -- read the story through yet one more time, uncritically and in a rush, to appreciate how all the things you've learned about its workings combine into the experience of reading a story.

Got that?  Good.  Now repeat that process with every story you e encounter this month.

It won't make you a better person.  But it will make you a better writer.


And the fourth observation . . .

I'll give you the fourth observation on Monday.  Those who have done the exercise will benefit from it.  Those who have not, almost certainly won't.  Because writing is no business for the lazy.


And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  If you happen to be at Readercon, maybe I'll see you there.


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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Six Untitled Tales Written in Mark Twain's Library...

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I just received my virtual contributor's copy of The New York Review of Science Fiction today and saw that it contains my piece, "Six Untitled Tales Written in Mark Twain's Library."  Which contains six complete flash fictions written... well, you get the idea.

Here's how it begins:

I do not know why the curators of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, decided to allow writers to ply their craft in the great man’s library one Sunday morning in late March before the regular tours began. But when a friend alerted me to the opportunity, I immediately snagged it out of the air. Which is how I came to find myself sitting on a folding chair before a small wooden table along with twelve other writers, similarly disposed, quietly tapping away.

Samuel Clemens did not actually write in the library—that chore he performed in the billiard room—and I certainly was under no delusion that by some act of sympathetic magic I would absorb any special mana from his furniture and deco- rations. But it did make for a diverting two hours.
At the outset I could not help imagining the ghost of Samuel Clemens materializing behind me and leaning down to murmur, “Interesting. Do you also gather in groups to masturbate?” But...

To read more, of course, you'll have to have a subscription, or else a friend with one.  I just wanted to let you know what you were missing.


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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Listen To This!

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I'm in audio again!  My story "The She-Wolf's Hidden Grin" (no points for finding the Gene Wolfe reference hidden in the title) has been picked up for Allan Kaster's audio anthology, The Year's Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 6.  It is, as I've said before, a gender-switched take on Gene Wolfe's novella, The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Gonnabe writers can learn a lot by reading or listening to my story and then looking up the original -- and reading it over and over again.  It really is one of the most brilliant science fiction novellas ever written.

The other stories in this more than nine and a half hours long anthology are:

Zero for Conduct, by Greg Egan
Exit, Interrupted, by C. W. Johnson
Pathways by Nancy Kress
Entangled, by Ian R. MacLeod
The Irish Astronaut, by Val Nolan
Among Us, by Robert Reed
A Map of Mercury, by Alastair Reynolds
 Martian Blood, by Allen M. Steele
The Best We Can, by Carrie Vaughn

Which you've got to admit is a pretty tasty lineup.


And this weekend . . .

As always, I'll be on the road again.  I'm going to be at Readercon in Burlington, MA.  I'm not on any of the programming, but I'll definitely be there.  If you are too, feel free to stop me and say hi.


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